Edmonton Restaurant Review: XIX Nineteen

Pepperoncini Calamari

Shortly after I moved into the South Terwillegar neighbourhood, a restaurant called XIX Nineteen opened their first location in a small strip mall situated along Rabbit Hill Road. Back then, it seemed kind of odd to have a fine dining restaurant in that spot. There was nothing of the sort nearby (there still isn’t). Probably the closest thing to it would have been the old Ric’s Grill just down the road at 23 Avenue.

It was nice to know that restaurateurs were willing to chance it on an unestablished area of the city. I’d also heard great things about chef Andrew Fung’s talent in the kitchen, so I was willing to give the place a try.

My friend and I tested it out shortly after it opened, and we were truly wowed at the quality and playfulness of the dishes we tried. It’s also quite a beautiful space that feels modern, fun (interesting art) and high class all at once.

The time since that visit has whisked by quickly. Before I realized, it’d been over four years and I hadn’t returned for seconds. Living less than five minutes away by car, it’s a bit of a shame that I didn’t make it a regular haunt. Granted, it’s not exactly affordable to do that. A main dish, on average, costs about $40.

Therefore, an early dinner consisting of appetizers and drinks from their current daily happy hour menu seemed like the perfect way to sample some plates without breaking the bank. Since they don’t accept reservations on the lounge side of the establishment (book through OpenTable for the dining room), my fiancé and I decided to drop by on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

XIX

I actually ended up sticking with a glass of water. But, my significant other chose to try a pint of their XIX Lager ($5), brewed by Big Rock. It seemed to be a crisp, refreshing beer that would please most.

Our table full of plates.

To eat, we opted to split a few of the $10 items, including the Pepperoncini Calamari, Ginger Beef, and Mini Tenderloin Sliders. From the looks of it, these are explicitly available in the bar, and it didn’t take a whole lot of time for our food to arrive. Next thing I knew it, our table was covered in plates.

Out of our three picks, the Ginger Beef was probably the least favourite of the bunch. As my fiancé noted, the batter tasted off as if the oil used for frying needed to be replaced. Otherwise, the execution was great. The coating was crisp and not too heavy. The ginger-soy glaze was deliciously savoury. In fact, I would have loved a little more sauce for dipping. Scallions helped to add an extra flavour profile, so as not to become one-note. I even appreciated the use of beef tenderloin, which was textured as though it had been braised first. The chunks of meat were also sizeable with a good ratio of meat to breading.

Mini Tenderloin Sliders

When it came to the Mini Tenderloin Sliders, the usual order is served with three sliders, but the deal is only presented with two of them. As such, I’m not entirely sure if any money is saved getting these during happy hour. However, these were so yummy. While the kennebec fries were simply so-so, the patties of meat tasted like they were fresh ground. Even though the portion makes them easy to overcook, that certainly wasn’t the case here. The beef was so juicy and paired excellently with the red pepper aioli.

Our final dish was the Pepperoncini Calamari. I thought it was going to be spicier, but it was milder than expected. The chefs were light-handed when battering the squid. It led to another well-made dish of crisp fried food. This one was garnished with pickled onions and banana peppers that brought some tartness that matched the zesty squeeze of lemon juice. Pepperoncini was a good addition for the sweetness. Any apparent heat was produced by the spicy marinara sauce that accompanied the calamari. I did not let that condiment go to waste at all.

Since it was a slow day, it’s hard to judge if the service is always as attentive. Still, we had a decent experience, finding it to be a relaxing, casual meal. Plus, the staff didn’t seem pressured to push more food or drinks onto us. They knew we were there for a quick visit, and they were okay with that. Additionally, they are one of the few restaurants on the OpenTable platform that has accepted my redeemed dining cheques. For that alone, I think we’ll definitely be back again soon.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Keg Steakhouse + Bar (South Common)

The interior of The Keg South Common.

After lackluster visits to The Keg when I was younger, I wasn’t too keen to go back. But, last year, spurred on by a couple of gift cards that my beau and I received, we ventured to the South Edmonton Common location for treat yo’ self dinners.

This particular venue has a massive dining room and lounge space, so there are tons of staff and tables. The noise certainly picks up when it’s busy, and, without a reservation, a wait is definitely in the cards during peak business hours. Thankfully, I come prepared by booking in advance through OpenTable (dining cheques are accepted, by the way), so it usually doesn’t take long for us to be seated.

