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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Identity Crisis at The Glass Monkey

One cannot force an identity upon a restaurant. It must evolve organically and iteratively. Identity must meld with every aspect: decor, personnel and, of course, food and drink. It is easy to rattle off names of restaurants with well-defined identities, for one can "feel" the coherence. It is less easy to single out the reasons that an eatery lacks a clear identity; one tends to file such experiences under the realm of "something was amiss." The Glass Monkey occupies the former Lendrum haunt of Jack's Grill, but is burdened by the presence of its predecessor.

Parsnip Puree promises a nutty intermingling of root vegetable and hazelnut, underscored with velveteen mascarpone, but the puree's icy temperature belies a recent voyage out of the refrigerator. It's a pity; were this dish warm, the flavours would sing, but instead, they land on a flat note. It's like having a bit of cold Thanksgiving dinner out of the fridge, long after any last breath of warmth has withered away. Tuna Salad (pictured at rear) fares better. Equal parts tuna, capers, artichokes, and eggplant live in happy, salty synchrony.

Ricotta pleases with chunky apricot preserves and elfin, toasted sunflower seeds. Temperature, as with the parsnip puree, is problematic, and this unfortunate recurrence clouds the ability to perceive nuances within this delicate preparation.

Olive Oil-Poached Squid furthers the theme of temperature mismatch. The decapod is barely lukewarm and is lost amidst a murky sea of fennel and black-eyed peas. No dominant flavour emerges.

Chicken Yakitori, at least, arrives piping hot. The tender meat is lightly charred, avidly juicy, and reveling in the company of a grilled scallion.

Pork Sausage saves the day. An implacable duet of juicy links crescendo with sweet meat and finish with a playful nip of black pepper. A delightful tangle of caramelized onions add notes of honey, while red pepper relish lends ruddy acidity. A warm - thank goodness - dune of Isaac Hayes-smooth potato mash would be an enviable nibble all on its own.

Chocolate Cake, unfortunately, returns to the precedent set by the earlier courses. While billed as "warm" and "molten," the cake is neither. Rather, the semi-solid chocolate interior oozes out rather half-heartedly., while the tepid exterior is bitter and overly dense.

Bread Pudding fares somewhat better, but is chokingly sweet to the point of inducing hyperglycemia where no such condition existed previously. Raisins are a-plenty and rum is abundant, but sugar keeps this dessert in a stranglehold.

The Glass Monkey lacks clear identity. The menu, quite literally, is all over the map with no connectivity among Yakitori, Feta, Pizza, and so forth. This severe disconnect affects every aspect of these dishes, from glaring temperature discrepancies to injudicious contradictions of ingredients. Moreover, a number of menu items were prefaced with "Jack's Grill Feta" or "Jack's Grill Somethingorother," and were clearly salvaged from the previous incarnation's roster of recipes. This does little to bolster the Monkey's identity. To the contrary; clinging to dishes that are so obviously named for a different restaurant is wholly ineffectual. The Glass Monkey's identity has yet to coalesce.

Glass Monkey on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 15 February 2014

Faith-Off: Korean Fried Chicken

Certain food items are often ruined by fast food institutions, in that we are saturated and inundated with supersized portions of half-assed quality. This scenario certainly applies to fried chicken; redemption, however, has arrived in the earthly guise of Korean fried chicken. Korean fried chicken differs from its North American counterpart in numerous ways, not the least of which includes the welcome application of sticky, spicy and sweet, sesame-studded sauce.

Fortunately, there are at least two (and purportedly more) places in Edmonton in which to procure this most fabulous of fowl. Coco Deep Fried Chicken, though a bit vexing to find in a south side strip mall, trumps all others with unrequited, unabashed crunch. Coco's miraculously textured batter stays crisp under a glossy blanket of peppery sauce, which tends towards the fiery end of the heat spectrum. Somehow, the meat stays firm and moist, the sauce stays saucy, and the batter remains crunchy until the last bite is consumed. It defies physics.

Coco Deep Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon

A convoluted drive to the city's deep south reveals Wing Chicx. Intentionally misspelled name notwithstanding, the Chicx' chicken plays a strong hand. Their version is saucier than that of Coco's, underscoring the gratis wetnaps provided by the management. The crust is thinner and softer, but the sauce nicely balances sweet with heat, and has a pleasant vinegar follow-through.

Sample size, obviously, would not stand up to statistical rigour, but both have initiated renewed faith in the practice of deep-frying chicken. If only one could could combine Coco's crunchiness with Wing Chicx's awesome sauce.

Wing Chicx on Urbanspoon

Monday, 10 February 2014

Setting the Stage at Stages Kitchen & Bar

Hotel restaurants can be tricky territory, for a steady supply of sleepy travelers and harried businessfolk ensure - for better or for worse - hungry mouths that demand sustenance. Case in point: I once traveled to a conference in North Carolina and arrived, exhausted and ravenous. Once deposited at the hotel, I slunk into the inn's restaurant and, hoping for heaps of Carolina Barbecue, found the most appetizing item on the menu to be a grilled cheese sandwich. Not an artisan grilled cheese sandwich with fontina and multigrain baguette either. A pair of sad-looking wonderbread slices slathered in margarine, sent for a trip to purgatory in a frying pan, and left seething processed cheese onto a melamine plate, under glaring lights that would better befit a prison cafeteria.

