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

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wing Chicx

Sizzling Spicy Pork

Continuing with our exploration of Korean cuisine in Edmonton, my friends and I recently met up for lunch at Wing Chicx before attending an escape game in the Ellerslie area. Tucked away in a strip mall, it’s a compact restaurant with about a dozen tables.

Although the ambiance is nothing to write home about, it is clean, comfortable and the décor is bright and colourful.

As we snacked on the complimentary starters, the four of us took some time to review the options on the menu and once we were ready, the server came over to take our order. A few of us opted for dishes that were marked as spicy on the menu and when we asked just how hot the dishes would be, the server told us they were on the higher end and she suggested we go more mild. Before we did, we inquired as to whether or not extra spice could be added after the fact and she seemed to indicate that it wasn’t possible.

My boyfriend and his skillet of spicy chicken.

My boyfriend decided to go for the spicy option on his sizzling spicy chicken dish. The thinly sliced meat was marinated in hot sauce and served on a bed of cabbage with green onions sprinkled on top. It looked really good, but he didn’t think it was fiery enough. It’s a fair assessment coming from someone who puts sriracha sauce on almost everything.

For my girlfriend’s plate of spicy pork, she took the server’s recommendation and had the heat toned down, which she did regret (if she had her way, the spice would have been taken up a notch as well). The dish itself was prepared in the same fashion as the chicken, so there wasn’t any difference in terms of presentation. I sampled a piece of the pork and I enjoyed the flavours, but it certainly lacked any kick and it was a little bit greasy.

Chicken Tangsuyook

Her husband went for the large order of the chicken tangsuyook, where the meat comes battered, deep fried and smothered in a sweet and sour sauce. The chicken was mixed with a colourful array of veggies and fruit including carrots, pineapple, onions as well as red and green bell peppers. The meat was tender and lightly battered.

Spicy Beef Stew

I decided to be different by going for a bowl of the beef stew. I requested that they keep it spicy and I think this one delivered in that department. Unlike the other dishes, there was a lingering heat to the soup. It tasted good and I appreciated the sweet potato noodles and the sliced mushrooms; however, it didn’t seem to have as much meat and I spent a lot of time swirling the soup around trying to find more of the ingredients. This was the least expensive item out of everything we ordered. Maybe that’s the reason why they skimped on the soup. If that is the case, I’d rather they charge a dollar or two more to make the soup heartier.

All of the dishes were served with a bowl of rice on the side. Excluding the soup, I’d say that the rest of the plates were well-portioned for the price. Also, if you like piping hot food, the soup was still boiling when it arrived at our table and those sizzling skillets were spitting grease and sauce all over when they were settled in front of my friends.

Personally, I’m not sure I’d visit Wing Chicx again of my own accord, but I wouldn’t say no if someone else wanted to go there. The food was decent enough that I’d be okay eating there on another occasion. It simply wouldn’t be my first choice. Perhaps if I had taken into account the online reviews raving about the fried chicken and gone with that instead, I’d feel differently. Yet, based on my experience, I can really take it or leave it at this point.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: SEORAK Teppan & Bar

A chef lighting up the teppan grill.

A chef lighting up the teppan grill.

At the start of the year, I found myself scrolling through the list of participating OpenTable restaurants in the Edmonton area. I was attempting to remind myself of places I’d had yet to visit, which I would then be able to recommend to my friend as suggestions for our upcoming lunch or dinner meeting.

As I perused the directory, one popped up that I hadn’t heard of. SEORAK Teppan & Bar was unfamiliar to me. I Googled the name and it seemed to have opened on Whyte Avenue just a few months prior.

Fast forward a couple of weeks later to when my boyfriend and I were heading to Nongbu for dinner with our friends. We happened to drive east down 82 Avenue and I spotted the exterior of SEORAK on 108 Street. Its simple signage is unassuming. Paired with the fact that there aren’t many happening restaurants past about 106 Street, SEORAK could be easily overlooked. Yet, maybe the lack of much else on that block is what made it stand out to me that night.

Towards the end of January or beginning of February, it was decided that we would make some sort of plans for Valentine’s; however, we wouldn’t be partaking on the actual day. It was going to be low key. My only stipulation was that I wanted to go somewhere new because it would allow me to blog about it. So, I complied about a handful of restaurants.  I sent them to my boyfriend to check out all of the menus and asked him to pick. Ultimately, we landed on SEORAK.

When this particular Saturday finally rolled around, our day started off with brunch at home and then a few hours of painting ceramics at Crankpots ahead of dinner. We arrived in advance of our reservation and it was still rather early in the evening, meaning it was relatively quiet at that point. Only about four other tables were seated.

