Edmonton Restaurant Review: Upper Crust Cafe

Upper Crust Cafe opened in 1986, just a year after I was born, and has lived up to their initial goal of becoming a popular yet unpretentious place to enjoy a good meal. After 28 years, they are now well-known for their desserts and catering services. However, it’s their knack for making sandwiches using freshly baked in-house molasses or oat bread (other types are available; however, they are not housemade) that made me a fan several years ago.

The interior of Upper Crust Cafe.

The interior of Upper Crust Cafe.

I was dragged there by a friend the very first time I visited. She couldn’t stop telling me about the fantastic sandwiches and potato salad. Never having been much of potato salad lover, I was skeptical. But, upon sitting down at one of their distinctive green-topped tables and biting into a deliciously thick roast beef sandwich that was layered with alfalfa sprouts, tomato, lettuce, cheese, cucumber and house mustard, I was a convert. Not only were the sandwiches filled to the brim with healthy yet tasty ingredients, the included side salad was there to ensure that your stomach would be completely satisfied. I took my friend’s advice and tried the potato salad and, to this day, I find myself getting a hankering for it at times. I think what I love about the salad is that it isn’t overly creamy or eggy, which I tend to find off-putting with other variations. It’s actually been a long while since I’ve eaten an actual meal there and I hope to do so in the near future.

Bringing this back to the present though, my most recent experience there was after a hearty brunch at the Sugarbowl (@sugarbowlcafe) about three months ago. My friends and I wanted to keep chatting and decided that we would walk over to Upper Crust for dessert. Since they had made The Tomato‘s second annual list of best eats and drinks in the city, coming in at No. 78 this year, this presented a good opportunity to hit up another top 100 location.

A slice of the carrot cake.

A slice of the carrot cake.

Walking into the establishment, you are met with the dessert display where every cake, pie and square looks rich and decadent. The three of us perused the choices for probably fifteen minutes, asking what each iced cake was before making our decisions. After we ordered, we made our way to a table by the window. It was rather quiet in there that afternoon, with maybe a handful of tables occupied.

My friends had carrot cake and chocolate cake with raspberry filling, both of which looked delicious. The carrot cake was without raisins, pineapple and nuts as my friend prefers. I didn’t try their slices, so all I am going off of is the appearance of the cakes. They seemed to be quite moist and fairly dense with the perfect amount of icing to go with each piece.

I went with the coconut cupcake. It was touted as the best cupcake in the city by Edmonton Journal (@edmontonjournal) writer Liane Faulder (@EatMyWordsBlog) a few years back when cupcakes were all the rage. Being someone who certainly appreciates the humble dessert, I was intrigued at the time. Despite that, I never did make my way to Upper Crust on a Saturday (the only day they are available) to eat one. That is until now. I have to say that I did like the flavour of the cake and that the icing was topped with shredded coconut; however, I was a little disappointed with the overall texture. I’m not sure if it was just this particular batch, so I can’t be definitive about this, but the cake seemed too solid to the point of being slightly dry and the icing wasn’t as creamy and smooth as I would have liked.

Regardless, we popped in for a quick dessert and ended up staying for around a couple hours because we had so much to discuss. The server was attentive and, though his shift was over before we were ready to go, we never felt rushed. This relaxed atmosphere makes this restaurant a wonderful place – nice and quiet – for an afternoon or evening out with with family or friends.

Writing this review, I now find myself salivating and wanting, very badly, to eat some of their potato salad and a sandwich. I’ll be back soon to quell that craving!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wild Tangerine

The restaurant's tag line.

The restaurant’s tag line.

I had been to Wild Tangerine (@goWildTangerine) years ago, visiting after hearing many excellent reviews. While the experience at the time was great, for some reason, even though I kept telling myself to go back, I never did. Fast forward to the beginning of this month and I came across a Twitter post or perhaps a quick news snippet announcing the impending closure of the restaurant on June 21. I was shocked to hear that such a successful and loved establishment was deciding to shutter their business after 10 years, especially when siblings Judy and Wilson Wu’s passion for food has continued to shine so brightly (voted by readers into the No. 19 spot on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton in 2014 and No. 22 in 2013).

So, upon learning of the countdown to the restaurant’s final day, I immediately texted my friend and asked if she wanted to join me there for supper the following week. When she agreed that we should definitely make a point of going before it was too late, I reserved us a table and we were off to the races.

The interior of Wild Tangerine

The interior of Wild Tangerine

Walking into the brightly lit and colourful space, it hadn’t changed much since my first meal there, but I could see that everything was well taken care of and had been kept in great condition. We were seated at a booth by the windows at the front, giving me a view of the entire room. Arriving a little before the dinner hour, there were only a handful of other occupied tables. However, as we dined, the restaurant was eventually filled to capacity with patrons both showing their love and wanting to indulge in one last meal that usually consisted of at least one order of their known shrimp lollipops.

