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Monday, 23 July 2012

The Empire Ballroom - The Empire Strikes Back

The  origin of "high tea" (which, to be honest, sounds like an orange pekoe break for hippies) treads somewhere between "great moments in the history of eating" and "gastro-historical quasi-urban legend" but nonetheless is staunchly part of British (and, by extension, a fair bit of North American) mealtime traditions. Tea - as a meal and not just as the beverage - may be as simple as a cuppa and a biscuit or as ornate as miniature sandwiches and sweets served on towering pedestals. For the latter, it is worth a trip to the Empire Ballroom in the ever-statuesque Hotel Macdonald.

Afternoon tea commences with a delicate flute of finely chopped strawberries and melon crowned with an icy orb of minty sorbet. These frosty morsels awaken the sleepy palate and sharpen the tastebuds for subsequent indulgences.

A basket of blueberry-lavender scones follows and is accompanied by butter, berry preserves and clotted cream. Though one may argue at the veracity of clotted cream found in Canada, Empire's version is unbelievably fluffy and buttery. The berry preserves are vividly flavourful, but I have difficulty detecting the lavender promised in the scones.

A quartet of elfin sandwiches arrives on a triple-tiered pedestal. Divinely smoked Nova Scotia salmon reclines on hearty rye bread and is topped by sparkly sprinkle of tobiko roe. Rich duck breast is tempered by fruity pineapple-tomato relish. A goat cheese and black olive tartlet steals the show with its duality of savoury salinity and sweet creaminess. Organic egg salad on brioche is also present, but I must confess that I have a significant aversion to the texture of hard-cooked eggs.

Dessert includes chocolate macarons (not bad but Mirabelle Macarons are better), lemon-coconut shortbread (too full to try and hence no verdict), banana-hazelnut-caramel tarts (alas, my satiety prevented sampling), and chocolate cupcakes with an amazingly light and smooth orange icing.

The portion sizes are deceptive; eating a lot of miniature sandwiches quickly adds up to one very large sandwich. Nonetheless, the sumptuous setting of the stately Empire Ballroom perfectly underscores a very fancy - and yet not snooty - afternoon tea. The Empire Strikes Back. In a good way.

The Empire Ballroom (Fairmont Hotel Macdonald) on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Highlands Kitchen - My Cheatin' Heart

Half of my family is very, very Slavic - predominantly Polish with a dash of Ukrainian and Belorussian for good measure. This means that I grew up eating perogies, garlic sausage, and cabbage rolls that were made by family members. You did not go to the store and buy perogies out of the freezer. No way. This was never said explicitly, but this way of life existed as an unspoken rule and a familial understanding of Slavic loyalty. Heck, my grandma and her sisters-in-law are still ruthlessly competitive about cooking. You don't mess with them.

I grew up watching them cook and have no doubt that their no-nonsense approach to cooking was the genesis of my culinary existence. These are different times, though, and I've always wondered what other people's perogies tasted like. I have not in over three decades ever eaten a perogie that wasn't hand-made by a blood relative.

Until now. (It helps to set the mood if you listen to this clip of music before proceeding. Not mandatory, but it helps).

Highlands Kitchen is one of a select few spots in Edmonton where one may indulge in authentic eastern Slavic cuisine that rivals (dare I say it) the cooking of Grandmas everywhere. The kitchen strives to make use of abundant local produce and meats; that alone is reason to visit. We arrive on (unfortunately) the hottest day of the year and discover there is no A/C. Yikes. We tough it out and start with Mushroom and Feta Flatbread, which is a tempting riot of savoury flavours and textures.

Though the heat significantly diminishes our appetites, we nosh on Pulled Pork Crepes with Saskatoon Berry Sauce and Marinated Onions. The pork is lusciously mild and juicy, the crepes are tender and the onions are tangy, but I can detect no Saskatoon berries.

A Kalyna Platter is a grand-slam of garlic sausage, perogies with bacon gremolata, and lazy cabbage rolls. The latter are, for the uninitiated, the components of cabbage rolls cooked in layers in a casserole, rather than rolled up as tradition dictates. The waiter brings us a small bowl of homemade ketchup - ask for it if you go, for it's delicious. The sausage is fragrant and extremely amenable to aforementioned homemade ketchup. The lazy cabbage rolls are ok, but I'll stick to the traditional sort, for these are a bit too spicy and skimp out on the cabbage. Perogies are the acid test. I gingerly cleave one in two and allow the layers of dough and potato to reveal themselves. I am impressed. They are truly excellent and finely crafted.

It was most certainly worth suffering through the unbearable stickiness of a heat wave evening to enjoy a meal at Highlands Kitchen. While I wasn't enamoured of everything I tasted, I left with the knowledge that gorgeous perogies can be made by non-family members (of course, I knew that all along but couldn't admit it). I haven't told my grandma that I ate someone else's perogies. My cheatin' heart.

Read about Marlow Moo's take on Highlands Kitchen here.

Highlands Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

The Clever Rabbit - Down the Rabbit Hole

124th Street reigns as a perpetually bohemian and innovative street, replete with unique eateries - the stuff that you find nowhere else in the city. Enter The Clever Rabbit. This welcome addition to an already diverse neighbourhood serves only vegetarian and vegan cuisine. Though I am firmly omnivorous, I have a great admiration for good vegetarian cuisine. We tend to use animal protein as a crutch in North American cooking - we pick a meat and then build a meal around it. Absolutely nothing wrong with that either, but it is more difficult to say, "hey, let's have carrots for supper" and then built a nutritionally complete meal around that. (Perhaps the ability to do just that is what makes the namesake rabbit clever. But I digress.)

The Clever Rabbit is quiet on a very rainy weekday afternoon. Fascinating artwork featuring surrealistic horses hangs from the walls. Numerous small rabbit figurines adorn each table. They are cute, but there is something vaguely creepy about their eyes. The absence of pupils? The menu is a good page long and features a selection of meals both light and hearty. The ornate writing is a bit difficult to read but no matter. We sip on organic pomegranate tea. I'm surprised that they use paper cups when we asked for our order "to stay."

I dip into soup of the day which, quelle surprise, is vegetable. The veggies - carrots, onions, celery, spuds and the like - are tender-crisp and vibrant, but I'm thrown off by the veg to broth ratio.  There seems to be about 10 parts broth to 1 part veg, and by the time I've finished the veggies, the volume of broth has scarcely changed. The accompanying biscuit is devastatingly flaky and moist, but the smear of margarine detracts from its overall essence. I've never enjoyed the taste of marge. Next time, put it on the side.

Green salad is a 10/10. The greenery is abundant and fresh, and the addition of nuts and fruit make this salad a wondrously enjoyable experience. The dressing is complex and addictive. We ask what's in it, but the recipe is secret! Whatever is in it, it is lovely.

Our tab is close to thirty bucks, which feels a bit pricey for what we ate. Nonetheless, we retire next door to "Food Dish Wishes," a quirky-fun pet shop/pet bakery, and immediately fall in love with three orphan kittens. I wish I could take them home, but that would permanently mark me with "crazy cat lady" status. I hope someone adopts them. They are little heart-melters.

As for The Clever Rabbit, their concept is solid (i.e., interesting veg cuisine), but some fine-tuning is in order for some of their dishes to be elevated into the realm of "fantastical."

The Clever Rabbit Vegetarian Cafe on Urbanspoon


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