Edmonton Restaurant Review: Rocky Mountain Icehouse

One of the walls when you enter the restaurant.

One of the walls when you enter the restaurant.

Housed in the Jasper Block, built in 1909, and located on 105 Street and Jasper Avenue, Rocky Mountain Icehouse took the place of what used to be Fantasia Noodle House before that restaurant had to move in order to accommodate building renovations. Having ventured out on a walk during our coffee break on a sunny summer day, my co-workers and I stumbled upon the new eatery, and I made note that I would have to go back another time.

In September, on a particularly gorgeous afternoon, I grabbed a friend for lunch and the two of us started wandering with no idea of where to go until the memory of Rocky Mountain Icehouse popped into my head. They have a small sidewalk patio situated just outside the doors, but we opted to sit inside by the front windows, so we’d get the sunshine as well as some air conditioning. I have to admit, I was a little skeptical of the establishment. For the longest time they didn’t even have a working website despite having been open for a couple of months (rest assured, they have one now and it’s quite nice), so it didn’t seem like the owners were all that organized. Regardless, I was willing to give it a try.

The space is quite a bit larger than I expected. There’s even a large, private room called The Ski Lodge that can be used for smaller events or functions of up to 90 people. We were there for a later lunch, so I shouldn’t have been too surprised to see that only a few other tables were occupied. There was only one server on staff who indicated that we could seat ourselves wherever we wanted. She dropped off a couple of menus at our table and let us mull over the options. It’s a fairly succinct list of appetizers, soups, salads, sandwiches, dips, mains and dessert.

The two of us opted to share an order of the Cajun Chicken Three Cheese Dip to start. My friend decided on a bowl of the Southern Gumbo as her entree and I went with the Crab Cakes.

A plate of dip and warm pita bread arrived soon after we ordered. My first thought was that it tasted delicious, my second was that it wasn’t very spicy and my third was that I was impressed with how they managed to get something that was supposed to have chicken in it to such a smooth consistency. That’s when I thought I should check the photo I took of the menu, and we realized that we were given the wrong dip. Instead of the one we chose, our server brought us the Cream Cheese Tapenade – a blend of olives and cream cheese with a hint of spinach. Honestly, I was surprised at how much I was enjoying that dip before we figured out their mistake. I usually dislike olives with a passion (olive oil doesn’t count though), but I could barely taste them in this dip. I would have eaten the whole thing, but it wasn’t what we had wanted, so as soon as our server came back, I let her know, and she took it back to the kitchen and had a batch of the Cajun Chicken dip whipped up for us. Our second go round with dip was also tasty. This time, it was much chunkier with pieces of chicken breast, peppers, onions and jalapeno coming together with the cheese to pleasantly top off our soft slices of pita. Between the two dips, I’m not sure which I’d be more likely to eat again. I might actually be leaning more towards the tapenade, which is a slightly lighter dip. The cajun chicken dip can almost pass for a meal with the meat, cheese, veggies and starch…almost.

Southern Gumbo

Southern Gumbo

Unfortunately, I did not sample the Southern Gumbo as my friend was battling a cold, but she was raving about it. The portion size looked quite large and was filled with chicken, chorizo sausage, peppers, onions, corn and rice. In particular, the sausage looked like it was housemade because, rather than the sliced cylinders of sausage often found in dishes, it was more irregular in shape, which made my friend think it wasn’t pre-prepared. If that truly is the case, I would be impressed.

My order of crab cakes with aioli.

My order of crab cakes with aioli.

My crab cakes were fairly run-of-the-mill. However, it’s not to say there was anything wrong with them. On the contrary, they were what I expected. Nicely breaded and crisp on the outside, there was a good crunch to them that gave way to a mixture of crab claw meat, boursin, feta and cream cheese. The crab cakes were then drizzled with roast tomato and garlic aioli, which helped to finish off the flavour profile of the dish. Come to think of it, I really should have squeezed some lemon juice on them to give it a better balance. I’m not sure why I didn’t do that.

In any case, I did enjoy our meal there. It’s a great space with a welcoming atmosphere that, at least during a late lunch hour, is a quiet place to sit and chat. The food is sort of what you can find in any general pub, but they do an okay job with it (other reviews I’ve read have been mixed as well), and I hope that with time, as the restaurant builds on its identity, that it’ll continue to improve.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Café Caribé

I found out about Café Caribé when I received an e-mail notification from Groupon about new food and drink deals in the city. Having never heard of the restaurant before, I decided to Google them to find out more about it and where they are located. As it turns out, they took over the old Crepe Symphony space on Rice Howard Way (right next door to Tres Carnales) in the downtown core of Edmonton. A little bit sad to hear that my crepe destination of choice was no longer in business, but also excited at the prospect of trying something new, I immediately purchased a voucher.

Prior to renovations! The couches are still there, but the wallpaper is gone. I hope the table lamps are still there though.

Prior to renovations! The couches are still there, but the wallpaper is gone. I hope the table lamps are still there though.