On the past two occasions we’ve been lucky enough to be placed nearby the fireplace in the back room, which helps to add to the overall ambience. The styling of the establishment is classy with sleek wood paneled walls, a stone accented mantel, framed landscapes, dark wood tables, leather upholstered chairs, and dim lighting. The servers wear crisp white button downs and clean black aprons. Hosts are often dressed in business attire.

Rosemary Blackberry Limonata

Our most recent visit in March brought four of us together to celebrate my fiancé’s birthday. We started with drinks. All three of my companions went with beers or cider ($8.50 to $9.50 each). Oddly enough, The Keg really doesn’t have much of a beer selection in cans or on tap. Most of them are from large breweries with only a few craft options available in canned form. I, on the other hand, chose to go with a cocktail. The Rosemary Blackberry Limonata ($8) was comprised of Absolut vodka, house-made rosemary/blackberry syrup, fresh berries, and soda. It was served in a short glass with a sprig of rosemary for decoration. It’s a decent sipper as it’s not strong in terms of the alcohol. Although, I would have liked more syrup to taste.

The group was given one loaf of complimentary bread to start. This is such a treat. Their bread is warm, a bit crusty on the outside and so soft on the inside. The butter melts right into it, and it’s divine. Sometimes, when we think we have the room for it, we’ll ask for seconds.

Calamari

An appetizer of Calamari ($13) was ordered by our friends who graciously shared with us. Personally, I thought the calamari was a tad greasy. On the plus side, the batter was light. They also use a mix of rings and baby squid (those are my favourite) as well as red peppers and jalapenos to liven things up. A lemon wedge, ginger garlic sauce, and Greek feta sauce are presented on the side.

The Keg Burger

For the mains, both of our friends chose to go with the Keg Burger ($18). This is described on the menu as the “Keg’s own fresh blend of chuck, brisket and sirloin.” It was stacked high with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles, and applewood smoked bacon. The cheddar cheese oozed all over the meat and I can imagine the sweet-spicy flavour of the jalapeno maple aioli. Coleslaw and fries came with this item. Based on appearances, this looked like an excellent burger. I was also told that the patty definitely tasted and felt like it was freshly ground and shaped. Score one for The Keg.

Peppercorn New York

My fiancé went with his usual 12 ounce Peppercorn New York Steak ($37). Encrusted in a ton of black peppercorn with a pot of whisky sauce, it can be a bit fiery for someone who isn’t a huge fan of this spice. Regardless, it was cooked as requested, and it had a nice char that held the juices in. The plating of the veggies — roasted red peppers and green beans — and the garlic mashed potatoes was passable, too.

Sirloin Oscar

Contrary to everyone else’s dishes, mine looked like someone threw up all over it. There was also a pool of liquid underneath everything. As far as a Sirloin Oscar ($37 for 8 ounces) goes, this one just didn’t come across as visually appealing. The vegetables had slid underneath the steak, which was completely hidden by the coating of Béarnaise sauce. Scallops and shrimp were haphazardly tossed onto the plate and the blob of garlic mashed potatoes camouflaged right in. Thankfully, this isn’t the norm here. Plus, at the very least, the food still tasted good. Sure, a few bites of the steak were a tad chewy with tendons and the scallops could have been more tender and seared to a golden brown, but that sauce spritzed with lemon makes this meal sing on my palate. Maybe the kitchen should do what it does with the Peppercorn New York by providing the Béarnaise sauce in a mini pitcher to avoid the messiness.

Billy Miner Pie

We were so full after our steaks. Nevertheless, it’s nearly impossible to leave The Keg without something sweet, especially with regards to their no-questions-asked complimentary piece of Billy Miner Pie (regularly $6) for birthdays and other special celebrations. Chocolate crust topped with a thick slab of mocha ice cream and drizzled with hot fudge and caramel before being sprinkled with almond slivers is simplistic yet indulgent. It seems like too much for one, so it’s almost always shared among the group.

It’s sad for me to say that The Keg at South Common didn’t meet my expectations last month. For the money spent, I should have left feeling special. However, that wasn’t the case. When I reminisce about this outing, the memories of great conversations come first. Then, at the back of my mind, I recall the kitchen’s weak showing. It’s in sharp contrast to what we typically experience there, so I’ll chalk this up to an off day for the cooks. And, granted, even when the restaurant was full, the service continued to be top notch. I can praise them for that.

