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Monday, 31 December 2012

Stoking the Home Fires - Last Post of 2012

Friends, Gourmands, Gastrophiles.

What a year it's been. What a crazy and exhilarating rush through the Capital City's rapidly evolving culinary landscape. I could spend the entire day waxing poetic that this might have been, to date, the best year of my life. The people that populate this landscape make it so. Thank you from the bottom of my heart to all of you. You know who you are.

My big break was writing the Edmonton section for Macleans "Where to eat in Canada" guide, which was released earlier in the fall. My picks were Tres Carnales and Corso 32 for their continued blend of finesse, bold flavours, and unbridled joy and belief in their modus operandi.

And so, Dine & Write's final post for 2012. I can hardly wait to write in 2013.

Stoking The Home Fires

Hotel restaurants often have a shoddy reputation, and for good reason. I've seen the good (excellent prime rib), the bad (oh so average hamburgers), and the ugly (chicken cordon bleu that was clearly deep-fried from a frozen state and stayed frozen in the middle). There are those few gems, though, that buck these designations. Homefire Grill is one of my favourites.


Homefire is central to a number of hotels in the far west end, and features one of the loveliest (and underrated) dining rooms in the city. Its focal point is a stunning fireplace that gives off the aura of a campfire on pebbly ground. The menu is staunch Canadiana and meat-heavy. That isn't a bad thing either. House-made bannock is a requisite starter. The original chef was Aboriginal and this is his mother's recipe. It is feather light and served with maple butter.


Bison meatloaf is crowned with a tangy tumble of Saskatoon berry sauce. The tart sauce caresses the bison's natural sweetness. The sides are the meal's weak link - a quartet of veggies shares quarters with a mound of average mashed potatoes. Good gravy, though.


Pork loin scarcely requires a knife for cutting, much less teeth for chewing. Snowcaps of pesto and goat cheese are an assertive counterpoint to the pork's demure nature. Roasted spuds are affable, but the same pattern of veggies from the meatloaf makes another appearance.


Locally farmed duck breast is a treat. The meat is enrobed in a glorious layer of fat and is generously sprinkled with zippy peppercorns. See previous comments on mashed potatoes and veg. I wish the same amount of forethought went into the sides as went into the protein. Nonetheless, I continue to enjoy visiting Homefire and am pleased to sign off on the last post of 2012.


Home Fire Grill on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 22 December 2012

Highlevel Diner - Meet Me in the Middle

Eating at the Highlevel Diner seems to be a prerequisite for becoming an Edmontonian and, for those born and raised in Edmonton, the occasional meal there reaffirms citizenship. I lunched there once several years ago and enjoyed a lip-smacking sandwich stuffed with mortadella, capocollo and loads of other good things. It must have been a daily special, for I did not again spot it on their menu. I recently tried the Highlevel's supper menu, though it did not make as profound an impression on me as their supper of yore.


I nosh on a Smoked Salmon Quesedilla with capers, Monteray Jack cheese, jalapenos and a green salad. Smoked salmon rarely makes an appearance in quesedillas and the fish's smoky essence is apparent, nudged on by the salty capers. I detect no heat from jalapenos, though. A pepperjack cheese might better have suited this dish. An accompanying fruit salsa is an agreeable companion that would benefit from a livelier hit of citrus.  Green salad is fresh and unobtrusive.


My dinner companion's Jambalaya could use a lot more BAM! as Chef Emeril Lagasse might put it. Brown rice gives it a nutty touch and the chunks of sausage, chicken and shrimp are generous, but the entire unit could be saucier. Grilled cornbread is quite lovely on its own or with a scoop of jambalaya.

I wish I could have ordered that sandwich - the one that still resonates in my memory. Visiting the Highlevel does indeed make me feel a part of Edmonton's popular culture and collective memories, but the night's meal fell squarely in middle ground.

(By the way, "Meet Me in the Middle" is one of the most rad 80s Canadian rock songs ever.)

Highlevel Diner on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 18 December 2012

If the world does end, these should go with it.


I highly doubt that the world is going to end on Friday. But if it does, here are a few things that I will not be sorry to see fall into the raging disco inferno.

