Edmonton Restaurant Review: Share Restaurant at The Westin

The interior of Share Restaurant at The Westin.

Since I started working downtown over a decade ago, I’ve found myself dining at Share Restaurant about a handful of times. Usually, I visit during the annual Downtown Dining Week event in March as the savings make it well worth it. This year was no different.

Past the lounge of The Westin Edmonton, tucked away in the corner, is a stylish room coloured in sleek taupe, white, grey, and copper tones. With a mix of art, wood, granite, carpet and unique lighting, it feels welcoming yet modern. It’s never all that busy when I’m there, but I always book a reservation through OpenTable just in case. To be fair, I typically drop in early after work prior to the dinner rush. On this latest occurrence, business picked up right around 6:00pm when a number of guests showed up for supper before heading off to a concert or the theatre.

The $30 Downtown Dining Week menu at Share.

My fiancé and I, not in a rush to go anywhere, took the opportunity to really savour the experience. We opted to try their $30 three-course Downtown Dining Week menu. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a total steal as the price is about half the usual cost.

To start, we split the two available appetizers: Beef Tartare ($19) and Wild Salmon Salad ($15). These were both excellent. Technically, I only had a couple of bites from his salad, and he didn’t eat my beef tartare since he dislikes raw meat. Still, I’ll call it sharing.

Wild Salmon Salad

The salmon seemed to have been roasted, so it was cooked thoroughly. However, I thought the fish may have been a tad overdone. They refrained from using too much seasoning though and the natural flavour was great. The roasted pepper vinaigrette drizzled into the spring greens was light and brought the smoked almonds (not enough of these), baby beets, and goat cheese into a harmonious union.

Between the salad and the beef tartare, the latter was, hands down, the better of the pair for me. They minced AAA Alberta beef and formed it into a patty with a collection of herbs. It was then topped with crunchy boar bacon, cured egg yolk (not runny), and Parmesan crisps (these were amazingly good). Served with perfectly toasted crostini, this dish screamed umami, especially when all of the components were taken in a single mouthful.

While there were also two options for the entrée, neither of us decided to try the Roasted Chicken Supreme ($26). Instead, we both chose the AAA Alberta Beef Tenderloin ($36). Wow. First, I’ll quickly say that the accompanying market veggies of carrots, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts were okay texturally, but tasted rather bland. The herb-tossed fingerling potatoes were fine, too. They were at least buttery smooth. No, the absolute star of this dish is the steak, and it did not disappoint. The meat, flavoured with its own jus, was prepared to medium rare as requested. It was incredibly succulent, so much so that the knife went right through it without effort and every bite practically melted in my mouth. I’m not sure if the cuts of beef they get are always this wonderful, so I’m afraid that, going forward, I may be ruined.

To end the night, we again divvied up the two choices: NY Cheesecake (unlisted on the regular menu) and Espresso Dome ($9). These were generous in size, making them ideal for a duo.

NY Cheesecake

The NY Cheesecake had a dense, creamy consistency with that distinct cream cheese flavour base. I would have preferred extra berry coulis and chocolate drizzle as those brought added dimension to the dessert, as did the fresh berries on the side. Deprived of the sauce, the cheesecake started to become one note.

Broken Espresso Dome

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the Espresso Dome, which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy due to my aversion to the taste of coffee. The coffee mousse center was subtle, and the chocolate cake enrobed by a shell of dark chocolate made it decadently rich. It probably didn’t require the dollops of whiskey jelly on the plate though. Aside from an extra element, the gelatin lacked any pop, so it did nothing to really elevate the sweet.

A hotel restaurant is unlikely to be first place that pops to mind when I’m trying to come up with an impressive culinary destination in Edmonton. Nevertheless, Share at The Westin fits the bill. Rotating servers consistently fill water glasses, bring plates when ready and offer fresh pepper, but, otherwise, they’re rather unintrusive while you dine. The staff certainly attempt to uphold a classy atmosphere in terms of the ambience and the service. Oh, and I can’t forget about their complimentary bread. The carbs are a delicious sign of what’s to follow. So, if you find yourself downtown for whatever reason, don’t overlook this potential gem.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Characters Fine Dining

A shot with the kitchen in the background.

