Edmonton Restaurant Review: Baijiu Bar

Baijiu’s table settings.

When I’d heard that the owners of North 53 had a new project in the works, I followed their social media feeds religiously to stay in the know. The final product was Baijiu Bar.

Opening in February inside the 110-year-old Mercer Building, the walk-in only restaurant (reservations may be accepted for larger groups) seemed to be a huge hit with visitors. Literally located across the street from the new Rogers Arena and well within the heart of Edmonton’s Ice District, this stylish iteration of a Chinese food joint joined the ranks of its more established neighbours, Rostizado and Mercer Tavern.

As per usual, I didn’t make it there immediately. Even though my office is only about a 10 to 15 minute stroll from Baijiu, it wasn’t until early April that I found myself dining there with a great friend that I hadn’t seen in a long while.

On an early evening after work, I headed straight over to the Mercer Building. As I approached the brick facade, I looked up to see the establishment’s name lit up in neon through the second storey window. I went through the main entrance, but I must have been a bit too early because the door to Baijiu’s unit was still locked when I got there.

The restaurant’s interior.

After a short wait, the host appeared and let me in. Being the first patron for the night allowed me to really absorb my surroundings. The space is long and fairly narrow with tables to one side and bar seating on the other. High windows provide minimal natural lighting that put the focus on the large floral mural on the parallel wall. Bottles that lined the bar were backlit, so that they gave off a minor glow. All of the tables were set with traditional Chinese wares that felt vintage when placed in contrast to framed black and white images of hip hop artists. Old world versus new school was the vibe.

In the few minutes prior to my friend’s arrival, I decided to order the Baijiu Milk Punch. This 2 ounce cocktail (some go up to 3 ounces) consisted of a mix of Black Seal rum, Cremovo, Chinese soy milk, cream, cinnamon & vanilla syrup and pistachio. It packed enough of a punch to provide a reminder that there was alcohol in it, but it was still a smooth drink with a pleasantly nutty and spicy flavour. My friend opted for one of their Mocktails. In this instance, they created some sort of grapefruit agave concoction that was sweet with a hint of tartness and, overall, it was refreshing.

Red Braised Beef Bao

For our meal, we decided to split a few dishes between us. The quickest out of the kitchen was the Red Braised Beef Bao. The plump taco-like buns were folded to hold the slow cooked Pine Haven pork, pickled shallots, cabbage and shaved Brussels sprouts. On top of that was a thick stripe of soy mayo and sprinkles of black sesame seed. With plenty of succulent meat and a variety of texture, these were delicious, if somewhat messy. I should also note that a standard order comes with only three bao. We added a fourth for $5, to make it easier to split the dish.

Lion’s Head Dumplings

Item number two was the Lion’s Head Dumplings. These were filled with Pine Haven pork, white shrimp, soy, garlic and cabbage. They were served drizzled with a ginger-soy sauce and white sesame seeds scattered atop. I thought the filling was juicy and the sauce had a good balance between the salt and spice. My only qualm was that I thought the dough wrapper was a tad too thick. Thinning that out would help to better define the taste of the pork and shrimp.

Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage

Our trio of share plates was finished with the Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage (it was a toss-up between this and the Korean Brussels Sprouts). This did not disappoint. The combination of confit onion, ginger, egg, soy, chimichurri, dry chili, crunchy shredded cabbage and garlic chips was to die for. I especially loved the heat from the flakes of chili pepper and the crispy garlic chips that truly enhanced what could otherwise have been a pretty blasé dish. What kept it interesting was the fact that there were layers upon layers of flavour with each and every bite.

Instead of calling it a night once those items were polished off, my friend suggested we complete dinner with an order of the Fried Bao Ice Cream Sandwich for dessert. The selection changes, so we asked what was available. The choices that evening were the Cinnamon Toast Crunch or the Cap’n Crunch. Unsure of the one to pick, I asked our server to recommend. Cinnamon Toast Crunch it was.

Fried Bao Ice Cream Sandwich

The ice cream sandwich is a decent size; it’s perfect to split between two people. Remember the bao mentioned previously? Instead of steaming the dough, it is fried until it puffs up like a hamburger bun. Soft on the inside and a deep golden colour with a slightly brittle texture on the outside, the bao is then halved horizontally. Between the two layers was placed a thick slab of cinnamon ice cream with pieces of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal added in for good measure. Sort of like ice cream stuffed into a doughnut, this was a heavenly and indulgent end to the meal.

