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Sunday, 25 January 2015

Hypothesis Testing at Solstice Seasonal Cuisine

A title with specific dsecriptors is a testable hypothesis. Take 'Solstice Seasonal Cuisine,' for example. 'Solstice,' without its modifying adjectives, is a stand-alone moniker - it cannot be falsified, refuted, or rejected. Addition of descriptors, though, makes it testable and - logically - fodder for meaningful investigation.

 Solstice Seasonal Cuisine opened recently on 124th Street, furthering the street's tony geometric growth. Its name, upon first observation, implies strict adherence to seasonally available ingredients. Entry to Solstice reveals disco, which is a bold musical choice for any restaurant; the probability of disco going sideways in dramatic fashion is significant, but Solstice makes it work. A grey and white palette works with squarish, Coachman-esque lamps, and a backlit herbarium hypnotizes from behind the bar.

Solstice's barn-door menu opens to reveal a smattering of cocktails, wines, starters, entrees and desserts. A brief selection within each category circumvents the problem of reading a novella in order to pick a dish. A Manhattan - in this case, a 124th Street Manhattan - is a good test of the barkeep's mettle, and arrives with a sinuous orange ribbon and a lolling sphere of ice orbiting in the glass. Proper ratios of sweet vermouth, angostura bitters and sultry smoked rye mingle and seduce with smoky, citrusy accuracy.

Jumbo Scallop and Cornmeal-Crusted Oysters, the evening's chosen starter, constitute a quasi-minimalist positioning of just-cooked scallop, two carefully cantilevered potato crisps, and a trio of crunchy-chewy breaded oysters. A tangled bird's nest of sprouts and a few tastefully placed sprigs of greenery hint at the herbarium's substance.

Sweet Pea Falafel are mealy, steaming hot, and densely resonant with earthy pulses. A quartet of crisp carrot chips frame the dish and impart suble sweetness. These crisps hide chalky blobs of salty labneh cheese. This cheese, taken in concert with the falafel, are sheer bliss.

Halibut and Prawns emulate notes of seafood visited in the preceding appetizer, though the titular fish presents a titch overdone. Buttery prawns, though, are as unctuously rich as their podium of mille feuille podium. Little sunchoke leaves, in all the pungent restraint, play with the halibut's russet-hued chorizo cream sauce. Were the fish just a little less overwrought, this combination would be singular.

The meal concludes with a beguiling chocolate mousse overlaid with a cloudy meringue swirl and cardamon-scented foam - plus a few strategically-placed raspberries. The summation is one of rich, bittersweet cocoa counterbalanced with eggy air - an astute ratio of earthly flesh to heavenly aspirations.

At the end of it all, though, one ponders the seasonality of each dish's constituents, for no specific explanation, on the part of either wait staff or menu, addressed this conundrum. Specific descriptors, such as the phrase "seasonal cuisine," do indeed beget expectation and validation, and this phrase appears far too often these days to stand untested. I've no doubt that many of Solstice's ingredients are highly seasonal, which would anchor their eponymous hypothesis in hard data, and the kitchen certainly has skill, but the variables that comprise Solstice Seasonal Cuisine require greater elucidation.

Solstice Seasonal Cuisine on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Under the Radar at Island Curry Takeaways

It is 2015. A week and a half in to the new year. Predictions hang, like puffs of warm breath, unanswered in the winter air. These ponderings range from the whimsical (e.g., Is "ugly food" in?) to the practical (e.g., Have food trucks overshot their carrying capacity?) to the poignantly urgent (e.g., How will the city of Edmonton address downtown's growing food desert?). 

Virtually every diner-cum-food blogger/writer wonders, up and beyond these musings, what this year will bring in terms of new restaurants. We all wait, like sharks scenting prey in the water, for that telltale hint that something new is about to happen, and race to see who will be first to "scoop" the joint.

The decidedly unglamorous restaurants are too often spurned. The family-run cafe with the dowdy, outdated decor is overlooked in favour of the next big media preview. That place that's been around forever, the one that still serves solid chow after all these years, never makes it into the ranks of user-review websites like Yelp or UrbanSpoon. Nor do these under-the-radar spots beget social media frenzies, as if constant presence in this realm is a reliable indicator of proficiency. Such is the case for Island Curry Takeaways, its home no more exotic a locale than a desolate Fort Road strip mall.

It is dark and quiet tonight, and Island Curry Takeaway's photo-adorned windows gaze blankly over a mostly empty parking lot. Inside is equally quiet, punctuated only by the mechanical whirrings of kitchen equipment. Congenial owners and an intriguing menu chase away any lingering doubts, though, and soon a steaming platter of Curry Goat appears at the table. Here, a kaleidoscope of spices turn, roll and bloom. Simple white rice tames the fire (spice level is negotiable, but "medium" is recommended). Devilish bones necessitate dental dexterity for extricating the juicy, gamey goat, and it is well worth the effort.

Smoky-sweet Jerk Chicken mingles with cool, crunchy coleslaw and a few sprigs of cilantro. Robust rice and beans underneath and toothsome and satisfying. A bite of chicken mixed with creamy coleslaw and al dente rice is, quite simply, just right.

But it won't elicit frenzied instagram posts or races to see who blogs about it first, and that is a pity. The owner-operators' names are unknown and won't be name-dropped in earshot of others. It isn't fair, but it is characteristic of this era of food/foodie culture.

Indeed, the freshly-minted can be spectacular and beguiling. Intoxicating in their vortex of rapid-fire tweets and photos. Mesmerizing in their culture of quasi-celebrity bestowed on both writer and chef. Deliriously cyclic in the trading of good reviews in exchange for edible rewards and recognition. Time and circumstance will dictate the long term tenure of the new and flashy. Certainly, some will settle at a comfortable cruising altitude, but others will fall to earth as quickly as they appeared. It more than behooves the writer to give long-established restaurants their due, for there is good reason why they are still here.

Island Curry Takeaways on Urbanspoon


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