Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2014

This year I decided to start tackling The Tomato‘s 100 best eats in Edmonton for 2013 and 2014 (once the second year’s was released in March). It pushed me to try a number of local places I had heard about and hadn’t yet made it to, and it also encouraged me to stop at quite a few restaurants that weren’t originally on my radar or on either list. Working my way through as many establishments as I could on the lists, I was inspired to compile my own.

My selections for the top Edmonton eateries are based on the 80 or so restaurants I was able to fit in within the past 12 months. The only stipulation to be a contender for the list is that you’re some sort of food establishment. I believe that whether it is family run, an entrepreneurial business or part of a franchise, it shouldn’t predetermine how good they are perceived to be. I have had amazing meals at chain restaurants, subpar dishes at independently owned eateries and vice versa.

If you already frequent my picks for 2014, you know why they’ve been chosen. But, if these are new to you, I hope this article urges you to get out and take a chance on something different in 2015.

Cibo Bistro interior, salumi, arancini and mezzaluna pasta.

Cibo Bistro interior, salumi, arancini and mezzaluna pasta.

1. Cibo Bistro
An Italian restaurant that is similar to the much lauded Corso 32, the kitchen’s creations blew me away. It’s slightly larger than Corso, their arancini is better, the cured in-house salumi is to die for, and the fresh pasta has the perfect bite.

Review of Cibo Bistro

Dinner at Three Boars Eatery

Dinner at Three Boars Eatery

2. Three Boars Eatery
This tapas style establishment has an ever-changing menu that is meant to be shared. If you can catch them, the lamb neck croquette, roasted beet and carrot salad, oka tart and the pork belly are highly recommended.

Review of Three Boars

Rostizado's Mexican rosticeria is one of Edmonton's newest hot spots.

Rostizado’s Mexican rosticeria is one of Edmonton’s newest hot spots.

3. Rostizado
One of Edmonton’s newest additions, this sit-down rosticeria has changed the landscape of Mexican cuisine in the city. A great place for gatherings, the platter of 2 consisting of juicy and tasty roasted Four Whistle Farms pork and chicken creates a family-like atmosphere during your meal. To top off your lunch or dinner, make sure to order the caramel flan.

Review of Rostizado

Clockwise from top: Rosso Pizzeria's ricotta, Japonais Bistro's matcha crème brûlée and Canteen's duck breast.

Clockwise from top: Rosso Pizzeria’s ricotta, Japonais Bistro’s matcha crème brûlée and Canteen’s duck breast.

4. Japonais Bistro
Their traditional bento box includes everything a sushi lover would want to satisfy any cravings. I’m also a big fan of matcha flavoured anything, and their match crème brûlée begs for a second, third and even fourth helping.

Review of Japonais Bistro

5. Canteen
Situated along 124 Street, it is located among numerous other eateries that are making names for themselves. However, if you’re a fan of duck, this is where I have found some of the best. Canteen’s duck breast was the most tender I have ever had. It was also beautifully plated, so you’re not only eating with your mouth, but also your eyes.

Review of Canteen

6. Rosso Pizzeria
The wood-fired pizza crust is both crispy and chewy as it should be. The ricotta with olive oil is indulgent, but still light, and the green olives were so tasty that they will make those who aren’t fans fall in love. The homemade gelato – pistachio, banana cinnamon and Mayan chocolate are wonderful – is a rich and refreshing finish.

Review of Rosso Pizzeria

Clockwise from top: The Common's duck confit, Wildflower Grill's gnocchi and Woodwork's stocked bar.

Clockwise from top: The Common’s duck confit, Wildflower Grill’s gnocchi and Woodwork’s stocked bar.

7. The Common
This hipster hangout has a number of of-the-moment dishes to match. Go for the chicken and waffles – one of the best renditions available in Edmonton – or the unique tandoori calamari.

Review of The Common

8. Woodwork
The second you step foot into this restaurant, you’re overcome with the scent of wood-fired cooking. Their cornbread is delicious, the dill sausage is worth a second visit, the cocktails made by their master bartenders are strong, and the desserts are simple yet decadent.

Review of Woodwork

9. Wildflower Grill
With a menu that is split into small and large plates, it’s a great place to go to cater to parties that have a mix of petite appetites and those with bigger ones. This also allows for groups to sample a variety of items. The food is rich though, so you won’t leave hungry. Do try the three mushroom ravioli.

Review of Wildflower Grill

Clockwise from left: Tres Carnales' al pastor quesadillas, Cactus Club Cafe's beef carpaccio and Duchess Bake Shop's key lime tart.

Clockwise from left: Tres Carnales’ al pastor quesadillas, Cactus Club Cafe’s beef carpaccio and Duchess Bake Shop’s key lime tart.

