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Thursday, 28 March 2013

Can't Get No Satisfaction at Packrat Louie

A menu rife to the gills with buzzwords like gastrique, demi-glace, truffle puree and sauce verte, can be a tall order to fill. No paucity of such descriptors exists on the menu of Packrat Louie, a Whyte Avenue staple, but an evening out at Louie's suggested that these words can get lost in the translation between word and plate.

Supper at Packrat Louie begins with a gratis basket of white bread accompanied by a swirl of herbed butter that tastes suspiciously like it has been blended with Boursin cheese. Not that there is anything inherently wrong with this, but given that creating herb butters from scratch is far from rocket science, I would encourage the kitchen to do just that.

Scallop and Crab Cakes taste more like crab than scallop and share the plate with an agreeable melange of corn, red peppers and greens. They are moist and unobtrusive, but would benefit from a hit of citrus or wasabi.

Cornflake-crusted Halibut falls flat. The crust tastes primarily of the deep-fryer and the fish underneath is lamentably dry. A warm spinach salad with grilled mushrooms and smoked cheddar sounds better on paper. Although the mushrooms are meaty explosions of flavour, the smoked cheddar is limited to a few sprinkles of grated cheese. Tiny cubes or crumbles would have added a better interplay of textures, instead of just melting onto the spinach leaves, and elevated this salad from average to excellent.

Seared Hokkaido Scallops and Caramelized Prawns cry out for moisture and seem to be lacking the inherent sweetness that these shellfish should possess. A nest of inoffensive spaghetti squash tops a small mound of similarly forgettable risotto. A clumsily hewn collection of superfluous veggies seems to serve no purpose other than to occupy extra space on the plate.

Dessert, though its presentation is clever in the form of a stamp on the table's paper covering, follows the path set by the main course. A Chocolate Trio presents a warm brownie, chocolate ice cream in an oreo crumb cup, and a scoop of chocolate mousse. The mousse is quite lovely - pity there wasn't a few spoonfuls more. The brownie, though it is served piping hot, sports a remarkably muted chocolate essence despite its dark hue, and possesses a peculiar, dry texture that is neither fudgy nor cakey. The chocolate ice cream is grainy, but the oreo cup is retro fun.

Packrat Louie failed to deliver on many levels. Theoretically impressive big words do not automatically translate into their culinary equivalents. Less jargon and more substance, please.

Packrat Louie Kitchen & Bar‎ on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Dine & Write featured in Vue Weekly

Did you ever wonder what goes on behind a blog's electronic facade? For the curious, I direct you to a recent story in Vue Weekly. Dine & Write, along with The Tiffin Box and Only Here For The Food, was featured in an exploratory look at the writers behind the blogs and the role of food blogs in the grander culinary landscape.

Click here to read the entire story.

Thanks to Meaghan Baxter for an excellent read.

Friday, 22 March 2013

Red Dawn - Pizzeria Rosso

Reinvention does not guarantee success; people grow accustomed to their usual haunts and, hence, such leaps are inherently risky. Da Capo Lifestyle Caffe boldy announced an impending reinvention several months ago and the city watched in subtle anticipation as brown paper covered the cafe's windows and a typed note on the door hinted of an incipient wood-fired pizza oven. Beneath this brown paper cocoon, Pizzeria Rosso emerged like a nascent butterfly, wings slowly unfurling to catch the city's culinary breeze.

Pizzeria Rosso is Da Capo both reinvented and significantly evolved. Warm-hued wooden tables and a wall display of split kindling are decorative nods to the kitchen's chief fuel source. Understated lighting and an open kitchen complete this space. Those who frequented Da Capo will recall the large, U-shaped counter that dominates the middle of the dining room. Unfortunately, this counter still exists, and does little except to bisect the room in a manner most awkward. It also blocks the view of the open kitchen - if only the latter were permitted to star more centrally in this show. Rosso's double-sided menu features antipasti, insalati, panini, and pizza. The descriptions are tantalizing.

Trittico di Bruschetta features three crusty sections of baguette. One is adorned with house-made ricotta. Another sports a tumble of cherry tomatoes and sprigs of fragrant basil. The third proudly bears a crown of marinated red peppers. The ricotta's gentle milkiness is contradicted by a lumpy texture, but the tomatoes and red peppers bask in tangy-sweet glory.

Funghi Misti, a "white" pizza that has no need for tomato sauce, features a toothsome assortment of mushrooms that rest on a tender bed of fior di latte and tallegio cheese. A whisper of truffle oil and a few sprigs of parsley impart additional notes of earth and greens. Apart from uneven distribution of mushrooms across this orb, this constitutes a finely-crafted pizza.

Da Capo took a risk by retooling both its name and concept. The menu is strong, but the dining atmosphere would be strengthened by putting greater emphasis on the pizza oven and far less on the front counter. Judging by the impact of the pizza alone, though, Pizzeria Rosso portends a new dawn for pizza in this city.

