Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Needle Vinyl Tavern

The open bar and stage at The Needle Vinyl Tavern.

Since The Needle Vinyl Tavern opened about a year and a half ago, I’ve frequented the place a few times. It’s located right on Jasper Avenue and 105 Street. When the business was first announced, it was a welcome addition to the city as it wasn’t simply another bar, but a small live music venue as well. On the cusp of the loss of several others like it in the span of a year or two, Edmontonians were happy to know there was something coming in to fill that void.

The wall opens up to allow for an expanded patio space.

Although I haven’t gone to any of the shows (they do have some great artists coming through), I have been for food and drinks. The first time was last summer when my friends and I decided to walk a few blocks from the office for our lunch break. It was a beautifully sunny day and we managed to snag a table out on the extended sidewalk patio, one of the few spaces like it in the downtown core. Personally, I think it’s a great spot to catch some rays and grab a bite. The only thing is I prefer sitting a little further in from where the pedestrians are constantly passing by.

The original vinyl drink menu is no longer used, but was a great touch.

On that occasion, I was really impressed with the details that went into The Needle. The overall menu had a decent mix of options and the dishes were promising. What we ate tasted good and the service was prompt. I especially loved that, to go with the theme, they had their list of drinks printed on actual vinyl discs. It was a fun feature. However, over time, those intricacies have disappeared and been replaced with what I would say are watered down versions of their previous offerings.

The last time I visited, my friend and I popped in for lunch. Instead of sitting out on the patio, we ate at a booth inside. While I enjoyed getting to view the bar and the stage, I found the service to be extremely slow even though there were a lot of staff on hand (chatting to each other) and not many people dining in.

Eventually, a server came over to take our order. I opted to make a meal of two of the appetizers: Mac N’ Cheese Bites ($9) and Cauliflower 78 ($13). My friend chose the Taco Supremo House Pizza ($17).

Taco Supremo House Pizza

I have to say that the slice of taco pizza was the best thing out of the trio. Yet, I don’t think that’s saying much. Sure, the flavours were okay, but I felt that the crust was bland and lacked in texture. I also disliked the fact that it was difficult to see past all of the lettuce and tomato that topped the pizza. It was like the kitchen was trying to hide what was underneath. The red sauce was basic and there was not enough beef.

The Mac N’ Cheese Bites with Ketchup

Still, the pizza was better than both of my starters. The Mac N’ Cheese Bites were passable. The thing is, it seemed as though they literally took a box of Kraft Dinner and made the pasta into nugget shapes before breading and frying them. The ten greasy pieces were served with a side of ketchup for dipping. They may have added some extra cheese as the interior of the bites were creamier than I expected. Regardless, the execution was poor. If you’re going to serve something like this, take a page from the many other restaurants that serve similar items. Jazz it up with a ketchup that’s made in-house or incorporate some spice or seasoning.

Cauliflower 78 with Sweet & Spicy Dip

The worst of the bunch was definitely the Cauliflower 78. These tiny florets were over-breaded (somehow not that crispy) and the portion was way too small for the price. They came in a bowl the size of a cup of soup. The side of sweet chili dip was probably store bought as well. This was absolutely nothing special and such a disappointment.

My takeaway from the whole experience is that The Needle Vinyl Tavern is mainly there for the music and maybe the drinks (my co-worker said the selection of beer is lacking). I’ve been told the brunch menu is a winner, but I have yet to try it. In the meantime, I believe that food is no longer their forte. They have the potential to make it a strong suit because I saw it in the beginning. I just think that they’ve veered off of that path for the time being. Hopefully they can get back on track eventually.

The bar is a cool feature of the venue and it’s pretty spacious to fit a standing crowd during shows.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: ‘Ono Poke Co.

The traditional ‘Ono Poke bowl.

As a food lover, it has been fantastic to see new restaurants popping up all over Edmonton. Within the last month, there have been about a handful of new establishments gracing our streets, including Ono Poke Co., which celebrates their grand opening today.

Located north of Jasper Avenue on 104 Street, the spacious shop will be open six days a week to serve guests. Although Ono Poke Co. is not the first to introduce the beloved Hawaiian dish of poke (raw fish salad) to Edmontonians, Executive Chef Lawrence Hui has taken a very different approach with his offerings.

Initial plans for Lawrence’s fast-casual restaurant were similar to Splash Poke‘s Build-Your-Own-Bowl concept. Yet, after an eye-opening trip to Maui at the beginning of May, Lawrence decided to focus on a chef-driven menu instead.

Chef Tom Muromoto imparting his wisdom on Chef Lawrence Hui. Photo by Liv Vors.

During Lawrence’s trip to the island, he stayed at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel where their executive chef, Tom Muromoto, took Lawrence under his wing. In addition to teaching the history of poke and the best techniques to make it, Chef Muramoto also took Lawrence out surfing.

