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Friday, 29 April 2011

Avoiding a Zinc Deficiency

Brunch. The fourth meal of the day. Not quite breakfast and not quite lunch, as Marge Simpson's ulterior-motive-driven-bowling-instructor Jacques proclaimed one fateful morning. This meal between meals thrives in Edmonton; its most beautiful incarnation thrives at Zinc, the restaurant housed within the Art Gallery of Alberta.

I confess that I've never been enamored of the art gallery's exterior. To me, it evokes a crumpled tin can and not the northern lights. On the other hand, the interior - especially that of Zinc - is unquestionably art. Zinc's space is open, framed by enormous windows, and garnished with sheets of its eponymous metal. The food is befitting of its artistic home. As follows:

Lobster Benedict places sweet morsels of the crustacean atop nutty buckwheat blini. An elfin poached egg and a judicious drizzle of Hollandaise sprinkled with fish roe crowns this triad of sweet, savoury and earthy. The cheese platter presents a trio that includes mushroom brie, provolone and little-known letensia (which superficially resembles cheddar but is far more demure). A scatter of walnuts, a tiny pot of raspberry preserves and a row of crackers ride shotgun. Banana bread French toast is as decadent as its name implies. Fruity, dense banana bread is lightly dipped in egg and pan-fried, accompanied by gently sweet syrup and refreshing fruit salad. A miniature mug of Mexican hot chocolate compresses an impressive hit of cocoa into a compact vessel. The mimosas, an archetypical brunch cocktail, are deceptively powerful. I will err on the "less is more" end of the spectrum and simply state that one may gain a new and unusual appreciation of the likes of Emily Carr and Lawren Harris.

Above (from top to bottom): Lobster Benedict, cheese platter, banana bread French toast, and mimosas.

Zinc on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Pampa - Hungry Like The Wolf

For years I have read about Brazilian steakhouses. I've imagined a small army of sword-wielding servers bearing massive loads of fragrant meat. The stuff of carnivorous fantasy, if wolves, tigers or bears dream of food. I never managed to visit one, though, no matter where I traveled. Always out of reach, always nothing more than a salacious and alluring review in a city guide or newspaper. A few months ago, rumours alluded to the long-overdue premiere of a Brazilian steak house here in Edmonton. Like many others, I salivated and waited for my inaugural foray into the world of churrascaria.

Edmonton - finally - has its own churrascaria: Pampa. This is not a world for those that are easily intimidated or like to pick at their food. No. This is a meal for the hungry. The "hungry like the wolf" crowd. One pays a flat $45 for all the food (aside from drinks and dessert) that you can eat. It is an interactive experience. Each diner possesses a small disk; green on one side, red on the other. The moment one flips the disk from red to green, the army of servers advances.

There are at least 10 different cuts of meat, each roasted over charcoal on long sword-like skewers. I attempted (in vain, sadly) to try all of them. Chicken thighs, parmesan-rubbed pork loin, lamb, prime rib. The list goes on. I wasn't enamored of the lamb, but the garlic-rubbed rump steak was delectable. It was rubbed liberally with finely minced garlic, and this garlic infused the meat with a nutty-sweet essence that complemented, rather than overpowered, the beef. The salad bar, after so much meat, was a bit of an afterthought for me. Quinoa salad was a standout, but I'm not convinced that caviar and mango belong together. Such a sizable meal has the potential to be an ordeal, rather than an experience, if one does not exercise proper restraint. In summation, though, Pampa provides a sturdy protein return on my investment.

Pampa Brazilian Steakhouse on Urbanspoon

Friday, 22 April 2011

Leva - Back to the Future

Leva Cafe-Bar has a distinct, retro-futuristic vibe.  Much like "The Jetsons." Or "Tomorrowland" at Disney World. In other words, a bit like how people in the late 1950s and 1960s imagined the future (i.e., now) would be. We aren't driving - no, flying - hovercars and we don't have anthropomorphic robot servants, but we can still visit this Garneau coffee shop for a very good cappuccino in a sleek, retro-futuristic setting.

Leva is characterized by clean lines of glass and metal set against a white backdrop. A menu beckons from a flat TV screen behind the counter.  An impressive assortment of espresso machines occupies the back of the dining room. Bright orange and silver chairs provide sitting space for numerous patrons, many of which fall victim to the temptation of gelato and baked goods found within the curved glass cooler.

Leva is but one of many Italian-style espresso bars in the 109 Street-University nexus.  They pull a damn fine cappuccino; all of their espresso-based beverages are made from Danesi coffee.  Biscotti, many of which are novel flavour combinations like apricot-white chocolate, are hefty, flavourful and amenable to coffee-dunking.   Leva is often forgotten in discussions of Edmonton pizza, but undeservedly so, for they produce superlative thin crust pizzas.  Leva possesses, in summation, the ideal retro:futuristic ratio, both in terms of ambiance and culinary aplomb.

