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Saturday, 29 June 2013

Dishcrawl Southgate: Dining Where Few Dare to Tread

Dishcrawls are the gastronomical analogue to pub crawls. Instead of being shuttled in a school bus from one speakeasy to the next where one might swill cheap beer and snarf down questionable wings, a group of diners migrates on foot en masse from one restaurant to another and enjoys miniature versions of signature dishes. This concept originated in the US and, fortunately for Edmonton, is an active and growing phenomenon north of the 49th parallel.

(Clockwise from top left) Rueben, Shrimp Slider, Lamb Shank, and Shortrib-stuffed Yorkshire pudding.

Previous Dishcrawl expeditions have meandered through Oliver and Chinatown, among others. This time, an eager - and hungry - herd of diners will walk to and from Southgate-area restaurants. This part of town is decidedly pedestrian-unfriendly, but a few gems make the traffic-dodging worthwhile. Supper commences at Fionn MacCool's. Here, a quartet of miniaturized pub fare includes a tiny rueben with house-cured corned beef, a shrimp slider, lamb shank and mash, and a shortrib-stuffed Yorkshire pudding. The rueben is generous with the beef and mercifully stingy with the sauerkraut. The delicate shrimp is lost inside a heaving crumb coating; this dish would have worked better with full-sized prawns. The lamb is juicy and playfully gamey. Yorkshire pudding is this stop's winner: a crave-worthy interplay of crisp pudding, melted cheese, and tender beef.

Fionn MacCool's Irish Pub on Urbanspoon

(Clockwise from top left) Hummus and tzaziki, Beef Keftedes, Spanakopita, and Dolmades.

A quick jaunt across the road leads to Koutouki. This venerable Greek eatery is a jungle of house plants and upbeat bouzouki music. Homemade hummus sings with chickpeas and eschews garlic in favour of tahini. Beef Keftedes are mild and fragrant with cinnamon. A rectangle of spanakopita is missing most of its spinach component; alas, quadrupling the mass of leafy greens would provided a toothy counterpoint to the perfectly crisp phyllo. Dolmades are dense and ricey, but don't approach the balance embodied by the hummus.

Koutouki Taverna on Urbanspoon

(Clockwise from top left) Dry ribs, Bacon-wrapped Shirmp, and Chicken Quesedilla.

Another mass migration across the street finds the group at Creations, the capacious and all-things-Canadiana-inspired dining room in the Sawridge Inn. Presentation is artistic as the dining room itself: a wafer-thin circle of watermelon radish, a lightning bolt-shaped carrot stick, and a cross-section of starfruit are but a few of the plate's dressings. A Chicken Quesedilla is pleasantly cheesy and surprisingly spicy, if not particularly memorable. Bacon-wrapped shrimp works better in theory than in practice; the shrimp underneath is choked by thick batter. Dry ribs are rather delightful in that they are juicy and meaty, rather than the ultra-dry and flavourless nubs so commonly flogged on menus.

Creations Dining Room and Lounge on Urbanspoon

All the flavours of Hawaii jam-packed into a pie.

The Century Grill is our final destination. This rock-n-roll-meets-classy room is swinging and the night is still young. Century's dessert - Hawaii 5-0 - is brilliant and memorable. Sinfully flaky pastry lovingly enrobes chucks of  fresh pineapple, toasted cashew struesel, all of which is ravished by a slowly melting orb of coconut gelato. Not even a crumb remains when all is said and done.

Century Grill on Urbanspoon

Thank you, Gemma, for the opportunity to attend. I must profess that walking around Southgate wouldn't be my primary mode of transportation, given the plethora of roads and paucity of crosswalks. Bravery is rewarded, though, for those who dine where few dare to tread.

Sunday, 23 June 2013

The Patty Wagon - Eye of the Tiger

Hamburgers, as they necessitate no cutlery or utensils apart from hands and teeth, are the ideal street food. And yet, prior to The Patty Wagon's inaugural lunch service in downtown Edmonton, only one other food truck dished out burgers. (The Act Out & About, if you're wondering). It is indeed a point to ponder; fast food burger joints hold fast in every neighbourhood and, say what you like about fast food in general, burgers are a go-to quick-dining item.

