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Sunday, 26 May 2013

Belgravia Hub - The Goldilocks Zone

Seventy-sixth avenue, with the recent arrivals of Enzo's on 76 and Belgravia Hub, is indeed a lucky stretch of roadway. Two top-notch - but very different - eateries are within a few blocks of one another. Enzo's opened several weeks ago, and already produces some of the finest Italian fare in the city. Belgravia Hub has been open for little more than a week and already operates like a finely-calibrated, sinuous machine.

A blues-tinged soundtrack (that will later segue into John Lennon and The Doors) lolls about in a room dressed in metal and wood. A one page menu features "Beginnings," "Get Fresh," and "Fill Up." Translation: starters, salads, and mains. For starters, flatbread with goat cheese and veggies is graced with tangy pesto and crowned with little clouds of cheese, roasted morsels of peppers and mushrooms, and gently topped with a small handful of fresh greens.

Shrimp Bruschetta pops with the eponymous pink crustaceans, counterbalanced by coins of spicy sausage. Sweet corn and sunny tomatoes complete this creation, though a few more slices of bread would be welcome.

Shortrib Sliders, though the buns are a bit lost in the mix, present unctuously juicy nests of shredded beef atop a mild fennel slaw. A quick dab of mayo caresses both meat and veg.

Mushroom Risotto shines. Nutty rice that plays with abundant mushrooms falls perfectly within the "Goldilocks Zone" - neither too dry nor too creamy. Zig-zags of balsamic drizzle impart hits of zip and zing that accentuate, rather than overpower, their fungous companions.

Voluptuous Beef Shortrib is tender and marbled in all the right places. A jumble of carrots and brussels sprouts harkens to Sunday dinners of yore. Potato-leek mash is pan-fried to give addition texture and depth of flavour, the latter of which starts with buttery notes of potato and finishes with subtle whispers of leek.

Cornmeal Berry Cake is neither too porous nor too dense. A squiggle of coulis and a puff of whipped cream encourage alternating hits of berry and dairy. Though cornmeal, in the wrong hands, can easily be robbed of moisture, this cake is gorgeously moist.

Jasper Ave and 124 St may have the highest rate of good restaurants per block, but at this rate, 76 Ave will be a serious contender for the crown. This Ave will be the Goldilocks Zone of dining - neither too many nor too few - and it's just right.

Belgravia Hub on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Tony's Pizza Palace - Repeat After Me

Writing about a long-established restaurant poses a special set of challenges. How can one provide a fresh perspective, rather than a retread of so many previous assessments? Tony's Pizza Palace has purveyed pizza to the Edmontonian masses since at least 1965 (though the menu below states, "EST 1986") and, as such, has no paucity of coverage in print or electronic guises.

And yet, I have managed to avoid reading any of these reviews. This is not for a concerted effort on my part, but due to the reality of a long-established restaurant blending seamlessly into the city's social fabric. Tony's is not popping up on the latest blog, nor does it appear in the paper or on the radio. Hoards of writers/foodies/etc do not generally float from one long-standing eatery to another but, rather, track the openings of new and chic spots, much like migrating ungulates follow patterns of plant green-up in search of forage.

Tony's interior harkens to the early to mid-1980s, though signs purport temporary closure in June for renovations. A laminated menu covers a few pastas, but centers on pizza. Several incarnations, including the square Sicilian pizza, require 24 hour notice for preparation. Pizza Bianca piques my interest, and I am rewarded with a garlicky symphony of roasted mushrooms draped with mozza, romano and parmigiana. A graceful crust bears these toppings with pride.

Sal's Deluxe provides a luxurious bed of marinated tomatoes layered with capocollo, proscuitto and very milky bocconcini. A generous sprinkle of parsley adds fresh, herbaceous notes. Astute spices within the tomatoes impart a wee bit of most-welcome afterburn, but the subtle bocconcini is lost in competition with its far more assertive comrades.

So, what indeed can be said about Tony's that has not already been said? I am not born-and-raised Edmontonian and, therefore, haven't decades of samples from which to draw conclusions. Regardless, if these pizzas are indicative of a "Tony's" experience, they suggest a rich history of well-made pies. Perhaps there isn't anything new to say, because good things bear repeating.

Tony's Pizza Palace on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 19 May 2013

Pure Kitchen - The Sandwich Generation

It seems there is little left to say about sandwiches. They have been extolled ad infinitum, and even ad nauseum. How, then, would one develop a sandwich-based menu that isn't (a) so far off the beaten track that garnering fans is a challenge, or (b) so narrowly centered on the beaten track that it is merely a retread of so many previous menus? This quandary vexes the "sandwich generation" of both the social sciences and all things culinaria. One must strike a balance between caring for aging parents and dependent offspring, analogues of the aforementioned traditional-iconoclastic sandwich dichotomy.

Pure Kitchen, a newcomer to 124 Street and sibling of nearby The Makk on 124, sets this conundrum to rest. A breakfast/lunch menu features a host of sly sammies that are just edgy enough to outwit other assemblages of bread, meat and veg. But first - salad. The Pure Salad gently tosses together mixed leafy greens, carrot shreds, zippy red onion and lusciously ripe tomatoes. Scatters of sunflower seeds and chalk-white clouds of feta play with a sunny vinaigrette.