Leva Cappucino Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, 18 April 2011

Transcending the Ordinary

The evolution of coffee is a complex, multi-stage and ongoing event.  This evolution may be divided into three main waves. The first wave entailed the industrialization of coffee production, the second (which is widely known as "The Starbucks Effect") ushered in Italian-style beverages such as espresso and cappuccino, and the third revolves around fair trade and sustainability.  Edmonton's own Transcend is juggernaut in the city's coffee world and has been instrumental in raising awareness of coffee's third wave.

I recently spoke with James Schutz, Transcend's Director of Marketing, at their recently-opened Jasper Avenue location.  "We work on a small scale with co-ops and individual farmers," he explains.  "There are multiple growing seasons, but usually only one harvest that occurs over the span of several weeks," Schutz adds.  "We have coffees in from Africa right now, but Costa Rica isn't yet in season."

Schutz remarks that Transcend Jasper will soon include Latin American street food and waffles from Eva Sweet. "There are many places to get sweet things, but we wanted to include foods that we encounter when visiting the coffee farms down south," he reveals.  Schutz notes that Transcend recently acquired a 1950s-era German-built roaster, the Probat UG-22.  The Probat is a boon, for Schutz explains, "We've found that our coffees have a brand new flavour when roasted in the Probat.  The machine has great flavour control, brings out new nuances and balances acidity."

Schutz generously provides me with two bags of beans.  Kiamabara hails from the Mugaba Co-op Society in Kenya, while Sertão is grown in Brazil.  I set about testing each variety to determine which brewing method best suits the beans.  First up: drip.  This is the go-to coffee brewing method for many, but I find the resultant brew a bit anemic.  Second up: espresso made in my stove-tip Bialetti Brikka.  The Sertão makes a fine espresso, providing the tastebuds with a decent - but never bitter - slap.  

French press, the third method, works beautifully for both varieties.  The French press method allows the water to circulate among every tiny coffee ground, allowing the tiniest flavour nuances to shine.  Kiamabara is bright and citrusy with a muted undertone of purple berries.  Sertão is lusciously dark, veleveteen and earthy.  They are markedly different; these differences highlight the diversity of flavour notes present in each varietal.  It is certainly worth the time and money to seek out high quality, single origin coffee beans; for those wishing to expand their java horizons, Transcend is an ideal launch point.

Transcend Coffee (Jasper Avenue) on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Lux Steakhouse - The Customizable Carnivore

I have already written that I possess an antediluvian digital camera, and have already written that it has a propensity to fail at the most inopportune times. When it bit the dust at the Wildflower Grill, it held hostage my photos from a recent visit to Lux Steakhouse. I finally purchased some rechargeable batteries (feeling slightly less guilty about my overall environmental footprint) and retrieved my delicious snapshots, each a visual approximation of a riot of flavours.

We started with lobster poutine (a treat recently enjoyed by fellow blogger Marlow Moo). Never before have crustaceans so graciously shared a platter with the humble pommes de terre.  A bacon Hollandaise ups the ante of indulgence, and it is virtually impossible to stop noshing on this poutine before our mains arrive. We tuck into sizable steaks - a ribeye and a New York - each cooked to order and lolling seductively on the stark white china. Steaks may be customized by the addition of sauces; I add a peppercorn demi, which imparts a rich bite to each slice of steak. A side of blue cheese gnocchi could function as a stand-alone dish. The inherent pungency of the cheese is tamed and soothed by the pillowy gnocchi; they are quite exquisite alone or paired with a morsel of steak.

Dessert is a prerequisite, even though I'm thoroughly satiated. We dive - this time with hesitance borne out of overindulgence - into carrot cake with bourbon maple syrup and colossal chocolate cake. A sphere of chai ice cream sidles up to the carrot cake. It is a clever combination of warm spice and cold, smooth texture. The colossal chocolate cake...a pity the photo was too grainy to illustrate its mind-bending height...could feed a family of six. It is no fewer than six layers of chocolate cake resting upon a berry coulis. A few forkfuls are all we can muster. I am stuffed. Happily stuffed. Stuffed like a bear going into hibernation.

Here are the photos, freed from the camera at last...

LUX Steakhouse and Bar on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Wildflower Grill - Wild Flowers Could Not Drag Me Away...

I make a concerted effort to dine with my camera at hand, but technology has a way of thwarting my pictorial efforts. My camera is a dinosaur in 'technology years' - isn't one calendar year equal to at least 10 'technology years'? If so, that would place my poor digital camera at about 60 years old. It's taken to dying at the most inopportune moments; most recently, it died at the gorgeous and hip Wildflower Grill.