SABOR Restaurant’s 3rd Annual Seafood Festival

Portuguese Surf & Turf

Portuguese Surf & Turf

After writing a profile about SABOR Restaurant for the Local Good, I was invited to attend the launch dinner for their 3rd Annual Seafood Festival. Taking place on Tuesday evening, I had the pleasure of experiencing just some of the offerings on this year’s menu.

Designed in a partnership between Chef Lino Oliveira of SABOR and Chef Jan Hansen of Hotel Arts in Calgary, the menu showcases a variety of dishes crafted using seafood approved by Ocean Wise. Served up family-style, guests sampled a range of plates including sardina escalivada, gambas al ajillo, scallop & limpet ceviche, heirloom tomato & queijo fresco montadito (the only one served without seafood was essentially a bruschetta on toasted bread) and amêijoas á bulhão pato.

The latter is a fancy name for clams steamed in white wine, garlic and cilantro. I usually can’t eat food cooked with cilantro as the herb is not a friend to my taste buds. Yet, somehow, I loved these. Maybe the broth helped to wash away the larger pieces of cilantro leaving me with the white wine and garlic reduction. All I know is that the ingredients were relatively simple, but the flavour truly popped.

The sardina escalivada surprised me. I don’t usually eat sardines as I find them to be too fishy and/or salty, but these were wonderfully seasoned and paired well with a bed of eggplant.

Gambas al Ajillo

Gambas al Ajillo

However, my favourite starter of the night had to be the gambas al ajillo, which are jumbo shrimp complete with shell and head prepared using wine and garlic. We hand peeled them open to reveal delicious meat and, as Lino instructed us, we sucked all of the juice out of those heads. Manners aside, everyone seated at the two long tables took to the scampi with gusto!

Croquetas de Bacalao

Croquetas de Bacalao

Appetizers were followed by Jan’s croquetas de bacalao, a dish of lingcod potato fritters with a spicy hot piri piri aioli. Some thought that the spice was a bit strong, but I quite liked it. I found that the heat started strong to give the dish a kick, yet it dissipated quickly enough so as not to overwhelm my palate.

The stars of the evening were absolutely the two main courses though.

Our first was the caldeirada de peixe, consisting of thick cuts of supple sablefish with seared skin still on and full lobster tails bathed in a savoury saffron-lobster broth. I found that the skin of the sablefish wasn’t crisp enough for me to enjoy the texture, but the mouthfeel of the actual meat was great. It fell apart in perfect pieces and the fish really soaked up the broth. As for the lobster, it’s not often that I get to eat it, so it was a real delight to have some that was so perfectly prepared.

Somehow I plated my Portuguese surf and turf perfectly.

Somehow I plated my Portuguese surf and turf perfectly.

Our last entrée was Jan’s take on Portuguese surf and turf. Chorizo-stuffed Alberta lamb rump was matched with a smoked paprika charred octopus. Both were served over a bed of migas – black kale, pine nuts and white navy beans – that provided a light citrus taste. Personally, I would have preferred the black kale to be less wilted, but I will admit that the more I ate it, the more I enjoyed it. The lamb was so tender that it didn’t need to be cut with a knife, and the curled octopus tentacle was fantastically charred just enough to give it that smoky, spiced flavor without overpowering the meat.

Caramel flan for dessert.

Caramel flan for dessert.

Although SABOR was promoting their Seafood Festival, they did not find a way to incorporate seafood into dessert (is that even a possibility?). Instead, they offered up a light and creamy caramel flan with almonds, walnuts and fresh raspberries, which is quite fitting for a restaurant that is known for working with Iberian, Mediterranean and Portuguese cuisines.

Guests during the preview event were also dazzled by the musical stylings of co-owner Christian Mena, who showed off his strong pipes by serenading us with a couple of songs. Having heard that Christian used to be a member of local band Maracujah and that he once toured with Neil Patrick Harris in the Broadway musical Rent, it wasn’t necessarily a shock to hear how good he was. Rather, it was a real treat for everyone there.

Chef Jan Hansen of Hotel Arts and Chef Lino Oliveira of SABOR.

Chef Jan Hansen of Hotel Arts and Chef Lino Oliveira of SABOR.

SABOR’s Seafood Festival runs through the month of August, and I’d highly recommend it. This is the ideal place to unwind with friends and/or family. The restaurant has a warm and welcoming atmosphere and the food has always been superb. Plus, be sure to visit from Wednesday to Saturday when they have live music. Perhaps you’ll even catch Christian at the mike. No matter what, if you’re a seafood fan, you won’t be disappointed.