Why, then, have so few food trucks made burgers? The reason, perhaps, lies in the assumption that food purveyed out the window of a truck - no matter how preposterous that sounds - ought to be of a significantly higher calibre than that which is shilled by clowns or talking chihuahuas.

Two burgers off The Wagon's cleverly named menu quickly prove worthy of adulation. The Dirty Sock is lavished with creamy blue cheese, though an overly generous layer of lettuce requires thinning to facilitate proper bite stance. Auburn hoops of caramelized onion and grilled red peppers loll about on a very juicy beef patty. Chicken and lamb patties are also available.

That's a Fun-Guy, pun notwithstanding (but appreciated), is a far, far cry from the mushroom-soup-adorned mushroom burgers of yore. No, this worthy patty is overflowing with sauteed mushrooms that play leapfrog with each other in a sweetly pungent pool of Swiss cheese. Beef, again, is the desired medium for this interplay of cheese and fungi, and 'tis a burger that will warrant many future visits.

Although The Patty Wagon is the new kid in town, truck-wise, their burgers are creative in both name and composition. Why, then, do so few trucks do burgers? The answer is obvious: the competition is fierce. Eye of the Tiger fierce.

I might add that The Patty Wagon was part of Eden's Market on 124's grand opening on June 23. Lion dancers, homemade marshmallows, Josh Classen, and balloon animals were just part of a very fantastic and lively day. This market is on every Sunday from now until October. I highly recommend visiting.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

The Bothy - Devil's in the Details

The Bothy, a long-standing bastion of wine and whiskey on the south side, now holds a presence on 124 Street (in the former digs of the ever-fantastical The Common). An encyclopedic and geographically representative whiskey selection drives The Bothy's reputation, but the menu does not quite hold its own.

The wine list is brief but astute; the evening commences with an energetic bottle of El Petit Bonhomme. This youthful, splashy, but never obnoxious, red is a great big glass of energy that befits the red walls and high ceilings of this room. Brie with Honey and Pistachios is the evening's special. And that dish is, literally, exactly as the title implies. Brie covered in honey and sprinkled with chopped pistachios. This trio of ingredients is well suited to one another, but somehow they do not quite meld. Heat - a quick voyage through the oven - would be welcome. The honey would melt sumptuously over the softening brie and, inevitably, consummate these distinct flavours into a union most welcome. Alas, the cheese is cool, the honey static, and the pistachios are, well, pistachios. Slices of baguette are crisp, and two warm and yeasty flatbreads are a treat.

A Trio of Sliders presents agreeably juicy patties of beat topped with mushrooms and cheese. A side salad is befuddled with unpleasantly sharp red onions. The palm-sized sliders are pleasant, but one cannot help but wonder what would happen if the kitchen chose to top these patties with one of the cheeses off the "create your own cheese board" menu? The varieties of cheese from which to choose one's own adventure, so to speak, are numerous and commendable. These patties deserve more creative toppings.

Bananas Foster are stingy with the bananas. Generous maple syrup and toasty pecans are intuitive partners, but the banana component is deficient. The crepes underneath are properly tender but, in the present incarnation of this dish, "maple pecan crepes" would be a better descriptor.

The devil is in the details here: good concepts with good ingredients, but the sum of the parts does not equal the whole. A few tweaks in both ingredient choice and preparation style would make these dishes taste as good as they sound on paper.

The Bothy Wine & Whisky Bar on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Not Asleep at the Swich

Food trucks in Edmonton are sandwich-skewed. The overwhelming majority of these exceeds, in terms of quality, the sandwich offerings of many brick-and-mortar restaurants. The downside, however, is for emerging trucks that do specialize in sandwiches to find an original angle on these ubiquitous victuals - an angle that doesn't overlap or intersect with extant sandwiches.