10. Tres Carnales
This is Mexican street food at its finest. Every time I have been to this establishment, the service has been quick and the food has been fantastic. The guacamole is a tasty starter for the table (I love it even though it contains cilantro). The various aguas – flavoured waters – are a must to quench your thirst on a hot day. If you ever have the chance to eat them, get the duck tacos! They are stellar, but a rarity nowadays. The al pastor quesadilla is a close second.

Review of Tres Carnales

11. Cactus Club Cafe
Sometimes chain restaurants get a lot of flack, but, while Cactus Club venues across western Canada serve the same menu, they treat each location as separate entities working under a shared culture. What we are now witness to are establishments that are more popular than ever because they cater to the cool as well as the foodie. I have yet to have a disappointing meal at the WEM and Jasper Avenue eateries. The dishes that keep me coming back include the beef carpaccio and the BBQ duck clubhouse.

12. Duchess Bake Shop
Their beautifully packaged rainbow coloured macarons are dainty little treats that sometimes come in interesting flavours – rose pops to mind – that have to be sampled. The key lime tart is the dessert for those who enjoy sweet and tangy combinations.

Review of Duchess Bake Shop

Clockwise from top: Under the High Wheel's gnocchi, The Cavern's cheese and charcuterie board for two and Select's gnocchi fondue.

Clockwise from top: Under the High Wheel’s gnocchi, The Cavern’s cheese and charcuterie board for two and Select’s gnocchi fondue.

13. Under the High Wheel
This adorable little cafe decorated with vintage furniture is a lovely place to converse over brunch. Go for the savoury Belgian waffles that are topped with smoked salmon. The gnocchi with mint pesto is delectable, too.

Review of Under the High Wheel

14. Select
I haven’t been since the restaurant apparently underwent a renovation at the end of the summer. However, it looks as though their menu remains the same, thank goodness. The gnocchi fondue paired with prosciutto wrapped apple wedges is so boozy that it feels decadent, and the chicken masala perogies provide an unexpected flavour, but a very pleasant one at that.

Review of Select

15. The Cavern
Giving you the option to select wine in 3 oz. or 6 oz. glasses and the chance to build your own cheese and charcuterie boards that are healthy and filling, you’ll be surprised to find that you don’t actually require anything else. With cheese, meat, nuts, dried fruit, jellies and bread, this is a meal in itself. If it’s available, the Comte cheese is particularly good.

Review of The Cavern

Clockwise from top: Corso 32's chocolate torta, The Glass Monkey's beets salad and Izakaya Tomo's oyster ponzu.

Clockwise from top: Corso 32’s chocolate torta, The Glass Monkey’s beets salad and Izakaya Tomo’s oyster ponzu.

16. Corso 32
A tad overhyped, but the food is still really well made. The fried short rib was incredibly tender and flavourful and worked as a meal on its own. The portion sizes of the appetizers and sides are surprisingly large and excellent for passing around the table. For dessert, the chocolate torta with candied hazelnuts is so rich and has just the right amount of bitter balanced with the sweet.

Review of Corso 32

17. The Glass Monkey
This place has gotten mixed reviews, but I enjoyed my meal there. Carrying on with some of the Jack’s Grill (its predecessor) favourites, the beef carpaccio was awesome and, as served, there was no need for accompaniments nor were any provided. Also, everything I saw being brought to surrounding tables looked so good. And, no, don’t order the wine because it’s pricey, but do have a beer. The service received was great as well.

Review of The Glass Monkey

18. Izakaya Tomo
It’s all about lingering over a bunch of shared plates all evening long. Must tries here include the crispy tako yaki (octopus balls), oyster ponzu and the prawn spring rolls!

Review of Izakaya Tomo

Clockwise from left: Sugarbowl's exterior, Watari's maki rolls, and Tropika's pad Thai, sambal bunchies and home style chicken.

Clockwise from left: Sugarbowl’s exterior, Watari’s maki rolls, and Tropika’s pad Thai, sambal bunchies and home style chicken.

19. Sugarbowl
The number one reason to visit this Edmonton staple is the cinnamon bun. Hands down this is one of the best out there; it’s also one of the most refrained as it entirely does away with cream cheese icing (I know, I never would have thought that would have been okay until I ate their cinnamon bun). The only thing is you have to get there early because they sell out. Stay through lunch for their lamb burger.

Review of Sugarbowl

20. Watari
One of the few all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants in the city, and it’s good sushi at that! Sashimi is included with lunch and dinner, and the fish is fresh. There are also a few specialty rolls on the menu along with dishes like beef tataki and ponzu muscles. You get two hours to dine. With the quick turnaround, you’ll have no problem getting your fill and then some.

Review of Edmonton AYCE Sushi

21. Tropika
This Malaysian and Thai establishment is a staple for me and my family. The pad Thai rocks and the satay peanut sauce can go with pretty much anything they serve. For lunch, the combos (available at the west end location…not sure about the south side) are a great value – three pre-selected items and a side of rice – that are super filling and oh so tasty.

