Edmonton Restaurant Review: Chartier

Start with dessert first: Banana Phone on a vintage plate.

I follow a lot of Edmonton’s local and surrounding restaurants on social media. Included in the mix is Chartier, a French-Canadian eatery out of Beaumont. Known for their elevated take on rustic dishes, it wasn’t their regular menu that pulled me into their establishment. Instead, I was enticed by their weekly Tuesday night burgers, specifically the Fall menu from September 19 that was posted on Instagram.

Chartier has a great story. Starting with the name, owners Sylvia and Darren Cheverie dug into the history books to learn of a man named Father Morin who travelled to Ottawa from Alberta in 1895 to petition for a post office to be placed in the small French colony from which he came. In order to do so, he needed to present potential names for the community. Of the three possibilities, ‘Beaumont’ is the one that stuck. ‘Chartier’ went unused until the couple launched a Kickstarter as a way to fund their dream of opening a local eatery. It ended up becoming the most successful restaurant campaign in Alberta and Canada on the crowdfunding platform, raising over $107,000 in just two months.

Approximately one year after they had raised the money, the restaurant opened in March of 2016 to rave reviews of chef Steven Brochu’s offerings. Another year and a half later, Chartier was listed as one of 30 finalists vying to become Canada’s Best New Restaurant for 2017 by Air Canada. That accolade, along with a unique, limited-edition menu, spurred my first visit.

My boyfriend and I drove from south Edmonton to downtown Beaumont within 20 minutes. There were no problems finding free on-street parking right outside the building, so we made it there for our 6:00 pm reservation (booked online through Yelp) with a few minutes to spare.

Entering through their threshold, you’re welcomed by a cozy waiting area that houses a cabinet of their own pantry items and branded products. Immediately past that space, a large bar and dining room is to be found. On this evening, the majority of their vintage, colourfully painted mismatched chairs were already filled with happy people. We were seated at a table for two near the kitchen. There, I was able to take peeks at the chefs as they worked. I also took my time appreciating the design of the venue. With cinnamon-maple stained columns and beams as well as reclaimed wood paneled walls, and a large barn door, that country charm really came into play.

The Fall Burger Menu

To get the night started, my other half ordered one of the draught beers. It seems that they only have a few on tap. Therefore, the choices were minimal. But, it’s okay because he still found a new beverage to try. As he waited for his drink to come, the two of us paged through a handful of sheets printed with their menus. To be honest, I barely even glanced at their usual dinner selection. Although, I will have to make a point of coming back to sample it down the road. My mind was completely set on those burgers. Of the four options, we decided to split the Messy Bun and Uggs ($21) and the PSL ($20).

The Messy Bun and Uggs was described as a six ounce sheep burger stuffed with bacon and cheese. It was put onto a house made messy bun (basically a cheese bun) and topped with smoky BBQ sauce and caramelized onions. Overall, it was well-made; both of us appreciated the juiciness of the meat and the barbecue flavour. Yet, it felt as though something was missing. Ultimately, it came down to the taste of the patty. The meat lacked that gameyness that is so strongly associated with sheep or lamb, and while it’s not always a palate pleaser for some, that’s what we had expected and wanted out of the meal. As it turned out, the burger simply tasted like beef.

Our side for this main was the Salade de Chartier. Tossed arugula, spinach, kale, pickled Brussels sprouts, and red onions were combined with roasted root vegetables in a peach maple mustard vinaigrette and topped with finely grated Sylvan Star Grizzly Gouda and candied walnuts. It was certainly a hearty salad, but I thought it started to become too salty. Sure, there were plenty of flavour profiles throughout the dish — tangy dressing, sweet walnuts, bitterness from the greens — but they were all overtaken by that single note in the end.

PSL with Wedge Fries

Our favourite of the pair of entrées was the PSL burger. Short for Pumpkin Spice Latte, I felt that this was where the kitchen’s creativity really excelled. The PSL consisted of a six ounce beef patty covered with whipped pumpkin chèvre, cinnamon, truffle, onion relish, sautéed mushrooms, and roasted garlic. It was literally autumn in burger form. What amazed me most was the fact that none of the flavours overwhelmed the others. I was able to pick out every ingredient with each bite that I took; I thought it was superb. In particular, I loved the use of cinnamon. I learned long ago that cinnamon is an amazing spice that can be used in all sorts of recipes to give them that je ne sais quoi quality. Here, it helped Chartier raise the pedestal of what a burger could be while simultaneously remaining down-to-earth. The side of hand-cut wedge fries were also delicious. Crisp on the outside with plenty of fluffy potato on the inside, I couldn’t stop eating them.