As Lawrence toured Maui, he also met with Chef Charlie Owen of Hula Grill Ka’anapali, Chef Jesse Anacleto of Roy’s Ka’anapali (named after Chef Roy Yamaguchi, the great pioneer and champion of Hawaiian cuisine) and Chef Ikaika Manaku of Mauka Makai at the Westin Nanea. Through and through, the hospitality of the island’s chefs shone. Each one gladly shared their version of “traditional” poke along with some modern takes that used different proteins such as beef, scallops, shrimp and beets.

It was through this educational experience that Lawrence came to fully understand the fusion of flavours in Hawaiian food. A combination of Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Korean and Japanese tastes and traditions can be deciphered and it’s that willingness to blend them all together that makes their dishes so unique.

As soon as Lawrence returned home, he scrapped his original idea and menu. Starting from scratch, he came up with a succinct list of items: ‘Ono Poke, The G.G., The Twitch in Tuna, Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke (inspired by and named after Chef Tom Muromoto), Prairie Luau and the vegan and gluten free Beet the Poke.

Crafting the samples of poke during our pre-opening event.

I had the opportunity to try a few of their dishes at a pre-opening event earlier this week and I was definitely impressed. What I loved most was how large and fresh the cubes of fish were. They were marinated to enhance the flavour rather than mask the taste of the seafood, which is so important when it comes to poke.

The ‘Ono (‘Ono means “delicious” and ono means “fish) Poke bowl is their most traditional offering. It utilizes Ahi tuna ─ yellowfin tuna that swims in warmer waters and is pinker in colour ─ with shoyu sauce, sesame oil, ginger, seaweed, white onion, macadamia nuts, Hawaiian salt, sea asparagus, green onion and their Asian slaw (red cabbage, daikon carrot and cilantro). Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of cilantro, but I felt that all the flavours and textures were there. As Lawrence said, it was imperative to ensure that there were layers to the bowls; each one needed to finish with some sort of crunch and had to have excellent palate profiles.

Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke

Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke was my personal favourite. This brought a creamier consistency to the tuna with the use of a spicy tobiko aioli instead of the shoyu sauce. White onion, cucumber, edamame beans, green onion, micro greens, sea asparagus and wasabi crab chips gave it several punches of colour and just a slight amount of pungency. It’s also the only selection on the menu that didn’t include cilantro in it. However, on a second visit, it was made with the herb sprinkled on top, so I’d definitely suggest letting the staff know to exclude any cilantro if there’s an aversion to the taste. In any case, the Surf Poke was a less salty offering and it felt pretty refreshing.

Prairie Luau

Of the three that I sampled, I’d say that the Prairie Luau fell in the middle for me. Rather than a protein of fish, it came with gochujang (red chili paste) marinated braised pork, gochujang vinaigrette, Chinese black fungus mushroom, cucumber, white onion, green onion, house-made kimchi (contains shrimp), chili oil and cilantro. It was certainly the spiciest option, but not in a way that scorched your taste buds. On the contrary, the pork was so succulent and the kimchi was fermented to bring out that balance of heat and acidity.

All of the bowls can be customized with a base of either short grain Japanese rice, salad greens or quinoa. Once the bowl is made and collected, I’d also recommend splashing some of their Hawaiian Chili Water into the mix as it adds a whole new dynamic to the dish.

The menu boards at ‘Ono Poke Co.

Even though the prices seem a tad high ($11.95 to $14.95 for a regular size bowl), the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. Everything is prepared fresh daily and, if it can be made in-house, it is. Apart from the fully prepared bowls, there will even be containers of kimchi, shoyu japchae (sweet potato noodles and veggies) and fresh marinade poke, bags of house-made taro chips, and bottles of Hawaiian Chili Water for sale, so a feast can be laid out at home.

In a way, this spread of one of Hawaii’s most popular foods across the Pacific Ocean shows just how dynamic a place Edmonton is. If we can’t go to Hawaii, why not have the chance to familiarize ourselves with that State’s cuisines and culture right in our own back yard? I’m thankful that Ono Poke Co. is bringing us this authentic poke experience.

For Hawaiian’s, it’s typical to end the work day with some beer, snacks and poke. In fact, there are dozens of varieties of poke available (even in liquor stores). While the menu at Ono Poke Co. is a small one, Chef Lawrence and his team are doing their absolute best to pay tribute to their Hawaiian mentors. By providing the most genuine poke possible, I imagine that they’ve made all those Maui chefs proud.

Sou Chef Matt with Executive Chef Lawrence

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wishbone

The interior has been updated since it’s MRKT days.

