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Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Change from Within at Coffee Bureau

If you have ever taken an urban geography class, you've doubtless encountered the "doughnut effect." This not-so-unrealistic theory describes an evolution of urban areas wherein the downtown slowly deteriorates to the point of darkness (i.e., the "hole") and the outskirts fatten up like concentric rings around this dead zone, continually sprawling ever-outward. The Effect characterizes a great many North American cities.

This paradigm has been true for Edmonton, but it is far from a woeful fate inscribed in stone. Glimmers rose from downtown: small and tentative at first, but then bursting forth like new stars from a murky nebula in some far-flung region of outer space. Five years ago, you could name a few of these downtown stars and perhaps count them on one hand. In 2015, it is a different story altogether and mere digits are not enough to number these nascent cafes, restaurants, and coffee houses.

Coffee Bureau has been open but a scant week, in an austere white brick building on a particularly windy corner of Jasper and 105th. White lettering on the window proclaims that "Coffee always gives you a break," and a step through Bureau's door quickly affirms this assertion. The small (but never cramped) room's feel falls somewhere between Scandinavian (think wood ceilings and hyper-cool light fixtures) and Italian (think gleaming espresso machine and deftly tiled wall). Snack options will be fleshed out in the future, but for the time being, a pair of tawny butter tarts require both tooth and spoon to consume - their dreamy insides are gorgeously runny and sweet.

The coffee menu is short and decisive. An espresso macchiato places just the right amount of milk foam over two strong shots of aromatic espresso. The beans are roasted right in Edmonton, a hop, skip and jump north at Ace Coffee Roasters.

Outside, though winter's tenuous hold on the city has intermittently tightened and loosened, steady pedestrian traffic trickles in and out of the numerous food establishments that dot each block. This would have been curious - even unimaginable - in days past, where downtown was the domain of the questionable and the derelict. That has never been more untrue than it is now, and to see Edmonton grow out of the inevitable "Doughnut Effect" is both gratifying and exciting. No matter how much politicians crow about revitalizing the downtown core, it is irrefutably evident that change will come from within - from places just like Coffee Bureau.

Coffee Bureau on Urbanspoon

Monday, 16 February 2015

Bul Go Gi House - A Promise Half Fulfilled

Bul Go Gi House feels like it fell right out of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High." The interior is so outlandishly dated that it could easily have been where Ridgemont characters Stacy Hamilton and Mark Ratner shared an awkwardly prolonged dinner, thanks to Mark's realization that his wallet was missing. Every nuance of Bul Go Gi's space, from the vinyl chairs, to bright green accents and wood-paneled walls, is stuck in its own time loop, perplexingly independent of the world outside.

This particular brand of anachronistic decor produces a counterintuitive expectation, though; with decor this zany, how can the food not be fabulous? If a trendy soundtrack and ultra-avant-modern furniture are palpably absent, surely the cuisine must stand on its own.  Tiny dishes of pungent kimchi and supple bean sprouts set the meal's wheels into motion. The former is impressively spicy, while the latter is soothing and cool. An ice cold bottle of Cass beer whets all whistles. Plates, inexplicably, have polar bears on them.

Bul-Gal-Bee arrives at the table in short order, sizzling and sighing with smoke and sticky sweetness. This quintessentially Korean dish is nothing short of dazzling in its simplicity. Just-done meat with coveted char-marks is beautifully tender. If the bone cross-sections were edible, surely they would have been devoured too.

Be-Beem-Cook-Soo (left) and Sae-Woo-Bock-Kum (right), however, are perplexing in their sameness. The former is comprised of thin noodles, chicken, onions and zucchini - and the menu promises spiciness - but the flavours therein are undifferentiated and reminiscent of a small town greasy spoon Chinese restaurant's offerings. The latter's promise of spice remained unfulfilled as well. Though shrimp abounded in this stir-fry, these crustaceans alone could not compensate for an otherwise bland melange of vegetables.

And so, Bul Go Gi House plants its feet firmly in a world of antediluvian tables, laminated menus and above-average beef. One had hoped that, based in an imagined reality of bygone 80s movie characters dining under similar circumstances, the entire meal would have been exceptional. This scenario could have unfolded much differently, had the non-carnivorous parts of the meal met with a steadier hand for seasoning. Polar plates and sizzling beef aside, the meal was a promise only half fulfilled.

Bul Go Gi House on Urbanspoon

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Continental Drift: Chef Xavier Perez Stone cooks at Rostizado

Edmonton wishes, quite clearly, to be a world-class city. It's no secret.  One need only scan the downtown horizon, blink once or twice, and then marvel at the gangly sky scrapers popping up like daisies through the tired snow. This shift from "big small town" to "world class city" cannot be forced or coerced, though, and cannot happen through edifice and infrastructure alone. Irrefutable as their contribution to a city's acquisition of 'metropolitan' status may be, this tectonic shift is the consummation of many small, worldly acts.

Exposure to cuisine from far-flung realms comprises one such worldly act. I was fortunate to receive an invitation several weeks ago to a supper at Rostizado, starring Chef Xavier Perez Stone, who presently cooks at Grand Velas Riviera Maya Resort, located in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. Though I have never traveled to Mexico, or to anywhere even remotely warm, for that matter, Mesoamerican ingredients, techniques and unbridled flair filled Rostizado's smoky-sweet space for a few fleeting hours on a damp January evening.

Supper begins with a bang, materializing in the earthly form of Foie Afrudato (upper right). This is a carnival ride on LSD: whispy, hyper-sweet cotton candy puffs that vanish into thin air with rich, fatty, velvety foie gras underneath. Langostra Negra (upper left) is practically the opposite: cool, restrained but never subdued, and light as air. Lolling lobster morsels share quarters with cucumber swirls, passionfruit puree, avocado, and tomatillo. One's Stradivarius to another's Fender: strikingly different, but easily masters of their own field. El Mar en Verde Moncromatico (lower left) emphasizes that seafood - in this case, sea bass - ought to be treated gently and never overcooked. Indeed, a good vet should be able to revive it. Perez Stone's seabass frolicks with green poblano chile sauce and collapses into buttery myomeres at the slightest touch. Finally, La Frutabilidad del Venado (lower right) reaffirmed the veracity of good venison. Here, the noble deer is kissed with hibiscus and beets; red ingredients that call out the meat's lavish sweetness.

Dessert, though there is scarcely room after a quartet of courses, is irresistible. Sopa de Coco y Pan de Leche (right) seduced with a paradox of sunny pineapple and moonglow coconut milk, all transversed by a braided river of crisp cookie, twisting like an ancient river through a post-glacial landscape. Choco Parece Playa No Es placed discs of banana in a lunar vista composed of chocolate ice cream, banana mole, and olive oil truffle - a summation of unctuous, luxurious textures that beguile, but never impose or overwhelm.

The change from "big small town" to "world class city" can be imposing and overwhelming, but only when such change is forced. These things need to happen on their own, on a smaller scale, even at the scale of a dinner plate. Chef Xavier Perez Stone's visit is a good start.

Read Marlow Moo's impression of the evening here.

Rostizado - By Tres Carnales on Urbanspoon


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