Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sushi Sugoi (Closed)

The cover of the Sushi Sugoi menu.

The cover of the Sushi Sugoi menu.

Sushi Sugoi (@sugoiedmonton) is one of the newer Japanese restaurants in the city. Open for more than a year now, I had heard good things about it from reviews, friends and neighbours. I usually have good intentions to try a place when it first announces its presence, but, for some reason, I usually never make it until much further down the road. Perhaps I want to avoid any kinks that they might be working out in the kitchen or on the menu. After all, I want a good experience, not one that I’ll regret.

My ears initially perked up to the idea of an additional sushi restaurant on the south side of Edmonton when my friend told me she dined there one evening last fall. By the sounds of it, she was wowed by the food and the overall presentation of the dishes, telling me that they looked like works of art. I was certainly intrigued. I followed up her description of their outing by reading some other reviews on Urbanspoon and, lo and behold, they were rated quite favourably (currently they have 76% approval out of 199 votes). I jotted the name down on my vast list of eateries to try and vowed I’d make it there eventually.

That brings me to the end of February when I ran into my neighbour on the way to work. Whenever we ride the bus together, food usually ends up being a hot topic of conversation for us. This particular time, I think I was telling her about the amazing sushi that I had eaten in San Diego a few weeks ago, so, of course, we got to talking about sushi in Edmonton. Sure enough, she mentioned Sushi Sugoi, telling me that she quite liked the variety of rolls and that, for the price, the portions served were worth the money.

What did I do next? I called my friend who had traveled with me to California, so we could plan our next dinner. By the time we got together, it had been a full month since we had returned from our trip. For us, that is a long overdue meeting. Sushi was definitely in order. Neither of us barely ate during the day, so were starving on our way there after work.

The interior of the restaurant has a large sushi bar as its focal point.

The interior of the restaurant has a large sushi bar as its focal point.

Located along Calgary Trail, Sushi Sugoi sits next to a strip mall. As we drove into the parking lot, it was evident that little thought was put into the exterior of the building because it still looked very much like its predecessor, Outback Steakhouse. Thankfully, upon stepping inside the doors, we saw that the interior of the space had been gutted and redecorated in a very tasteful manner. The restaurant is sleek and modern with neutral shades, a few pops of colour and a large sushi bar as its focal point.

While we waited at the front counter, I took everything in. Although I could see people standing at the back towards the kitchen, there was no host to greet us when we entered the establishment. A few minutes went by before anyone really acknowledged us, which is something they can improve upon. But, once someone came over, they immediately took us to a booth where we were seated and presented with menus.

As we flipped through the many pages of the menu (I cannot emphasize enough how extensive it is), we were also offered o-shibori (hot wet towels), so we could clean our hands before our meal. I thought that was a nice touch. It’s actually something I haven’t seen in a long time.

What I like about their menu is that it has a clean design, and most items have some sort of description of the dish listed alongside the name, so you’re not going to wonder what exactly you’re about to eat. Similar to other Asian eateries, they still make use of numbering the items and including a selection of corresponding photos for show, but it’s minimal, and the pictures just serve to make your mouth water. Therefore, it took us a while to make our final decisions when it came to ordering our food. Originally, I was quite tempted to go with one of their bento boxes, which are only $15 (even during dinner), or one of their combos. Instead, I changed my mind and opted to test out a few of their rolls.

It was hard to pick just three each because they have three menu pages devoted to rolls. I went with a couple of the tried and true – negitoro maki and scallop maki –  as a way to compare the quality with what I might find at other places in Edmonton. I also chose the dynamite Alaska from their list of specialty rolls. My friend went with the spicy tataki maki, squash maki and inari maki.

Since I didn’t sample any of my friends rolls on this particular occasion, I cannot comment myself on how good hers were, but they did look yummy. She also told me she enjoyed them, and she would definitely come back to eat at Sushi Sugoi again.