Review of Tropika

Clockwise from left: The Art of Cake's mini cupcakes and cookies, The Parlour's truffle and short rib pizzas, and Absolutely Edibles' waffles with the works.

Clockwise from left: The Art of Cake’s mini cupcakes and cookies, The Parlour’s truffle and short rib pizzas, and Absolutely Edibles’ waffles with the works.

22. The Art of Cake
Seriously, what can’t they bake here? The cupcakes, slab cakes, cruellers, and shortbread cookies have ensured that I probably gained 5 pounds this last half of the year. No matter though, every bite was worth it.

Review of The Art of Cake

23. The Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar
Part of the Century Hospitality Group, this place exceeded my expectations. Their signature thin crust pizza flavours are different than the norm – the truffle was especially good. The prices during Monday to Friday happy hour (3 to 6pm) really can’t be beat, and, if you still have room, the desserts are worth it.

Review of The Parlour

24. Absolutely Edibles (Closed)
The brunch menu is fabulous with massive portions that you just can’t stop eating. The waffles with the works (breaded chicken) are my top choice, but there’s no wrong decision when it comes to any of their options. I will tell you to be wary of leaving saucy items on top of the waffles though. If they’re left to sit too long, your waffles will become soggy!

Review of Absolutely Edibles

Happy New Year and Happy Eating! See you in 2015!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: North 53

A place setting at the table.

A place setting at the table.

It was in the winter of 2013 that I happened to be passing along 124 Street when I spotted a sign in the window of a darkened corner of the building at 102 Avenue. A cryptic “North 53 Coming Soon” piqued my interest. My immediate assumption was that it was going to be the home of a new restaurant, and I was right. Shortly after, I was reading the Edmonton Journal and there was an article in the Food section about a young chef named Ben Staley who would be heading up the kitchen at North 53 (@north_53) with owner Kevin Cam by his side.

I was beyond excited to see that there was more new blood being woven into a neighbourhood that has had its mainstays throughout the years, but, recently, seems to be going through a revitalization of sorts. North 53 was just another step in that direction. Finding it difficult to keep up with all the fantastic dining establishments that are popping up in Edmonton nowadays, I did not make it to North 53 when they opened this past January. In fact, it took about nine months before I set foot in the place.

My friend and I decided that, before our scheduled book club meeting on a Friday evening in September, we would treat ourselves to a nice dinner. I was proactive and made a reservation for 5:30pm through their Yelp SeatMe system (very similar to OpenTable, but no points) found on their website. It usually isn’t an issue for us to be anywhere by that time after work; however, as it happened, my companion was stuck at the office later than expected. Thankfully, the staff at North 53 were accommodating when I phoned to see if we could shift our reservation back a little bit.

Finally, about an hour after our originally planned dinner time, we made it to the restaurant with a few minutes to spare. The neon sign our beacon in the rain, we walked into the small doorway where patrons are greeted with a canvas of graffiti art that paints the establishment as cool. The tables were not full yet, so we were seated immediately. The room is long and narrow with maybe a dozen tables in front of the floor to ceiling windows that span the entire length of the space. Across from the tables is a fairly long bar that is decorated with light woods, grey tiles, and chrome chairs and shelves as well as mirrors that serve to make the eatery look larger than it actually is. The tiled ceiling is black with statement desk lamp chandeliers. The design is sleek and modern with a twist, which goes along well with what I think they hoped to accomplish in regards to their food.

In a way, the sparseness in the aesthetics of the restaurant is a continuation of what looks to be a simplicity in the dishes they prepare, but that’s far from the case. The two of us were presented with two menus – drinks and food. They had a number of specialty cocktails, a couple of non-alcoholic beverages (tea and soda not included), some beers/ciders and wines listed. We opted for the mocktails, which were housemade lemonade and ginger soda. There was a bit of a mix up when they arrived at the table; I received my friend’s ginger beer and she my lemonade. It was only because we tasted each other’s drinks that we figured it out even though hers was clearly gingery with a tad of citrus thrown in for good measure. Both were pleasantly refreshing and my lemonade was just what I needed.

With regards to the food menu, they had two. You could opt to sit through a multi-course meal for about $100 per person, or you could go the à la carte route. Since we arrived to dinner later than we had intended and our friend would be waiting for us in less than two hours, we figured we didn’t have the luxury of indulging in the tasting menu. It sounded absolutely fabulous though. Watching another table enjoy it made it all the more tempting. Instead, we decided to share four plates from their regular menu, including the Cream of Broccoli Soup, the New Season’s Potatoes & Carrots, the Pork Loin and the Sockeye Salmon.