We luxuriated in Wildflower's neo-Canadiana: warm wood hues, strategically placed prints of Calla lilies, ladyslippers and other wild flowers, and semi-private booths with faux chainmail dividers.  The menu is cleverly divided based on size: small bites, lighter fare, and mains. We gravitate to the lighter fare and select Fritto Misto, Braised Beef Shortrib and Mesquite Prawn Skewer with Ahi Tuna Tower.

Fritto Misto is a deft combination of lightly deep-fried mixed seafood (as the name suggests) served with a trio of sauces: tangy-smooth Meyer lemon aioli, a spicy green bean tartar, and a thin reddish sauce with hidden bite.  The beef shortrib is rich in aroma and flavour, and reclines upon a bed of smooth mashed potatoes.  It is an upscale, no nonsense twist on a Sunday dinner classic.  The mesquite prawn and tuna tower (pictured below) is a visual treat.  The spicy prawns disappear quickly and I am left to ogle the tower. The lower level is minced Ahi tuna.  Strata of tangy-sweet bruschetta jam and a crown of sweetly acidic pineapple complete this marvel.  The flavour combinations are unexpected and certainly not intuitive, but effortlessly work together.

Now if only my damned camera would work and I wouldn't have to resort to using my phone camera...

Wildflower Grill on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Cheese, Charcuterie and Cupcakes, Oh My!

I think Niche has crept to the top of my 'favourite Edmonton restaurants' list.  My most recent visit included observation of an Edmonton Journal photo shoot.  I watched, intrigued and transfixed, as the photographer captured plate after plate of gorgeous food, including the now-infamous salted caramel brownie.  I marveled at the interchangeable lenses and the fluid use of both natural and artificial light sources.

But on to the food... This time we indulged in charcuterie and cheese. Niche's charcuterie platter included truffled roast beef, shaved musk ox, proscuitto and spicy Italian sausage. Amicable garnishes included grainy mustard, olives and pickled asparagus.  The cheese platter featured double-smoked gouda, old white cheddar, double creme brie and Danish blue. I must confess a deep-seeded dislike of brie and other semi-soft cheeses. But here, smudged on a crisp crostini and dabbed with house-made raspberry-mint jelly, I came to see brie in a different, positive light. A Niche meal is never complete without a brownie.  Paired with a bracing cup of coffee spiked with Bailey's, it was a decadent coda to an artistic meal.

I must add an over-due mention of Flirt Cupcakes. I recently attended a cupcake workshop at Flirt, which allowed carte blanche for selecting cake flavours (e.g., cinnamon, vanilla, chocolate, marble), icing (vanilla, strawberry and chocolate) and any number of chocolate shavings and sprinkles.  I also devoured numerous Flirt creations, among them "Wild on Whyte" (which features a chocolate bottom with strawberry icing) and "Heartbreaker" (red velvet with cream cheese icing).  My own creation, pictured below, is hereby dubbed Cupcake alla Neopolitana as an homage to my childhood favourite, Neopolitan ice cream. I deeply appreciate the use of real butter in Flirt's icing. It adds unmistakable richness to which no other ingredient can compare. creamery butter...

Niche on Urbanspoon

Flirt Cupcakes on Urbanspoon

Friday, 1 April 2011

Saccomanno's - Pie R Squared

I have written about pizza many times. I've written about how North American pizza took an evolutionary trajectory not unlike that of Darwin's Finches, ie, rapidly diverging into many distinct species from a single parent species. I've written about how take-out pizza can follow one of two paths: (1) a greasy, manhandled mess, or (2) a swift yet satisfying respite from cooking. Last summer I wrote about Saccomanno's, which is a north end deli/pizza/pasta spot. I did not write specifically about Saccomanno's pizza when I first interviewed the Saccomanno family, but have since returned multiple times to indulge in what may be the best under-the-radar pizza in Edmonton.

I recently enjoyed "Frank's Special" pizza, relaxing in the spacious dining room, ogling the groceries and pretending to understand the RAI Italia news broadcast from the flat screen television. Frank's Special features generous layers of pepperoni, ham, mushrooms, onions, green peppers and black olives crowned by a gooey stratum of mozzarella cheese. The crust is tender and crisp around the edges; I imagine it would be just as delicious without the toppings. Orangina is a quintessential pizza beverage, as the carbonated citrus is a light foil for the robust meat, crust and cheese. There are many reliable and excellent spots for pizza in this city, but one of the best is hiding behind the train tracks on the north side.

Above: Frank's Special is a treat to behold. Below: the old-school signage and enviable deli of Saccomanno's.

Saccomanno's Pizza Pasta Deli on Urbanspoon


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