I guess my one qualm with the service is that not all of the rolls ordered came out together, which is bound to happen at times. However, my dynamite Alaska showed up quite a bit later than the other two. Often, when I eat, I like to alternate between the different items, allowing you to really take in all the flavours and combinations. It’s like a workout for your taste buds. When you’re eating just one type of roll all at once, sometimes it becomes overwhelming or everything just starts tasting the same. So, I would have liked for the last roll to arrive at the table earlier.

Scallop Maki

Scallop Maki

No matter though, it is what it is. I was started off with the scallop maki. In my mind, I saw it as the traditional maki, wrapped in black seaweed with just a small center of scallop. Turns out, it was uramaki (an inside-out roll) with the rice wrapped around the seaweed and a fairly large middle of chopped scallop. The taste and texture of the rice was just right (slightly sticky and vinegary). The tender raw scallops were paired with tobiko and then coated with a decent amount of Japanese mayo – mixed in to give it a little bit of creaminess and tang – to create a bite that had a melt-in-your-mouth consistency.

Negitoro Maki

Negitoro Maki

The negitoro maki is how I imagined my scallop maki would be. Bite sized rolls filled with fatty tuna and chopped green onion (I believe the onions might be grown in their Urban Cultivator, which they use to grow their own organic greens and herbs year round), these were delicious. The green onions were extremely flavourful and fresh, as was the fish.

The dynamite Alaska roll was massive. Each piece was about the size of my fist, so it’s not conducive to keeping your food from falling apart. As anyone who eats sushi knows, the bigger the roll, the more difficult it is to eat in a polite manner. Etiquette suggests that you eat with either your chopsticks or your hands (as long as they’re clean), and typically, you should eat a piece of sushi in one fell swoop. The problem in North America lies with the idea of “bigger is better” where the rolls have become so large that it’s near impossible to do so. Sometimes you can still stuff the whole roll in your mouth, but you likely look like a chipmunk storing food away for the cold winter months. Inevitably, with these huge rolls you must give in and bite it apart. That’s when it usually becomes a messy pile on your plate (probably because you couldn’t quite cut that seaweed apart with your teeth). Luckily, that wasn’t really the case this time. I credit it to the fact that the roll was fried on the outside, giving the seaweed a crunchy texture that was much easier to break apart.

Dynamite Alaska

Dynamite Alaska

The ease with which this dish was consumed despite the size of its portions, is one of the main positives of this roll. While it tasted pretty good, it was quite heavy as the fried batter on the outside was thick (thankfully not greasy), so it was maybe too much in that respect. According to the menu, the middle was stuffed with smoked salmon, tobiko, prawn tempura, yam tempura, crab meat and vegetables. Smoked salmon, being a strong flavour was the most distinguishable ingredient by taste. I couldn’t really tell there was any yam tempura in the roll and the crab meat is of the imitation variety. This roll was simply okay. The main problem with rolls this large is that when it has to be divided into fractions, you’re probably only getting a bite with crab meat and nothing else. The point of combining all of those things in the middle is that they should really be eaten as a whole, and you can’t do that here. I most likely won’t order this one again, unless someone shares a plate with me. It really is best in smaller doses.

Overall, I’m leaning towards saying that I like Sushi Sugoi. The service, once they noticed us, was decent. Since the food was brought out in stages, our server was at our table enough to ensure that she checked on our satisfaction thoroughly. Regarding the food, I really liked the more traditional rolls that I had. Those were delicious; they used what seemed like very fresh ingredients while keeping the consistency of the rice perfect, which is so important when it comes to sushi. My only wish is that they stop relying so much on the imitation crab meat in their rolls (20 out of 58 make use of it) because that brings the quality down a notch, and that’s a shame. I really want the food to match the beauty of the space, and it does in some aspects, but not all. Hopefully, they’ll work on that since so many of those rolls sound absolutely scrumptious. I certainly don’t regret this visit though. In fact, I’ll probably be back soon, but I’ll be sure to stick to the tried and true classics from now on.