One of the servers came up to greet us and he immediately apologized for the wait. He cited that the restaurant was short staffed and then he quickly brought up my name. Once he checked us in, he started to lead us to a table closer to the teppan grill, but, at the last second, he guided us over to a booth nearer the windows.

Now, here’s the thing, I never tell restaurants that I’m a blogger (although, they can probably guess when I pull out my camera and start taking photos). It’s a rarity that I mention anything because I don’t really want to be treated differently than anyone else who walks through the door. However, on this occasion, I pulled the card and asked if it’d be possible to be sat across from the teppan as I hoped to take photos without getting in anyone’s way. The server then introduced himself as the owner, Sa Hwang. He explained that it was going to be busy that evening and his manager had made the arrangements regarding the reservations, so he’d speak to him and see if we could be moved. The manager was over a couple of minutes later and he had us swiftly placed at another table with an optimal view of the show. We thanked him for being so understanding.

The SEORAK logo along with a few of their signature cocktails.

The SEORAK logo along with a few of their signature cocktails.

Our server for the evening, Joanna, came by shortly after to introduce herself and to ask us if we’d like any drinks to start. With ten minutes to spare before happy hour was over, we managed to sneak in an order of four cocktails at the lowered prices. Basically, all of their signature drinks are offered for $1.50 to $2 less. I’d say the one that makes the most of the Asian theme would be the Lychee Lollipop as it incorporates both the lychee flavour as well as soju, a Korean liquor. The Aloe-Ha is a typical tropical drink that went down smoothly, and the Kraken Cider was a delicious mix of spiced rum, Asian apple cider, ginger ale and fresh squeezed lemon that was garnished with a stick of cinnamon.

Having trouble deciding on what to eat, I asked Joanna for recommendations. She indicated that some of the menu items had been updated recently, so she suggested a few that she really likes, including the Kimchi Bombs. As we needed a bit more time to come to a conclusion on our meal, we opted to go with those as our appetizer. The plate appeared at our table not too long after. Three balls of kimchi rice stuffed with mozzarella cheese and deep fried until crisp on the outside were garnished with green onions or leeks and a sweet aioli. I love a good mac and cheese ball, and this is, essentially, its cousin. At first, I wasn’t overly impressed. I mainly got a bite of the rice and no cheese. But, as soon as I had a taste of the rice with the gooey mozzarella and crispy outer shell coated in the sweet aioli (surprisingly not creamy like a mayo) with the tanginess of the onions, I realized that all of the flavours just balanced each other out and the textures definitely worked together.

By the time we had devoured our starter, the mains that we opted to share were being put together in the kitchen. I took in the whole restaurant while we waited. The design is sleek and modern yet also welcoming. The marbled countertops at the grill and the bar are gorgeous. Nearly every table in the house (granted, not all of the seats) have a view of the teppan. The only thing I noticed was off were the bar stools. I didn’t try sitting in them, but they seemed a tad too tall for the height of the bar. Otherwise, down to the outlines of Mount Seorak (located in South Korea) on the wall next to us and the use of diverse textures and neutral colours, it’s a really well thought out space.

By 6:30, all of the tables were occupied, so there was a buzz in the place. Not loud though, so it was perfect for conversing. I was watching the chefs cooking up a storm on the grill and snapping photos. Eventually, the Pork Belly Trio was dropped off at our table with a bowl of rice. Not long after, the Korean Shortrib that I had selected showed up as well. We had been warned that due to the different cooking times for each dish, the arrival of them may be staggered. Since we were planning to share, it didn’t really matter, but I suppose it’s something to take into consideration when dining at SEORAK.

Although the menu at SEORAK integrates both Korean and Japanese (i.e. okonomiyaki) cuisines,  we stuck strictly to the Korean selections in this instance.

For the Pork Belly Trio, my boyfriend picked the Seoul Chili flavour for the meat. That particular option came with sheets of nori, pickled radish and a carrot/purple cabbage slaw in a sesame dressing. I hadn’t expected it to come out plated the way it was. When I absorbed what I saw, it occurred to me that all of the separated portions of the dish could be compiled together to make mini wraps. Personally, I really enjoyed the opportunity to play with my food. Each thing tasted great on its own, but the layers of flavour experienced when everything is combined is stellar. The Korean BBQ pork belly was cooked well and most of the really fatty parts had rendered away. I expected the meat to be spicier, but it was actually very subtle. The nori was fresh and had that snappiness to it that gave way without a struggle when I took a bite.  I always appreciate a good sesame slaw, too. This, paired with the acidity from the pickled radish just added an extra oomph of flavour. The colours were also beautifully vibrant.