A Turkey Club presents as a tender-crisp torpedo roll jam-packed with mild smoked turkey, tenderly wilted greens, sweet and oozy provolone, salty-smoky bacon, soft-spoken maple mayo, and liberal lashings of guacamole. Though maple and avocado would traditionally be written off as strange bedfellows, this non-intuitive pairing launches this torpedo into uncharted and fascinating waters.

Mac and Cheese Panini is precisely what one's mother would advise against: decadent cheese sauce that literally sighs with gratitude as it encompasses each curly cavatappi, vividly scarlet tomato slices and yet more bacon, all cloaked with a mantle of molted sharp cheddar. This opulent concoction shames many versions of mac and cheese and isn't lost within the crunchy confines of bread.

Pure Kitchen's dessert cooler would see any doomsday survivalist through the most dreadful of Malthusian societal breakdowns. Chocolate layer cake is rather dry but rescued by generous chocolate frosting. A swirled and flaky pastry creation (that has no official name) is chock-full of peanut butter and raisins. This sublime collaboration of smooth and flake is nicely washed down with a frothy cappuccino.

One needn't reinvent the wheel to make a good sandwich - or most other dishes, for that matter - but striking a balance between the austere and the obscure presents a challenge to even the most experienced of restauranteurs. Bravo, Pure Kitchen. We're talking 'about this generation.

Pure Kitchen on Urbanspoon

Monday, 13 May 2013

Enzo's on 76 - A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood

Every neighbourhood should have a little restaurant. The regular spot where one orders "the usual." Those that live downtown, near Whyte Ave, or close to 124 Street have no shortage of "usuals" from which to choose, but Edmontonians who reside in purely residential areas typically get the short end of the stick. Exceptions exist, of course, but this pattern is the rule, rather than the exception.

Enter Enzo's on 76. This brand new Italian spot just opened - quite literally. Today was Enzo's first official day in business, though a soft open preceded this evening by a few days. Enzo's graces the former digs of Tra Amici, which slowly faded off Edmonton's food radar a few years ago. No one seems to quite know what happened to them either. The interior has been dextrously reinvented with tilework, warm lighting, and comfy wooden tables. Chef Enzo has an astute eye for photography; what were presumed to be commercial prints are actually photographs from his Italian travels.

Supper selections are divided into Antipasti, Zuppa, Pasta, and Secondi, with five or six selections under each heading. Insalata Mista starts off the evening with a nattily dressed collection of greens and veg. The balsamic dressing is perkier than most, though the tomatoes are a wee bit underripe. 'Tis a comment lament in this city, it seems.

Zuppa Del Giorno, on this particular day, is mushroom. A floating crostino island crowns this bracing bowl of finely textured liquid. Microscopic, glistening spheres of olive oil orbit the crostino like stars in a solar system. Competition for the crusty crostino edges is fierce.

Pasta Bolognese (and one is given the choice of long or short pasta) revels in its beautiful simplicity. A hearty and toothsome tomato sauce bursts with rich and sweet beef ravishes each tendril of pasta and would be equally at home on a frigid Canadian night or a torrid evening in Puglia.

Pasta Pescatore is a sailor's ransom of crab legs, prawns, scallops, clams and mussels. An airy, salty-sweet broth pools at the bottom of the platter and sings a siren song for errant slices of bread to find comfort in its sultry depths. The mussels are strong, the scallops are mild, the crab legs are pre-cracked, and a few sprinkles of red chilies evoke a seaside feast.

Tiramisu, as with the Bolognese, follows the recipe of Enzo's mother. This cloud in a dish whispers of mascarpone with casual interjections of espresso. Gem-like strawberries add a vibrant counterpoint.

Enzo's on 76 has the potential to become "the usual spot" for many southside neighbourhoods, and is well worth the journey for those who reside further away. Downtown may be happening, 124 may be chic, and Whyte may be funky, but any neighbourhood would be lucky to have a restaurant like Enzo's.

Enzo's on 76 on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Amato Gelato - Love, Italian Style

Gelato is the Sophia Loren of desserts: beguiling, delicious and positively swoon-worthy. One needn't look far in Edmonton to flirt with this most divine of edible Italian creations, but an especially noteworthy gelato repository is squirreled away in the far reaches of Lewis Estates.

Indeed, Amato Gelato, the first Edmonton location of a Vancouver-based chain houses a Jetson-esque cooler that is so aerodynamic one can practically envision air currents curving lithely around it. Several dozen varieties of gelato and sorbetto wink and beckon; decisions prove to be difficult, though owner Barb graciously ascribes to the "try before you buy" philosophy.