Swich endeavours to accomplish just that: original and creative sandwiches. This neophyte food trailer currently does a lunch service that alternates between the north side Royal Alexandra Hospital, and the south side U of A Clinic. The graffiti-inspired artwork is hard to miss and bespeaks creative minds behind this concept.

Several savoury sandwiches and a duo of ice cream sandwiches grace the menu upon this lunch hour. Mortadella on a baguette features a complementary duality of buttery meat and crusty bread. It is a pity that mortadella isn't showcased more often, for this Italian creation is nuanced but never overbearing.

Green Curry Chicken on a pretzel roll is decent, though the roll is the stronger partner. The chicken is deli-style and, consequently, lacks the rich texture of roasted fowl. Green curry hints of coconut milk and exotic spices, but its presence needs to be amplified. The roll is gorgeous: chewy and tender, salty and sweet.

A chocolate-cherry ice cream sandwich is a frosty handful of nostalgia. Ruby-red crescents of black cherries mingle with dark chocolate nibs between two fudgy chocolate-laced wafers. Swich's 'wiches are indeed quite different from the existing plethora of bread-based lunch items. The ice cream sandwiches in particular are proof that this Swich is on.

Swich on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Smoke on the Water at That Bar-B-Q Place

Barbecue culture is massive in the States and, though Canadians love to barbecue in the back yard, we haven't the same obsession with Godzilla-esque slabs of meat that are cooked low and slow. American-style barbecue has made a few in-roads in this city, thanks in part to the sadly-burned Bubba's and northside gem Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus. Sherwood Park now has a barbecue spot of their very own - cheekily named "That Bar-B-Q Place." That Barb-B-Q Place occupies a recently built strip mall, just across from the natty kitchenware store, The Pan Tree.

The protein-centric menu shares quarters with the likes of Nascar memorabilia, John Deere signage, and a hand-written "Redneck Dictionary" on the wall. An enjoyable classic country soundtrack swings from Dolly Parton to Johnny Cash, with a welcome splash of Freddy Fender. Supper commences with a Pulled Potato. This hefty creation centers on a large, baked potato that has been cleaved in two, and topped with a juicy tangle of pulled pork, house-made slaw, mayo, and a criss-cross of dill pickles. This is a baked potato on 'roids: pumped up, no-nonsense, and unabashedly delicious.

The Two Meat Combo permits one to select two meats from a roster that includes ribs, pulled prok, turkey, and beef brisket. Pulled pork, which was very amenable to that buxom baked potato, is fragrant and sweetly smoke-kissed on its own. Indeed, a good pulled pork ought to be presented on its own, and far too many other restaurants quite literally smother their meat with BBQ sauce. If one's pork is as magical as one claims, should it not be allowed to shine? That Bar-B-Place has the right idea, for the diner can choose - or choose not to - add sauce themselves. Smoked Baked Beans are saucy and mealy, and quietly sing cowboy tunes of open skies and dusty trails. A miniature Buttermilk Cornbread Muffin is thoroughly moist and buttery. The ribs steal the show. They taste like a good campfire smells: permeated with the evocative essence of wood and fire. They fall off the bone with so much as a stern glance.

That Bar-B-Q Place is on to something.

That Bar-B-Q Place on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Yellowbird Cafe Truck - House of the Rising Sun

Permit me to diverge from my usual omniscient perspective to wax poetic about food and memories. The two are inextricably linked and, often, the most vivid of memories are retrieved by food. One can intentionally conjure up some food-linked memories by intentionally eating, for example, banana bread that tastes just like a family member used to make, thereby transcending the present and reliving rich childhood memories. Other times, these associations are a surprise, and a particular taste can unearth long-forgotten recollections.

