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Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Craft Beer Market - A Tall Order

Physical space sets the precedent for a restaurant. Whether or not we care to admit it, we expect a higher calibre of food in a decked-out space; the sort where no metaphorical stone remains unturned and the merest of details are given thesis-volumes of though. Conversely, a sparse and spare space begets lower expectations - and often produces the grandest of pleasant surprises when expectations are overturned (but that's another story for another time).

Craft Beer Market's physiognomy fits into the first category. A cavernous, warehouse-like space greets throngs of scarf and parka-sporting patrons on its opening night, which happens to be gripped in switchblade-sharp winds and antarctic temperatures. A beautiful space, to be certain. A trip downstairs, for example, conjures up a prohibition-era cellar of clandestine kegs.

The encyclopedic beer menu features nods to multiple breweries on multiple continents. Picking one to sample is vexing. Grizzly Paw Grumpy Bear Honey Wheat, brewed a hop, skip and jump away in Canmore, proves glacier-crisp and gently sweet. Satisfying and smooth.

Similar flattery cannot be applied to the meandering food menu, which jumps around from burgers to pasta to any manner of appetizers. Stuffed Pretzel Bites are pleasant enough and aren't overly greasy, but the mustard dip is so thick that it must be spooned onto said bites, and efforts are rewarded with a flavour more akin to mustard gas.

Ahi Tuna Poke veers into delicious territory; burgundy cubes of satiny tuna tumble together with crisp cukes and crunchy little sesame seeds, but the cubes are so large that they keep falling off the accompanying wonton crisps, the surface texture of which is so bumpy that we resort to eating the tuna with a fork. Mince the fish and veg a bit smaller and this would be a winner.

The same cannot be said for the Charcuterie Board. Though pleasing to regard visually, absolutely no explanation of meat, cheese or condiments is offered by the servers. One can only hope that this was an opening night oversight. Lamentably, the cheese is nothing more exotic than rubbery Brie (or was it Camembert...) and Jalapeno Havarti. The cold cuts appear to be a russet-hued salami and too-thick proscuitto. No crostini or crackers came with; these had to be requested separately.

Craft, it would seem, must grow into its impressive space.

CRAFT Beer Market on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 26 December 2013

Square One Wye Road - A Little Birdie Told Me

Twitter is easily the leading source of restaurant tidbits: menu updates, renovations and, of course, openings. Being, in the virtual sense, in the right place at the right time - by chance or coincidence, depending on the philosophy to which one subscribes - can thus precipitate dining experiences most unexpected.

Indeed, no more than one week ago, a chance tweet proclaimed the existence of Square One Wye Road. A quick jaunt down the eponymous road leads to a dark, sleek and decidedly unstuffy space where "Star Wars: Return of the Jedi" plays upon a suspended screen and cocktails are deftly assembled with a careful hand. The whisper-light "Amelia Earhart" features Aviator Gin, naturally.

Square One's menu skiffs across a number of continents and favours creations inspired by locales both Asia and Latin American. Tuna Aguachiles is minced to just the right consistency: small enough to be scooped onto house-made chips a la salsa, but large enough that the noble fish is not reduced to mush. To clarify: aguachile refers to fish that takes a swim through chili-water, but not to the extent that it becomes ceviche.Lime and avocado add acidic green and unctuous bursts, respectively.

Butter Chicken Wings are sizzling with memories of the Subcontinent. Though the naan are a bit anorexic, the wings themselves are vivaciously plump and are topped with a tangle of arugula. What a welcome break from the sad carrot and celery sticks that typically play straight man to the wings' comedian.

Plaza Machado Tostadas are commendably fiery. Crispy pork belly embodies gustatory hand grenades that are scarcely tamed by creme fraiche and cilantro. Although the entire assemblage appears initially precarious, the tostada retains structural integrity with each successive bite.

