YEG Local Holiday Gift Guide 2018

What’s going to end up under our tree this year?

Christmas is only a month away now. I’m guessing a lot of you are like me, and you probably didn’t plan far in advance on this year’s presents. With just 30 days left to shop, it’s getting down to the wire. If you have family and friends similar to mine, you may be having a difficult time narrowing things down. Personally, I prefer to gift them with something that’s both fun and useful. But, the older I get, I realize that there isn’t a whole lot that I need anymore, and, whatever I really want, I tend to buy. The same goes for those I know.

What I think works well, though, are products that come from businesses in our own community. Supporting and showcasing your favourite local shops and makers is a great way to spread the word and help these entrepreneurs grow economically while simultaneously sharing what you enjoy with people you love.

In no particular order, I thought I’d highlight several of my top picks here. A number of them were selected for inclusion in the 2018 Edmonton Made Gifted Catalog, and most can be found around the city at various markets, stockists, and their own storefronts or even online.

Evoolution

I recently wrote a blog post about Evoolution’s fantastic tasting events. Those are held monthly at both their downtown Edmonton and St. Albert locations. Tickets to upcoming evenings are available through Eventbrite ($35 per person + tax). With an educational component as well as a full 3-course meal, they’re an excellent value. Alternatively, you can pick up full-size or miniature bottles of their delicious olive oils and balsamic vinegars as a gift for the cooks in your life. The quality is incomparable and anyone who enjoys spending time in the kitchen will appreciate these fine products.

On a side note, we are currently running a contest on our YEG Food Deals Facebook and Instagram pages. Head to both sites where you can enter to win a pair of tickets to the next Evoolution tasting event happening at the 104 Street shop on Tuesday, December 4. The giveaway is open until 11:59pm MT on Wednesday, November 28.

Complimentary mini bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar were given to each guest.

Ochre Lea

I first came across this designer at the Made Local shop on 101 Avenue and 122 Street (I believe this is now closed). I love the whimsical designs that are carefully screen printed on beautifully tanned pieces of leather and then crafted into mason jar holders. The workmanship is impeccable, and they look as though they can withstand quite a bit. Best of all, sustainability has been kept in mind. Everything can be taken apart, which means the metal and glass jar of the mason is recyclable, and the leather is also compostable once the rivets are removed. The 16 ounce size is $35 and a 24 ounce option rings in at $40. Ochre Lea also makes some fantastic letterpress stationary, too. Find these products at the Royal Bison Art & Craft Fair from November 30-December 2 and December 7-9.

Leather Travel Masons by Ochre Lea

Marc Nipp Illustration & Design

I found Marc Nipp’s (a.k.a. El Designo) table at the Edmonton Made show earlier this fall, and I had to go back to get a print of his City of Edmonton Pinball Poster ($25). It’s just a playful representation of our home. Some things are a cheeky take on what we hate about this place, but most of the highlights are pretty great. He’ll be representing at the Royal Bison Art & Craft Fair from December 7-9, or some of Marc’s artwork is also for sale at the Alberta Branded store inside the Edmonton Federal Building. You can also purchase items online through his Zazzle and Etsy shops.

My purchased City of Edmonton Pinball Poster.

Smithstine Copper

Kristine MacDonald is the artist behind the gorgeous copper jewelry and accessories (ranging from $30 to $200), which often have an Edmonton or Albertan theme. She’s recently branched out by mixing other metals in with her usual medium of copper to make distinctive and timeless pieces that will likely be passed down for generations. Additionally, Kristine has started working with enamels, bringing in vibrant shots of colour to some of her hand sawn work. While it may be too late to have something custom made by Christmas (consider that for another time though), you’ll find a variety of pre-made samples at the Royal Bison Art & Craft Fair from November 30-December 2 and December 7-9 as well as on her online shop.

These brass money clips are simple, but meaningful.

