Edmonton Restaurant Review: Silk Bar Kitchen

The exterior of Silk Bar Kitchen includes an inviting patio.

Edmonton has welcomed a number of new restaurants this year. One of them is Silk Bar Kitchen on 105 Street and 103 Avenue. Owners Cory Allen and Stephan Zaiffdeen, along with chef Earl Briones, were inspired by the historical Silk Road, a trade route connecting Asia to the Mediterranean.

The elongated interior of Silk Bar Kitchen.

Stepping into the space for an early Friday night dinner with a friend, it was empty. We were the first guests that evening, and we were told we could sit anywhere we liked. It’s a tad dark inside, but once my eyes adjusted, I was able to appreciate the design. Rather elongated, they’ve put booth seating on a raised platform to the left of the door, taller tables alongside a glass partition, a few standard tables at floor-level, and the usual chairs along the bar.

The style is a mix of vintage (lighting), modern (exposed ceilings) and extravagant (mirrors galore). They also place a spotlight on art, including a huge lacquered mural towards the washrooms and interesting wooden panels running along the upper back wall that depict the city and the North Saskatchewan River down the middle. Not everything made sense side-by-side, but I could tell that there was definitely a lot of thought put into the overall look.

Seeing as how Silk Bar Kitchen offers happy hour from 5:00pm to 8:00pm every Tuesday to Friday (also Saturday & Sunday from 12:00pm to 5:00pm), it was an excellent opportunity to take advantage of the specials. At discounted prices, we figured we’d be able to sample several items to get an idea of what they were about.

Ryojito

Available only during happy hour are their Ryojitos ($12). This is their bar’s take on the mojito. A mix of Havana Club, rosé, coconut sencha syrup, bitters, and fresh lime and mint, it was, visually, a gorgeously layered beverage. When they were dropped off, we were told to ensure we stirred them up well to get the proper flavour throughout. My friend seemed to really like it. Personally, I felt it left too much of a bitter taste in the back of my mouth. Letting the ice water it down a bit as it melted helped. Next time, I may go for one of their other cocktails (I’ve got my eye on the Two-Way Street), which are also $2 off between those hours.

Mini Masala Flatbread

When it came to the food, my friend opted to try the Mini Masala Flatbread ($7). I wasn’t sure what to expect when they put the word “mini” in the name. I mean, I’ve been to Earls and ordered their 8-inch margherita pizza from their happy hour menu before. Needless to say, it was nowhere near the size listed. We were lucky if it actually measured five inches in diameter. In the case of Silk Bar Kitchen, they fared much better. The thin-crusted flatbread was sliced into several pieces and laid on a long rectangular plate. There was no meat on it, so this is a decent option for vegetarians. While I don’t enjoy cilantro, the rest of the toppings — onions, masala spiced Spanish spread paneer, and golden turmeric glaze mango chutney — popped on the palate, especially with the strong, saturated sauces.

Bacon Croquettes Duo

The two of us also shared the Bacon Croquettes Duo ($7). These are balls of mashed buttered Kennebec potatoes combined with bacon and parmesan. They are then lightly breaded and fried before being served with onion jam. I could have done with more bacon as I don’t think that component shone through enough. Still, these were quite tasty. Yet, I do wonder how much money we saved by selecting them off of the happy hour menu. Regularly, the dish is $13, and I would hope that would come with more than a pair of croquettes. Otherwise, the value isn’t really there.

Garlic Parmesan Fries

We also split a small basket of the Garlic Parmesan Fries ($4). These were pretty standard. The fries were nice and crisp having been cooked with garlic infused oil. They were lightly dusted with herbs and then doused with grated Parmesan. For dipping, a side of lemon garlic aioli was presented. This is a great choice as a light snack.