Surprisingly, Baijiu stayed pretty quiet throughout our time there. Sure, other people showed up by 7pm, but it was by no means full. My worry about it being difficult to get in on any given day without reservations was quashed and I realized that, depending on my schedule, it’ll be easy to pop in whenever I feel the need.

“Baijiu,” in Chinese, actually has a couple of meanings. The exact translation is “white alcohol,” which is quite fitting for a bar. It took me landing on their webpage and reading that Baijiu is pronounced as “Bye Joe” before I clued in to the second connotation of “celebration.” It never occurred to me that the name of the restaurant was this Chinese word I’ve known for so long and that I’ve always associated with the latter definition.

Having dined there now, I can certainly picture Baijiu as a place of gathering and merriment. The food hints at the traditional in terms of presentation, but the flavours are amped up and honed, if that makes any sense. The atmosphere is laid back and, with the venue being so open, it makes it feel very communal. I’d also say that the service we experienced was top notch; the server was incredibly attentive and knowledgeable. On the whole, the owners have done a fantastic job of bringing their vision to life and, as an Edmontonian, I’m more than happy to welcome Baijiu to the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: SEORAK Teppan & Bar

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.

Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2015

Last year I decided to begin working my way through The Tomato‘s 100 best eats in Edmonton for 2013 and 2014.  There are still places that I haven’t made it to, and the challenge has only become harder with the release of the 2015 list this past March. Not to mention, new restaurants continue to spring up and compete for my attention. Needless to say, I wasn’t as on top of trying different places this year, but my second annual breakdown of my personal favourites in Edmonton does have some variation from my choices in 2014.

I still stand by the belief that any eatery is capable of blowing me away. Whether it’s an independent restaurant or part of a chain, there’s a reason why these places have lasted and continue to bring customers through their doors.

All of my selections are based off of the dishes that I’ve tried, so I by no means can vouch for the entire menu at each restaurant. However, I do feel that whatever I’ve eaten at these establishments are good indications of their brilliance or potential.

If you’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a great meal at the following locations, you’ll understand why they’ve made the cut. Otherwise, this list is my way of nudging all of you to step outside of your comfort zone to try somewhere and something new.

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1. Cibo Bistro
Still my favourite place in 2015. Everything is made from scratch. Delicious arancini, amazing cured in-house salumi, and fresh pasta with the perfect bite.

Review of Cibo Bistro

2. Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen
The official grand opening took place in November and the food really impressed me and my friend. Absolutely fantastic bone marrow agnolotti and tender, smoked duck were the stars.

Review of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

3. Woodwork
I recently visited again and it reminded me of why I like this place so much. Talented bartenders mix perfect cocktails, which are usually imbibed with plates of food that often consist of flavourful house-smoked meat.

Review of Woodwork

4. Canteen
The menu changes seasonally, but I still think about the duck breast I had. Visually, it was gorgeous, but it was also incredibly succulent. The chickpea fries and corn fritters are also great for sharing.

Review of Canteen

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5. Rostizado
A great place for gatherings, the platter of 2 consisting of juicy and tasty roasted Four Whistle Farms pork and chicken creates a family-like atmosphere during your meal. Make sure to order the caramel flan for dessert, which is arguably even better than the churros.

Review of Rostizado

6. Duchess Bake Shop
My mom’s first visit to Duchess took place this year, and she loved the desserts. She’s pretty critical, so if she says something is good, it is. The key lime tart is still my top pick here. The banana cream pie has a wonderfully flaky crust, plenty of banana and lots of fresh whipped cream.

Review of Duchess Bake Shop

7. Corso 32
I was maybe a little harsh with Corso 32 last year. My expectations were very high after hearing all the rave reviews before trying it for myself. But, I concede that the fried short rib was a more than memorable dish.

Review of Corso 32

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

Review of Tres Carnales

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9. El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar
I was skeptical of El Cortez prior to visiting in August. When it first opened, I had heard the food wasn’t all that great, but chef Lindsay Porter who took over a few short months later created a top notch menu. The fried cauliflower and the bulgogi steak tacos are awesome.

Review of El Cortez

10. Rosso Pizzeria
The wood-fired pizza is a must.  I also highly recommend the ricotta with olive oil, which is indulgent, but light. Don’t leave without dessert. The homemade gelato is superb.

