Edmonton Restaurant Review: London Local

Appetizers are sizeable and perfect for sharing.

Chef Lindsay Porter, of El Cortez, Have Mercy, and Woodwork fame, branched out in the fall of last year with her very own restaurant. London Local takes inspiration from her British heritage. Located in the Ellerslie area, the space has a decidedly pub-like feel, but with a slightly cleaner, more modern design aesthetic.

My friend and I arrived for our reservation, made through OpenTable, at 5:30pm on a Thursday evening to find the place relatively quiet. It made me question whether or not the business is doing okay as things didn’t seem to pick up even by the time we left three hours later. Still, to our benefit, the lower noise-level made it easy for us to carry on a conversation, which is something I truly appreciate.

Bottled Beer and House Brewed Iced Tea

Also, on the plus side, we made it in time for happy hour. While I chose not to partake, my friend was able to get a bottle of beer for half price. Most of their selection ranges from $7 to $8, so it’s a steal from 3pm to 6pm every Tuesday to Friday. If wine is preferred, bottles and glasses are also half off. NOTE: For those who like deals, London Local presents a 3-Course Roast Menu on Sundays for only $30 per person.

I opted to go with a non-alcoholic House Brewed Iced Tea, sweetened ($3). Rather than the bar mixing in the simple syrup on my behalf, they brought out a mini pitcher, so I could do it myself. It was alright, but I probably wouldn’t order it again. The tea was still quite bitter, but, being conscious of how much syrup I was using, I wasn’t too keen on asking for extra. The iced tea also doesn’t come with any refills.

For our meals, my newly minted Maid of Honor, selected the Bangers & Mash ($23), and I went with a couple of the appetizers: Steak Tartare ($16) and Asparagus & Cauliflower ($14). I figured it’d be best to sample more to get a better picture of what London Local has to offer.

Bangers & Mash

Come to think of it though, I didn’t have a chance to try any of the Bangers & Mash. All I can do is talk about how good it looked. The sausage was large and plump, surrounded by a pool of dark onion gravy. To the side was a huge dollop of smoked champ — chopped scallions, butter, milk, and cheese — mashed potatoes. It was then garnished with a beet and courgette (zucchini or squash) slaw. It came across as traditional pub food with a twist.

Asparagus & Cauliflower

I requested that the Steak Tartare and the Asparagus & Cauliflower be brought out together. Both were sizeable in portion. The latter was layered with a base of minted truffle cheese. Charred spears of asparagus and florets of cauliflower sat on top with a honey thyme glaze. This was absolutely delicious as the smoky veggies in their sweetly herbaceous coating and the mild soft cheese played very well together.

Steak Tartare

The diced beef tenderloin for the steak tartare was formed into a giant patty that additionally consisted of pickled beet, capers, and fried onions. It had a great depth of flavour. Devoid of any form of egg yolk that is so often found in steak tartare, this turned out to be a less dense version of what I’m used to, especially since it wasn’t minced. Combined with the toasted buttered cape seed bread, this was a real treat. My one complaint of the two dishes was that they were identically embellished with potato sticks, pickled onions and pea shoots. I would have expected a bit more creativity to be placed into each plate rather than the slapdash sense that I got. Show off the food, don’t cover it up.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Despite an already full stomach, I didn’t want to leave without dessert. The Sticky Toffee Pudding ($11) that my friend ordered was similar to what I’ve had elsewhere. This was made of moist cake, toffee sauce, salted crumb, and vanilla whipped cream. It refrained from being overly sweet, and is one of those desserts that easily satisfies when nothing else can.

Banoffee Pie

As a fan of the movie Love Actually, I’ll probably never forget Keira Knightley’s character’s fondness for Banoffee Pie ($11). Therefore, when I saw it on the menu, I had to try it. This iteration of the dessert is not at all conventional as it foregoes the typical solid or crumbled buttery biscuit base and replaces it with rum cake doused in banana pudding and caramel sauce. Some whipped cream and toffee bits finished it off. I mean, it wasn’t really a pie. In fact, it was most likely the sticky toffee pudding in disguise. However, I do understand where this recipe is coming from and the flavours are spot on.

