Edmonton Restaurant Review: Zinc

Dinner begins with our appetizers.

As quickly as it arrived, the Downtown Business Association’s Dining Week (DTDW) disappeared. The dust has settled and here are my thoughts on the second of my three outings (Tzin was the preceding review).

Zinc, attached to the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), is a place that I’ve dined at on only a couple of occasions previous to this. I’ve also had the pleasure of enjoying food catered by the restaurant during one or two events held at the AGA. Yet, I had never taken the opportunity to write about my experiences. This time seems as good as any to do that.

On a chilly early evening, my friend and I showed up to our reservation (booked through OpenTable) right on time. It took a few minutes, but one of the servers greeted us and promptly showed us to our table. Architecturally, the venue is beautiful. With tall floor to ceiling windows, a mix of modern décor and glossy washes of deep, bright royal blue, the space feels relaxing and tranquil even on a dreary day.

To keep things moving along, the manager took our drink orders. Both of us opted to stick with water for the night. He also put through our meal selections once we had decided between the choices available to us on the $45 DTDW executive dinner menu.

For my starter, I elected to try the fried oyster basket – cheese stuffed bologna or turkey pot pie were the other picks – which was presented in a relatively deconstructed and artistic way. The mini fry basket had been tossed on its side with the oysters scattered on the plate. Next to the basket was a skinny shot glass of sauce and closest to me were a few circular lemon slices. When it was set down before me, the server indicated that the accompanying sauce was of roasted red pepper. This was different from the description on the menu where I had read it was to come with a maple cocktail sauce. Honestly, I think the maple may have been a better flavour to go with the brininess of the oysters. That sense of sweetness and salt. The red pepper cocktail sauce was still good, but it was quite acidic and dilly. I could have done with a little less of the herb. On the other hand, basic lemon juice squeezed atop the non-greasy, crisp oysters was a treat on its own.

Braised Beef Cheeks with roasted root vegetables.

Rather than going with the duck cassoulet or the veal bolognaise, my entrée consisted of the braised beef cheeks. The meat, cooked in a red wine demi-glace, and the garlic smashed potatoes weren’t anything spectacular. They were just decent. I had actually expected the beef to be more succulent than it was. No, the absolute stars of the dish were the roasted root vegetables. A pile of sliced carrots and, my best guess is diced parsnips, sang in my mouth. Smoky from the slight charring and a little bit fragrant, I could have easily gone for another helping.

Butternut Squash Cheesecake

The final course was a butternut squash cheesecake. At first consideration, the squash appeared to be an odd component to a dessert, but that’s merely because it’s not the typical pumpkin. The butternut squash is subtly sweet and nutty compared to its relative. Most of the sugariness in this dish came from the white chocolate curls sprinkled over the cake as well as the peach and pear salsa and pieces of fruit that were there as complements. On the other hand, the minuscule grains of Tonka bean really stood out on my palate. Known to be fruity and spicy, these tiny shavings produced a bitterness that didn’t necessarily overwhelm my taste buds; however, the flavour couldn’t be ignored either. This was an enjoyable dessert, simply because every bite provided something surprising.

Zinc’s website is keen to point out that the menu puts a focus on fresh Alberta ingredients and food products with inspiration for seasonal changes being taken from the rotating featured art exhibits. I have no clue as to what is currently being showcased at the gallery. All I know is that the dishes we tried were delicious and, even though the plates weren’t necessarily inventive, it’s an interesting notion – one that I believe to be true – that food and art are really one in the same.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Almanac

Drinks to start the night off right.

Drinks to start the night off right.

If I have a chance to, I like to give new eateries a try. The Almanac is one I had heard of because it was being touted as a much needed music venue following the loss of a handful of established locations within the last year or two.

Located in the heart of Old Strathcona, it opened in December, otherwise known as the dead of winter. I had all but forgotten about it until I came across a Groupon deal. For me, those are sometimes the best excuse to try a different place. My friend and I decided to go in early February (I know, this is quite delayed).

The restaurant has large Whyte Avenue facing windows, which are great for people watching should you manage to snag one of the long booths at the front of the house. We did have an OpenTable reservation, but we would have had no trouble the night we went, and were told we could choose any available table. Although there aren’t a whole lot of seats to fill, it was still relatively empty for a Thursday evening. I assume the restaurant’s infancy had something to do with it.

Once we sat down, the server very promptly came over with the menus. She let us know of the specials and then gave us a few minutes to look through all of the French-inspired options.