I also decided to try both of the sliders: Char Siu and Meatball ($4 each). The same type of sesame roll sandwiched the meat in each one. The shredded pork in the Char Siu slider was almost black in colour. While it tasted fine with the sweet soy aioli and the coconut lime slaw, I would have preferred a more significant amount of meat like a slice or two of pork and an infused barbecue flavour. Between the two, I found the Meatball Slider to be better. The angus beef had a nice sear to it and it was simply stacked with arugula and crispy onions. What took it up a notch was the garlic oregano aioli and the tomato relish, giving it a touch of sweetness to balance out some of the bitterness.

Matcha Cheesecake

Dessert was already on my mind prior to dinner. I had it set on their Matcha Cheesecake ($9), which I’d seen pictures of on their Instagram feed. While it was good for a general cheesecake, I think it needs work to truly be considered a matcha dessert. My initial reaction was that it didn’t look like what they had shown me online. The white chocolate ganache was scant and it didn’t actually come with any ice cream. The cheesecake was barely green and the matcha could barely be discerned. The rest — berry coulis, sugared berries, honeycomb, and cornflake crust — was all there though. The crust was different and worked well with the cake, and the berries were delicious. However, the berries on top of the honeycomb kind of made the latter soggy pretty quickly. Honestly, this could be an amazing finish to dinner with a few minor tweaks.

After sampling these items, I think that Silk Bar Kitchen certainly has potential. The choices here are at least equal to other elevated bar fare found around downtown Edmonton. There are also inklings of inspiration when it comes to the flavour profiles of certain dishes. My interest has been piqued enough to make me want to revisit. Based on the menu descriptions, their larger plates definitely sound promising. I just hope that business picks up for dinner (before the DJ starts spinning later in the evenings), so that they’ll be around long enough for me to go back.

Edmonton Restaurant Preview: DOSC Restaurant

Welcomed to the freight elevator with sparkling wine by Tony Britton.

Intrigue and mystery laid the groundwork for our night at DOSC Restaurant (their original moniker and subsequent change to appease the AGLC further lends itself to the story of how they came to be; ask anyone working there for details suggested by their logo). Instructed to enter from the rear door, a select few of us were led into an old freight elevator and then dropped off in a narrow hallway that would be the scene of our theatrical meal for much of the evening (hosted by operating partner Shangeeta Prasad).

The friendly servers were asked to remain stoic while taking away and dropping off our dishes throughout. But, meeting a number of them once dinner ended, it was obvious they found it difficult to keep straight faces. Several of them broke character and let their personalities shine through (hello to the guy who shimmied his way out at one point!). I don’t actually think DOSC is going to go that route once the business officially opens tomorrow. However, it certainly reminded me of what I might call an experiential restaurant found in the likes of New York City or similar. It’s definitely something one would never forget. Although it’s unlikely DOSC will plan this style of pop-up presentation again, there’s a chance they can be convinced to do it for private events.

It was intimate with a very strong focus on the food. Introductions from the chefs for each dish prepped us for what we were about to ingest. And, let’s just say that the menu isn’t exactly for the faint of heart. The meal took us from the nose to the tail of the animal, meaning we tried everything from tongue to sweetbread to liver. While some of the menu items may not be to everyone’s taste, the kitchen certainly works their magic with a couple of the plates by turning often roughly textured meats (i.e. tongue) into the tenderest, most luxurious bites. Adventurous diners may be greatly rewarded for branching out.

Miyazaki Chuck Wagyu

With Alberta being known for producing high quality beef, it’s interesting to note that Edmonton doesn’t really have any local restaurants that truly specialize in cooking this specific protein. Any that you can think of tend to be chain restaurants. That’s why owner and chef Jake Lee of Seoul Fried Chicken wanted to introduce themselves as a steakhouse despite the many hats DOSC will be wearing. They have an open kitchen with an in-house butchery and a dry aging cooler to cure their own meats. An extensive list of 22 cuts will be available with just two types of beef being imported from outside of Canada (ex. $100 per pound melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu beef).

