Edmonton Restaurant Review: Elm Cafe

The patio space outside Elm Cafe.

Recently, I’ve written pieces about two of Nate Box’s businesses: the established District Cafe at 10011 109 Street and the soon-to-open Salz at 10556 115 Street. He’s had a successful run with smaller eateries that focus on succinct menus made with locally sourced ingredients and products. Having already discussed half of Box’s ventures, this year seemed as good as any to work my way through all four. I still have to pay a visit to Little Brick, but now I can cross Elm Cafe off my list.

In all honesty, for at least two, maybe even three, years now, I’d been sitting on a gift certificate for Elm Cafe. Despite the incentive and my best intentions, I just always forgot to go. I knew that they made some delicious sandwiches though. After all, in the past, I had eaten some of their catering during a TEDx event held at the Citadel Theatre.

The tiny interior of the shop.

Last month, I couldn’t wait any longer. I was adamant about stopping by the shop to pick up some lunch for my family. My boyfriend and I dropped by on a Sunday before noon. It was easy enough to find free street parking on the block. When we walked up to the patio, I noticed a few outdoor tables spaced out nicely. Those spots provide the majority of what seats they have available. In the winter, only a couple of bar stools are to be found inside the cafe for in-house dining. It’s a tiny 200 square foot space with a counter, a kitchen and three staff that have their moves and duties coordinated down to a tee, so as not to stumble over one another.

The day’s menu changes regularly.

Thankfully, there wasn’t anyone waiting behind me to order, so I was able to take a bit of time to decide on what I wanted. The downside to their menu is that it’s regularly updated depending on what’s in stock, so the pizza and sandwiches change daily. I knew ahead of time that they offered early sandwiches (they open early at 7:30am to catch the worker bees in the mornings), lunch sandwiches, soup, salad, muffins, scones, cookies, and an assortment of beverages; however, the specifics were to be a surprise.

As I laid eyes on the menu, I took note of the fact that the day’s pizza and one of the lunch sandwiches had already been crossed off the board. Food sells out quickly here, so the best bet for the most choice is to stop in bright and early. Still, there were some good options. I ended up selecting the following to go: Early 1 ($8), Early 2 ($8), Livin la Sous Vide a Loca ($9), a raspberry white chocolate scone ($4), and a salted caramel ($1). The full package added up $30, which was exactly the amount I had to spend.

My order packaged and ready to take home.

Our food took slightly longer than expected as there was a mistake made with my order; however, it was quickly rectified. While the final sandwich was being prepared, I perused the items on the counter. They’ve sourced a handful of products made in Edmonton (teas, cordials and caramels) as well as craft roasted coffee from Victoria. Eventually, the wait paid off. My goods were bagged up and we were on our way to my parents for lunchtime.

As soon as we got to their house, I unpacked everything and plated the sandwiches. First off, I’ll just say that they did not make for the most photogenic dish; they looked like all bun and no filling. But, hopefully, the images here do them some justice. We split the three sandwiches into quarters for us to share. In spite of their large size, I’m not sure that was truly enough to feed four grown adults. The bread also wasn’t our favourite due to the texture. Regardless, they were decent, especially when it came to overall flavour.

Early 2: cauliflower, egg, crispy onions, greens, chili mayo, and cheese sauce.

I’ll begin with the Early 2. This was a cauliflower and egg sandwich with chili mayo, cheese sauce, crispy onions, and greens. I would have liked more egg for extra protein and for the cauliflower to be more prominent. Yet, this was a much tastier option than I would have expected. The slight bitterness from the arugula was offset by the combo of mayo and cheese, and those crispy onions added texture and saltiness.

Livin la Sou Vide a Loca

Livin la Sous Vide a Loca consisted of turkey, brie, cucumber, pickled onion, arugula, apple jelly, and herb aioli. What a fantastic combination of flavours in this one. This bun was a tad firmer and more toasted than the Early sandwiches, but it worked. The turkey was succulent, there was just a bit of sourness from the pickled onion, and the apple jelly brought in a hint of sweetness. Everything balanced with the creamy brie and the pungent aioli.

