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Friday, 25 January 2013

Urban Diner and Another Biology Lesson

In wildlife biology, a "generalist" is an species noted for its ability to live in a wide range of habitat conditions and eat many different kinds of things (think raccoon and coyote). Conversely, a "specialist" is a species that is adapted to living in a very narrow range of habitat conditions and consuming only specific kinds of food (like woodland caribou or black-footed ferrets). While one isn't really better than the other, being a specialist can increase risk of extinction if conditions suddenly change. In those instances, being a generalist can be the difference between thriving and vanishing.

Parallels, naturally, exist in the world of restaurants. A specialist might serve a very narrow range of dishes or only be open for limited hours. This is dandy, presuming that the public palate does not drastically change. A generalist serves a wide range of food and might even serve the three main meals of the day.

The Urban Diner falls into the latter category; breakfast, lunch, and supper items grace its menu and items on said menu cannot be placed into one specific culinary category. I've tried their brunch and quite like it, and have wondered how their supper menu measures up. We try a Salmon Burger with a side of broccoli-cheddar soup. The salmon patty is moist and lovely, but its crown of mango salsa is extremely unwieldy. The mango chunks ought to be much smaller to keep from falling off the burger with every bite. A greater hit of cilantro would be welcome. The soup is besmirched by heavy-handed thyme that draws attention away from the broccoli.

A Pulled-Pork sandwich on a soft onion roll is complemented by a melted slice of cheddar. Its barbecue sauce is tangy on its own, but some sweetness from caramelized onions or maple-grilled apples would be welcome. A house salad is brimming with peppers and tomatoes.

With reference to my earlier lecture, being a generalist (in the culinary sense) means that one can appeal to a wide range of palates and preferences, but an obvious downside is that the sum of the parts does not always equal the whole. I enjoyed components of both dishes, but supper did not quite clear the bar set by breakfast.

Urban Diner (Downtown) on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 24 January 2013

Complaining is fun, but....

It is fun to complain about food. However, it is the responsibility of a food writer, to quote my hero James Chatto, to provide constructive criticism rather than just rake something across the coals when it contradicts one's innately subjective palate. I recently penned a list of things that I wished would vanish with the dying breaths of 2012. In the interest of being constructive, I have also composed a brief roster of things that I wish would flourish.

- A nose-to-tail dinner. Though Edmonton's dining landscape has evolved considerably over the past three years, our meat-and-potatoes roots still hold. We need to shake that off and an adventurous chef must answer this Bat-Signal in the sky and make it happen.

- Honest-to-goodness wood-fired pizza. Famoso does a decent job with its thin-crust pizza, but their rotating gas-fired oven can be rather inconsistent. The Italian Centre started making thin-crust pizza and uses an electric oven. I've heard that Da Capo is installing one and my fingers are crossed that it will not be a wood-gas hybrid. Bring on the wood!

- BBQ beef brisket. That much of the world's perception of Alberta is that of cowboys and cattle herds is no coincidence. We have some pretty damn fine cowflesh here. Enough with the pulled pork already and let's see some BBQ beef brisket.

- An over-the-top French restaurant. Edmonton cries out for a no-holds-barred gastronomic experience like one might find in Paris. Normand's and now-closed Bistro La Persaud dabble in the French culinary tradition, but someone needs to revive French fine dining in this city and run with it.

- Danish hotdogs. These things are everywhere in Denmark and no North American dog can touch them in terms of flavour and fun-factor. They are part of my quasi-national identity. Get thee to Edmonton.

- Food trucks. We need more of them. End of story.

Monday, 21 January 2013

Massimo's - The Southside Rises Again

Though I've long bemoaned the relative paucity of good, independent restaurants outside the Jasper Ave-124 St nexus, this long-standing pattern is being challenged by upstart iconoclasts (think Nineteen and Sloppy Hoggs, for example). Massimo's is a young upstart just steps from the south-side Italian Centre Shop, and is poised to become a well-crafted addition to the city's culinary landscape.

Marlow Moo and I admire the reductionist room, replete with bare incandescent walls and a weathered brick wall. We are greeted by a basket of warm flatbread from which tendrils of rosemary and sprinkles of sea salt sing.