London Local certainly has a decent vision of where they want to take their menu. It’s pub food elevated. What we had was great, and the service was, too. Nevertheless, there are improvements that can be made. Chef Lindsay is known for her flair in the kitchen where she turns classics on their head. I believe that tweaking dishes, like those appetizers, so that they each feel entirely different and special is what will take this establishment up another notch.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Have Mercy Southern Table & Bar

The exterior of Have Mercy as seen from the patio.

Escape games and food are my jam. When my friends and I planned to try out the new Impulse Escape Rooms location on Whyte Avenue, we needed a nearby place that was certain to nourish our bellies and our brains. I’d been to El Cortez before; however, not to Have Mercy, their southern-style sister restaurant.

It was a quiet day for lunch at the eatery. When we walked into the kitschy venue, it was pretty empty. We were led to the deck found at the back door. That’s where a few other diners were already sitting. It’s not a large patio. Yet, it feels bigger because it overlooks the outdoor space occupied by El Cortez on street-level.

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Once we settled in, we carefully studied the menu while we snacked on complimentary pretzels and honey mustard. We also asked the server for some beverage suggestions. After taking the recommendations to heart, I opted for the Strathcona Sour ($12), a house libation. My friend decided to go with a non-alcoholic glass of their Sweet Tea ($4), and her husband went with a traditional Rattlesnake ($12) cocktail. The Sweet Tea was deliciously refreshing without being too sugary. Ultimately, we all ended up sharing another pitcher ($20), sans alcohol.

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For a cocktail, I enjoyed the Strathcona Sour. The bartender used a giant solid ice cube to ensure a slow melt and less dilution of the Buffalo Trace Bourbon, which gave the drink a kick. Clove syrup added a tinge of bitterness that was then offset by the acidity of fresh lemon juice and just a slight fruitiness from the blackberry punch. As good as the Strathcona Sour was, I think there’s a reason why the Rattlesnake is a classic. Using George Dickel Rye, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white and Herbsaint liquor, all of the ingredients melded so well. I especially like the use of egg white because it gives the drink a smoother consistency that helps it go down really easily.

Sweet Corn Hush Puppies

To get us started, when it came to the food, we chose to share an order of the Sweet Corn Hush Puppies ($9). A bowl of six puffy, golden brown fritters arrived to the table with two dipping sauces. They were hot, non-greasy and sprinkled with a bit of salt. I cut one open and saw that it was fluffy on the inside with a crisp exterior. What put this appetizer over the top was the buttermilk dill ranch sauce that’s made in-house. It provides a cooling sensation and a hint of dill that works with the sweet corn so well. Judging from the number of times the dip is listed as an accompaniment to the offerings on the menu, Have Mercy clearly knows they’ve got a good thing going.

Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs with Spicy Sugar Slaw and Braised Molasses Barbecue Beans

Turning to the main dishes, my boyfriend was talked into the full rack of Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs ($26). This was served with sides of spicy sugar slaw and braised molasses barbecue beans. Personally, I thought the beans were very flavourful; although, they were maybe a tad too soft. I prefer that beans have more bite. With barbecue, I like the beans to almost reach caramelization. I can’t say much about the spicy sugar slaw as I don’t think my boyfriend left any for me to taste. Nevertheless, he was generous enough to give me a rib. The meat was a little fatty, but tender. The dry rub kept the moisture inside the meat, so the pork pulled off the bone effortlessly and had a nice smoky infusion.

Clockwise from top: Chile Honey, Nashville Hot Rubbed and Crispy Salted Fried Chicken.

The rest of us all selected versions of the Fried Chicken and Donut: crispy salted, Chile honey and Nashville hot rubbed ($18 each). I was particularly disappointed with the slaw that took up a third of the plate; it just seemed like a mix of shredded cabbage and carrot. While it presents another layer of texture, the veggies lacked in flavour as there was no dressing applied. What this dish has going for it is the combination of crunchy fried chicken with a surprisingly airy donut in its most basic yeast-based honey glazed form. There’s just the right amount of glaze to give every bite of chicken a hit of sweetness. This is the more modern take on the ubiquitous chicken and waffle dish, and it’s now my way of quelling cravings for those Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken sandwiches that I ate in Chicago a year ago. As for the chicken itself, the crispy salted is like Have Mercy’s take on Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s pretty good, but it screamed for something else to elevate it. I had the Chile honey, which was certainly an improvement over the standard salted chicken. Granted, thinking about it after the fact, pairing sweet and sweet with the chicken and the donut was unnecessary. My favourite ended up being the saucy Nashville hot rubbed chicken. There was the perfect amount of heat to balance out the saccharinity of the donut.

