Edmonton Restaurant Review: Red Star Pub

Beef Carpaccio

Over the years, I had been to Red Star Pub a handful of times. It was always to chat over drinks with friends as we extended our night just a little bit longer. Never had I ever tried the food. This fall, that would change.

Located on the lower level of a building on 105 Street and Jasper Avenue, the only sign of the space’s existence is a bright red star that lights up like a beacon in the dark. The interior has the styling of an old Irish bar with dim lighting and dark wood everything. But, it’s also extremely cozy and feels like a respite from our months of desolate winter or the perfect place to huddle up on a rainy day.

Jerk Chicken from Caribbean night, which is sadly no longer.

My first attempt at trying their menu was thwarted when I showed up on the first Wednesday of the month in September. As it turns out, until very recently, that was Caribbean night (they’ve ended after a decade), and the only three items served during that event was jerk chicken, or the chicken/veggie roti wraps. We opted to stay that time, and the jerk chicken was a pleasant surprise, but I wasn’t satisfied that I didn’t get to eat their actual food.

A week later, I was back with another friend in tow. Seeing as how we showed up between 4pm to 7pm, we took advantage of their happy hour by selecting Pork Crostinis ($3 each) and mix and match Mini Burgers ($5 each).

Pork Crostini

Sometimes I’m apprehensive to order sliders and crostini when the individual price still seems rather steep. However, rest assured. You are getting your value at Red Star Pub. The size of the crostinis and the burgers are generous. The Pork Crostini was probably the same diameter as my palm, and it was piled high with braised Pembina pork, shaved fennel and Pecorino cheese. These were succulent and flavourful with a hefty toasted bread as the base.

The Mini Burgers

We tried both of the mini burgers listed on the menu. Their original option is made with ground tenderloin tip, bacon apple relish and Applewood cheddar. There was a ton of chopped bacon stacked under the beef patty and a beautiful smoky flavour from the cheese. The other burger was a newer addition to their lineup, consisting of jalapeno chimichurri, aged cheddar and pickled radish. This one was still tasty, but the jalapeno chimichurri took a little getting used to. I didn’t necessarily mind the heat. It was more the amount of herbs used and the earthiness of the sauce that didn’t quite mesh with my palate at first. At the very least, the meat was superb. The burgers were formed to be thick and oh so juicy.

My friend continued her meal with a their recently created Chicken Sandwich, which I did not sample myself. It looked and sounded delicious though. A combination of confit chicken thigh, arugula, and caper aioli between house-made focaccia, it was a hearty sandwich for sure.

The gorgeous Beef Carpaccio.

I finished off my meal with a dish of Red Star Pub’s Beef Carpaccio ($15). Really thinly sliced raw Spring Creek beef was carefully laid out on the plate until it covered every millimeter. It was then topped with arugula, Granny Smith apple salad, lemon, Parmigiano, pepper, and olive oil. Served on the side was a sliced loaf of dense yet soft bread. The beef was so tender as to almost melt in my mouth, and the balance of fresh meat with the tart flavours of lemon and apple was fantastic.

The dark yet cozy interior of Red Star Pub.

Considering how much food we ate, the approximately $30 cost per person after tax and tip wasn’t bad. Although, what I really like about Red Star Pub is how comfortable it is despite being in a dark basement with little natural light. The service is great, too. The staff are always friendly and helpful, and now I can say the food is worth a visit as well.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wilfred’s

Check-in to Wilfred’s upon arrival.

Wilfred’s is one of the newest restaurants to dot the Edmonton landscape. It’s situated within the popular Brewery District inside a fairly nondescript 100-year-old vintage brick building that used to belong to the old Molson Brewery. Completely refurbished, the heritage space is now unrecognizable. The interior is a wash of light woods, a mix of pink and white accents, dark metals, and whimsical art from Vanguard Works.

The Pink Blazer was the weekly Pink Drink sometime in October.

Even though Wilfred’s, a contemporary diner, had opened by the official start of summer 2018, Kirk and I held off on our visit. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago when we decided it was time to check it out. I’m not going to lie, it was their latest weekly featured Pink Drink ($13), The Pastel Blazer, that got me in the door. It was actually more bitter than I expected it to be, and the ingredients — vodka, Aperol, unsweetened coconut milk, lime juice, and egg white — had to be stirred regularly to avoid separation, but it was, overall, a smooth and refreshing beverage that lasted me through our dinner.