Things I Hope Do Not Cross Over Into 2013

Bacon.  Ok, I said it. This whole "bacon makes everything better" mantra has been done to death. Bacon jam. Bacon marmalade. Bacon brownies. Bacon flavoured bacon. Such ennui I feel. Don't get me wrong; I do like bacon. I think the culinary world needs to give its head a shake, though, for infusing something with bacon does not confer to it magical properties.

Red Velvet Cake. What is this even supposed to taste like? It's a colour, and not a flavour. The colour comes from food colouring. Get thee back to the Deep South where you belong.

Pulled Pork. One the one hand, this was a good thing. Pulled pork is pretty damn delicious. But you know when the fast food chains jump on the bandwagon that it has "jumped the shark." Harvey's has a pulled pork burger. Subway has a pulled pork sub. And I rest my case. Time for this one exit stage left. BBQ brisket, anyone?

Cupcakes. I think I called them "the Paris Hilton of the dessert world." Famous merely for being famous. I do not have an inherent dislike for these small sweets; to the contrary, I rather enjoy them. The problem is, though, that too many bakeries have tried to capitalize on this trend and the results have been woefully inadequate.

Ahi Tuna. It seems as though this one has been on the menu for too many years. I will be the first to concede that it is very delicious. And the name is cool too. But so many commercial fisheries are far from sustainable and my biologist side is more than a little worried. For that matter, I wish that only sustainably fished piscine species graced restaurant menus.

I am sure that there are other things too.... It is tempting to traipse down the road of rants, but I will keep this succinct. Let's hope that 2013 brings us more food trucks, more small locally-owned restaurants like Corso and Tres Carnales, and some exciting new food trends.



Monday, 10 December 2012

Ousia - Octopodes and Lingua Franca

I've been rolling around the word "Ousia," trying to figure out how on earth to pronounce it. Oo-sea-ah? Oo-sha? The restaurant's signage didn't help either; the u looks a lot like a v. I've given up on trying to pronounce it and, instead, am reveling in memories of a well-composed foray into Mediterranean cuisine.


Ousia's narrow space is clad in dark hues. Under most circumstances, dark colours make a small room seem smaller, but here they add a metropolitan vibe that somehow reminds me long-ago nights in Toronto. Ousia's menu has the advantage of small plates, where one may compose a meal out of a smattering of small dishes. We begin with Grilled Octopus. This dish is a welcome change from the done-to-death calamari that besmirches most menus. Ousia's cephalopod creation pairs tender tentacles with an alien-looking fennel chip, a wheel of citrus, and a salty Kalamata olive puree. It is, to be certain, an assertive and memorable combination of flavours. (Oh, and the correct plural of octopus is octopodes, not octopi)


Pickled Beef Tongue graces three small chickpea tortillas and is crowned with a hat of radish and a cilantro-scented salsa verde. The tortillas are a bit tough, but the tongue veritably melts on impact. How grateful I am that this city is slowly overcoming with its fear of "unusual" cuts of meat. Surely, this underappreciated body part should become part of our lingua franca.


Croquettes of the day are delightful potato pillows laced with tangy asiago cheese. They are hot, crunchy, and over too quickly.


Feta Phyllo Parcels are admittedly tasty, but are a bit cumbersome for my liking. Their robe of clover honey is a bit cloying, and a larger dose of pomegranate is needed to offset the sweetness. These would do well as smaller parcels with a more parsimonious balance of tart and sweet.


Dessert is a gorgeous duet of Apple Sorbet with Goat's Milk creme and a judicious bowl of Butternut Squash Rice Pudding. This study in contrasts satiates with alternating hits of icy autumn mornings and roaring fire winter's nights. After all of that, I am no closer to pronouncing Ousia's name correctly, but one need not be linguistically adept to enjoy good food.

Ousia on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Which place? T.H.I.S. Place.

I sense a "Who's on First" joke here.

To which place am I referring? (Never end a sentence with a preposition. Oops. That was my inside voice slipping out.)

T.H.I.S. Place. It is the brainchild of the creative and insightful family behind Lan's Asian Grill, which may very well be my favourite Asian spot in the City of Champions. Their new endeavour, however, is an urban-industrial-meets-serene-oasis boite that boasts gourmet tea, coffee and - thank heavens - hot chocolate...the likes of which Edmonton has never before seen.