We started off with a couple of beverages: a pint of beer for my friend and the raspberry cocktail for me. The latter’s magenta hued liquid was nicely poured into a classic glass and garnished with a curl of lemon rind. Just a bit of sweetness came through as I sipped, but it was a smooth drink with a pleasant flavour and finish.

Caramelized Onion & Gruyere Tart

Caramelized Onion & Gruyere Tart

For dinner, the two of us opted to share the Caramelized Onion and Gruyere Tart for our appetizer. The pastry was flaky and the filling tasted good. Arugula and perhaps some sprouts made up the mixed green salad on top of the tart, providing a bit of bitterness to counter the sweetness of the onion and the savoury notes from the cheese. My one disappointment is that it seemed like the tart was made well in advance, so the Gruyere didn’t have that melted gooiness it would have if it was properly warmed. That was a bit of a stumble.

Mushroom Ragu with Truffle Gnocchi and Seasonal Vegetables

Mushroom Ragu with Truffle Gnocchi and Seasonal Vegetables

I had some trouble making a decision about my entrée, but my friend chose the Mushroom Ragu, which looked like a filling vegetarian dish. The kitchen certainly seemed to be generous with the mushrooms. I thought, as a whole, this selection was seasoned well. The truffled gnocchi that accompanied the ragu were plump and lightly browned, and the white beets (the seasonal vegetable at the time) were a lovely surprise.

The Almanac Burger with Soup

The Almanac Burger with Soup

In the end, I selected the Almanac Burger. I tend to cook very little meat at home, so when I go out, I often pick things I’m unlikely to make myself. The thick burger patty was a good size – I’d guesstimate that it was close to five ounces. It’s definitely not the largest burger and there was a tad too much bun, but I really enjoyed the bourbon caramelized onion, honey goat cheese (so much cheese!), tomato and arugula that were layered with the beef.

The burger also came with a side, so I went with the Chef’s daily soup. I was given a salad by accident when my plate first arrived, but a bowl of soup quickly replaced it. I swear the server had said that it was a chicken gnocchi soup. Yet, I was met with a chicken broth that had ample vegetable stock. There was no gnocchi in sight. It was slightly bland. Thankfully, it came with quite a bit of chicken, so no skimping there. Also, on the plus side, the soup was heated well.

I fully realize that dessert is not a requirement of every meal, but since I was at The Almanac and I wasn’t sure when I might be back, it made complete sense to sample something from nearly every part of the eatery’s menu.

The White Chocolate Pot de Crème with Fall Fruit Compote that my friend ordered was pretty decadent. The custard was actually quite light while maintaining a creamy texture. There was a lot of fruit to the side and atop the custard, too.

Dessert: Banana Cream Pie and White Chocolate Creme de Pot

Dessert: Banana Cream Pie and White Chocolate Pot de Crème

A new addition to the menu was the Banana Cream Pie with Chocolate Drizzle. It’s a small menu, and I knew I’d get a bite of my friend’s food, so, for variety, Banana Cream Pie it was. Definitely a dish for sharing, I would recommend it for two hungry people or even four people who want to finish the night with a small portion of dessert. The plate looked like it was attacked by Jackson Pollack – a bit messy, but still pleasing (because of the chocolate). I would have preferred something flakier for the crust, which was closer in texture to a firm shortbread cookie. However, the thinly sliced banana scorched with caramelized sugar was prepared well.

Being that The Almanac is fresh to Edmonton’s burgeoning food scene, it was a decent all-round experience. I wasn’t wowed though, and I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to revisit the place. We were also in and out within a couple of hours and, when we left, it wasn’t particularly late, so there wasn’t any entertainment going either (if that’s something that even happens on weekday evenings). If there’s ever a live show there that I’m interested in seeing or I’m free on a Sunday when they have board game day, I might pop by again sooner than later.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Normand’s Bistro

Bison Carpaccio

Bison Carpaccio

The list of eateries located right around the Winspear Centre in Edmonton isn’t extensive. Within a block, I can only think of about a handful. Although, you’ll find some great ones if you branch out a little further. One that I think is often overlooked is Normand’s Bistro. Tucked inside the Citadel Theatre building, it’s popular with theatre goers who are seeking some food prior to a show. Otherwise, I don’t expect that it’s a place people go out of their way to eat at.

I’ve found myself there on just two occasions since it opened.

My first visit was during Downtown Dining Week in 2014. Over a quick lunchtime catch up with friends, I selected the pan seared salmon. I remember it being nicely plated with the perfectly cooked fish and vegetables sitting atop a pool of delicious sauce. At $15 for two courses, it was a steal during the annual showcase. I’m pretty sure that dish is still on offer today as an entrée on the restaurant’s menu, albeit, for an increased price.