The Cream of Broccoli Soup was not the easiest choice to share, but it was definitely worth trying. The bowl arrived with a discus of fried cheese standing up out of a cloud of foam. In a separate carafe was the soup – a fine puree of broccoli and cream – which our server poured into the bowl, adding a beautiful, bright green colour. We crushed the cheese, so that it melted into the soup and dug in. The soup was incredibly smooth with the broccoli flavour playing off the cheese and onions wonderfully. Both of us said at the end that if we could have done our meal over again, we would have each ordered our own bowl of soup because sharing wasn’t enough. The Potatoes & Carrots were cooked very nicely, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t usually love carrots. I enjoyed it. Although, I’m not sure that it would have been a top choice for me in the future.

Pork Loin

Pork Loin

When, what I’m going to call the mains, arrived at the table, we chose to each eat half of one and then swap plates. I started with the Pork Loin. Quite honestly, the pork seemed just a tad overcooked. I know it’s a hard meat to ensure that it is not only tender, but also cooked all the way through. It was not pink at all, so that’s good, but there was definitely more chew than I would have preferred. That was offset, though, by the accompaniments of steel cut oats, endive and stinging nettle. The oats looked like they were pureed into a velvety concoction, sort of like a side of mashed potatoes, but better. The endive added a sweet, nutty flavour and the stinging nettle a spinach-like taste. This was all topped off with two pieces of, likely, pan-fried or roasted kale (I’m guessing at the greens).

Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye Salmon

Once I finished my half of the pork loin, we switched, and I took my turn at sampling the Sockeye Salmon. Out of the two dishes, I would say that this one came out on top. The salmon was perfectly prepared and the skin, which was left on the fish, was superb. I don’t usually eat salmon skin because it’s often cooked to a soggy mess, but this was so crispy and delicious that you had to have every bite. The fish was served with mustard greens, snap pea and guy lan.

The evening was memorable and we definitely wanted to go back for that multi-course meal.

However, shortly after that first visit, it was announced that chef Ben Staley was leaving the restaurant to open his own place called The Alder Room (likely set to open by spring 2015). With that huge change, owner Kevin Cam hired on Filliep Lament as Staley’s replacement. He has created a new menu that consists of smaller bites to help cater to the late night crowd that they hope to attract with their introduction of late night hours. With that move, they have also done away with the tasting menu option. These modifications seem drastic, but I understand that with the entry of a new head chef, it means they have the opportunity to experiment with their offerings and their clientele.

Because of all of these alterations, I didn’t feel it was right to review the restaurant solely on the visit I spoke of above. I needed to go back to North 53 to experience the eatery in its current state. So, I gathered a couple of my friends for a night out on a cold December evening. We arrived before 6pm and, while a few tables were occupied, it wasn’t full.

We started off perusing the drink menu where they already have a number of signature alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails available. Of course, you also have the option to spin the wheel, allowing the bartenders to tailor a custom cocktail to your tastes by selecting a spirit base and flavour of your choice. Ultimately, two of us decided to order the Siberian Pineapple Express, which was sans alcohol, but quite flavourful. My only qualm is that the bartender prepared just one drink first, and, although we were told the second would be there in just a few minutes, I think it actually took at least 20 minutes, arriving after a drink that was ordered much later. Perhaps the bartender was slow or unorganized or forgot or missing ingredients, but that was not very acceptable. The third in our party asked for a suggestion from our server who pointed out the Rosey Cheeks cocktail. According to the menu, it is inspired by Persian ice cream and is made with a mix of Nigori Sake, lemon, saffron, cardamom, rose syrup, egg white and topped with tiny little rose petals. My friend said it was delicious even though she usually doesn’t tend to order sweeter drinks. It was also quite beautiful with a nice froth from the egg whites and the dark red petals adorning the cream-coloured foam.

Carrot Salad

Carrot Salad

When it comes to the food, the menu is quite small, but it’s split up into the following categories: snacks, plates (small), large plates and dessert. All items are technically meant to be shared tapas style. One friend was on a vegetarian diet when we dined, so, while there were dishes she could eat, her options were limited to bar nuts, a couple of salads, sunchoke soup (bacon was listed with this, so I’m assuming they just don’t add it in if you can’t eat it) and desserts. Since she couldn’t eat much else, she decided to go with the Carrot Salad. Made with green cardamom, goat cheese and pistachio, I had one bite and found the dish to be extremely refreshing on the palate.

As for the two of us who are currently carnivores, we opted to share several plates, including the Griddled Mushroom, Popcorn Chicken, Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart and Beer-Glazed Short Rib for dinner as well as the Apple Tart and Pouding Chômeur (“poor man’s pudding”) for dessert.