Everything about Wilfred’s is curated from the wallpaper to the menu.

To eat, the two of us split a couple of plates: Wilfred’s Burger ($18) with added white cheddar ($2) and soup ($3) subbed in for the usual fries, as well as the Fried Chicken & Prosciutto Cutlet ($25). Arguably the best thing about both dishes was the size as they were generously portioned. For the price, I’m glad to see that they didn’t skimp. However, I do feel that each one could use some improvement.

Beginning with the burger, this consisted of a hefty nine ounce patty of beef topped with bacon, lettuce, tomato and onion. It’s so thick that I found it rather difficult to unhinge my jaw to take a real bite out of the burger. The bun also didn’t fare too well as it slid around and fell apart as I ate. The meat itself was cooked to about a medium well, so it wasn’t completely colourless, but it also wasn’t as juicy as I hoped it would be. Thankfully, it was fresh though. It certainly didn’t seem to be a prefab patty, and, that, I’ll commend Wilfred’s for. Had it not been for the added cheese and the crispy bacon, the burger would have had relatively no flavour. I highly recommend that the restaurant creates a signature sauce to go with this menu item.

Cauliflower & Potato Soup with bacon and chives

The upgrade to their Cauliflower & Potato Soup was the saving grace to this dish. It was thick, creamy and smooth. When served hot, it makes for the perfect hearty soup to have during the onset of winter. The tiny bits of bacon and chives added a little fattiness and herbaceousness.

Fried Chicken & Prosciutto Cutlet

Our second plate of Fried Chicken & Prosciutto Cutlets was enormous. The two breasts or legs of meat had been pounded until evenly thin throughout. Layered with prosciutto and then breaded and fried, they were super crispy without tasting or feeling greasy. I could have used some more prosciutto as it was hard to discern its presence. Yet, upon careful inspection, I did see it there. If you try this, definitely squeeze some fresh lemon juice onto the chicken. The zest kicks the dish up a notch, and the acidity breaks down some of the salt. On the side was an arugula salad with tomatoes and Parmesan. This was a great accompaniment to the chicken. The sharp taste of the greens, the tartness of the tomatoes, and the pungency of the cheese paired very well with the meat.

Postcards designed by Vanguard Works are provided with the bill.

When all was said and done, our meal at Wilfred’s was a bit of a miss. Sure, the service was quite good, the atmosphere was pleasant (admittedly a tad cramped though), and they have an excellent bar program. Nevertheless, the food isn’t meeting it’s full potential. I understand that simplicity is key at times, but, in the case of Wilfred’s, the kitchen needs to do something to set themselves apart from the rest. Right now, they’re not. They should take a chance and be as playful with the menu as they are with the decor.

The interior of Wilfred’s is light and whimsical.

Edmonton Bakery Review: Cinnaholic

What’s inside the box?

Cinnaholic is an American-based franchise that introduced their first Alberta location in Edmonton this past spring. Opening to much fanfare in the downtown core (the Mayfair on Jasper building at 10075 109 Street), the promo of $1 cinnamon buns for the first half of their launch day had patrons lined up all the way down and around the block. Even though my co-worker and I had plans to take advantage of the deal, there was no way we would get away with staying in line for what would likely be a few hours. We turned right back around, leaving empty-handed.

Cinnaholic’s menu is quite extensive when building your own bun.

Fast forward to early fall, and a few of us decided we’d treat ourselves to a lunchtime dessert. We walked over to Cinnaholic once more. This time, it was a normal business day for them and it was a lot quieter. The most difficult part of the process when ordering your cinnamon bun is choosing from the 18 icing options and 24 topping selections. However, the cost is no joke either. The Classic Old Skool Roll with Vanilla Frosting is $5.50. Modification to the icing is going to be an additional 50 cents per flavour. Additionally, every single topping chosen is another 75 cents each.

Their showcase has a number of suggested buns.

My friends went all out with theirs. I kept mine fairly simple by swapping out the vanilla frosting for what I think should always be the regular accompaniment to a cinnamon bun, cream cheese frosting. To top it off, I picked a cookie dough topping. All in all, I expected that this would total about $6.75 plus tax. However, it was a little less, ringing in at only $6.25 as though the switch to the icing was free.

