Edmonton Restaurant Review: Milestones

Milestones Original Bellinis

I can’t exactly recall when Milestones first entered the restaurant scene in Edmonton. It has likely been at least a decade or close to. What I do remember is that my favourite dishes were once the signature Portobello Mushroom Chicken and the White Chocolate Cheesecake (that sauce!), both of which still hold a place on the menu today.

Despite all the love I had for the chain back then, I have to admit that the quality of the food has become a bit lackluster. It’s just not quite the same as it used to be, and, overall, much better, more consistently made food can be found at other casual dining establishments such as Cactus Club, Earls Kitchen + Bar, or Joey Restaurant. Regardless, I continue to visit from time to time.

Monday Girls’ Night Out Menu

The best reason for going can be summed up in four words: Monday Girls’ Night Out. The gist of the package is that four people can dine for forty dollars. It consists of one Milestones Original Bellini per person ($7.50 each) as well as four appetizers to be shared among the group. I believe the special is available from 4:00pm until close. There’s a list of seven starters to choose from. Some are relatively inexpensive on the regular menu, so I always opt for the ones that provide the best value. Of late, that includes the Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip ($13.95), Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter ($13.25), Coconut Calamari ($13.95), and Asian Chicken Bites ($13.95). Essentially, everything can be had for more than half off the usual price, making it a total steal. Also, as far as I know, for the guys, there is a male version of the deal that comes with a pitcher of beer instead of the Bellinis, although it might be best to ask ahead.

My boyfriend and I went on our own a few months ago to take advantage of this offering and the staff could have rolled us out the door by the end of our meal. The amount of food is kind of deceiving, but don’t be fooled. There’s definitely enough to feed two pairs of people without ordering anything extra.

When we were there in September (and again this month), our Bellinis were brought out without delay. One thing I always enjoy are the animal-shaped drink toppers. Typically, it’s a mix of different figures. In November, they placed little reindeer atop the mountain of Bellini slush. I found that to be quite festive.

Asian Chicken Bites

Our food arrived shortly after. Visually, they all looked appealing; however, I’ll begin with the Asian Chicken Bites. These were pretty ubiquitous at one point in time. Almost all of the casual eateries were serving some iteration of this plate. Milestones has stuck with it though. Why mess with a decent thing, right? The bites of chicken are well-breaded, the crisp wonton chips add extra crunch, and the cucumber is refreshing in the midst of all the sweet chili sauce. It’s pretty satisfying and at least it provides some protein as part of this dinner.

Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip

The majority of chain restaurants also tend to serve some form of dip. Milestones does a Hot Spinach & Artichoke version. I find theirs to be a bit runnier than others. Yet, it still holds up okay, and the artichokes aren’t pulverized too much; there are still some sizable chunks of the veggie, which is how I like it. With the dip, they serve red and white tortilla chips. Those are always crispy, if a tad too salty.

Coconut Calamari

Moving along to the calamari, this is actually a very tasty dish. What is disappointing about it is the fact that the squid is clearly processed. I understand the reasoning behind using a meat that is prepared in this way. After all, one of the main complaints diners often have about calamari is that it’s overcooked and rubbery. Well, rest assured because at Milestones, this won’t be a problem. The calamari strips are all super tender with a sponge-like mouthfeel. It’s just not the same as fresh octopus. Nevertheless, the way the kitchen marinates it in coconut and fries it to a golden brown makes it more than edible. The bed of crisp rice noodles and mango chili dipping sauce add dimension in terms of texture and flavour.

Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter

Out of the four appetizers, the best is definitely the Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter. It comes with slices of toasted focaccia bread (soft in the center), a mound of warm goat cheese topped with red pepper relish, a side of roasted garlic cloves, a pot of fig jam, and a pile of arugula. I like this starter since it’s possible to customize each slice of bread to one’s preferences. I’m an all in type of gal, so I start with a thick layer of the goat cheese and red pepper relish. Then I crush the roasted garlic and spread that on with some fig jam, and, at the end, I lay down some leaves of arugula. For it’s simplicity, it’s actually really decadent. The variety of flavours, along with the richness of the cheese and bread, is to die for.

With that said, I give Milestones a passing grade. I’ve been a customer for about ten years now. While I can’t say whether or not the south Edmonton location has improved as I haven’t been in some time, I will state that the one on 171 Street and 100 Avenue is more comfortable and the service is usually quite good (it’s never busy when I’m there). If anything, Milestones can be a relatively affordable place to catch up with friends. It’s truly hard to find another venue where approximately twelve dollars will buy a drink and food, tax and tip included. For that alone, Milestones can’t be beat on a Monday night.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nando’s (Brewery District)

The plate I put together for myself from everything we ordered with our Variety Platter.

