Edmonton Restaurant Review: Splash Poke

The staff member who completed assembly of my bowl.

Last night, Edmonton’s first Hawaiian-inspired poke (pronounced poh-keh) shop opened its doors to the public with a crowd that snaked down the block and around the corner. Splash Poke, located south of Jasper Avenue on 109 Street, is a fast-casual spot to pick up a healthy, quick and customizable meal. Like Blaze Pizza or Amore Pasta, there are a few preset options to choose from, but at the core, it’s very much a build-your-own dish mentality.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the media and blogger preview lunch yesterday afternoon and doubly fortunate to work close enough to make it there during the two hour time frame. When I stepped into the store, I noticed how bright and modern it was. The tropical colour scheme of coral, turquoise and white runs throughout and makes for a cheerful space. It’s not the largest venue though. There are only about five tables and 14 seats total in the whole restaurant, but it feels spacious and laid out in a way that is still comfortable even if the line inside the establishment grows.

Looking at the menu, I had a tough time trying to decide on what to order. Creating my own bowl sounded great, but I really wanted to sample everything. In the end, I decided to go for The Works, one of the Splash Favourites. This includes cubes of salmon and tuna, shoyu sauce, all available mix-ins, toppings (except avocado at a cost of $1.50), garnishes and both the Splash and Sriracha aiolis. The only thing I asked to have omitted was the cilantro.

Knowing that there’s a need to avoid any contamination with the food, I understood why there was a glass barrier built between the prep station and the customers, but it did seem a tad too tall. Sure, I could see everything they were doing, yet it felt like it was more difficult to talk to the staff as they were assembling the bowls. Also, despite there being three people prepping the food, it seemed to take a bit of time. This could be a slight detriment to patrons if they’re expecting to be in and out, especially if they’re seeking something quick during a short break in their workday. Hopefully, with practice, the staff will be able to speed things up. And, they’ll likely have more premade bowls available for pick up in the cooler once they’re operating on a regular schedule.

The Works, a Splash Favourite.

Going back to my bowl, it was beautifully put together with layers upon layers of ingredients and flavours. However, my initial thought was that it was a tad too salty. I think the crab mix and the shoyu – a soy sauce made of fermented soy bean and wheat – were the main culprits. Next time, I’ll definitely ask that they lighten up on the shoyu. For my base, I had also selected the vermicelli noodles. Although they were the perfect consistency and refrained from being sticky, they didn’t do as good a job of soaking up extra sauce. Rice may prove to be the better bet and also be more filling. On the plus side, I loved that every bite brought a different flavour to my palate. With everything from seaweed salad to corn and panko to jalapenos merged into one dish, there was so much going on with regards to taste and texture that I never knew exactly what to expect as I continued to eat. Most importantly, the fish was exceptionally fresh as well.

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d opt for The Works bowl again. Yes, it was a great way to try it all in one go. But, ultimately, I now know that there are flavours I preferred. If anything, it’s likely that The Tropical bowl would fit the bill for me with salmon, tuna, scallop, pineapple and mango. I found that the fruit paired really well with the raw fish and was wonderfully refreshing; the sweet natural juices actually helped to balance out any spiciness or saltiness in the sauces.

Personally, I think that Splash Poke would be a good alternative to some of the other nearby dining options. While some may argue that the increase in cost between protein portions is a lot – 1 scoop of protein is $9.95, 2 scoops for $13.95 and 3 scoops for $15.95 – I’d say that it’s pretty reasonable considering the type of meat. If one were to go to a sushi restaurant for sashimi, one piece can work out to almost $2 on average. From what I saw, at least during the preview lunch, the portions were generous here, so it seems with merit for the fish and scallop. The chicken and tofu are another story though.

Before leaving, I spoke with the owner, Angela Wong, to clarify the prices of the Splash Favourites, too. Those bowls are all made with two scoops of protein and, therefore, they do come in at $13.95. When I left I was full and satisfied, so the cost would have been justified by me. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to places like The Chopped Leaf where people are willing to shell out money for food there. Except, I truly believe that what I’m getting at Splash Poke is an elevated product at a comparable price point.

