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Saturday, 27 August 2011

YEG Chocowalk 2011 Phase I - Walking On Sunshine

The best ideas generally materialize out of the blue and, to my best knowledge, that is how YEG Chocowalk was born deep in the mind of Marlow Moo. The idea, in a nutshell, was to walk along Jasper Avenue and consume a chocolate dessert at each downtown restaurant. But where to begin? The walk might quickly become a waddle, or eventually a crawl intermittently mixed with groans. Thus, we devised Phase One: start at Niche, migrate to Corso 32, and conclude at Lux.

Phase One, Step One: the Salted Caramel Brownie at Niche. Here is a square of notoriety. Fudgy, chewy bittersweet brownie anointed with citrus-infused whipped cream and an amber puddle of salted caramel sauce. An infinite tug-of-war between sweet and salty, chocolate and citrus, the Light and Dark Sides of the Force. What can I say about this brownie that I have not already said ad infinitum (or ad nauseum)?

Phase One, Step Two: the Chocolate Torta with Salted Hazelnuts at Corso 32. Here is a different interpretation of the salty-sweet quandary, with emphasis on contrasting textures. Salty, crunchy hazelnuts play with butter-smooth chocolate torta in an ethereal but stunningly rich context. I'm grateful that we're sharing the desserts; otherwise this might devolve to Chocostumble.

Phase One, Step Three: a chocolate platter at Lux. This sizable plate sports a quartet of dark chocolate truffles, a judicious slice of chocolate indulgence layer cake, and a small brownie crowned by white chocolate ganache. I conquer the brownie in short order and appreciate the balancing effect of white versus dark chocolate (though purists may argue that white chocolate is not technically chocolate for its conspicuous paucity of cocoa). The remainder of the plate will be tomorrow's lunch.

Phase Two is yet in the planning stages, but may include Lit Wine Bar, MRKT, Hundred Bar & Kitchen, Credo, and others. Heck, this might become Phase Three.

Monday, 22 August 2011

The Oil Lamp - Get Me To The Greek

What fond memories I have of Greek food in Toronto. My friend Joanna boasted Greek heritage and her mother's culinary chops were the proof in the proverbial pudding. She created spanakopita that I wistfully wished for years after leaving the Golden Horseshoe and moving west. I've been here for five years now and, up until very recently, ate Greek food only once (and that was at Yianni's on Whyte). I couldn't shake the memories of Joanna's mother's cooking and was content (or resigned) to rely on memories rather than dine out on something that was a pale comparison.

Sun, shadows and greenery in Oil Lamp's dining room

My work with Vue Weekly took me to The Oil Lamp, a quirky brick building downtown that sports a colourful mural of magpies (and one of Liane Faulder's favourite hole-in-the-wall eateries). I interviewed co-owner Aliki and left with a container of spanakopita. One bite and memories of a bright Ontario autumn evening rushed back, replete with cartoon-red maple trees and white-washed clouds. I meant to return the next week for another meal, but a week turned into a month. Time has a devious propensity for such behaviour.

Get me to the Greek. Quickly!

I returned at last and tucked into chicken souvlaki with Greek salad, lemon roasted potato and toasted pita bread. Each cube of chicken popped with juices and crooned with oregano, lemon and black pepper. The generous salad sported a tumble of feta, tomatoes, olives, cukes and lettuce - easily a meal on its own. The ambiance accentuates the meal; eponymous oil lanterns, abundant greenery and antique wooden floors and ceiling lend a classy air.

I've since lost touch with Joanna, an unfortunate outcome of many long-distance friendships. I hope, if she reads this at some point, life is treating her well. It took me a long time to find Greek food in Edmonton that matched her mother's. At least now I will not be lacking for good spanakopita or souvlaki.

Oil Lamp on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Niche - Lunch Time

Lunch. One of my three favourite meals of the day. I've dined at Niche so many times now and, up until several days ago, had never sampled their lunch menu. I caught word of a lunch-tasting that would include miniature versions of their new lunch menu, and it was an offer I couldn't refuse.