Fortunately, this tale of woe could not be further from the truth at Stages Kitchen & Bar, which has just opened shop at the Doubletree Inn by Hilton - the former Mayfield Inn digs. At a recent media preview, I was duly impressed by the level of organization and professionality at such an unveiling (and though I could go on about that, I will defer to Marlow Moo, who captures the entire evening bang-on). Pizza provides an overture of elk sausage and bocconcini; the cervid's playful gaminess is a welcome counterpoint to the cheese's relaxed creaminess. Jerk shrimp and pineapple pizza, though I could handle a few Scoville Units more of spice, is a tropical breeze on a frigid winter's night.

A Five Fork Banger, though it sounds like a particular variety of fireworks, is a quintet of sausage slices, all paired with different accoutrements. Pictured here are bison and bocconcini (foreground), recapitulating that game meat and mild cheeses comprise a culinary dream team. Elk and pickle (background) play with the veg's piquant nature, offsetting the wapiti's dreamy, spicy, honey-like essence.

Tuna Tataki exists only long enough to be photographed before being inhaled. Here, a serene triangle of albacore relaxes under a calligraphic scribble of creme fraiche and over a shatteringly crunchy wonton chip. Little hints of wasabi make their presence known without being bombastic.

Samples of Stages' various mains include Arctic Char with tomato, fennel and ginger chutney, Chicken Breast with field mushroom sauce, and Bison Meatloaf with tomato glaze. The lively char - somewhere between salmon and trout in terms of flavour - steals the spotlight with its summery-licorice-laced crown. My piece of chicken was a wee bit dry, but compensated with a rich and savoury infusion of wild mushrooms. The meatloaf, though dense in texture due to a deliberate absence of bread crumbs, pleased with its balance of meaty gravity and fruity overtones.

Dessert, presented here in miniature versions (from back to front) includes Warm Chocolate Lava Cake with Cappuccino Ice Cream, Creme Brulée, and Vanilla Bourbon Cheesecake with Berry Compote. The chocolate cake is a royal flush in the poker game that is dessert: seductive, gooey chocolate lava was barely contained by its lavish cake exoskeleton. Though I am not normally a devotee to creme brulée, Stages' transposition of this classic dessert is refreshingly light. The same manifesto applied to the cheesecake, which was not at all leaden, and happily lounged in its lagoon of blueberries and raspberries.

Kudos to the kitchen and hospitality staff at Stages for a superbly enjoyable dining experience. The hotel I was stuck at in North Carolina could learn a thing or two from you...

Stages Kitchen & Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Strong and Free at North 53

Defining "Canadian" food has remained a quandary for generations. Unless one's parents are Aboriginal, then we are all recent immigrants to this particular part of the planet. Poutine and butter tarts, among others, are proposed as quintessentially Canadian dishes, but trying to define food items based on their completed state, rather than their basal ingredients, is a problem unto itself. How Canadian is poutine if the potatoes are grown in Idaho and the cheese comes from Italy? Would a better definition of Canadian food be that which is composed of ingredients grown in Canada?

North 53 - the latest addition to 124 Street's boomtown - ascribes to the latter philosophy. Its ambitious credo is to source ingredients from within our country's borders and, despite its feet barely being wet in the ruthless sea of culinary competition, they are doing a smashing job thus far. To begin, Chicken Liver Paté on toasted brioche is a veritable Dr. Seuss sandwich. Multi-hued carrot wheels are partially hidden by piquant pickled asparagus and chanterelles, whilst a smattering of miniature greenery adds notes of field and sunshine. The paté itself bears none of the blood clot-evoking essence that besmirches so many others; rather, the summation is one of multiple textures and cohesive flavours.

Things are chugging right along with a contortion of technicolour carrots that are shaded by a trio of impossibly fragile caraway crisps. Supple ribbons of raw carrot hide miniature cooked ones underneath, all the while relishing dark suggestions of black garlic and jaunty interjections of buttermilk.

Sockeye Salmon arrives under a glass dome that, when lifted, peacefully releases an evocative cloud of juniper smoke that conjures up a misty dawn dreamscape on Haida Gwaii. The just-cooked fish exhales flavour and draws toothsome support from white northern beans underneath. Here, indeed, is campfire food raised to the next order of magnitude.

Various Beets, as they are billed on the menu, continue of theme of the same ingredients being presented in different guises. In this instance, a rainbow of jewel-like beets are accompanied by whispers - rather than bleats - of goat cheese. Quirky nasturtium leaves leave behind peppery suggestions, and beet meringues - maroon half-spheres - dissolve in an instant.

Finally, an Apple Doughnut is anything but the usual thing one might expect at our national, but unofficial, coffee shop down the road. A rustic fritter sighs with maple and brown butter, while a quenelle of apple ice and a tubule of apple custard lend their own interpretations of this fruit.

If one might lend some constructive advice, it would be to explore greater means with which to showcase Canadian ingredients, as opposed to presenting the same item prepared multiple ways in the same dish. But this is a minor quibble. North 53 does Canada proud.

North 53 on Urbanspoon


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