Review of Rosso Pizzeria

11. Nosh Cafe
This restaurant moved to 124 Street within the last year and business has been slow to build at their new location. However, I’ve been several times and the traditional Indian dishes – palak paneer and butter chicken – are consistently good.

Review of Nosh Cafe

12. Cactus Club Cafe
I know this is a chain. But, arguably, they know what they’re doing when it comes to food and drinks. I’ve never had a disappointing meal at either location. The dishes that keep me coming back include the beef carpaccio, the BBQ duck clubhouse and the calamari (the addition of the fried jalapeno slices is genius).

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13. Joey Restaurants
Don’t start rolling your eyes. This is the second chain on this list and there are reasons for it. I’ve been frequenting Joey for as long as I can remember. It was the place my friends and I would go for a night out. We’d feel like adults as we had long conversations over what we considered to be pretty fancy food at the time. Not much has changed. Joey has always been a mainstay for me. The menu has been revamped many times over the years, but I hope that they never remove that spectacular ahi tuna sandwich. I crave it.

14. Japonais Bistro
They have filling bento boxes that satisfy your belly and the matcha crème brûlée is addictive.

Review of Japonais Bistro

15. Izakaya Tomo
Must tries here include the crispy tako yaki (octopus balls), oyster ponzu and the prawn spring rolls. Gather a group of friends, order a bunch of plates and share everything!

Review of Izakaya Tomo

16. The Common
Go for the chicken and waffles – one of the best renditions available in Edmonton – or the unique tandoori calamari. They also have a great selection of craft beers and tasty cocktails.

Review of The Common

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17. Three Boars Eatery
This tapas style establishment has an ever-changing menu that is meant to be shared. If you can catch them, the lamb neck croquette, roasted beet and carrot salad, oka tart and the pork belly are highly recommended. The intimate space also makes it feel a little more special.

Review of Three Boars

18. Lazia
They’ve recently shifted the focus of their menu back to more Asian influenced dishes, and I think that was smart. The kitchen pleasantly surprised me with gorgeously plated and flavourful dishes that rivaled their sister restaurant, Wildflower Grill, but with price points that are slightly more accessible.

Review of Lazia

19. Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus BBQ
I was greatly disappointed when I found out that Absolutely Edibles closed. However, their sister restaurant, Sloppy Hoggs, still exists just down the block on 118 Avenue and 95 Street. The barbecued and slow-cooked meat served here is great and the portion sizes are generous. To top it off, the Absolutely Edibles brunch menu transferred over to this location. The waffles with the works (breaded chicken) are my top choice.

Review of Sloppy Hoggs

20. Ampersand 27
A beautiful atmosphere with equally beautiful dishes made for sharing. Get the melt-in-your-mouth maple butter pork belly.

Review of Ampersand 27

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21. The Cavern
Giving the option to select wine in 3 oz. or 6 oz. glasses and the chance to build a cheese and charcuterie board that is healthy and filling, you’ll likely be surprised to find that you don’t actually require anything else. With cheese, meat, nuts, dried fruit, jellies and bread, this is a meal in itself.

Review of The Cavern

22. The Art of Cake
Cupcakes, slab cakes, cruellers, and shortbread cookies are just a few of the baked goods that they offer at their store. It’s impossible to go wrong.

Review of The Art of Cake

23. Tiramisu Bistro
With an extensive menu, there’s probably something to satisfy everyone. I particularly liked the salmone pizza. Even better, after 5pm on Tuesdays, pizzas are buy one, get one half off.

Review of Tiramisu Bistro

24. Belgravia Hub
Tucked away in the Belgravia neighbourhood, this is an easy restaurant to overlook. However, don’t miss out on their contemporary comfort food. The corn fritters, mac and cheese bites and the braised beef are worth a visit.

Review of Belgravia Hub

Happy New Year and Happy Eating! See you in 2016!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Lazia (Downtown Closed – Visit North Location)

The Hula Hula Chicken & Firecracker Prawns

The Hula Hula Chicken & Firecracker Prawns

Over the past 15 years, the menu at Lazia has shifted, moving away from their origins as an Asian fusion restaurant. However, the new menu, introduced this summer, is a realignment to the type of cuisine they started with. There are still a few items meant to appease those who just want a straight up steak and potato dish, and there are about a handful that present a more Mediterranean leaning. Yet, the majority of the dishes have hints of Chinese, Thai and Malaysian influences (owner Richard Lim is Chinese by way of Malaysia) that are combined with flavours found across the globe.