My friend and I both love food and, every so often, we’ll gratify ourselves with a tasting menu. For the past several months, I’ve been talking about visiting Characters Fine Dining for that reason. After over 18 years in business, chef Shonn Oborowsky, who opened the restaurant when he was just 26 years of age, has truly refined his offerings. The listing of dishes found online sounded too good to pass up, and at $95 before tax and tip for seven full courses, it’s actually quite fairly priced.

So, the two of us made it our mission to visit on a miserably cold and snowy Friday night at the beginning of February. We arrived at the building on 102 Avenue and 105 Street right ahead of our 5:00 pm reservation. The host greeted us immediately as we walked through the doors and offered to take our coats. We were then seated at a table for two next to the central fireplace and in direct view of the open kitchen. Our chairs felt quite regal with their deep, high backs. As I eyed the space, I noticed how classical and rustic it looked with lots of tuscan colours, brick walls, and wooden beams. By the same token, it also had a slightly industrial feel with exposed piping and ventilation, along with metal accents.

Throughout the almost four hours we were there, only a few people dropped in for drinks and maybe a handful of other groups came in later for dinner. We were the first table dining that evening though, so the service we received was attentive. Our server allowed us a few minutes to go through the menu and available beverages. I opted to stick with water while my friend went with a Broken Negroni ($14). As we had our minds set on the tasting menu we let her know at the same time.

Characters drink menu with a glass of their Broken Negroni.

The Broken Negroni was prepared quickly and my friend was pleased with it. This cocktail was made with sweet vermouth, Campari, orange bitters and prosecco. I had a sip and found the citrus to be enjoyable and it helped to cut through the bitterness of the alcohol.

We were then given our amuse-bouche. This is a bite that is additional to the expected courses, often setting the tone for the meal. Now, this is the only thing I really had a problem with during our entire experience at Characters. When we had placed our order for supper, my friend checked with the server to ensure that her shellfish allergy wouldn’t be an issue. The server said she would let the kitchen know. Typically, the amuse-bouche served is their baby octopus. As it turns out, it is made using shellfish, so the kitchen decided to come up with something different. However, they didn’t alter the menu only for my friend, they changed it for both of us. I do understand that it simplifies things for the chefs to make the same dish for both people and that it reduces the risk of cross contamination to avoid cooking the octopus for me, but I suppose I would have appreciated them asking what I would have preferred since I didn’t have the same food restrictions.

Our alternative amuse-bouche.

In any case, the octopus was exchanged for a wooden slab topped with a large slice of cured ibérico ham, pickled cucumber and artichoke, cantaloupe, and pine nuts. Unlike the typical one-bite amuse-bouche, this one required several bites to finish and was somewhat awkward to cut on the high perch as the nuts kept falling off onto the table. I also found it funny that with a single table to cook for, the kitchen made a mistake by forgetting to plate my artichoke. I noticed it wasn’t there as the difference between my friend’s block and mine was glaring, but I wasn’t planning to bring it up. In the end, the chefs realized on their own and the server brought out the missing ingredient right before I was about to eat. Still, the combination of flavours was excellent. The salty, fatty meat paired with the sweet melon perfectly and the tartness of the pickled veggies added an extra element of surprise.

Our first course of Grilled & Smoked Sardine had the best presentation of all the dishes we ate that night. The fish was plated under a bell jar filled with smoke that slowly dissipated once lifted. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of sardine. I do like the stronger taste of the marinated fish, and the meat is often quite supple, but I do not handle bones well. It was easy enough to pull out the larger backbone; yet, the tiny, thinner bones were much more difficult to deal with. Although they are edible, I find it unpleasant to eat them, especially when and if one pricks my throat. Therefore, this was a slow course to get through as both my friend and I were careful to pick out as many bones as possible and to set them aside. Otherwise, this was pretty delectable with the smoked paprika lemon mayo, charred tomato, arugula, and the recurring artichoke.