Never one to pass up a good deal, I found it imperative to use a direct marketing coupon received for the new Nando’s location at the Brewery District. After all, thirty percent off of a meal doesn’t come up too often.

My boyfriend and I made our way to central Edmonton for dinner on a Saturday at around five o’clock. When we arrived, there were tables occupied; however, much of the eatery remained open for walk-in guests. I overheard one of the servers say to another set of diners that their busiest time usually occurs a couple of hours later in the evening at around 7:00pm.

The interior of the Nando’s Brewery District location.

We were seated at the far end of the restaurant, providing me with a full view of the interior, which was well-designed, modern, spacious, comfortable, clean, and efficiently organized. As we settled in, the staff member quickly gave us the rundown of how it worked at Nando’s. Ultimately, it’s similar to a number of fast-casual establishments that restaurant-goers are likely familiar with (i.e. Famoso or Via Cibo). First, spend a bit of time leisurely perusing the menu at the table. When ready, get up and head over to the till where someone will take the order and process payment. Before sitting back down, grab water, napkins, utensils, and extra sauces or dressings from the center station. Then, build up an appetite while waiting for a server to bring the dishes over.

I have to say that, prior to visiting, I had no clue what exactly PERi-PERi was. As it turns out, it’s a specific Portuguese marinade, baste, or sauce with origins that come out of Africa, specifically Mozambique. The base is the hot African Bird’s Eye Chilli (a.k.a. piri-piri). Mixed with lemon, garlic and salt, it becomes PERi-PERi. Nando’s has stuck by the belief that simple is best, keeping artificial colours or flavours and any preservatives out of their recipes. The company has also refused to outsource their supply of chillies, and instead, they work with small-scale farmers in Southern Africa to grow them specifically for their use. They’ve created a business that has not only gone global, but also made a wonderful impact on a more local level with initiatives such as these. That’s certainly worth a commendation on its own.

The Variety Platter: Half Chicken, 5 Wings & 2 Skewers

Our food didn’t take too long to arrive. The pair of us opted to share a Variety Platter ($32.95) intended for two to three people. It included a half chicken, five whole wings, two skewers, and two regular sides. On their menu is a scale called the PERi-ometer. It’s to be used to decide on the amount of heat appropriate for one’s taste buds. There were several choices, starting on the low end with Plain…ish to the high end of Xtra Hot. Although we’re quite comfortable with spice, I still wasn’t sure what to expect of Nando’s, so we opted for Medium on the half chicken and the wings. For the skewers, we chose Mango & Lime.

According to the Nando’s website, their chicken is marinated for at least twenty-four hours to allow the seasonings to soak in and to fully tenderize the meat before being cooked over a flame grill. While I cannot attest to that statement, I will say that my overall impression of the chicken and its preparation was that it was superb. Every single bite packed a wallop without burning the mouth. It wasn’t even necessary to utilize any of the additional sauces available (unless more heat was required). The meat was incredibly tender as well. Shreds of chicken pulled right off the bone without much effort. Yet, I think, out of all the options we tried that day, my favourite had to be the Mango & Lime skewers. They were just so flavourful with an intense natural mango taste.

For our sides, we went with the Garlic Mashed Potatoes and the Spiced Rice. The garlic mashed potatoes were warm, smooth and garlicky with skins and herbs still clearly visible. It seemed as though the mashed potatoes were freshly made. I really enjoyed the spiced rice, too. Bright yellow in colour, it had been seasoned with several herbs, spices and peppers. Both were excellent accompaniments to the chicken because they complimented the meat without overpowering it.

Their traditional Portuguese custard tart.

Before we left, I insisted on getting a Pasteis de Natas ($2.50). This is otherwise known as a traditional Portuguese custard tart. I love eating Chinese egg tarts at dim sum and these are somewhat similar. Flaky crusts provide the foundation to hold the filling, but the difference comes down to what’s in the middle. The Chinese version is made with more egg and less cream, so it finishes with a brighter, glassier and smoother consistency. The Portuguese tart is closer to a sugary crème brûlée with a caramelized top. I enjoy either iteration of this type of dessert. Regardless, I was rather disappointed with the one at Nando’s. While its aroma was intoxicating, the custard itself was slightly gummy as if it’d been sitting out too long and the top looked as though it was a tad over-burnt. Therefore, I don’t think I’d be very inclined to order that again.

