Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Phork (Closed)

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 palate 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!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Common

I remember when The Common (@TheCommonYEG) used to be on 124 Street in the tiny location that is now The Bothy. Even though I had heard good things about it, I never went. Then they moved to their current spot on 109 Street and 99 Avenue, building up a reputation as the hang out for Edmonton hipsters galore and I still never made a point of going there. That is until about a month ago. My friends and I had been discussing places where there would be the potential of meeting some decent single guys around our age and this gastro-lounge with a vintage yet modern vibe came up as a possibility.

The wall of vinyl records and vintage finds at The Common.

The wall of vinyl records and vintage finds at The Common.

In addition, The Common had made it onto The Tomato‘s annual list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton for two years back-to-back (No. 33 in 2013 and No. 41 in 2014), and as we are diligently making our way through said lists, it became clear that this would be the destination for our next outing. Known for their small, but eclectic menu with the stars being dishes such as the poutine, pork belly lettuce wraps, roasted mackerel, and the chicken and waffles, we knew our evening there had to include dinner as well as dancing.

Since my friend had been in the past, she suggested we meet there at 6:3o, so we could grab a table for the night. It seemed a little early considering we were planning on staying to dance, too, but I’m glad we arrived when we did. The bar area by the entrance wasn’t full by any means, but most of the seats in the other two rooms were already taken. We lucked out with a booth right by the dance floor and settled in for a long evening of food and drinks. While we waited for our third to show, the two of us ordered beverages. She had an Alley Kat Main Squeeze and, I, a Foundry Cider, both of which were nice and refreshing. I took in the surroundings. Comfortable, but also cool, the place uses a mixture of clean lines, geometric patterns and odd finds for the decor.

Our first round of drinks for the evening!

Our first round of drinks for the evening!

When our girlfriend joined us, we looked through the selection of seasonal dishes and each opted for something different, so we could sample several things. For those who require gluten-free options, they had quite a few items on the menu that fulfilled that criteria. What surprised me most was, despite there being just a few servers that I could see and it being a full house, the service was excellent. Our food was ready relatively quickly and our server came by to check on us and our drinks regularly, ensuring that we could get refills when we needed them.

The food came to our tables looking wonderfully presented – colorful and appetizing – and in portions that were just the right size. Not too much and not too little. I was also pleased with the prices for all the items. Considering the quality of the food, everything was nicely affordable.

Between the three of us, we ordered the Jackson Steak Salad, the Duck Confit, and the Short Rib and Risotto, all of which were delicious. I typically am not a huge fan of blue cheese, but as part of the Jackson Steak Salad, it paired very well with the perfectly cooked meat, artichokes and mustard dressing. The Duck Confit was interesting because rather than showing up on the plate as a full duck leg as per a traditional dish, the shredded duck meat was incorporated into a cylinder that consisted of baby potatoes, shitake mushrooms, edamame and spiny lettuce with sides of orange slices and green beans. The layered flavours and textures in that dish – salty meat and tangy fruit – made me wish I had ordered that for myself. Of course, that thought didn’t last for long. I’m a sucker for braised beef and the short ribs were nothing short of fantastic. The spinach risotto, pine nuts, chanterelle mushrooms and carrot puree came together very well. It was definitely the heaviest entrée we tried, but it was perfect for a full night out.

Once we finished our meals, we continued to imbibe a variety of beers until our friend was ready for round two of food. Having only ordered the salad, she was adamant that she wanted more to eat, and the chicken and waffles were calling her name (we also told her to order it because we’d seen so many people eating it that we were really curious about that entrée). It’s definitely a hearty dish with the fried chicken strips and the waffles, but I could certainly see why they were so popular. The tender chicken with the crunchy breading combined with the crispy on the outside and soft on the inside buttery bacon waffles, goat cheese and a sweet yet spicy blackberry and chile sauce was pretty incredible. Our friend had no issues polishing off her plate.

We were done dining just in time for the music to start. That night it was a mix of funkified sounds that brought in some old school Jackson 5 type songs to get people up and moving. While we would have been up on the dance floor much sooner, it took the staff a bit of time to clear away a couple of the tables that were in the space, and, as there’s little room until they’re moved, we happily talked with some of the other patrons while we waited. Everyone there was extremely personable, making for a fun time.

Me and my girls!

Me and my girls!

Verging on almost thirty years of age (at least for a couple of us), we called it a night at around 11pm. Perhaps if we started our evening a little later, we may have lasted longer into the wee hours of the morning, but, alas, we were all sleepy from the carb coma and also needed to make our way home before public transit became scarce. Prior to leaving though, we still made sure to bust a few nerdy moves, satisfying our goal of dinner and dancing after all.

As we wove our way through the crowded rooms towards the door, I could see that the lounge was packed to the brim, every seat filled with people having a great time. And, that’s The Common’s goal: elevating the way we think about and approach spending an evening with those we love – through good food (I must try some of the appetizers and desserts next time), drinks, conversation and music.

I can’t wait pay this place another visit tomorrow!

The new dinner menu - May 2014! Looking forward to trying something different!