Early 1: chicken, egg, roast peppers, lemon, charred green onion, Gouda, and lemon aioli.

My personal favourite turned out to be the Early 1. A chicken sandwich with egg, roast peppers, charred green onion, greens, Gouda, and lemon aioli, this one packed a punch. Savoury with the meat, a little smoky due to the onion’s preparation, and zesty from the lemon, it was somewhat of a revelation. We all enjoyed this one.

Raspberry White Chocolate Scone

To finish off our meal, we split the moist raspberry white chocolate scone. It defied expectations by avoiding the dry quality of some of its counterparts. Even with a crunchy sugar topping, it refrained from being overly sweet. My only suggestion is that they try to spread out the raspberries and chocolate when they lay out the dough to bake because the distribution was quite uneven. I shared my salted caramel with my mom as our final dessert. I’m pretty sure that these are made by Erica Vliegenthart, the head baker at District Cafe, who sells her pies and caramels under the Red Balloon Pie Company name. The caramel was super soft and fresh. I would have happily eaten a dozen on the spot.

Salted Caramels

A meal from Elm Cafe was a long time coming. I’m glad that I finally tried it out. Although we thought there could be minor improvements made to the food, the important thing is it brought my family together for a lovely afternoon. Nate Box’s venues are grounded in the idea of community, and I think that he and his team are definitely succeeding in that respect.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Crash Hotel Lobby Bar

The classic styling of the Crash Lobby Bar.

My last two posts were about my experiences during Downtown Dining Week (DTDW). This review will complete the trilogy by covering my meal at Crash Hotel Lobby Bar.

The restaurant, located on the main floor of Crash (previously known as the rundown Grand Hotel), is an unexpected gem in a revamped and refurbished building that has been brought back to its glory days. With heavy woods throughout and a bar wine rack disguised as vintage cubbies — likely to be found at the front check-in desks of older hotels — it’s a nod to the history of one of Edmonton’s long standing structures.

My table was all set to go upon arrival!

It’s not a large space by any means. Nevertheless, although it filled up as my friend and I hung out for the evening, it didn’t seem like anyone coming in had any issues finding a spot to perch on. To be fair, there was no hockey game going on at the nearby Rogers Place arena that night. I’d assume that it’d be much busier if that were the case. That’s why I’m glad to see that Crash offers reservations through the OpenTable system. When I arrived, they had my table all set to go. A card with my name and the time of my booking was sitting there waiting for me.

Our martini cocktails, which we sipped on.

Our server was quite attentive. She provided a couple of suggestions for drinks based on our palate preferences. I took one of her recommendations and tried the namesake martini, which was a mix of muddled ginger with marmalade, grapefruit vodka and lemon. It satisfied my penchant for slightly sweet yet sour cocktails. My companion went with the other, known as The Donald. A combination of vodka, lychee and grapefruit juice, this came off a little bit sweeter, but was still pleasing, especially with that kick of lychee fruit.

My friend’s old fashioned cocktail.

Unlike some of the other DTDW participants that create special dishes for the week, Crash opted to showcase their standard menu by allowing diners to choose any item for both the starter as well as the entree of their $28 three-course dinner. My friend and I decided we’d each go for the DTDW dinner and we’d split four dishes, which would allow us to sample more of the offerings.

I was actually very excited to visit Crash as I had heard that chef Nathin Bye had created the menu. Bye brought Ampersand 27 to life, so I could only imagine where he’d take these pub style plates. What I hadn’t realized was that Bye had completely left Ampersand 27 behind. Crash is his new full-time position and that’s interesting. A hotel restaurant doesn’t usually come to mind as the cool, hip place to hang out, and working in an environment where the goal is to gratify the masses can often be limiting. On the other hand, it’s not unfathomable that Bye would choose to take on the challenge of attempting to change that notion.