Bro Brick

Bro Brick marketed themselves as soap for men with scents to match. Don’t get me wrong though, they do smell great. Rum & Coke and Wasabi & Beer are my choices ($10.50 per bar). They also have shaving soap, moustache wax, and hair/beard balms. All of their products are handmade using plant based oils, so they’re vegan friendly. They’ve now branched out with smaller Chick Bricks for the ladies ($8.50 each). Find them at the Royal Bison Art & Craft Fair from November 30-December 2 or at the Hand2Hand Christmas Market on December 1. Items can also be purchased online directly through their website.

My Sunshine Creations

I don’t currently have any children, but I have a lot of friends with kids. My Sunshine Creations makes some of the most adorable clothing, including unisex cardigans (with matching ones for moms) and comfy looking bum pants. But, what gives me cuteness overload are the baby mocs ($22) and water mocs ($25-$29). There’s just something about tiny shoes for little feet that make me melt. They come in a bevy of colourful designs, so there’s going to be a pair to suit every little boy or girl out there. Order online through the link above.

Baby mocs galore!

Justine Ma

With sassy enameled pins, baby onesies, cake toppers, ornaments, mugs, and cards, Justine Ma won me over. There are products that are pretty and PG13 as well, but it’s the ones that get a little colourful with the language that I love the most. Shop online at the link above, or visit the stores listed here. Justine will also be at the Royal Bison Art & Craft Fair from December 7-9.

Escape City

Even after playing close to two dozen escape rooms across Edmonton, I never get tired of them. There are still a bunch that I have left to tackle, including Escape City’s newest game, Frank’s Revenge. This business does a wonderful job with all of their adventures. Every single room is challenging and immersive. It’s definitely in my top three when it comes to this type of activity. If you know of someone who would rather have a unique experience over something material, this might be perfect for them. Pick up a gift card from Escape City during their regular hours.

We excelled at Neurological!

Brickbubble

I’ve been following Brickbubble on social media for a long time. Run by Diane and Mike who are graphic artists, they’ve utilized their talents to create a number of handmade items ranging from ornaments to jewelry and cutting boards to decor. They specialize in custom work that is often laser cut and engraved, but they also have a lot of ready to go pieces that are perfect for the holidays and speak to the Canadian in us.

Hansen Distillery

I’ve been backing Hansen Distillery since I attended a tour of their facilities and a tasting session back in February. After four generations of moonshiners in their family, Shayna Hansen and Kris Sustrik went legit and opened Hansen Distillery about two years ago. They’ve quickly amassed popularity with their cream liqueurs and cherry rye, and for good reason. They’re delicious to sip on their own and just as great for use in cocktails. Treat a connoisseur of spirits to a tour and tasting ($10.50 per person), or grab a bottle or two of their best sellers to put under the tree.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Prairie Noodle Shop

Prairie Noodle Shop’s custom interior

About three years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a Get Cooking event where Prairie Noodle Shop‘s upcoming business was showcased. I was really excited to get a legit ramen restaurant with an Albertan twist. Their dishes were going to incorporate freshly made noodles while utilizing local meats and produce to infuse flavours familiar to our region. From the beginning, they’ve largely stuck to that formula, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Sadly, I don’t make it to the eatery on 103 Avenue and 124 Street as often as I used to. But, I really wanted Kirk to try it for once. So, we stopped by approximately a month ago to give the menu a once over during lunch. To start, we chose to sample the Baowich (2 for $10) and Dumplings (6 for $12). Each of us also got a bowl of the Spicy Garlic Miso Pork Ramen in Broth ($17).

The Baowich were interesting since I’m so used to other places serving their bao with a single steamed bun being topped with filling and then folded for consumption. Here, they sandwich the ingredients between two steamed buns. Thankfully, the amount of filling inside the sandwich provided a decent ratio to the bun. If there was too much bun and not enough of the selected pork belly, I would have been disappointed. The pork belly was covered with their house sauce (no idea what this is made out of), pickled and fried onions, and shredded lettuce. This made for a good combination of textures and it had that umami flavour. My only wish was that the pork belly would have been cut a tad thicker and cooked until a little bit more crisp.