House-made ice cream is velvet-smooth and twice as luxurious. Goat's Milk Vanilla bears none of the muskiness traditionally associated with this ungulate's milk, while Chai Vermouth is a gentle paradox of florals and spices. Hazelnut is neither cloying nor phony, as are many ice creams that dare to flaunt that well-loved nut. Coffee, finally, breathes the java-fueled sighs of a sunrise in Naples. Well done, Square One. The little bird, aka Twitter, speaks the truth.

Square One on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 19 December 2013

Someone's in the Parlour...

Wood smoke on a cold winter's night is no less than evocative. Too often it is an aroma absent from downtown landscape - for obvious reasons, naturally. A recent visit to Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar commenced with the crackling allure of a wood fire splitting the frigid air with pops, snaps, and piquant smoke, and ended with espresso crumbs and full bellies.

Parlour occupies an impressive space that skirts the downtown core with twinkling lights, high ceilings, a jazzy soundtrack, and checkered napkins reminiscent of the alley-dining scene in Lady and the Tramp. Calamari, to begin, are ever-so-lightly dressed in a nearly nude batter that finishes with a fiery snap. Peppery arugula interject as a terrestrial greenery counterpoint to the squid's marine affinities.

Arancini are refreshingly uncluttered. These piping hot, auburn orbs breathe a steamy sigh of relief when opened, and reveal a mantle and core of smooth arborio rice and unabashedly oozing talleggio.

Cauliflower Fritto are the evening's surprise hit. A quick trip to the fryer transforms the normally bashful vegetable into a creamy, nutty-sweet invention. A few squeezes of juice from charred lemon halves impart astringent acidity.

Pizza - wood-fired, of course - has many interpretations, but the Family Jewels interpretation is adorned with a crown of salty black olives, fennel-infused sausage and buttery eggplant. A dreamy stratum of mozzarella and smoked gouda sings of far away summer fields. The crust is indeed floppy in the middle, but structural integrity improves with increasing proximity to the edges.

Tiramisu and Panna Cotta are yardsticks of Italian desserts. Parlour's take on the former is of the deconstructed variety. Espresso-infused crumbs appear as glossy black caviar, surrounding a cloud-island of mascarpone that cleverly conceals boozy ladyfingers. The espresso-caviar hogs the spotlight.

Panna Cotta is a creamy-firm paradox with understated hints of vanilla bean. Blueberries are indigo spheres of dark, boreal forest glades; counterpoint to the cream's quivering, ivory aura. Almond biscotti are a bit too hard without an espresso at hand for dunking. Lashings of honey underneath cannot be ignored.

Nor can the primal, hyperborean essence of wood smoke be ignored as one leaves Parlour's twinkling lights behind and reluctantly retreats into the moonless winter night.

Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Monday, 9 December 2013

Eastern Promises

Unique restaurants and proximity to a city's core are variables that typically exist in a relationship directly proportional to one another. Travel towards the core and density of said eateries increases. Travel away and density decreases. Exceptions exist, of course. For example, one must travel quite far north to find East.

East, as it were, is a treasure of Chinese and Malaysian cuisine in Eaux Claire. The vast pictorial menu renders dining decisions difficult, though an aquarium near the entrance and Oriental fabrics on the wall impart serenity. Roti Canai, to start, resemble rumpled handkerchiefs and represent the very best of what bread may become when deep-fried. Crisp edges protect flaky interiors, all of which is turned spicy and savoury, thanks to a fiery, curry dipping sauce. The meal could end right then and there, and all would be well with the world.

Kai Lan Two Ways - kai lan being an Asian cruciferous veggie - is at once wok-fried, tender-crisp stalks, and deep-fried, nori-like leaves, all dusted with ginger. The dish is unexpectedly hearty, and easily holds its own against subsequent meat-centric dishes.

Sweet and Sour Pork Belly harkens to the endless sweet and sour, small town Chinese restaurant dishes of my childhood. Except, in this instance, the dish is genuinely enjoyable. The sauce is more sweet than sour and rectangles of pork belly are miniature, crispy explosions of porcine goodness.