Along with chef de cuisine Israel Alvarez, their first seasonal menu attempts to bring recognizable dishes that are borderline creative to the table. The twelve courses we tried had mainly Canadian and Mexican influences with a very subtle hint of Asian flavour in the Wagyu Tartare. According to Jake, depending on what’s available during the year and their inspiration (such as special guest chefs), watch for the menus to change every so often. Don’t ever expect to see a regular old burger served here though. With so many places in Edmonton doing that already, they want to do other things better. Led by bar manager Tony Britton, drink pairings are of high importance at DOSC, too. Phenomenal wine like the Rioja Tempranillo and beer like Situation Brewing‘s WTF Raspberry Ginger Sour were excellent additions to our supper.

Ox and Cat

DOSC resides on the corner of 104 Street and 102 Avenue in the historic Metals Building, which used to be home to Ric’s Grill (eventually rebranded to Ric’s on 104), The Burg and, lastly, Stage 104. People say the location is cursed, but maybe the spot just needs the right people behind it. Plus, with the Ice District/Rogers Place now just down the street, the foot traffic and potential clientele is much higher than ever before.

The DOSC team is ambitious. The amount of overhead to run the place is sort of unfathomable. Thinking of this media black out event we attended, there were at least 20 servers, several staff in the kitchen, bartenders, baristas and managers on hand. Every single one of those people gave it their all to create a spectacular show for ten very lucky people.

After much anticipation, with one last course to go (Pineapple Upside-Down Cake for dessert), we were, again, led into the elevator, out the back entrance and around the building for the big reveal. Initially, curtains blocked our view of the restaurant interior and exterior windows were covered, so it was like something out of HGTV. When it appeared before us, we were greeted by a gorgeous, large room broken out into four distinct spaces — cafe, lounge, bar and dining room — to match unique menus and courses offered throughout the long days. They’ll be open as early as 7am for breakfast and before work coffee (supplied by local roastery Rogue Wave) and closing as late as 2am on weekends to accommodate their patrons and the neighbourhood.

Bricks made in the North Saskatchewan River have been left in place.

They’ve also done their best to retain as much of the 100+ year history (constructed in 1914) as possible by showcasing the walls built from bricks made in the North Saskatchewan River and keeping the original wooden pillars. The rest of space has been completely customized and revamped with elegant, hip, and modern touches meant to bring personality to the venue while still feeling comfortable.

So much careful thought went into the execution of DOSC. For the staff, it’s about the journey and process that gets them to the final result, and, from what we can tell, they’re well on their way to making a positive first impression. The whole team elevated our entire experience last night, so much so that we’re planning on being there for their first real dinner service tomorrow evening (Sunday, July 22). Those interested in checking out DOSC for themselves are encouraged to either make a reservation through OpenTable or walk right in starting at 9am.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Urbano Pizza Co. (103 Street Closed – Visit 124 Street Location)

Portable pizza ovens that fast-fire pies in under 2 minutes!

The first time I tried Urbano Pizza Co. wasn’t at one of their storefronts. It was actually at last year’s Sturgeon County Bounty Culinary Cookout. As one of the participating partners at the event, Urbano was well prepared to serve the masses. They brought with them a couple of their portable pizza ovens (fast-fired in under two minutes) and were cooking up their meat (The Italian Stallion) and vegetarian pies as fast as they they could manage.

Urbano ended up being our favourite vendor of the night. Not only did they provide reasonable portions for the tickets redeemed, but their pizzas had a lovely thin crust and a mountain of toppings. In fact, my only complaint was that the toppings were so heavy that the crust couldn’t withstand the weight, making it tough to keep my slice together.

Fast forward a year later and I was contemplating where my co-workers and I could go for a quick lunch together. The light bulb in my head went off and I suggested Urbano Pizza Co.

The day we went, we arrived at the original downtown shop (at 102 Avenue and 103 Street) a little after 1 o’clock. It was quiet. There were a few staff members lingering behind the counter and one other customer perched on a stool in the seating area.

The menu displayed on a few screens.

We all took a few minutes to review the menu, which consisted of several Signature Pizzas and Pastas as well as the choice to build your own dish ($11.95 each; $7.95 without toppings). Although it was tempting to consider the latter option because I could pick whatever I wanted (similar to LOVEPIZZA and Blaze Pizza), I wasn’t in the mood to put a lot of thought into things. I ended up taking the lead by ordering The Vegetarian pizza.

