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Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Ampersand 27 - Choose your own adventure

Hit the "rewind" button for a few seconds and one will arrive at an era where "charcuterie" was a concept both mispronounced and misunderstood. Really, was it little more than the constituents of a sandwich, laid askew on a wooden board for all to see?

Such naive times, this era of "B.C." - i.e., "before charcuterie."

Fortunately, meat, cheese and condiment pairings gained credibility as meals in their own right. Indeed, selecting a chosen few to create individually relevant ratios of these ingredients is half the fun, and one need not wander afar to find good charcuterie these days - in this era of enlightenment.

Enter Ampersand 27.Enter their Whyte Avenue space (the former Murrieta's digs) and it is a bit like the Hobbit's Shire on acid. Over-sized botanical lamps. Chairs, tables and curves in the room that evoke glacially-deposited boulders on the forest floor. Cross-sections of antediluvian logs. Twinkling ceiling lights that capture a swatch of night sky and bring it indoors.. Only the flat screen TV playing the Fireplace Channel seems curiously - anachronistically - out of place. A vessel of Black Hills Syrah is open and light, but breathes of heady red fruits, their bosoms heaving in a far-off summer night. Ampersand's menu is as idiosyncratic as its dining room, and skips across a smattering of smaller sharing plates, larger things like flatbreads and pork chops, and a choose-your-own adventure of charcuterie.

One is given carte blanche for possible combinations of meat, cheese, pickles, condiments, and bread that range from as proletariat as baguette and brie to as esoteric as lavash and lamb merguez. This adventure, after considerable deliberation, arrives on a hefty wooden tray marked by ancient growth rings. Duck Rillet initially resembles a cup of white pudding with berries on top, but an exploratory excavation quickly reveals tendrils and shreds of fowl so tender that they sigh and effortlessly melt into bread. Pity that the baguette is at once flabby and dry, with no structural integrity whatsoever. Fortunately, this ill-fated baguette will prove to be the meal's only flat note. Russet sticks of pickled carrots sign with sinus-clearing acidity, while pungent Balunchon cheese evokes unapologetic barnyard sweats and furtive fumbles behind a Gallic chicken coop. Chalky Tellegio, in contrast is coy and a bit nutty, benefiting from a swipe of spicy blueberry-port chutney. Bresaola and Proscuitto are bovine and porcine antitheses of each other: one dry and sweet, the other supple and seductive.

The Chosen Adventure continues with the arrival of "Sea Shore." Selected from the "Share and Share Alike" section of the menu, one isn't initially sure what to expect from an entity described as "Scallop, prawn, smoked trout brandade, 'sand' and sea asparagus." Sea Shore, in its own good time, proves to be a visually impressive melange of deftly seared scallops, chubby prawns curled in repose, nori-wrapped smoky trout pate, and granular sand that, after a bit of prodding, is revealed to be crushed up shrimp chips. Sprigs of juniper-like sea asparagus and whispers of foam complete the concept, the latter of which melts away like a juicy secret in the right company.

Though Ampersand's menu treads a considerable stretch of territory, the Chosen Adventure of charcuterie reaffirms the timely notion that meat, cheese and condiments are so much more than misplaced sandwich ingredients. In fact, it hardly warrants thinking about a time when charcuterie was erudite territory - mispronounced and (to quote the very quotable George W. Bush) misunderestimated.

Ampersand 27 on Urbanspoon

Friday, 19 December 2014

A Day in the Sun at Passion de France

Long-maligned Alberta Avenue will be the next 124 Street. The next Whyte Ave. The next "it" street. For if every street has its day, then 118th Avenue's is poignantly overdue. Arguments in its favour could fill a small volume: an abundance of owner-operated businesses, an eclectic assortment of buildings (both new and old vintage), a bonus of wide-crowned elm trees, architectural diversity among the branching side streets, and an unabashedly authentic cross-section of humanity all striving for the same thing: a sense of home. Now, 118th has another reason to be cool or - better yet - sought after: a patisserie.

