Edmonton Restaurant Review: Bündok

The interior of Bündok, including the focal bar.

The interior of Bündok, including the focal bar.

I’ve now had a couple of weeks to think about the dinner that my friend and I had at one of Edmonton’s newest restaurants, Bündok. The two of us met up after work on a Thursday evening in February and walked towards 104 Street and 102 Avenue.

Lacking any signage outside of the entrance, we easily passed it by and ended up having to back track by heading north of Japanese Village, which happens to be just a door or two down the block from the Fox Tower business.

The décor of the eatery is simple. There’s an open kitchen (run by chef Ryan Hotchkiss of Jack’s Grill, Bar Bricco and Red Star), exposed ventilation systems as well as classic dark wood chairs and tables. The focal point is a deep blue-coloured bar and shelving that almost reaches the top of the high ceiling.

We had a 5:00pm reservation (booked through OpenTable), so we were the earliest diners that night. Our table was tucked in next to the front window right behind the glass entranceway. It was a cozy spot that allowed us a view of Oilers fans passing by on their way to the hockey game, and, despite being near the door, it was still warm.

Our server Joe was friendly and provided some recommendations for drinks. He told us that he made the in-house craft root beer that day and, initially, I didn’t believe him. But, by the sounds of it, he was quite hands on with the restaurant even prior to its opening.

Our drinks: a glass of house made root beer and the amaretto sour.

Our drinks: a glass of house made root beer and the amaretto sour.

I enjoyed the root beer. The flavour was akin to a strong organic ginger ale as opposed to what I think of as root beer (i.e. A&W). It also wasn’t as carbonated. The sip of my friend’s Amaretto Sour cocktail was fantastic as it was both zesty and tart with just a slight hint of alcohol on the palate. This was a drink that went down effortlessly.

When it came to ordering for our meal, we were told that the dishes are made to be shared. Neither of us had an issue splitting the food as it meant we would both have a chance to try several items on the menu. Between the two of us, we selected four dishes. Joe seemed skeptical that there would be enough sustenance. I had already intended to add a bowl of the soup, and once I did, he relented.

Chicken Skin

Chicken Skin

A platter of the Chicken Skin was offered to us first as it was the quickest to prepare. With just three pieces on the wooden board, it seemed a bit costly (the price may have been lowered since as the site now lists it at $7 instead of $8). It was deliciously addictive though. The skin was crispy without being greasy and the honey mustard was a nice touch that faintly reminded me of the taste of wasabi.

Beef Tartare

Beef Tartare

Two dishes showed up next, including the Beef Tartare and the Sea Bream Crudo. My foremost impression of the tartare was that it lacked any robust flavour. Yet, when I took my second helping of the beef and placed it onto the crostini, I was pleasantly surprised with how the spice from the pickled mustard seeds and bitterness of the chopped arugula came through. The egg yolk also made the consistency very smooth.

Sea Bream Crudo

Sea Bream Crudo

“Crudo” means raw in Italian, so the slices of sea bream (a white fish) were prepared similar to a Japanese tataki whereby the meat is dressed with oil, citrus juice and seasonings. In the case of this dish, the fish was accompanied by apple, citrus and chili. Personally, I found a couple of the pieces to be chewier than preferred; however, in terms of taste, it was refreshing to the palate.

Parmagiano Soup

Parmagiano Soup

Next up was my bowl of Parmagiano Soup. I had seen a photo of this posted on Bündok’s Facebook feed and I was convinced I needed to have it. I wasn’t wrong. A bowl was placed in front of me that contained layers of melted leeks (how do you melt leeks?), bacon and breadcrumbs to which the soup was then added before my eyes. I stirred everything together and took a spoonful. It was incredibly rich as if they literally melted cheese into cream. Because the soup was added after the fact, the bacon and breadcrumbs remained crisp. I wanted to lick this bowl clean. My friend thought it was equally amazing.

Gnocchi

Gnocchi

If awards had been handed out for the night, the gnocchi would have been given the gold medal. The potato pasta was made Parisienne style using pâte à choux – dough typically made for profiteroles, cream puffs and eclairs – leading to a much more pillowy texture. My friend and I are practically gnocchi connoisseurs and we both agreed that these were the fluffiest and lightest we’d ever eaten. They almost melted away in our mouths. Combined with the roasted brussels sprouts, squash and brown butter, this dish was a real treat with varying textures in every bite.

Grilled Apple Tartine

Grilled Apple Tartine

For dessert, it was suggested that the Grilled Apple Tartine offered on the dinner menu was a good alternative option to the actual desserts. My friend opted for that. It can become a sticky mess due to the use of clover honey, but it’s forgivable. The pink lady apples provide a bit of acidity while the oka cheese gave it an earthy, mushroom-like taste.

Citrus Posset

Citrus Posset

I completed my meal with the Citrus Posset, which was presented in a shallow bowl that, at first glance, looked as if it was filled only with a strip of diced apples, fennel and mint. On closer inspection, I could see that those sat atop a base of citrus cream. This was a wonderful dessert with a silky smooth foundation sitting somewhere between a pudding and custard. It was somehow airy yet also juicy and thirst quenching.