I have yet to go back after this first visit. Nevertheless, I’m going to call myself a fan. I’ve often thought of their chicken since, and I find myself craving it at times. Even better, I just found out that their food is now available to be delivered through SkipTheDishes, and I will surely be taking advantage of that. Whatever Nando’s is doing, they’re doing it right!

This is one happily satisfied customer!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of Cibo Bistro

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

Review of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

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

Review of Woodwork

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

Review of Canteen

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

Review of Rostizado

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

Review of Duchess Bake Shop

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

Review of Corso 32

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

Review of Tres Carnales

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

Review of El Cortez

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

Review of Rosso Pizzeria

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

Review of Nosh Cafe

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

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

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

Review of Japonais Bistro

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

Review of Izakaya Tomo

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

Review of The Common

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

Review of Three Boars

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

Review of Lazia

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

Review of Sloppy Hoggs

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

Review of Ampersand 27

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

Review of The Cavern

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

Review of The Art of Cake

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

Review of Tiramisu Bistro

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

Review of Belgravia Hub

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

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 Restaurant Review: North 53

A place setting at the table.

A place setting at the table.

It was in the winter of 2013 that I happened to be passing along 124 Street when I spotted a sign in the window of a darkened corner of the building at 102 Avenue. A cryptic “North 53 Coming Soon” piqued my interest. My immediate assumption was that it was going to be the home of a new restaurant, and I was right. Shortly after, I was reading the Edmonton Journal and there was an article in the Food section about a young chef named Ben Staley who would be heading up the kitchen at North 53 (@north_53) with owner Kevin Cam by his side.

I was beyond excited to see that there was more new blood being woven into a neighbourhood that has had its mainstays throughout the years, but, recently, seems to be going through a revitalization of sorts. North 53 was just another step in that direction. Finding it difficult to keep up with all the fantastic dining establishments that are popping up in Edmonton nowadays, I did not make it to North 53 when they opened this past January. In fact, it took about nine months before I set foot in the place.

My friend and I decided that, before our scheduled book club meeting on a Friday evening in September, we would treat ourselves to a nice dinner. I was proactive and made a reservation for 5:30pm through their Yelp SeatMe system (very similar to OpenTable, but no points) found on their website. It usually isn’t an issue for us to be anywhere by that time after work; however, as it happened, my companion was stuck at the office later than expected. Thankfully, the staff at North 53 were accommodating when I phoned to see if we could shift our reservation back a little bit.

Finally, about an hour after our originally planned dinner time, we made it to the restaurant with a few minutes to spare. The neon sign our beacon in the rain, we walked into the small doorway where patrons are greeted with a canvas of graffiti art that paints the establishment as cool. The tables were not full yet, so we were seated immediately. The room is long and narrow with maybe a dozen tables in front of the floor to ceiling windows that span the entire length of the space. Across from the tables is a fairly long bar that is decorated with light woods, grey tiles, and chrome chairs and shelves as well as mirrors that serve to make the eatery look larger than it actually is. The tiled ceiling is black with statement desk lamp chandeliers. The design is sleek and modern with a twist, which goes along well with what I think they hoped to accomplish in regards to their food.

In a way, the sparseness in the aesthetics of the restaurant is a continuation of what looks to be a simplicity in the dishes they prepare, but that’s far from the case. The two of us were presented with two menus – drinks and food. They had a number of specialty cocktails, a couple of non-alcoholic beverages (tea and soda not included), some beers/ciders and wines listed. We opted for the mocktails, which were housemade lemonade and ginger soda. There was a bit of a mix up when they arrived at the table; I received my friend’s ginger beer and she my lemonade. It was only because we tasted each other’s drinks that we figured it out even though hers was clearly gingery with a tad of citrus thrown in for good measure. Both were pleasantly refreshing and my lemonade was just what I needed.

With regards to the food menu, they had two. You could opt to sit through a multi-course meal for about $100 per person, or you could go the à la carte route. Since we arrived to dinner later than we had intended and our friend would be waiting for us in less than two hours, we figured we didn’t have the luxury of indulging in the tasting menu. It sounded absolutely fabulous though. Watching another table enjoy it made it all the more tempting. Instead, we decided to share four plates from their regular menu, including the Cream of Broccoli Soup, the New Season’s Potatoes & Carrots, the Pork Loin and the Sockeye Salmon.

