Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2014

This year I decided to start tackling The Tomato‘s 100 best eats in Edmonton for 2013 and 2014 (once the second year’s was released in March). It pushed me to try a number of local places I had heard about and hadn’t yet made it to, and it also encouraged me to stop at quite a few restaurants that weren’t originally on my radar or on either list. Working my way through as many establishments as I could on the lists, I was inspired to compile my own.

My selections for the top Edmonton eateries are based on the 80 or so restaurants I was able to fit in within the past 12 months. The only stipulation to be a contender for the list is that you’re some sort of food establishment. I believe that whether it is family run, an entrepreneurial business or part of a franchise, it shouldn’t predetermine how good they are perceived to be. I have had amazing meals at chain restaurants, subpar dishes at independently owned eateries and vice versa.

If you already frequent my picks for 2014, you know why they’ve been chosen. But, if these are new to you, I hope this article urges you to get out and take a chance on something different in 2015.

Cibo Bistro interior, salumi, arancini and mezzaluna pasta.

Cibo Bistro interior, salumi, arancini and mezzaluna pasta.

1. Cibo Bistro
An Italian restaurant that is similar to the much lauded Corso 32, the kitchen’s creations blew me away. It’s slightly larger than Corso, their arancini is better, the cured in-house salumi is to die for, and the fresh pasta has the perfect bite.

Review of Cibo Bistro

Dinner at Three Boars Eatery

Dinner at Three Boars Eatery

2. 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.

Review of Three Boars

Rostizado's Mexican rosticeria is one of Edmonton's newest hot spots.

Rostizado’s Mexican rosticeria is one of Edmonton’s newest hot spots.

3. Rostizado
One of Edmonton’s newest additions, this sit-down rosticeria has changed the landscape of Mexican cuisine in the city. 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. To top off your lunch or dinner, make sure to order the caramel flan.

Review of Rostizado

Clockwise from top: Rosso Pizzeria's ricotta, Japonais Bistro's matcha crème brûlée and Canteen's duck breast.

Clockwise from top: Rosso Pizzeria’s ricotta, Japonais Bistro’s matcha crème brûlée and Canteen’s duck breast.

4. Japonais Bistro
Their traditional bento box includes everything a sushi lover would want to satisfy any cravings. I’m also a big fan of matcha flavoured anything, and their match crème brûlée begs for a second, third and even fourth helping.

Review of Japonais Bistro

5. Canteen
Situated along 124 Street, it is located among numerous other eateries that are making names for themselves. However, if you’re a fan of duck, this is where I have found some of the best. Canteen’s duck breast was the most tender I have ever had. It was also beautifully plated, so you’re not only eating with your mouth, but also your eyes.

Review of Canteen

6. Rosso Pizzeria
The wood-fired pizza crust is both crispy and chewy as it should be. The ricotta with olive oil is indulgent, but still light, and the green olives were so tasty that they will make those who aren’t fans fall in love. The homemade gelato – pistachio, banana cinnamon and Mayan chocolate are wonderful – is a rich and refreshing finish.

Review of Rosso Pizzeria

Clockwise from top: The Common's duck confit, Wildflower Grill's gnocchi and Woodwork's stocked bar.

Clockwise from top: The Common’s duck confit, Wildflower Grill’s gnocchi and Woodwork’s stocked bar.

7. The Common
This hipster hangout has a number of of-the-moment dishes to match. Go for the chicken and waffles – one of the best renditions available in Edmonton – or the unique tandoori calamari.

Review of The Common

8. Woodwork
The second you step foot into this restaurant, you’re overcome with the scent of wood-fired cooking. Their cornbread is delicious, the dill sausage is worth a second visit, the cocktails made by their master bartenders are strong, and the desserts are simple yet decadent.

Review of Woodwork

9. Wildflower Grill
With a menu that is split into small and large plates, it’s a great place to go to cater to parties that have a mix of petite appetites and those with bigger ones. This also allows for groups to sample a variety of items. The food is rich though, so you won’t leave hungry. Do try the three mushroom ravioli.

Review of Wildflower Grill

Clockwise from left: Tres Carnales' al pastor quesadillas, Cactus Club Cafe's beef carpaccio and Duchess Bake Shop's key lime tart.

Clockwise from left: Tres Carnales’ al pastor quesadillas, Cactus Club Cafe’s beef carpaccio and Duchess Bake Shop’s key lime tart.