Having only been open for three weeks at the time we visited, I found myself thoroughly impressed. Word-of-mouth advertising seems to be working for Bündok. As we ate, the other tables filled up. Although there were really only one or two people working the front of house, the service was attentive and the recommendations were excellent.

It is intended that the menu rotate regularly, meaning the offerings may be different next time I go, but I think that’s part of the fun. One never knows what might be in store, and I can’t wait to see where chef Ryan Hotchkiss takes things.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Corso 32

The front of the restaurant with the matte signage on the window.

The front of the restaurant with the matte signage on the window.

A few years ago, I still lived at home. My mother owned a shop downtown in what is now known as ATB Place and the two of us would carpool to work together. My first encounter with Corso 32 (@CORSO32) was on one of those rides as we cruised along Jasper Avenue. One day, I happened to be looking out the passenger window as we headed east, and I spotted a small tenant space with a window that had just been christened with the name ‘Corso 32’. Matte transferred signage was all that distinguished the soon-to-be open restaurant from everything else that vied for your attention on this street. As such, it seemed to get lost in the fervor and it took a while before I managed to point it out again.

Fast forward to 2014 and I still hadn’t visited what is arguably now the best restaurant in Edmonton. I had heard countless recommendations from food critics, bloggers and friends, but, for some reason, I just had not been there. Having started my quest to visit all the restaurants, cafes and farmer’s market booths listed on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton, I realized that, if I was to truly get the full experience of their list, I would need to eat at the establishment that has topped it for two consecutive years now.

Our table was near the back of the restaurant. As you can see, it is quite small.

Our table was near the back of the restaurant. As you can see, it is quite small.

Knowing that Corso 32 is very small and also often has to be booked far in advance, I looked into making a reservation with the restaurant. They utilize the handy Yelp SeatMe system, so I was able to search for available times using the computerized calendar. Only serving Wednesday to Sunday from 5pm to 11pm, I wanted to dine there after work, so I wouldn’t need to go out of my way to get there on a weekend, or have to kill an exorbitant amount of time between office hours and my meal, so I kept clicking on various dates until a 5:30 opening on Wednesday, October 8th popped up. Booked about a month and half in advance, it’s not a lie when people say that it is difficult to get a table there on short notice. Seeing as how I didn’t really care when I ate, just that I did not want to have dinner at 9pm in the evening, I was okay with this. A table for four (all I could get), I had my dining companions lined up and ready to eat with me.

The evening finally arrived, and being that it was fairly early in the evening, it wasn’t full by any means. I learned later that they give each table a two and a half hour dining limit, so they can be sure to fit in two seatings each night. Not aware of that, our meal ran a bit longer than the allotted time as we opted to try and wait until a friend who was running late could join us. In the end, we were starving, so we went ahead and ordered our food without her.

Two of us opted to quench our thirst with glasses of sparkling lemonade while my other friend drank a couple of craft beers. To begin, we all shared a full size bowl of the arancini. If you have not had arancini before, it’s basically risotto shaped into balls, breaded and fried. Corso’s arancini is filled with speck (a fatty bacon or pork fat), cabbage and Fontina cheese. The balls are then decorated with finely grated Parmesan cheese. The dish is rich with a somewhat smokey flavour and entirely indulgent, but so worth the calories. I actually meant for it to be part of my main meal, which I had planned to pair with my plate of fried short rib. Unfortunately, the arancini was so good that it disappeared before the other dish was placed in front of me.

I have a love affair with short rib. When it’s cooked properly, the meat falls off the bone and it is so tender that it practically melts in your mouth. The fried short rib antipasti at Corso was just that. Served with a side of crostini and topped with shaved pear and arugula salad, it was another winner. I actually mistook the pear for radish, probably because they garnished the dish with radish as well. But, I should have paid more attention and realized when the flavour profile of the salad was more sweet than peppery. At the last minute, I also decided to get the side of beets. Prepared with ‘agro dolce’ (sour sweet) sauce, salted ricotta and crushed pistachios, it was a great accompaniment to what was left of my meat. The portion was also quite large, so I ended up taking quite a bit home for lunch the next day.

My two dining companions that were there chose to go with pasta dishes, which are made in-house from scratch. One decided on the cavatelli, the other the ricotta agnolotti. I had a bite of each, and they were both delicious. The pasta shells of the ricotta agnolotti were thin and cooked perfectly. It was actually a much lighter dish because the ricotta is creamy, mild and soft in texture. Paired with the swiss chard from Sundog Farm (@sundogfarmer) and a thin butter sauce, it didn’t seem like it would be too filling. On the other hand, cavatelli is thick rolled pieces of pasta that were served in what tasted like a rose sauce with spicy pork and fennel sausage, broccoli rabe and Pecorino cheese. The pasta was toothsome as the sauce was velvety, the sausage added a slight heat, the rapini brought some crunch to the texture of the dish and a little bitterness and the cheese a bit of saltiness. As my friend put it, it was like the food was making love to her mouth. I told her I would likely paraphrase her!