Banana Phone

Having reviewed the desserts earlier in the day, I knew I couldn’t leave without ordering one. We elected to go with the Banana Phone ($11). As I suspected, we chose well (our server even agreed that it was her preferred plate). Toasted banana bread served with brûlée banana, banana cream, and a scoop of tonka bean and Tahitian vanilla ice cream, this was worth the extra calories. Being easy to come by, bananas, which are often eaten as a quick snack, aren’t usually given lofty goals. But, in this instance, they were everything. I will admit that the banana bread was initially drier than I would have liked; however, the ice cream and the banana cream sauce quickly mitigated that potential misstep. What I truly appreciated was the simplicity of the banana halves torched with a thin layer of crunchy caramelized sugar. The sweetness wasn’t overwhelming; it was just right.

Now that I’ve actually eaten there firsthand, I can say that the praise they’ve received is deserved. Not only is the food at Chartier top-notch, I’d say the service is as well. The staff is welcoming, friendly and team-oriented.

Before we even left, my boyfriend was already planning our next date night at Chartier. As such, it’s safe to say that we’ll be back. Perhaps I’ll even attempt to drop by on occasion to pick up some baked goods from their bread window. From what I understand, they open the window strictly on weekends from Friday to Sunday. Yet, lately, on Instagram, I’ve noticed photos and posts about their lineup during the week as well. Either way, they’re definitely doing a good job of drawing me in again.

Until next time, Chartier!

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Butternut Tree

Crab Tart

A few years have passed since The Phork opened and closed its doors. The eatery sat on the raised main floor of the Ledgeview Business Centre on 97 Avenue and 110 Street. With panoramic views of Edmonton’s Legislature, the High Level Bridge, and the River Valley, it was a gorgeous location that deserved to be utilized. Yet, to my knowledge, it sat empty until now.

The beginning of September marked the launch of The Butternut Tree and this venue’s chance at a second life. Although it had already been in business for a few weeks, the media event was only held this past Wednesday, and luckily, my boyfriend and I were invited as guests. After weeks of salivating over posts of their food on social media, I was extremely excited to acquaint myself with St. Albert-born Chef-Owner Scott Downey’s menu firsthand.

Arriving at the building, we managed to snag the very last spot in their underground parking lot; however, there is also free parking available at an adjacent Impark lot as well as on the street after 6:00 pm.

Making our way up to the lobby, the entrance to the restaurant is marked by simple signage over a glass door. As soon as the threshold is crossed, there’s a host to greet patrons and a view of a handful of the windows that overlook Constable Ezio Faraone Park. As we were led through to our table, I observed the kitchen with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls that give diners a look behind the curtain. There are also only 58 seats in a 2,500 square foot dining room (including an eating area for private parties with its own separate entrance), providing everyone — servers and guests — ample space to breathe and move.

The decor is somewhat sparse. Save for a painting hanging behind the bar at the far end of the room, the rest of the walls were pretty bare. But, when there is such picturesque scenery outside, there isn’t really a need to dot the place with much else. The overall design was a mix of modern and rustic. Grey-brown wide plank floors, accent wood beams, vintage pendant lights, recessed lighting, black wood tables and matching vintage chairs set the mood. It felt somewhat homey while simultaneously coming across as an elevated ambiance. As the sun set, the room dimmed and candlelight took over; it became intimate and romantic despite the echoing din from those around us.

On this occasion, we were given the choice of ordering à la carte or going with their tasting menu. The two of us opted to do the latter. Between the meat and vegetarian versions, many of the individual dishes were covered, albeit in smaller sizes to take into account the multiple courses. Therefore, we had the opportunity to try seven of the twelve plates off of the menu, along with a couple of creations only to be found in the table d’hôte.

To drink, my boyfriend decided to try both of the beers — Farmer’s Daughter Pale Ale and Shotgun Wedding Brown Ale (my personal preference) — from Cochrane’s Half Hitch Brewing Company. I, on the other hand, chose to go with their Sumacade cocktail: sumac spice, lemon verbena, dandelion honey, soda, and Eau Claire Three Point Vodka. This one actually surprised me as the dandelion is what I picked up on the most; it made for a very botanic and floral Kool-Aid flavoured drink.

The pretty and petite amuse bouches.

