Edmonton Restaurant Review: Hanjan

Japchae

During a full-day bridesmaid dress excursion across Edmonton, my ladies and I decided to stop for lunch in the afternoon. Hanjan was our final choice for sustenance, so we all made our way over to the south side (3735 99 Street). Although the space was a tad chilly, it’s super spacious inside with both an expansive main floor and additional seating upstairs, too. The style is sort of modern industrial with a touch of the rustic. They’ve also emulated a dreamy outdoor patio vibe inside. It’s definitely like nothing else in the city.

The main floor of Hanjan.

With only two front of house staff on hand for such a large venue, the service wasn’t bad either. What really helps at Hanjan is that each table has a “bell” installed. Press it, and your group number pops up on a waiting list that hangs behind the counter. They can see who needs them and they’ll come over as soon as they can. It’s really quite efficient and it helps to avoid those sometimes inconvenient popovers where your mouth is clearly full, but the staff still have to ask if everything is going okay. We’ll just ring you, if we need you. I love it.

Anyway, once we’d all gathered, we got our orders in. Two of my bridesmaids went for the classic Bibimbap ($15 each), another went for the Fried Rice Bokkum Bap ($15), and I went for the Japchae ($16). We also shared an order of the Bulgogi Fries ($10), and I grabbed a Matcha Latte ($5).

Banchan

To start, we were given complimentary banchan that included kimchi, bean sprout salad, fish cakes, and mashed potatoes. All of them were quite delicious. I found the mashed potatoes to be an interesting choice for banchan though. I’d never seen that presented before at other Korean restaurants. Usually banchan encompasses more pickled or fermented veggies, so this was a change. My favourite was probably the small slices of fish cake though. Easy to tell what it was with the flavour, but not too overwhelmingly fishy. The texture was pleasant and it had a nice chew to it.

Bulgogi Fries

Shortly after, we received our Bulgogi Fries. The thin cut potatoes were perfectly crispy and then topped with small pieces of bulgogi beef, tomatoes, scallions, and their house sauce. Our whole group raved about them. We even tried to find out what the house sauce was made of, but our server told us that it’s a secret that he wasn’t even privy to. That’s fair. I didn’t think they’d actually tell us. My only constructive piece of criticism with this dish is that it’d be ideal if they layered the ingredients more between the fries. I found that, once we got down to the bottom of the bowl, there wasn’t much left of the toppings other than plain fries.

My friends’ plates actually all took a little longer to come out from the kitchen than mine. I also didn’t really sample them myself, so it’s hard for me to judge. However, everyone seemed to enjoy their selections.

The Fried Rice Bokkum Bap was carefully cooked to ensure that none of the egg was raw as was requested by my very pregnant friend. She paired the pork, veggies, and rice with some of the kimchi banchan to amp up the overall flavour. The Bibimbap bowls looked hearty and well-balanced with a variety of veggies and a decent helping of beef. A beautifully fried egg was placed on top to finish it off. On the side was a dish of gochujang sauce (red chili paste) to be stirred in until mixed to your liking. A little bit sweet, savoury, and spicy, it was pleasant and not overly hot on the palate, which was great for my one friend who isn’t particularly keen on extremely spicy foods.

Japchae: glass noodles in soy sauce with beef and veggies

For my lunch, the Japchae hit the spot. I don’t know why, but I’m obsessed with glass noodles, especially of late. How are they made to be clear? This dish was presented still steaming with the al dente stir fried noodles evenly coated in soy sauce and tossed with beef, veggies and roasted sesame seeds. I polished off the entire plate without hesitation.

Matcha Latte

Towards the end of our meal is when my Matcha Latte finally showed up. I’ll caveat this note by saying that I was warned it would take our server a while to make my beverage and that he was also not good at latte art, so he set it up to keep my expectations low. Interestingly, it wasn’t even piping hot when I got it. But, that was actually okay for me. It was warm enough to enjoy, but cool enough that I was able to drink it quickly to ensure we were done at Hanjan in time to make our next dress appointment.

When we were ready to pay, we were asked to make our way over to the counter. Their electronic system allowed for our bills to be easily split. The transactions were quick and we were off in no time. Overall, Hanjan is a friendly place with both traditional and fusion Korean dishes available. The atmosphere (minus the too cold air conditioning that day) was wonderful, and the food was satisfying. I’ll definitely be back to try some more of their offerings soon.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Lava Rock Grille & Sushi

The exterior of Lava Rock Grille & Sushi

Living on the far southwest side of Edmonton, I admittedly don’t make to the west end very much. Therefore, I’m often unaware of restaurants that may have opened in that area. Thankfully, Groupon has helped to keep me in the loop. The site has showcased some fantastic offers over the past few months, including one for Lava Rock Grille & Sushi.