I do wish that I had room for dessert as both the Caramel Pecan Donut Pudding and Buttermilk Lime Pie called to me. I thought better of it though. I’ll simply have to leave that for the next visit.

Old Strathcona isn’t an area I frequent often; however, there are so many fantastic restaurants that dot the area and I seem to have them on a rotation for when I am around. That being said, Have Mercy is definitely a place that is deserving of a spot in my catalogue, especially when I’m hankering for some southern comfort food.

See you again soon!

Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2015

Last year I decided to begin working my way through The Tomato‘s 100 best eats in Edmonton for 2013 and 2014.  There are still places that I haven’t made it to, and the challenge has only become harder with the release of the 2015 list this past March. Not to mention, new restaurants continue to spring up and compete for my attention. Needless to say, I wasn’t as on top of trying different places this year, but my second annual breakdown of my personal favourites in Edmonton does have some variation from my choices in 2014.

I still stand by the belief that any eatery is capable of blowing me away. Whether it’s an independent restaurant or part of a chain, there’s a reason why these places have lasted and continue to bring customers through their doors.

All of my selections are based off of the dishes that I’ve tried, so I by no means can vouch for the entire menu at each restaurant. However, I do feel that whatever I’ve eaten at these establishments are good indications of their brilliance or potential.

If you’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a great meal at the following locations, you’ll understand why they’ve made the cut. Otherwise, this list is my way of nudging all of you to step outside of your comfort zone to try somewhere and something new.

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1. Cibo Bistro
Still my favourite place in 2015. Everything is made from scratch. Delicious arancini, amazing cured in-house salumi, and fresh pasta with the perfect bite.

Review of Cibo Bistro

2. Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen
The official grand opening took place in November and the food really impressed me and my friend. Absolutely fantastic bone marrow agnolotti and tender, smoked duck were the stars.

Review of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

3. Woodwork
I recently visited again and it reminded me of why I like this place so much. Talented bartenders mix perfect cocktails, which are usually imbibed with plates of food that often consist of flavourful house-smoked meat.

Review of Woodwork

4. Canteen
The menu changes seasonally, but I still think about the duck breast I had. Visually, it was gorgeous, but it was also incredibly succulent. The chickpea fries and corn fritters are also great for sharing.

Review of Canteen

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5. Rostizado
A great place for gatherings, the platter of 2 consisting of juicy and tasty roasted Four Whistle Farms pork and chicken creates a family-like atmosphere during your meal. Make sure to order the caramel flan for dessert, which is arguably even better than the churros.

Review of Rostizado

6. Duchess Bake Shop
My mom’s first visit to Duchess took place this year, and she loved the desserts. She’s pretty critical, so if she says something is good, it is. The key lime tart is still my top pick here. The banana cream pie has a wonderfully flaky crust, plenty of banana and lots of fresh whipped cream.

Review of Duchess Bake Shop

7. Corso 32
I was maybe a little harsh with Corso 32 last year. My expectations were very high after hearing all the rave reviews before trying it for myself. But, I concede that the fried short rib was a more than memorable dish.

Review of Corso 32

8. Tres Carnales
My quick and dirty review from last year still stands: “This is Mexican street food at its finest. Every time I have been to this establishment, the service has been quick and the food has been fantastic. The guacamole is a tasty starter for the table (I love it even though it contains cilantro). The various aguas – flavoured waters – are a must to quench your thirst on a hot day. If you ever have the chance to eat them, get the duck tacos! They are stellar, but a rarity nowadays. The al pastor quesadilla is a close second.”

Review of Tres Carnales

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9. El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar
I was skeptical of El Cortez prior to visiting in August. When it first opened, I had heard the food wasn’t all that great, but chef Lindsay Porter who took over a few short months later created a top notch menu. The fried cauliflower and the bulgogi steak tacos are awesome.

Review of El Cortez

10. Rosso Pizzeria
The wood-fired pizza is a must.  I also highly recommend the ricotta with olive oil, which is indulgent, but light. Don’t leave without dessert. The homemade gelato is superb.

Review of Rosso Pizzeria

11. Nosh Cafe
This restaurant moved to 124 Street within the last year and business has been slow to build at their new location. However, I’ve been several times and the traditional Indian dishes – palak paneer and butter chicken – are consistently good.