T.H.I.S (To be Happy Is Simple) Place is a quick jaunt around the corner from MacEwan University and should indubitably be one's go-to spot for hot chocolate. Canadians are woefully accustomed to drinking hot chocolate that is little more than reconstituted powder. European-style hot chocolate, by comparison, is much thicker and richer and is sometimes referred to as "drinking chocolate." One should expect the latter at T.H.I.S Place. The welcome paucity of powders means that each hot chocolate is a liquified concoction of real chocolate, milk and spices.


Marlow Moo and I drop in for the grand opening of T.H.I.S. Place and dive into two hefty, steaming mugs of hot chocolate. Moo's is grandly bittersweet dark chocolate and reminds me of a gorgeous bar of deep, dark chocolate that has magically changed state from solid to liquid. My gingerbread hot chocolate is a subtle and satisfying brew of warm spices that languidly share quarters with rich chocolate and gentle dairy. I receive a generous square of spicy chocolate replete with instructions for how to brew this beverage at home. Sadly, the square doesn't survive the night. I will simply have to return to T.H.I.S. Place to try spicy hot chocolate in its proper liquid state.

T.H.I.S. Place on Urbanspoon

Friday, 30 November 2012

De Dutch - The Frying Dutchman

Dutch pancakes have arrived in Edmonton. Finally. Most northern European nations have their own version of same, which bear little resemblance to the thick griddlecakes of North America. The French have crepes. My Dad makes featherlight Danish pancakes with strawberries and whipped cream...but only at Christmas. I've indulged many times in Finnish pancakes. Go to Thunder Bay to Hoito (formerly a Finnish social club, given that the largest Finnish population outside the Motherland resides in the Bay of Thunder) to load up on a plate of heaven. Dutch pancakes are similarly large and thin; at De Dutch, they come with innumerable toppings.


We - the "we" being Marlow Moo and I - settle into De Dutch's modern and colourful space and sample pancakes stuffed with smoked salmon and edam cheese. The salmon is velvety, the surrounding cake is a proper foil to its stuffing, and the edam emerges as a pleasant aftertaste.


A perogy-style pancake stuffed with potato, onion and ham doesn't really compare to the perogies of my progenitors, but I can appreciate the concept. Pancakes with strawberries and cream remind me of Christmas morning at my childhood home.


Bitterballen are a Dutch croquette that consists primarily of finely minced, spiced beef, a breadcrumb mantle, and a dip of grainy mustard. The meat's consistency is remarkably smooth and contrasts nicely with the crisp crumb coating.


Finally, we sample Tosties, which are toasted sandwiches, as the name implies. A Tostie generously stuffed with blueberries, onions and cheese is the evening's standout. The sweet blueberries, tangy onions and smooth cheese gleefully play gustatory tug-of-war on their crispy playing field. I am glad to see De Dutch set up shop downtown, as opposed to far off in some suburban complex. That way, I can visit more often and work my way through the sizable roster of pancakes. Or pannekoek, if you want to be linguistically accurate.

De Dutch on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Part Two - The Chicken Came First

Many of you are aware that Chef Corbin Tomaszeski stopped off in Edmonton for an Excel lozenges promo. His homemade chicken dumpling soup comprised the other half of this tour and I was fortunate enough to partake in said soup. I was developing a cold and I daresay that it is on the mend. I am eager to pick Chef's brain and fired a few quandaries his way.

Q: What is your earliest recollection of eating chicken soup?

Chef Corbin: I had to have been very young. It would have been my mom's chicken soup and I think the recipe was from her mother. She always made it when we were sick.

Q: Is there a type of chicken that makes especially good soup?

Chef Corbin: It's important to know where your food comes from and how it was treated, so I prefer free range chicken. Old chickens can be braised to make excellent soup, but I think younger birds taste better.

Q: What is the strangest cooking advice you've ever been given?

Chef Corbin: My Junior High home ec teacher made us wash eggs with soap before we cracked them because, to quote her, "they come from chicken's bums."

Q: Have you ever read any of the Chicken Soup for the Soul books?

Chef Corbin: Yes, but it's been a while.

