Edmonton Event Review: Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up

Donair Dumplings

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

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

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

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

Peaches & Shrimp Dumplings

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

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

Marinated Quail Eggs

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

Bacon Cheeseburger Dumplings

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

Oyster Soup Dumpling

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

House Salad

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

Satay Chicken Dumplings

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

Roasted Kabocha Squash

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

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

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

Main course for the tasting at Evoolution.

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

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

The Evoolution shop on 104 Street in Edmonton.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edmonton Things To Do: Art Gallery of Alberta Adult Drop-In Studio

Tons of Ideas by Vera Gartley

Earlier this summer, I was making plans with a friend of mine. Due to scheduling conflicts, it was somewhat difficult to find a time that worked for both of us to get together. Futhermore, I didn’t want to do our typical thing of just going for dinner or doing a Paint Nite event. So, I started to scour the internet for ideas of what else we could do in Edmonton.

Honestly, I don’t even know how I eventually ended up on the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) website, but I did. What I found is that they actually offer a weekly Adult Drop-In Studio every Wednesday night. While that particular day of the week didn’t work for her, I was intrigued and I wanted to check out a few of those sessions for myself. I gathered other friends of mine and I made it to three different classes over the span of September.

The first one I went to, I phoned ahead to reserve spaces for me and my friends because I wasn’t sure what kind of attendance to expect (there is a maximum of 20 spaces). You are able to hold spots the day of the drop-in, but you do have to provide payment info at that time. You can phone it in and pick up the tickets at guest services upon arrival at the gallery, or you can walk-in and pay in person.

Tickets are $18 plus tax per person and that includes all of the materials that you’ll be using. The price point is stellar for a two hour activity, especially when compared to the majority of other creative events running throughout the city.

As it turns out, reservations weren’t really necessary. Only half a dozen people showed up for printmaking the first night. Initially, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of direction. The website had indicated that we would be doing lino carving with a theme of cityscapes. Yet, it pretty much turned into a freestyle situation in that we weren’t at all limited. Everyone was allowed to design whatever they wanted, and guidance only came into play once we started doing more of the printmaking itself.

In fact, I loved printmaking so much that I made my way to Delta Art & Drafting Supply that weekend in order to pick up all of the materials needed to do the same thing at home (I have a couple of special projects planned). Thankfully, there was a sale going on.

The following week, my colleague and I ventured out into the cold to make it to the AGA for their Floral Studies drop-in. We arrived a little bit late, but, once we paid, we managed to catch the group of about ten people as they were heading up to the galleries. The instructor for the night wanted us to take inspiration from an exhibit called Vanitas by artist Samantha Walrod. She turned the RBC Work Room (a studio-like residence space) from an empty gallery into several pieces of finished art that explored the idea of life and loss using floral imagery and the passing of time. Her work utilizes layering through multiple mediums like collage, ink and paint.

I was kind of hoping that we would be doing something similar to what we’d seen. Instead, the focus was more on learning to work with chalk pastels and acrylic paints together. Not quite what I expected. Still, I managed to learn some new ways of applying colour and paint to paper, as well as creating my own colours using pigments from the chalk pastels and mixing it with the acrylics.

Finished Japanese stab bounded books.

The final session that I made it to was about book binding. I failed to take photos during this one, but I do have a picture of the finished products. We were taught how to put our own travel journals together using just paper, a couple of binder clips, a push pin, a needle and some thread. We used a simple Japanese stab process, which is easily searchable on Google or YouTube. After we each completed two books, we took them up to the James Wilson Morris gallery where we practiced our sketching techniques (i.e. shading, blind contour, gesture, etc.).

All of these turned out to be fun in their own unique ways. I’ve got my eye on a silk screening class in early-November, but in the meantime, they have a variety of other drop-ins like plaster casting or slow stitch through October. Additionally, if you show up to the gallery early, you can take advantage of the All Access Evenings. Those happen every Tuesday and Wednesday from 5pm to 8pm and it grants all patrons entrance to the exhibits for free.

The Art Gallery of Alberta is definitely making an effort to increase the accessibility and affordability of art and art-related activities. Don’t miss out. Sure, not every workshop is going to call to you, but in the scope of a year, there’s bound to be something that will get your creative juices flowing. Keep an eye on the AGA calendar and carve out some time at this local gem of an institution.

