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Sunday, 26 June 2011

The Next Act - Nacho Libre

There aren't enough pubs out there with truly good food. Consequently, there still persists the misconception that pub food is comprised of greasy, everything-deep-fried swill best enjoyed when tastebuds are dulled by alcohol. It is an unfair generalization and, while it is true that a certain genre of pub-goers cares not whether they are eating fries or figs, creative pub fare finds favour with many. Case in point: The Next Act Pub.

It isn't intentional, but the evening in which we visit Next Act features the soon to be riot-ridden 2011 Stanley Cup final in Vancouver. Virtually every seat inside is taken. However, no one appears to be watching the game. Instead, the occasional head lifts, glances at the TV, shrugs and returns to a far more gratifying endeavour - food.

On the left: pulled pork nachos with chunky guacamole, salsa and sour cream. On the right: crab cakes with lemon cilantro aioli.

We relax on a pair of sleek, black sofas and delve into Next Act's menu. We bypass burgers (albeit very tempting ones) and gravitate towards crab cakes and pulled pork nachos. The trio of crab cakes possesses a crisp exterior that yields to reveal a moist interior of ample crab meat. The tangy, slightly salty aioli is far more amenable to these cakes than a traditional tartar sauce would be, and I am grateful for its inclusion. Pulled pork nachos. I could stop right there and let your imagination go wild, but I will merely - coyly - say that pork makes nachos better. Tender, luscious chunks of juicy pork that mingle with black olives, jalapenos and an ample blanket of melted cheese.

The brownie-muffin possesses the best attributes of its progenitors.

Dessert features but one item, the GF Brownie Muffin, but it is a worthy solo ambassador of the dessert kingdom. As the menu suggests, it isn't quite a muffin and it isn't quite a brownie...who cares! It's served warm, is rich with chocolate and shares quarters with a scoop of ice cream. It is also gluten-free. It is a decadent, yet not overwhelming, coda to a gustatory foray into Next Act's kitchen.

The Next Act on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Bistro La Persaud - Non, je ne regrette rien

It is difficult to avoid bias, with regard to dining and writing. Ideally, one would visit a new restaurant with a fresh, eternal-sunshine-of-the-spotless-mind outlook and meander through the menu without a priori expectations. Even when one intentionally avoids reading other reviews prior to a first visit, however, it is impossible not to absorb even a little bit of bias. I kept this in mind during my inaugural visit to Bistro La Persaud (keeping company with the inimitable and meritorious Marlow Moo and Andrea Lauder).

Bistro La Persaud is a sleek, quirky dining room at the bottom of a hill in Edmonton's French Quarter. We tuck into two Gallic standards: mussels (pictured above) and steak tartare (pictured below).  The former is brilliantly tender and bathing in white wine butter. Indeed, their broth is so luscious that one could drink it out of a bowl. The tartare is flecked with morsels of sweet pickle and is topped with an elfin quail's egg. The tender beef caresses crisp, salty chips and whets our appetites for subsequent victuals.

We progress to salmon with quinoa risotto, oxtail tortellini, and English pea and quinoa risotto with butternut squash confit. Fork-tender, impossibly moist salmon sits atop a hillock of snowy quinoa risotto and a startlingly yellow puddle squash puree. The citrus butter adds a hint of gentle, sunny acidity.

The English pea and quinoa risotto is a riot of textures that range from slightly mealy to crunchy-smooth. Earthy mushrooms and shreds of cheese luxuriate in their buttery surroundings. Toothsome and immensely satisfying, it is a dish I will dream of for weeks to come.

Oxtail tortellini, while intriguing in description, fails to deliver. We find the pasta tough and the rich oxtail flavour is lost in salt. I liked the theory, but not the execution. The vibrant pea broth underneath is the best part.

Dessert is a duality of savoury cheeses and sweet lemon tart. The trio of cheeses include ubriaco prosecco, gently sweet and hinting of prosecco grapes, chevre noir, which possesses a distinctive and muted tang, and valdeon which, regrettably, tastes of ash and salt. The lemon tart, conversely, is an alluring combination of sweet, flaky pastry and tart lemon curd. A dollop - how I wish there was more - of creme fraiche is an ideal counterpoint.

I heard much about Bistro La Persaud prior to our visit and desperately wanted to avoid preconceived notions about what to expect, both in terms of service and food. We approached each dish with sunshine-fresh minds and left with Francais-fueled dreams of quinoa risotto and lemon tarts.