Having had the opportunity to profile Richard’s other restaurant, Wildflower Grill, for The Local Good last year, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from his daughter, Tamara, who reached out to me through Twitter in August. Lazia’s menu had been updated for the fall season, and Richard wanted to invite me out for a one-on-one tasting session (myself and two guests). Being that I’m a fairly frequent patron of the restaurant since I work rather close by and I cannot pass up the offer of food, I wholeheartedly accepted the chance to gain more in-depth knowledge of their dishes and to meet Richard in-person.

Although I would recognize the bartender or the managers any day, funnily enough, I cannot recall ever seeing Richard prior to this past week. He told me that he’s always there, but he prefers to be in the background, making sure that things are running smoothly in the kitchen.

Things seemed to go very well on the quiet Wednesday evening that we dined. Richard and our server, Dave (who is usually a supervisor, but was attending to our every need this particular night), were incredible hosts. To start things off, they suggested a few beverages from their drink menu – a golden margarita, the grand phoenix martini and a lavender blueberry collins – of which we each sampled one. While we waited for our cocktails to be prepared, Richard took the time to go through the menu items that he thought we should sample. Then he left us to ponder. In the end, we decided to just go with the suggestions that were put forth. After all, Richard should know best.

Let me start by talking about those drinks.

The golden margarita was a more traditional blend of tequila, Grand Marnier, lime juice and agave nectar with the glass rimmed in salt. This is a cocktail that my friend would not typically order because of the tendency to be more sweet, but this one leaned towards a slightly bitter and tart flavour instead. It actually went down quite smoothly.

My mom also joined us, and she chose the grand phoenix because she liked the name. This one was a blend of vanilla vodka, pomegranate liqueur, orange juice and Grand Marnier. For an added dose of fun and decadence, the drink was lit on fire and then topped off with blood orange gel capsules (they used molecular gastronomy to prepare the natural acids from the juice in a certain way, creating these balls that, when popped, gave an extra shot of flavour), which floated in the liquid.

I had opted to go with the lavender blueberry collins. This one consisted of elderflower liqueur, gin, fresh lemon, lavender and blueberries. I missed the note in the menu about it being “in a fog,” so I was in awe to see that it arrived at the table in a capped bottle that once opened released a heavy dose of vapour like a potion in a witch’s cauldron. It was awesome! So great, in fact, that I simply watched that happen instead of pulling out my camera to capture it.

Now that we were happily imbibing, we had to start preparing ourselves for the meal at hand.

To begin, the kitchen created their daily amuse bouche. It’s a chance for the chefs to experiment with flavours and ingredients that they may not otherwise get to use. This is something that I notice Lazia has started to incorporate into their experience, borrowing from what you’d find at the arguably higher end Wildflower Grill.

Afterwards, Richard started us off with three small plates to share: Mediterranean pork belly, Moroccan lamb meatballs and Japanese barbecue pork.

The Moroccan lamb meatballs were skewered with a whole cherry tomato, avocado, jalapeno mousse and a thick slice of cucumber atop a bed of barbecue sauce. The 15 spices used within the meat really brought in a lot of flavour. This is a good choice if you want a starter that isn’t too heavy.

The Japanese barbecue pork really moves away from the traditional BBQ pork that you might find at a Chinese restaurant with the thick accompanying sauce. The pork is cooked with an orange, miso glaze and served in a ginger, sweet soy, Shaoxing wine vinaigrette. The tanginess and lightness of the sauce paired very well with the meat.

The Mediterranean pork belly was by far my favourite appetizer of the evening. Pork belly is becoming a rather common dish on menus across the city, but not everyone does it justice. Lazia’s dish was near perfection for me (don’t hold it against me if you go and you don’t agree). The pieces of pork belly were crisped so well on the outside, making that fatty layer disappear, all the while leaving the meat quite tender on the inside. I’m also so glad that Richard brought us an extra side of the duck fat cherry aioli for dipping because that sauce was so delicious with the pork belly or placed on the side of wonton chips dusted with black sesame powder that came with the dish.

The colourful and beautifully plated Roasted Beet Salad.

The colourful and beautifully plated Roasted Beet Salad.

