Edmonton Restaurant Review: Mai Vietnamese Fusion

The exterior of Mai Vietnamese Fusion.

Had I not strolled by Mai Vietnamese Fusion along West Edmonton Mall’s Bourbon Street earlier this year, I never would have known of its existence. Intrigued, I searched for it online and found that the restaurant itself had no website or Facebook page. The only trace of it came through reviews left by patrons on Yelp and Zomato. Their only social media presence was on Instagram and even that hadn’t been updated since the summer of 2016.

Those reviews I’d seen weren’t very flattering either. Yet, a Groupon deal was all I needed to forgive any negatives and give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a try. I waited almost the full four months before I went to redeem that voucher on a Saturday night. When my boyfriend and I walked up to the host standing outside the front of the establishment, we indicated that we needed a table for two people. She seemed disorganized and asked us to wait while she ran inside to find an empty space (shouldn’t they have a seating chart at their disposal?). When she came back, we were told that there wasn’t anything available, but something would be ready within ten minutes or so.

The entrance into the restaurant.

As we waited, my eyes explored the room, and I have to say it was designed well. A giant Buddha greets patrons as they come in through the door. To the left hand side of the entrance is a whole wall of smaller figurines of the same in a variety of colours. On the main level, there are a couple of semi-private rooms for larger groups as well as some more intimate tables for couples. Up a few steps on the right hand side are a number of large velvet-lined booths overlooked by a handful of portrait paintings. Overall, the aesthetic was modern with just a touch of the traditional.

Condiments at the table along with fresh basil and bean sprouts.

Once we were seated, we reviewed the menu. Initially, I thought it was a bit expensive in comparison to other restaurants that serve the same type of food. However, I do understand that the cost of rent at WEM is much higher than it would be anywhere else, so I’m assuming that is reflected in their prices. Ultimately, my boyfriend opted for the large Pho with Steak ($15.70) and I went with the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli ($16.20).

It didn’t take much time for them to prepare everything because, before we knew it, our bowls were brought out to us, along with a plate of fresh basil and bean sprouts. Then we went to work devouring it all.

Pho with Steak

The Pho with Steak was very generous in size. There were plenty of noodles in the bowl and enough steak that my boyfriend nearly failed to finish off the meat (unheard of). The soup wasn’t particularly hot, but it was warm enough. Fattiness was apparent in the broth with bubbles of oil at the top, yet it didn’t seem greasy when consumed. It was a nice, simple soup. I wish I could give a true sense of what it tasted like on its own though. Unfortunately, I only had some after my boyfriend added in a bunch Sriracha sauce to it. Arguably, that added a delightful heat that also elevated the flavour of the dish. Of course, I won’t know for sure how pure the soup is until I go back and try the pho again without that alteration. In any case, it was good enough for me to want to keep drinking the broth.

Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli

My portion of the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli did not disappoint. Sure, it wasn’t as big as the pho, but it was all noodles, veggies and protein. I almost had a hard time stirring the components together for fear of anything jumping ship out of the side of the bowl. In the end, I managed to get the fish sauce mixed in well though. Again, they did not skimp on the noodles (as a cheap ingredient, they shouldn’t be). The ratio of vermicelli to beef was almost perfect. I especially enjoyed the meat as it was marinated really well; the lemongrass flavour definitely came through and there was a pleasant charring from the grill. The two spring rolls were deliciously crisp and filling, too.

Our only issue with the restaurant was the service. Each staff member that we encountered came across as friendly, and, as I mentioned before, our food was presented pretty quickly. Despite that, there was still a sense of mismanagement. With several people working that evening, two tables, including ours, never received our requested glasses of water. Both of us had to ask random employees for our drinks towards the end of our meals because we couldn’t find the person who was supposed to be our server.

Otherwise, it turned out to be a decent dinner out. I think I understand why the restaurant doesn’t necessarily have the greatest reviews out there. Nonetheless, if someone can see past possibly subpar service and they happen to be at West Edmonton Mall with a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine (and other Asian-style dishes), I would tell them to give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a chance.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nuovo Bistro

Insalata Di Barbabietoli

As is often the case, I cannot pass up a good deal. Therefore, when I came across a Groupon for the new Nuovo Bistro on 124 Street, I had to snap it up. Sure, I’d seen some mixed reviews about the restaurant after their debut in the fall. Nevertheless, others since seemed to rave about it. I figured that the savings would give me ample reason to stop in and make my own conclusions.