When I first saw the deal, I checked the address and, as I suspected, this business had opened in Mayfield Common. Situated to the left of World Health, that location has been home to several other eateries in the past. Most of them were East Indian in nature and none of them lasted long despite the often excellent food. Seeing that a new restaurant was willing to take on the challenge of this doomed space intrigued me and I immediately purchased a voucher.

The Sunday that my boyfriend and I decided to go, I called about 30 minutes before to make a reservation. Although it may not be a necessity all the time, I’d recommend booking ahead. We ate early at 5:30 and there were only a few tables occupied when we arrived, but the place filled up quickly while we dined.

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I have to say that I was really impressed with the interior of Lava Rock. The whole space was gutted and updated from what I last remember it looking like. The front has a bar and the back of the venue is completely open with the kitchen shifted to the side. There are also a lot more tables than there used to be and it’s much brighter and more welcoming as well.

The set menus that we got to choose from.

Once we were seated, the server went over what our Groupon included. Basically, we had our choice of four different set menus that I believe are always available to order even without the voucher. They range in price from $24 (Striploin and Basa Filet) to $29 (Filet Mignon) with Shrimp falling in the middle. We were to pick one meal each — to be filled out on the paper we were given along with our choice of sauces — and we both opted for the 8 oz. Filet Mignon.

Dynamite and Spicy Salmon Rolls

Service was quite prompt. We received our pieces of Dynamite Roll and Spicy Salmon Roll shortly after our order was taken. Truthfully, these were quite basic. I disliked the rice to filling ratio and that the tempura shrimp in the Dynamite Roll wasn’t warmer. The latter is a sign that these were probably prepared in advance. Otherwise, the flavours were fine. The raw salmon tasted decent and the texture was okay.

Read these instructions before cooking the meat.

While we were still working on our maki, the slabs of hot rock were wheeled over to the table along with the meat and sauces we’d chosen. The server quickly ground some salt onto the stones and lay the meat on top to begin the cooking process. Before she walked away, she uttered a few instructions and then left us to our own devices. I do recommend taking the time to read the small card placed at every table. It goes over all the dos and don’ts of dining there. My biggest takeaway is that nothing other than salt and whatever protein ordered should touch the stone. One of the servers had to remind people as they ate. Her reasoning was that everything else burns and creates uncomfortable clouds of smoke.

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In any case, eight ounces of meat is a lot of food! I’m not complaining though. It was awesome. The cut I got was a bit gristly on one edge. However, it was easy to cut off and the rest of the filet was perfect. I like my red meats cooked to a medium rare. Yet, due to the number of items I was indulging on at the same time, the meat did cook a little past that point. It was still so tender though, so no matter. I especially loved the sesame sauce that I paired with my steak.

Beef Ramen and Green Salad

If that wasn’t enough, the meal also included a cup of green salad and a bowl of beef ramen soup. The salad was fresh, but it wasn’t my favourite. There were these teeny little red peppers that just had this odd taste and were a tad too seedy. The ramen also didn’t have much in the way of beef or noodles and it was cold. Mostly, I was disappointed with the flavour as the soup was incredibly bland.

Mixed Tempura

Our dinner was completed with a plate of mixed tempura: zucchini, shrimp, oyster and scallop. The portion wasn’t large. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised that they provided so much seafood rather than the usual veggies. Everything was breaded lightly and had a crisp texture. Nothing was too greasy.

By the time we polished everything off, we were both full and satisfied. Sure, there were improvements to be made; the sushi wouldn’t be my top choice and I’d skip the salad and ramen. But, overall, the restaurant offers great value with these set menus. As long as one doesn’t mind playing a part in cooking their own meal, it’s well worth a visit to eat at Lava Rock Grille & Sushi.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: XO Bistro + Bar

Lunch time at XO Bistro + Bar.

XO Bistro + Bar opened in the Ice District late last year. Situated on the main floor of the new Ultima condo building on 103 Street and 102 Avenue, it’s not far from my downtown office.

Still in its infancy, I finally stopped by for lunch last month. When I showed up for my OpenTable reservation, my friend was already seated in one of the booths by the bar. The space isn’t all that big, but it’s modern in design and it looked like there were stairs by the doors that led up to a second level.

At one o’clock, it was pretty quiet. The lunch crowd must have already dissipated by that time of day. The server brought over some water and, after giving us a few minutes to check out the menu, she came back to take our orders.