10. Tres Carnales
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

11. Cactus Club Cafe
Sometimes chain restaurants get a lot of flack, but, while Cactus Club venues across western Canada serve the same menu, they treat each location as separate entities working under a shared culture. What we are now witness to are establishments that are more popular than ever because they cater to the cool as well as the foodie. I have yet to have a disappointing meal at the WEM and Jasper Avenue eateries. The dishes that keep me coming back include the beef carpaccio and the BBQ duck clubhouse.

12. Duchess Bake Shop
Their beautifully packaged rainbow coloured macarons are dainty little treats that sometimes come in interesting flavours – rose pops to mind – that have to be sampled. The key lime tart is the dessert for those who enjoy sweet and tangy combinations.

Review of Duchess Bake Shop

Clockwise from top: Under the High Wheel's gnocchi, The Cavern's cheese and charcuterie board for two and Select's gnocchi fondue.

Clockwise from top: Under the High Wheel’s gnocchi, The Cavern’s cheese and charcuterie board for two and Select’s gnocchi fondue.

13. Under the High Wheel
This adorable little cafe decorated with vintage furniture is a lovely place to converse over brunch. Go for the savoury Belgian waffles that are topped with smoked salmon. The gnocchi with mint pesto is delectable, too.

Review of Under the High Wheel

14. Select
I haven’t been since the restaurant apparently underwent a renovation at the end of the summer. However, it looks as though their menu remains the same, thank goodness. The gnocchi fondue paired with prosciutto wrapped apple wedges is so boozy that it feels decadent, and the chicken masala perogies provide an unexpected flavour, but a very pleasant one at that.

Review of Select

15. The Cavern
Giving you the option to select wine in 3 oz. or 6 oz. glasses and the chance to build your own cheese and charcuterie boards that are healthy and filling, you’ll 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. If it’s available, the Comte cheese is particularly good.

Review of The Cavern

Clockwise from top: Corso 32's chocolate torta, The Glass Monkey's beets salad and Izakaya Tomo's oyster ponzu.

Clockwise from top: Corso 32’s chocolate torta, The Glass Monkey’s beets salad and Izakaya Tomo’s oyster ponzu.

16. Corso 32
A tad overhyped, but the food is still really well made. The fried short rib was incredibly tender and flavourful and worked as a meal on its own. The portion sizes of the appetizers and sides are surprisingly large and excellent for passing around the table. For dessert, the chocolate torta with candied hazelnuts is so rich and has just the right amount of bitter balanced with the sweet.

Review of Corso 32

17. The Glass Monkey
This place has gotten mixed reviews, but I enjoyed my meal there. Carrying on with some of the Jack’s Grill (its predecessor) favourites, the beef carpaccio was awesome and, as served, there was no need for accompaniments nor were any provided. Also, everything I saw being brought to surrounding tables looked so good. And, no, don’t order the wine because it’s pricey, but do have a beer. The service received was great as well.

Review of The Glass Monkey

18. Izakaya Tomo
It’s all about lingering over a bunch of shared plates all evening long. Must tries here include the crispy tako yaki (octopus balls), oyster ponzu and the prawn spring rolls!

Review of Izakaya Tomo

Clockwise from left: Sugarbowl's exterior, Watari's maki rolls, and Tropika's pad Thai, sambal bunchies and home style chicken.

Clockwise from left: Sugarbowl’s exterior, Watari’s maki rolls, and Tropika’s pad Thai, sambal bunchies and home style chicken.

19. Sugarbowl
The number one reason to visit this Edmonton staple is the cinnamon bun. Hands down this is one of the best out there; it’s also one of the most refrained as it entirely does away with cream cheese icing (I know, I never would have thought that would have been okay until I ate their cinnamon bun). The only thing is you have to get there early because they sell out. Stay through lunch for their lamb burger.

Review of Sugarbowl

20. Watari
One of the few all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants in the city, and it’s good sushi at that! Sashimi is included with lunch and dinner, and the fish is fresh. There are also a few specialty rolls on the menu along with dishes like beef tataki and ponzu muscles. You get two hours to dine. With the quick turnaround, you’ll have no problem getting your fill and then some.