Next up was the roasted beet salad, which had been made on a more miniature scale for the evening, allowing us to see the true colours and composition of the dish. It’s a beautiful course and one that the entire table would highly recommend. The plate is first covered with a layer of the lemon, miso vinaigrette dressing and then each ingredient is carefully placed on top. A mix of organic carrots, carrot leaves, frisee, strawberries, orange, rainbow cauliflower, red and yellow beets, feta, sponge cake and chia seeds, this would make for a wonderfully healthy and tasty lunch or dinner.

Good thing I wore some forgiving clothes because what followed were three entrees that were shared between me and my guests. Laid out before us was the hula hula chicken & firecracker prawns, the pacific wild salmon and the teppanyaki New York steak.

The prawns were large and had a good amount of heat from the seasoning and the chicken breast was cooked until tender, not overdone at all. Paired with a cilantro gremolata, it was the herbs that took me by surprise. Most people who know me are aware that I am not a fan of cilantro. I have one of those palates that believes that cilantro tastes like soap. But, I didn’t even realize that’s what I was eating in this dish. My friend once said that, supposedly, if cilantro is crushed, the molecule that creates that unbecoming flavour is destroyed. Perhaps that’s the reason why I found it to be pleasant. Crispy polenta formed a base for the chicken and the prawns, along with a zucchini and carrot pave – thinly sliced and layered like scalloped potatoes – and a pineapple, Malibu rum sauce. The sauce tasted a bit too sweet on its own, but it was great to offset the spice from the prawns.

As explained by Richard, the BC sockeye salmon served with skin was seared on both sides and then poached in olive oil to create the crisp outer texture while keeping the juices in the center. A painterly swipe of carrot emulsion graced the plate, which was topped with sauteed broccolini, confit tomatoes and a lovely combination of chorizo and black lentils. The latter provided a smoky flavor, contrasting well with bites of the mandarin orange chutney topped fish.

I left the steak as the last to discuss because this one had an interesting back story. Had Richard not told us, I never would have guessed that this dish was a mix of Japanese (easy to see) and Mexican (not so evident at first) influences. The steak itself is prepared using a yakitori glaze; it is plated with pickled ginger and togarashi on top and a bed of chile hollandaise. A miso, sesame dressing sat on the side with flash fried cauliflower and fingerling potatoes. All the elements were done well, even that Mexican inspired chile hollandaise. As it turns out, Richard loves Mexican food, and one of his favourite restaurants is in Phoenix, AZ. There they can cook with hatch chile peppers, which have a fairly low spicy heat rating on the Scoville scale, but give off enough of a fresh, earthy pungency to make a manageable impact. Unfortunately, hatch chile peppers are not available in Alberta, so Richard worked with his chefs to find a mixture of peppers that can be purchased locally that, when combined, closely emulates the taste of the hatch chile.

If you don’t already feel full reading about all of the food we had eaten so far, you will be after learning that we also split two desserts: the raspberry white chocolate cheesecake and the dark chocolate raspberry bomb. Little works of art, the sweet endings were nicely plated. Both had a bit of weight to them, but the cheesecake came off as less dense, which was welcome. They’re actually great for sharing, especially after a large meal.

Overall, I would say that the menu, in its various incarnations, has had its ups and downs, but what we sampled last week was fantastic. The experimentation and playfulness that has been shown with the options that they’ve decided to put on their latest menu is a testament to the talent in their kitchen. Everything we tried was thoughtfully prepared, and I was impressed, not just with the taste and texture, but also the presentation. It was almost as if the Wildflower chefs had taken over. The level of craftsmanship from the bar to the kitchen was close to on par with Richard’s more upscale offering, but at a slightly better price point.

Based on what I had the pleasure of tasting, their effort to step back and reassess what they do best is working for them. Now, they just need you to remember that they’re an option when you’re in the downtown area. And, should you be worried about parking, don’t fret. While nearby construction is taking its toll, Lazia offers free secure, heated underground parking in the West Preferred Parkade by the Bay at City Centre Mall every weekday evening after 5:30pm and all day on weekends.

Lazia is definitely worth a visit, or a revisit if you haven’t been in quite some time.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wild Tangerine (CLOSED)

The restaurant's tag line.

The restaurant’s tag line.