All-in-all, Splash Poke is on the right track. For the shop, it will come down to the quality of service and their ability to keep things as fresh as possible. As long as they deliver on both of those fronts, they’re sure to win over the lunchtime crowd and Edmonton’s downtown dwellers and visitors. Judging by the turnout yesterday evening, it seems that they may have already done so.

Visit Splash Poke when you have a chance!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Farrow

The menu is written on the chalk board above the front counter.

The menu is written on the chalk board above the front counter.

Farrow has been around for a little over a year and a half, and, in that time, it has made The Tomato‘s list of top 100 eats in Edmonton twice. In fact, it was voted by readers to the number one spot in 2015.

Being close to the Garneau and Old Strathcona, it’s a bit out of my way, so it wasn’t until this past summer’s Taste of Edmonton, which takes place near my office, that I was able to sample their offerings. Their menu changes all the time, but during our annual food festival, they presented two choices: roast beef and pulled pork.

I tried the roast beef when I was there. It was a small little slider served with chips, but I could tell all of the ingredients were extremely fresh. The arugula was crispy and the roast beef was thinly sliced. Most of the flavour came from the horseradish mayo and the pickled onions. It was decent, but not totally memorable. When my friend finished her roast beef sandwich, she stated their pulled pork slider was the better of the options they brought to Taste.

Flash forward a few weeks to August and the both of us were hanging out at the Fringe Theatre Festival. Since we were spending a full day trekking all over the Old Scona area from show to show with ample time in between, we decided that this was our opportunity to drop by the actual shop on 109 Street.

We perused the succinct menu and, in the end, we both chose to go with the Grick Middle, which is the sandwich that has been heavily lauded by the media and fans of the eatery. It’s the only one that remains a staple at Farrow. By and large, this is basically a glorified breakfast sandwich. Filled with a Four Whistle Farm fried egg, Sangudo bacon, smoked cheddar, rosemary aioli and arugula, the idea of the “unprocessed” comes to mind.

One of the staff packing up my sandwich.

One of the staff packing up my sandwich.

As they were preparing our orders, I watched the staff in the open kitchen fry up the eggs and put everything together. They wrapped up the sandwich lovingly in thick deli packing paper and sealed it with their logo. The location itself is tiny. There are about three bar stools that look out the window and another four to six seats at the picnic table that sits outside the shop’s steps right next to the sidewalk. It’s not the most comfortable, so we took our parcels and walked over to the park between Garneau Theatre and Upper Crust.

I unwrapped my package and, after examining the sandwich and how to approach it, I took a few bites. So far, it was okay. Eventually, I hit the egg yolk and, not only was the bread now soaked, but so were my hands. It’s a messy one. Once the egg yolk breaks, it coats the sandwich and it gives it a different mouthfeel. A fried egg on anything just improves it, and I think this sandwich needs that.

You can tell that everything is made fresh and from scratch, which is great, but I wasn’t blown away by the combination or the flavours, and I sort of think that it was lacking in terms of portion size. The sandwich looks big, but it mostly consisted of bread, egg and arugula. There wasn’t enough bacon for me to really discern that taste in every bite I had. Maybe for $7.50, my expectations were too high, but considering that is over $2 more than a breakfast sandwich at Starbucks and it didn’t truly satisfy me, I probably won’t be spending that much on the Grick Middle again.

My wrapped Grick Middle sandwich from Farrow.

My wrapped Grick Middle sandwich from Farrow.

It’s not to say that Farrow isn’t what everyone says it is. To each their own, really. I can see why people like the place. They’ve brought the popularity of the sandwich back. This isn’t what your mom packed for you during your school days. These are grown up versions, and I love a sandwich that is piled high with ingredients that play off each other and make you crave having it over and over.

This one didn’t do it for me, but it’s not to say another of Farrow’s sandwiches won’t be the one that wins me over. For now, Farrow is good, but, personally, it’s not great. It might get there someday though.

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: Rosso Pizzeria

Their specials board!

Their specials board!