Despite the good impression Normand’s Bistro left on me, I didn’t make a point of going back for nearly two years.Without a reason to be there, I ventured off to other eateries instead.

Recently, however, I had tickets for a show at the Winspear, which is right across the street from the Citadel building. My dad and I were trying to decide where we should go to grab a bite before the concert. I suggested Normand’s Bistro because of the proximity.

Since the Citadel had a play scheduled that night, I made sure to book a table at the restaurant ahead of time. I’m glad I did as Normand’s Bistro was packed that evening. Most of the seats were occupied, but there was no wait with our reservation, which means we were promptly shown to our table.

I had already studied the menu ahead of time, so I had an idea of what I wanted to try. We decided to share a few plates: Candied Lamb Sliders, Bison Carpaccio and Double Bacon Pizza (I had hoped to get the Prosciutto, Mushroom Pizza, but it didn’t seem to be offered any longer).

It may have been best to ask that our pizza come out after the appetizers. Instead, we said everything could arrive at the same time, and it led to food sitting out and getting cold before we were able to get to it. Also, not really realizing at the time, we made the mistake of ordering more carbs than intended.

Candied Lamb Sliders

Candied Lamb Sliders

The Candied Lamb Sliders are a decent size and the meat is well-seasoned (garlic, brown sugar with pear and onion compote). I liked it so much that I saved my last half of the third “slider” as my final bite before dessert. The only issue with waiting until the end of the meal to eat the lamb is that the meat firms up as it cools down. Ideally, it’s better to have that one as soon as it’s delivered from the kitchen. One minor qualm with the appetizer that I want to mention is that it isn’t a true slider. Without both the bottom and top of a bun, I’d consider this to be a crostini dish. Don’t assume you’re going to be given a plate of mini burgers.

I was interested in sampling the Bison Carpaccio as I’m a big fan of beef carpaccio, and I thought it would be neat to taste a different type of meat prepared in this fashion. I enjoyed this iteration of the dish. The bison has a heartier texture than the beef usually used for carpaccio. I’m sure that’s an outcome of the meat itself as well as the length of time the meat is cured for. Otherwise, it was a basic carpaccio dish with the bison accompanied by white truffle oil and reduced balsamic. Some slices of rye crostini were served, too.

Double Bacon Pizza

Double Bacon Pizza

Pizza is one of the more affordable options on the Normand’s Bistro menu. At under $20, the restaurant doesn’t skimp on the toppings. Our Double Bacon Pizza was generously loaded with cheese, wild boar back bacon, double smoked bacon and tomato basil pesto as its base. The only downfall is that the thin pizza crust didn’t hold up that well. I alternated between the various dishes we ordered and I noticed that the pizza crust sort of got soggy quickly and didn’t have the bite or chew of a traditional Italian pizza. The smoky flavour of the bacon was delicious though.

Those three shared plates left us comfortably full, but I’d heard that the dessert was worth getting. In particular, the Bananas Flambé. At first glance, it looks like you’re given a huge portion size, but the slices of banana that have been set ablaze in maple syrup and dark rum aren’t all that filling. Presented with pecans, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a few berries, it’s a relatively light dessert, especially when split with a dining companion. For the simple fact that it becomes a very sweet dish after a handful of bites, divvying it up between a couple of people is something I would recommend anyway.

Bananas Flambé

Bananas Flambé

Normand’s Bistro isn’t the place to go if you’re hoping for exciting, experimental dishes. Like its sister eatery, Normand’s Restaurant, the food falls under more traditional fare. The offerings are passable and the service is decent (they seem to be aware that their customers have a short time frame to eat before heading out to a show or event nearby). Should one be in need of some sustenance in the general vicinity, this is an okay choice.

Edmonton Restaurant Review Duo: Joey Restaurant & Earls Kitchen + Bar

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

Nowadays, chain restaurants like Joey and Earls – both founded by the Fuller family – get a lot of flak. People say these establishments are too corporate, that they take away from the smaller, independent eateries. But, I beg to differ. There was a time, not too long ago, when those were the go to places in Edmonton. Always bustling with people, there could be lines of up to an hour (or more) for a table and patrons would patiently wait.

While still relatively casual, these places give off an upscale air. During my lifetime, the trio has become synonymous with living up to a standard in service (for the most part) and quality of food. No matter which city across Canada that a customer happens to be, if they walk into one of the Fuller offshoots, they’d likely come away satisfied.

Yet, in recent years, we’ve had a bit of a love affair with a smattering of great entrepreneurial chefs and business owners who have gone above and beyond in growing the food offerings available in E-Town. Why go to a chain restaurant when you can support something more local? However, let’s not forget that the first Earls opened in 1982 in this very city as an independent, local eatery. Sure, the chain’s headquarters is now situated in Vancouver, but its roots are here.

It’s not to say that we’ve all abandoned Joey and Earls. Far from it. They remain popular hangouts for the typical diner. There’s just a lot more competition from the single storefront eateries with their award winning menus that dot our city. Those who frequent these, arguably, awesome establishments on the regular seem to forget that the chains were once our saviors when it came to a night out on the town. Friends (a few, not all) sometimes turn their noses up at the idea of stepping foot into a chain restaurant, and it’s fine if that’s how they feel. I’ll even concede that the menus are relative carbon copies of one another, and sometimes the selection isn’t all that exciting or adventurous, but there are still things I enjoy about these places.

Personally, I believe that there’s room for the chains and the independents in my heart and my stomach. So, this is my review of and love letter to Joey and Earls.

Joey really does have a permanent slot in my heart. I have many memories of great meetings and conversations over delicious meals with friends and family within the confines of Joey walls. At one point, my parents and I were frequenting the Jasper Avenue location so much that we became well acquainted with a server named Ryan. In my younger days, a good friend and I would often takeover a table for the entire evening as we lost track of time. It was almost like a second home (slightly exaggerating), but with better food (sorry Mom).

I don’t make it to Joey as much as I used to anymore. The locations around town aren’t the most convenient for me. However, I always think it’s worth it when I get to go.

Although the menu has changed over the years to better suit whatever food trends pop up, I’ve never been truly disappointed with a dish. From the lettuce wraps, chili chicken and flatbread to the rotisserie chicken, salmon (used to be cooked with maple) and fettucine alfredo, it was/is all so tasty.

For at least a few years, they’ve had simply one of the best sandwiches on their menu. The Ahi Tuna. Grilled so that the middle of the tuna steak remains rare, it’s a good value for the portion at under $17. The tuna is topped with bacon, crispy onion rings and a flavourful sweet pepper relish. All the layers combine to make for an extremely delicious sandwich. If you’re a fan of sushi and burgers, you can’t really go wrong with this choice.

I’m also a fan of Joey desserts. They’re known for the Molten Lava Chocolate Soufflé and Baked to Order Apple Pie, both of which have been on their menu for as long as I can remember. Those two are tried and true classics that continue to belong because Joey does them so well. Recently though, they added in a key lime pie as a third option. I was a bit skeptical when I first saw it, but I tried it and I have to say that it’s another win. There’s a good balance of sweet to tart and if you like fresh cream, they put a very generous helping of the whipped topping on the plate, too. It’s not quite on par with what one would find at Duchess Bake Shop, but it’s better than the version on offer at Cactus Club.

I often can't pass up this caesar salad from Earls. Photo from Earls site.

I often can’t pass up this caesar salad from Earls. Photo from Earls site.

Moving along to Earls, who remembers the parrot décor (while I’m at it, don’t forget about the red and white checkered table cloths and giant tomato decor of Joey in its original form)? The Earls chain has come a long way since those days. The original Tin Palace on Jasper Avenue has shifted from the beer and burger joint it was to a fancier iteration of itself. It still has a wonderful, large patio for those short summer months, and a few burgers up for grabs, but the menu has expanded.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself at Earls (mainly the one by the U of A Campus) for many a book club meeting. I admit that, yes, I was getting a little tired of going to the same place so much, but I have to say that the food and the drinks are more than decent.

I do miss their old Thai flavoured chicken wings. Nevertheless, Mojito Friday and Saturday is the best. I also love their Dynamite Prawn Rolls and the Cajun Chicken Caesar Salad (the Pecan Chicken Rocket Salad is fantastic, too; sadly, I think it was replaced within the past season). The one misstep I made recently was ordering their Forager Burger. It was just okay. I’m all for a good veggie burger, but something was missing. Maybe the roasted mushroom patty wasn’t patty-like enough for me. The flavours didn’t pack much of a punch either.

Where the Forager Burger fails, Earls has plenty of other choices to fill its place. My friend has enjoyed their take on Korean Bibimbap a few times now. The Fettucine Alfredo or the Confit Chicken and Pancetta Fettucini are good for carb fans. The Jeera Chicken Curry is a mild dish for those who like Indian flavours without the spicy heat, and the Chicken, Brie and Fig Sandwich has become a mainstay for many.