Read more about SABOR in my original review

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Lazia (Downtown Closed – Visit North Location)

The Hula Hula Chicken & Firecracker Prawns

The Hula Hula Chicken & Firecracker Prawns

Over the past 15 years, the menu at Lazia has shifted, moving away from their origins as an Asian fusion restaurant. However, the new menu, introduced this summer, is a realignment to the type of cuisine they started with. There are still a few items meant to appease those who just want a straight up steak and potato dish, and there are about a handful that present a more Mediterranean leaning. Yet, the majority of the dishes have hints of Chinese, Thai and Malaysian influences (owner Richard Lim is Chinese by way of Malaysia) that are combined with flavours found across the globe.

Having had the opportunity to profile Richard’s other restaurant, Wildflower Grill, for The Local Good last year, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from his daughter, Tamara, who reached out to me through Twitter in August. Lazia’s menu had been updated for the fall season, and Richard wanted to invite me out for a one-on-one tasting session (myself and two guests). Being that I’m a fairly frequent patron of the restaurant since I work rather close by and I cannot pass up the offer of food, I wholeheartedly accepted the chance to gain more in-depth knowledge of their dishes and to meet Richard in-person.

Although I would recognize the bartender or the managers any day, funnily enough, I cannot recall ever seeing Richard prior to this past week. He told me that he’s always there, but he prefers to be in the background, making sure that things are running smoothly in the kitchen.

Things seemed to go very well on the quiet Wednesday evening that we dined. Richard and our server, Dave (who is usually a supervisor, but was attending to our every need this particular night), were incredible hosts. To start things off, they suggested a few beverages from their drink menu – a golden margarita, the grand phoenix martini and a lavender blueberry collins – of which we each sampled one. While we waited for our cocktails to be prepared, Richard took the time to go through the menu items that he thought we should sample. Then he left us to ponder. In the end, we decided to just go with the suggestions that were put forth. After all, Richard should know best.

Let me start by talking about those drinks.

The golden margarita was a more traditional blend of tequila, Grand Marnier, lime juice and agave nectar with the glass rimmed in salt. This is a cocktail that my friend would not typically order because of the tendency to be more sweet, but this one leaned towards a slightly bitter and tart flavour instead. It actually went down quite smoothly.

My mom also joined us, and she chose the grand phoenix because she liked the name. This one was a blend of vanilla vodka, pomegranate liqueur, orange juice and Grand Marnier. For an added dose of fun and decadence, the drink was lit on fire and then topped off with blood orange gel capsules (they used molecular gastronomy to prepare the natural acids from the juice in a certain way, creating these balls that, when popped, gave an extra shot of flavour), which floated in the liquid.

I had opted to go with the lavender blueberry collins. This one consisted of elderflower liqueur, gin, fresh lemon, lavender and blueberries. I missed the note in the menu about it being “in a fog,” so I was in awe to see that it arrived at the table in a capped bottle that once opened released a heavy dose of vapour like a potion in a witch’s cauldron. It was awesome! So great, in fact, that I simply watched that happen instead of pulling out my camera to capture it.

Now that we were happily imbibing, we had to start preparing ourselves for the meal at hand.

To begin, the kitchen created their daily amuse bouche. It’s a chance for the chefs to experiment with flavours and ingredients that they may not otherwise get to use. This is something that I notice Lazia has started to incorporate into their experience, borrowing from what you’d find at the arguably higher end Wildflower Grill.

Afterwards, Richard started us off with three small plates to share: Mediterranean pork belly, Moroccan lamb meatballs and Japanese barbecue pork.

The Moroccan lamb meatballs were skewered with a whole cherry tomato, avocado, jalapeno mousse and a thick slice of cucumber atop a bed of barbecue sauce. The 15 spices used within the meat really brought in a lot of flavour. This is a good choice if you want a starter that isn’t too heavy.

The Japanese barbecue pork really moves away from the traditional BBQ pork that you might find at a Chinese restaurant with the thick accompanying sauce. The pork is cooked with an orange, miso glaze and served in a ginger, sweet soy, Shaoxing wine vinaigrette. The tanginess and lightness of the sauce paired very well with the meat.

The Mediterranean pork belly was by far my favourite appetizer of the evening. Pork belly is becoming a rather common dish on menus across the city, but not everyone does it justice. Lazia’s dish was near perfection for me (don’t hold it against me if you go and you don’t agree). The pieces of pork belly were crisped so well on the outside, making that fatty layer disappear, all the while leaving the meat quite tender on the inside. I’m also so glad that Richard brought us an extra side of the duck fat cherry aioli for dipping because that sauce was so delicious with the pork belly or placed on the side of wonton chips dusted with black sesame powder that came with the dish.