Review of Edmonton AYCE Sushi

21. Tropika
This Malaysian and Thai establishment is a staple for me and my family. The pad Thai rocks and the satay peanut sauce can go with pretty much anything they serve. For lunch, the combos (available at the west end location…not sure about the south side) are a great value – three pre-selected items and a side of rice – that are super filling and oh so tasty.

Review of Tropika

Clockwise from left: The Art of Cake's mini cupcakes and cookies, The Parlour's truffle and short rib pizzas, and Absolutely Edibles' waffles with the works.

Clockwise from left: The Art of Cake’s mini cupcakes and cookies, The Parlour’s truffle and short rib pizzas, and Absolutely Edibles’ waffles with the works.

22. The Art of Cake
Seriously, what can’t they bake here? The cupcakes, slab cakes, cruellers, and shortbread cookies have ensured that I probably gained 5 pounds this last half of the year. No matter though, every bite was worth it.

Review of The Art of Cake

23. The Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar
Part of the Century Hospitality Group, this place exceeded my expectations. Their signature thin crust pizza flavours are different than the norm – the truffle was especially good. The prices during Monday to Friday happy hour (3 to 6pm) really can’t be beat, and, if you still have room, the desserts are worth it.

Review of The Parlour

24. Absolutely Edibles (Closed)
The brunch menu is fabulous with massive portions that you just can’t stop eating. The waffles with the works (breaded chicken) are my top choice, but there’s no wrong decision when it comes to any of their options. I will tell you to be wary of leaving saucy items on top of the waffles though. If they’re left to sit too long, your waffles will become soggy!

Review of Absolutely Edibles

Happy New Year and Happy Eating! See you in 2015!

Edmonton AYCE Sushi Showdown: Zen Sushi & Grill vs. Watari Japanese Cuisine

Sushi has become a mainstay in the culinary adventures of most cities. Whether or not the place is near water, you can bet money that there is at least one Japanese eatery luring people in with the deliciousness of maki and sashimi. Therefore, it has become commonplace to see at least a dozen establishments spring up over the last few years, all vying for a spot in Edmonton’s sushi scene. What was more of a rarity was the all-you-can-eat (AYCE) Japanese restaurant. I only knew of maybe one or two businesses that fit the bill, but from what I had heard, it wasn’t worth the effort of going. Unlike what you can find in cities like Vancouver and Montreal, the AYCE buffet wasn’t really up to par when it came to price or quality.

My friend, however, had tried out Zen Sushi & Grill on 76 Avenue and 104 Street just south of Whyte Avenue and she suggested that we go for lunch one day. Personally, I was glad that we ventured to this location. They have another on 101 Street and 105 Avenue in downtown Edmonton, but I don’t feel particularly safe in that neighbourhood. This location has a parking lot right outside of the eatery, so parking is not only free, but a lot more convenient.

I walked into the restaurant expecting that it wasn’t going to be that big, yet, as it turns out, there is another room adjacent to the main area that houses a full bar and more tables. The windows along the front of the building really help to brighten the space, which is a mix of brick walls, wood floors and a black and brown colour palette. The look is nothing fancy, but it is modern enough and it is clean.

Lunch, I believe, was and still is around $20 per person on weekends. Once you’re seated, you receive a sheet where you can check off the items that you want to order. The menu is fairly extensive, including sushi, maki rolls, cones and an amalgam of cooked items. Sashimi, during lunch hours, is an extra $2 for 10 pieces.

The Zen menu and order sheet.

The Zen menu and order sheet.

Since I had never dined there before, we splurged and added on a couple orders of sashimi (the pieces were thicker than I would have assumed). In addition, we got a mix of sushi – salmon, tuna, inari, masago and chop chop – some miso soup, bean sprout salad, agadashi tofu, veggie tempura and tempura cod, among other items. Surprisingly, all the fish tasted fresh and not like it was at all previously frozen. The options available were more than enough to satisfy my sushi cravings as it covered the typical gamut of choices. The agadashi tofu is usually fried very well, leaving a nice thin layer of breading on the outside that soaks up the sauce. Sometimes the tempura can be a little bit greasier than I would like and at least twice I’ve noticed that when they deep fry large pieces of broccoli, the batter doesn’t always cook all the way through, so inside the head of the veggie you might find a floury consistency.