Enticing as that appetizer sounded, my friend decided to go with Chef Judy’s famous Thai Green Curry with Prawns & Tortiglioni minus the seafood as she is allergic, making it a vegetarian dish. I opted to go with the Cha-Siu Organic Pembina Pork Tenderloin with Spicy Tangerine Glaze as well as a side of Gnocchi with Coconut Cream. What I love about their food is that they always serve everything with fresh seasonal vegetables, so you know you’re getting the best that producers have to offer and that the meat products are one hundred percent Alberta grain or vegetable fed in addition to being antibiotic and growth stimulant free.

My order of pork tenderloin and gnocchi with coconut cream.

My order of pork tenderloin and gnocchi with coconut cream.

I tasted a bit of my friend’s Thai Green Curry dish and the flavours were fantastic. It wasn’t overly spicy and was filled to the brim with green beans, zucchini, red peppers and eggplant. And, as we found out at the end of our supper, they were really fair in that they lowered the cost of my friend’s meal since she had asked for no prawns. They could have charged the regular price of the dish without resistance from us, but they went ahead and altered the cost in a way that was pleasantly surprising. It showed me that this is an independent business that really knows how to take care of their customers.

The Pork Tenderloin that I ordered was very good, too. The meat was, well, tender. Pork is often easily overcooked, but it was perfection here. The tangerine glaze was a nice balance to the saltiness of meat and the bok choy was another little nod to their Asian roots. Paired with the coconut cream covered gnocchi, I was easily satisfied. Of course, I still saved room for dessert, and, am I ever glad that I did!

The warm gingered bread pudding with black sesame ice cream. To die for!

The warm gingered bread pudding with black sesame ice cream. To die for!

When Wilson brought the dessert menu over to the table he made a quick disclaimer about the warm gingered bread pudding, saying they were now out of the typical banana ice cream and that they had replaced the usual with a black sesame seed version instead. That really didn’t matter to me. I was sold as soon as I saw bread pudding there and, truth be told, I love black sesame, so that is indeed what I went with. When the plate was placed on our table, it looked almost too good to eat. The ice cream was in this perfect little cube next to a round cylinder of the bread pudding that was encrusted with a thin layer of torched sugar like a crème brûlée. It was served with a side of blueberries and small cubes of watermelon. The whole dish was wonderful and really the best cap to my meal. The slightly gritty texture of the ice cream was a great compliment to the smoothness of the bread pudding and the fruit provided an excellent palette cleanser.

I would say that I can’t wait to go back again, but, alas, that is not to be the case this time around. Now, it’s more like I’m kicking myself for not having gone more often in the past. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way either. I overheard a table of ladies tell Wilson that they were sad to see the restaurant go, and although Wilson appreciated the sentiment, he wasn’t down about the idea, telling them it was just time for them to move on.

The good news is that Wild Tangerine will still remain in some form after June 21. Judy and Wilson will continue to manage their prepared foods business part-time, serving up items such as soups, snacks and bagged cuisine meals at the new Mother’s Market, a downtown farmers’ market that is located indoors and open year round on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 102 Avenue and 109 Street.

With that, I wish the Wild Tangerine a fond farewell. It will truly be missed by Edmonton foodies. However, the show must go on, and I give three cheers to Judy and Wilson as they take their next steps! All the best!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sugarbowl

The Sugarbowl (@sugarbowlcafe), serving Edmontonians in various forms since 1943, is a community favourite in an area peppered with popular independent restaurants. Known for their famous cinnamon buns (Seriously, who would have thought that a roll without cream cheese icing would be so good! Plus, one bun is essentially a meal on its own.), they have plenty of other items to please the palette.

Patrons enjoying their meals and conversations.

Patrons enjoying their meals and conversations.

My very first visit to the establishment was several years ago, likely when I was still finishing up my Bachelor’s degree. I ordered the lamb burger and was blown away by the flavour of the meat and the use of goat cheese, a combination I had not yet experienced at the time. I’ve never forgotten that burger or the restaurant. It was the place to be before it really mattered where you hung out. And, while I was a bit late to the game considering I was born and bred in the city, it has since become a top venue to chat with family over breakfast or meet up with friends for drinks.

My girlfriends and I did exactly that approximately a month and a half ago. We met up for brunch at about 11 AM on a Saturday morning knowing full well that, by arriving at that late hour on the weekend, we might possibly miss out on the coveted cinnamon buns (we were, in fact, too late to get one!). On the other hand, it was during that sweet spot between the early morning risers and the lunch crowd, so my friend managed to grab a table quickly before the rest of us got there.