Featured dumplings by Gourmai.

I’ve previously posted about a Dumpling Pop-Up by Gourmai. The chef is better known as Mai Nguyen. She supplies all of the featured dumplings on offer at Prairie Noodle Shop. The day we were there, the dumplings weren’t the most adventurous. Still, we decided to try the half dozen chicken and veggie selection. They were quite voluptuous and juicy with beautifully seared skins from being pan fried. The dipping sauce gave them an extra shot of flavour without over-salting the dumplings. If you are ever at Prairie Noodle Shop, ask about the day’s feature. Mai makes every single dumpling by hand, and they’re delicious.

Now to the best part, the ramen! Their Spicy Garlic Miso Pork Ramen is my absolute favourite bowl to get at Prairie Noodle Shop. The roasted pork belly is essentially the same as what we had in our Baowich; however, when submerged in soup, it doesn’t matter so much about how crispy the meat is. It also comes with smoked and pulled pork, sweet corn, sesame seeds and their umeboshi egg. The soup itself is pork-based and full-bodied; the flavour profile is amplified with miso, garlic, and a house made chili oil that adds a kick of heat at the back of the throat without becoming overwhelming. Their noodles have a nice bite to them (never overcooked), and that seasoned umeboshi egg is to die for.

Fire & Ice and Black Sesame Ice Creams

We finished off our lunch with their Fire & Ice and Black Sesame ice creams ($4 each). The Fire & Ice was a combo of two different flavours: one sweet and one that was sort of peppery. I was intrigued by the idea of the duo and I was the one who decided to order this, but it wasn’t our cup of tea. Partly it was to do with the texture. It reminded me of when I leave a tub of ice cream in the freezer for too long and the cream starts to separate and rise to the top. It gets thick and goopy. That’s what this felt like. I even asked the server if that was normal. It sort of seemed as though she wasn’t sure what to say. In the end, she told us it might be that any fruit puree in the ice cream that wasn’t mixed in well enough might have frozen into clumps and produced that texture. I can’t verify it, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt there. The Black Sesame was much better. The flavour wasn’t as saturated as other black sesame ice creams I’ve had in the past though, so it could use some improvement as well.

After serving the city for the past few years, I can safely say that the petite Prairie Noodle Shop continues to hold their own where it matters. The ramen is just as tasty as I remember it to be when they first opened and the service is commendable, too. I hope that they will always strive for that same consistency with their broth, noodles, and personability for many more years to come.

Edmonton Event Review: Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up

Donair Dumplings

Placing in the top four of MasterChef Canada competitors (her season aired in the spring of 2017), chef Mai Nguyen returned to Edmonton with talent to spare. I’m going to call her the Dumpling Queen since she has parlayed her knowledge of cooking into making these delectable pocketed treats.

I’ve kept my eye on her social media, and I have drooled at photos of all the food that she has posted. I also lamented missing out on previous pop-ups that she has run. Every time one occurred, I happened to have previous plans that prevented me from attending. But, a week and a half ago, she hosted another one at Prairie Noodle Shop. You best believe that I booked a reservation as soon as I found out.

The full menu for the Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up on Oct 28.

Kirk and I arrived at the restaurant at noon (the earlier the better as the dumplings only last until sold out), and proceeded to order almost the entire wallet-friendly menu: Donair ($9 for 6 pieces), Bacon Cheeseburger ($11 for 6 pieces), Peaches & Shrimp ($11 for 5 pieces), Satay Chicken ($10 for 6 pieces), Oyster Soup Dumpling ($4 for a single), Roasted Kabocha Squash ($7 for 4 pieces), and Marinated Quail Eggs ($4 for 4 eggs). We also received a House Salad ($5) at no charge due to a delay with one of our items. Each dish was presented as they were prepared, so everything was served fresh and hot.