I watched the staff as they put my pizza together from start to finish. When not in use, they always pull down the cover of the case to keep the toppings fresh. As they went along, I had the opportunity to let them know if I wanted anything excluded or switched out or added on. There are no extra charges for changes made, so it’s completely customizable.

A view of the prep counter from the seating area upstairs.

By the time I’d paid at the till, my pizza was already out of the oven and had been transferred to a wooden pizza board. I guess the staff members typically bring the food to the customer’s table, so the guy who had my pizza was a tad reluctant to hand it over to me at first. Yet, after checking with another person, he passed it over to me and I made my way up the stairs to grab a table.

The rest of my party followed and their pizzas showed up a few minutes later. I didn’t sample everyone else’s lunch. However, I was told throughout our meal that they all enjoyed what they had selected: The Piri Piri, To the Greek, and Pork & Pineapple.

The Vegetarian pizza with a bottle of Root Beer.

I loved my Vegetarian pizza. It’s a bit different from others as the base doesn’t consist of the usual tomato sauce. Instead, it’s replaced with a puree of eggplant curry. Then it’s topped with roasted cauliflower, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Flavourful and filling despite the lack of protein, I’d be inclined to get this one again.

In fact, the pizzas are quite large for the price. None of us were able to finish the whole thing. One of the employees passed by and came back carrying takeaway boxes without us even having to ask. The leftovers served as my lunch the next day.

Just this month, I went back to Urbano for dinner with a friend. We each ordered a pizza. I still didn’t opt to build my own, but I made sure to try something new. This time, I chose the Salmon. I opted to omit the red onions though. What remained of the toppings was Hollandaise sauce, white sauce, smoked salmon, capers and arugula. I will say that the salmon loses a bit of it’s appeal from an appearance standpoint since the fish turns more of a brown colour after being cooked in the oven. Nevertheless, it’s quite delicious. The smoked salmon still had a tenderness to it along with the salty flavour, and the creamy sauces worked well to balance out the slight bitterness from the greens. The one issue I did have, and maybe it’s due to the amount of sauce and the moisture from the salmon, is that over time, the crust can get a bit soggy as it sits. Still, I ate the whole thing.

My friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza on the right.

I also had a bite of my friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza. It’s not one that I’d usually go for, but it was decent. Made with tomato sauce, roasted pork loin, pineapple and Camembert cheese, it was certainly more traditional in flavour. Personally, I do think it was missing a little something; it needed an unexpected punch of flavour to add an element of surprise. Regardless, those who like Ham & Pineapple likely won’t be disappointed.

Urbano Pizza Co. is the sister to the upscale Sabor Restaurant. Owners Christian Mena and Chef Lino Oliveira took a sharp left turn when they decided to go the fast-casual route. Yet, it’s a concept that works. With others like it popping up all over the city, it’s obvious that they were on the right track. Perhaps it’s because I’m often going there before or after the lunch and dinner rushes, but I’ve experienced nothing but friendly faces, quick service and tasty food each time I’ve visited Urbano. Plus, it’s fairly affordable for a relatively healthy meal with fresh ingredients, many of which are made in-house.

They’ve also got a great deal on their Pizza of the Day. Ask for details when visiting!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: XO Bistro + Bar

Lunch time at XO Bistro + Bar.

XO Bistro + Bar opened in the Ice District late last year. Situated on the main floor of the new Ultima condo building on 103 Street and 102 Avenue, it’s not far from my downtown office.

Still in its infancy, I finally stopped by for lunch last month. When I showed up for my OpenTable reservation, my friend was already seated in one of the booths by the bar. The space isn’t all that big, but it’s modern in design and it looked like there were stairs by the doors that led up to a second level.

At one o’clock, it was pretty quiet. The lunch crowd must have already dissipated by that time of day. The server brought over some water and, after giving us a few minutes to check out the menu, she came back to take our orders.