The brunch menu is pretty succinct, so it wasn’t too hard to make our decisions that day. After finding out that the cinnamon bun was no longer an option, my friend chose to go with the french toast. My other friend ordered the huevos rancheros, which was one of the menu items that was mentioned on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton this year (overall, the restaurant came in at No. 5 in 2014 and No. 15 in 2013). I went with the chicken & waffle, a dish that seems to be a little more prevalent at food establishments lately.

The chicken and waffles from the breakfast menu.

The chicken and waffles from the breakfast menu.

I didn’t sample my friends’ orders, but I was told that the french toast – fried brioche pastry/bread covered in berry compote and whipped cream – was a worthy alternative to the cinnamon bun goodness that she didn’t get to eat. I’m certain that if you’re looking for a somewhat sugary breakfast, the french toast will certainly do the job. The huevos rancheros, touted by patrons as one of the top selections for breakfast, turned out to be a bit underwhelming. Consisting of 2 eggs, corn tortilla, spicy beans, three cheeses and salsa verde, my friend wanted me to say that she thought the addition of a starch would have been ideal – hash browns or toast perhaps?

Personally, I was really happy with my chicken & waffle. Plated with two perfectly cooked waffles and two pieces of lightly breaded buttermilk, spice marinated chicken breasts, I knew I was in for a filling and hearty meal. Served with a small side of greens and a little cup of maple butter, it presented the scrumptious combination of savoury and sweet flavours. The spices from the chicken were strong enough to break through the almost too sugary maple taste as well as the blueberry syrup that I had added to my waffles. All-in-all, the dish is very well-balanced and a good contender for those who can never decide between having something salty or sweet during brunch.

Sometime this summer, when the weather decides to stay steadily warm with just a light breeze, I would like to visit again for lunch or dinner on the patio. It’s been a while since I have had the opportunity to sample from those menus and I’d love to see if the lamb burger still lives up to my memory of it.

I also have to hand it to the servers here. They always have smiles on their faces, they are fun, friendly and they do a great job of checking in throughout your meal to remove empty dishes and refill drinks as needed without giving you the sense of being overbearing. There’s a real feeling of camaraderie between the staff that shines through, too.

When we were done our food, cappuccinos and orange juice, we cleared out to make room for others who were waiting patiently for tables. The only downside is that they don’t take reservations. But, I suppose that is part of the charm of the Sugarbowl. There’s something about being in line, anticipating your turn to sit down, watching everyone else have a great time, and knowing that you will soon join them.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Phork

The Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio

The Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio

The Phork (@thePhork) graced Edmonton with its presence at the end of 2013, opening its doors shortly before Christmas. Housed in the previous home of The Copper Pot, I was completely unaware of this new restaurant until I happened upon their deal on Groupon. It seems that the establishment was greeted with little fanfare upon debuting, so I count myself lucky to have come across the place in this fashion. Otherwise, I might not have found out about it until much later.

Although I had the vouchers in hand, it still took me over three months to make my way there, perhaps because it seemed like a slightly out-of-the-way location. Situated near the Grandin LRT Station on the main floor of a small office building, it wasn’t close enough to work to make it there and back during my lunch hour, and it just never was the first to come to mind when making dinner plans during the week or on the weekend. However, after having been there twice now within the last month, I can say that I wish I hadn’t delayed going for as long as I did.

My mother dined with me on both occasions, the first of which was a lunch outing. We had made a reservation through e-mail that time, but had also called ahead to ask about the parking situation. As it turns out, there is free parking available in the building’s underground parkade. The three or four visitor spaces are good to use during lunch hours while the remaining spots open up during the evening. I doubt that this is common knowledge as this information isn’t really advertised on their site. Yet, I think it certainly gives people more incentive to go, knowing that there is going to be somewhere to park their car in an area where parking may not be that easy to come by.

Views of the park, river valley and High Level Bridge.

Views of the park, river valley and High Level Bridge.

So, with that potential issue removed, we ventured into the restaurant where we were greeted quickly, although somewhat frantically, by a friendly guy who I learned later was Jameson the General Manager. Short staffed that day, he took on the role of server during lunch and promptly guided us to a raised booth that provided views of the High Level bridge and the park across the street. With about twenty or so tables that seat around four people each, it looked to be a quiet day as only a handful were being used. Despite that, I had high hopes.

Skipping drinks as it was still very early in the afternoon, we opted to stick to the food menu. I ordered the Boar Belly Chicken Club and my mom decided to go with the Grilled New York Steak. Both of us chose the seafood chowder for our side. When our dishes arrived at the table, my initial thought was that the size of the soup bowl was massive. For a side, they are very generous, and the soup was really delicious. It wasn’t very thick, but you could certainly taste the cream and it had a slight spiciness to it. It was also chock-full of muscles, pieces of salmon, halibut or cod, shrimp and vegetables. It honestly seemed like a full size order of soup and could have served as my whole meal. I’m definitely not complaining though. I consider it to be a plus that they don’t skimp on the portions.