Q: Do you prefer a lot of chicken in your soup or do you prefer Chicken Little?

Chef Corbin: I like big chunks of chicken in my soup.... [pause].....laughter.

Q: Who deserves more to be made into soup, Foghorn Leghorn or Robot Chicken?

Chef Corbin: Probably Robot Chicken. It would be oily and you could feed it to people you don't like!

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Cold Comfort - Part One

I woke up this morning with the beginnings of a cold - that blurry, snotty, nasty feeling that creeps under the covers and taints what had started out as a restful night. This happenstance just so happened to coincide with my opportunity to meet Chef Corbin Tomaszeski, taste some homemade chicken and dumpling soup, and check out some new Excel lozenges.

Now, who would consider it a stroke of luck to wake up with a cold? If it happens on a day for soup and lozenges, this is indeed a good thing.  For those of you who do not know Chef Tomaszeski, he is the Alberta-born, NAIT-trained chef known for his involvement with Food Network shows Dinner Party Wars and Restaurant Makeover.

Cheers to that!

Chef Corbin has also partnered with Wrigley to promote Excel Lozenges; in his words, "it made sense to partner with this product and company because of the philosophy of comfort." Chef Corbin is touring around major Canadian cities to promote the new lozenges and states, "When I get sick, my 'winter survival' kit consists of an electric blanket, tissues, the remote control, hot soup and lozenges." He is more than happy to exclusively use Excel lozenges in his survival kit and explains, "They don't taste too much like candy and are not overly medicinal. In addition, they contain eucalyptus, vitamin C and menthol, all of which are good for sniffles and coughs. There are three flavours - honey lemon, menthol, and cranberry-blueberry." The latter stands out as an especially tasty flavour, for the sweetness of blueberries plays off the tartness of cranberries. I also partook in a flask of Chef Corbin's chicken and dumpling soup. This hearty blend features tender chunks of chicken, red pepper, cilantro, spuds, onions and plump dumplings. This is, without a doubt, the tastiest chicken soup I have ever tasted. The flask was empty too soon. Certainly, a remedy for any cold. I feel better already.


Stay Tuned....Part II, my Q & A with Chef Corbin, will follow within the next 24 hours.

Disclaimer: I did not receive monetary compensation to mention Excel lozenges on Dine & Write, but instead was invited to a press event for the product. Any opinions stated on Dine & Write are my own.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Lan's Asian Grill - What's in a name?

Every name has a meaning. Whether blatantly obvious or puzzlingly obscure, a name is at once a descriptor, an honorific, a term of endearment, and a phylogenetic marker. These interrelated terms colour every name, be that of a person, place or thing. For Lan's Asian Grill, the name Lan refers to the restaurant's matriarch.  It honours the owners' mother, references their family heritage, and rightly acknowledges the indelible and positive influence their mother has had on their lives, not to mention their culinary skills. The name, in this writer's eyes, is also directly synonymous with supremely fresh and delectable Thai victuals.


Lan's Pad Thai is easily Edmonton's best. A tender tangle of noodles luxuriates with crisp bean sprouts, crisp peanuts, velvety tofu and cloud-like shreds of egg. The spice level may be customized and meat may be added if you're in the mood. A serenade of cilantro, fish sauce, chilies and lime whispers through each bite with the even-handed subtlety I've come to expect at Lan's.


Spicy Tofu presents the eponymous bean curd in a manner most delightful. Pillowy (and never rubbery) rectangles of tofu are generously but not excessively bathed in a firey chili sauce. Rice and shredded carrots tame the fire and toasted sesame seeds add crunch. A pair of piping-hot spring rolls are along for the ride and are agreeable dinner companions.

Lan taught her children well. A great air of serenity welcomes all who enter and the quality of food leaves me happy and well-fed. Would this place have the same cache under a different name? Perhaps. But one need not ponder that point too deeply. The multiple meanings of honour, bloodlines and good food are perfectly encapsulated in Lan's name.


Lan's Asian Grill on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Baby Got Makk - A New Addition to 124 Street

It is an exciting time to be alive in Edmonton right now. In a city so deeply rooted with franchised restaurants, it is thrilling to see a good dose of locally-owned eateries germinate and flourish. A disproportionate number of said eateries are making their mark on exponentially-growing-in-the-cool-factor 124 Street. The Makk, which occupies the digs of now-defunct D'Lish, is one of the newest.