Review of Nosh Cafe

12. Cactus Club Cafe
I know this is a chain. But, arguably, they know what they’re doing when it comes to food and drinks. I’ve never had a disappointing meal at either location. The dishes that keep me coming back include the beef carpaccio, the BBQ duck clubhouse and the calamari (the addition of the fried jalapeno slices is genius).

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13. Joey Restaurants
Don’t start rolling your eyes. This is the second chain on this list and there are reasons for it. I’ve been frequenting Joey for as long as I can remember. It was the place my friends and I would go for a night out. We’d feel like adults as we had long conversations over what we considered to be pretty fancy food at the time. Not much has changed. Joey has always been a mainstay for me. The menu has been revamped many times over the years, but I hope that they never remove that spectacular ahi tuna sandwich. I crave it.

14. Japonais Bistro
They have filling bento boxes that satisfy your belly and the matcha crème brûlée is addictive.

Review of Japonais Bistro

15. Izakaya Tomo
Must tries here include the crispy tako yaki (octopus balls), oyster ponzu and the prawn spring rolls. Gather a group of friends, order a bunch of plates and share everything!

Review of Izakaya Tomo

16. The Common
Go for the chicken and waffles – one of the best renditions available in Edmonton – or the unique tandoori calamari. They also have a great selection of craft beers and tasty cocktails.

Review of The Common

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17. Three Boars Eatery
This tapas style establishment has an ever-changing menu that is meant to be shared. If you can catch them, the lamb neck croquette, roasted beet and carrot salad, oka tart and the pork belly are highly recommended. The intimate space also makes it feel a little more special.

Review of Three Boars

18. Lazia
They’ve recently shifted the focus of their menu back to more Asian influenced dishes, and I think that was smart. The kitchen pleasantly surprised me with gorgeously plated and flavourful dishes that rivaled their sister restaurant, Wildflower Grill, but with price points that are slightly more accessible.

Review of Lazia

19. Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus BBQ
I was greatly disappointed when I found out that Absolutely Edibles closed. However, their sister restaurant, Sloppy Hoggs, still exists just down the block on 118 Avenue and 95 Street. The barbecued and slow-cooked meat served here is great and the portion sizes are generous. To top it off, the Absolutely Edibles brunch menu transferred over to this location. The waffles with the works (breaded chicken) are my top choice.

Review of Sloppy Hoggs

20. Ampersand 27
A beautiful atmosphere with equally beautiful dishes made for sharing. Get the melt-in-your-mouth maple butter pork belly.

Review of Ampersand 27

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21. The Cavern
Giving the option to select wine in 3 oz. or 6 oz. glasses and the chance to build a cheese and charcuterie board that is healthy and filling, you’ll likely be surprised to find that you don’t actually require anything else. With cheese, meat, nuts, dried fruit, jellies and bread, this is a meal in itself.

Review of The Cavern

22. The Art of Cake
Cupcakes, slab cakes, cruellers, and shortbread cookies are just a few of the baked goods that they offer at their store. It’s impossible to go wrong.

Review of The Art of Cake

23. Tiramisu Bistro
With an extensive menu, there’s probably something to satisfy everyone. I particularly liked the salmone pizza. Even better, after 5pm on Tuesdays, pizzas are buy one, get one half off.

Review of Tiramisu Bistro

24. Belgravia Hub
Tucked away in the Belgravia neighbourhood, this is an easy restaurant to overlook. However, don’t miss out on their contemporary comfort food. The corn fritters, mac and cheese bites and the braised beef are worth a visit.

Review of Belgravia Hub

Happy New Year and Happy Eating! See you in 2016!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

I first heard about El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar from a good friend of mine. She had the opportunity to get a sneak peek of the restaurant and bar before it opened to the public about 15 months ago. It was the space, more than anything, that she said I should see. Even she conceded that the food wasn’t all that great at the time. However, the artwork and the basement (remains a mystery to me) were worth a visit.

As weeks, months and then almost a year passed by, I still hadn’t set foot in El Cortez. One of the big reasons being that Old Strathcona is just not all that convenient for me. But, from what I had gathered, the eatery had reassessed their menu and brought in new chef, Lindsay Porter, to revamp the offerings. My expectations went up.