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Speed Dating: Tips to Ensure a Fun Time

It has been a little over a year since I went speed dating for the first time. I was 28 years old and my friend talked me into joining her. It turned out to be an interesting experience and more fun than I imagined, so it might come as no surprise that I tried it two more times before the year was out. None of those outings led to anything serious, save for a friend of the female persuasion – we’re apt to take those new to Edmonton under our wings. Thus, I found myself thinking about the next step.

I’m now 29. I celebrated my champagne birthday in 2014. All of my friends know I’m single and willing to mingle, but here’s the problem: no one has single male friends to set me up with. The friend that dragged me along to speed dating has found someone for herself, so I’m feeling like a bit of a lone wolf. Now, I’m not saying that I must have a man in my life in order to be happy. On the contrary. But, hey, the notion of having a guy who’s there for me is still nice.

This led me to my latest attempt at the 5-minute date. I’m not saying it worked, but this was my one and only stab at it without a friendly sidekick.

Quite honestly, it had been a crazy week and I was running on fumes. However, I prettied myself up, put a smile on my face and headed to the venue. I couldn’t find the host when I arrived, so I grabbed a drink at the bar and then made fast friends with a couple of ladies that I quickly pinpointed as other attendees. Neither had ever gone speed dating before, so I talked to them about my previous experiences. Trying to dole out advice when you obviously haven’t had the best success yourself is kind of hard, yet people still want to know. I understand that mentality because I’ve learned from trial and error, and I know you can probably prep yourself for a better outcome.

Here are my tips for speed dating (some can even be applied to first dates in general):

1) Be yourself. You want the people you meet to like you for who you are, not who you’re pretending to be.

2) Don’t take things too seriously. This is a first meeting! Yes, you want to make a good impression, but you may come across as stiff and uptight if all you care about is finding “the one” and you don’t ease up a bit. In fact, you’ll probably scare the other person off.

3) Put some effort into your appearance, but refrain from looking like you’re extremely high maintenance. Keep things business casual in terms of dress.

4) Be polite. Shake the person’s hand and repeat his name when he introduces himself.

5) Smile because it’s more welcoming, and make eye contact.

6) Don’t be intimidated. This is especially the case when speed dating because you’re essentially seeing the rest of the competition. However, remember that you’re just as awesome as everyone else there and that you have a lot to offer as well.

7) Know that you will have to be “on” for probably two hours at speed dating, which can seem daunting. But, it goes by so much faster than you think it will, and you’ll find that the conversation and the laughs come fairly easily.

8) The speed dating company says to avoid asking what people do for a living. I understand their thinking. Not everyone is in love with their job. Yet, it seems to inevitably come up anyway, so just go with it. And, if you’re uncomfortable talking about it, try to steer the conversation elsewhere.

9) I never really do this, but maybe think of a couple of conversation starters beforehand. My go to topics are: where he’s from, where he’s traveled and probably something about food.

10) On the other side of that equation, do NOT come in with a script prepared. I’ve sat through a meeting like that and it was a very forced conversation. The guy was looking to check his boxes and that was about it. Conversation should feel natural.

11) Keep the conversation light. You have five to eight minutes to feel this person out. Try to get a sense of their personality.

12) If a couple of minutes go by and you’re not feeling that interested, DON’T zone out. It’s rude. Stay friendly, you’ll make it through. Also, concentrate on the conversation you’re having, not what those next to you are talking about.

13) Avoid getting your hopes up ahead of time. Keep expectations realistic. You might not meet your ideal soulmate and that’s okay.

14) View this as an opportunity to network and make friends.

15) Try not to divulge too much personal information to every single date. This is just for safety’s sake.

16) Sometimes it can get loud in the venue, especially when the space is small. You literally may have people sitting just inches away from you, so you’re going to have to speak up. Make sure to keep hydrated, so you don’t lose your voice.