The Griddled Mushroom is served with a poached egg. I sampled a mushroom before we broke the egg and it had a distinctly Asian sort of flavour, reminiscent of Chinese dishes I’ve had in the past. Once we popped the egg with a toothpick, the yolk just melted into the sauce that was already on the plate, creating a thicker base and a smooth consistency. The Popcorn Chicken was our second selection off the snack section of the menu. Arriving to the table in a cute bowl that looked like it was filled with chicken nuggets covered in Parmesan cheese, these turned out to be slightly elevated versions of the fast food classic. The whole meat pieces were lightly breaded and succulent. The shavings on top were not cheese, but actually popcorn. I personally think the flavour of the popcorn is lost when eaten with the meat, but I put a bit of the popcorn on my tongue and the buttery taste was unmistakable. This dish is a fun idea, but maybe it could be better executed to fully take advantage of the popcorn and chicken combination.

Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart

Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart

The Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart and Beer-Glazed Short Rib acted as our main course. The tart had a lovely flaky pastry base that was stable enough to hold the pureed rutabaga filling. The oxtail was cooked until it was fall apart tender. Topped with a salad of herbs, this dish had a great earthy flavour from the rutabaga, wonderful complementary textures and a nice herbaceousness that balanced well with what seemed like oxtail with lingering hints of booze from the cooking process (again, I’m guessing here).

Beer-Glazed Short Rib

Beer-Glazed Short Rib

Lastly, we had the short ribs. For a “small” plate, the portion size was massive. Served in a circular plate-bowl, the bottom was covered with navy beans, diced celery and carrots and bone marrow. Placed on top were two huge pieces of short rib still on the bone. We split each piece in half, and started working away. The short rib was quite good, but I would say that the slightly smaller of the two cuts of meat was overcooked a little. I also think that the ratio of beef to the accompaniments could have been better. It was just too much meat and not enough in the vegetable or legume department, and the overall flavour of this particular dish was lacking compared to everything else that evening, or, perhaps not lacking, but too one-noted after a couple dozen bites. I had also never tried bone marrow before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in that regard. In my head, I pictured some sort of puree-like addition to the plate, but I think the marrow was, in fact, the fattier pieces found mixed in with the beans. It was an interesting addition, maybe a way to compensate for the short rib’s own lack of fattiness. I will say, however, that the short rib is a great value for the amount of food that you do get. If I ever were to try that one again, I would be sure to have more people to share it with as it was too much for just the two of us.

If you assumed we were finished after all of that food, you were wrong. There was no way we were leaving without trying some of the desserts this time around. At first, we were only going to order the Apple Tart, but the special for the evening, Pouding Chômeur, sounded too good to pass up.

I know that an apple tart seems like a pretty generic dessert. Many restaurants have something similar on their menus, but this one was unique in that it kind of pulled from the idea of a baked brie pastry, pairing tart apples with ice cream and a salty-sweet base of cheddar shortbread. I loved that you could taste each layer and that the cheddar actually came through.

Traditionally, Pouding Chômeur is made with the cake batter rising above a layer of caramel or syrup as it bakes, but at North 53 it was like a reverse Pouding Chômeur because the liquid remained at the top. My guess is this is due to their use of a dense shortbread in lieu of cake. The result was a piping hot, rich dessert with a dark chocolate center that helped to offset the sticky and sugary caramel topping. It was absolutely delicious, but probably best in smaller doses.

Personally, my feelings of North 53 are mixed. I think the eatery is still going through growing pains. I also really believe that they would benefit from increasing the size of their menu to include a few more vegetarian dishes that can be eaten as a main dish if someone wanted to choose a singular plate as their meal and not leave hungry. That being said, based on my two outings, I can see why North 53 was shortlisted for Enroute Magazine’s list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants for 2014 (of the two Edmonton restaurants vying for a spot, RGE RD was chosen in the end).

The slightly altered decor, which now gives the place a moodier vibe.

The slightly altered decor, which now gives the place a moodier vibe.

The establishment has great potential, but they have to find the right footing by figuring out what their signature dishes should be and branching out from there. They also need to improve on the consistency of their service. With all that in mind, they’re definitely not a write-off. I appreciate the space, which now has a darker appeal with all the chairs painted black as opposed to mirror-like silver, yet aims for a bit of that vintage, homey vibe with the use of mismatched antique dishes (these are the only two changes to the aesthetics that I could discern).

North 53 is a cool, casual hangout for Edmonton’s in-the-know crowd who want a place to go for late night snacks, good cocktails and conversation.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment, visit The Local Good to read my profile of North 53.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Narayanni’s

The pistachio chai is amazing! I used the roti in the background to dip.

The pistachio chai is amazing! I used the roti in the background to dip.