Sun Tea...a Bahamian cruise in a glass, for lack of a better descriptor

I dined again in the company of Marlow Moo, and we embarked on a travel-sized foray into Niche's lunch box. First up: a duet of sandwiches. Duck confit open face presents a dark brown morsel of quack with snowy queso fresco, bacon and anchiote aioli. It's rather juicy, though the duck is uncharacteristically subdued. Ham and cheese is a Gallic twist on a childhood favourite that presents French-style jambon au torchon, emmental cheese, tomato and arugula on a tiny crostini. Genius.

Good thing Marlow isn't driving

A shooter of vichyssoise arrives next. Its chalky hue gives no indication as to its flavour, but a sip reveals a riot of rich potato, roasted corn and savoury leeks. The tray of vichyssoise winds up at our table multiple - inexplicable - times. Baconhound takes more than a few for the team. Good thing he isn't driving.

A marriage orchestrated by the gods

Another sandwich presents smoked pork belly with white bean puree, braised bacon and fig reduction. Pork belly is a celebrity du jour and I, for one, bask in its brilliance. Each bite simply sings with rich meat and tangy figs.

Travel-sized for your convenience

Dessert is, naturally, the salted caramel brownie with lemon creme. I've described it many times before and so I will simply say, "My precious."

Sunday, 14 August 2011

Duchess Bake Shop - Macaronology

The overlap of population ecology and gastronomy is, upon first consideration, rather spurious. These two fields, however, share some striking commonalities, not the least of which is the logistic growth curve. Bear with me for a moment.

A typical population growth curve demonstrating logistic growth and overshooting of carrying capacity. Source:

When a population of organisms grows, it tends to follow a logistic (S-shaped or sigmoid) growth curve. Growth is slow at first, but as the population increases in size, it grows at an increasingly rapid rate. Any given habitat, however, can not support an infinite number of organisms. The maximum number it can support is dubbed the "carrying capacity" and if the population overshoots this carrying capacity, the population will decrease due to competition for resources/disease/etc. Think now of a food trend - cupcakes are an ideal case study. Said food entity is relatively unknown at first, grows slowly in popularity, then takes off. But, popularity is a cruel master and, as the popularity of this food item increases, the relative quality of it tends to decrease because the focus is on quantity, rather than quality.

And that's not even the half of it...a baked bounty at Duchess

Population ecology and gastronomy are not so different after all, which leads me to a venerable Edmonton bakery, the Duchess Bake Shop. Duchess holds a treasured spot among the sweet tooths of many and purveys an enviable selection of French baked goods, all served in a open-concept nouveau-Victorian space.

Foreground: brioche pepin. Background: a trifecta of macarons.

We gravitate instantly to the prismatic assortment of macarons; it's inordinately difficult to choose flavours but we end up with ginger-pear, salted caramel and passionfruit-chocolate. Ginger-pear is a sultry suggestion of tropical forests, salted caramel is an explosive and well-crafted collision of sticky salty-sweet caramel, and passionfruit-chocolate is a demure pairing of seductive fruit and heady cocoa. We progress from the macaron trifecta to an auburn fold of brioche pepin. Here, a flaky leaf of brioche bread hugs a creamy custard filling studded with assertive chocolate. It handily pairs with a whisper-smooth cup of espresso and makes one wish for a shady patio on the other side of the Atlantic.

Return now to the earlier concept of population growth. Macarons have been touted by some as the next "cupcake," the next hand-held baked good obsession. I can only hope that this is not the case, because the level of artistry present in Duchess's macarons is not easily replicated. My fear would be that the macaron would grow in popularity so quickly that substandard ones would proliferate. Then again, a superior competitor easily ousts its competition. Competition theory (in ecology) is another discussion for another time.

Duchess Bake Shop on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 7 August 2011

Sugar Bowl - Pour Some Sugar On Me

What happens when four bloggers - Food Karma, Baconhound and Fojoy Is Annoyed (and me) - decide to have supper together? The result is a potent stew of hilarity, insight and reminders to snap photos before dishes are consumed. We visited The Sugar Bowl, a long-standing Garneau institution that veritably bursts at the seams with hipsters, academics, and a mosaic of others taking in the evening airs on the patio.

