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Monday, 26 September 2011

Engrained - Cutting Across the Grain

I cannot overemphasize the importance of consuming local food. The reasons span the noble (e.g., supporting local farmers) to the slightly selfish (e.g., locally grown food usually tastes better than something that has traveled thousands of kilometers to grace your place). Local food is how we used to do things and, despite society's recent and prolonged departure from this way of being, a return to such a mindset is gaining momentum.

"University campuses" and "local food" are phrases rarely found in the same sentence, let alone the same tangible location, but Engrained is the first (of many, hopefully) of local food's migration into college life. Indeed, Engrained makes a significant effort to use local and sustainably produced meats and produce.

The menu features stir-frys, sandwiches of various varieties, steak, salad and pizza. The cafeteria-style system means that one approaches a "station" - steak, pizza or otherwise - to order and await the desired meal.

I'm having lunch with Marlow Moo; he orders striploin steak with smashed potatoes (but there was no cannibalism!) and I select a calzone (for reasons that will remain intentionally nebulous...though I did honestly want to see the flaming pizza oven in action). The steak is juicy, tender and cooked to order, though heavy-handed salt application obscures the meat's natural sweetness. The smashed spuds, while buttery, are liberally sprinkled with what initially appears to be paprika. A small forkful reveals otherwise. Lamentably, the bright orange powder is seasoning salt. Seasoning salt has its place - don't get me wrong - but locally grown potatoes deserve far better. Dill, perhaps?

My calzone is larger than expected and looks like it could feed a family of four. The dough tends to the heavy end of the spectrum and, while it is stuffed with pepperoni, green peppers, onions, mushrooms and cheese, it manages to taste...well...bland. All of these ingredients should, by all reasonable logic, translate to a zesty meal and yet I a reminded of a pizza pop.

I love Engrained's philosophy and will always support and enjoy local food. That being said, the execution of the dishes we sampled left us wondering why the execution did not match the quality of the ingredients. I want to love the food as much as I love the idea behind it; perhaps Engrained is still growing into the rather large shoes it is trying to fill.

Engrained (University of Alberta Campus) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Tzin Wine Bar - Tzins of the Flesh

Words can scarcely express my gratitude for wine bars. I was the sort of person (wait, why is that in the past tense? I still am...) who goes to pubs and bars begrudgingly, plots my escape, and slips away when no one appears to be watching. Wine bars are another barrel of libations entirely. They are intriguing, classy and enigmatic, and I wish to escape into - rather than away from - these establishments. I finally visited Tzin, a well-established downtown wine bar that has hovered at the top of my to-do list for far too long, and discovered (among other things) that there exists a vintage named after my third favourite dessert and fifth favourite action movie: Layer Cake.

Layer Cake is a full-bodied zinfandel that hails from Puglia, the heel of Italy's boot. It is, as its name so richly suggests, layered and complex. It is a sunny, giddy rush of crisp evenings and heady Mediterranean nights. And, for God's sake, it has a drawing of a layer cake on the label. I think I'm in oenophile heaven.

Tzin's menu is succinct and we nibble on baked brie with red wine reduction, cherry and pear compote, and small slices of bread. The tiny rounds of marbled rye are quite a treat and smartly support their weighty crown of melty, gooey brie and sweet fruit.

We progress to crab-stuffed prawns which, for a moment (and I apologize in advance, for old nerdy habits die hard) reminds me of a line from The Simpsons.

Moe Szyslak (the bartender): Bring me your finest food stuffed with your second finest!
Waiter: That would be lobster...stuffed with tacos.

No such stuffing here, mercifully. Instead, we nosh on plump prawns that just barely contain their crabby stuffing. It is a buttery bite of oceanic bounty.

Dessert features flourless chocolate cake. It is lustrous, seductive and is slowly devoured in infinitesimally small slices. I prolong the cake for as long as is reasonably possible, such that I may relish my surroundings. Tzin is like a hidden annex of rich tapestries, tall, multi-paned windows and flashes of light that burst from a small, open kitchen. I cannot resist a bad pun: it was Tzinfully good.

Tzin Wine & Tapas on Urbanspoon

Monday, 12 September 2011

Mikado - Roll Call of Awesome

How I've bemoaned the relative absence of top-tier sushi in this city. I don't mean to over-generalize, since Sabu and Kyoto are distinct exceptions to this broad-stroke statement, but I've had some pretty disappointing experiences. The worst, in a nutshell, involved the waitress losing our order several times and bringing us fish that (a) was not especially fresh and (b) looked like it was sliced by knife-wielding baboon with anger issues. The deep-fried rolls were a hefty rub of salt in the ol' wounds. They were so excessively doused in mayo that no other flavour was apparent. Three strikes and you're out.