Peaches & Shrimp Dumplings

The first to come out was the Peaches & Shrimp. Kirk would have preferred that the shrimp was minced and mixed with other filling. But, I was okay with the shrimp being whole. The outside of the dumpling showcased a beautiful braided edge. The wrap was slightly crisp and a little bit sweet from the mayo. It’s a classic combo of flavours, taking influence from the famous Chinese favourite.

Next up was the Donair, which seemed to be filled with minced lamb. The meat was slightly drier, probably from the leaner cut. Still, these were very tasty when combined with the donair sauce, pickled onions and tomatoes. Having additional donair sauce for dipping would have taken these just a step further.

Marinated Quail Eggs

As we dined, I snacked on the Marinated Quail Eggs. These were delicate and delicious. Extremely well-flavoured with a smooth texture and not too hard. They were paired with pickled radishes that added crunch.

Bacon Cheeseburger Dumplings

Returning to the dumplings, we continued on our lunchtime journey with the Bacon Cheeseburger. These were fabulous. I kind of questioned them at first, mostly for the regular pickles listed in the ingredients. Thankfully, the pickles were just used as a topping to the dish and could be removed easily. The meat was incredibly juicy, and the fats that oozed out with every initial bite reminded me of eating a xiao long bao (soup dumpling). These ended up being my top choice of the day!

Oyster Soup Dumpling

Because Kirk isn’t keen on eating bivalve molluscs like oysters or mussels, I couldn’t convince him to give the Oyster Soup Dumpling a try. These were perfectly folded with black wraps coloured using squid ink. Admittedly, the high salinity content of the oyster can be hard for many to swallow. But, overall, I think that these showed a lot of craft, and if tweaked slightly, they could be winners.

House Salad

Part way through our meal, we realized it was likely that our last plate of dumplings was forgotten, so we quickly mentioned it to one of the servers. While we waited, they provided a complimentary House Salad. A rainbow mix of sliced raw radishes, carrot slivers and greens were tossed in a fragrant ginger soy sesame dressing. The acidity was such a nice cleanser on the palate before lunch ended.

Satay Chicken Dumplings

It wasn’t long before we received our Satay Chicken dumplings. These were massive! The minced chicken had been combined with ginger for a simple touch of spice. The seared dumplings were served with pickled veggies (chili peppers and cucumber) and a thick peanut satay sauce. Compared to the rest of the options at the pop-up, Kirk and I both thought that these were a tad bland on their own. However, when eaten with the dip and veggies, they were superb.

Roasted Kabocha Squash

The Gourmai Pop-Up was completed with a helping of the Roasted Kabocha Squash, Mai’s take on dessert dumplings. These were decadent while retaining a lightness in the whipped mascarpone cheese and squash filling. Sitting in a generous pool of spiced crème anglaise (I drank all of it) and decorated with graham cracker crumb and pumpkin seed, it was the perfect fall-inspired finish to our outing.

Mai definitely outdid herself by making each and every dumpling by hand for the event. I can’t even fathom the amount of time it took for her to prepare all of them. The love certainly showed though, and I look forward to her next endeavour(s). If you want the chance to attend her next Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up, follow her on Instagram (@maicaroon). You’ll want to be there!

Edmonton Bakery Review: Destination Doughnuts

Snickerdoodle, Strawberry Cheesecake, Birthday Cake, All the Reese, Ode to Sunshine and Triple Play

Opened by a father-daughter duo who saw the potential in the growing food trend, Destination Doughnuts‘ storefront resides in the equally fashionable pocket of 124 Street in Edmonton. Unlike most businesses in the neighbourhood, the shop on 105 Avenue has several free parking spots in the building’s front lot, making it prime real estate.

The bakery space is very open and you can see everyone working in the back.