They can get quite elaborate.

As a bonus, I do recommend signing up for Cinnaholic’s rewards card. For every dollar spent, you’ll earn points, and those points can be redeemed for discounts. You’ll also get periodic offers for free toppings, etc. Best of all, with my first purchase, I was able to save $3 off of my bill, making this treat significantly more affordable that day.

Once our orders were placed, it didn’t take the staff long to prepare our buns. They carefully packed them up in paper bags, so we could take them to go. As soon as we returned to the office, I opened up my box to take a look. Honestly, the dessert looked a little worse for wear. I guess the heat from the cinnamon bun had melted the cream cheese icing and caused the cookie dough to slide off. It certainly wasn’t as pretty as what I’d seen of other purchases on social media. Still, the biggest test came with a tasting.

I was the last to try my Cinnaholic bun out of my friends since I decided to eat my real meal first. From their desks I heard them say that theirs were good, but super sweet, so I got a little bit apprehensive. When I finally began to take bites of mine, it was no longer as warm (I was too lazy to walk to the microwave to heat it quickly). And, although the bun itself felt fresh, because Cinnaholic uses all vegan recipes that are dairy, lactose, egg and cholesterol-free, the dough was somewhat dense. It, unfortunately, doesn’t become as airy and fluffy once baked as one might be used to.

In terms of the frosting, it was sugary to the point of the granules being evident, and, while I do believe that cream cheese icing is better than vanilla, I’m not sure it was immediately discernible that what I was tasting was supposed to be cream cheese flavoured. The cookie dough topping may have been the best part of the cinnamon bun. It was malleable and I scooped up dough to spread onto each piece of bun as I ate.

Cinnaholic’s interior is bright.

Personally, Cinnaholic wasn’t my favourite. I’d much rather get my usual cinnamon bun from Cinnzeo. Those are tried and true and they never disappoint. Still, I do feel that Cinnaholic serves a niche market for those who may have food intolerances. That’s the clientele that they were created for, and it’s nice that customers have this option. It’s just not going to be my top pick, and I likely won’t continue to go out of my way to visit Cinnaholic often.

Edmonton Event Review: Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up

Donair Dumplings

Placing in the top four of MasterChef Canada competitors (her season aired in the spring of 2017), chef Mai Nguyen returned to Edmonton with talent to spare. I’m going to call her the Dumpling Queen since she has parlayed her knowledge of cooking into making these delectable pocketed treats.

I’ve kept my eye on her social media, and I have drooled at photos of all the food that she has posted. I also lamented missing out on previous pop-ups that she has run. Every time one occurred, I happened to have previous plans that prevented me from attending. But, a week and a half ago, she hosted another one at Prairie Noodle Shop. You best believe that I booked a reservation as soon as I found out.

The full menu for the Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up on Oct 28.

Kirk and I arrived at the restaurant at noon (the earlier the better as the dumplings only last until sold out), and proceeded to order almost the entire wallet-friendly menu: Donair ($9 for 6 pieces), Bacon Cheeseburger ($11 for 6 pieces), Peaches & Shrimp ($11 for 5 pieces), Satay Chicken ($10 for 6 pieces), Oyster Soup Dumpling ($4 for a single), Roasted Kabocha Squash ($7 for 4 pieces), and Marinated Quail Eggs ($4 for 4 eggs). We also received a House Salad ($5) at no charge due to a delay with one of our items. Each dish was presented as they were prepared, so everything was served fresh and hot.

Peaches & Shrimp Dumplings

The first to come out was the Peaches & Shrimp. Kirk would have preferred that the shrimp was minced and mixed with other filling. But, I was okay with the shrimp being whole. The outside of the dumpling showcased a beautiful braided edge. The wrap was slightly crisp and a little bit sweet from the mayo. It’s a classic combo of flavours, taking influence from the famous Chinese favourite.

Next up was the Donair, which seemed to be filled with minced lamb. The meat was slightly drier, probably from the leaner cut. Still, these were very tasty when combined with the donair sauce, pickled onions and tomatoes. Having additional donair sauce for dipping would have taken these just a step further.

