Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Needle Vinyl Tavern

The open bar and stage at The Needle Vinyl Tavern.

Since The Needle Vinyl Tavern opened about a year and a half ago, I’ve frequented the place a few times. It’s located right on Jasper Avenue and 105 Street. When the business was first announced, it was a welcome addition to the city as it wasn’t simply another bar, but a small live music venue as well. On the cusp of the loss of several others like it in the span of a year or two, Edmontonians were happy to know there was something coming in to fill that void.

The wall opens up to allow for an expanded patio space.

Although I haven’t gone to any of the shows (they do have some great artists coming through), I have been for food and drinks. The first time was last summer when my friends and I decided to walk a few blocks from the office for our lunch break. It was a beautifully sunny day and we managed to snag a table out on the extended sidewalk patio, one of the few spaces like it in the downtown core. Personally, I think it’s a great spot to catch some rays and grab a bite. The only thing is I prefer sitting a little further in from where the pedestrians are constantly passing by.

The original vinyl drink menu is no longer used, but was a great touch.

On that occasion, I was really impressed with the details that went into The Needle. The overall menu had a decent mix of options and the dishes were promising. What we ate tasted good and the service was prompt. I especially loved that, to go with the theme, they had their list of drinks printed on actual vinyl discs. It was a fun feature. However, over time, those intricacies have disappeared and been replaced with what I would say are watered down versions of their previous offerings.

The last time I visited, my friend and I popped in for lunch. Instead of sitting out on the patio, we ate at a booth inside. While I enjoyed getting to view the bar and the stage, I found the service to be extremely slow even though there were a lot of staff on hand (chatting to each other) and not many people dining in.

Eventually, a server came over to take our order. I opted to make a meal of two of the appetizers: Mac N’ Cheese Bites ($9) and Cauliflower 78 ($13). My friend chose the Taco Supremo House Pizza ($17).

Taco Supremo House Pizza

I have to say that the slice of taco pizza was the best thing out of the trio. Yet, I don’t think that’s saying much. Sure, the flavours were okay, but I felt that the crust was bland and lacked in texture. I also disliked the fact that it was difficult to see past all of the lettuce and tomato that topped the pizza. It was like the kitchen was trying to hide what was underneath. The red sauce was basic and there was not enough beef.

The Mac N’ Cheese Bites with Ketchup

Still, the pizza was better than both of my starters. The Mac N’ Cheese Bites were passable. The thing is, it seemed as though they literally took a box of Kraft Dinner and made the pasta into nugget shapes before breading and frying them. The ten greasy pieces were served with a side of ketchup for dipping. They may have added some extra cheese as the interior of the bites were creamier than I expected. Regardless, the execution was poor. If you’re going to serve something like this, take a page from the many other restaurants that serve similar items. Jazz it up with a ketchup that’s made in-house or incorporate some spice or seasoning.

Cauliflower 78 with Sweet & Spicy Dip

The worst of the bunch was definitely the Cauliflower 78. These tiny florets were over-breaded (somehow not that crispy) and the portion was way too small for the price. They came in a bowl the size of a cup of soup. The side of sweet chili dip was probably store bought as well. This was absolutely nothing special and such a disappointment.

My takeaway from the whole experience is that The Needle Vinyl Tavern is mainly there for the music and maybe the drinks (my co-worker said the selection of beer is lacking). I’ve been told the brunch menu is a winner, but I have yet to try it. In the meantime, I believe that food is no longer their forte. They have the potential to make it a strong suit because I saw it in the beginning. I just think that they’ve veered off of that path for the time being. Hopefully they can get back on track eventually.

The bar is a cool feature of the venue and it’s pretty spacious to fit a standing crowd during shows.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: District Café & Bakery

District Café doesn’t always immediately come to mind as a place to go for supper. When it was first opened, it was a tiny coffee shop with little room for patrons to stick around. Yet, since expanding into a full-service eatery, it has become a much more welcoming bright and airy space for guests to linger over an all-encompassing menu of food and drinks.

Prior to this past week, I’d only ever visited for drinks and snacks with friends. Therefore, I was eager to have a complete meal on this particular occasion. Although District Café is known for their tasty brunch, I’d argue that the latest dinner menu from chef Spencer Thompson (previously of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen) gives the day’s earlier items a run for their money.

My friend and I walked over to the restaurant right after work on a Friday afternoon. The sign at the door indicated that we could seat ourselves, so we headed straight in. The majority of the tables were already occupied. Thankfully, there were a couple of spots available towards the far side of the venue.

A frosty bottle of Jamaican Ginger Beer.