Overall, despite a couple of missteps, Zen did exceed my expectations for AYCE sushi in this landlocked city. And, while I do not think it can quite compare to what I’ve tried across the rest of the country, having eaten there many times after this first occasion, I would still recommend going for the chop chop (raw scallop) sushi, the soft shell crab maki (fantastic the first time I ate it there, not as good lately, but you never know), their agadashi tofu and the green onion cakes. What I like is that they don’t overdo the rice portions for the sushi – the balls are small as they should be.

The service is good and the owner is especially nice. I’ve been there for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the last year, and I can tell you that they don’t up the price on holidays. Also, although I’ve never had an issue walking in and getting a spot, they do offer to take reservations, too.

Within a year, Zen had become my go to for sushi. It was perfect for those days when you’re craving anything and everything Japanese for an affordable price. Yes, there are plenty of great sushi establishments in town nowadays, but where else can you spend under $25 and eat as much as you can fit in your belly?

This is why I was ecstatic to see that a new AYCE sushi restaurant was to take the place of the recently vacated Matahari space on 124 Street and 101 Avenue. As quickly as Matahari disappeared, the banner sign advertising the soon-to-be open Watari Japanese Cuisine was hung. Every time I drove by I became giddy with excitement wondering when they would be ready for customers. Eventually in August I’d heard that they, indeed, were officially serving food. My friend joined me for dinner after work before we headed to a show at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival.

I had never eaten at Matahari before the eatery closed, but I had seen photos, and I’m guessing it was a quick turnaround for Watari because they kept some of the decor the same. A number of raised booths sit along the wall closest when you enter the restaurant. There are also a handful of other booths opposite and bar height tables in the middle. Again, the look is nothing spectacular, but it is pretty comfortable and it is clean as well.

We stuck with tap water, which was incredibly refreshing because they toss slices of lemon or lime and sometimes mint leaves in for flavour. With dinner, you can have up to 30 pieces of sashimi per person, so the two of us ordered the maximum (40 pieces of salmon and 20 pieces of tuna – both fresh, but the salmon was melt-in-your-mouth and the better of the two) to split. No lie, I swear we had at least two full-size fish at our table because the slices were substantial. We also tried out the tacos, sushi including salmon, tuna, inari and red snapper, miso soup, a variety of maki rolls (their Target roll of tuna and green bean is good), beef tataki (awesome), Hawaii poke(y), bean sprout and seaweed salads, a combination of shrimp and veggie tempura (you order what you want by the piece), cream cheese (and crab) wontons and beef short ribs, all of which I would urge you to try.

You could literally have rolled us out of the restaurant, we were so full by the end. However, I can happily say that we triumphed and polished off every last piece of fish and rice. For the $27.95 weekday adult dinner rate, I think we more than got our money’s worth.

Watari is so close to my parent’s place that I’ve now eaten there a few times (the latest occurrences for lunch) and, I have to say, that while it was already good the first time with my friend, it has improved each time since. Also, with over 100 items to choose from on their menu, there is definitely something for everyone, even those who are not fans of raw.

Zen and Watari, in a competition, are fairly matched. The reason for that can likely be chalked up to the fact that, apparently, the owner of Watari was the previous co-owner of Zen until he decided to open his own restaurant. I find it hard to decide which should be called the superior place, if at all. Each one has a few items that are not offered by the other, so, for me at least, there’s always going to be the temptation to visit both.

For those of you who look at this as a numbers game, I will break it down for you though. Sashimi (15 pieces per person) is already included with lunch at Watari for the $22.95 price, making it pretty much equivalent to Zen should you decide to add sashimi to your meal there. If you happen to be a senior, the cost of eating at Watari is an even better deal at $19.95. They also have a lower price of $16.95 for children. Watari also recently added late night (10pm on) prices for Friday to Sunday and statutory holidays that equal the cost of lunch (reservations are recommended on weekends).  The menu between both restaurants is relatively similar, but there are minor differences. Watari includes tacos, Hawaii poke(y), beef tataki, cream cheese wontons as well as specialty rolls created in-house. They also have the option of the Monday to Friday business lunch, which does away with the sashimi and a number of menu items, but still leaves sushi, maki rolls and the majority of their kitchen and deep fried menu items up for grabs, all for the low price of $14.95, regardless of age. Zen has chop chop sushi and soft shell crab maki on the menu, two tasty items that are not available at Watari. Both restaurants have other options that are extra in cost, but I’ve never felt the need to order any of them because what is included in the set price is more than enough for everyone.