The lunch menu is quite succinct with several appetizers and various iterations of Vietnamese pho, vermicelli and bowls as well as a handful of other options. The main difference between most simply came down to the toppings selected.

In our case, my friend chose the Combo 2 Rice Plate with Grilled Chicken and I decided on Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef and Grilled Chicken. Both dishes were served with a spring roll. The food was quickly prepared and we were able to eat without much delay.

Combo 2 with Rice, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

My friend’s plate looked nice with a dome-shaped portion of rice, two large pieces of grilled chicken and a side of julienned veggies. The server had dropped off a couple of sauce bottles along with our food, but neither was soy, so my dining companion had to track her down for that. Other than that minor hiccup, my friend enjoyed the meal.

I found my vermicelli to be very filling. There was actually a lot of food crammed into the bowl. I poured the entire amount of fish sauce provided into the noodles and attempted to mix everything together without losing anything over the sides of the dish. It was a bit difficult. However, I was happy with the overall portion size. Anything less and I may have been disappointed because it’s a bit pricier than other eateries that serve Vietnamese cuisine.

Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

Here, a bowl with one choice of protein and a spring roll cost about $17 after tax and tip. Whereas, places like Pho Hoan Pasteur and Delicious Pho are about $2 less and include a variety of toppings like grilled pork, chicken, beef, meatballs, shrimp and the spring roll, so there’s more value with the others. Regardless, the grilled beef and chicken at XO Bistro was flavoured well with lemongrass and had that lovely charred taste to it. It meat was thinly sliced, so it cooked quickly to the perfect texture and chew. The spring roll was also crisp on the outside and not too greasy.

Honestly, I’m not sure that the downtown lunch crowd is who they’re catering to. They seem to be more of a late night venue with a fun cocktail menu and bar bites, so I’d be inclined to come back to check that out another time.

Granted, that’s not to say it wouldn’t be worth trying XO Bistro + Bar on any other occasion. On the contrary. It was wonderful to be there when it was quieter and not too busy. Their service is decent. Plus, the food is tasty, albeit nothing that really differentiates it from other Vietnamese restaurants.

All-in-all, I think it comes down to convenience and preference. If I’m looking for somewhere stylish to eat this type of food in the downtown area, XO Bistro + Bar will probably be one of the first places to come to my mind. It’s also an ideal location for anyone popping by Rogers Place for any shows or games as it’s literally minutes away by foot.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wing Chicx

Sizzling Spicy Pork

Continuing with our exploration of Korean cuisine in Edmonton, my friends and I recently met up for lunch at Wing Chicx before attending an escape game in the Ellerslie area. Tucked away in a strip mall, it’s a compact restaurant with about a dozen tables.

Although the ambiance is nothing to write home about, it is clean, comfortable and the décor is bright and colourful.

As we snacked on the complimentary starters, the four of us took some time to review the options on the menu and once we were ready, the server came over to take our order. A few of us opted for dishes that were marked as spicy on the menu and when we asked just how hot the dishes would be, the server told us they were on the higher end and she suggested we go more mild. Before we did, we inquired as to whether or not extra spice could be added after the fact and she seemed to indicate that it wasn’t possible.

My boyfriend and his skillet of spicy chicken.

My boyfriend decided to go for the spicy option on his sizzling spicy chicken dish. The thinly sliced meat was marinated in hot sauce and served on a bed of cabbage with green onions sprinkled on top. It looked really good, but he didn’t think it was fiery enough. It’s a fair assessment coming from someone who puts sriracha sauce on almost everything.

For my girlfriend’s plate of spicy pork, she took the server’s recommendation and had the heat toned down, which she did regret (if she had her way, the spice would have been taken up a notch as well). The dish itself was prepared in the same fashion as the chicken, so there wasn’t any difference in terms of presentation. I sampled a piece of the pork and I enjoyed the flavours, but it certainly lacked any kick and it was a little bit greasy.

Chicken Tangsuyook

Her husband went for the large order of the chicken tangsuyook, where the meat comes battered, deep fried and smothered in a sweet and sour sauce. The chicken was mixed with a colourful array of veggies and fruit including carrots, pineapple, onions as well as red and green bell peppers. The meat was tender and lightly battered.

Spicy Beef Stew

I decided to be different by going for a bowl of the beef stew. I requested that they keep it spicy and I think this one delivered in that department. Unlike the other dishes, there was a lingering heat to the soup. It tasted good and I appreciated the sweet potato noodles and the sliced mushrooms; however, it didn’t seem to have as much meat and I spent a lot of time swirling the soup around trying to find more of the ingredients. This was the least expensive item out of everything we ordered. Maybe that’s the reason why they skimped on the soup. If that is the case, I’d rather they charge a dollar or two more to make the soup heartier.

All of the dishes were served with a bowl of rice on the side. Excluding the soup, I’d say that the rest of the plates were well-portioned for the price. Also, if you like piping hot food, the soup was still boiling when it arrived at our table and those sizzling skillets were spitting grease and sauce all over when they were settled in front of my friends.

Personally, I’m not sure I’d visit Wing Chicx again of my own accord, but I wouldn’t say no if someone else wanted to go there. The food was decent enough that I’d be okay eating there on another occasion. It simply wouldn’t be my first choice. Perhaps if I had taken into account the online reviews raving about the fried chicken and gone with that instead, I’d feel differently. Yet, based on my experience, I can really take it or leave it at this point.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: SEORAK Teppan & Bar (Closed)

A chef lighting up the teppan grill.

A chef lighting up the teppan grill.

At the start of the year, I found myself scrolling through the list of participating OpenTable restaurants in the Edmonton area. I was attempting to remind myself of places I’d had yet to visit, which I would then be able to recommend to my friend as suggestions for our upcoming lunch or dinner meeting.

As I perused the directory, one popped up that I hadn’t heard of. SEORAK Teppan & Bar was unfamiliar to me. I Googled the name and it seemed to have opened on Whyte Avenue just a few months prior.

Fast forward a couple of weeks later to when my boyfriend and I were heading to Nongbu for dinner with our friends. We happened to drive east down 82 Avenue and I spotted the exterior of SEORAK on 108 Street. Its simple signage is unassuming. Paired with the fact that there aren’t many happening restaurants past about 106 Street, SEORAK could be easily overlooked. Yet, maybe the lack of much else on that block is what made it stand out to me that night.

Towards the end of January or beginning of February, it was decided that we would make some sort of plans for Valentine’s; however, we wouldn’t be partaking on the actual day. It was going to be low key. My only stipulation was that I wanted to go somewhere new because it would allow me to blog about it. So, I complied about a handful of restaurants.  I sent them to my boyfriend to check out all of the menus and asked him to pick. Ultimately, we landed on SEORAK.

When this particular Saturday finally rolled around, our day started off with brunch at home and then a few hours of painting ceramics at Crankpots ahead of dinner. We arrived in advance of our reservation and it was still rather early in the evening, meaning it was relatively quiet at that point. Only about four other tables were seated.

One of the servers came up to greet us and he immediately apologized for the wait. He cited that the restaurant was short staffed and then he quickly brought up my name. Once he checked us in, he started to lead us to a table closer to the teppan grill, but, at the last second, he guided us over to a booth nearer the windows.

Now, here’s the thing, I never tell restaurants that I’m a blogger (although, they can probably guess when I pull out my camera and start taking photos). It’s a rarity that I mention anything because I don’t really want to be treated differently than anyone else who walks through the door. However, on this occasion, I pulled the card and asked if it’d be possible to be sat across from the teppan as I hoped to take photos without getting in anyone’s way. The server then introduced himself as the owner, Sa Hwang. He explained that it was going to be busy that evening and his manager had made the arrangements regarding the reservations, so he’d speak to him and see if we could be moved. The manager was over a couple of minutes later and he had us swiftly placed at another table with an optimal view of the show. We thanked him for being so understanding.

The SEORAK logo along with a few of their signature cocktails.

The SEORAK logo along with a few of their signature cocktails.

Our server for the evening, Joanna, came by shortly after to introduce herself and to ask us if we’d like any drinks to start. With ten minutes to spare before happy hour was over, we managed to sneak in an order of four cocktails at the lowered prices. Basically, all of their signature drinks are offered for $1.50 to $2 less. I’d say the one that makes the most of the Asian theme would be the Lychee Lollipop as it incorporates both the lychee flavour as well as soju, a Korean liquor. The Aloe-Ha is a typical tropical drink that went down smoothly, and the Kraken Cider was a delicious mix of spiced rum, Asian apple cider, ginger ale and fresh squeezed lemon that was garnished with a stick of cinnamon.

Having trouble deciding on what to eat, I asked Joanna for recommendations. She indicated that some of the menu items had been updated recently, so she suggested a few that she really likes, including the Kimchi Bombs. As we needed a bit more time to come to a conclusion on our meal, we opted to go with those as our appetizer. The plate appeared at our table not too long after. Three balls of kimchi rice stuffed with mozzarella cheese and deep fried until crisp on the outside were garnished with green onions or leeks and a sweet aioli. I love a good mac and cheese ball, and this is, essentially, its cousin. At first, I wasn’t overly impressed. I mainly got a bite of the rice and no cheese. But, as soon as I had a taste of the rice with the gooey mozzarella and crispy outer shell coated in the sweet aioli (surprisingly not creamy like a mayo) with the tanginess of the onions, I realized that all of the flavours just balanced each other out and the textures definitely worked together.

By the time we had devoured our starter, the mains that we opted to share were being put together in the kitchen. I took in the whole restaurant while we waited. The design is sleek and modern yet also welcoming. The marbled countertops at the grill and the bar are gorgeous. Nearly every table in the house (granted, not all of the seats) have a view of the teppan. The only thing I noticed was off were the bar stools. I didn’t try sitting in them, but they seemed a tad too tall for the height of the bar. Otherwise, down to the outlines of Mount Seorak (located in South Korea) on the wall next to us and the use of diverse textures and neutral colours, it’s a really well thought out space.

By 6:30, all of the tables were occupied, so there was a buzz in the place. Not loud though, so it was perfect for conversing. I was watching the chefs cooking up a storm on the grill and snapping photos. Eventually, the Pork Belly Trio was dropped off at our table with a bowl of rice. Not long after, the Korean Shortrib that I had selected showed up as well. We had been warned that due to the different cooking times for each dish, the arrival of them may be staggered. Since we were planning to share, it didn’t really matter, but I suppose it’s something to take into consideration when dining at SEORAK.

Although the menu at SEORAK integrates both Korean and Japanese (i.e. okonomiyaki) cuisines,  we stuck strictly to the Korean selections in this instance.

For the Pork Belly Trio, my boyfriend picked the Seoul Chili flavour for the meat. That particular option came with sheets of nori, pickled radish and a carrot/purple cabbage slaw in a sesame dressing. I hadn’t expected it to come out plated the way it was. When I absorbed what I saw, it occurred to me that all of the separated portions of the dish could be compiled together to make mini wraps. Personally, I really enjoyed the opportunity to play with my food. Each thing tasted great on its own, but the layers of flavour experienced when everything is combined is stellar. The Korean BBQ pork belly was cooked well and most of the really fatty parts had rendered away. I expected the meat to be spicier, but it was actually very subtle. The nori was fresh and had that snappiness to it that gave way without a struggle when I took a bite.  I always appreciate a good sesame slaw, too. This, paired with the acidity from the pickled radish just added an extra oomph of flavour. The colours were also beautifully vibrant.

I voted for the Korean Shortrib dish and it did not disappoint. Sure, it could have used a little extra garnishing. Perhaps a side of veggies to go with it. Aside from that, the AAA Alberta boneless short ribs were top notch. Yes, the meat is sliced fairly thin, but there were three long slabs of beef placed on the hot skillet, likely amounting to about ten ounces of steak. The bottom piece was about half to three quarters of an inch thick and cooked to medium/medium rare. The meat was succulent with just a slight amount of fat, which helped to ramp up the flavour of the Korean Kalbi (or Galbi) marinade of Asian pear, soy, honey garlic and sesame.  I ate up every last bite of the short ribs and the rice. In the end, I even added in the leftover radish and slaw from the pork belly dish for good measure.

Green Tea-rimisu

Green Tea-rimisu

To finish off our celebratory evening, we skipped the snowbowl (a finely shaved ice dessert only available in Edmonton at SEORAK) and went for the Green Tea-rimisu. I’m not going to lie, it took me a second to grasp that it was a matcha flavoured take on the traditional Italian tiramisu. It was presented in a pretty ceramic bowl with a matching lid. I opened it to reveal matcha powder sprinkled on the top in the shape of a clover (maybe a regular leaf would be a better shape and more in line with the idea of a tea leaf, but I digress). This was a well executed dessert. Nevertheless, I’d argue that it lacked the matcha flavour throughout. I did like the use of a Korean cookie as the base of the tiramisu though. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the flavour. I wanted to say it was black sesame or something, but it may have simply been chocolate.

All-in-all, SEORAK was an excellent choice in the Old Scona area. Everything from the food to the service was first-rate. Even on a night when they were short staffed (Sa was at the grill cooking and there were only two servers), the manager and Joanna were really attentive to us as well as the other diners. The dishes and drinks all made it out to customers in a prompt fashion and the integrity of the restaurant never wavered.

With our bellies full, I caught Sa when he had a moment away from the teppan. I praised the fantastic meal and said we’d be back. In fact, I’m already licking my lips in anticipation of our next visit to SEORAK.