We selected the Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt salad, Alberta Beef Short Rib, Brussels ‘n Bacon and the Crash Burger. The majority of the dishes are made to be shared among the group, tapas style. The latter is most ideal for an individual meal, but it’s easy enough to divide that into halves (I’m not sure it’s the best if it needs to be allocated between more than two people). It’s important to note that plates are brought out as they’re ready. That means nothing is sitting for too long in the kitchen; it certainly makes for a compelling argument to share the food, ensuring no one at the table feels left out while others may already be eating.

Brussels ‘n Bacon

The Brussels ‘n Bacon were presented to us first. My initial thought was that the size was generous and that it could serve as a whole meal. Regularly just $9 for an order, it’s a great value, too. Prepared with Moroccan spices and sweet chili, the balance of flavours was excellent. The bacon was crisp and smoky; the taste melding with the rest of the spices. Fried chickpeas completed the dish. They were an unexpected accompaniment that provided an extra layer of texture and raised the Brussels ‘n Bacon to star status. It became my favourite dish of the night.

Alberta Beef Short Rib

A plate of the Alberta Beef Short Rib showed up next. There were two pieces of beef, each about four ounces in size, along with hickory sticks and broccoli. The menu indicated that there were supposed to be pickled mushrooms. I don’t recollect eating any of those. Nonetheless, I was happy with the dish as the meat was succulent. I still used a knife to cut it, but it was quite tender. Aside from what looked to be a bed of broccoli puree, the meat was cooked in an Asian inspired sauce, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and topped with hickory sticks (house made versions of the snack chip), which added dimension and made me forget about the lackluster broccoli florets, which were cooked fine, just nothing special.

Crash Burger

Our third dish was the Crash Burger. Admittedly, this was a bit disappointing. The brioche kaiser bun was, in my opinion, over toasted. The ingredients listed on the menu include braised short rib. I couldn’t tell if there was any in the burger. There was also supposed to be an onion ring, but I don’t recall that either. If it was there, it wasn’t memorable. The patty was decent though; it was well-seasoned and the meat was fresh. There was also plenty of aged cheddar and I enjoyed the fried egg. This burger comes with a side of fries (salad is an alternative) and a deep fried pickle. I’m not usually a fan of the second, but I had a bite of the pickle and it was good. The fries were fine. No dips were served with them though, and I could have used some ketchup or aioli.

Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt

Of all the dishes, we would have thought that the cold salad would have been the quickest to prepare, but it turned out to be the last to show up. Was this on purpose à la the mindset of the French and Italians where it’s believed that salad at the end of a meal helps to improve digestion? We don’t really know, but it’s a thought. I will say that the Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt salad was quite a refreshing way to finish off our mains. I would have liked to see more beets and the Greek yogurt was a deceiving replacement for the typical goat cheese. Greens, squash and burnt Mediterranean honey ensured we got our fix of vegetables in a delightfully tasty way.

Cookies & Cream Cheesecake

Dessert was our third and final course. This consisted of a thin slice of tall Cookies & Cream Cheesecake served with a liberal dollop of raspberry jelly or puree. The cake was smooth and silky with layers of chocolate cookie crumble and what tasted like a caramel center. It wasn’t overly dense and, since the slice wasn’t thick, it came across as the perfect portion.

After getting this opportunity to taste a handful of Bye’s creations, I think he made the right move. It’s a chance for Bye to broaden his foodie fan base by showing us how well pub food can be done. The location is accessible and the menu is affordable. Every single dish has an element of surprise – from fried chickpeas to hickory sticks — that elevates each one from something ordinary to something superb (or nearing that, anyway).

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Farrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of the staff packing up my sandwich.

One of the staff packing up my sandwich.

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

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

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

My wrapped Grick Middle sandwich from Farrow.

My wrapped Grick Middle sandwich from Farrow.

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

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

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cafe Mosaics

The previous Burger menu at Cafe Mosaics. I think they've refined this as well.

The previous Burger menu at Cafe Mosaics. I think they’ve refined this as well.

I am by no means a vegetarian, let alone a vegan. Yet, when a meatless meal is made well, I could care less if there’s any steak/chicken/fish in it.