An appetizer of refreshingly unsalty Parma ham shares quarters with milky rounds of bocconcini, earthy arugula, and more flatbread. When eaten together, these ingredients make beautiful gustatory music that swings from sweet to savoury and back again.

Gnocchi with prawns and basil pesto eschews a traditional green pesto for a redder, spicier one that provides unexpected (and most welcome) heat after every bite. Prawns and gnocchi, on their own, tend to be quite mild, and their sensational sauce gives the entire dish a drop-kick of meraviglioso.

Risotto of the day aims high but misses its target. Tiny florets of broccoli and drizzles of olive oil add a touch of greenery, but the rice needs a few more minutes in the pan. Risotto should be creamy, but this dish feels like a party of somewhat crunchy rice went for a swim in vaguely watery surroundings.

Dessert marks a return to the previous courses' high standards. House-made tiramisu is a boozy and rich tower crowned with a sprinkle of crushed amaretti cookies. Bravo, Massimo's. It is my hope that Massimo's becomes one of the city's go-to places for fine Italian dining. The food more than warrants it.

Read Moo's take on the evening here.

Massimo's Cucina Italiana on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Land of the Midnight Sun

There are strange things done in the midnight sun....

This is the opening line to perhaps one of Canada's most recognizable poems, "The Cremation of Sam McGee," by Robert Service. Of course, the "midnight sun" is a reference to the nearly 24 hour daylight achieved north of the Arctic Circle during the summer when the northern hemisphere is tilted towards the sun. As such, it's a bit of an eyebrow-raiser that a small Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant on 124 Street bears the same name.

Nonetheless, there is nothing strange about Midnight Sun's food. Expect a multi-page menu replete with Chinese stir-fries and Vietnamese noodle bowls and rice dishes. A bracing bowl of wonton soup is chock full of dumplings, veggies, and slices of BBQ pork. The broth isn't too salty and ringlets of green onion add zip.

Seafood Mixed Vegetables is a generous serving of scallops, shrimp, squid, and tender-crisp veg. One often sees large chunks of onion used as a filler in similar dishes; no such shenanigans exist here. The seafood:vegetable ratio is bang-on at about 1:2, so one need not search through heaps of greenery in search of protein.

A Chicken Vermicelli Bowl comes with a nicely bisected springroll that leaves nary a trace of grease on its surroundings. The gently spicy fowl is contrasted by cool cucumber, tender sprouts and toothsome noodles. The chicken's interstitial sauce complements but does not overwhelm its counterparts. Though I still have yet to make the connection between this little gem of a restaurant's cuisine and the midnight sun itself, there are no "strange things done" here. Only delicious things.

PS. "Midnight Sun" is also a beautiful torch song. Ella Fitzgerald's rendition is especially poignant. You should look it up and have a listen.

Midnight Sun on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Blossoms Cafe - A New Era

It would seem that the Whyte Ave Era has passed. So many small spots - food and otherwise - have been chased out by high rents and have been replaced by franchises. It's a pity. It wasn't that long ago that the Avenue of Whyte was the city's go-to spot to be cool. But, all empires must end and history dictates that each must be replaced by a new one. I propose that 124 Street has handily assumed the reigns of Edmonton's empire of coolness.

Blossoms Cafe is a relatively recent addition to 124 Street, and melds the concepts of breakfast-lunch cafe and fresh fruit arrangements studio. This bright and open space would benefit from a soundtrack other than a top-40 radio station (which is a huge pet peeve of mine), but is home to unbelievably personable staff. Blossoms' menu features a host of breakfast items, plus soup and sandwiches for the lunch crowd. I enjoy a remarkable waffle that properly addresses the crispy-fluffy quotient that all good waffles are meant to have. A colourful crown of fresh fruit is, quite literally, the icing on the cake.

A ham and cheddar omelet is a bit disappointing. The entire thing is chewy and not at all a representation of the airy entity an omelet should be.

Nonetheless, I'm fond of Blossoms' cheerful space and am especially impressed with their fruit arrangements - the sort that are cut to look like flowers. It would seem that every time one moseys down 124 Street a new installment of "cool" has appeared. While Blossoms has room to grow in terms of some of their breakfast items, it is yet another welcome addition of Edmonton's new empire of coolness and culture.

Blossoms Cafe on Urbanspoon


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