On our first visit, we were meeting friends for a snack and we decided to walk over. Upon entering the shop, you’re immediately greeted by visuals of their open kitchen and a lineup of the day’s doughnut selection behind a long glass partition. To the far left side is also a self-serve mini doughnut machine ($5 per bag). If intending to stay, I suggest keeping it short as there are only a few tables. Let others have a chance to sit down as well. In our case, our friends arrived a little early and they managed to snag spots for the four of us. On a side note, it seemed like there was a bit of a yellow jacket issue as several were getting into the bakery. Hopefully they were able to take care of that.

Kirk left me to do the purchasing. He mistakenly assumed I was just going to buy a single doughnut each ($3.50; I question how well he knows me), but I showed up at the table with a box of a half-dozen ($18.45). Considering that we made it there later in the afternoon and Destination Doughnuts closes by 3pm every Tuesday to Sunday (or when sold out), I was happy to see that they still had a decent variety available.

My box of a half-dozen doughnuts: Crème Brûlée, S’mores, Angel Flakes, Snickerdoodle, Strawberry Cheesecake and Oreo.

We snacked on two sizeable desserts while we hung out. Kirk thought the Oreo had a bit too much chocolate with the glaze and cookie crumble topping all being the same flavour. Although I did agree that, for the sake of aesthetics, it would have made more sense to use a white glaze in order to emulate the look of an actual Oreo cookie, the doughnut itself tasted very much like the real thing, so they hit it out of the park there.

I decided to sample the White Chocolate Coconut doughnut. It was sweeter with the white chocolate glaze as a base. Yet, the coconut shavings were plentiful and a delicious combo. Both of the yeast dough foundations were really fresh, light and fluffy. Neither one of them felt overly sugary, contrary to some of the choices from the popular Doughnut Party (I’m only able to eat maybe a quarter or half of their doughnut at once, otherwise it feels like too much).

S’mores

The remaining four doughnuts were devoured through the evening and into the next day. Surprisingly, the quality didn’t degrade as I was worried they would. We simply left the covered box out on our counter overnight. Even as day-old doughnuts, they retained their soft texture. The glazes stayed in tact (little to no melting) and the fillings kept fine without making the surrounding dough soggy. I’d say the last one we ate, the S’mores, probably fared the worst of the quad. It did dry out a little by the time we got to it. The Strawberry Cheesecake, Crème Brûlée and Snickerdoodle were excellent though.

Look at that cinnamon sugar dusted Snickerdoodle doughnut!

More recently, at the office, we convinced our co-worker to upgrade our usual order of Timmies treats to those from Destination Doughnuts. While I did find that particular batch to be a tad greasier than normal (perhaps a change of oil in the fryer was soon in order), I’ll just say that everyone was a convert. It’s really difficult to go back to the Tim Hortons ones after trying pretty much anything else from the several local and independent businesses now on the scene.

Personally, when it comes to the more elaborate style of fried dough confections, I think Destination Doughnuts may do it best in this city. They refrain from the standards and stick to specialty options that are just the right amount of sweet.

Edmonton Business Review: Table Top Cafe 2.0

Table Top Cafe 2.0 filled will customers on a Saturday evening.

Back in 2013, Table Top Cafe opened their initial board game cafe location at 57 Avenue and 75 Street. With its popularity, the owner expanded less than two and a half years later with second spot on 102 Avenue and 124 Street. The two are differentiated by the addition of a “1.0” or “2.0” to the end of its name.

I never did take the time to check out the original. However, I’ve been to the one that sits between the Oliver and Westmount neighbourhoods twice within the past eighteen months. My fiancé and I visited in the fall of 2016 because of a Groupon I had purchased. The deal covered both of our entrance fees and included about $15 to use towards food and drinks. On that occasion, we chose to grab a couple of the wraps (all are just under $10 each). I can’t say that the food was all that impressive and I wouldn’t make a point of going there to eat. Yet, they do serve some great beverages and beer.

Another couple met us that afternoon and we stayed for a few hours playing games until we were ready for dinner. What’s so awesome is that this form of diversion is so affordable. If one isn’t inclined to order snacks or drinks, the cost to play all day comes to only $5 per person. Several shelves house hundreds of available games that are sorted based on type and difficulty.