Pizzeria Rosso on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Magical History Tour - Japonais Bistro

The term "bistro," according to culinary urban legend, derives from the Russian adverb "быстро." This word directly translates as "quickly," and though the two share a similar pronunciation, historians believe that the similarities end there. French gourmands and gourmets likely did not poach the phrase from Russian soldiers during the Russian occupation of Paris. Nonetheless, a quick glance at any city's restaurant directory will reveal innumerable establishments billed as "bistros." This term is applied rather loosely, and nearly any style of restaurant can sport this descriptor.

Japonais Bistro, case in point, recently opened on Jasper Avenue, and its very title hints at this word's Gallic bloodlines. Though the building's front is unassuming, the Bistro's dining room begins with boisterously shouted greetings that meld into dark, suave dining fixtures, a Herbie Hancock soundtrack, a black and white Japanese film projected on a large screen, and tiny painted plants that seem to peek from between crevices in the hardwood floor. Bistro's menu covers an inventive range of sushi and sashimi, and supper commences with Honey Plum Tuna. Crackling bits of tempura encrust each petal of rosy, savoury tuna. A heady drizzle of purple plum and darkly-nuanced honey is an unexpected but astute companion.

The aptly-named Godzilla roll possesses a monstrous pair of deep-fried crab claws that protrude from a rice-nori spiral stuffed with scallops, crab, avocado, and sprinkle with tobiko and sesame seeds. Many flavours compete for attention here, with crab the clear victor.

Mango Tango roll is summer on a plate. Crisp cucumber and tangy-sweet mango graciously envelop mild, plump shrimp. An auburn soy drizzle is cross-hatched across each morsel and provides a rich counterpoint to the fruits' airy sweetness.

Dessert features Matcha Green Tea Creme Brulee. A dollop of whipped cream and a few halved berries are superfluous; the creme brulee is amply textured and infused with smoky, earthy green tea all on its own.

Indeed, the term "bistro" possesses an amusingly inventive history, the etymological history of which may - or may not - be true. That this phrase appears so frequently in the nomenclature of restaurants implores the name-bearer to use it wisely. Japonais Bistro easily succeeds.

And I could not stop admiring the elfin flowers in the floorboards.

Japonais Bistro on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

North by Northwest - Bannock Burger

When I was a teenager, I dreamt of living in a forest up north with a pack of sled dogs. It wasn't a very practical dream - and what dreams are indeed practical - and I hadn't thought of how on earth that fantasy would, or could, be translated into reality. I simultaneously nourished and quelled my northern dreams by attending sled dog races every winter, my favourite of which was in the tiniest of hamlets outside Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. The village of Crutwell. Every January, dozens of mushers and their canine compatriots would descent on this community and the frigid air would be filled with the finest of madness: deliriously excited huskies that would fall silent as soon as they broke into a gallop.

Sled dogs don't bark when they run. If you've ever watched "Iron Will" or "Snow Dogs," the barking heard during sled runs was dubbed in post-production.  Just so you know. After the teams took off down the trail, I'd head for Crutwell community hall to warm up and indulge in a bannock burger. Each bite was a juicy, homemade beef patty cradled in a tender, just-baked bannock bun. Those burgers were the stuff of dreams.

It's been well over 15 years since I had a bannock burger, and when I caught wind that Bannock Burger just opened, I made a run for northwest Edmonton. This burger spot is hidden inside a soccer club, so come expecting to sit among innumerable soccer parents watching their progeny kick a ball around on the other side of a glass wall. They do not have a debit machine, nor is there an ATM on site, so cash is a must. The kitchen staff is cheerful and clearly reveling in their new venture. We order two bannock burgers: one with cheese and mushrooms, and one with cheese and bacon. Unfortunately, our food takes 40 minutes to arrive. I'm trying to eavesdrop on kitchen conversation, and gather that they've run out of bannock completely. There are always kinks in the system after an opening. All is forgiven when our burgers finally, mercifully, arrive. The bannock - and this kind is deep-fried as opposed to baked - is fluffy and cloud-like. The patties themselves are very juicy, the cheese is gooey, and the mushrooms and bacon are properly sauteed. I close my eyes and imagine myself back in Crutwell community hall, fingers and nose still cold after a stint in the January cold, still giddy from the sled dog-induced adrenalin. I no longer dream of living in the bush, but I'll head to Bannock Burger when my stomach growls for northern comfort food once more.

Bannock Burger on Urbanspoon

Monday, 11 March 2013

Canteen - Nature versus Nurture

To what, or to whom, do we owe our personalities?

Two long-standing, but not necessarily mutually exclusive, schools of thought explore this quandary. Are personalities merely a quirk of genetics, a by-product of the millions of codons that translate microscopic particles into sentient flesh? Or, are personalities carte blanche when born, and subsequently molded by their surroundings, namely, their parental figures. And hence, the paradigms of nature versus nurture, respectively. No doubt, personalities are a product of both.