Specializing in Caribbean cuisine, I thought my friend might be interested in joining me, so the two of us made arrangements to meet there for lunch during a work day. We arrived shortly before one o’clock and it was almost empty save for one table. At the time, the look of the restaurant hadn’t been altered much – the same coloured walls, counter, tables and chairs were being used as with the location’s previous incarnation as Crepe Symphony. The main differences included a graffiti wall with Café Caribé scrawled across almost the entire span, a baroque style black and white wallpaper on the adjacent side against which sat an antique style couch in a lounge-type space and a large banner with an owl graphic on it hanging on the wall by the bar. These slight changes made the place feel a little more unique, not so cookie cutter. However, I just saw on their website that they have undergone even further renovations to give the space a vibe that better matches the food as well as a bar that provides extra seating.

They have taken out the dessert case and have built a full L-shaped bar on that side now.

They have taken out the dessert case and have built a full L-shaped bar on that side now.

A singer/guitarist had also set up in the corner and was providing entertainment by performing pop covers throughout the hour, which was a surprising touch that made it seem like a special outing. I almost thought I was somewhere in Europe with the relaxed atmosphere that it provided.

Although I was greeted upon walking into the restaurant by Hayley, the owner’s daughter, who will bring menus to you, it’s essentially a self-seating establishment, so we decided to sit at a table next to the lounge area. The tables were adorned with large mason jars that had small twinkle lights inside to add a bit of whimsy to the surroundings. Juni, the Chef/Owner, came by to say hello and let us know that everything was made to order. She seemed very sweet and was happy that we were there to sample her food.

An order of the crab cakes to start.

An order of the crab cakes to start.

The two of us ended up ordering the crab cake appetizer to share. The dish came to the table with two pan seared crab cake patties sitting on a bed of spinach and topped with fresh mango slices and mango chow. We both enjoyed the combination of the fruit with the spice of the cakes. For our mains, we each went with a roti dish – chicken for me, channa and aloo for my friend. Opting to go with the vegetarian dish, my friend liked the curry chick peas and potato that filled her plate. My folded piece of house-made roti was stuffed with large chunks of chicken and potato that were cooked in a Trinidadian curry. I thought the flavours were great and I almost struggled to finish everything because I was getting too full. The roti entrees came with sides of greens and more mango chow as well.

My plate of chicken roti with salad.

My plate of chicken roti with salad.

The restaurant seemed rather quiet when we were there with only a few patrons dining in, but the food is good and you’re given decently sized portions (I certainly didn’t leave hungry). What I liked most is that they are an independent business that is family owned and operated. Those I came across that day were friendly and open to chatting, so I hope that business picks up for them. I wish Café Caribé the best of luck!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Phork (Closed)

The Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio

The Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio

The Phork (@thePhork) graced Edmonton with its presence at the end of 2013, opening its doors shortly before Christmas. Housed in the previous home of The Copper Pot, I was completely unaware of this new restaurant until I happened upon their deal on Groupon. It seems that the establishment was greeted with little fanfare upon debuting, so I count myself lucky to have come across the place in this fashion. Otherwise, I might not have found out about it until much later.

Although I had the vouchers in hand, it still took me over three months to make my way there, perhaps because it seemed like a slightly out-of-the-way location. Situated near the Grandin LRT Station on the main floor of a small office building, it wasn’t close enough to work to make it there and back during my lunch hour, and it just never was the first to come to mind when making dinner plans during the week or on the weekend. However, after having been there twice now within the last month, I can say that I wish I hadn’t delayed going for as long as I did.

My mother dined with me on both occasions, the first of which was a lunch outing. We had made a reservation through e-mail that time, but had also called ahead to ask about the parking situation. As it turns out, there is free parking available in the building’s underground parkade. The three or four visitor spaces are good to use during lunch hours while the remaining spots open up during the evening. I doubt that this is common knowledge as this information isn’t really advertised on their site. Yet, I think it certainly gives people more incentive to go, knowing that there is going to be somewhere to park their car in an area where parking may not be that easy to come by.

Views of the park, river valley and High Level Bridge.

Views of the park, river valley and High Level Bridge.

So, with that potential issue removed, we ventured into the restaurant where we were greeted quickly, although somewhat frantically, by a friendly guy who I learned later was Jameson the General Manager. Short staffed that day, he took on the role of server during lunch and promptly guided us to a raised booth that provided views of the High Level bridge and the park across the street. With about twenty or so tables that seat around four people each, it looked to be a quiet day as only a handful were being used. Despite that, I had high hopes.

Skipping drinks as it was still very early in the afternoon, we opted to stick to the food menu. I ordered the Boar Belly Chicken Club and my mom decided to go with the Grilled New York Steak. Both of us chose the seafood chowder for our side. When our dishes arrived at the table, my initial thought was that the size of the soup bowl was massive. For a side, they are very generous, and the soup was really delicious. It wasn’t very thick, but you could certainly taste the cream and it had a slight spiciness to it. It was also chock-full of muscles, pieces of salmon, halibut or cod, shrimp and vegetables. It honestly seemed like a full size order of soup and could have served as my whole meal. I’m definitely not complaining though. I consider it to be a plus that they don’t skimp on the portions.

With regards to my Boar Belly Chicken Club, it was quite delicious. I’m not certain what kind of bun they were using that day, but it was quite a crusty type of bread, which I am not that partial to, so I only ended up eating about half of the starch. However, I don’t feel that was a loss as it was a really large amount of bread and it wasn’t all necessary. The body of the sandwich included chicken breast, bacon (nicely crisped), which I’m guessing was the boar belly, aged cheddar, greens and tomato with bacon mayo. Overall, it may have been a little too salty for me when eaten whole. Yet, I enjoyed the strong smoky flavour and everything was well done.

The Grilled New York Steak with a side of Seafood Chowder!

The Grilled New York Steak with a side of Seafood Chowder!

The Grilled New York Steak was also a testament to the chef because it was cooked to perfection – incredibly tender and still pink. The meat sat on top of half an open-faced bun and was accompanied by sautéed mushrooms, Spanish onions, sun-dried tomato, spinach and Asiago cheese. I had several bites of it and it was so good. The different ingredients really melded together well and paired excellently with the steak. I would go back just for that.

We finished off lunch with an absolutely wonderful peach and mango crumble. The dessert was my favourite, and the single order was more than enough to share. Filled to the brim with large chunks of peach and mango, layered with crumble, candied pecans and walnuts and coming with a scoop of vanilla ice cream, it was a great treat for a spring day. Simple, but decadent, I was no longer hungry when we left.

If I can, I really do like to base my reviews off of more than one visit, so exactly a week later, we dropped in for dinner. This time, I reserved a table through the OpenTable system. As we arrived at 5:30 prior to the dinner rush (it was almost a full house by the time we left), we were promptly seated at a table next to the window. The view was basically the same as during our previous lunch, but I was now also able to see the Legislature building directly ahead of me as well as the High Level Bridge Streetcar passing by every so often.

The interior of The Phork.

The interior of The Phork.

Again, we opted to skip the drinks (Although, I will have to go back to try one of their tableside flare cocktails. They are served by local, professional flare bartenders and, according to their website, The Phork is the first and only restaurant in Edmonton to offer this service.) and concentrate on the food offerings (the supper menu is double-sided). Since Mother’s Day was coming up, we went all out and ordered three appetizers and a main to split, including Crispy Fried Truffled Mac & Cheese Balls, Smoked Jalapeno Blue Crab Cake, Beef Tenderloin Carpaccio and the Pistachio Crusted Rack of Lamb.

I’ll start with the Mac & Cheese Balls. These were awesome. The breading on the outside reminded me of the Mac and Cheese Maki at The Hat, but with a more even ratio of panko to pasta. The spicy chili Ketchup, truffle oil and what I assume to be shaved Asiago cheese that accompanied the balls were excellent additions that really elevated the palate of the dish while keeping from being overpowering. The two Crab Cakes were seared well. Plated with a side of gathered greens and honey & mustard aioli, it was a light appetizer that had that great balance of piquant and sweet profiles. The Beef Carpaccio came with fresh slices of sesame seed topped bread and thin sheets of beef tenderloin topped with baby arugula, shaved reggiano cheese, a sprinkle of coarse sea salt and a drizzle of EVOO. The beef was melt-in-your-mouth good, and the flavours from the extras were subtle enough to ensure that the meat remained the focus.

For the entrée, we divided the Rack of Lamb and I’m glad we did because the starters already provided plenty of food. On the other hand, I am also happy that we didn’t skip this main as the lamb was incredible. The kitchen really does an excellent job with the preparation and cooking of their meats. We asked for the lamb to be medium-rare and it came to us just as requested. The steak knife that was provided cut through the rack like butter and there was plenty of juicy meat on the bones, which isn’t always the case when ordering this dish. What I loved most was the strong Dijon mustard and crushed pistachio that crusted the lamb as it paired so well with the natural flavour of the meat. The brush of butternut squash puree and braised leeks were texturally appealing and gave the plate an artistic look. The side of sweet potato pave was a good starch to anchor the entrée, but there was so much that we couldn’t finish it.

Having experienced both their lunch and dinner services, I can safely say that this establishment is another fantastic addition to Edmonton’s growing restaurant scene. The bright, new interiors and the views make it appealing, and the personable service (although, they can refill water glasses more regularly) is something I noticed and has stuck with me.

For those who have yet to try The Phork, here are some potential incentives for you. Currently, the restaurant is offering $10 off lunch for groups of two or more during their Monday to Friday lunch hours. Every Tuesday they have half price off every wine after 4 PM, and Saturday evenings from 7 to 10 PM there is live music. I expect I’ll be back to indulge in beverages, more food and some music soon enough! It’s that good!