Aside from the food, the appeal of Joey and Earls comes from the fact that, because each location is part of a larger corporate entity, they’re never quick to shoo patrons out the door. Sure, high table turnover on a busy night means a larger pool of tips for staff, but the bottom line is often determined by a few factors: affordability, service, atmosphere and flexibility.

Allowing customers to linger a little (or a lot) longer because they’re having a good time is something that these chains understand. After all, my friends and I, deep in conversation, have been prone to stay the night. It’s where we’ve shared many a story with one another, and where we’ll likely continue to do so as long as we always feel welcomed by the corporate exterior with the heart of a family who decided to start their business right here.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Underground Tap & Grill

Green Onion Cake Sandwich

Green Onion Cake Sandwich

Every time I set foot into Underground Tap & Grill for lunch, I’m surprised to see how quiet it is. I guess it isn’t a destination of choice for most of Edmonton’s downtown workers, but it is one of mine. Over the last year, I’ve eaten there several times. The quality of the food is consistent, even if the friendly service received doesn’t necessarily meet my expectations.

Underground has become one of my go to restaurants, in part, because of proximity to my workplace, but also for the delicious pub food that is, on occasion, made with a slight twist.

Although I haven’t tried everything on the menu, I have enjoyed the chicken fingers with caesar salad, the green onion cake sandwich, the loaded nachos, the blackened tidbits and the tinga chicken quesadilla.

Looking at that selection, it’s easy to scoff and say that it’s pretty hard to screw up chicken fingers or nachos. However, I beg to differ.

Chicken Fingers & Caesar Salad

Chicken Fingers & Caesar Salad

Breaded chicken fingers can easily become overcooked, yet the ones at Underground are always crisp on the outside and piping hot, tender and juicy on the inside. The caesar salad that accompanies the strips is nicely coated with dressing, too, so they definitely don’t skimp there.

As for the nachos, I had those the very first time I stopped into Underground. I added the Asian pulled pork to my order just to round out the meal, ensuring I had something from every food group. I was met with a huge basket that I eagerly tried to share with the rest of my group. What I like is that they put plenty of cheese into the mix and they use fresh jalapenos. Plus, they provide sides of guacamole, salsa and sour cream.

On the other hand, during my last visit, my friends and I shared an order of the loaded nachos, which were on special for just $7 on a Thursday night (meat not included), and I was a bit disappointed at the serving size. The first basket was gone in a flash and we ended up ordering a second to go around. While I don’t blame the eatery for trying to balance portion for profit, the nachos didn’t really seem worth it that evening.

The latest version of their menu.

The latest version of their menu.

The blackened tidbits are a great appetizer to share though. The top sirloin pieces are wonderfully seasoned and served with a spicy chipotle sauce and shreds of sweet potato. The steak might not be the tenderest cut, but I’ve never seen them overcooked.

A quesadilla is simple yet delicious. It’s easy to split among a few people, but it also makes for a filling meal for one. Underground stuffs theirs with chipotle tinga chicken, corn truffle, sweet peppers and mozzarella and it’s served with the same sides as the nachos. Most places would charge extra for the guacamole and the salsa, so it’s nice that those are included here.

I’ve had the green onion cake sandwich once before. It’s maybe one of the more creative items on the menu, and it’s my friend’s favourite (she gets it each time we’re there). Underground’s homemade green onion cake is stuffed with Asian BBQ pulled pork, suey choy, tomatoes and more green onions. I think it’s appetizing, but it’s certainly a heavier sandwich. Also, if the green onion cake is even a little too crisp, it takes away from the dish as a whole.

In the evenings, Underground seems to liven up with the majority of the tables occupied. The downside is that service slows immensely when it’s busy. However, nightly deals – including a 7 oz. steak with all-you-can-eat sides for $12.50 on Mondays – make it an affordable place. The food caters to the masses, so there’s likely something for everyone.

Keep in mind that, during happy hour (3pm to 6pm, Monday to Friday), they have select Alberta beers available for just $5, but there’s a high chance they’ll be out of 4 of the 5 choices. Good thing they have 72 micro-brewed beers on tap at any given time, not to mention the cocktail or beer cocktail menu, so there’s no shortage of other options. The other choices might not be as inexpensive, but at least there’s plenty to choose from.

All-in-all, Underground is a fun, slightly noisy place to meet up with friends for a low key gathering over above average pub food and a few smooth drinks.