Before I knew it, August was upon us. The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is the one annual event that is guaranteed to get me to Whyte Avenue, and, as it turns out, it also provided an excellent opportunity to finally try El Cortez.

Knowing that the area would be teeming with people during the festival, I decided to make an advance reservation through OpenTable. While the restaurant wasn’t entirely full when we arrived, I’m still glad that we did. Seats filled up rather quickly while we were dining . Some were there for a meal, others simply grabbed drinks as they waited for the basement to open up for whatever Fringe play was being performed that afternoon (El Cortez served as a new BYOV during the festival).

My first impression of the place was a good one. After all, you eat with your eyes first, and this was a restaurant that created a fun atmosphere that I was more than happy to spend time in. The look of El Cortez is meticulously detailed. There’s art covering each wall. All of them unique, but unifying in design. The lighting is worked into the art or is the art itself, casting shadows of colour everywhere you look. And that bar. The bar is gorgeous, housing bottles of tequila – the establishment is one of only nine in the world certified by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (The Tequila Regulatory Council) – backlit by an enticing blue.

Now, the question was whether or not the food would be up to par. My friend and I carefully perused the menu as we sipped on our beers. Eventually we decided to share orders of the Valentina’s fried cauliflower and the tuna ceviche. Since my friend wasn’t as hungry as me, I also opted to try a trio of the steak taco “bulgogi.”

The Valentina’s fried cauliflower was lightly breaded with the right bite, so there was still some crispness to the vegetable. The slightly tangy sauce coating the cauliflower was good on its own, but the crema dip on the side gave the dish that extra kick.

Sushi is one of my favourite cuisines, so it’s safe to say that I like raw foods. When there’s anything close to that on a menu, I usually like to sample it. The tuna ceviche sounded too good to skip. Chunks of tuna mixed with pineapple, mango, ginger, jalapeno, mint, cucumber and peanuts made this an interesting appetizer. My one qualm while eating it was that I came across a rather large tuna bone, so I was really cautious after that. However, the tuna was fresh and the flavours were really great. The ginger, mint and cucumber made it refreshing and light, and the peanuts helped to balance out the sweetness from the fruit. Jalapeno was added in to give it that necessary Latin heat without overtaking any of the other components. This was served with a tin of fresh tortilla chips and potato chips (I liked the latter more because they were seasoned and that worked well with the ceviche).

Tacos, when done properly, are a force to be reckoned with. Those little shells can hold any sort of meat or filling that you desire. Yet, we’d been without anything close to true Mexican street food for as long as I can remember. That is, until Tres Carnales popped up over four years ago. While I still love Tres, there are differences between the two. The major one being the type of taco that they use. The shells at El Cortez seem to be thicker and softer, and they might hold up slightly better. The dishes at El Cortez are arguably more aesthetically pleasing as well. Food is colourful at both, but there’s a bit more flair at El Cortez, which isn’t surprising considering the overall look of the restaurant. El Cortez is flashy, but Tres is a little more humble and its sister establishment, Rostizado, falls somewhere in between.

That leads me to the steak taco “bulgogi” dish. Damn, those were delicious. You only get three per order, and I wanted more when I was done. The steak was cooked perfectly. Juicy and tender meat with enough sauce in every bite and just a bit of crunch from the coleslaw meant this was a superb choice as my main.

Banana Custard for dessert

Banana Custard for dessert

With time left to spare before our next Fringe show, I opted for a dessert, too (I know, I know). I chose a banana custard with tequila marinated fruit and coconut granola. Honestly, I’m not sure I would order this one again. The texture of custard doesn’t really bother me like it does some people, but this one seemed watered down. I did enjoy the coconut granola, which also consisted of pumpkin seeds and slivered almonds. However, the tequila marinated fruit, interesting at first, felt like a misstep by the end.

All-in-all, I’d recommend El Cortez. The appetizers and the mains were all beautifully executed (minus the fish bones). Our server was friendly. However, she didn’t make it to our table as often later into our meal, so it was difficult to flag her down for dessert and the bill. Otherwise, the service was decent. If you can, you should also check out their Taco Tuesday when tacos are only $3 each and you can mix and match your order. Be sure to book a reservation though, or you could be in for a long wait. Plus, if this place wasn’t already cool enough, you should lookout for secret shows that take place every so often in the basement.

El Cortez's Twitter Image. I love this logo.

El Cortez’s Twitter Image. I love this logo.