I had been to Wild Tangerine (@goWildTangerine) years ago, visiting after hearing many excellent reviews. While the experience at the time was great, for some reason, even though I kept telling myself to go back, I never did. Fast forward to the beginning of this month and I came across a Twitter post or perhaps a quick news snippet announcing the impending closure of the restaurant on June 21. I was shocked to hear that such a successful and loved establishment was deciding to shutter their business after 10 years, especially when siblings Judy and Wilson Wu’s passion for food has continued to shine so brightly (voted by readers into the No. 19 spot on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton in 2014 and No. 22 in 2013).

So, upon learning of the countdown to the restaurant’s final day, I immediately texted my friend and asked if she wanted to join me there for supper the following week. When she agreed that we should definitely make a point of going before it was too late, I reserved us a table and we were off to the races.

The interior of Wild Tangerine

The interior of Wild Tangerine

Walking into the brightly lit and colourful space, it hadn’t changed much since my first meal there, but I could see that everything was well taken care of and had been kept in great condition. We were seated at a booth by the windows at the front, giving me a view of the entire room. Arriving a little before the dinner hour, there were only a handful of other occupied tables. However, as we dined, the restaurant was eventually filled to capacity with patrons both showing their love and wanting to indulge in one last meal that usually consisted of at least one order of their known shrimp lollipops.

Enticing as that appetizer sounded, my friend decided to go with Chef Judy’s famous Thai Green Curry with Prawns & Tortiglioni minus the seafood as she is allergic, making it a vegetarian dish. I opted to go with the Cha-Siu Organic Pembina Pork Tenderloin with Spicy Tangerine Glaze as well as a side of Gnocchi with Coconut Cream. What I love about their food is that they always serve everything with fresh seasonal vegetables, so you know you’re getting the best that producers have to offer and that the meat products are one hundred percent Alberta grain or vegetable fed in addition to being antibiotic and growth stimulant free.

My order of pork tenderloin and gnocchi with coconut cream.

My order of pork tenderloin and gnocchi with coconut cream.

I tasted a bit of my friend’s Thai Green Curry dish and the flavours were fantastic. It wasn’t overly spicy and was filled to the brim with green beans, zucchini, red peppers and eggplant. And, as we found out at the end of our supper, they were really fair in that they lowered the cost of my friend’s meal since she had asked for no prawns. They could have charged the regular price of the dish without resistance from us, but they went ahead and altered the cost in a way that was pleasantly surprising. It showed me that this is an independent business that really knows how to take care of their customers.

The Pork Tenderloin that I ordered was very good, too. The meat was, well, tender. Pork is often easily overcooked, but it was perfection here. The tangerine glaze was a nice balance to the saltiness of meat and the bok choy was another little nod to their Asian roots. Paired with the coconut cream covered gnocchi, I was easily satisfied. Of course, I still saved room for dessert, and, am I ever glad that I did!

The warm gingered bread pudding with black sesame ice cream. To die for!

The warm gingered bread pudding with black sesame ice cream. To die for!

When Wilson brought the dessert menu over to the table he made a quick disclaimer about the warm gingered bread pudding, saying they were now out of the typical banana ice cream and that they had replaced the usual with a black sesame seed version instead. That really didn’t matter to me. I was sold as soon as I saw bread pudding there and, truth be told, I love black sesame, so that is indeed what I went with. When the plate was placed on our table, it looked almost too good to eat. The ice cream was in this perfect little cube next to a round cylinder of the bread pudding that was encrusted with a thin layer of torched sugar like a crème brûlée. It was served with a side of blueberries and small cubes of watermelon. The whole dish was wonderful and really the best cap to my meal. The slightly gritty texture of the ice cream was a great compliment to the smoothness of the bread pudding and the fruit provided an excellent palate cleanser.

I would say that I can’t wait to go back again, but, alas, that is not to be the case this time around. Now, it’s more like I’m kicking myself for not having gone more often in the past. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels that way either. I overheard a table of ladies tell Wilson that they were sad to see the restaurant go, and although Wilson appreciated the sentiment, he wasn’t down about the idea, telling them it was just time for them to move on.

The good news is that Wild Tangerine will still remain in some form after June 21. Judy and Wilson will continue to manage their prepared foods business part-time, serving up items such as soups, snacks and bagged cuisine meals at the new Mother’s Market, a downtown farmers’ market that is located indoors and open year round on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 102 Avenue and 109 Street.

With that, I wish the Wild Tangerine a fond farewell. It will truly be missed by Edmonton foodies. However, the show must go on, and I give three cheers to Judy and Wilson as they take their next steps! All the best!