Sugarbowl is renowned for its beer list but, not being a bierophile, I order a glass of Frescobaldi Pomino Bianco. This blend of chardonnay and pinot bianco grapes is a velvety splash of white fruits and lilies, but needs to be served at a significantly colder temperature. My glass lurks somewhere between "slightly cool" and "room temperature." This noble vintage presents as a bit insipid without proper chilling.

We whet our appetites with grilled cornbread. Here, four golden rectangles are decently warm, flecked with corn nibs, sprinkled with parsley, and served with butter. A few more cross-hatches from the grill would make apparent that this cornbread was indeed grilled.

Yam fries (to split hairs: they should be billed as "sweet potato fries" since that is what they are and these two veggies are not one and the same...but I digress) are next. Again, decent execution in terms of texture but the fries are a bit bland on their own. A few shakes of coriander would coax forth additional flavour. The spicy aioli helps quite a bit.

My chosen main, Hoegaarden and bacon mussels, is a generous platter of PEI mussels steamed in butter, garlic and beer. In the guise, beer is a cozy bedfellow and subtly complements the mussels' marine sweetness. They are neither fishy nor rubbery. The bacon tastes, surprisingly, like ham more than anything else and the dish would be equally successful without it.

I haven't a photo, but the lamb burger was the evening's clear winner. The patty was incredibly juicy and proudly wore a thick crown of creamy goat cheese. Fifty percent of our table's occupants ordered this dish and I longingly studied each bite. I didn't leave singing any Def Leppard songs, but I did leave wishing that I too knew the way of the lamb and the goat.

Sugarbowl on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 4 August 2011

Taste of Edmonton

Confession time: up until this past Sunday, I had not attended Taste of Edmonton. Not ever. It wasn't for lack of interest either. Capricious weather, out-of-province travels and/or other time grabbers kept me from this beehive of outdoor, sample-sized dining. I knew I was missing out, but the stars refused to align.

Languishing shadows, silent skyscrapers and an indigo summer's night

We arrived as the sun lazily settled near the western horizon, the tall office buildings casting gangly shadows over the colourful booths and throngs of diners. I studied T.O.E.'s field guide prior to our arrival, but hoped to be guided by impulse as much as by prior research.

Lit Italian Wine Bar's bright crimson booth beckons. We've heard much about Lit's basil-stuffed bocconcini with proscuitto wrap. Here, a trio of buttery bocconcini are cozily wrapped in paper-thin proscuitto, grilled to coax out additional flavour, and served with a summery basil pesto. Tasty, whets the appetite, but leaves room for further indulgence. Onward.

New Asian Village is next. This well-established Indian eatery presents a weighty plate of chicken tikka with garlic naan. Without cutlery, the dish is a bit awkward to eat, but naan makes a handy - and fantastically edible - cutlery substitute. It's a tender and warmly spicy combination of protein and carbohydrates.

We've barely made it to the end of the first row before I am smitten with a pupusa from El Rancho. Pupusas are cornmeal-based flatbreads stuffed with cheese and topped with shredded cabbage and assertive tomato salsa. Each morsel is a flash of heat, both in temperature and spice level, that leaves me with visions of Mesoamerica.

We move, in the non-literal sense, from the New World to the Old World and sample strawberries with Grand Marnier and vanilla whipped cream from the venerable Bistro Praha. Heady, boozy, summery sweetness that whispers of a moonlit walk in a garden.

The day's last light is a recent memory now. Diffuse light spills from the judiciously decorated booth of Numchok Wilai. We spend our final tickets on a deceptively filling plate of pad thai; I wish that we'd eaten it first, for noodles are a lot to manage after a graze-fest. Nonetheless, I savour each tangle of noodles, tofu and veg, satiated and satisfied that I've finally tasted Taste of Edmonton.


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