As soon as we sat down, a server brought glasses of water and some menus over. He also answered our questions about the evening’s specials. In the end, we decided to stick with non-alcoholic beverages. While my companion quenched her thirst with a glass of lemonade ($3.50), I opted for a bottle of the Jamaican Ginger Beer ($3; spice that lingers in your throat!). We also selected the Roast Eggplant ($13) as an appetizer to share.

The Roast Eggplant is an ideal starter to split. It came with four slices of lightly toasted focaccia that had been brushed with olive oil. Rounds of salted eggplant, pieces of zucchini and halves of tomatoes lingered next to a dollop of house made ricotta. When I think about it, it’s really such a straightforward plate, but it’s done so well. All of the veggies were roasted to the perfect point. Combined with the creamy ricotta, my first assembled portion was to die for.

Hand Cut Pasta

Next up were the entrees. We’re big fans of fresh pasta, so it was a no-brainer for my friend. She went for the featured Hand Cut Pasta ($18) without any added meat. Large, broad, flat pappardelle noodles were evenly coated in a buttercream sauce and tossed with roasted walnuts, apple and arugula. I ate a mouthful of the pasta and it was unexpectedly refreshing and summery for what would typically be considered a denser dish. The merging of bitter arugula, sweet apple and nutty walnuts were a match made in heaven.

Flat Iron Steak

As a home cook (I doubt I should even call myself that), I often refrain from making dishes that have a meat component to them as I dislike handling the food. For that reason, when I indulge in a meal out, I tend to go for things I wouldn’t otherwise have on a regular basis. In this case, I chose the Flat Iron Steak ($20). Upon ordering, I indicated to the server that I would prefer the steak to be medium-rare. He let me know that the meat is prepared sous-vide, so they were unable to cook it exactly as requested. Nevertheless, he assured me that if I enjoy a medium-rare doneness, it would probably be to my satisfaction.

He certainly wasn’t wrong. In fact, the Flat Iron Steak came out just right. The meat was still pink in the middle and the pieces were succulent enough to cut through them with a butter knife. Generous helpings of steak were accompanied by a tomato arugula salad with roasted green beans, potatoes and radishes. Mint chimmichurri provided another element that helped to keep it seasonal to spring and summer.

Now, I’m sure we would have been okay leaving after those three satisfying dishes; however, I knew that I’d be kicking myself later if I didn’t have some dessert. Indeed, I had two. Okay, three, if you count the sampling I had of my friend’s cake.

Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread

The first was one of the bakery’s Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread cookies ($0.50). I’m not sure I loved the texture. I like shortbread to have that melt-in-your-mouth sensation. This one wasn’t quite as buttery, but the strong taste of lemon made up for that.

A big slice of Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake.

As far as cakes go, the Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake ($7) that my friend ordered was truly decadent. The layers of cake were unbelievably moist yet fluffy. It was rich in flavour and the frosting was sweet, but not overly so. It’s one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve eaten in a long time.

Where I think District Café’s pastry chef really excelled was with the Orange Blossom Pavlova ($10). The foundation of the dessert was a giant meringue cookie. In the center, it was filled with a thick layer of custard that was dotted by vanilla bean. A mix of fresh fruit (blueberries and peach this time) and sliced almonds decorated the top. Then it was dusted with powdered sugar and served with caramel sauce on the side. The edges of the meringue dissolved on the tongue; the middle of the cookie remained a bit chewy. Not only was it beautiful, it was sublimely delicious.

District Café has kept things simple and succinct. The menu caters to many while staying focused. Personally, I believe it’s better to do a dozen things exceptionally well than to do many things halfway. Here, at District Café, with the current chefs and their offerings, I’d say that they’ve managed to achieve the former.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: KB & Co

Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwich with a Vegan Cream Cheese Filling

KB & Co, found on the main floor of the Fox Tower building on 104 Street, is relatively new. I’d heard about their health-conscious menu through word-of-mouth recommendations from friends; their smoothies and smoothie bowls often coming up as items to try.

After some delay, I made a point of planning a recent lunch date at the eatery. It’s strictly a fast-casual business with the counter set up for orders to be placed at one end and picked up on the other side. Once items are collected, the take-away packages can be carried out. Or, there’s also the option of eating in-house at one of several tables inside the space or outside on the sidewalk patio. Either way, the food is provided in disposable packaging without the choice of reusable plates or cutlery. I thought that it was interesting to see that a business that prides itself on the idea of wellness and sustainability would decide to use takeout only containers and bags, even if some of it is eco-friendly.