Bistro La Persaud on Urbanspoon

Friday, 17 June 2011

Indulgence 2011 - Guinea Fowl Play

Guinea fowl are archetypical African fauna. These chicken-sized birds are sleek, sharply adorned with a helmet-like headdress, move with quasi-erratic purpose and carry an air of quiet dignity as they scuttle under the thundering feet of wildebeest and elephants. Half a world away, sous-chef Vincent Horvath checks the mise en place of 4404 Restaurant's booth at Indulgence '11. 4404 is new thread in Edmonton's dining fabric, and tonight Horvath - and guinea fowl (raised locally) - will act as ambassadors of this neoteric eatery.

The Edmonton skyline at sunset. How do guinea fowl fit into this scene?

"We just opened in September 2010," relates Horvath. 4404 occupies the niche once held by [now defunct] Botanica, but Horvath emphasizes that hotel cuisine ought to be accessed by a group far broader than peripatetic travelers. "We use local ingredients as much as possible," he explains, "and, while some things like mussels are not local, our bison and beef are Alberta-raised." He adds, "Our pickerel, which we cure with citrus, comes from Slave Lake."

Horvath trained at NAIT and honed his culinary chops both in Canada and abroad. "I cooked for a while at an Italian restaurant by the Tower Bridge in London. It was great experience to see and experience different things and take those basic techniques back here," he recounts. Tonight, at Indulgence, Horvath has prepared guinea fowl and blueberry spring rolls with apricot relish. A shatteringly crisp exterior yields to reveal tender meat that, in flavour, falls somewhere between chicken and turkey. The berries add depth and the vibrant relish kisses each morsel of fowl with sweet acidity. Guinea fowl are an unusual offering and are far outside their natal continent, far outside the expected. 4404, in a similar vein, surpasses the expected.

Fowl finds a happy partner in apricot relish

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

Indulgence 2011 - Think you know the birds and the bees?

How well do you know the birds and the bees? I mean, really know them in their proper ecological context as opposed to euphemistic phrasings about reproduction. Species of the avian and hymenopteran variety are crucial cogs in any ecosystem and fill a diversity of niches that range from pollination to pest control.

A yellow-rumped warbler, commonly found in mixed woodlands and, sometimes, in your back yard.

Tonia and Xina Chrapko, proprietors on En Sante Winery, recognize the integral role that these species play in the life cycle of fruits; fruits that form the basis of their livelihood. In fact, the Chrapko sisters are rebranding their winery - their father's brainchild - as "Birds & Bees." Tonia explains, "Birds and Bees is easier to remember and encompasses the organic aspect of our winery."

The Chrapkos' vintages were on display at Indulgence '11 and easily challenged the long-held notion that fruit wines are sweet. "Five of our wines are fruit-based and three, including honey, rhubarb and alfalfa, are not," notes Tonia, who adds, "and none of them are syrupy sweet." Indeed, rhubarb is sultry and muted, conjuring up rosy-skied summer evenings. Honey wine demurely hints of pollen with rich, round notes of pears and apples. Alfalfa wine sings of sun-touched fields and, if one were to taste it blind, would think it reminiscent of green tea.

The fruits in the Chrapkos' wines are all grown organically in Alberta. Tonia recommends tasting each of them separately and then judiciously blending favourite varieties. "If you have a group of people over, it's interesting for them to taste each vintage on its own and then mix them, like mixing Saskatoon and Rhubarb," she recommends. Indeed, each is superbly nuanced alone, but additional notes shine when served together.

Tonia envisions growth for Birds & Bees, hoping both for greater brand recognition and the ability to export outside Alberta. "It was our father's vision to see this industry grow. He spent years trying to get the government to change the regulations to allow small wineries to exist," she relates. Alberta does not yet register on the global oenophilic scene, but Birds & Bees are a worthy ambassador.

Saskatoon and raspberry are but two of Birds & Bees' fruit-based vintages.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Lit Italian Wine Bar - Forza Litalia

Lit Italian Wine Bar simultaneously represents two important and timely concepts within Edmonton's dining landscape: downtown dining (particularly the supernova of 104 street) and wine bars (a merciful alternative to the pub scene, though spots like Red Star and Next Act challenge this notion). I venture into Lit's intimate dining room, which is dressed in primary colours and washed with natural light.

The menu is a mini essay, for each item possesses a detailed explanation of the ingredients therein. Wine suggestions, in addition, accompany each dish - a boon for neophyte oenophiles.