Pizza places are abound in Edmonton nowadays. Add to the growing list Rosso Pizzeria (@RossoYeg), which opened in the Garneau area a little over a year ago. Taking over the old Da Capo location along 109 Street, you’ll spot it to your right as you exit on the south side of the Highlevel Bridge. Seeing as how my visits to the University/Whyte Avenue area are sporadic at best, I had no idea that it was there. It was only after I happened upon a deal from Travelzoo that I learned of its whereabouts, and then I came across their standing as the No. 70 best place to eat and drink in Edmonton as voted by readers of The Tomato in 2014.

The voucher I had purchased was valid for two people, including your choice of an appetizer or salad to share and two small pizzas. Since it could only be used on a Monday to Friday during their lunch hours of 11am to 3pm, I took the opportunity to visit with my mother during my staycation in June. The restaurant being slightly out of the way, I wasn’t realistically able to get there during a usual work day, so this panned out well for me.

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High tables to the right of the entrance.

Seeming like a quiet Wednesday, we were the first table to arrive. There were three servers on hand, one of which indicated that we could seat ourselves wherever we wanted. Personally, I like how the space is broken up. To the right of the entrance is a raised nook that gives you a view of the kitchen including the giant red bell oven. The large bar in the center takes up a huge portion of the square footage, but as you walk in it showcases all of the boutique beers as well as the baked goods, desserts and gelato that they have to offer, and the one side provides additional bar seating. The other half of the restaurant consisted mostly of regular height tables that can be rearranged for different group configurations and a tall raised bar, too. For those sunny, warm days and nights, you also have the option of sitting out on the patio at the front (watching a large truck backing out of a parking spot in the lot next to the patio, coming just inches from the barrier, made me think twice about that though).

We tucked ourselves into a booth as the server brought over menus and explained how our voucher worked. The menu is fairly extensive with several starters, salads, pizza rossas (red) and pizza biancas (white) to pick from, so it took us a while to make a decision. As we eyed the options before us, we sipped on filtered water from their Q Water system (they don’t charge extra for that here, it’s just par for the course). Ultimately, we ordered the Piatto di Formaggi Misto for our first course and the Rucola E Bresaola and the Pesto E Pollo pies for our mains. Truthfully, it didn’t matter if the dishes came together or not because we alternated between the three plates throughout our lunch.

The assorted cheese board.

The assorted cheese board.

The Piatto di Formaggi Misto is the Italian fancy name for an assorted cheese board, something that I have an increasing fondness for as of late. This arrived on a wooden board decked out with what I’m pretty sure were four semi-firm or firm varieties. The differences in texture and taste between each of the cheeses was subtle, but I could distinguish between them. I probably would have preferred if they had changed it up and included a goat cheese or a brie for a greater mixture. However, I was still very happy with this appetizer that came with slices of crostini, a combination of dried fruit (cranberries, apricots and figs), housemade marmalade and a pot of honey. As a side note, I will say that you certainly get your money’s worth with this dish as the portions given are generous.

Moving onto the pizzas, the Pesto E Pollo is a white pizza that uses almond pesto as the base and is then topped with roasted tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and marinated local organic chicken. The crust was crisp on the outside with the soft, chewy texture that is to be expected of traditional Neapolitan pizza. The flavours were a little more subtle than I expected, so it came across as a lighter selection. The Rucola E Bresaola, another pizza bianca, was packed with layers to savour. A combination of beef bresaola, organic baby arugula, mozzarella fior di latte, parmigiano scallions and amorosa tomatoes, I think that the saltiness of the extremely tender, thinly sliced cured beef (dare I say better than what I ate at The Cavern) with the sweetness of the tomatoes and the bitterness of the arugula was such an excellent blend.

Way too full to even think about dessert that afternoon, I did go back to try some in-house made pistachio gelato on another visit just shortly after. The gelato was wonderfully creamy and the medium size that I opted for was perfect to satisfy my sweet tooth.

Personally, I really like the unique touches such as the table tops that were made out of recycled wood from old wine casks. The food was great, the service friendly (maybe a little slow at times, but much better the second time around) and the atmosphere laid back. Perfect for gatherings with family and/or friends, they’re now on my list of go to local restaurants. If you plan to go, they are open daily, and it’s well worth a try. I almost guarantee you’ll want to go back again!

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