That aside, I was there to try the food. As much as I wanted to sample a smoothie bowl, I felt as if something less liquid-based would be more appropriate for lunch. Since I had perused the menu beforehand, my mind was already made up. I quickly paid for my Tahini Beet Wrap and tacked on one of the Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwiches for dessert.

Sweet Green Smoothie and Coconut BLT

While I waited for the staff to assemble my meal, I joined my friend at one of the tables. She had already received her Coconut BLT and Sweet Green Smoothie. One close look at the menu and it’s easy to see that it’s strictly plant-based; they’ve committed themselves to using organic and local ingredients to create items free of meat, dairy, egg and soy products.

My girlfriend enjoyed her smoothie of spinach, parsley, pineapple, apple, banana, dates and almond milk. I didn’t try it, so the most I can say is that the mix of ingredients sounded well-balanced in terms of greens to fruits. Additionally, her Coconut BLT was stacked high with smoked coconut bacon, spinach, tomato, avocado, date jam, mayo and hemp seed pesto (she had the red onions omitted). Although I didn’t have any of it either, there seemed to be an overall lack of “bacon.” Still, I’d be willing to give it a shot next time I’m there.

Tahini Beet Wrap

I’m sort of on the fence about my Tahini Beet Wrap. It’s built with a flax wrap base, which is filled with mixed greens, quinoa, beets, carrots, apples, cranberries, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds and tahini-lemon dressing. All of the components are things I like and everything was fresh. Yet, a large portion of it came across as kind of bland. It was also somewhat difficult to eat as the quinoa tumbled out with every bite I took. The best part of the wrap was towards the bottom of each half. That’s where I found most of the dried cranberries and the tahini-lemon dressing. When those two elements were present, the wrap shone. On a side note, the greens (there’s also the option of chips) that came with the wrap were stellar. It’s a simple kale salad with a zesty dressing and it was really delicious.

The Strawberry Nanaimo Bar all bagged to go.

Before we left, my friend picked up a small Strawberry Nanaimo Bar to go. She texted me later to tell me it was yummy, but rich. Back at the office, I snacked on my Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwich throughout the afternoon. The texture was lighter than I expected and not as dense as some oatmeal cookies can be. Albeit, it was slightly crumbly. The vegan cream cheese middle was to die for though. I don’t know how they emulated the flavour of cream cheese frosting without real cream cheese. Whatever they did, it worked.

Honestly, I was expecting KB & Co to be better. I had heard so many good things. My biggest issue is the price. The two items I purchased came to about $19. My friend paid about $27 for her trio. I think that for a place that doesn’t provide much added service, the cost does appear to be a tad high.

Nonetheless, I won’t be deterred by that alone. KB & Co is a promising business. It’s catering to a specific clientele whose needs aren’t always met at other restaurants. Even though I’m lucky enough to be able to eat what I want, I appreciate that there’s an alternative out there to help even out the scales when required.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: ‘Ono Poke Co.

The traditional ‘Ono Poke bowl.

As a food lover, it has been fantastic to see new restaurants popping up all over Edmonton. Within the last month, there have been about a handful of new establishments gracing our streets, including Ono Poke Co., which celebrates their grand opening today.

Located north of Jasper Avenue on 104 Street, the spacious shop will be open six days a week to serve guests. Although Ono Poke Co. is not the first to introduce the beloved Hawaiian dish of poke (raw fish salad) to Edmontonians, Executive Chef Lawrence Hui has taken a very different approach with his offerings.

Initial plans for Lawrence’s fast-casual restaurant were similar to Splash Poke‘s Build-Your-Own-Bowl concept. Yet, after an eye-opening trip to Maui at the beginning of May, Lawrence decided to focus on a chef-driven menu instead.

Chef Tom Muromoto imparting his wisdom on Chef Lawrence Hui. Photo by Liv Vors.

During Lawrence’s trip to the island, he stayed at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel where their executive chef, Tom Muromoto, took Lawrence under his wing. In addition to teaching the history of poke and the best techniques to make it, Chef Muramoto also took Lawrence out surfing.

As Lawrence toured Maui, he also met with Chef Charlie Owen of Hula Grill Ka’anapali, Chef Jesse Anacleto of Roy’s Ka’anapali (named after Chef Roy Yamaguchi, the great pioneer and champion of Hawaiian cuisine) and Chef Ikaika Manaku of Mauka Makai at the Westin Nanea. Through and through, the hospitality of the island’s chefs shone. Each one gladly shared their version of “traditional” poke along with some modern takes that used different proteins such as beef, scallops, shrimp and beets.