Following the sardine, we continued with a seafood theme. This second course consisted of a slate slab laid with a small salad of baby beets, a streak of butter, a crab claw-shaped pretzel, and two rolls of horseradish crusted Beet Cured Salmon. Because of the beets, the salmon had this incredibly deep, translucent red colour and a sweetness that lingered with the smokiness. Fresh beets on the side really anchored the plate and alleviated any dry mouth due to the saltiness and starchiness of the pretzel.

Course three was another item from their appetizer menu. The Carrot Risotto was made with a carrot beurre blanc. It ended up with a super creamy texture where the carrot wasn’t really discernible until bites of the peeled or roasted carrot were had.

Beef Tartar is one of my favourite things, so our fourth course did not disappoint. I also liked that this was, again, presented differently. A handmade wooden bowl housed the round of beef tartar that was topped with an egg yolk, balsamic onions and arugula. Inside the bowl was also a long copper spoon for scooping. On the side, we were given a wooden board of grilled black bread. The bread was a warm, buttery and soft base for dollops of the melt-in-your-mouth tartar. I would have gladly had another portion.

At this point, it was sinking in that there were still three more courses to go. I felt fine and I knew I could power through, but my friend was starting to wane. She did make it through the next course of Cider Glazed Pork Belly though. Underneath the meat was braised red cabbage. On top was a helping of julienned carrots and green apple. The slab of pork belly was sizeable and so delicious as the meat was juicy on the inside yet the cider glaze and the fatty layers had rendered while cooking into this gloriously crisp and caramelized outside. This is a star and absolutely a steal at $15 for the solo appetizer on their regular menu.

The entrée came from the restaurant’s list of main courses. Regularly, the Venison Wellington costs just under $50, so the value of their tasting option becomes very apparent here. Plated with asparagus and raspberries as well as a generous amount of sauce and Miataké mushrooms, this pastry crusted venison was a rich dish. Arguably, it was worth every calorie. Even if I was full, I wouldn’t have stopped myself (my friend only managed one mouthful and then had the rest packed to go). The meat was the focus and it was ridiculously succulent. In fact, it was so tender that I’m certain the steak knives provided weren’t needed. A butter knife would have sufficed.

Dessert was our seventh and final course of the evening. Named The Honey Pot, this was a duo of a ceramic cup filled with a crème brûlée-like custard decorated with a piece of honeycomb imprinted bee pollen meringue and a square of Georgian honey cake with a piece of sponge toffee atop it. I couldn’t decide which component was my favourite — the meringue with the chocolate nibs, the bubbly sponge toffee, the dense cake with fig purée, or the thick yet smooth custard — so I alternated bites between them all while dipping my spoon into the bee-shaped sprinkling of icing sugar for added sweetness.

Considering that Characters is about to close in on twenty years of business in Edmonton and that the eatery serves impeccable dishes in a wonderful atmosphere, my friend and I were astonished to see that it was so quiet there on a Friday night. It’s a shame that it wasn’t busier. As this was my first time there, I’m hoping that this is not usual for them. The setting is too beautiful and the food is too good for this place to sit so empty. I mean, the restaurant essentially takes up the entire main floor (and basement?) of the building, so they have plenty of room and tables for many to enjoy.

Sure, the price point is a tad higher than other nearby venues, so it won’t become the norm to pop in every week or every month. Nevertheless, consider a visit to Characters Fine Dining to be an event or a treat. Once I took into account the amount of food we received and the number of hours we were there, it all made sense. Do yourself a favour and give in to the indulgence of a meal there.

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: Splash Poke

The staff member who completed assembly of my bowl.