Butter Shrimp bears absolutely no resemblance to butter chicken, other than the trivial fact that both titles contain the word "butter." No; butter shrimp is a tumble of exceptionally large prawns drizzled in a light honey-mustard sauce and covered with tangled hillock of deep-fried egg shreds. While the shrimp are delicious, the eggs steal the spotlight quite handily. They are at once crunchy and sweet, and practically vapourize upon consumption.

One may be tempted to dine according to proximity to downtown versus restaurant density relationship, but a jaunt to the far north will render Eastern promises more than fulfilled.

East on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Incertae Sedis at Chic-Hog-O's Social Roast House

Barbecue is bigger than The Beatles in Edmonton, a fact reiterated by the recent flurry of BBQ shack openings. We've come a long way, baby - far from the days when folks lined up, rain or shine, for barbecue purveyed from a camper behind the Superstore. (And this is by no means a sleight. We miss you Bubba. Your city needs you!) Hence, when signage appeared in Cafe Beirut's former home near the former Edmonton General, I naturally presumed (based on the name and the quasi-exponential growth of barbecue pits here) that Chic-Hog-O's Social Roast House would bear similar taxonomy.

Surprisingly, Chic-Hog-O's menu is not one of pulled pork and brisket. Rather, the carte is divided into appetizers, sandwiches and pasta; I am unsure of how the latter fits into the identity of "roast house," but no matter. Chic-Hog-O's L-shaped room is comfortably dressed in muted hues, but the top 40 radio station playing in the background is grating at best and does not jive with the evening vibe.

Supper commences with a small tureen of warm olives dressed lightly with citrus zest and toasted fennel seeds. They are black, green, and every shade in between. Lovely in their own right.

A Porchetta Sandwich is graciously crowned by perky lengths of roasted red pepper and sunny leaves of cilantro. Crumbles of cracklins are indulgent fun. The roasted pork itself, while flavourful and judiciously marbled, is somewhat dry. The bread - and, unfortunately this is a scenario that oft repeats itself in restaurants - needs improvement. It is standard fare that almost screams for a brush of herb-infused olive oil and a quick foray under the broiler...which is what I did with the leftovers the next day.

The Chic-Hog-O Burger blends together ground chicken and ground pork. The resultant patty is somewhere in between swine and fowl: very finely textured, almost imperceptibly sweet, pale in colouration, but as with the porchetta, a wee bit on the dry side. A crown of thickly-cut bacon and a melted mantle of cheddar are helpful. The tomatoes - alas - are underripe, and the bun is of the pedestrian sesame seed ilk.

Sweet, sweet redemption arrives in the guise of a maple-bacon ice cream sandwich. Pizelle replace the traditional biscuits and are a welcome twist on this archetypical comfort-food dessert. The ice cream is thick and heady with maple. Maple and bacon are the sweetest of synergies.

Chic-Hog-O's has scarcely hatched in the grand nest of restaurants, and natal fragments of shell are yet being cast aside. The association between name and menu contents remains yet fuzzy. Chic-Hog-O's will doubtless mature in the weeks to come, and perhaps shed the taxonomic placement of incertae sedis.

CHIC-HOG-O's on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 28 November 2013

Kenko - The Road Less Traveled

The Jasper Ave-124 St nexus continues to strengthen with every successive restaurant opening (and, believe me, there are many).  Indeed, upon these streets there is never a shortage of wonderful things to eat and drink. The darker twin to this sunshine child of all things culinaria is a morose shadow of exorbitantly high leases, ruthless competition and fickle audiences, the resulting admixture of which may send even the sturdiest of institutions floundering (see the recent closures of The Makk and Bistro Saisons). And so, daring entrepreneurs may opt for subdued digs, snugly set aside from hip crowds.