Passion De France opened quietly in early December. One isn't likely to drive by it, for this tiny house of baked goods is set back from the main avenue by at least half a block, and separated from the street from a patio's worth of space. Though the front walk is buttressed by heaving snowdrifts now, one can imagine a smart set of patio furniture and umbrellas nodding like heavy-headed sunflowers in the breeze once the northern hemisphere turns back towards the light.  Inside, a tidy and efficient space, dressed in cool mint green and white, breathes the beguiling scent of fresh baking, resplendent in rich butter and sighing with dark chocolate and spices.
The display cooler is not yet full, though the menu promises a smattering of sandwiches, quiche and soup. Make no mistake, though; I've come for the baking. Specifically - croissants and macarons. Though I must confess to have never been in Paris (neither the French nor Ontarian locals, though I suspect the latter holds to a different standard of baked goods), a journeyman baker once explained to me that a real croissant - a real one and not the questionable supermarket variety - ought to make a mess when eaten. For all those glorious strata of butter, so lovingly layered throughout the dough, transform via some sort of culinary alchemy into a shattering mess. Yes, one bite ought to send croissant shards everywhere. Anything less, and you are looking at an ersatz roll of edible oil products. The croissant at Passion de France more than delivers. It delivers a sinfully rich croissant that makes a mess absolutely everywhere, just as it should.

Nine flavours of macarons beckon: at this point, they include chocolate, orange, Earl Grey, raspberry, lemon, passion fruit, vanilla, coffee, and salted caramel. It is difficult to pick a favourite flavour, for how could one go to the Louvre and pick a favourite painting? These impish, colourful buttons are yielding yet firm - sweet but not cloying. Little exquisite paradoxes, just their Alberta Avenue home, which will soon find its day in the sun.

Oh, and they pull a mean espresso macchiato.

Passion de France on Urbanspoon

Monday, 8 December 2014

Winds of Change at Enzo's on 76

The joyous discovery of Enzo's on 76 restored faith that the neighbourhood eatery was alive and well, feet firmly planted, head helt high, with strong arms stirring a cauldron of bubbling marinara. Enzo's had no need for a trendy street to call home, and that was part of its appeal; good food requires no fixed address. The restaurant's namesake rotated constantly from kitchen to front of house. Enzo and his warmly-lit space were meant for each other. Change blew through the doors - in my eyes - inexplicably. Word on the street is that Enzo is focusing on his take-out place in Sherwood Park. Front of house and kitchen staff are all different now, and though this unto and of itself is not bad or wrong, memories tied to this specific location still search for each other like a favourite hat waiting to be hung on a well-crafted coat hook.

Little has changed in the restaurant, esthetically speaking. Photographs of food have been replaced with vaguely Van Gogh-ish oil paintings, and a top-forty soundtrack in the background neither offends nor pleases. A plate of freshly sliced bread arrives with a small bowl of rosemary-infused olive oil. Not the garlic-infused oil and balsamic that Enzo used to serve, but it is headily fragrant and undeniably delicious.

Two mains - one the evening's special and the other a la carte - are a study in contrasts. Lobster Mac and Cheese (left) proffers ample lobster in a deceptively deep bowl of rigatoni. Promises of truffle oil don't quite shine through the rich cheese sauce, but the summation is still one of decadence and comfort. Pan-seared Arctic Char (right) is a treat and begs the question of why overexposed salmon gets more air time. Crunchy, sesam seed-encrusted skin protects moist myomeres that, in turn, shelter a vibrant and grassy green pea puree. Agreeable mixed vegetables are along for the ride, but this dish belongs unequivocally to the char.

Dessert, as the evening winds to a close, includes a Cappuccino Semifreddo (left) and Flourless Chocolate Cake (right). Each is decked out with miniature gingerbread men for the holidays, and the semifreddo is gifted a crunchy gingerbread tree. The semifreddo is nutty, chilly, and creamy without being too rich, but the chocolate cake is a contradiction of very heavy cake paired with vexingly sticky caramel popcorn, without much (apart from a valiant scoop of gelato) to marry the two.