It was through this educational experience that Lawrence came to fully understand the fusion of flavours in Hawaiian food. A combination of Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Korean and Japanese tastes and traditions can be deciphered and it’s that willingness to blend them all together that makes their dishes so unique.

As soon as Lawrence returned home, he scrapped his original idea and menu. Starting from scratch, he came up with a succinct list of items: ‘Ono Poke, The G.G., The Twitch in Tuna, Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke (inspired by and named after Chef Tom Muromoto), Prairie Luau and the vegan and gluten free Beet the Poke.

Crafting the samples of poke during our pre-opening event.

I had the opportunity to try a few of their dishes at a pre-opening event earlier this week and I was definitely impressed. What I loved most was how large and fresh the cubes of fish were. They were marinated to enhance the flavour rather than mask the taste of the seafood, which is so important when it comes to poke.

The ‘Ono (‘Ono means “delicious” and ono means “fish) Poke bowl is their most traditional offering. It utilizes Ahi tuna ─ yellowfin tuna that swims in warmer waters and is pinker in colour ─ with shoyu sauce, sesame oil, ginger, seaweed, white onion, macadamia nuts, Hawaiian salt, sea asparagus, green onion and their Asian slaw (red cabbage, daikon carrot and cilantro). Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of cilantro, but I felt that all the flavours and textures were there. As Lawrence said, it was imperative to ensure that there were layers to the bowls; each one needed to finish with some sort of crunch and had to have excellent palate profiles.

Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke

Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke was my personal favourite. This brought a creamier consistency to the tuna with the use of a spicy tobiko aioli instead of the shoyu sauce. White onion, cucumber, edamame beans, green onion, micro greens, sea asparagus and wasabi crab chips gave it several punches of colour and just a slight amount of pungency. It’s also the only selection on the menu that didn’t include cilantro in it. However, on a second visit, it was made with the herb sprinkled on top, so I’d definitely suggest letting the staff know to exclude any cilantro if there’s an aversion to the taste. In any case, the Surf Poke was a less salty offering and it felt pretty refreshing.

Prairie Luau

Of the three that I sampled, I’d say that the Prairie Luau fell in the middle for me. Rather than a protein of fish, it came with gochujang (red chili paste) marinated braised pork, gochujang vinaigrette, Chinese black fungus mushroom, cucumber, white onion, green onion, house-made kimchi (contains shrimp), chili oil and cilantro. It was certainly the spiciest option, but not in a way that scorched your taste buds. On the contrary, the pork was so succulent and the kimchi was fermented to bring out that balance of heat and acidity.

All of the bowls can be customized with a base of either short grain Japanese rice, salad greens or quinoa. Once the bowl is made and collected, I’d also recommend splashing some of their Hawaiian Chili Water into the mix as it adds a whole new dynamic to the dish.

The menu boards at ‘Ono Poke Co.

Even though the prices seem a tad high ($11.95 to $14.95 for a regular size bowl), the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. Everything is prepared fresh daily and, if it can be made in-house, it is. Apart from the fully prepared bowls, there will even be containers of kimchi, shoyu japchae (sweet potato noodles and veggies) and fresh marinade poke, bags of house-made taro chips, and bottles of Hawaiian Chili Water for sale, so a feast can be laid out at home.

In a way, this spread of one of Hawaii’s most popular foods across the Pacific Ocean shows just how dynamic a place Edmonton is. If we can’t go to Hawaii, why not have the chance to familiarize ourselves with that State’s cuisines and culture right in our own back yard? I’m thankful that Ono Poke Co. is bringing us this authentic poke experience.

For Hawaiian’s, it’s typical to end the work day with some beer, snacks and poke. In fact, there are dozens of varieties of poke available (even in liquor stores). While the menu at Ono Poke Co. is a small one, Chef Lawrence and his team are doing their absolute best to pay tribute to their Hawaiian mentors. By providing the most genuine poke possible, I imagine that they’ve made all those Maui chefs proud.

Sou Chef Matt with Executive Chef Lawrence

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wishbone

The interior has been updated since it’s MRKT days.

Today marks the official opening of Wishbone. Brought to life by Chef Brayden Kozak and Head Bartender/General Manager Shaun Hicks of Three Boars Restaurant Group, this is the latest entry to Edmonton’s bustling restaurant scene.

Often times, I’m pretty late to the game when it comes to trying new places. On this occasion, I’d say I was lucky to come across Wishbone on social media and, by following their feeds, I was able to stay in the loop on the eatery’s endeavours. That includes sneak peek dinners that they’ve been hosting for the past two to three weeks. Last Thursday, I attended one of these multi-course meals to get a sense of what they’re calling refined Canadian Surf & Turf offerings as well as their potential Vegetarian menu.