Kenko Japanese Cuisine is quite far from this hub; in fact, it's nearly impossible to find.  Even well-written directions culminate in fruitless trips 'round the block of a southside industrial complex. This is because Kenko shares digs with Korean eatery B-Bim-Bap. Kenko, in fact, sports no exterior signage. Kenko's space, though it is anachronistically clad in maroon velvet furnishings, purveys some seriously superior sushi. Spicy Tuna Tempura Roll, for example, is almost imperceptibly crusted in a fragile, crispy wrapper that carefully contains crunchy asparagus and meaty, chili-laced tuna.

TNT roll delivers a promised kick, with slices of velvety mango and intermittent pops of tobiko present to attenuate the roll's impressively spicy tempura shrimp. Attractive presentation is a bonus.

White House Roll's stately presentation includes a banana leaf on an elongated platter. Vivacious salmon, understated tuna, and milky scallops reveal themselves one by one within a watery-crisp white radish wrapper.

A final bonus: the chef appears with a gratis dish of oblong red snapper kissed with wasabi mayo, tiny rings of green onion, and salty tobiko roe. Here is further proof that forays off the well-trodden path are laced with unexpected rewards.

Kenko Japanese Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

November Rain at The Rock Wood Fired Pizza

The Rock Wood Fired Pizza recently appeared on a westward stretch of 137 Avenue, and purports to be a duality of pizza and spirits. This descriptor is reasonably accurate, although a recent visit proved to be not quite the "soft rock" of a cultivated pizzeria, nor the "hard rock" of a guts-and-glory tap house.

The Rock's interior is dimly lit and punctuated by coloured spotlights. A garage sale's worth of rock memorabilia - think guitar chandeliers and menus that evoke record sleeves - covers walls and tables. Music plays at a remarkably considerate volume; indeed, ambient conversation noise all but drowns out the strains of "Don't stop believing." For a house of spirits, beer offerings are slim. The Rock is apparently out of Alley Kat on this particular evening, and it takes no fewer than three wait staff to reach that conclusion. I settle on the Microbrew Sampler. Most of the seven brews taste similar to one another, though "Suicide Blonde" and "Rock Steady Red" were rather enjoyable.

Onto the pizza. The Rock's record sleeve menu is unnecessarily insists on including a redundancy of hamburgers, appetizers and sandwiches. All could be deleted without consequence. Pizzas are divided into "Red," "White" and "Specialty" pies. "Harvest Moon" falls into the latter category, and features tomato slices, proscuitto, basil, and capers. The tomato slices are unripe to the point of being white and crunchy in the centre, far beyond rescue from even the oven's heat. The proscuitto underneath is nearly undetectable. Basil and capers are fresh and zesty; were the tomatoes ripe, the entire dish would be far tastier.

"California Dreamin" replaces tomato sauce with cream sauce and, thus, is "white." The crust - it must be mentioned for both this pie and previous - is excellent. Thin, but not too thin, and perfectly tender without the horrendous black char-bubbles that plague other pizzas around town. Toppings, however, land squarely in the middle of the road. Sun-dried tomatoes are obscure and effectively silenced by pesto. In all estimation, a decent, if not especially memorable experience. Erstwhile slices made for a welcome midnight snack - nothing lasts forever, even cold November rain and leftover pizza.

The Rock Wood Fired Pizza and Spirits on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 10 November 2013

True Grits - Secret Supper at Creole Envie

Who doesn't love a juicy secret, especially where dining is concerned? I recently attended Edmonton's first Secret Supper, thanks to a generous invitation from organizer Gemma, and must confess that - as with all good secrets - it is a morsel of knowledge worth sharing. The gist of secret suppers, which are an open secret worldwide, is that the location is not revealed until right before the event. Creole Envie, as I discovered the morning of, hosted our inaugural hush-hush dinner.