Marinated Quail Eggs

As we dined, I snacked on the Marinated Quail Eggs. These were delicate and delicious. Extremely well-flavoured with a smooth texture and not too hard. They were paired with pickled radishes that added crunch.

Bacon Cheeseburger Dumplings

Returning to the dumplings, we continued on our lunchtime journey with the Bacon Cheeseburger. These were fabulous. I kind of questioned them at first, mostly for the regular pickles listed in the ingredients. Thankfully, the pickles were just used as a topping to the dish and could be removed easily. The meat was incredibly juicy, and the fats that oozed out with every initial bite reminded me of eating a xiao long bao (soup dumpling). These ended up being my top choice of the day!

Oyster Soup Dumpling

Because Kirk isn’t keen on eating bivalve molluscs like oysters or mussels, I couldn’t convince him to give the Oyster Soup Dumpling a try. These were perfectly folded with black wraps coloured using squid ink. Admittedly, the high salinity content of the oyster can be hard for many to swallow. But, overall, I think that these showed a lot of craft, and if tweaked slightly, they could be winners.

House Salad

Part way through our meal, we realized it was likely that our last plate of dumplings was forgotten, so we quickly mentioned it to one of the servers. While we waited, they provided a complimentary House Salad. A rainbow mix of sliced raw radishes, carrot slivers and greens were tossed in a fragrant ginger soy sesame dressing. The acidity was such a nice cleanser on the palate before lunch ended.

Satay Chicken Dumplings

It wasn’t long before we received our Satay Chicken dumplings. These were massive! The minced chicken had been combined with ginger for a simple touch of spice. The seared dumplings were served with pickled veggies (chili peppers and cucumber) and a thick peanut satay sauce. Compared to the rest of the options at the pop-up, Kirk and I both thought that these were a tad bland on their own. However, when eaten with the dip and veggies, they were superb.

Roasted Kabocha Squash

The Gourmai Pop-Up was completed with a helping of the Roasted Kabocha Squash, Mai’s take on dessert dumplings. These were decadent while retaining a lightness in the whipped mascarpone cheese and squash filling. Sitting in a generous pool of spiced crème anglaise (I drank all of it) and decorated with graham cracker crumb and pumpkin seed, it was the perfect fall-inspired finish to our outing.

Mai definitely outdid herself by making each and every dumpling by hand for the event. I can’t even fathom the amount of time it took for her to prepare all of them. The love certainly showed though, and I look forward to her next endeavour(s). If you want the chance to attend her next Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up, follow her on Instagram (@maicaroon). You’ll want to be there!

Edmonton Things To Do: Evoolution’s Taste the World of Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar

Main course for the tasting at Evoolution.

Personally, a good olive oil and balsamic vinegar brings me back to some of the best dinners I’ve had with friends. It seemed like such a fancy thing when I was younger to have a restaurant serve that mixture as a dip for fresh bread because it wasn’t something we ever did at home. It was such a simple thing, yet it was also a treat.

Nowadays, we’ve got a couple of great shops that specialize in these products. Oliv Tasting Room and Evoolution are on a mission to get high quality olive oils and balsamic vinegars into the hands of Edmontonians and Albertans. I’m a fan of both, having frequented each a number of times over the years. However, working downtown, Evoolution on 104 Street and 101 Avenue is the most convenient.

The Evoolution shop on 104 Street in Edmonton.

Often times, I’ve found myself hanging out there during lunch or after work eating cubes of bread doused in a variety of flavours. Bottles range in size and price depending on the the type of oil or vinegar. Nevertheless, there’s always something to please each palate, and they make wonderful gifts, especially for family members or friends who like to cook.

Recently, I was attempting to find an activity for my friend and I to do together. As per usual, I ended up on the Eventbrite app, and that’s where I came across several listings from Evoolution (104 Street & Enjoy Centre locations). Once or twice a month they hold events in the evening. After the store is closed, they prep the space to seat a large table of about ten people — more can be accommodated in St. Albert’s Enjoy Centre — who will be taken through an educational tasting and full 3-course meal that highlights how olive oils and balsamic vinegars can be used at home.

A booklet with lots of info on their products and the menu for the evening.