The lunch menu is quite succinct with several appetizers and various iterations of Vietnamese pho, vermicelli and bowls as well as a handful of other options. The main difference between most simply came down to the toppings selected.

In our case, my friend chose the Combo 2 Rice Plate with Grilled Chicken and I decided on Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef and Grilled Chicken. Both dishes were served with a spring roll. The food was quickly prepared and we were able to eat without much delay.

Combo 2 with Rice, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

My friend’s plate looked nice with a dome-shaped portion of rice, two large pieces of grilled chicken and a side of julienned veggies. The server had dropped off a couple of sauce bottles along with our food, but neither was soy, so my dining companion had to track her down for that. Other than that minor hiccup, my friend enjoyed the meal.

I found my vermicelli to be very filling. There was actually a lot of food crammed into the bowl. I poured the entire amount of fish sauce provided into the noodles and attempted to mix everything together without losing anything over the sides of the dish. It was a bit difficult. However, I was happy with the overall portion size. Anything less and I may have been disappointed because it’s a bit pricier than other eateries that serve Vietnamese cuisine.

Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

Here, a bowl with one choice of protein and a spring roll cost about $17 after tax and tip. Whereas, places like Pho Hoan Pasteur and Delicious Pho are about $2 less and include a variety of toppings like grilled pork, chicken, beef, meatballs, shrimp and the spring roll, so there’s more value with the others. Regardless, the grilled beef and chicken at XO Bistro was flavoured well with lemongrass and had that lovely charred taste to it. It meat was thinly sliced, so it cooked quickly to the perfect texture and chew. The spring roll was also crisp on the outside and not too greasy.

Honestly, I’m not sure that the downtown lunch crowd is who they’re catering to. They seem to be more of a late night venue with a fun cocktail menu and bar bites, so I’d be inclined to come back to check that out another time.

Granted, that’s not to say it wouldn’t be worth trying XO Bistro + Bar on any other occasion. On the contrary. It was wonderful to be there when it was quieter and not too busy. Their service is decent. Plus, the food is tasty, albeit nothing that really differentiates it from other Vietnamese restaurants.

All-in-all, I think it comes down to convenience and preference. If I’m looking for somewhere stylish to eat this type of food in the downtown area, XO Bistro + Bar will probably be one of the first places to come to my mind. It’s also an ideal location for anyone popping by Rogers Place for any shows or games as it’s literally minutes away by foot.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Baijiu Bar

Baijiu’s table settings.

When I’d heard that the owners of North 53 had a new project in the works, I followed their social media feeds religiously to stay in the know. The final product was Baijiu Bar.

Opening in February inside the 110-year-old Mercer Building, the walk-in only restaurant (reservations may be accepted for larger groups) seemed to be a huge hit with visitors. Literally located across the street from the new Rogers Arena and well within the heart of Edmonton’s Ice District, this stylish iteration of a Chinese food joint joined the ranks of its more established neighbours, Rostizado and Mercer Tavern.

As per usual, I didn’t make it there immediately. Even though my office is only about a 10 to 15 minute stroll from Baijiu, it wasn’t until early April that I found myself dining there with a great friend that I hadn’t seen in a long while.

On an early evening after work, I headed straight over to the Mercer Building. As I approached the brick facade, I looked up to see the establishment’s name lit up in neon through the second storey window. I went through the main entrance, but I must have been a bit too early because the door to Baijiu’s unit was still locked when I got there.

The restaurant’s interior.

After a short wait, the host appeared and let me in. Being the first patron for the night allowed me to really absorb my surroundings. The space is long and fairly narrow with tables to one side and bar seating on the other. High windows provide minimal natural lighting that put the focus on the large floral mural on the parallel wall. Bottles that lined the bar were backlit, so that they gave off a minor glow. All of the tables were set with traditional Chinese wares that felt vintage when placed in contrast to framed black and white images of hip hop artists. Old world versus new school was the vibe.