The colourful and beautifully plated Roasted Beet Salad.

The colourful and beautifully plated Roasted Beet Salad.

Next up was the roasted beet salad, which had been made on a more miniature scale for the evening, allowing us to see the true colours and composition of the dish. It’s a beautiful course and one that the entire table would highly recommend. The plate is first covered with a layer of the lemon, miso vinaigrette dressing and then each ingredient is carefully placed on top. A mix of organic carrots, carrot leaves, frisee, strawberries, orange, rainbow cauliflower, red and yellow beets, feta, sponge cake and chia seeds, this would make for a wonderfully healthy and tasty lunch or dinner.

Good thing I wore some forgiving clothes because what followed were three entrees that were shared between me and my guests. Laid out before us was the hula hula chicken & firecracker prawns, the pacific wild salmon and the teppanyaki New York steak.

The prawns were large and had a good amount of heat from the seasoning and the chicken breast was cooked until tender, not overdone at all. Paired with a cilantro gremolata, it was the herbs that took me by surprise. Most people who know me are aware that I am not a fan of cilantro. I have one of those palates that believes that cilantro tastes like soap. But, I didn’t even realize that’s what I was eating in this dish. My friend once said that, supposedly, if cilantro is crushed, the molecule that creates that unbecoming flavour is destroyed. Perhaps that’s the reason why I found it to be pleasant. Crispy polenta formed a base for the chicken and the prawns, along with a zucchini and carrot pave – thinly sliced and layered like scalloped potatoes – and a pineapple, Malibu rum sauce. The sauce tasted a bit too sweet on its own, but it was great to offset the spice from the prawns.

As explained by Richard, the BC sockeye salmon served with skin was seared on both sides and then poached in olive oil to create the crisp outer texture while keeping the juices in the center. A painterly swipe of carrot emulsion graced the plate, which was topped with sauteed broccolini, confit tomatoes and a lovely combination of chorizo and black lentils. The latter provided a smoky flavor, contrasting well with bites of the mandarin orange chutney topped fish.

I left the steak as the last to discuss because this one had an interesting back story. Had Richard not told us, I never would have guessed that this dish was a mix of Japanese (easy to see) and Mexican (not so evident at first) influences. The steak itself is prepared using a yakitori glaze; it is plated with pickled ginger and togarashi on top and a bed of chile hollandaise. A miso, sesame dressing sat on the side with flash fried cauliflower and fingerling potatoes. All the elements were done well, even that Mexican inspired chile hollandaise. As it turns out, Richard loves Mexican food, and one of his favourite restaurants is in Phoenix, AZ. There they can cook with hatch chile peppers, which have a fairly low spicy heat rating on the Scoville scale, but give off enough of a fresh, earthy pungency to make a manageable impact. Unfortunately, hatch chile peppers are not available in Alberta, so Richard worked with his chefs to find a mixture of peppers that can be purchased locally that, when combined, closely emulates the taste of the hatch chile.

If you don’t already feel full reading about all of the food we had eaten so far, you will be after learning that we also split two desserts: the raspberry white chocolate cheesecake and the dark chocolate raspberry bomb. Little works of art, the sweet endings were nicely plated. Both had a bit of weight to them, but the cheesecake came off as less dense, which was welcome. They’re actually great for sharing, especially after a large meal.

Overall, I would say that the menu, in its various incarnations, has had its ups and downs, but what we sampled last week was fantastic. The experimentation and playfulness that has been shown with the options that they’ve decided to put on their latest menu is a testament to the talent in their kitchen. Everything we tried was thoughtfully prepared, and I was impressed, not just with the taste and texture, but also the presentation. It was almost as if the Wildflower chefs had taken over. The level of craftsmanship from the bar to the kitchen was close to on par with Richard’s more upscale offering, but at a slightly better price point.

Based on what I had the pleasure of tasting, their effort to step back and reassess what they do best is working for them. Now, they just need you to remember that they’re an option when you’re in the downtown area. And, should you be worried about parking, don’t fret. While nearby construction is taking its toll, Lazia offers free secure, heated underground parking in the West Preferred Parkade by the Bay at City Centre Mall every weekday evening after 5:30pm and all day on weekends.

Lazia is definitely worth a visit, or a revisit if you haven’t been in quite some time.