Our fourth finally made it as we were about to order dessert. Thankfully, our server knew her and she happens to be a regular there. Otherwise, they might have shooed us out earlier to make room for the second coming of diners (I’m so sorry to the people who arrived and ended up having to be seated in their sister business, Bar Bricco (@BarBricco), next door, which I’m sure is lovely as well, but not what they expected).

Three of us opted for the chocolate torta to finish off our dinner. Presented with salty, candied hazelnuts, it had that sweet versus savoury combo that I love. Wonderful as it was, I think two of us could have shared and it would have been more than enough to satisfy us both. It’s not actually a huge dessert, yet it is incredibly decadent and I found myself “forcing” it down because I knew I couldn’t let any go to waste. One person decided to go with the vanilla panna cotta, which was made with vin cotto, honey grappa and pistachios. I did not taste it, but it looked yummy, too.

By the end of the evening, the restaurant was pretty much at capacity and so were we. I had been told so many things about the eatery in the last two years that I had become worried that my expectations were too high, but the restaurant proved me wrong. I understand why Corso 32 and Chef/Owner Daniel Costa have the reputation they do. The food is fantastic, and the establishment is a good representation of how far Edmonton’s food scene has come and where the city’s foodies hope it will continue to go. Will Corso 32 top my own list of E-Town’s best restaurants? You’ll have to wait and see.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Leva

Happy diners on the patio saying hello to me!

Happy diners on the patio saying hello to me!

To me, Leva (@cafeleva) was like this apparition that I would periodically spot whenever I was in Edmonton’s Garneau neighbourhood, never realizing it was an actual cafe until friends started mentioning it here and there. I’d pass by many more times before I finally made a point of trying it out at the end of May. Like a hidden gem, it’s slightly off the beaten path, tucked away among the residential enclave of the university area.

My friends and I met up for a late lunch on a Sunday afternoon. Two of us arrived together and, neither having visited previously, weren’t really aware of how their system worked. After we clarified with a staff member that we could seat ourselves and order at the counter when ready (they offer full service during dinner), we staked out a table that bridged both the interior of the cafe and the patio, so we could soak in some vitamin D without being blinded by the sunshine. The outdoor space is actually quite small, but they make good use of it and they even have outdoor heaters for those slightly chilly days or evenings. The interior is nice and bright with wood topped tables, white chairs, hints of yellow in the decor and big windows that let in lots of light.

The order counter and interior of Leva.

The order counter and interior of Leva.

Once our third party showed up, we headed over to the counter to take a look through the menu. One friend went with the Chicken Breast Panini, the other just ordered a chocolate gelato milkshake, and I got the 12″ Spicy Chicken Avocado thin crust Neapolitan Style pizza as well as a chai latte. Upon paying for our items at the till, we were given metal placards with numbers on them, which were to be placed on our table, so the servers would know who to bring the food to. In a way, it’s very similar to the set up at Famoso.

Drinks were ready within minutes. My chai latte was steaming hot. I almost mistook it for someone’s milkshake because it came in this very tall ceramic cup that looked like an old fashioned soda glass. I thought it was a cute touch. Unfortunately, I have to say that the brand of chai latte tea bags that Leva uses are only okay. I left it steeping the entire time we were there and the flavours never got that strong, remaining rather bland.

My chai latte. Cute cup, but not the most flavourful.

My chai latte. Cute cup, but not the most flavourful.

On the other hand, the food completely made up for the subpar beverage (I’ve heard the coffee is fantastic though, but I don’t drink it). My friend’s sandwich was filled with chicken breast, brie, sweet potato, rosemary, buckwheat honey and seasonal greens. She said it was really tasty, especially liking the use of sweet potato to add an extra flavour profile to an otherwise basic panini. My pizza was topped with mozzarella, spicy chicken, avocado and cherry tomatoes. I can’t say the chicken was all that spicy (I can definitely handle more), but I enjoyed the combination of the four items and the overall simplicity of the meal. Everything tasted so fresh and the crust was crispy on the outside yet soft enough to fold for easier eating. I devoured the entire thing in the one sitting.

The dessert case was awfully tempting, too. I was absolutely stuffed after eating my whole pizza, so I refrained from indulging further, but one of my friends did pick up a macaron that she said was very good.

Edmonton foodies knew much earlier than I did about Leva – voted by readers into the No. 47 spot on The Tomato‘s directory of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton for 2014 and No. 38 in 2013), so I have them to thank for nudging me towards the place. I also happened to catch a glimpse of who I’m sure was local celebrity, Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 32 and Bar Bricco, stopping by to pick up a drink. If that’s not enough to tell me that Leva should be on the radar after 10 years in business, I don’t know what is.

Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 31 and Bar Bricco (or his doppelganger) stopping by for a drink.

Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 31 and Bar Bricco (or his doppelganger) stopping by for a drink.

The food seems to be relatively healthy, keeping to the basics of the ingredients. That’s something that I think is important when eating out, so I’m excited to add this establishment to my ever-growing list of city restaurants to revisit. And, after having been twice in the last month, it’s now also one of my friend’s new favourite hangouts, so I’m sure I’ll be coming around more in the future.