We opt to share and tuck into the Piatto Antipasti and Stuzzichini.  The former is an array of cured Italian meats, like salami and cappocollo, pickled veg, and cheeses that include chevre and provolone. Piquant, salty-sweet and toothsome. Stuzzichini (pictured below) is a sampling of hot nibbles: calamari, arancini, bruschetta and bocconcini wrapped in proscuitto. The calamari are a welcome change from the usual deep-fried rings. Lit's calamari showcases slices of squid, attractively hatched and lightly fried. The arancini, which are deep-fried rice balls, are an amenable intersection of crisp and tender, but require yet a bit more salt to coax out the rice's understated essence. Bruschetta is appropriately crisp with a vibrant crown of tomatoes. The bocconcini-proscuitto roles are Stuzzichini's clear victor - a happy marriage of meat and dairy.

We progress to gnocchi and carpaccio which, regrettably, veer from the enjoyable path we've experienced thus far. The gnocchi, while the mushroom sauce is creamy and earthy, are a bit doughy and truffle oil adds an unpleasant, overpowering note to the carpaccio.

Dessert is sweet redemption. Ferrero Rocher Tart (pictured above) recapitulates the creamy cocoa-hazelnut essence of these wildly popular chocolates. Chiocolatto (pictured below) presents two pieces of house-made chocolate cake (which, in texture, are more like brownies but that is splitting hairs) with scoops of vanilla and strawberry ice cream. Here is a warm-meets-cold party of chocolate and dairy that begs for another and yet another forkful. I will return, if not for proscuitto-wrapped bocconcini, then for chiocolatto.

Lit - Italian Wine Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 12 June 2011

4th St. Promenade - Cool Kids on the Block

The 4th St. Promenade stretches north from Jasper Avenue to 104 Ave, though the majority of food-related businesses are clustered near Jasper. This urban block is habitat for an enviable array of local eateries - the likes of Credo Coffee, the Blue Plate Diner, Lit Wine Bar, Tzin Wine and Tapas, Queen of Tarts, and yet others. They comprise a royal flush of victuals and vintages, and on Saturday, June 11th, the block crescendos to life with a block party.

Where to begin... The visual and auditory stimulation - music, costumes, impromptu dancing - colour the Block's atmosphere and guide the throngs of revelers to a gauntlet of food vendors. We begin with Eva Sweet Waffles, the roving bastion of urbane, hand-held snacks. We tuck into waffles crowned with whipped cream, strawberry-blueberry and chocolate-caramel toppings. The fruit drizzle is a bit lost in the mire of cream, but the chocolate-caramel proves to be a decadent twist on breakfast in the street.

We migrate to the Portuguese purveyances of Sabor Divino and nibble on a lambwich. No ordinary lambwich, mind you. This one stuffs a crusty bun with garlicky mayo, shredded lamb, spinach, and thin slices of bartlett pear. The ingredients capture the correct ratio of crisp to tender, salty to sweet, and meat to veg. Bom trabalho.

A ridiculously long line leads to the carnivorous comestibles of Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse. A substantial, though not interminable, wait leads to a plate of sausage, steak, chicken and pork ribs. The sausage is the clear winner of this quartet, for it cleverly spiced and perfectly juicy. The steak is seductively rare, but somewhat frustrating to cut, given that few booths seem to possess both forks and knives (and floppy plastic ones at that). The chicken and ribs sing of the charcoal BBQ and encapsulate the summery flavours of the grill.

We meander in to the comfortable chairs of Credo, content with cappuccino and the vibrant tomato flavours of MRKT's bruschetta. It's so delicious it's ridiculous. Ridiculicious.

Now if only this were a weekly event...

Friday, 10 June 2011

Wente Vineyards Dinner - Black Hawk Up

The landscape slowly awakens. The steel grey river is finally free of ice, tiny green leaves unfurl from their winter sleep, and a who's who of songbirds unabashedly sing from every vacant perch. A twisting road branches away from the Capital City's interminable traffic, snakes past the incipient shells of houses under construction, bluffs of trembling aspen, and finds its terminus at Blackhawk Golf Club.

It is May 25th. A misty, cloud-shrouded evening; a reminder that, though we have been wrested from winter's choke hold, an undercurrent of cold still rules this valley. The clubhouse, however, radiates opulent warmth. Diffuse, natural light washes the dining room in gentle grey and gold. Like the dozens of eager diners gazing at the multiple sets of cutlery, I am here for the Wente Vineyards Premium Selection dinner, created by award-winning chef Andrew Fung.

Supper commences with butter poached lobster tail - a gustatory journey to a far away ocean - nestled up against a crisp tartlet that cradles a tender yet robust roma tomato and a piquant shallot. A goblet of Riva Ranch Chardonnay chases each morsel with multidimensional notes of tropical fruit and caramel.

A tiny rectangle of cedar plank salmon follows, partnered with a spoonful of unusually creamy polenta. The polenta itself could be a stand-alone dish. Crackling bits of pancetta and a deft swirl of Pinot Noir reduction contribute hints of smoky fat and multifarious fruits, repsectively. A robust glass of Reliz Pinot Noir recapitulates these flavours in the hedonistic guise of a luscious maroon quaff.