Edmonton Event Preview: Vignettes Design Series 2018 & Nuit Blanche

Salvador Dali is hidden in one of the Vignettes rooms.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend the 2018 Vignettes Design Series VIP Gala. It was held inside Edmonton City Centre in the old ATB Branch on the ground floor (next to the 101 Street West Entrance). When we arrived, we found a huge line already snaking across the mall. It seemed that we were in for a less than exclusive event.

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When we finally made it into the Vignettes space, we were each welcomed with a tiny disposable cocktail glass filled with a couple of sips of sangria. After that, all other food (aside from what was available in the Sanctuary room) and drinks required ticket purchases at an additional cost. Needless to say, for a $40 price tag per guest, I wasn’t too impressed with how this event was executed. It became much too packed way too quickly, making it extremely difficult to maneuver around (architecturally, the overall footprint is small).

Mostly, my hope of getting to mix and mingle in-person with the artists that had worked on the individual rooms was dashed. They were much too busy with the hoards of other guests that had also paid to get into this party. While I do understand that the money collected from ticket sales does go back into the creation of future Vignettes events, I would rather that the organizers made it a little more low key. Spend less money on getting a DJ (it’s so hard to talk or hear) and expensive catering and allow people who want a more in-depth experience to get just that.

Still, I don’t want to take away from the creativity of the work or the artists themselves. They did a phenomenal job transforming mundane offices, closets and walls into over a dozen fantastical or modern spaces. My favourites included a hidden bar, a rainforest (designed by a 4th grader and built by her father), a living space that utilized hydroponics (FRESCO Culinary provided snacks!), and The Grand Palastrio where time is questioned.

Thankfully, the Vignettes gallery will be open to the public every Thursday to Saturday for a month starting on Friday, September 28 and running until Saturday, October 27. While it won’t have the same crazy atmosphere of the VIP Gala (if that’s more your thing), tickets are only $15 per person and they will have timed entrances to help mitigate overcrowding. I expect that this setup will give visitors a chance to really engage with what’s in front of them without feeling rushed to move along. If you can fit this into your schedule before it’s gone, I do recommend taking the time to see this.

The Grand Palastrio

The launch of the public gallery for Vignettes also coincides with Nuit Blanche Edmonton 2018. The latter is a free late-night contemporary art party that takes place from 7pm on Saturday, September 29 to 7am on Sunday, September 30. Nuit Blanche is in its second full scale iteration (technically the third year in the city though), and this particular event happens for just the one evening throughout the downtown area. To find out what’s in store for this year’s programming, click here. Vignettes has been incorporated into Nuit Blanche and, based on the ticketing site, it appears as though they will not be charging for entry into that area during Nuit Blanche hours. However, you may want to check with Vignettes in advance just to be sure.

Nuit Blanche is an experience like no other with a lot of volunteers working behind the scenes to get the exhibits up and running (I was one in 2015). Although the weather forecast is looking chilly on Saturday night, venture out! Bundle up in a warm coat with a hat and gloves, and maybe bring a thermos with your favourite hot beverage. Participating works come from artists across the globe, and everyone who attends is bound to discover something that they fall in love with.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Station on Jasper

PB&J Firebread Sandwich

Closing amid allegations against one of the previous owners, the space once occupied by The Needle Vinyl Tavern (10524 Jasper Avenue) sat unused since November 2017. Then, on June 25, I received an email from Station on Jasper. They were a new business and they had inherited the Needle’s existing email list upon purchasing the restaurant/music venue. With the introduction came an offer for $12 off during dinner when dining in July.

I held onto the coupon and with one weekend left before it expired, I dragged my fiancé, Kirk, with me. I thought it’d be a good excuse to try it out. From what I could tell, the menu had been revamped since the Needle’s time. Back then, the food was pretty subpar. Now, the listings looked to be promising.

We arrived at around 7:00pm on a Saturday night. It was empty inside, although their patio was definitely being utilized. We seated ourselves indoors just shy of the patio to get the fresh air without the crazy heat. Our server came over with menus and started talking about happy hour before realizing that it was actually too late for us to order any specials. Still, I asked her what they usually offer during that time, so I could make note of it for my YEG Food Deals pages. She admitted that they didn’t actually have anything solid in place yet.