Today marks the official opening of Wishbone. Brought to life by Chef Brayden Kozak and Head Bartender/General Manager Shaun Hicks of Three Boars Restaurant Group, this is the latest entry to Edmonton’s bustling restaurant scene.

Often times, I’m pretty late to the game when it comes to trying new places. On this occasion, I’d say I was lucky to come across Wishbone on social media and, by following their feeds, I was able to stay in the loop on the eatery’s endeavours. That includes sneak peek dinners that they’ve been hosting for the past two to three weeks. Last Thursday, I attended one of these multi-course meals to get a sense of what they’re calling refined Canadian Surf & Turf offerings as well as their potential Vegetarian menu.

My friend and I arrived to the space that previously housed MRKT (above Red Star at 10542 Jasper Avenue). While the bones of the room remained the same (curved ceiling and the natural horizontal shiplap look), the rest had been revamped with booth seating, pea/avocado green coloured leather upholstery, simple white globe lights throughout and an industrial cement based bar next to the open kitchen.

When it came to the food, I went along with the Surf & Turf option for the evening. My friend, on the other hand, is allergic to shellfish. Therefore, with an unknown menu and wanting to avoid a reaction, she decided to give the Vegetarian dishes a shot.

As the plates were brought out and descriptions were provided, we did our best to keep track of everything that we were told. Admittedly, that proved to be a difficult feat. But, I’ll do what I can to stay as true to the dish as possible here.

To start, my friend enjoyed her appetizer of split pea fries with canola aioli. I didn’t end up sampling these. Yet, from what I could tell, the fries held together when picked up and they looked non-greasy and crisp with just a light breaded coating. The bright yellow aioli also provided a shot of colour to the plate. For the regular menu, the first dish consisted of a fresh shucked oyster sprinkled generously with shaved beef heart and served on a bed of salt. I’ve never eaten raw oyster – I prefer them fried – so this was new for me. The oyster slid out of the shell easily and it was briny, yet not in an overwhelming way. The juice was savoury and the dried beef heart shavings added texture and gaminess.

Roasted Beets with Stilton Blue Cheese

For our salad, we received roasted beets, caramelized onions, Stilton blue cheese and spicy greens. I can’t say that I tasted any heat from the greens laid atop the salad. That is unless cilantro is counted as spice. Personally, the herb sort of separated me from dish as I’m not a fan of the taste. To most, it’s refreshing. To me, it’s unpleasant. If I have to, I can get through a cilantro dish though. In this case, it wasn’t terrible. More than anything, the pungency of the blue cheese and the sweetness of the onions and tender roasted beets helped to mask any unwanted enhancements. My friend, conversely, loves cilantro and this plate turned out to be her favourite of the night.

Next up was a course of monk fish laid on stewed tomatoes, onions and a sauce with Vietnamese herbs and fish sauce. I thought I sensed some cilantro in this dish as well, but it was avoidable. What I did like about it was the use of shredded mint leaves as they provided some refreshment. The fish was also nicely seared on both sides, giving it that slightly charred taste and texture. The vegetarian version of this dish was made with a similar broth, minus the fish sauce, and instead of the monk fish, it was presented with stacked tofu cakes surprisingly rich in flavour.

Hanger Steak with Clams

The Surf & Turf main course ran the full spectrum by mixing both meat and seafood on the one plate. A slice of rye bread acted as the base. From there, it was piled with ramps, lacto-fermented onions, slices of hanger steak, clams and then, if I remember correctly, a clam jus reduction. I actually found the steak to have more chew than I’d prefer. On the plus side, the meat was cooked until rare to medium rare, which was ideal for me. At first, I didn’t think I’d like the rye bread all that much due to the toasting. Yet, I’d say that it won me over. The density of it helped to prevent sogginess from the sauce, and the sour, earthy taste worked well with the meat, clams and pungently garlic-like flavour of the ramps.

Rutabaga in Cream Sauce with Nori, Fried Kale and Hazelnuts

We were interested to see what the entrée for the vegetarian meal would consist of. It turned out to be a large helping of salt roasted rutabaga tossed in a creamy dressing and topped with lacto-fermented fried kale, shreds of nori and hazelnuts. The rutabaga sits between the texture of a potato and that of a beet. It has a hint of sweetness, which is why it likely worked so well with the somewhat bitter greens, salty nori and nutty hazelnuts.

To complete our dinner, sesame egg custard was prepared and served alongside sesame tuile cookies and a thick caramel sauce. The tuile cookies weren’t as delicate as they traditionally are, but they were delicious. They held up as I dipped them in caramel or layered custard and caramel on top of them. It appeared to be a relatively simple dessert, but it still felt indulgent and worth the calories.