Yellowbird Cafe Truck (which is a trailer, if one wants to split hairs) roves around the city and often perches near City Hall, in Churchill Square. A sandwich board - no pun intended - lists the day's specials, which include a Chicken and Avocado Sandwich, Dusty Edamame Beans, Meatball Sub, and Yakiniku Wrap. At this moment in time, I haven't the foggiest that the Yakiniku will suddenly pierce the time-space continuum and revisit a little-known era of my life: my short-lived experience as a flautist.

But first: the meatball sub. A trio of well-seasoned beef spheres relax under a blanket of shredded cheddar. A warm and zesty tomato sauce whispers of chilies. The ranch drizzle could be omitted without missing a beat, for the cheese and sauce work rather well together without this metaphorical third wheel. The crust integrity of the bun could be improved, as it neither offends nor pleases.

The Yakiniku Wrap, however, is magical. This Japanese interpretation of a Philly Cheesesteak is lovingly caressed with sesame dressing, shreds of daikon, and sauteed red peppers. Tender and generous shavings of beef are permeated with a beguiling combination of soy, garlic, brown sugar and, perhaps, knowing hints of sake.

One bite transports me to the kitchen table of my band conductor on a winter's night in Hudson Bay, Saskatchewan. In reference to my earlier allusions to flautist tenure, I use those terms incredibly loosely. My wise father believed in the power of music for recalcitrant teenagers, and I ended up playing flute in the community band for five years. My conductor Mr. Torigai possessed the verve and energy of Seiji Ozawa. He and my father became good friends. We were all invited over to the Torigais' house on a frigid February night and Mrs. Torigai prepared traditional, home-cooked Japanese fare. One beef dish, the name of which I've long forgotten, tasted exactly like the beef in Yellowbird's yakiniku wrap. I hardly expected such strong memories to emerge on a warm June day in downtown Edmonton, but food-memory evocations can pop up in the most unexpected locals.

Yellowbird Cafe Truck on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Bully Food Truck - Talkin' 'Bout a Revolution

Society vacillates through periods of stability and revolution. Smaller oscillations occur within this grander system: everything from science to fashion. Edmonton, it seems, stayed in a period of stability for decades in terms of food culture, but something shifted about three years ago. No one quite knows what instigated this revolution. Perhaps we achieved some sort of "critical mass" that set things in motion. Small, craft eateries are growing like flowers, new farmers' markets appear each spring, and a new fleet of food trucks roams the streets like merchant vessels in uncharted seas.

Bully Food Truck joined the Capital City's growing ranks of vehicular vittles last season, and is easily the most blinged-out truck in the city. Their brand is cheeky; think "give me your lunch money" paired with screaming orange and bold letters. Bully's food, paradoxically, is anything but brash.

Rather, Bully's culinary identity centers on comfort food. On this particular lunch hour, rain relentlessly pounds the pavement and cruel winds up-end the most stubborn of umbrellas. Butter Chicken Pops are an intuitive antidote to inclement weather. Bully's interpretation features tender drumsticks on a bed of nutty basmati, accompanied by purple cabbage slaw. The sauce (mercifully) leans toward the tomato-ish end, rather than the creamy end, of the butter chicken spectrum. It is sumptuous and not too spicy, though a sprinkle of cilantro would do well to replace the tumble of green onions on top.

Mac and Cheese is a portal to childhood school lunches. Far too many versions of macaroni and cheese in this city are inexplicably stingy with cheese. The resultant naked noodles are anything but appetizing. Bully's version veritably swims with cheese. Shavings of cheddar and toasty bread crumbs are a crown worn with pride. Really, if one is going to make mac and cheese, it shouldn't be a game of "find the cheese." Thank you, Bully. This is how it should be made.

The food truck micro-revolution is well underway, and Bully easily owns the "comfort food" niche. One might ponder, though, the connectivity between comfort food and the truck's name which, for the uninitiated, implies all things sharp and spicy. The "Snuggle Wagon" just doesn't have the same impact. Really, during this phase of culinary revolution, any truck or restaurant must own its food. Bully owns mac and cheese.

Bully Mobile Food Truck on Urbanspoon


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