The winds of change have indeed blown through Enzo's doors, and it is difficult to think of the restaurants in terms other than "before" and "after." Even though the food remains delicious, I cannot help but wonder the whereabouts of the eatery's eponymous, original chef, and hope that his spark, zest, and ability to restore faith in the very existence of neighbourhood restaurants is well-received in Sherwood Park.

Enzo's on 76 on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Breaking the Jinx at Central Social Hall

There are so many jinxed locations in Edmonton. One can think of a certain spot on Whyte Ave's western frontier that chewed through a high-end eatery, a coffee shop and a sushi joint in a matter of months. Or spaces on Jasper Avenue that suffer the same, perpetual, interminable fate. A certain corner of Jasper Avenue was a Japanese joint with dubious "naked sushi" a few years ago. Then, it morphed into "The Ruby Dragon," proffering purportedly good Chinese food that still failed to hang onto this coveted piece of real estate. Finally, in 2012, Central Social Hall cut the ribbon and threw open its doors. Passing motorists - myself included - caught glimpses of boisterous, crowded tables, and blinking flat-screens.

Still, I did not visit, unconvinced by my unsubstantiated assumptions of predictable hamburgers and sodden fries. A recent invitation to Central Social's new menu tasting event provided good reason to visit, and ultimately to shatter preconceived notions of pub-grub proficiency.
A detailed menu flaunts a daunting nine item roster for the evening, one that is nudged into sparkling motion by a glimmering flute of Glera Sparkling that tickles and whispers like the snowflakes outside. The flipside of the menu reads, "share and be social," and this phrase is as prophetic as it is accurate. A large platter of Kettle Chips (upper left) delivers satisfying crunch, though the accompanying caramelized onion dip falls a little short in the onion department. Bacon-Deviled Eggs (lower left) are ghostly white boats toting a rich payload of smoke and sweet. Ball Park Pretzels (lower right) are show-stealers. Warm, salty and beguiling, these knotty treasures find happy companions in fiery mustard and rich cheddar sauces. Better yet - both sauces in the same bite, much like a British mustard-and-cheese sandwich. Albacore Tuna Tataki (upper right) furthers the evening's trend with a strong hand of crisp wonton, supple tuna, and a savoury-tangy dollop of wasabi mayo on top.
 A Crispy Prawn Thai Noodle Salad (upper left), aside from that extremely memorable pretzel, is the evening's winner. Cool, citrusy, and summery, this melange of cabbage, cilantro, cuke, carrot and cucumber, finds sunshine with sweet mint, tart pickled onions, and earthy peanuts. A crispy fried shrimp is the proverbial cherry on top. A Spicy Chicken Taco (right) is the evening's misstep; chicken is shredded so finely as to be undetectable, while valentina hot sauce is inconsistently applied. Texturally, the sum of the parts is not the whole. Redemption arrives in the earthly form of Seafood Linguini (lower left). Here is a creamy, tomato-y treat that would just as home on a red checkered candlelit table cloth as it is under the uber-modern light fixtures of Central Social.
All good things must end, and if all good things ended with Apple-Cranberry Crumble, the world would be a far better, far happier, place.  Here, a rustic jam jar proudly cradles ruby-red apples, cranberries and rhubarb that relaxes and reclines under a crumbly blanket of pecan struesel. One could eat a bowl of struesel alone, as it's rather addicting. A tiny scoop - how I wish there was just a bit more - of vanilla gelato melts gratefully onto the surrounding crumbles while the omnipresent flat-screens blink hypnotically, like the headlights of passing vehicles outside.

Thank you, Central Social Hall, for your generous invitation, and for proving yourselves to be a strong contender in Edmonton's burgeoning gastropub scene. If anyone deserves to dispel that location's jinx, it's you.

For another take on the evening, read about Marlow Moo's experience.
Central Social Hall on Urbanspoon


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