The Makk's interior vibe is quasi-industrial shabby-chic and is awash in natural light from multiple, large windows. The Infinite Yums and I settle in for a Sunday brunch (though it must be added that brunch is not their only mean. Not in the least.). A cocktail dyad starts off the afternoon, and includes an unpretentiously fragrant Cinnamon Mint Julep and a decently potent John Collins - the latter being a citrusy half-brother to the better-known Tom Collins.


A colourful interpretation of Eggs Benedict features a plump pair of prawns, a delicately sweet lobster tail and earthy spinach. Appropriately demure potato blini are correct to defer the spotlight to their plate mates. A delightfully runny pair of poached eggs are caressed but not choked by rich Hollandaise sauce.


An orb of frittata is generously laced with fennel-scented Italian sausage, green onions and tomatoes. The menu bills these tomatoes as "Cheery" as opposed to "Cherry" tomatoes. We can only guess that the menu's description of this dish is either an intentional tongue-in-cheek in-joke or an unintentional spelling error. Nothing wrong with that either. I, for one, am happy if my tomatoes are happy to see me. The frittata itself is well-textured and aromatic. The spelling misstep is half the fun.

The Makk thoroughbred is just barely out of the gate. If our brunch is any indication of things to come, this spot will be one to watch in upcoming months. I'm just coming down off the high achieved by Andrew Fung's Nineteen grand opening last week too. What an age to be alive.

The Makk on 124 on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 7 November 2012

Nineteen: Edmonton's Newest Restaurant

The Vancouver Olympics were awesome. I won't even say that we, as a country, got a wee bit carried away with our fervour. Who am I to judge. I was the first person I knew to run out and purchase those maple leaf mittens (and I lost one, curses, last autumn when it fell out of the car). Because of the YVR Olympiad, I heard about Gold Medal Plates, which is a nation-wide culinary competition that also raises money for Canadian Olympic athletes. The entire event is an impressive display of skill. I attended in 2010; Blackhawk Golf Course's Andrew Fung handily snagged the evening's top honours.

Fung is finally - finally - at the helm of his own restaurant. Nineteen, whose name is a sly reference to the so-called "19th" hole that golfers frequent following their game, is a fair trek down in the far reaches of the southwest, but presents an exciting and well-crafted addition to the Capital City's culinary scene.


I am fortunate to attend a sneak preview of Nineteen's menu. A statuesque room greets diners with uncluttered light fixtures and warm wood hues. Duck Sliders open the meal with a wondrous combination of rich duck, unexpected blueberries and pleasantly subtle chipotle aioli. Ahi Tuna Twists are a delightful tangle of chili-kissed Thai noodles, citrusy cilantro and supple, rosy tuna.


Miso-marinated Atlantic Salmon is butter-soft and perfumed with savoury miso. Thai Mussel and Onion Beignets are great fun; these crunchy-soft paradoxes are yang to the salmon's yin. The crispy onion crown provides textural contrast but could be omitted without compromising the dish.


Ahi Tuna and Scallop Ceviche resembles a tropical bird in flight and presents a duality of mild scallop and assertive tuna crowned with a delightful cap of wasabi pea foam. Understated and orange-scented ponzu sauce is a welcome dressing.


Japanese Baby Back Ribs require no fork (and very little chewing). A sake-soy glaze coaxes out the pork's inherent sweetness. A sidecar of greens is a bit too sweet to act as a proper foil; bitter arugula would better fill this niche.


Confit Chicken Waffle is the evening's dark horse. Ludicrously tender chicken is laced with sweet peppers and sits atop a crisp quinoa-potato waffle that compliments the poultry but does not steal its thunder. A snowcap of rich brie is a crowning touch.


A Proscuitto-Wrapped Scallop is a wee bit anachronistic - in the best possible of ways - and harkens back to the plethora of bacon-wrapped scallops that dominated decades past. Proscuitto nicely updates this dish. A truffle perogy is nicely crisp on the outside and a miniature hillock of crunchy cauliflower with grainy mustard rounds out this plate.