In the few minutes prior to my friend’s arrival, I decided to order the Baijiu Milk Punch. This 2 ounce cocktail (some go up to 3 ounces) consisted of a mix of Black Seal rum, Cremovo, Chinese soy milk, cream, cinnamon & vanilla syrup and pistachio. It packed enough of a punch to provide a reminder that there was alcohol in it, but it was still a smooth drink with a pleasantly nutty and spicy flavour. My friend opted for one of their Mocktails. In this instance, they created some sort of grapefruit agave concoction that was sweet with a hint of tartness and, overall, it was refreshing.

Red Braised Beef Bao

For our meal, we decided to split a few dishes between us. The quickest out of the kitchen was the Red Braised Beef Bao. The plump taco-like buns were folded to hold the slow cooked Pine Haven pork, pickled shallots, cabbage and shaved Brussels sprouts. On top of that was a thick stripe of soy mayo and sprinkles of black sesame seed. With plenty of succulent meat and a variety of texture, these were delicious, if somewhat messy. I should also note that a standard order comes with only three bao. We added a fourth for $5, to make it easier to split the dish.

Lion’s Head Dumplings

Item number two was the Lion’s Head Dumplings. These were filled with Pine Haven pork, white shrimp, soy, garlic and cabbage. They were served drizzled with a ginger-soy sauce and white sesame seeds scattered atop. I thought the filling was juicy and the sauce had a good balance between the salt and spice. My only qualm was that I thought the dough wrapper was a tad too thick. Thinning that out would help to better define the taste of the pork and shrimp.

Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage

Our trio of share plates was finished with the Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage (it was a toss-up between this and the Korean Brussels Sprouts). This did not disappoint. The combination of confit onion, ginger, egg, soy, chimichurri, dry chili, crunchy shredded cabbage and garlic chips was to die for. I especially loved the heat from the flakes of chili pepper and the crispy garlic chips that truly enhanced what could otherwise have been a pretty blasé dish. What kept it interesting was the fact that there were layers upon layers of flavour with each and every bite.

Instead of calling it a night once those items were polished off, my friend suggested we complete dinner with an order of the Fried Bao Ice Cream Sandwich for dessert. The selection changes, so we asked what was available. The choices that evening were the Cinnamon Toast Crunch or the Cap’n Crunch. Unsure of the one to pick, I asked our server to recommend. Cinnamon Toast Crunch it was.

Fried Bao Ice Cream Sandwich

The ice cream sandwich is a decent size; it’s perfect to split between two people. Remember the bao mentioned previously? Instead of steaming the dough, it is fried until it puffs up like a hamburger bun. Soft on the inside and a deep golden colour with a slightly brittle texture on the outside, the bao is then halved horizontally. Between the two layers was placed a thick slab of cinnamon ice cream with pieces of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal added in for good measure. Sort of like ice cream stuffed into a doughnut, this was a heavenly and indulgent end to the meal.

Surprisingly, Baijiu stayed pretty quiet throughout our time there. Sure, other people showed up by 7pm, but it was by no means full. My worry about it being difficult to get in on any given day without reservations was quashed and I realized that, depending on my schedule, it’ll be easy to pop in whenever I feel the need.

“Baijiu,” in Chinese, actually has a couple of meanings. The exact translation is “white alcohol,” which is quite fitting for a bar. It took me landing on their webpage and reading that Baijiu is pronounced as “Bye Joe” before I clued in to the second connotation of “celebration.” It never occurred to me that the name of the restaurant was this Chinese word I’ve known for so long and that I’ve always associated with the latter definition.

Having dined there now, I can certainly picture Baijiu as a place of gathering and merriment. The food hints at the traditional in terms of presentation, but the flavours are amped up and honed, if that makes any sense. The atmosphere is laid back and, with the venue being so open, it makes it feel very communal. I’d also say that the service we experienced was top notch; the server was incredibly attentive and knowledgeable. On the whole, the owners have done a fantastic job of bringing their vision to life and, as an Edmontonian, I’m more than happy to welcome Baijiu to the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene.