Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tzin Wine and Tapas

Sweet endings at Tzin Wine and Tapas.

Each year, when March rolls around, I’m always excited to see what Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) has to offer. In 2017, I almost forgot about the annual event. There seemed to be very little advertising, and I was only reminded, at the beginning of the month, when I overheard a co-worker chatting about it in the office.

With it on my mind, I immediately decided to check the website to see if the menus from the participating restaurants had been posted. Sure enough, most of them were there. To my disappointment, the list was noticeably shorter than in previous years. Yet, after perusing all of them, I had narrowed my choices down to a few places that I had been meaning to try.

The first that my friend and I decided to visit was Tzin Wine and Tapas. Located on the 104 Street Promenade at 101 Avenue, it’s easy to overlook. The standout feature when passing by would be the bright orange door and the small window that may give you a peek at the chefs cooking away in the tiny kitchen at the front of the establishment.

The interior of the restaurant. This photo was taken just inside the entrance.

From what I had already read about Tzin, I knew that it was a small venue, but I still found myself slightly taken aback when I stepped foot into the restaurant. With only about six tables and maybe a handful of bar seating, it’s easy to understand how it fills up so quickly.

When we arrived, there was only a single table left by the door, and it was ours. Thankfully, there were only two of us dining together. A third, as the table was set for, would have made for a tight squeeze and possibly an uncomfortable dinner with people coming and going right next to us all evening.

The sole hostess/server was very personable and polite. She grabbed us a bottle of tap water, as requested, while we reviewed the regular menu and the DTDW selections. We opted for the latter as $45 per person for an executive three-course meal is typically a good deal at some of these more upscale eateries.

Cod with Risotto and Chimichurri

To start, we were presented with a filet of cod about the size of a small palm. It was laid on a bed of black garlic risotto and served with white balsamic chimichurri on top. I was quite keen on the risotto as the consistency was creamy and the rice a little al dente. For me, chimichurri is hit or miss. If made in the traditional way with parsley, I’m a fan. In this instance, I’m fairly certain that the parsley was substituted for cilantro, which is not a friend to my taste buds. Even so, that’s something I can work past. What I cannot forgive is how the cod was prepared. The white fish was overcooked to the point of it being almost rubbery. A knife was necessary to cut the cod apart and it was relatively chewy.

Heritage Angus Beef Brisket Sausage

I felt that the kitchen fared better with the second course: a skillet of heritage Angus beef brisket sausage in a red wine and herbed bean salad. Although the sausage was a bit dry, I thought that the flavours were nice and savoury. The beans were prepared well, refraining from becoming mush. Furthermore, I liked the fresh sprouts, which brought colour and crunch to the dish. Other than infusing more juice into the sausage, my one suggestion is that the dish be served hot. Either it wasn’t warm to begin with or it cooled off too quickly.

Alberta Bison Ranch Meatballs

My favourite was our final plate. This included Alberta bison ranch meatballs in sage cream and pecorino cheese. Honestly, the meat was somewhat parched; however, that isn’t entirely surprising with a leaner meat such as bison. The rich cheese sauce helped to counteract that dryness though. I especially enjoyed the sage leaves as they conveyed a bittersweet, piney flavour and crispy texture. As much as I appreciated this dish, I, nevertheless, had a couple of qualms. Most astonishing was the portion size. There were simply two meatballs that were hardly larger than the Swedish variety found at IKEA. My other issue was that there were no accompaniments in the form of either a veggie or a starch. That would have delivered added appeal and sustenance. Therefore, as the last course of the DTDW dinner, I expected it to be more filling.

By the time we worked our way through the evening’s menu, I wasn’t full, so I considered the desserts. The bourbon and butter cake called to me. My friend caved and ordered the flourless chocolate torte. I’d say that these two sweet endings were the stars of the night when compared to the rest of our meal.

Flourless Chocolate Torte

The torte was actually lighter than I anticipated and the taste of fresh raspberry appeared to be folded into the chocolate with dots of fruit puree and balsamic reduction decorating the plate. There were also pieces of almond brittle that amplified the sweetness of the dessert.

Bourbon and Butter Cake

As for the bourbon and butter cake, it looked to be on the heavier side, but it was moist and the bourbon caramel wasn’t sticky at all. There was a streak of pomegranate molasses to the side of the cake that provided a delightful tartness. It elevated the dish by giving it some dimension where the dollop of lavender whipped cream failed.

DTDW is meant to be a showcase for downtown restaurants. If they’re able to wow patrons, the hope is that they’ll return. Based on my experience of Tzin, I’m highly unlikely to make a point of going back. Sure, the service was excellent and attentive. Moreover, I was thoroughly impressed with how well the chefs were able to function in such a small kitchen space. Perhaps the regular menu would have proven to be more satisfying as well.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to discount the shortcomings I saw on this occasion, and even harder for me to be convinced that this is a place worth opening up my wallet for. When it comes to similar food at a great value, I’d much rather stop by Tapavino, situated on Jasper Avenue and 110 Street.

Advertisements

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Madison’s Grill

The dining room of Madison's Grill

The dining room of Madison’s Grill

I have always loved the idea of the Union Bank Inn. A little boutique hotel that sits nestled between towering office buildings in Edmonton’s downtown core, it holds a historical designation for its past as actual banks with a wonderful modern renaissance look. That continuation of history persists in its new incarnation as an inn for the weary traveler, and the structure’s external appeal threads its way through the interior as well.

An excellent example of the wonderful architecture, Madison’s Grill, the restaurant which takes up the whole front of the house on the main floor, combines classical styling in the ionic pilasters with the clean lines and bold patterns of the furniture. The old meets new quality is also apparent in the food they serve where traditional dishes make way for contemporary takes.

Over the last several years, working just a couple blocks away, the opportunity for me to dine at this establishment has arisen many times. I have eaten there on a whim, been invited by my manager as part of team meetings, and usually made a point of stopping by during the annual Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) that has been presented by the Downtown Business Association for eleven years now.

This March was no different. A reservation was booked early on for lunch that at $15 for two courses was a steal. Although, unlike some of the other participating restaurants, the menu for 2014 didn’t allow for any choice (only one appetizer and one entrée was available). Previous menus that Madison’s Grill had come up with gave patrons at least a couple of options, so that was a slight let down, but regardless, it was still a great deal.

The first course consisted of a steaming hot bowl of Fire Roasted Tomato Bisque that was topped with pesto sour cream. It was pleasantly thick with a creamy texture that came from the addition of the fresh sour cream. The soup had a nice, deep, concentrated flavour that was more savoury than tangy, which I loved. Our second plate was a Pulled Chicken Creamy Herb Primavera that used farfalle pasta and incorporated grilled vegetables. The white sauce wasn’t overwhelming and the dish itself was quite light, which, for a plate of pasta, can be hard to pull off. I, personally, would have liked a slightly larger portion and, perhaps, just a bit of extra kick with the taste – a more fragrant cheese or added spice to bring it up a notch. However, the grilled vegetables, including red and yellow peppers and asparagus were cooked to the perfect tenderness.

With the money saved on our meals and the available room in our tummies, we splurged on dessert. An order of the Hazelnut Bernard Callebaut Brownies showed up in front of us looking as decadent as ever – three layers served with mixed berries on the side. For me, this was the star of the lunch hour and I’m so glad we shared it. It was a rich and dense dessert that satisfied the sweet tooth in me without being too sugary.

The Hazelnut Bernard Callebaut Brownie - scrumptious!

The Hazelnut Bernard Callebaut Brownie – scrumptious!

Service there is always up to par. The hostess for that afternoon greeted us quickly and offered to hang up our coats (we decided to keep ours as we were still warming up from the cold), we were brought over to a nice table by the window that overlooked the park by ATB Place (formerly TELUS Plaza), and our server was keen to answer any questions we had and he periodically checked on us to ensure we were doing okay.

Overall, I don’t believe that this visit necessarily represented the establishment at its prime with respect to the main course, but taken with all the other experiences I have had there (amazing pork loin during a previous DTDW event and fantastically hearty yet healthy breakfasts), I still count Madison’s Grill to be an outstanding restaurant that focuses on local. The Tomato‘s readers agree, placing it at No. 23 on the list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton in 2013 and No. 43 in 2014. I look forward to seeing what they have to offer on their spring menu, whenever the season decides to grace us with its presence for good!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Hardware Grill

Our view into the kitchen of the Hardware Grill

Our view into the kitchen of the Hardware Grill

Every year I look forward to the Downtown Business Association‘s Downtown Dining Week (DTDW). Why? Well, I get ten days to visit a variety of restaurants in the core of the city that may not always make it to the top of my list for one reason or another. It’s certainly not because of the food. On the contrary! More than likely it is due to the fact that I probably can’t shell out a hundred dollars for a meal on a regular basis. In jumps this event to save the day. This March was no different.

The very first establishment my friend and I decided to visit this time around was Hardware Grill (@HardwareGrill). A mainstay of the Edmonton food scene since 1996, the restaurant has continued to rack up accolades both locally and nationally, including making The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton two years in a row now (No. 19 in 2013 and No. 30 in 2014). Considered to be the pinnacle of fine dining in this city, we walked over to the brick building with the striped awnings on 96 Street and Jasper Avenue for a relaxing dinner after a busy Monday at the office.

Upon walking into the doors, we were promptly greeted by the hostess who acknowledged our reservation, hung up our coats and showed us to our table. On a previous visit I had sat at the front of the restaurant, which provided a view of the street, but this time we were seated by large glass windows that gave us a view of the chefs working in the kitchen. We could literally watch our meals being made in front of us. That was a nice surprise and a fun touch of whimsy to be able to peer behind the scenes.

The Hardware Grill's cocktail list

The Hardware Grill’s cocktail list

Our wonderful server, Luis, came over to explain the drink (a nice list of custom cocktails that can also be found at their sister location, Tavern 1903) and wine (extensive) menus as well as the DTDW selections. Both my friend and I opted to go with the three-course dining week dinner. We really couldn’t go wrong. Between the two of us we were saving about $50 on our meals – compared to a regular evening there – and we could use some of that money towards beverages (we each had a glass of wine). It was definitely the best option for us.

To start, we were brought a bowl filled with a variety of soft bread slices and a dish of earthy extra virgin olive oil, which was paired with sea salt for dipping. I’ve been told that you can tell just what you’re in for at a restaurant based off of the bread, so this was already a great sign of things to come.

For our appetizers, we decided to each order something different, so we could sample a larger number of dishes. Since my friend loves gnocchi, as do I, we shared a plate of the venison ragu and potato pasta with shaved parmesan. The freshly made gnocchi was nicely browned and crisp on the outside (the way it should be) and the venison added some extra bite and texture to the dish. It’s sad to point this out, but this appetizer is not to be found on their regular menu, so if you’re hoping to try it, you are probably out of luck. However, I will note that we each ate only half and I have to say that if either of us had eaten the entire plate, it could have served as an entree in and of itself. Thankfully, we had room for more! The first course that I went with was a much lighter on the palate and a variation of it can be found there on a usual basis. This was the fresh burrata mozzarella with pepperonata, crostini, fennel marmalade and fig balsamic. The portion size of the mozzarella was huge and paired with the extras it was a star and a great balance to the heavier, but equally delicious gnocchi.

As I’m unlikely to buy and make myself a veal chop at home, I thought that this was an opportune time to sample their grain fed version for my main course. My friend followed suit for most of the same reasons, but also because the fennel salad that accompanied the potato crusted cedar plank salmon had crab in it, which she’s allergic to. Neither of us were disappointed in our decision though. The massive veal chop, covered with maple bacon, mushrooms and Cipollini onions, was plated on top of a creamy polenta, tomato confit and it’s own natural reduction. The dish was as good as it sounds, but not to the point where we could both polish off the entire thing. The portion size was so large that the two of us each left half of the food on our plates, making Luis worry that we didn’t enjoy it. We reassured him that wasn’t the case – we expected to take the other half home for later. Room needed to be saved for dessert!

Again, we both chose the same dessert. Really, that’s kind of the one part of the meal that’s the hardest to share. While I’m sure their marble brownie would be amazing, we went with the liquid cheese cake parfait – layered salted shortbread crumble, rhubarb-Saskatoon compote and creamy, almost like a greek yogurt consistency, cheese cake that was to die for. I would have eaten this for all three courses.

If anything, that dessert describes the Hardware Grill and the food they serve – textures and flavours that are rich, vibrant and layered to build depth. Their consistency and attention to detail in the kitchen parlays into the rest of the restaurant. The service we experienced was exceptional from the moment we walked in to when we left. Luis made it feel like we were old friends and the hostess gave us a fond farewell for the evening.

For a special occasion or just a quiet night out with a friend, this classy restaurant fits the bill.

Downtown Dining Week, Why Not YEG Restaurant Week?

The Downtown Business Association (DBA) is celebrating the end of, what I suspect was, another successful run of Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) in Edmonton, Alberta. For the eleventh year in a row, they have brought diners out to try menus from 30 different restaurants located in the city’s core. Over a period of ten days, people were able to sample a variety of menus that included $15 lunches as well as $25 or $50 dinners.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

Being that I work in the area, I took every chance I had to eat at as many places as I could over the 10-day period. It only amounted to five meals for me, but, personally, I couldn’t imagine having such rich meals for both lunch and supper every day in such a short amount of time anyway. I especially savoured the opportunity to visit restaurants that have a reputation for great food, but that I may not typically go to on a whim because of the prices, which meant I ventured over to the Hardware Grill, Madison’s Grill, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Sorrentino’s Downtown and Normand’s Bistro. All of them did an excellent job of helping us to watch our wallets while delivering top-notch food, even when the dish was as simple as a pulled pork sandwich.

Although, in my opinion, a few establishments should have worked a bit harder to entice people; they could have ventured away from their regular dishes to experiment with something new, or refrained from picking the least expensive plates from their usual selection of fare (if it costs the same to dine with them during DTDW as it does on any other night, it means it isn’t really “specialty-priced” as per the description on the DBA site) as part of the attraction of the event is that it provides deals where they aren’t typically found, making it a lot more affordable. Regardless, the majority of the DTDW menus had variety, giving you the choice of more than one item per course that ranged from salads and sandwiches to hearty pork and steak dishes or fish to pastas. Every lunch consisted of two courses and each dinner had at least three (appetizer, entrée and dessert).

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison's Grill, along with their regular menu.

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison’s Grill, along with their regular menu.

Now, my qualm with DTDW is that it continues to remain the same size. The food festival, if you will, hasn’t really expanded year after year. In fact, it may have even shrunk slightly in terms of the number of restaurants participating. Some of the same restaurants come back annually, others are replaced with new ones (the Confederation Lounge, Tavern 1903, Normand’s Bistro, The Burg, De Dutch (see previous review) and Fionn MacCool’s are the latest additions). I like that there are repeats because, if I didn’t have a chance to go to one the previous year, maybe I’ll be able to visit the next time. However, I would love it if the list of new places partaking got bigger every March.

To me, Edmonton is a city with a burgeoning food scene that deserves to be showcased. More and more chefs and entrepreneurs seem to be taking the leap and succeeding at making Alberta’s capital first-rate in terms of the availability and assortment of quality places to dine out. In my mind, DTDW should be growing, not just sustaining. I picture it being at least as large as Calgary’s The Big Taste, which is citywide and has more than 70 “Revolutioneateries” getting involved over ten days. Ideally, it would become similar to NYC Restaurant Week, lasting about three weeks (sometimes extended) and runs both in the winter and summer seasons.

Of course, this might be wishful thinking on my part. I can only speculate as to the difficulty of putting something like this together. I’m sure the DBA has attempted to increase the number of establishments taking part in DTDW. I asked my friend who works for the urban planning office with the City of Edmonton what streets constitute the downtown area and while she wasn’t able to answer me right away, I did Wikipedia it. According to the information logged on the wiki, downtown Edmonton is bounded by 109 Street, 105 Avenue, 97 Street and 97 Avenue. If that’s the case, the DBA has stuck within the appropriate grid. Yet, some consider surrounding communities like Oliver to the west to also be part of downtown. That would include everything from 109 Street up to 124 Street from Jasper Avenue to 105 Avenue. Can you visualize how amazing DTDW would be for all you foodies out there if that area were included?

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill - Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill – Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

Dishcrawl, an online community of culinary enthusiasts, with a branch in Edmonton has organized events focused around various parts of the city, 124th Street being one of them. I attended a crawl where we walked door-to-door between eight establishments tasting samples and drinks, but not full-out meals. I think that those restaurants, having participated in Dishcrawl’s Neighbourfood event, would be highly interested in adding their names to a dining week list (I could be wrong; I don’t know how it ultimately affects the costs and revenues for the restaurants, but the publicity that may lead to repeat business is a big positive for them, I would think).

Would that mean the DBA would still be the sole host of Dining Week in that type of incarnation? Maybe not. It would likely mean several separate dining weeks spread out throughout the year, or more hands in the pot with a joint event put on by the DBA and the 124 Street Business Association (really, any number of other groups that are willing to take part) to make this something that brings the Edmonton restaurant community and food lovers together.

It’s all about providing extra exposure to those that participate, no matter where they are located, and expanding the dining week (or month!) theme so that Edmontonians can truly appreciate the diversity of amazing food that exists in this city while, hopefully, finding some new favourites. That’s the goal I see!