For $35 plus tax per person, we were taken through the proper way to taste olive oil using the strippaggio method (similar to how one might taste a fine wine). A dark blue tulip glass is cupped in the hands and warmed before taking a sip. With teeth clenched, you then have to suck air into the mouth until the oil hits the back of the throat. Doing so allows for the oil to be stripped and the flavour to be revealed. The difference between basic store bought extra virgin olive oil and the premium ones sold at Evoolution is staggering. Signs of an excellent olive oil come down to three things: smell, taste, and texture. Surprisingly, the colour and clarity doesn’t matter so much. What you are looking for is an earthy/grassy scent, a pepperiness on the tongue (high polyphenols, a.k.a. antioxidants, bring that out), and a smooth finish with no film or residue left in the mouth.

Better quality olive oils shouldn’t even list an expiry date. What needs to be indicated, though, is the crush date of the olives used to make the batch. It should last for 12 to 14 months after the bottle is opened without any issue. Still, it’s ideally consumed within 6 months since the freshness starts to break down as soon as it’s opened and continues to do so every time air comes into contact with the oil. Nonetheless, you’ll know if it has gone bad as olive oil does become rancid. We also learned that the best olive oils tend to have high smoke points because of their fatty acid content, making them fantastic for use at high heats of up to 450 degrees. That’s contrary to the myth that they are not to be used for cooking.

Complimentary mini bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar were given to each guest.

Next up on the agenda was an info session on balsamic vinegars. Honestly, it’d never crossed my mind to question what balsamic vinegar was made of. I was flabbergasted to find out that it’s made from grapes. White Trebbiano grapes to be exact. When crushed, the syrup from the grape juice is what is extracted, fermented and aged either in stainless steel or wooden barrels. The flavour, viscousness, and concentration of every balsamic vinegar is determined by the amount of time aged, evaporation of the liquid as it ages, and oxidization of the syrup when exposed to the barrel used. Lighter balsamic vinegars are usually processed in stainless steel or light wood barrels. Inkier ones are made using dark wood. Due to the fermentation of the product, they can easily last 3 years. I suspect, it’s also why balsamic vinegars have an effervescence when sipped on their own.

Don’t store either olive oil or balsamic vinegar in the fridge though. Condensation in the bottle can spoil them. Just keep them away from direct light and heat and they’ll be fine.

When we finished going over the finer points of each and had sampled half the store, that’s when dinner began. There was a platter of crusty bread to be eaten with our choice of oils and vinegars as well as four different tapenades. Evoolution’s famous truffle butter popcorn was served as well. I’m not a popcorn person, but I could eat a ton of that. Their butter olive oil is made with a plant extract, so it’s free of dairy. Yet, it tastes just like the real thing. Uncanny. To drink, we were given glasses of club soda mixed with their gravenstein apple balsamic vinegar. Turns out that balsamic vinegar is the perfect natural product to flavour water with. For anyone who uses drink crystals or those squeeze bottles to make their water taste “better,” you can stop doing that now.

Supper was more than filling. We were first presented with a spring salad with fresh mozzarella, basil pesto, and black currant balsamic vinegar. Our entrée consisted of an autumn wild rice pilaf — hearty winter veggies, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, olives, and butternut squash seed oil — likely made in their back room using a Crock-Pot and a hot plate (they don’t have a kitchen, so we were impressed). Dessert was an elaborate pumpkin pie cheesecake decorated with vermont maple balsamic candy.

As our host, Christine, pointed out, the menus are made on the fly. Usually they’re created on the day of the event, and the courses are determined by what kind of fresh ingredients are found at the grocery store. Having run these tasting sessions for quite some time, she was confident that within the last year they had yet to duplicate a menu or a single course. I declared that she may as well save me a spot every month because I’d be willing to spend the money on a meal like this regularly. Since they don’t prepare a menu in advance, it may be difficult for attendees to know if their dietary concerns can be accommodated. However, Christine assured us that once a ticket is bought, they can be contacted and informed of issues or allergies, so they can work within those parameters.

When we were finished eating, we were then able to shop the whole store at 15 per cent off. Considering Evoolution never really offers any sales, it’s certainly a plus to attend a tasting event just to get this bonus, particularly around the holiday season.

If you’re looking for something new to do in Edmonton and you like to eat, I highly encourage you to look into the next events at Evoolution. The cost of admission is well worth it. My friend and I learned so much about these kitchen staples while being “wined” and dined. It’s time that you experienced Evoolution like this, too.