Two whopping scoops of Cafe Caramel Macchiato and Caramel Lava Cake are sinfully creamy. The former is a sublime, golden snowball that whispers of a well-pulled espresso macchiato savoured on an outdoor patio near a piazza, while whispers of caramel linger like auburn fingers of light that lazily drift through half-open blinds. Caramal Lava Cake is a vanilla matrix studded with fudgy cake bits and addition hits of caramel. Far less nuanced than its predecessor, Lava Cake nonetheless satisfies with giddy flashbacks to spoonfuls of cake batter purloined during childhood. Additional samples of Rum Raisin and Chocolate Grand Marnier prove that boozy gelato is happy gelato, though this effect was more challenging to detect with the Grand Marnier.

Amato Gelato also serves espresso-based beverages and panini, though my hunch is that these items are second fiddle to the scene-stealing gelato. And for good reason - few can steal the spotlight from Sophia Loren.

Amato Gelato on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 9 May 2013

The Lifford Grand Tasting - Someone, Somewhere in Summertime

Summer is yet theoretical. We are teased with short days of heat and light that quickly turn to reveal sinister siblings of skin-flaying winds, prickly morning cold, and tiny, ominously beautiful snowflakes. The ol' Alberta bait and switch, if ever there was one.

The Lifford Grand Tasting on May 7th, hosted by Lifford Wine & Spirits (and spearheaded by the ever-lovely and vastly knowledgeable Meghan Darker) was a breath of summer under the Art Gallery of Alberta's skylights. A rogue's gallery of wine-producing nations - think Australia, Chile, France, Italy, New Zealand and the USA - was comprised of 25 producers of innumerable varieties and vibrant personalities. Though space constraints preclude an exhaustive review of each vintage present, here are a few picks to enjoy this summer. If it ever arrives.

What to Drink this Summer

Mitchell Wines (AUS) - Shingleback Shiraz - Slaps you awake and sends you traveling on a fried-out Kombi, on a hippie trail, head full of zombie. Boldly tells the imbiber of arid landscapes and a merciless sun, and slams the door on its way out, leaving one begging for another sip.

Charles Smith (USA) - Boom Boom Syrah - (pictured) Clever labels are one thing. When the liquid inside trumps the outer artwork, all the better. This born-in-the-USA syrah hinted of a dark wood-paneled boardroom with bright sunny notes peeking around plush velvet curtains.

Nicolas Feuillatte (FRA) - Brut NV - Champagne is too often reserved for special occasions. Pity; this one crinkles and sparkles with the approachability of freshly baked bread, just cooling on the counter and waiting to be discovered.

Boutinot (FRA) - Chat-en-Oeuf Rouge - (pictured) This round and comfortable blend is as mellow and languid as a rotund tabbycat resting in a sunbeam. Kitty has claws, though, just to remind you not to get too comfortable. In other words, this blend of grenache and syrah is comfy enough to enjoy by itself, but possesses enough bite to be paired with food.

Rocca Delle Macie (ITA) - Chianti Classico - The quintessential Italian red need not be contrite. No, this version is the illicit lovechild of a cherry and a dark red apple, and seduces with whispers of a hot Italian summer night. This one is everything that the melted-candle-in-a-chianti-bottle is not. Self-assured and never muddy. Can even be served with liver and fava beans.

Summer will arrive at some point. When it does, I shall raise a glass and nod knowingly, one eyebrow slightly raised, to this most elusive of seasons.

Head down to Lifford Wine & Spirits (2304 Ellwood Drive, Unit D417) to nab any of these for yourself.

Friday, 3 May 2013

Cafe Mosaics - Mind Your Peas and Cukes

I suspect that Cafe Mosaics captures shreds of what Whyte Avenue used to be, prior to the domino effect of locally-owned businesses giving way to franchises on this popular thoroughfare. Indeed, Cafe Mosaics is a compact time capsule of bohemian laissez-faire washed with bright, primary colours and accented with inventive artwork. An herbivorous crowd packs Mosaics' chairs at lunch hour, where one may casually flip through a botanically-focused menu cleverly printed on brown paper lunch bags. A waving mascot may be found on numerous pages, but it is difficult to tell whether he's a hedgehog, an owl, or something in between.

The restaurant's namesake, Mosaic Salad, is a vibrant jumble of berries, fruits, and greens, with a few slices of herbed toast for good measure. Positively proteinaceous wedges of portabello mushrooms may been reincarnated tenderloin; they are that meaty. Pity there weren't more of them. At least doubling the biomass of fungi would have staved off afternoon munchies.

House Salad presents a different assortment of vegetation: lettuce, tomatoes (which, sadly, drifted towards the "crunchy" end of the tomato spectrum), and toothsome seeds. A light raspberry dressing hints of late summer afternoons where the shadows are long and the air is heavy with the heady breaths of flowers.

Cafe Mosaics manages not to slip into a vegetative state, even though such tragic fates have befallen many of this institution's conspecifics. This time capsule of Whyte's funkytown past survives because of solid kitchen chops and a dedicated roster of patrons. Just a word of caution, though; salads are lovely, but here I would not endorse them as a stand-alone meal. I kicked myself for passing up the desserts of temptation that winked and beckoned from behind the glass.

Cafe Mosaics on Urbanspoon


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