From this early experience, I can truly say that I’m looking forward to revisiting Wishbone. Compared to their other sit-down restaurant, Three Boars, there is a greater sense of polish in terms of service provided and presentation of the dishes. Yet, it doesn’t make the venue unapproachable. In fact, the opposite is true. The overall atmosphere is fairly casual, and the team is a friendly and nonjudgmental bunch (at least when it comes to joking about licking plates clean). For a place to expand the palate, give Wishbone a shot.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Splash Poke

The staff member who completed assembly of my bowl.

Last night, Edmonton’s first Hawaiian-inspired poke (pronounced poh-keh) shop opened its doors to the public with a crowd that snaked down the block and around the corner. Splash Poke, located south of Jasper Avenue on 109 Street, is a fast-casual spot to pick up a healthy, quick and customizable meal. Like Blaze Pizza or Amore Pasta, there are a few preset options to choose from, but at the core, it’s very much a build-your-own dish mentality.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the media and blogger preview lunch yesterday afternoon and doubly fortunate to work close enough to make it there during the two hour time frame. When I stepped into the store, I noticed how bright and modern it was. The tropical colour scheme of coral, turquoise and white runs throughout and makes for a cheerful space. It’s not the largest venue though. There are only about five tables and 14 seats total in the whole restaurant, but it feels spacious and laid out in a way that is still comfortable even if the line inside the establishment grows.

Looking at the menu, I had a tough time trying to decide on what to order. Creating my own bowl sounded great, but I really wanted to sample everything. In the end, I decided to go for The Works, one of the Splash Favourites. This includes cubes of salmon and tuna, shoyu sauce, all available mix-ins, toppings (except avocado at a cost of $1.50), garnishes and both the Splash and Sriracha aiolis. The only thing I asked to have omitted was the cilantro.

Knowing that there’s a need to avoid any contamination with the food, I understood why there was a glass barrier built between the prep station and the customers, but it did seem a tad too tall. Sure, I could see everything they were doing, yet it felt like it was more difficult to talk to the staff as they were assembling the bowls. Also, despite there being three people prepping the food, it seemed to take a bit of time. This could be a slight detriment to patrons if they’re expecting to be in and out, especially if they’re seeking something quick during a short break in their workday. Hopefully, with practice, the staff will be able to speed things up. And, they’ll likely have more premade bowls available for pick up in the cooler once they’re operating on a regular schedule.

The Works, a Splash Favourite.

Going back to my bowl, it was beautifully put together with layers upon layers of ingredients and flavours. However, my initial thought was that it was a tad too salty. I think the crab mix and the shoyu – a soy sauce made of fermented soy bean and wheat – were the main culprits. Next time, I’ll definitely ask that they lighten up on the shoyu. For my base, I had also selected the vermicelli noodles. Although they were the perfect consistency and refrained from being sticky, they didn’t do as good a job of soaking up extra sauce. Rice may prove to be the better bet and also be more filling. On the plus side, I loved that every bite brought a different flavour to my palate. With everything from seaweed salad to corn and panko to jalapenos merged into one dish, there was so much going on with regards to taste and texture that I never knew exactly what to expect as I continued to eat. Most importantly, the fish was exceptionally fresh as well.

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d opt for The Works bowl again. Yes, it was a great way to try it all in one go. But, ultimately, I now know that there are flavours I preferred. If anything, it’s likely that The Tropical bowl would fit the bill for me with salmon, tuna, scallop, pineapple and mango. I found that the fruit paired really well with the raw fish and was wonderfully refreshing; the sweet natural juices actually helped to balance out any spiciness or saltiness in the sauces.

Personally, I think that Splash Poke would be a good alternative to some of the other nearby dining options. While some may argue that the increase in cost between protein portions is a lot – 1 scoop of protein is $9.95, 2 scoops for $13.95 and 3 scoops for $15.95 – I’d say that it’s pretty reasonable considering the type of meat. If one were to go to a sushi restaurant for sashimi, one piece can work out to almost $2 on average. From what I saw, at least during the preview lunch, the portions were generous here, so it seems with merit for the fish and scallop. The chicken and tofu are another story though.

Before leaving, I spoke with the owner, Angela Wong, to clarify the prices of the Splash Favourites, too. Those bowls are all made with two scoops of protein and, therefore, they do come in at $13.95. When I left I was full and satisfied, so the cost would have been justified by me. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to places like The Chopped Leaf where people are willing to shell out money for food there. Except, I truly believe that what I’m getting at Splash Poke is an elevated product at a comparable price point.

All-in-all, Splash Poke is on the right track. For the shop, it will come down to the quality of service and their ability to keep things as fresh as possible. As long as they deliver on both of those fronts, they’re sure to win over the lunchtime crowd and Edmonton’s downtown dwellers and visitors. Judging by the turnout yesterday evening, it seems that they may have already done so.

Visit Splash Poke when you have a chance!