The business has made it really easy to get started, especially for those that aren’t too familiar with all of the choices out there. I mean, board games have moved well beyond the classics that I grew up with like Scrabble, Monopoly, or Life to include more risque ones such as Cards Against Humanity, strategic ones like Quantum, or puzzles such as Sagrada. There are so many to explore and likely not everyone can afford to buy them all, so spots like Table Top Cafe provide fantastic opportunities to test them out first. Staff are also more than willing to take the time to explain rules whenever anyone gets stuck. Should patrons find something they love, there’s a good chance that there’s an unopened copy in stock to purchase before leaving. Plus, sign up for a membership and a percentage of every game bought can be accumulated and used towards a future buy.

My most recent visit was at the end of January. After supper at The Manor Bistro, we made our way over to Table Top Cafe 2.0 to continue our double date. It was a busy Saturday night, and, luckily, we managed to snag the very last table out of maybe 17 to 20 in the space. When we arrived, we had to check in at the counter to start up our tabs. While we were standing there we placed our orders for drinks (hot beverages, cold refreshments and alcoholic choices are on the menu) and snacks (Magic Maize, a big bowl of popcorn, was $4).

Coaster Park was put back when we realized it was a bit more difficult to get started than we expected.

Then, we got busy looking for some games to try out. The guys started out with a round of chess, so my friend and I kept perusing the shelves. In the end, the two of us decided to bring a few games to the table: Unlock! The Nautilus’ Traps, Pass the Pandas, and Coaster Park. Ultimately, we set aside Coaster Park. Although the box stated that the playing time is between 30 to 60 minutes, when we opened the box, we realized it was more complicated than we expected. Everything else we worked our way through that night fell into the easier category and were essentially card based. They were all quick to learn and none took more than an hour or so from start to finish.

While the men were completing their chess game, us ladies learned Pass the Pandas. It’s a simple, speedy dice game with about four rules. The first to rid of their dice wins.

Unpacking the Unlock! box to play a card escape game.

Our toughest challenge was definitely the Unlock! game. It’s basically an escape room in card format. All four of us had tackled other games in the Unlock! series before. But, we had yet to play together, so we thought we could do that here. Even though the game is rated at a difficulty level of two out of three locks, it was tough and we didn’t technically survive by making it out of the “room” in the allotted hour. I’d chalk up our failure to it being too loud in the cafe to hear some of the recordings we needed to listen to within the accompanying app.

Rhino Hero was so fun! I couldn’t stop laughing as I was attempting to balance the Rhino on that stack of cards.

Once we had muddled our way through that game, we moved on to Rhino Hero. Admittedly, we kind of mixed up the rules a bit, putting each of us at a disadvantage at some point. It’s in the vein of Jenga and the object is to stack the houses higher and higher without knocking the tower over. The downside was that all the roof cards had been folded (we’re guessing this was a mistake by a previous group), which increased the difficulty slightly. No matter though. This was still super fun with a straightforward concept. My girlfriend thought it’d be a perfect game for her kids, so she bought a copy to take home with her.

Check out my monsters towards the end of our game of Bears vs. Babies!

Finally, before we had to head out for the evening, we played a full game of Bears vs. Babies. I’m bad at following rules and directions, so I’m sure I can do better next time, but the gist of the game is to build super strong monsters that can fight off baby armies which periodically attack when someone at the table provokes them. This was designed by the creators of Exploding Kittens, so you can expect things to get a little weird. The whole group enjoyed this one and often chuckled when we saw the combinations we were coming up with for our monsters.

All in, we were there for about four hours and I’d say each person spent, on average, approximately $10. Not too shabby for a full night of entertainment. I have no comparison to any of the other local board game cafes (I would like to stop by all of them down the road). Yet, my experiences specifically at Table Top Cafe have been wonderful. I’d highly recommend that Edmonton residents who want to get into the board game resurgence, or who are already board game enthusiasts, support this local gem.