There aren’t many restaurants in Edmonton that serve strictly vegetarian or vegan menus. In fact, I only knew of Padmanadi and Noorish until this summer when my friend suggested that we go to Cafe Mosaics on Whyte Avenue for our book club meeting.

Since I’m always happy to try somewhere new, I was completely on board, especially because I’d been hearing about Cafe Mosaics in increasing frequency right around that time. Apparently the establishment has called Old Strathcona home for around 20 years. But, I had no clue that it was there; not until a renovation that took place last year doubled the size of the restaurant. That’s when I noticed it in passing.

The newly renovated interior of the restaurant.

The newly renovated interior of the restaurant.

The best thing going for the eatery is the bright and airy atmosphere and the open storefront, a result of the modifications made to the space. In the summertime, the large windows slide to the side to let in fresh air, helping to create a seamless extension to the seats on their sidewalk patio in the process. Honestly, it is much preferable to snag a table closer to the doors and windows. Tables by the kitchen can get warm and stuffy when it’s hot out.

Of course, you can beat the heat by grabbing one of their ice blends. While we waited for everyone else to arrive, my friend and I each sipped on one. I had selected the Tsunami Wave and she got the Mango Hemp. We sampled each other’s drinks and we both preferred the one we didn’t order. The Tsunami Wave wasn’t as thick and a little too citrusy for my liking. The Mango Hemp had an earthier flavor (I enjoyed that) and had a consistency closer to a smoothie. Looking at their current food and drink menus online, it looks like they’ve revamped a lot of their offerings. They kept the Tsunami Wave though, and they still serve a mix of beverages including: coffee, lattes, teas, fresh juices, cocktails, wine and beer.

Creamy Vegan Portabello Pasta

Creamy Vegan Portabello Pasta

For dinner, two of us ordered the gluten-free Creamy Vegan Portabello Pasta (my friend sans the avocado toast due to an allergy). The server was accommodating and offered her some garlic toast instead. Made with portabello mushroom, tomato, onion and organic black bean noodles tossed in a coconut vegan cream sauce, the dish was rich. At first I quite liked the flavours, but I found that the saltiness started to overwhelm me about halfway through my meal. It was also a heavier dish than I expected, so I ended up packing the leftovers home. I was really pleased with the side of avocado toast, which is something that I can also easily make at home.

Tofu Stir-Fry

Tofu Stir-Fry

One of the guys in our group tried the Secret Burrito, which he found to be lacking. The burrito itself was filled to the brim, so they didn’t necessarily skimp, but everything in it was drowned by some sort of teriyaki-like sauce that wasn’t a good fit. Our other friend opted for the tofu stir-fry, which she finished, but also quickly dismissed as being subpar, stating that she has had better at other restaurants.

On a side note, the tables felt kind of sticky and had a film on them (it might be time to sand them down and refinish the tops) and the utensils supplied weren’t the cleanest. Those are simple fixes for the restaurant to work on. I should mention, too, that they only accept debit and cash for payment. On a positive note, the service was decent.

The place was busy that evening. I suspect that Cafe Mosaics has their regular clientele. However, based on the one visit, I don’t think I’d be inclined to go back soon. Of course, that’s not to say that they won’t ever be able to change my mind.

I want there to be more vegan and vegetarian options in this city. This month’s refinement of their menu is probably a good start in the right direction. Everything that we ate is actually no longer, so that does provide me with a reason to give them another try. Perhaps what remains will win me over.

The small plants on the tables were a cute touch.

The small plants on the tables were a cute touch.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tiramisu Bistro

The spacious interior of Tiramisu Bistro.

The spacious interior of Tiramisu Bistro.

The 124 Street district is one of my favourite places in Edmonton. It’s home to numerous independent shops and restaurants, including Tiramisu Bistro. I keep saying this lately, and it sounds ridiculous since I’m known for reviewing eateries, but until this year, I didn’t know this place was here.

I guess I have tended to relegate myself to certain blocks within this area and Tiramisu Bistro fell outside of that usual boundary. Granted, it’s only a few doors down from Duchess Bake Shop, and I’ve made a point of going there. In fact, it’s because of my attempt to go to Duchess that I ended up at Tiramisu Bistro at all.