Earlier this year after brunch at Under the High Wheel (read my review), my friend and I decided to take a walk around the surrounding block, poking our heads into Blush Lane Organic Market, peeking into the windows of Cally’s Teas and spotting a place called Narayanni’s with its stark white front, big blue lettering and red double doors. The latter is the one that intrigued me the most. I had never heard of Narayanni’s before that day. As soon as I got home, I Googled the restaurant. Their website told me that their cuisine is gourmet South African Indian and that they only serve it buffet style Tuesday through Sunday evenings with Tuesday being vegan night. I decided that I would definitely make a point of going there before the year was over, and I made sure to sign up for their e-newsletter.

Months later, with my birthday coming up, I received an email from Narayanni’s offering me $10 off my meal to celebrate getting another year older. The fine print allowed me a full month to use the voucher, so I called up my friend and told her that was where I wanted to go for dinner. On the Friday after the giant snowfall we received at the end of November, the two of us met and drove over to Old Strathcona, parking about a block away from the restaurant to avoid any high snow banks. The chilly winter air made the warmth of the restaurant that much better.

When we stepped through those huge wooden doors, we saw that, what was once a blacksmith shop and then a machine shop, was now a large yet cozy restaurant with a unique high ceiling, numerous tables – including some booths that can comfortably seat about six people – a fireplace near the back, welcoming yellow walls, and a buffet that sits at the center.

Since we arrived quite early at about 5:30pm, we were able to grab one of the booths. After we stripped off our bags and all of our cold weather gear, we perused the drink menu and each ordered a pistachio latte. While our drinks were being prepared, we ambled up to the buffet and started filling our plates. Their full menu is extensive with all of their recipes having to be spread out over the week, so extra visits are likely necessary if you plan to try everything that is listed on their website. If I remember correctly, I believe there were about a dozen different hot items on offer that evening including a few vegetarian dishes such as butternut squash and braised kale and cabbage, Halal certified lamb curry, fish curry and grilled masala chicken to name a few. Appetizers of potato samosas, fried eggplant and papadum were also available along with a vegetarian soup. There were also three different cold salads – Greek, Tabouli and mixed greens.

The buffet is situated in the center of the space.

The buffet is situated in the center of the space.

I always try to sample a little bit of everything that is available, so I scooped up a small portion of each selection and placed it on my plate. Once I made it around the bar, my dish was piled high. There wasn’t even room for any of the cold salads, so I grabbed a small plate and spooned a bit of the Greek and Tabouli salads onto it. By the time I made my way back to our table, our lattes were sitting there. I attempted to take a sip right away, but the drink was piping hot, so I let it cool for a while.

In the meantime, we started digging through our food. Right off the bat, you can see and taste the difference between Narayanni’s South African Indian cuisine and Punjabi cuisine. While both kinds are flavourful and delicious, the food at Narayanni’s comes off as being a bit healthier because they adhere to non-cream based sauces. In addition, they are adamant about cooking without MSGs, preservatives and artificial flavourings or colourings. There is an emphasis on natural spices and they do not refrain from serving up food with heat as a number of the dishes were spicier than the milder counterparts I’ve had at other traditional Indian restaurants.

The Greek and Tabouli salads.

The Greek and Tabouli salads.

Everything I sampled was fantastic. Of the two salads, the Greek won me over because they chopped all the veggies and cheese into large enough chunks and they did not skimp on the feta, which was fresh and not overly salty. The potato samosas were a good size with the right ratio of pastry to filling and a perfectly crispy outer shell. The grilled masala chicken was juicy and tender. The butternut squash was cooked until just slightly soft and was refreshing on the palate, while the braised kale and cabbage added a layer of texture to my plate. Those were my favourites that evening. As much as I wanted to go back for seconds, I could barely budge out of my seat after clearing off what I thought was my first round.

My plate filled with all of that evenings offerings.

My plate filled with all of that evenings offerings.

There were a handful of desserts on that Friday evening: bumble berry bread pudding, homemade custard, cinnamon infused rice pudding, coconut macaroons and pecan butter tarts. Full as we both were, my friend and I did manage to share a small bowl of the bread pudding with a dollop of the homemade custard placed on top. It was absolutely wonderful, so I’m glad we didn’t skip out. The berries gave the bread pudding a slightly tangy flavour that helped to balance off any sweetness, and the cake pretty much soaked up the custard, which had a really nice, smooth consistency.

Hands down the best thing of the evening? That pistachio latte. I’m pretty sure it uses a chai latte base, and, by far, it is the best chai latte I have ever had in my life. I even dipped pieces of roti into the latte, creating my own dessert. I could not stop raving about this beverage. In fact, I still think about it regularly, and I find myself tempted to drop into Narayanni’s just for drinks, if they’d have me.

Daya and Selva Naidoo have a history of opening successful Edmonton eateries, their first being Block 1912, located just a short distance away from Narayanni’s. Although I did not speak with Daya and Selva, I had the pleasure of meeting one of their daughters that night. She actually sells some of her own jewelry at the front of the restaurant as well as pieces made by a friend of hers, so after we paid, she took us up to the display case to show us the designs. With a variety of prices and some fun and pretty options, it’s not a bad idea to keep the restaurant in mind for last minute gifts. On occasion, the establishment even plays host to jewelry sales.