Watari's current pricing as of October 2014. Photo courtesy of Watari's Facebook page.

Watari’s current pricing as of October 2014. Photo courtesy of Watari’s Facebook page.

Watari and Zen both have excellent service that is quick and friendly, so you can make the most out of your two hour dining limit. Once in a while they may miss bringing an an item or two, but, as long as you remember that you didn’t get it, you can always order it again in the next round. As with all AYCE establishments, they are very conscious about eating responsibly, so be sure that you order only what you can finish. Anything that is left behind is subject to extra charges as it’ll likely have to be thrown away. Both restaurants offer free parking – Zen out front and Watari has a few rows of parking behind the building.

If I really had to choose, I would say that Watari bests Zen, but only by inches. In all honesty, you cannot go wrong with either of these places. The two are favourites of mine, and they’re definitely the top AYCE sushi restaurants you’ll find in Edmonton. I’ve left both happily gratified each and every time.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Japonais Bistro

The delectable matcha crème brûlée!

The delectable matcha crème brûlée!

Oh, Japonais Bistro (@japonaisbistro)! I have eaten there a handful of times now and it’s pretty stellar. When you walk in the door, if the staff isn’t busy with something else, they greet you by yelling out “good afternoon” or “good evening” in Japanese and they’re usually fairly prompt with seating, especially if you have a reservation, which can now be made through OpenTable. The restaurant is laid out with two sides – the one closest to the door is raised a couple of steps and consists of bench booths and chairs while the other side is taken up predominantly by the sushi bar and a few larger group booths.

My most memorable visit to the restaurant was back in November 2013. I had eaten there just a couple weeks earlier and I picked up a card advertising a couple of all-you-can-eat evenings. They were launching their Kaiten Sushi Catering (plates distributed by mobile conveyor belt) business, and to show it off they were taking reservations for two November weeknights. I immediately texted my friend to see if she would join me and I called to make a reservation as soon as she agreed.

The conveyor was set up next to the sushi bar within arm’s reach from our booth. We ate everything that was offered to us including a variety of salads, tatakis, maki rolls and dessert. We probably ate between 50 to 75 plates that evening, the gluttons that we were (no regrets). Each item was delectable and worth having seconds. There were even new dishes that were being tested for possible menu additions, which we were tasked with rating. The absolute star of the restaurant though? Hands down, the matcha crème brûlée (Japonais Bistro took the No. 42 spot on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats in Edmonton this year for this dessert alone)! It is divine. I’m a sucker for green tea flavoured anything, so I was already inclined to enjoy it, but it was beyond what I expected and the two of us snatched those babies up as soon as they hit the belt. They’re too good to pass up. Unfortunately, despite a comment from our server that kaiten sushi nights could become a regular occurrence due to the popularity of these special events, I haven’t seen it there since.

Alas, all-you-can-eat meals there are not currently meant to be, but the food is too tasty not to go again. We ventured there this summer for dinner, making our way through the pouring rain where we dashed for the door as soon as we stepped out of the car. My friend, still full from an Indian buffet at lunch, ordered the new Pow Pow Roll and some salmon maki. I, on the other hand, was famished and went with the Traditional Bento Box.

Stuffed with tuna, cream cheese and jalapeno, wrapped with soy bean paper and drizzled with tobiko, sweet soy and hot sauce, the Pow Pow Roll was nicely plated and surprisingly battered on the outside. The menu did say “deep fried tuna,” so we knew something would be deep fried, we simply didn’t realize it was going to be the outside of the roll and not the fish. No matter though. It was superb.

The Traditional Bento Box is really an all-in-one box. It includes a bowl of miso soup, salad, three pieces of sushi, six pieces of sashimi, California rolls, salmon maki, and shrimp and veggie tempura. I got a little bit of everything I love, so it was perfect. The soup was not overly salty and was piping hot, the fish was really fresh, the tempura was lightly coated in batter and the rolls had a good ratio of filling to rice.

I would also say that I believe that the service has improved over time. I remember sitting there on another occasion waiting forever for our server to come back to process our payment. In the end, we left our table and walked up to the bar to pay, which still took several minutes because they needed our server to put it through. This time, it was a lot better. Our food was prepared quickly and we were checked on periodically, so I felt well attended to.

Sushi is always at the top of my list of favourite cuisines, and Japonais Bistro continues to fit the bill when I’m craving some in the middle of the prairies.