Edmonton Event Review: Culinary Lab 01 (Rostizado)

The menu card for Culinary Lab 01.

About a month ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when a sponsored post popped up before my eyes. Rostizado, one of our renowned local restaurants, would be partaking in Edmonton Economic Development Corporation’s (EEDC) Culinary Lab 01.

When I searched for more information through their Eventbrite link, I found out that this was going to be the first in a series of four events happening throughout 2017. Chef David Leeder, trained in some of the world’s top kitchens, would be returning home to Edmonton where he’d team up with a different chef for each dinner.

For the launch, which took place this past Sunday, Leeder’s Nordic cooking would be married with the Mexican stylings of chef Edgar Gutierrez. The kitchen would become their lab. Through six courses (all listed online prior to ticket purchase), Leeder and Gutierrez were to collaborate, innovate, and, hopefully, delight their guests.

The evening itself was extremely well organized. The earlier 6:00pm seating had cleared out by the time my friends and I arrived for the 8:30pm dinner. As the staff were quickly turning the room over for the next round, there was a bit of a wait, but it didn’t take long. Before we knew it, we were being led to our table.

All dishes served were included in the ticket price of $100 per person; however, any beverages were additional to that cost. There was the option of ordering directly off of Rostizado’s drink menu, or there was also a set menu that included an accompanying cocktail or beer  to go with four out of the six courses for an extra $50. Everyone in our party chose to order as we pleased.

Chicharrón with Mussels and Foie Gras

Our initial dish turned out to be very different from what was expected. The menu had indicated uni to be a main ingredient, but as we were informed upon service, uni wasn’t in season and they didn’t want the prospect of feeding us anything subpar. Instead, the same base of chicharrón was prepared with a creamy mussel emulsion, fresh whole mussels, caviar, foie gras and fennel fronds. The fried pig skin was bubbly in texture and crispy when bitten, holding its own against the handful of toppings. I’d worry slightly that this dish could come across as overly salty, yet each component worked well together.

Grilled Octopus

The second plate stayed right on course with the printed menu. Rounds of grilled octopus were placed on the dish like an attempted barrier to keep the roasted kelp sauce in place. I thought the sauce was subtle like a broth with just a hint of salinity. The potato puree added a thicker consistency. Most of the flavours came from the charring on the octopus as well as the ramps and endive. Apparently, there was also some Asian pear hiding in there somewhere, but I don’t think it came across.

Mole Verde

As with any meal, it’s important to get your greens. In the case of this iteration of the Culinary Lab, our veggies came in the form of the mole verde. Pureed rutabaga and tomatilla were the foundation of this plate in which each ingredient had been prepared in a distinct way ─ asparagus was raw, rapini was steamed, cauliflower was roasted, kale was deep fried and onion was preserved (confit) ─ to showcase each at their best. Personally, I was impressed with this plate. At home, I’m a roasted veggie type of woman, and this certainly opened my mind up to a myriad of other possibilities when it comes to vegetarian feasts.

Cochinillo y Tortillas

All three of the previous dishes led to the star of the night, Cochinillo y Tortillas. This included a large wooden platter laid out with three choices of tortilla shells (ancho chili, cilantro and plain), two skillets filled with slow roasted suckling pig, earthy mushrooms and cabbage along with a pile of charred ramps and cabbage. On the side were two sauces: Nordic mole and sesame. The tortillas were soft and the meat succulent. What took this main over the top were those sauces. We guessed at what the Nordic mole was made from, and we weren’t even close (we thought of parsnips). Turns out it was a simple mixture of onions (that explained the sweetness) with cream, butter, vinegar and leek oil. The orange sauce was made from sesame seed and chili, so it had some kick to it. Nothing overwhelming though. The two paired together with the tortilla filling was superb.

Raspado

So far, so good. Unfortunately, while the fifth course was tasty, I’m not sure it should have truly counted as a dish that I was paying for. It was a bowl of Raspado, which is essentially flavoured shaved ice. I did like that the ice was prepared two ways. I also enjoyed the floral fruity combination between the elderflower and the tepache (fermented pineapple that tasted a lot like lychee). Sure, it was refreshing, but let’s be honest, this was kind of a cop out. Even the chefs called it a palate cleanser. At most fine dining restaurants, a palate cleanser is a small bite offered in between plates at no extra charge. Here, this course was costing me about $17 and that seemed wrong.

Tres Leches

Dinner was redeemed with the final dessert course. Tres Leches, traditionally a sponge cake soaked in milk, was the inspiration for this dish. Sort of like four desserts in one, this plate consisted of dulce de leche, burnt milk candy, lime and avocado mousse and grapefruit mezcal sorbet served atop a bed of milk crumble. The bitterness from the mezcal and the acidity of the lime played off of the sugariness in the dulce de leche and burnt milk candy. My favourite part though? I’d say it was the milk crumble. It had this crushed cookie texture that was a bit crunchy and delicately flavoured, adding dimension and toning down the stronger tastes.

For the most part, my crew and I left satiated and satisfied. I’d even be open to attending another one of these Culinary Lab events in the future. My only qualm is that the value has to be there throughout all aspects of the menu. After this meal, I couldn’t quite justify the $100 per person for what we received.

I’m not sure when and where the next events will take place, but there are supposed to be three more to come this year (keep an eye out for news on the EEDC Twitter and Facebook pages). What I do know is, regardless of the cost, this will be a unique experience and a Sunday dinner that you’re likely never to have again. These menus are served only once (twice during the evening) and that’s it. Therefore, if you’re a big fan of food and you have a chance to, I’d recommend you give the Culinary Lab a shot.

Upcoming Event: 124 Street Red Shoe Crawl on Sept 10

Tiramisu Bistro on 124 Street. Photo from: 124street.ca

Tiramisu Bistro on 124 Street. Photo from: 124street.ca

I was recently told about the upcoming Red Shoe Crawl taking place in the 124 Street District of Edmonton on Saturday, September 10. From what I’ve learned, this is the second year where 124 Street will play host to the event.

If you’ve never heard of the Red Shoe Society, it consists of a network of community leaders who band together to volunteer for and host events where they raise funds for Ronald McDonald House Charities Northern Alberta (RMHCNA).

Registrants who purchase a $35 pass ($15 kids tickets and adult 4-packs for $120 are also available) will be welcomed at about two dozen participating businesses along 124 Street. Culinary delights will be served at each venue, allowing patrons to snack while they explore. The various shops and restaurants in the area may also be offering special one-day deals. Passports will be handed out to everyone to ensure they don’t miss any of the vendors, including Duchess Bake Shop, Carbon Environmental Boutique, Miss Boss Handbags & Accessories, Table Top Cafe, Ascendant Books and many more.

In addition, tickets for raffle prizes and a 50/50 draw will be sold.

Not only is this a fantastic way to support the RMHCNA, but it’s also an excellent opportunity to shop local. 124 Street has had a tough go over the last couple of years. With the temporary closure of the 102 Avenue bridge cutting off one of the main entry ways into the area, the majority of businesses saw a decline in visitors. Now that the bridge is once again open and the Red Shoe Crawl will be raising money in the district, there’s really no excuse not to go.

Tickets for this event can be purchased here: http://rssnaredshoecrawl.kintera.org/faf/home/default.asp?ievent=1162884.

Get excited by checking out a video of 2015’s Red Shoe Crawl below!

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!