A trio of pork features sublimely unctuous pork belly, a crisp pancetta chip, and aromatic roasted pork tenderloin. A vaguely alien king oyster mushroom is peculiar to the eye but wondrous to the palate.


Grainy Dijon-Crusted Halibut is a bit smothered by its companions, which include Manila clams and linguini with French curry sauce. The noodles and sauce alone dance with exotic spices but overwhelm the halibut's gentle essence. A stronger fish would better suit this dish.


Dessert features an elfin Caramel Eclair that delivers just the right amount of sweetness after such an extensive meal. Chef Andrew Fung easily delivers everything that his noble space promises and I look forward to Nineteen's ascension within the ranks of YEG-town eateries.


XIX Nineteen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Viphalay - Thai One On

Restaurants in old houses have a particular cache of "cool." There are a number of them in Edmonton, and I was rather surprised to discover that the venerable Viphalay is one of them. I frequented Viphalay's Norwood location, which held its own in a somewhat forlorn stripmall on the corner of 95 St and 107 Ave. I wouldn't have described this spot as "cool" - at least, not cool in the sense that character homes are steeped in intrigue and history - but the stellar food defied any mere physical location. How happy I am to discover Viphalay's second, downtown digs which, joy of joys, occupies a old house just south of Jasper Ave.


High ceilings and grand windows add a touch of grandeur to Viphalay's proudly unpretentious food. Shrimp and Pineapple Triangles are a happy duet of sweet crustaceans and vividly acidic pineapple enrobed in crisp batter. Cream Cheese and Crab Crispy Wontons contain a gentle seafood surprise beneath their crunchy exterior. Sweet chili sauce is a welcome condiment.


The unmistakable aroma of Ginger Lemon Chicken arrives at the table before the dish itself, which presents succulent portions of chicken caressed with sunny citrus and pleasantly pungent strips of ginger root. It's a deadly good combination. Mushrooms, scallions and onions are along for the ride, but I wish the chunks of onion were smaller.


Vegetable Stir-fry with Beef is a hearty jumble of peppers, broccoli, mushrooms, onions and tender beef. The veggies are properly tender-crisp, but the entire dish seems a bit underseasoned. Nonetheless, Viphalay is a welcome addition to downtown, and its statuesque home is fortunate to house such marvelous tastes and scents. Definitely cool.


Viphalay Laos and Thai Restaurant (Downtown) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

The Social [Modern] Network

How gratifying that pub grub in Edmonton has evolved considerably beyond oil-soaked fish and chips, questionable burgers and morosely ubiquitous wings. Indeed, the profferings of a great many Edmonton pubs goes far beyond these lazy staples. Case in point: Social Modern Pub, which is tucked away behind Grant Mac university. Marlow Moo and I were invited there one night. To say that we went in blind would be an understatement and our first impression was that it was a rather noisy room crowded with (on this particular evening) singles on a speed-dating adventure.


Ian, the impressively enthusiastic owner and host, suggests that we begin with Bacon-Wrapped Bacon. This succulent appetizer is a veritable pig's worth of bacon. Bacon bacon is wrapped with rashers of side bacon, drizzled with maple syrup and caramelized until sticky and savoury. The flavour is ridiculously good, but I wish the pieces were smaller, so that the bacon exterior was crispier.


Sweet potato fries arrive with a sidecar of spicy aioli. Sweet potato fries, in the wrong hands, have a propensity to be squishy and soggy. Mercifully, these are not, and we can scarcely keep from emptying the plate.


I dive into a Chicken Italiano sandwich and am smitten with a studious combination of pesto, bocconcini, proscuitto and tender chicken. Each component plays nicely off each other and presents as complimentary, but not complicated.


Moo's platter of Fettucini Alfredo is crowned with a jumble of bourbon chicken. Though alfredo sauce and bourbon are not quite intuitive partners, here they happily share quarters. The fettucini noodles are nicely al dente, but the sauce could be amped up a bit with some wine or salt. Altogether, it is a satisfying meal that surprised us with its care of preparation. Quite clearly, one should toss all preconceived notions of how pub grub should be.


Social Modern Pub on Urbanspoon

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