Canteen appeared on 124 Street late last year and presents a unique, hip-mod addition to this unapologetically trendy strip. Canteen is also the younger sister of The Red Ox Inn. Comparisons are inevitably drawn between the two, but does the personality of Canteen present itself as a product of its genetic heritage or as the fresh-faced progeny of its creators? A meander through Canteen's menu commences with unabashedly unctuous Chicken Rillettes. Rich hits of this splendid fowl find company with crunchy toasts, dark and salty olive tapenade, and nattily dressed greens. Many assertive entities exist here but coexist quite happily.

Chickpea Fries with Romesco arrive in a quirky box replete with a miniature paper cone to retain the crispy-mealy, spicy-savoury frites. The rufous romesco sings with peppers and garlic and the exotic, hypothetical birthright of these fries draws from both France and the Middle East.

Ancho-dusted Shrimp seem a bit lost on such a large plate and, though the shrimp are plump and sweet, the fervently smoky ancho somewhat squelches these nuances.

Hush-puppies with Smoky Maple Syrup are the evening's dark horse, though its wooden vessel had more impact when it appeared with the fries. Each bite somehow captures an evening's campfire near a quite lake. Loons are probably yodelling softly to each other across the water.

Saskatoon Berry Bread Pudding is dense, moist and very sweet, but would benefit from substantially more tart berries to offset the surrounding sauce. Canteen's personality is no doubt in its emergent stages, but neatly ascribes to both the "nature" and "nurture" paradigms. Canteen draws upon enviable genes, i.e., The Red Ox, but takes a swift and fresh cue from its geographical locale.

Canteen on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

The Common - Don't Fence Me In

The human species has an irascible need to categorize all things, culinary or otherwise. I could categorize The Common as a gastropub. Or gastrolounge. Or restaurant, or pub, or shiny quasi-Victorian parlour-meets-ironic-hipster-glasses. Does it belong here? Does it belong there? And there's the rub.

Though our designation of entities to categories indubitably helps our species make sense of the world, does this practice ultimately aid in our ability to appreciate and understand? With The Common, it serves no purpose to try and put this unique juxtaposition of "historical" and "cool" in an anthropogenic box. 'Tis better to just visit unfettered by expectation. The Common's space is a mix of elegant grandeur, clean lines, incisive lighting and a boppin' soundtrack. Tables are packed and crowds do not thin as the evening wears on. Quite the opposite, actually. We start with a Crown Float. This libation tops half a glass of sweet cider with a rich umber stratum of Guinness. This cleverly two-toned creation ever so slowly gradates from bitter to sweet.

A cartoon-bright plate of Arctic Char Tartare balances an ocean-fresh mound of seductively tender char with shrimp chips so kawaii that they seem to have tumbled out of an episode of Sailor Moon. The chips' unusual texture is not unlike an edible styrofoam packing pellet, but they comprise an unlikely but addictive vessel for their piscine cargo. A drizzle of wasabi mayo and a tumble of pear salad adds balance.

The Common's interpretation of poutine features crisp and piping-hot shoestring fries generously blanketed with Korean braised pork, squeaky curds, and caramelized onions. The fries retain a commendable level of crispiness, even when their accoutrements have long since vanished. The pork, though it does not taste particularly Korean, is marvelously juicy and illustrates the inherent sweetness that this protein ought to have in any of its many modes of preparation. The cheese curds and caramelized onions are patchily distributed across their landscape of starch and protein , and we pine for more once they've entered the realm of memory. The Common's kitchen is clearly well-versed in the language of all things edible, and the eclectic menu finds a consummate fit in its suave yet venerable lodgings. Need we fence The Common into a category? Absolutely not.

The Common on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Sandwiches with a side of Skyline

It is indeed great fun to visit a restaurant and absorb its multifarious feast for the senses. It is equally refreshing to take a food item "to go" and consume it later in one's choice of venue. The Italian Bakery - one of Edmonton's original family-owned bakeries, I might add - has a location in Abbotsfield that is but a short drive (or brisk walk) from one of the city's most spectacular (and often overlooked) vistas.

The Bakery itself has a small grocery store replete with dried pasta, a well-stocked deli, and many family portraits on the walls. Take a number and order their traditional Italian sandwich. This behemoth is stuffed with provolone and an admirable assortment of cold cuts. One can eat it near the front windows, at any number of small tables, and watch the bakery's goings-on, but it's even nicer to wander down to the riverbank.

There is a particular bend in the road that permits an almost-bird's eye view of the city skyline. It seems, almost, like a far away land. An exploratory nibble of the sandwich reveals layers of cured meats - proscuitto, capocollo, and salami - that joyfully rest under a blanket of creamy cheese. Flakes of fresh bread scatter with each subsequent bite. I only wish that a smear of olive oil, preferably infused with basil, were present to impart additional moisture to this creation. A bottle of Orangina nicely washes things down instead. The humbling view of trees, snow, the river, and Edmonton's edifices, all bathed in late winter's light, is the perfect dining companion.

Italian Bakery on Urbanspoon


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