After a couple of hours spent perusing the shops that dot the district, my boyfriend and I decided it was time for an early supper. When we stepped through the doors into the entryway, I made note of their reservation book. There was just one group coming in at around seven o’clock. We were there less than an hour after they’d opened for the evening. It was quiet and I could see that there was no one else dining. I tentatively walked into the dining room and called out a “hello” to the server who was diligently wrapping utensils in napkins. She quickly came over to greet us; happy to have some customers.

The interior of Nuovo Bistro.

With the world as our oyster, we grabbed one of the tables by the large front windows, and I started to really observe everything. The Italian eatery had taken over the space vacated by previous tenant, Dovetail Deli, and it’s essentially unrecognizable inside. They must have removed some walls in the back because it looks much larger and elongated. The square footage is utilized a lot better with ample seating running in parallel rows. The kitchen, handled by two chefs, is clean and open. While the tables and chairs are somewhat rudimentary, the bright red booth and the cityscape/wood panelled accent walls lend the place a sense of whimsy.

Glasses of water were brought over along with the menus, and it was time for us to get down to business. We waffled between several choices before settling on our selections: Insalata Di Barbabietoli, Tagliatelle Florentine and Cannelloni.

The refreshing beet salad.

Extra side plates were brought out for us to share our Insalata Di Barbabietoli ($11.95), which translates in English to a beet salad. Nuovo Bistro’s iteration consisted of thick sliced roasted beets, whole spiced walnuts, dollops of creamy rosemary goat cheese and a white balsamic reduction. Fresh ground pepper was added on top to give it some kick. Overall, it’s an extremely refreshing starter. The beets were perfectly cooked and sweet. The root veggie’s pretty pink juice mixed harmoniously with the zestiness of the lemon balsamic reduction. The rosemary goat cheese helped to mellow out the acidity and the walnuts gave it an earthy flavour. It’s actually such a simple dish, but one that is worth trying. My only wish was that there were more of the latter two ingredients utilized.

Shortly after we polished off the salad, our two main courses arrived. My first impression was that the portion sizes were very generous for the price.

Cannelloni

Once I snapped my photos, my boyfriend dug right into his plate of Cannelloni ($15.95). The large rolls of pasta ─ dough made in-house according to the menu description ─ were stuffed with ground beef, spinach and mozzarella cheese. The three tubes were then topped with a tomato cream sauce, parmesan and chopped parsley for garnish. I had a few bites of the pasta and, surprisingly, it was lighter than I expected. I tend to find cannelloni fillings to be quite dense. Yet, this was the opposite. I also really enjoyed the tomato sauce as it sort of reminded me of one that was wine based in terms of the depth of flavour. It didn’t come across as a cream sauce as the menu listed and that’s okay. I think that’s what kept it from becoming too heavy.

Tagliatelle Florentine

My dish of Tagliatelle Florentine ($15.95) was piled high with long, flat ribbons of pasta. The cream sauce was similar to an alfredo with a rich, nutty flavour and a smooth consistency. Diced tomatoes and wilted spinach added an acidity and minerality. Most of all, I was impressed with the amount of chicken provided. I often find that restaurants skip out on the protein, but not here. Although I have to admit that the meat wasn’t as tender as I hoped it would be, it was plentiful and seasoned well with fresh herbs. As much as I wanted to keep eating, I knew I had to stop myself half way through and have the rest packed up.

When our bill came, I made note of the fact that our server took the time to jot down a message on our receipt. It felt personal and I appreciated that. In all honesty, it’s hard to judge a restaurant when it’s quiet. Of course the staff will be more attentive. What else is going to fill their shift? However, I do believe that regardless of whether or not its busy, Nuovo Bistro is a place where you’ll get great service and a friendly atmosphere. No, the food isn’t quite at the level of Edmonton’s finest Italian restaurants. But, what I sampled absolutely made me want to come back.

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