The gentle aesthetic of Tasso Prawns cleverly hides an utterly, incendiary, all-consuming afterburn. Pickled okra helps tame the fire; this veg's characteristic sliminess is obliterated in favour of a green bean-like crunch.

Crab-stuffed Portabellas burst with cheese drippings and crustaceanesque juices. Overall aroma is a bit "wharfy" in the sense that in evokes a seaside pier in the best possible way. The gargantuan mushroom functions like a large bivalve in both texture and appearance.

Turtle Soup is neither teenaged nor mutant in composition and presentation. Tiny veal morsels intermingle with the "holy trinity" of Creole veggies - onions, celery, and peppers. Shreds of real turtle, which is supple and demure, float atop a brick red base. The entire gestalt is one of soul-warming strength. 'Tis ironic that so many cold-weather dishes trace their natal roots to hot climes.

Bay Scallops with Pancetta are the evening's runaway hit. Two plump pillows coexist with spicy, porcine shards and mercifully ripe, miniature tomatoes. Each nibble constitutes a gustatory explosion of spicy and sweet.

Next up are Grits with Crawfish. Ever-smooth white grits are flecked with reddish crawfish, the flavour of which falls somewhere between lobster and crab - more focused than the former, yet softer than the latter. A puddle of heavy cream ups the richness factor. The entire composition is reminiscent of other corn-based comfort foods; think Ukraine's nachinka or Italy's polenta.

Frog Legs with Piquant Sauce visually evoke a pair of skinned Barbie limbs, but texturally elicited comparisons to firm, white fish or loose muscle-fibered fowl. "It tastes like chicken" does justice to no one; frog is a mild-yet-assertive paradox all on its own. Chunky tomato piquant sauce complements without being overbearing.

Dessert, though there is scarcely room after so many courses, features peaches, pecans (how I wish they were pralined or candied) and cream with just a suggestion of bourbon. The secret is out.

Creole Envie on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Burger Quest Part 2: Jack's Burger Shack

Jack's Burger Shack lends much-needed burger punch to Edmonton's well-heeled northwestern neighbour, St. Albert. Although locating the spot is a bit challenging for those not well-acquainted with this mini-city's downtown, gustatory rewards await the necessary sleuthing and pavement-pounding.

An Orange Creamsicle Shake starts off the evening with a creamy, frothy glass of citrus-vanilla nostalgia. This icy brew tastes uncannily like the frozen childhood treats of long summers past, and a straw much wider than the one provided would be most welcome.

Fries are clearly sliced from whole spuds and bear the crisp, brown skins of their progenitors. A good dusting of salt treads a fine line between "just right" and "too much" salinity, and is offset by the provided cup of smooth, garlicky aioli.

The Cobb Burger promises an appealing roster of ingredients; the sum of the parts, however, does not equal the whole. Like its namesake salad, the Cobb wears a heavy coat of bleu cheese and bacon. The patty is charred to just this side of being burnt, but maintains a remarkably juicy interior. Tomato relish is pleasant, but resembles diced tomatoes, rather than true relish. Bleu cheese, which ought to be one of the highly-billed artists in this production, is somehow lost in the melee.

The BBQ Crunch Burger fares much better. Topping a hamburger with potato crisps is borderline sacrilege to some, but evokes a heady, savoury, "all dressed" suite of flavours that just belong together. Prerequisite cheese and bacon are anything but contrite. Only the bun seems mismatched; as with the Cobb Burger, the bun is far too large for the patty plus toppings and one is left with an ungainly crescent moon of bread at the end.

Jack's and Sky High, in summation, present a significant departure from fast food burgers in St. Albert and Sherwood Park, respectively. The "Cole's Notes" take-away points include:

- Better fries at Jack's. They are crisper and come with a pleasing alternative to ketchup.

- Better patty at Sky High. Juicy and irascibly beefy all the way through.

- Shakes are a toss-up. The flavours are more creative at Jack's.

Jack's Burger Shack on Urbanspoon


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