What I really love about Narayanni’s is the family’s friendly nature, combined with their scrumptious food and a great atmosphere. These are the things that will bring me back in due time.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Delicious Pho

The vermicelli bowl with the works!

The vermicelli bowl with the works!

It was late last year when, with great dismay, I found out The Makk had closed. Located at 124 Street and 104 Avenue, the restaurant had taken a bit of time to find its ground, and, while it eventually did, it was too late. The last couple of times I had eaten there, it was pretty much vacant save for my companions and I, so it wasn’t really a huge surprise to see it go, but it was sad nonetheless. Fast forward a few months and signs advertising a new restaurant were strung up outside of the same space. A Vietnamese eatery was to take The Makk’s place.

Delicious Pho (@delicious_pho), a new franchise, opened up around mid-February. The quick changeover to the new establishment is likely due to the fact that few renovations needed to be made. At fast glance, almost everything in the room is the same as the previous tenant, including the colours, furniture and overall style. The only noticeable differences come from the addition of some potted plants, which give it a slightly more Asian feel, and new artwork.

The interior of the restaurant on 124 Street. Photo courtesy of Delicious Pho.

The interior of the restaurant on 124 Street. Photo courtesy of Delicious Pho.

I didn’t actually make it over to Delicious Pho until November. On a slightly chilly evening, my companion and I found free parking on a side street about a block away from the eatery. Walking in a couple of hours before I had a meeting nearby, I saw that, besides a few claimed tables, it was quiet that night. There was one person on staff at the front of the house, but she made sure to get us seated immediately and she was very attentive, even making sure that any dietary concerns we had were met.

The menu is fairly extensive with a mix of appetizers, specialty rolls, Vietnamese subs, vermicelli bowls, pho noodle soup, specialty items and rice plates. They also serve Vietnamese coffee and bubble tea smoothies.

One page from their menu - the vermicelli bowls.

One page from their menu – the vermicelli bowls.

Both of us decided on the No. 42, which is the vermicelli bowl with grilled pork, grilled meatball, grilled shrimp, grilled chicken, grilled beef, a spring roll and a side of fish sauce. The bowls came to the table relatively quickly, and they were filled to the brim with meat. Other Vietnamese restaurants I’ve been to sometimes skimp on the toppings, but not here! I would say they provide an ample amount of meat, carrots and cucumber, making the bowl worth the $12.95 price. If I were to criticize anything, I would say maybe they could include just a little more vermicelli to help balance it out a bit. Most importantly, all the meats were tender – I didn’t find any of it to be at all chewy – and the flavours were strong yet refrained from being overly salty.

Usually, by the time I come to the end of my bowl, I’m not super full and I find myself picking at every morsel in my dish because I want to make sure I get everything. On this particular occasion, I was absolutely stuffed before I even reached the bottom. Forcing myself to, at least, finish the meat that remained, so as not to waste the best part of the meal, I couldn’t take another bite afterwards and ended up leaving behind a small portion of noodles and veggies.

The two of us even had a coupon for a free entree with the purchase of a first and two beverages, so, while we had full bellies, we left Delicious Pho with our wallets only a tad lighter than before.

If you want a healthy meal that doesn’t cheap out on the quality of the ingredients, but also ensures quantity, as well as a clean and stylish atmosphere at a decent cost, I would suggest that you check out Delicious Pho. It definitely helped to satisfy my vermicelli craving that evening, and it was a nice, low key place to converse.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cibo Bistro

Mezzaluna pasta

Mezzaluna pasta

I think it was still summertime when my friend and I first attempted to visit Cibo Bistro (@cibobistroedm), only to find that they were closed on Mondays. Since we had to postpone our meal there, it took us quite a bit of time to circle back around to the idea. It wasn’t until mid-November when we finally made a point of going to the restaurant again.

Located on 104 Avenue in Oliver Village between Safeway and MacEwan Residences, it’s slightly tucked away from the hustle and bustle of one of downtown Edmonton’s main arteries. I had made a reservation through OpenTable about a week or two in advance, but, as my friend was running late at the office, I called to have our booking pushed back. The hostess that I spoke to said it wasn’t an issue as there weren’t any conflicting reservations within that time frame. The two of us eventually made it there at about 6:15pm, and I was surprised to see, as the server led us to our table, that the place was still empty, save for the semi-private room near the back (although, it was pretty much full by the time we left an hour and a half later). With maybe just over a dozen tables in the space, it’s not large by any means, but still likely seats more than the city’s other lauded Italian restaurant, Corso 32 (read my review). Unlike Corso, however, the dimly lit space of Cibo Bistro looks a little more traditional with earth tones, leather upholstered chairs, cobble-like tiled floors, stone tiled walls and paintings of Italy.