Our meal then began with a palate prepping amuse bouche each: cured halibut for him and baby corn for me. Off the bat, I noticed how delicately they had been prepared and plated on their custom-made ceramics. They were almost too pretty to eat. After admiring them, we sampled the food. Since the halibut was cured, it was cooked, but it retained that raw fish texture. Paired with tart apple and edible flowers, it was a balance of herbaceousness and zest. The baby corn was tender while still remaining firm. It was covered in a thin layer of sauce and then sprinkled with dried and crushed flowers and salt. It was the perfect way to whet our appetite.

The introductory course on the meat side was the Crab Tart whereby a rye crust was filled with crab in smoked crème fraîche and topped with unripe crab apple and herbs. It was way lighter than I expected. The rye shell was thin enough to imbue a deep, slightly sour flavour without overpowering the taste of the crab and the tart’s decorations. On the vegetarian side, dinner started with a dish of Kohlrabi. The bulbous stem was served as raw shavings in the salad, similar in flavour and texture to radishes and turnips. Just a tad crunchy and spicy as it married itself with the caraway, golden flax, and juniper.

Grilled Bannock

Both of us received the same second course of Grilled Bannock. A quick flat bread traditionally made by First Nations people, The Butternut Tree’s take reminded me of an open-faced English muffin piled high with wild mushrooms, berries, winged kelp, and pumpkin seed. It was probably one of my top dishes of the night even though I found the bannock to be overly charred. Initially, the burnt flavour was overwhelming; however, a couple more bites in and I saw how this seemingly simple plate was layered in a complex way to become earthy, sweet and nutty.

Leaning towards the lighter side of what I considered to be our first entrées were the Miss Tatum Rockfish for my boyfriend and the Broccoli for me. The filet of rockfish was thick as it laid on a bed of Saskatchewan wild rice, beans, and herbs. The finishing touch was a separate cup of kelp broth poured over the bowl before our very eyes. By adding the broth just prior to eating, the kitchen avoided presenting a bowl of wilted greens and flowers. I do wish that the fish had been a bit more supple. Otherwise, it worked well with the produce. As I’m not one to pass up some good pork belly, I really would have liked to experience the Broccoli as listed under the appetizers on their à la carte menu. Alas, the vegetarian rendition of the recipe obviously did away with it. Funnily enough, they kept the duck egg though, and I’m glad they did. The soft boiled egg is the star of the dish. Covered in leek ash, it has a gritty looking texture to it. Yet, the flesh gives way easily to reveal one of the most beautiful runny yolks I’ve ever seen. Combined with pickled garlic scapes (the flower stalks of the garlic bulb) and cereal grains, this was likely my favourite offering of the evening.

Our main dishes took a little longer to prepare. But, eventually, we were rewarded with my dish of Prairie Gardens Squash and his Bentley Bison Duo. I found that as an entrée, the squash wasn’t quite filling enough. I did like seeing the different ways in which the gourds were prepared as well as the use of the squash blossom (a soft, delicate, edible flower that grows from summer and winter squashes). The searing of the wilted spinach was another pleasant flavour profile. When I do go back to The Butternut Tree, I’d certainly be inclined to order the bison duo again. Both cuts of meat were succulent and juicy. Served with lentils, carrot, cauliflower, Saskatoon berry jus and some magical purée, it was heaven on a plate for me.

Last, but never least, was dessert. My boyfriend’s tasting menu finished with the Cherry ice cream with bee pollen atop rolled rye grains. We enjoyed the ice cream, but we both agreed that the rye was way too crunchy and strong in flavour. The Plum: duo of plum fruit with milk ice cream fared much better. Compatibly integrated with an oat crumble and a marshmallowy, sticky honey meringue, this was a sweet ending to die for. As an extra, we gluttonously added on the Ployes Cake from their regular dessert menu. I had seen a photograph of it on their Instagram account, and I didn’t want to leave without trying it. Looking like a stack of pancakes, the dense cake’s taste emanated from the use of maple butter. On its own, it was seemingly bland. The whipped cream, flakes of Alberta rose, nuts and berries helped to give it some depth, but I still wasn’t satisfied. On closer inspection, I think the issue stemmed from the kitchen missing one of the main components: black currant jam. The jam was supposed to be sandwiched between each layer of the cake, and it was clear that it hadn’t been incorporated. I have no doubt that had the jam made an appearance, this would have been an excellent choice.