The new dinner menu – May 2014! Looking forward to trying something different!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Cavern

On April 9, The Cavern celebrated its official one year anniversary and I happened to visit for the very first time that evening. There wasn’t much hoopla. Well, none at all. I was completely unaware that congratulations were in order, but I think that fits with the cafe/bar atmosphere that they are going for. Unassuming and inviting, but not pretentious, I had passed by the place last summer as I perused the City Market along 104 Street. I had heard of it before, and the people sitting outside at small tables along the sidewalk seemed to be enjoying themselves, likely basking in the sunshine, soaking up vitamin D while they had the chance.

Cheese and charcuterie board #1 - Le Noble and Comte cheeses with genoa salami and Proscuitto di Parma

Cheese and charcuterie board #1 – Le Noble and Comte cheeses with Genoa salami and prosciutto di parma

It took me another 8 months before I stepped foot into the underground space. A combination of things pushed me to finally go there. The first was that after almost a full year of business, they had just made their way onto the second annual list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton as named by readers of The Tomato, coming in at No. 12 as of March 2014. The next reason I decided to go there was because the friend I was meeting was hoping for something lighter than a full dinner and was opting for drinks. Plus, I love cheese. Thirdly, I wanted to go somewhere that was new to me and somewhere that was within walking distance after work. And, voila!  The Cavern fit all the necessary caveats for that night.

When I opened the door to the cavern, housed in the basement of the Phillips Building, which was built in 1912 and sits alongside other landmarks in the historical warehouse district, I was taken aback by the relatively small size of the cafe. To the left of the doors are a few bar stools, but the bar holds various free magazines (including copies of The Tomato’s latest issue). Venturing down the steps, there are about four tables along the wall that seat three to four people each and to the right are some additional counter stools. There is also a spot for one right by the till. A big portion of the space is take up by the kitchen, cheese case and shop that presented a pleasant surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting to see that this was basically half a store and half a restaurant. In my mind, the name of the cafe evoked an atmosphere that was dimly lit with dark corners and nooks. Instead, it is rather brightly lit with clean lines, but a somewhat rustic feel.

My glass of Riesling next to the wine list

My glass of Riesling next to the wine list

I was greeted quickly and seated at an empty table. As I waited for my friend to join me, I perused the menus and ordered myself a 3-ounce glass of Riesling to help me pass the time. I noticed that the bottles of wine were stored in a state-of-the-art Enomatic wine system that dispenses wine directly from the bottle and preserves the flavours and characteristics of the wine for more than three weeks. When my glass arrived at the table, it was cold, crisp, fruity and light. I actually wish I had ordered a 6-ounce glass, but the prices were a little steeper than I had expected. Regardless, I was thoroughly satisfied.

My friend showed up shortly after, requesting sparkling water, which was dispensed from a Vivreau water system. For $1.50 per person and as many refills as we wanted, it was worth getting that over something like a single bottle of Perrier. Having gone through the list of options for food, we decided to go with a cheese and charcuterie board for two. Ringing in at just under $30, we got to select two cheeses and two meats. While the menu was very clear in differentiating the types of cheese and included detailed descriptions of the flavours and textures, I still asked our server for her recommendations, and she was more than happy to suggest some of her favourites.

The Cavern's cheese and charcuterie menu

The Cavern’s cheese and charcuterie menu

In the end, we opted for Le Noble, a bloomy rind cheese from Quebec that is similar to brie with a mushroom aroma and a buttery and creamy texture, and Comte, an eastern French semi-hard cheese that is aged for 8 to 12 months and has a strong yet slightly sweet taste. To pair, we went with the prosciutto and salami. The board was topped off with a fresh loaf of crusty bread, both a sweet and a spicy compote, sliced apples and a mixture of walnuts and dried fruits including figs, apricots and cranberries. The two cheeses that we opted for were amazing – incredibly fresh and exactly as advertised. Combined with the other accompaniments on the board, this visit turned out to be a home run. Actually, my friend enjoyed our selections so much that she ended up buying some to go as well.

For a quiet evening, they had about four staff on hand, which maybe seemed a bit much, but every person we came in contact with was extremely friendly and willing to impart their knowledge on us. The Cavern is definitely a nice little addition to our city’s core and I will be sure to stop by more often from now on.

In fact, I visited again this past Monday. This time, I had a chance to try a wonderfully dense and smooth goat cheese along with slices of bresaola (a cured meat similar to beef jerky, but much more tender and lean). I also indulged in a cheese cake parfait dessert that layered almond cookies, JACEK white chocolate liquid cheese cake and raspberries. Every time I get home after I have been to Cavern, I’m astonished that I am not hungry for more food. It does not seem like you are eating that much when you are there. However, looks are deceiving and you are getting more than you expect.

I think it’s still a place that is not known to very many people in Edmonton, but word is getting out and I’m glad. I hope they’ll be around for a long time to come. The fact that you can pop in and pick up some key ingredients for your own homemade cheese board (more than 75 different international cheeses to choose from on any given day) is also a great reason to hope that they become a fixture.

If you plan to go, they are open early until 9pm or 11pm Monday to Saturday, depending on the day. Aside from the boards, they also serve coffee, breakfast and lunch, so there’s something for everyone.

For a quick check of their hours and their latest news, see what they have to say on Twitter: @CavernYEG. The pictures they post are sure to make any cheese and charcuterie lovers drool, especially me.

For a more in-depth look at the establishment’s involvement in the community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of The Cavern.