Last night, Edmonton’s first Hawaiian-inspired poke (pronounced poh-keh) shop opened its doors to the public with a crowd that snaked down the block and around the corner. Splash Poke, located south of Jasper Avenue on 109 Street, is a fast-casual spot to pick up a healthy, quick and customizable meal. Like Blaze Pizza or Amore Pasta, there are a few preset options to choose from, but at the core, it’s very much a build-your-own dish mentality.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the media and blogger preview lunch yesterday afternoon and doubly fortunate to work close enough to make it there during the two hour time frame. When I stepped into the store, I noticed how bright and modern it was. The tropical colour scheme of coral, turquoise and white runs throughout and makes for a cheerful space. It’s not the largest venue though. There are only about five tables and 14 seats total in the whole restaurant, but it feels spacious and laid out in a way that is still comfortable even if the line inside the establishment grows.

Looking at the menu, I had a tough time trying to decide on what to order. Creating my own bowl sounded great, but I really wanted to sample everything. In the end, I decided to go for The Works, one of the Splash Favourites. This includes cubes of salmon and tuna, shoyu sauce, all available mix-ins, toppings (except avocado at a cost of $1.50), garnishes and both the Splash and Sriracha aiolis. The only thing I asked to have omitted was the cilantro.

Knowing that there’s a need to avoid any contamination with the food, I understood why there was a glass barrier built between the prep station and the customers, but it did seem a tad too tall. Sure, I could see everything they were doing, yet it felt like it was more difficult to talk to the staff as they were assembling the bowls. Also, despite there being three people prepping the food, it seemed to take a bit of time. This could be a slight detriment to patrons if they’re expecting to be in and out, especially if they’re seeking something quick during a short break in their workday. Hopefully, with practice, the staff will be able to speed things up. And, they’ll likely have more premade bowls available for pick up in the cooler once they’re operating on a regular schedule.

The Works, a Splash Favourite.

Going back to my bowl, it was beautifully put together with layers upon layers of ingredients and flavours. However, my initial thought was that it was a tad too salty. I think the crab mix and the shoyu – a soy sauce made of fermented soy bean and wheat – were the main culprits. Next time, I’ll definitely ask that they lighten up on the shoyu. For my base, I had also selected the vermicelli noodles. Although they were the perfect consistency and refrained from being sticky, they didn’t do as good a job of soaking up extra sauce. Rice may prove to be the better bet and also be more filling. On the plus side, I loved that every bite brought a different flavour to my palate. With everything from seaweed salad to corn and panko to jalapenos merged into one dish, there was so much going on with regards to taste and texture that I never knew exactly what to expect as I continued to eat. Most importantly, the fish was exceptionally fresh as well.

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d opt for The Works bowl again. Yes, it was a great way to try it all in one go. But, ultimately, I now know that there are flavours I preferred. If anything, it’s likely that The Tropical bowl would fit the bill for me with salmon, tuna, scallop, pineapple and mango. I found that the fruit paired really well with the raw fish and was wonderfully refreshing; the sweet natural juices actually helped to balance out any spiciness or saltiness in the sauces.

Personally, I think that Splash Poke would be a good alternative to some of the other nearby dining options. While some may argue that the increase in cost between protein portions is a lot – 1 scoop of protein is $9.95, 2 scoops for $13.95 and 3 scoops for $15.95 – I’d say that it’s pretty reasonable considering the type of meat. If one were to go to a sushi restaurant for sashimi, one piece can work out to almost $2 on average. From what I saw, at least during the preview lunch, the portions were generous here, so it seems with merit for the fish and scallop. The chicken and tofu are another story though.

Before leaving, I spoke with the owner, Angela Wong, to clarify the prices of the Splash Favourites, too. Those bowls are all made with two scoops of protein and, therefore, they do come in at $13.95. When I left I was full and satisfied, so the cost would have been justified by me. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to places like The Chopped Leaf where people are willing to shell out money for food there. Except, I truly believe that what I’m getting at Splash Poke is an elevated product at a comparable price point.

All-in-all, Splash Poke is on the right track. For the shop, it will come down to the quality of service and their ability to keep things as fresh as possible. As long as they deliver on both of those fronts, they’re sure to win over the lunchtime crowd and Edmonton’s downtown dwellers and visitors. Judging by the turnout yesterday evening, it seems that they may have already done so.

Visit Splash Poke when you have a chance!