Alberta beef short ribs appear with a tidy scoop of parsnip mash and a crisp crown of fried taro root. The meat falls apart at a fork's touch; the tender grain croons with a depth both rich and sweet, buttressed by the earthy parsnip. Take Seven, the featured wine, is a blend of seven vintages that crescendo - but do not confuse - with their complexity.

The penultimate course crusts a gently gamey (in the best possible way) loin of lamb with an array of wild mushrooms. A sunny yellow dollop of Dijon creme fraiche disguises a sinus-clearing blast of heat, offset by a mellow slice of sourdough. Strong flavours simultaneously dominate and coexist in this dish.

Dessert presents a judicious circle of molten chocolate cake with satin-smooth vanilla ice cream and a garnet-red twirl of raspberry coulis. Again, assertive flavours - chocolate and raspberries - that work together instead of madly competing for attention. A testament to Fung's command of culinaria, and to the entire kitchen at Blackhawk.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Won Jung Gak - The Secret Kingdom

Korean food, for the uninitiated, is like a open secret. Intriguing, enticing, not quite obscure but not possessing the reach and instant recognition of Chinese or Japanese cuisine. Indeed, the culinary profferings of Korea are a delicious secret, just waiting to be told.  Won Jung Gak epitomizes the "open secret" concept.  Those who know it, know it well. Those who know it not will discover an unremarkable exterior and utterly random location that conceal ample platters meant for sharing.

Won Jung Gak defies simple explanation. One wall sports a massive collection of manga. Large, dusty paintings of pioneer scenes hang from one wall, sharing quarters with dangling lanterns and colourful garlands. Hand-written signs, written in Korean and (mercifully) in English, proclaim specialties. We dive into the quintessence of Korean cuisine: Bul Go Gi. Here is a piping hot pot of fork-tender beef, earthy shiitake mushrooms and fragile, transparent noodles. The broth is rich, salty and I rue the absence of spoons. Otherwise, I would drink it, loath to let even a drop go to waste. We chase the Bul Go Gi with deep-fried dumplings that pop with scallions and tender, ground pork.

The noodles deserve their own paragraph. They are, at first, merely noodles - a vehicle for the glistening bowl of black bean sauce with seafood. The scissors on the table signify that these are not ordinary noodles. No; these noodles are more than a metre long and one must snip each serving to a manageable length. Genius. Won Jung Gak is still a bit of a secret but warrants a visit for the noodle scissors alone.

Won Jung Gak on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Hundred Bar + Kitchen - Meat Me There

Lisa Simpson decides to become a vegetarian and Homer, her father, is less than supportive. Their dialogue is as follows:

Homer: Are you saying you're never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Ham?
Lisa: No!
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad, those all come from the same animal.
Homer: Riiiight, Lisa....a wonderful, magical animal!

A wonderful, magical animal indeed. Wonderfully delicious and magically capable of transforming into a drool-worthy array of cured meats under the right hands. Case in point: Hundred Bar + Kitchen, which operates under the watchful eye and deft hand of Chef Andrew Cowan.  I sampled a seven course tasting menu in the company of Marlow Moo and his entourage.

Marlow peruses the wine list.
First up: foie gras popcorn. Yes, you read correctly. Healthy whole grain popcorn smothered in luscious, unctuous, and devilishly delicious foie gras fat. It is as decadent as the name suggests and warrants a significant exercise of restraint to avoid dampening our appetites completely.

Cured pork loin with hefty Turkish olives

We tuck into house-cured pork loin with Turkish olives the size of apricots. Each bite is a silky caress of porcine pulchritude chased by a sizeable kiss of tart olives.  Air dried Kobe beef is next; each slice is wafer thin and croons with the rich and sweet essence of beef. Foie gras poutine with bison pastrami raises the bar of decadence to new heights (no photo, alas). The lowliest of vegetables - the potato - is ushered into a veritable royal family of opulent ingredients: smooth and sultry foie gras, gamey bison pastrami and, in a knowing nod to La Belle Province, squeaky cheese curds.

Need a leg up?
 Duck leg confit rests atop a tiny hillock of pillowy gnocchi flecked with proscuitto. So tender, fragrant and yet I am so full. The duck will live, so to speak, to be eaten another day. As will dessert, which features maple-candied bacon and strawberries. It will become my midnight snack in a few hours' time. Our evening at Hundred draws to a close and could accurately be described as a magical mystery tour through the world of decadent, cured meats.

Hundred Bar Kitchen on Urbanspoon


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