I'd yet to visit Mikado until an invitation from baconophile ZoomJer drew me downtown. The rumour mill suggested the existence of a mysterious (and delicious) Jerry Roll and showcased bacon (as if there were ever any doubt).

Bacon, kiwi, mango, avocado, crab, cuke and fish roe? How could I go wrong? I waited in mild agony as platter after platter emerged from the lively kitchen and traveled to private booths where no shoes are permitted.

The Jerry Roll emerged on a sleek white platter like a boatload of Carmen Miranda-esque celebrities wearing fruity headgear. Though a bit unwieldy to manage with slender chopsticks, each slice was a rave party of decidedly smoky bacon and sunny tropical fruits. The fish roe popped with piscine salinity. The crab and rice deferred attention to the aforementioned ingredients, like backup dancers are content to pop and lock while the main act hams it up for the spotlight.

I must profess that I'm basing my opinion of Mikado on one roll. But what a roll. Roll call of awesome.

Mikado (Downtown) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Johnson's Cafe - The Time Traveler's Knife (and Fork)

I'm quite convinced that my Edmonton citizenship would have been revoked had I not (finally) visited Fort Edmonton Park after five years of residence in this city. Shame on me. That's why my office is nick-named the "Procrastination Station"...but that is another story for another time. The stately Selkirk Hotel is a well-known edifice within this nostalgic and sometimes anachronistic (think computer cash registers in a 1920s-style photographer's boutique) attraction. Johnson's Cafe occupies a large, white, vaguely Victorian-themed room within this inn, offering park-goers a quiet spot to fuel up after a long day of time travel.

We arrive suitably hungry but decide to sample appetizers instead of dashing headlong into an entree. Our meal commences with an avocado caesar salad, which arrives in an edible bowl composed of parmigiano-reggiano. The avocado and lemon wedge are welcome touches that nudge this salad above the threshold of "ordinary."

We progress to jerk chicken spring rolls, which arrive reclining against a nest of deep-fried chow mein noodles. The rolls are decently spicy and mercifully lacking in grease, though the creamy dipping sauce adds little. A fruit-based chutney would be a more appropriate companion.

Balsamic baked brie is the evening's clear winner. Four triangles of flatbread sport four crescents of buttery brie, zig-zagged with balsamic vinegar. They are crunchy, creamy, tangy and decadently rich, and are served well by the accompanying greens and tomatoes.

Lobster cakes with risotto are a minor letdown. The cakes are woefully overdone and the risotto is gluey. The salad is the dish's saving grace, at least.

Dessert is delightful, if filling. We nosh on warm apple crumble with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream. It's generously laced with cinnamon and the apples have substance (as opposed to the dubiously mushy 'apple pie filling' that some such dishes possess).

Johnson's menu boasts some winners, like the balsamic-brie triangles, but other dishes are a bit rough around the edges. Fine-tune them and Fort Edmonton Park will have a restaurant worthy of its wildly entertaining, historical-education-etc architectural wonders.

Hotel Selkirk / Johnson's Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Cafe Haven - Haven-ly Creatures

Coffee and cinnamon. These alliterative favourites would be part of my last meal, if (a) capital punishment still existed in this country and (b) I somehow found myself in such a situation (though I must admit I had several such nightmares after watching "The Green Mile"). But I digress.

Sherwood Park is yet a mystery to me, since I've seen only its periphery. Like most cities, its nether regions are colonized by franchised businesses. If one ventures from the periphery to the center, though, a handful of creative, locally owned restaurants emerge. Cafe Haven is easily one of the best.

The long room meanders from an open kitchen at the front to a slightly cavernous, intriguing posterior that boasts a giant (presumably former) bank vault. The door is permanently open to prevent any claustrophobic mishaps.

Down to business now: coffee and a cinnamon bun. My espresso is decidedly assertive - it commands attention but does so without being domineering. The cinnamon bun's size is humbling and one taste is a magical mystery tour of cinnamon, brown sugar, tender dough and rich creamery butter. It's difficult to balance fluffy bun with the cinnamon-brown sugar sauce's rich viscosity, but Cafe Haven's buns make this feat seem easy. A Haven-ly creatures.

Cafe Haven on Urbanspoon


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