Regardless of the few minor missteps we came across, this was a top notch meal that would be perfect for a special occasion. Chef Downey has taken what he’s learned from his time working with world-renowned Michelin-starred restaurants Daniel and Noma and applied those teachings to his own take on Canadian cuisine. Along with a phenomenal team, The Butternut Tree’s kitchen has shown us just how talented they truly are when showcasing their creations. I also have to give a huge shout out to the rest of the staff who kept the service running smoothly, and who also spend an inordinate amount of time polishing the silverware as every course comes with a new set of utensils.

The late-summer opening of The Butternut Tree brings another welcome addition to the city’s burgeoning food scene. With a focus on global flavours made using unique ingredients that hail from our very own lands, this new restaurant exhibits a refined menu for those willing to go on a spectacular culinary adventure.

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.

Edmonton AYCE Sushi Showdown: Zen Sushi & Grill vs. Watari Japanese Cuisine

Sushi has become a mainstay in the culinary adventures of most cities. Whether or not the place is near water, you can bet money that there is at least one Japanese eatery luring people in with the deliciousness of maki and sashimi. Therefore, it has become commonplace to see at least a dozen establishments spring up over the last few years, all vying for a spot in Edmonton’s sushi scene. What was more of a rarity was the all-you-can-eat (AYCE) Japanese restaurant. I only knew of maybe one or two businesses that fit the bill, but from what I had heard, it wasn’t worth the effort of going. Unlike what you can find in cities like Vancouver and Montreal, the AYCE buffet wasn’t really up to par when it came to price or quality.

My friend, however, had tried out Zen Sushi & Grill on 76 Avenue and 104 Street just south of Whyte Avenue and she suggested that we go for lunch one day. Personally, I was glad that we ventured to this location. They have another on 101 Street and 105 Avenue in downtown Edmonton, but I don’t feel particularly safe in that neighbourhood. This location has a parking lot right outside of the eatery, so parking is not only free, but a lot more convenient.

I walked into the restaurant expecting that it wasn’t going to be that big, yet, as it turns out, there is another room adjacent to the main area that houses a full bar and more tables. The windows along the front of the building really help to brighten the space, which is a mix of brick walls, wood floors and a black and brown colour palette. The look is nothing fancy, but it is modern enough and it is clean.

Lunch, I believe, was and still is around $20 per person on weekends. Once you’re seated, you receive a sheet where you can check off the items that you want to order. The menu is fairly extensive, including sushi, maki rolls, cones and an amalgam of cooked items. Sashimi, during lunch hours, is an extra $2 for 10 pieces.

The Zen menu and order sheet.

The Zen menu and order sheet.

Since I had never dined there before, we splurged and added on a couple orders of sashimi (the pieces were thicker than I would have assumed). In addition, we got a mix of sushi – salmon, tuna, inari, masago and chop chop – some miso soup, bean sprout salad, agadashi tofu, veggie tempura and tempura cod, among other items. Surprisingly, all the fish tasted fresh and not like it was at all previously frozen. The options available were more than enough to satisfy my sushi cravings as it covered the typical gamut of choices. The agadashi tofu is usually fried very well, leaving a nice thin layer of breading on the outside that soaks up the sauce. Sometimes the tempura can be a little bit greasier than I would like and at least twice I’ve noticed that when they deep fry large pieces of broccoli, the batter doesn’t always cook all the way through, so inside the head of the veggie you might find a floury consistency.

Overall, despite a couple of missteps, Zen did exceed my expectations for AYCE sushi in this landlocked city. And, while I do not think it can quite compare to what I’ve tried across the rest of the country, having eaten there many times after this first occasion, I would still recommend going for the chop chop (raw scallop) sushi, the soft shell crab maki (fantastic the first time I ate it there, not as good lately, but you never know), their agadashi tofu and the green onion cakes. What I like is that they don’t overdo the rice portions for the sushi – the balls are small as they should be.

The service is good and the owner is especially nice. I’ve been there for both Mother’s Day and Father’s Day in the last year, and I can tell you that they don’t up the price on holidays. Also, although I’ve never had an issue walking in and getting a spot, they do offer to take reservations, too.

Within a year, Zen had become my go to for sushi. It was perfect for those days when you’re craving anything and everything Japanese for an affordable price. Yes, there are plenty of great sushi establishments in town nowadays, but where else can you spend under $25 and eat as much as you can fit in your belly?

This is why I was ecstatic to see that a new AYCE sushi restaurant was to take the place of the recently vacated Matahari space on 124 Street and 101 Avenue. As quickly as Matahari disappeared, the banner sign advertising the soon-to-be open Watari Japanese Cuisine was hung. Every time I drove by I became giddy with excitement wondering when they would be ready for customers. Eventually in August I’d heard that they, indeed, were officially serving food. My friend joined me for dinner after work before we headed to a show at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival.

I had never eaten at Matahari before the eatery closed, but I had seen photos, and I’m guessing it was a quick turnaround for Watari because they kept some of the decor the same. A number of raised booths sit along the wall closest when you enter the restaurant. There are also a handful of other booths opposite and bar height tables in the middle. Again, the look is nothing spectacular, but it is pretty comfortable and it is clean as well.

We stuck with tap water, which was incredibly refreshing because they toss slices of lemon or lime and sometimes mint leaves in for flavour. With dinner, you can have up to 30 pieces of sashimi per person, so the two of us ordered the maximum (40 pieces of salmon and 20 pieces of tuna – both fresh, but the salmon was melt-in-your-mouth and the better of the two) to split. No lie, I swear we had at least two full-size fish at our table because the slices were substantial. We also tried out the tacos, sushi including salmon, tuna, inari and red snapper, miso soup, a variety of maki rolls (their Target roll of tuna and green bean is good), beef tataki (awesome), Hawaii poke(y), bean sprout and seaweed salads, a combination of shrimp and veggie tempura (you order what you want by the piece), cream cheese (and crab) wontons and beef short ribs, all of which I would urge you to try.

You could literally have rolled us out of the restaurant, we were so full by the end. However, I can happily say that we triumphed and polished off every last piece of fish and rice. For the $27.95 weekday adult dinner rate, I think we more than got our money’s worth.

Watari is so close to my parent’s place that I’ve now eaten there a few times (the latest occurrences for lunch) and, I have to say, that while it was already good the first time with my friend, it has improved each time since. Also, with over 100 items to choose from on their menu, there is definitely something for everyone, even those who are not fans of raw.

Zen and Watari, in a competition, are fairly matched. The reason for that can likely be chalked up to the fact that, apparently, the owner of Watari was the previous co-owner of Zen until he decided to open his own restaurant. I find it hard to decide which should be called the superior place, if at all. Each one has a few items that are not offered by the other, so, for me at least, there’s always going to be the temptation to visit both.

For those of you who look at this as a numbers game, I will break it down for you though. Sashimi (15 pieces per person) is already included with lunch at Watari for the $22.95 price, making it pretty much equivalent to Zen should you decide to add sashimi to your meal there. If you happen to be a senior, the cost of eating at Watari is an even better deal at $19.95. They also have a lower price of $16.95 for children. Watari also recently added late night (10pm on) prices for Friday to Sunday and statutory holidays that equal the cost of lunch (reservations are recommended on weekends).  The menu between both restaurants is relatively similar, but there are minor differences. Watari includes tacos, Hawaii poke(y), beef tataki, cream cheese wontons as well as specialty rolls created in-house. They also have the option of the Monday to Friday business lunch, which does away with the sashimi and a number of menu items, but still leaves sushi, maki rolls and the majority of their kitchen and deep fried menu items up for grabs, all for the low price of $14.95, regardless of age. Zen has chop chop sushi and soft shell crab maki on the menu, two tasty items that are not available at Watari. Both restaurants have other options that are extra in cost, but I’ve never felt the need to order any of them because what is included in the set price is more than enough for everyone.

Watari's current pricing as of October 2014. Photo courtesy of Watari's Facebook page.

Watari’s current pricing as of October 2014. Photo courtesy of Watari’s Facebook page.

Watari and Zen both have excellent service that is quick and friendly, so you can make the most out of your two hour dining limit. Once in a while they may miss bringing an an item or two, but, as long as you remember that you didn’t get it, you can always order it again in the next round. As with all AYCE establishments, they are very conscious about eating responsibly, so be sure that you order only what you can finish. Anything that is left behind is subject to extra charges as it’ll likely have to be thrown away. Both restaurants offer free parking – Zen out front and Watari has a few rows of parking behind the building.

If I really had to choose, I would say that Watari bests Zen, but only by inches. In all honesty, you cannot go wrong with either of these places. The two are favourites of mine, and they’re definitely the top AYCE sushi restaurants you’ll find in Edmonton. I’ve left both happily gratified each and every time.