The interior of Station on Jasper has a kind of indoor-outdoor feel with the lights.

It turns out that when the business transferred over to the new owners, they literally hired all staff within a two week period, set a date and opened their doors. As I soaked in my surroundings, I could see that the design of the bar and restaurant was largely unchanged. The exact same tables, chairs and setup as before were being used. As I mentioned, the menu was visibly different, but the drink selection was fairly scant with them sticking only to classic cocktails.

Personally, I found the pricing for the dinner mains to be a bit high. Instead, I focused on the rest of the comfort food by way of the south menu created by executive chef Michael Darby. With a variety of sandwiches and pizzas at relatively affordable prices, they were the more reasonable option. Kirk got a local beer on tap ($6.19) and the Station Burger ($14). I opted for the PB&J Firebread Sandwich ($12).

Station Burger

Johnny Lee, one of their bar managers, spoke with us and he said that the Station Burger was probably the most simple thing on the menu and suggested Kirk order the Po’ Boy next time. Johnny wasn’t wrong. The burger had been changed from being topped with candied bacon, caramelized onion, smoked Gruyere and Station Sauce to cheese, mixed greens, sauce and a few grape tomato halves. There was still a decent flavour to the meat. Nevertheless, it wasn’t what we had hoped for. Having stated that the patty is made of hand-formed Alberta beef, we thought it’d be freshly pressed. While it wasn’t necessarily a mass produced frozen burger, it clearly didn’t meet our expectations and could have used more charring. On the side, the blanched fries were decent. These are supposedly hand-cut and that seemed to be the case.

PB&J Firebread Sandwich

Their PB&J Firebread Sandwich fared better overall. The long toasted bun was laid with arugula, seven spice blend pork belly, a sunny side up egg, grilled peaches and some sort of aioli. I tend to shy away from toasty bread because I often scrape my mouth with the sharper edges. This was alright though. It held the components of the sandwich together well. To avoid a huge mess with the egg, I broke the yolk first and then cut the whole thing in half, spreading it out across the length of the bread. Then, I clamped it shut. This item has a lot of potential. Sure, I felt the pork belly was a tad too fatty in spots, but it was seared nicely and the saltiness was balanced out by the bitter greens and sweet peaches. My one big criticism to the kitchen was that the grilled peaches were too chunky. They fell out when I took bites, so I suggested that they create a peach chutney instead. It’d allow for the flavour to come through in every bite rather than sporadically.

After we finished our meal, Johnny came back to chat about the dishes and their quick opening. He then took the time to show us the music stages, including the main venue tucked in a side room towards the back. It’s a neat tiered space. Between that area and the back of the main dining room, they can apparently accommodate up to 400 guests per show. Johnny also excitedly told us about their plans for a hidden speakeasy, which I’m interested to visit when it gets up and running.

When it was announced Station on Jasper would be opening at the end of June, there was speculation that the previous owners were still involved with the new business . However, that has since been refuted. Mark Chisholm, their other bar manager, also introduced himself while we were there. Both Johnny and Mark are a hundred per cent invested in seeing Station on Jasper succeed. They especially want everyone who works there and who comes through their doors to feel protected. All of their staff have to go through regular mandatory training through their partnership with the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE), so staff are not just aware of their own actions, but are also knowledgeable enough to spot situations that may arise with patrons. It was great to hear that they’re taking the steps to ensure that their business remains a safe place for everyone.

Station on Jasper was also able to sign on a number of big name Canadian artists like Serena Ryder and Lights for their launch, and they have a roster of other performers coming through the venue later this year. If they were in any way connected to the tarred reputation of the Needle, I’m pretty certain that information would have come out by now and they wouldn’t have been able to successfully book the shows that they have.

Walking out that night, Kirk and I felt that Station on Jasper was on the right track. They’re beginning to solidify their space in the community by booking as much local talent as possible. They’re working with neighbouring businesses to help highlight musicians in any way they can. Most of all, they want to be there to nourish Edmontonians through their stomachs and their musical souls. We wish them the best of luck!