The Cream of Broccoli Soup was not the easiest choice to share, but it was definitely worth trying. The bowl arrived with a discus of fried cheese standing up out of a cloud of foam. In a separate carafe was the soup – a fine puree of broccoli and cream – which our server poured into the bowl, adding a beautiful, bright green colour. We crushed the cheese, so that it melted into the soup and dug in. The soup was incredibly smooth with the broccoli flavour playing off the cheese and onions wonderfully. Both of us said at the end that if we could have done our meal over again, we would have each ordered our own bowl of soup because sharing wasn’t enough. The Potatoes & Carrots were cooked very nicely, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t usually love carrots. I enjoyed it. Although, I’m not sure that it would have been a top choice for me in the future.

Pork Loin

Pork Loin

When, what I’m going to call the mains, arrived at the table, we chose to each eat half of one and then swap plates. I started with the Pork Loin. Quite honestly, the pork seemed just a tad overcooked. I know it’s a hard meat to ensure that it is not only tender, but also cooked all the way through. It was not pink at all, so that’s good, but there was definitely more chew than I would have preferred. That was offset, though, by the accompaniments of steel cut oats, endive and stinging nettle. The oats looked like they were pureed into a velvety concoction, sort of like a side of mashed potatoes, but better. The endive added a sweet, nutty flavour and the stinging nettle a spinach-like taste. This was all topped off with two pieces of, likely, pan-fried or roasted kale (I’m guessing at the greens).

Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye Salmon

Once I finished my half of the pork loin, we switched, and I took my turn at sampling the Sockeye Salmon. Out of the two dishes, I would say that this one came out on top. The salmon was perfectly prepared and the skin, which was left on the fish, was superb. I don’t usually eat salmon skin because it’s often cooked to a soggy mess, but this was so crispy and delicious that you had to have every bite. The fish was served with mustard greens, snap pea and guy lan.

The evening was memorable and we definitely wanted to go back for that multi-course meal.

However, shortly after that first visit, it was announced that chef Ben Staley was leaving the restaurant to open his own place called The Alder Room (likely set to open by spring 2015). With that huge change, owner Kevin Cam hired on Filliep Lament as Staley’s replacement. He has created a new menu that consists of smaller bites to help cater to the late night crowd that they hope to attract with their introduction of late night hours. With that move, they have also done away with the tasting menu option. These modifications seem drastic, but I understand that with the entry of a new head chef, it means they have the opportunity to experiment with their offerings and their clientele.

Because of all of these alterations, I didn’t feel it was right to review the restaurant solely on the visit I spoke of above. I needed to go back to North 53 to experience the eatery in its current state. So, I gathered a couple of my friends for a night out on a cold December evening. We arrived before 6pm and, while a few tables were occupied, it wasn’t full.

We started off perusing the drink menu where they already have a number of signature alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails available. Of course, you also have the option to spin the wheel, allowing the bartenders to tailor a custom cocktail to your tastes by selecting a spirit base and flavour of your choice. Ultimately, two of us decided to order the Siberian Pineapple Express, which was sans alcohol, but quite flavourful. My only qualm is that the bartender prepared just one drink first, and, although we were told the second would be there in just a few minutes, I think it actually took at least 20 minutes, arriving after a drink that was ordered much later. Perhaps the bartender was slow or unorganized or forgot or missing ingredients, but that was not very acceptable. The third in our party asked for a suggestion from our server who pointed out the Rosey Cheeks cocktail. According to the menu, it is inspired by Persian ice cream and is made with a mix of Nigori Sake, lemon, saffron, cardamom, rose syrup, egg white and topped with tiny little rose petals. My friend said it was delicious even though she usually doesn’t tend to order sweeter drinks. It was also quite beautiful with a nice froth from the egg whites and the dark red petals adorning the cream-coloured foam.

Carrot Salad

Carrot Salad

When it comes to the food, the menu is quite small, but it’s split up into the following categories: snacks, plates (small), large plates and dessert. All items are technically meant to be shared tapas style. One friend was on a vegetarian diet when we dined, so, while there were dishes she could eat, her options were limited to bar nuts, a couple of salads, sunchoke soup (bacon was listed with this, so I’m assuming they just don’t add it in if you can’t eat it) and desserts. Since she couldn’t eat much else, she decided to go with the Carrot Salad. Made with green cardamom, goat cheese and pistachio, I had one bite and found the dish to be extremely refreshing on the palate.

As for the two of us who are currently carnivores, we opted to share several plates, including the Griddled Mushroom, Popcorn Chicken, Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart and Beer-Glazed Short Rib for dinner as well as the Apple Tart and Pouding Chômeur (“poor man’s pudding”) for dessert.