As we perused the menu, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between its layout and the offerings of Corso 32. That means I was apt to do a comparison by sampling a few items, so I could truly see the difference. Both have made The Tomato‘s top 100 list for two years in a row. Corso has been No. 1 each time with Cibo trailing just a few spots behind (No. 6 in 2013 and No. 4 in 2014).

Arancini is one of my friend and I’s favourite Italian dishes. Since we had eaten that at Corso, it was a no-brainer to use that as a starting point for our showdown. That, along with the Salumi, served as our appetizers.

As far as arancini go, they are considered an indulgent antipasti because they can be quite heavy and filling. It’s essentially risotto that has been battered and fried until a crisp outer shell is formed. The filling at Cibo is mixed with roasted cauliflower and Fontina cheese and, once cooked, is generously sprinkled with freshly grated Pecorino Romano. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think that, even with all the rice and cheese, there was a lightness to these arancini that the ones I ate at Corso didn’t have. The bowl we received had 6 to 7 arancini, which we shared. The breading was perfectly fried whereas Corso’s were a little overdone, making the shell harder to break. The cauliflower added a little more texture to the risotto, so it wasn’t all just mush, and the cheese was nicely melted inside. I also believe that these ones were a lot less salty.

The salumi platter that evening was a steak tartar with shaved truffle served with a side of crostini. This was probably the best dish of the evening, no doubt about it. They say the meats are cured in-house, and the tartar was prepared so well that it literally melted in your mouth. Paired with the shaved truffle, this was a completely decadent starter. I would have gladly eaten that has my main meal. The board came with 6 pieces of crostini and there was enough tartar provided that we weren’t sparingly spreading it on the bread. In fact, I was piling the tartar on thick, so I have to say that this selection was worth it.

For our entrees, we had a harder time deciding. Our server was excellent and, to help, she described, in detail, each of the pasta dishes on the menu, including that evening’s special. We finally made our choices – I ordered the Mezzaluna and my friend chose the Pappardelle.

The food menu.

The food menu.

The Mezzaluna was ravioli stuffed with braised beef that is cooked until tender and then pureed, so it can be stuffed inside fresh, made from scratch pasta. The pasta shells were thin and prepared al dente. The sauce was a burro bianco (white butter) with Balsamico Vecchio (aged balsamic) and Crotonese Calabrese cheese, which was flavourful, but felt delicate. I particularly loved the used of the balsamic as a dressing, something that I hadn’t had in a long time. The sauce and the beef played off one another really well, so much so that I wanted more as soon as I polished off my plate.

The Pappardelle consists of fat ribbons of fresh pasta bathed in tomato sauce and served with braised lamb, mint and Pecorino Romano cheese. I had just one mouthful of the dish and the pasta had just the right amount of bite. The lamb was succulent and the sauce was subtle.

Pappardelle pasta

Pappardelle pasta

Unfortunately, we did not have room for dessert on this occasion. Plus, we were in a bit of a rush to make it to book club, but I will say that after our trip to Las Vegas and our meals at Giada in that city, had I been able to manage some sweets, I would have gone for the Zeppole (Limoncello and Mascarpone doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar). They’re certainly on my list for next time!

In the end, and I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last month, I’m inclined to say that, while Corso was excellent, I honestly think that my meal at Cibo was a tad better. And, I feel like that says a lot. The pair of restaurants has a lot going for them – fantastic food, fresh, housemade dishes, wonderfully knowledgeable staff – yet they’re also hindered (arguably by some) by small spaces that make them seem exclusive when, in fact, they’re not. They’re friendly, intimate atmospheres that are very welcoming, so perhaps it comes down to preference which one you would prefer. Based on my singular visits to Cibo and Corso, I found them both to be great hangouts. They’re equally quiet in terms of ambiance, making it easy to converse with your dining companions, which is a big pro nowadays in a world where dance music seems to be pumping everywhere else.

The semi-private room at the back. A great place for a small group to have fantastic conversation.

The semi-private room at the back. A great place for a small group to have fantastic conversation.

After a few weeks of contemplation, my companion critic for that night and I agreed. Until I have a chance to revisit each, I cannot say with absolute certainty which will come out on top a year or two from now. Only time will tell. One of my friends who had dinner with me at Corso said that our meal there was one of the best she’s ever had. I’d be curious to see her thoughts of Cibo and her comparisons to Corso.

Nonetheless, examining my own experience of the food, which, of course, is the foundation of a stellar restaurant, I believe that Cibo has won my heart and my stomach. That is not to say I won’t be eating at Corso again, because I will, but contrary to what every other review or person has told me, Cibo is going to be my personal number one for now.

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