On a free evening at the start of the summer, my mom and I decided we should stop somewhere for a snack, so I suggested Duchess. She’d never tried their desserts and I was more than excited to be the one to introduce their key lime pie to her. Unfortunately, as we drove by looking for a spot, I noticed that the store was closed for the night (I forgot they shutter early). That’s when I spied Tiramisu Bistro.

We figured that it was our best bet, and we easily found parking around the corner from the door. Prior to this, I’d heard about Tiramisu Bistro in passing. Yet, I failed to place its location. Now, I knew.

As we walked into the door, I found myself surprised to see how large the establishment is. The room is spacious with a coffee bar and numerous tables. A server came over to greet us and said that we could choose any seat. My mom thought we should have selected a smaller table, but the server said that it was already late and she didn’t expect to see any large parties coming through before the evening was out, so we stayed put.

I sat and looked at the menu even though we weren’t there for dinner. The selection appeared to be appetizing and I made a mental note to come back another time. On this occasion, we each had a smoothie and we shared a key lime pie.

Smoothies and key lime pie

Smoothies and key lime pie

The smoothies were packed full of pureed fruit, so I was happy with the value there. Although, my mom’s Happy Heart smoothie was rather sour due to the cranberries. I fared much better with the Brain Boost smoothie, which was a mix of strawberry, blueberry and raspberry. Having gone back to Tiramisu Bistro, it’s worth noting that they now list all of the ingredients next to the names of smoothies (they didn’t months ago) and the names no longer match what we had. The Cran-tastic is now what my mom drank, and the Passion Berry Bliss matches mine.

As for the key lime pie, it was just okay. Key lime pie is sort of the dessert du jour lately. Any and every restaurant has added it to their menu. I’ve gotten used to the lovely key lime infused custard-type filling that has become the norm. The one served here is similar in texture to a gel with a meringue topping and toasted coconut sprinkles. It was unique, but not what I was hoping for.

Evening specials

Evening specials

My second visit came a couple of months later when I met some friends for book club. It happened to be a Tuesday night, which is Tiramisu Bistro’s pizza B.O.G.O. (half off the second) evening special. My friend was game, so we shared two pizzas between us. Our selections included the Baked Brie & Duck Confit and the Salmone.

The duck pizza was a mix of duck meat, figs, roasted garlic, caramelized onions, brie and honey drizzled on top. I enjoyed this one. However, it could have used a little more duck on it and it would serve them well to spread the toppings out a little more towards the edges of the crust. The crust itself was pretty good. Although, it didn’t have the same consistency of a traditional thin-crust Italian pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, which I would have preferred. From what I remember, it lacked that slight chewiness.

Our Salmone pizza was excellent. The crust was the same, but came off better with these toppings: asiago cheese sauce, pears, capers, arugula and smoked salmon (plus a few pieces of onion). Maybe the juice from the fish and the pears changed the texture of the dough a bit. I’m not entirely sure. In any case, the toppings also made it closer to the edge and each slice could be covered by a full piece of smoked salmon, ensuring you got every flavour in each bite. If I were to go back for their pizza, this is the one I would have again.

Another friend in our party opted for a pasta dish, which may have been the special that day as his was made with short rib, and I can’t find it listed on their regular menu. The dish was nicely presented, but not particularly large. The fourth in our group chose either the Lift Me Up or Quinoa salad with added salmon skewers. Her dinner looked delectable. On sight, the veggies seemed to be fresh with a mix of greens, red bell peppers, grape tomatoes and cheese. The pieces of salmon were sizable, cooked well and seasoned nicely.

Seeing as we took their table for at least a few hours, the restaurant was accommodating. They never once rushed us even when it did get busier (there was never a line up though). I’d certainly go back for their food, especially on nights when they have specials or live music on Friday evenings. Mostly, I like the ambiance. It’s quiet enough to talk to whoever you’re with and they have a great patio during the warm season. Plus, the huge windows let in a lot of light when it’s bright out.

In essence, it’s a great community establishment that makes you feel right at home.