My friend and I arrived to the space that previously housed MRKT (above Red Star at 10542 Jasper Avenue). While the bones of the room remained the same (curved ceiling and the natural horizontal shiplap look), the rest had been revamped with booth seating, pea/avocado green coloured leather upholstery, simple white globe lights throughout and an industrial cement based bar next to the open kitchen.

When it came to the food, I went along with the Surf & Turf option for the evening. My friend, on the other hand, is allergic to shellfish. Therefore, with an unknown menu and wanting to avoid a reaction, she decided to give the Vegetarian dishes a shot.

As the plates were brought out and descriptions were provided, we did our best to keep track of everything that we were told. Admittedly, that proved to be a difficult feat. But, I’ll do what I can to stay as true to the dish as possible here.

To start, my friend enjoyed her appetizer of split pea fries with canola aioli. I didn’t end up sampling these. Yet, from what I could tell, the fries held together when picked up and they looked non-greasy and crisp with just a light breaded coating. The bright yellow aioli also provided a shot of colour to the plate. For the regular menu, the first dish consisted of a fresh shucked oyster sprinkled generously with shaved beef heart and served on a bed of salt. I’ve never eaten raw oyster – I prefer them fried – so this was new for me. The oyster slid out of the shell easily and it was briny, yet not in an overwhelming way. The juice was savoury and the dried beef heart shavings added texture and gaminess.

Roasted Beets with Stilton Blue Cheese

For our salad, we received roasted beets, caramelized onions, Stilton blue cheese and spicy greens. I can’t say that I tasted any heat from the greens laid atop the salad. That is unless cilantro is counted as spice. Personally, the herb sort of separated me from dish as I’m not a fan of the taste. To most, it’s refreshing. To me, it’s unpleasant. If I have to, I can get through a cilantro dish though. In this case, it wasn’t terrible. More than anything, the pungency of the blue cheese and the sweetness of the onions and tender roasted beets helped to mask any unwanted enhancements. My friend, conversely, loves cilantro and this plate turned out to be her favourite of the night.

Next up was a course of monk fish laid on stewed tomatoes, onions and a sauce with Vietnamese herbs and fish sauce. I thought I sensed some cilantro in this dish as well, but it was avoidable. What I did like about it was the use of shredded mint leaves as they provided some refreshment. The fish was also nicely seared on both sides, giving it that slightly charred taste and texture. The vegetarian version of this dish was made with a similar broth, minus the fish sauce, and instead of the monk fish, it was presented with stacked tofu cakes surprisingly rich in flavour.

Hanger Steak with Clams

The Surf & Turf main course ran the full spectrum by mixing both meat and seafood on the one plate. A slice of rye bread acted as the base. From there, it was piled with ramps, lacto-fermented onions, slices of hanger steak, clams and then, if I remember correctly, a clam jus reduction. I actually found the steak to have more chew than I’d prefer. On the plus side, the meat was cooked until rare to medium rare, which was ideal for me. At first, I didn’t think I’d like the rye bread all that much due to the toasting. Yet, I’d say that it won me over. The density of it helped to prevent sogginess from the sauce, and the sour, earthy taste worked well with the meat, clams and pungently garlic-like flavour of the ramps.

Rutabaga in Cream Sauce with Nori, Fried Kale and Hazelnuts

We were interested to see what the entrée for the vegetarian meal would consist of. It turned out to be a large helping of salt roasted rutabaga tossed in a creamy dressing and topped with lacto-fermented fried kale, shreds of nori and hazelnuts. The rutabaga sits between the texture of a potato and that of a beet. It has a hint of sweetness, which is why it likely worked so well with the somewhat bitter greens, salty nori and nutty hazelnuts.

To complete our dinner, sesame egg custard was prepared and served alongside sesame tuile cookies and a thick caramel sauce. The tuile cookies weren’t as delicate as they traditionally are, but they were delicious. They held up as I dipped them in caramel or layered custard and caramel on top of them. It appeared to be a relatively simple dessert, but it still felt indulgent and worth the calories.

From this early experience, I can truly say that I’m looking forward to revisiting Wishbone. Compared to their other sit-down restaurant, Three Boars, there is a greater sense of polish in terms of service provided and presentation of the dishes. Yet, it doesn’t make the venue unapproachable. In fact, the opposite is true. The overall atmosphere is fairly casual, and the team is a friendly and nonjudgmental bunch (at least when it comes to joking about licking plates clean). For a place to expand the palate, give Wishbone a shot.