The Griddled Mushroom is served with a poached egg. I sampled a mushroom before we broke the egg and it had a distinctly Asian sort of flavour, reminiscent of Chinese dishes I’ve had in the past. Once we popped the egg with a toothpick, the yolk just melted into the sauce that was already on the plate, creating a thicker base and a smooth consistency. The Popcorn Chicken was our second selection off the snack section of the menu. Arriving to the table in a cute bowl that looked like it was filled with chicken nuggets covered in Parmesan cheese, these turned out to be slightly elevated versions of the fast food classic. The whole meat pieces were lightly breaded and succulent. The shavings on top were not cheese, but actually popcorn. I personally think the flavour of the popcorn is lost when eaten with the meat, but I put a bit of the popcorn on my tongue and the buttery taste was unmistakable. This dish is a fun idea, but maybe it could be better executed to fully take advantage of the popcorn and chicken combination.

Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart

Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart

The Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart and Beer-Glazed Short Rib acted as our main course. The tart had a lovely flaky pastry base that was stable enough to hold the pureed rutabaga filling. The oxtail was cooked until it was fall apart tender. Topped with a salad of herbs, this dish had a great earthy flavour from the rutabaga, wonderful complementary textures and a nice herbaceousness that balanced well with what seemed like oxtail with lingering hints of booze from the cooking process (again, I’m guessing here).

Beer-Glazed Short Rib

Beer-Glazed Short Rib

Lastly, we had the short ribs. For a “small” plate, the portion size was massive. Served in a circular plate-bowl, the bottom was covered with navy beans, diced celery and carrots and bone marrow. Placed on top were two huge pieces of short rib still on the bone. We split each piece in half, and started working away. The short rib was quite good, but I would say that the slightly smaller of the two cuts of meat was overcooked a little. I also think that the ratio of beef to the accompaniments could have been better. It was just too much meat and not enough in the vegetable or legume department, and the overall flavour of this particular dish was lacking compared to everything else that evening, or, perhaps not lacking, but too one-noted after a couple dozen bites. I had also never tried bone marrow before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in that regard. In my head, I pictured some sort of puree-like addition to the plate, but I think the marrow was, in fact, the fattier pieces found mixed in with the beans. It was an interesting addition, maybe a way to compensate for the short rib’s own lack of fattiness. I will say, however, that the short rib is a great value for the amount of food that you do get. If I ever were to try that one again, I would be sure to have more people to share it with as it was too much for just the two of us.

If you assumed we were finished after all of that food, you were wrong. There was no way we were leaving without trying some of the desserts this time around. At first, we were only going to order the Apple Tart, but the special for the evening, Pouding Chômeur, sounded too good to pass up.

I know that an apple tart seems like a pretty generic dessert. Many restaurants have something similar on their menus, but this one was unique in that it kind of pulled from the idea of a baked brie pastry, pairing tart apples with ice cream and a salty-sweet base of cheddar shortbread. I loved that you could taste each layer and that the cheddar actually came through.

Traditionally, Pouding Chômeur is made with the cake batter rising above a layer of caramel or syrup as it bakes, but at North 53 it was like a reverse Pouding Chômeur because the liquid remained at the top. My guess is this is due to their use of a dense shortbread in lieu of cake. The result was a piping hot, rich dessert with a dark chocolate center that helped to offset the sticky and sugary caramel topping. It was absolutely delicious, but probably best in smaller doses.

Personally, my feelings of North 53 are mixed. I think the eatery is still going through growing pains. I also really believe that they would benefit from increasing the size of their menu to include a few more vegetarian dishes that can be eaten as a main dish if someone wanted to choose a singular plate as their meal and not leave hungry. That being said, based on my two outings, I can see why North 53 was shortlisted for Enroute Magazine’s list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants for 2014 (of the two Edmonton restaurants vying for a spot, RGE RD was chosen in the end).

The slightly altered decor, which now gives the place a moodier vibe.

The slightly altered decor, which now gives the place a moodier vibe.

The establishment has great potential, but they have to find the right footing by figuring out what their signature dishes should be and branching out from there. They also need to improve on the consistency of their service. With all that in mind, they’re definitely not a write-off. I appreciate the space, which now has a darker appeal with all the chairs painted black as opposed to mirror-like silver, yet aims for a bit of that vintage, homey vibe with the use of mismatched antique dishes (these are the only two changes to the aesthetics that I could discern).

North 53 is a cool, casual hangout for Edmonton’s in-the-know crowd who want a place to go for late night snacks, good cocktails and conversation.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment, visit The Local Good to read my profile of North 53.