17) Write the person’s name down on the card as soon as you meet. Make a few notes if you’re not certain they’re a “yes” or “no” for you and go back to those later. However, I’d suggest not leaving your decision too long because it’s easy to mix up names, faces and conversations when you’re meeting so many people (usually 10 to 12, but I’ve seen more) in one night.

18) You’re going to meet a lot of people – it’s like The Bachelorette during the first episode of the season – so you may need to step out of your comfort zone. If it eases the situation, bring a friend you know can reassure you.

19) I wasn’t always the most outgoing person, so these types of events aren’t necessarily my favourite. But, try going it alone at least once because it does push you to converse with others. It’s like dating practice and the confidence you’ll probably attain from making it through the situation will most likely help in other facets of your life.
I hope that these tips help in your dating endeavours. After all, if you’re going to put yourself out there, make the process as painless and entertaining as possible for yourself.

Looking to go speed dating? Check out these local organizers:

Fastlife – an international company that specializes in speed dating and singles events

Rendezvous Club – North America’s premier singles company

Troop of Foxes – Alberta based speed dating hosted at Red Star Pub. Watch their Twitter page (@troopoffoxes) for updates on their next event.

Cooking at Home: Eggplant Stuffed Bell Pepper

Dinner is served!

Dinner is served!

Continuing with the cooking journey I started late last month, I had every intention of picking a new recipe to try sometime in March. But, I already had a fridge full of new groceries and I wasn’t too keen on having to pick up specific ingredients from the store, so I decided to forgo any form of instruction and I opted to do my own thing.

Really feeling the need to detox (I use this word lightly), my kitchen was stocked with eggplant, asparagus, zucchini, grape tomatoes, sweet bell peppers, tomatoes on the vine, avocados and salad mix. When it comes down to it, I’m all about keeping things simple, and when food is involved, I’ve learned that less is often better. As I wrapped my head around the items I had at my disposal, I realized that I should try making stuffed peppers. It’s something that always looks so tasty, healthy and relatively easy, so I figured it would be a piece of cake.

I decided that my basic ingredients would include one large bell pepper (I went with an orange one, so it was sweeter), eggplant, tomatoes on the vine, jalapeno cheese, Uncle Ben’s Bistro Express quinoa & brown rice with garlic flavour – I will often cut corners by going this route to save myself time – and a bit of garlic olive oil.

I’d say this took about 15 minutes to prep and about 25 to 30 minutes baking in the oven at 200 C (392 F). The cheese had melted through giving the stuffed pepper some kick, the eggplant had softened to a nice texture without becoming a squishy mess, the diced tomatoes added acidity, and the quinoa & brown rice with the garlic flavour made it a satisfyingly savoury dish.

Here’s the recipe:

Eggplant Stuffed Bell Pepper
1 Serving
15 min. prep
25 to 30 min. cooking time

1 large bell pepper (any colour)
1/3 of an eggplant
1 small tomato on the vine
1/2 package of Uncle Ben’s Bistro Express or bowl of rice
8 small slices of jalapeno cheese
1 tbsp Garlic olive oil

1) Cover a pan with tin foil and set aside.
2) Preheat your oven to 200 C.
3) Wash your pepper. Slice the top off and scoop out the seeds.
4) Take your eggplant and cut into half inch cubes.
5) Dice your tomato.
6) Warm the package of Uncle Ben’s in the microwave.
7) In a bowl, mix the cubes of eggplant and diced tomato together. Stir in a tablespoon of olive oil until the veggies are coated.
8) Add a portion of the rice to the bowl. Mix well.
9) Put your pepper on the pan and start filling it with layers of cheese and veggie/rice mixture. Alternate between the two until the pepper is full.
10) Once the oven is ready, place the pan on the middle rack.
11) Let cook for 25 to 30 minutes.

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This is an excellent recipe when you’re cooking for just yourself. Or, easily modify the portions and you’ll find that you can serve this to your guests next time they drop by for dinner. Enjoy!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Urban Diner

Weekly specials advertised in the restaurant.

Weekly specials advertised in the restaurant.

Urban Diner (@UrbanDinerYEG) has been a staple of Edmonton’s High Street area for as long as I can recall. But, it wasn’t until I was probably finishing high school or working on my undergrad that it became one of my hang outs. For several years now, it has been the brunch location of choice for my elementary school friend and I. The prices are decent, the food is simple, yet tasty, and it’s good for a casual gathering. There’s nothing pretentious about this place.

I have heard a few people gripe that the offerings have gone down hill recently, and that the consistency of the dishes between the original 124 Street location and the one on 109 Street just south of the High Level Bridge is questionable. However, the long line up of patrons waiting for tables – seen each Saturday and Sunday morning – tells me another story. It’s obvious that the diner is still a favourite when it comes to breakfast food and home style meals. Regardless of the weather or traffic caused by the closure and construction of the Groat Road Bridge, people will patiently bide their time until a spot frees up.

My last visit was no different. Months since I’d been there, I arrived a little late, but a bit earlier than my friend. Already, there were a few pairs and groups ahead of me. Everyone was trying to crowd inside the door way, some to no avail. All the tables and the counter seats were full, but I could see some people finishing up, so I knew it wouldn’t be too long. As I waved and smiled at a baby being cradled in his mom’s arms, I watched as the servers hustled around the eatery wiping down surfaces, clearing plates and dropping off food. Some of the servers I remember seeing on previous occasions. Many of them have likely worked there throughout my entire history as a customer. Personally, I think that speaks to the business itself. The fact that their staff has stuck with them for such an extended period of time, hints that they must be doing something right.

The Urban Diner brunch menu.

The Urban Diner brunch menu.

Shortly before my companion showed up, I was led to a table by the window. I still had a view of the door, and the line certainly wasn’t letting up soon. Our server grabbed me a water as a text came in; my friend was just about there. I perused the menu and glanced at the daily deals (FYI, mac and cheese Mondays are no more. That has moved to Thursday, while meatloaf now starts the week off.). Regardless of whether my heart is set on something or not, I make a point of studying the choices. Maybe they’ve swapped some items off the menu, or another selection will strike my fancy. You never know.

The frittata with multigrain toast.

The frittata with multigrain toast.

Not this time, though. Both of us stuck to the tried and true – frittatas! I used to go for the vegetarian frittata (sans the chicken apple sausage), but nowadays, I’ve been selecting the meat option. I suppose, it just feels heartier that way. A skillet of eggs, bacon (not in the veggie version), spinach, portabellinis, artichokes, tomatoes, peppers, leeks, hash browns, swiss and mozzarella, whatever option you choose, they’re both extremely satisfying and filling. It’s a dish with ample flavour and a good ratio of meat to veggies to cheese to starch. The plate also comes with your choice of toast and a pot of berry preserves, which is likely unnecessary, yet provides some sweetness to an otherwise savoury offering.

More weekly specials, including Throwback Thursday Mac & Cheese!

More weekly specials, including Throwback Thursday Mac & Cheese!

I will have to go back at some point for the Throwback Thursday all day mac and cheese special, which is only $7 (add $3 for a Nathan’s hot dog). I have a feeling they stopped serving the smoked salmon and curry versions of the mac and cheese that used to be part of their Monday menu after 5pm. Of course, I can’t say that for sure until I actually try it, but that’s my best guess based on the cost and their suggestion of topping it off, old school style, with hot dog pieces. Their retro dessert case always looks full of great after dinner treats, too. One day, maybe I’ll leave enough room to fit that in.

All I know for sure, is that if Urban Diner decides to stay, people will continue to flock to it. They have a great reputation that has been ingrained into the city’s dwellers and its surrounding neighbourhoods. And, as far as I can see, they’re still serving up the same food that my friend and I have come to love, if not for the food itself, for the memories that the dishes bring back. It’s our spot, and hopefully, it’ll always be there when we need to catch up.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Manor Bistro

My mom's salmon sandwich.

My mom’s salmon sandwich.

Serving patrons since 1993 – 22 years and counting – The Manor Bistro (@manorbistroYEG) has been a mainstay in the High Street area of Edmonton. I was only seven when it first opened, so I can see why it has become a neighbourhood institution over time. After all, I lived within a five minutes’ drive until I decided to move out and purchase my own condo in the south side of the city.

The new corner I call home is still in constant development and it’s only just beginning to gain some character and choice in the food department. Unfortunately, it really does take a long time to build the kind of community that is seen in Glenora and Oliver. The majority of choices in Terwillegar and Windermere are chains or franchises, so I now realize – more than ever – how lucky we were to have places like The Manor nearby when I was growing up.

It had been ages since I had dined there. However, my good friend’s bachelorette party was held at the establishment last August, and my mom was given a gift card for Chinese New Year this February, which she decided to use to treat my dad and I to lunch.

We happened to be there on a Saturday, Valentine’s Day no less, so it was fairly busy. A parking spot was found just to the side of the building, and of course, we had called ahead to make a reservation (or book through OpenTable, if you prefer), so we didn’t have any problems getting a table. The server/hostess was friendly as she greeted and seated us.

Looking at the restaurant menu, I’d call the current selection a cultural mix of comfort cuisine because there’s everything from nasi goreng (clocking in at No. 61 on the The Tomato‘s top 100 list for 2015; they also came in at No. 26 & No. 28 for their cocktails in 2013) to beef bourguignon to schnitzel. It’s actually quite a succinct list of items, but it does span the globe a bit in terms of flavours and techniques.

On this particular occasion, I waffled between a few items, yet ultimately, I decided to go with the king of comfort food: mac and cheese with added braised beef short rib. My dad ordered the schnitzel sandwich with a side of roast pepper chorizo soup, and my mom chose the salmon sandwich with fresh cut fries.

While we waited for our food to be prepared, we were treated to a basket of warm bread with herbed butter, which I really didn’t need to eat, but enjoyed nonetheless (sue me…I love my carbs). Our mains followed shortly after; we were actually surprised at how quickly everything was prepared.

The mac and cheese was served in an iron skillet, which kept the plate hot and the cheesy sauce creamy. It was a rich dish, so I wasn’t disappointed that this was portioned smaller. At $13 without the meat or $17 with, it really isn’t badly priced. The braised beef was wonderfully marinated and tender, the meat shredding easily with just a fork. An extra side of bread was included, and despite having eaten a couple of slices already, I proceeded to top the accompanying mini loaf with cheese and beef. It was excellent and my leftovers were just as good when reheated for dinner later that evening.

My dad's pork schnitzel sandwich.

My dad’s pork schnitzel sandwich.

I sampled my dad’s schnitzel sandwich, which consisted of breaded pork tenderloin, Dijon, tomato, lettuce and Swiss cheese. The schnitzel was evenly cooked and lightly breaded, so it wasn’t heavy, and the simple toppings made for a delectable, if not subtle winner. After half a sandwich and the bowl of soup, my dad packed up the remaining portion for later. The succulent salmon in my mom’s sandwich was fabulous. One of the worst atrocities in the kitchen is overcooking your meat or fish, but this was perfect. Topped with pickled onion, lettuce, tomato and beet-barley relish, it was a tasty combination of earthy and tangy flavours. The portion size of the salmon was generous as well. Again, leftovers were to be had.

Stuffed to the brim, we had no room for dessert. Although I will say that the tray being shown to the adjacent table was very tempting. We’ll just have to go back to The Manor another time to indulge.

This restaurant has obviously stood the test of time. It has evolved with the seasons, the times and its customers to remain a constant in an area that has seen plenty of change over the years. What I like about the eatery’s atmosphere is that it is at once classy, but also laid back. It’s not stuffy, and neither is the food.