With regards to my Boar Belly Chicken Club, it was quite delicious. I’m not certain what kind of bun they were using that day, but it was quite a crusty type of bread, which I am not that partial to, so I only ended up eating about half of the starch. However, I don’t feel that was a loss as it was a really large amount of bread and it wasn’t all necessary. The body of the sandwich included chicken breast, bacon (nicely crisped), which I’m guessing was the boar belly, aged cheddar, greens and tomato with bacon mayo. Overall, it may have been a little too salty for me when eaten whole. Yet, I enjoyed the strong smoky flavour and everything was well done.

The Grilled New York Steak with a side of Seafood Chowder!

The Grilled New York Steak with a side of Seafood Chowder!

The Grilled New York Steak was also a testament to the chef because it was cooked to perfection – incredibly tender and still pink. The meat sat on top of half an open-faced bun and was accompanied by sautéed mushrooms, Spanish onions, sun-dried tomato, spinach and Asiago cheese. I had several bites of it and it was so good. The different ingredients really melded together well and paired excellently with the steak. I would go back just for that.

We finished off lunch with an absolutely wonderful peach and mango crumble. The dessert was my favourite, and the single order was more than enough to share. Filled to the brim with large chunks of peach and mango, layered with crumble, candied pecans and walnuts and coming with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it was a great treat for a spring day. Simple, but decadent, I was no longer hungry when we left.

If I can, I really do like to base my reviews off of more than one visit, so exactly a week later, we dropped in for dinner. This time, I reserved a table through the OpenTable system. As we arrived at 5:30 prior to the dinner rush (it was almost a full house by the time we left), we were promptly seated at a table next to the window. The view was basically the same as during our previous lunch, but I was now also able to see the Legislature building directly ahead of me as well as the High Level Bridge Streetcar passing by every so often.

The interior of The Phork.

The interior of The Phork.

Again, we opted to skip the drinks (Although, I will have to go back to try one of their tableside flare cocktails. They are served by local, professional flare bartenders and, according to their website, The Phork is the first and only restaurant in Edmonton to offer this service.) and concentrate on the food offerings (the supper menu is double-sided). Since Mother’s Day was coming up, we went all out and ordered three appetizers and a main to split, including Crispy Fried Truffled Mac & Cheese Balls, Smoked Jalapeno Blue Crab Cake, Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio and the Pistachio Crusted Rack of Lamb.

I’ll start with the Mac & Cheese Balls. These were awesome. The breading on the outside reminded me of the Mac and Cheese Maki at The Hat, but with a more even ratio of panko to pasta. The spicy chili Ketchup, truffle oil and what I assume to be shaved Asiago cheese that accompanied the balls were excellent additions that really elevated the palette of the dish while keeping from being overpowering. The two Crab Cakes were seared well. Plated with a side of gathered greens and honey & mustard aioli, it was a light appetizer that had that great balance of piquant and sweet profiles. The Beef Carpaccio came with fresh slices of sesame seed topped bread and thin sheets of beef tenderloin topped with baby arugula, shaved reggiano cheese, a sprinkle of coarse sea salt and a drizzle of EVOO. The beef was melt-in-your-mouth good, and the flavours from the extras were subtle enough to ensure that the meat remained the focus.

For the entrée, we divided the Rack of Lamb and I’m glad we did because the starters already provided plenty of food. On the other hand, I am also happy that we didn’t skip this main as the lamb was incredible. The kitchen really does an excellent job with the preparation and cooking of their meats. We asked for the lamb to be medium-rare and it came to us just as requested. The steak knife that was provided cut through the rack like butter and there was plenty of juicy meat on the bones, which isn’t always the case when ordering this dish. What I loved most was the strong Dijon mustard and crushed pistachio that crusted the lamb as it paired so well with the natural flavour of the meat. The brush of butternut squash puree and braised leeks were texturally appealing and gave the plate an artistic look. The side of sweet potato pave was a good starch to anchor the entrée, but there was so much that we couldn’t finish it.

Having experienced both their lunch and dinner services, I can safely say that this establishment is another fantastic addition to Edmonton’s growing restaurant scene. The bright, new interiors and the views make it appealing, and the personable service (although, they can refill water glasses more regularly) is something I noticed and has stuck with me.

For those who have yet to try The Phork, here are some potential incentives for you. Currently, the restaurant is offering $10 off lunch for groups of two or more during their Monday to Friday lunch hours. Every Tuesday they have half price off every wine after 4 PM, and Saturday evenings from 7 to 10 PM there is live music. I expect I’ll be back to indulge in beverages, more food and some music soon enough! It’s that good!