I voted for the Korean Shortrib dish and it did not disappoint. Sure, it could have used a little extra garnishing. Perhaps a side of veggies to go with it. Aside from that, the AAA Alberta boneless short ribs were top notch. Yes, the meat is sliced fairly thin, but there were three long slabs of beef placed on the hot skillet, likely amounting to about ten ounces of steak. The bottom piece was about half to three quarters of an inch thick and cooked to medium/medium rare. The meat was succulent with just a slight amount of fat, which helped to ramp up the flavour of the Korean Kalbi (or Galbi) marinade of Asian pear, soy, honey garlic and sesame.  I ate up every last bite of the short ribs and the rice. In the end, I even added in the leftover radish and slaw from the pork belly dish for good measure.

Green Tea-rimisu

Green Tea-rimisu

To finish off our celebratory evening, we skipped the snowbowl (a finely shaved ice dessert only available in Edmonton at SEORAK) and went for the Green Tea-rimisu. I’m not going to lie, it took me a second to grasp that it was a matcha flavoured take on the traditional Italian tiramisu. It was presented in a pretty ceramic bowl with a matching lid. I opened it to reveal matcha powder sprinkled on the top in the shape of a clover (maybe a regular leaf would be a better shape and more in line with the idea of a tea leaf, but I digress). This was a well executed dessert. Nevertheless, I’d argue that it lacked the matcha flavour throughout. I did like the use of a Korean cookie as the base of the tiramisu though. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the flavour. I wanted to say it was black sesame or something, but it may have simply been chocolate.

All-in-all, SEORAK was an excellent choice in the Old Scona area. Everything from the food to the service was first-rate. Even on a night when they were short staffed (Sa was at the grill cooking and there were only two servers), the manager and Joanna were really attentive to us as well as the other diners. The dishes and drinks all made it out to customers in a prompt fashion and the integrity of the restaurant never wavered.

With our bellies full, I caught Sa when he had a moment away from the teppan. I praised the fantastic meal and said we’d be back. In fact, I’m already licking my lips in anticipation of our next visit to SEORAK.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: NongBu Korean Eatery

Snacks and a pot of makguli to get us started.

Snacks and a pot of makguli to get us started.

My friends and I seem to be on a bit of an Asian cuisine kick at the moment. One of our recent tries was NongBu Korean Eatery. Following a rather chilly evening at Ice Castles Edmonton in Hawrelak Park, we decided to head to Whyte Avenue to check it out for a late supper.

On an oddly quiet Friday night in Old Strathcona, the restaurant was fairly empty when we arrived at around 9:00pm. Granted, NongBu closes quite early at ten o’clock, so maybe it had already cleared out as only two or three other tables were occupied.

The eatery has a sparse modern industrial feel to it with a metal accent wall, lots of grey, cement-like paint, vintage wooden school chairs sprayed black, exposed ceilings and beams as well as a second floor loft. The look is toned down by the use of natural woods throughout. I was surprised by the size of the space, too. Based on the outside of the building, I expected it to be smaller; however, the top floor would be excellent for bigger groups. I also enjoyed seeing that some movies/videos were being projected on the far wall. That’s a different touch that I’ve only ever seen at a two or three other places when I was on holiday.

They have a variety of drinks available. We went for the makguli (Korean rice wine).

They have a variety of drinks available. We went for the makguli (Korean rice wine).

The couple that my boyfriend and I were dining with made it to NongBu earlier than us. By the time we got there, they had taken the liberty of ordering a pot of makguli – Korean rice wine – for the table. Apparently, it’s brewed in-house, but I could be mistaken. At 6% alcohol, it’s a smooth, milky coloured drink that paired well with the complimentary snacks provided. While we perused the menu, we sipped on that and nibbled on kimchi, popcorn, spinach, pickled radish and eggplant.

It took some deliberation before we were all ready to make our selections. I went with a classic KimChi BoKumBap. My boyfriend chose the JjimDak, and our friends decided to share the Spicy DdukBboKki and the Pork BulGoGi Ssam.

The food was prepared so swiftly. Before we knew it, we had piping hot plates sitting in front of us. First off, I’d like to say that the portion sizes are generous. All of the eatery’s options are ideal for sharing; it’s likely the intention of the restaurant that patrons mix and match a few things between them. We just opted for more individual meals on this occasion.

I sampled the rice cake and fishcake in the Spicy DdukBboKki. This is very traditional Korean street fare, and the rice cake should have a slight chewiness to it owing to the glutinous rice used. This totally fit the bill, and the spiciness was there without being overwhelming. I’d be incredibly full if I tried to eat a whole helping of this, especially as an appetizer to an entrée, so this is best when split with others.

For their main, my friends had the pan fried spicy pork belly Ssam (lettuce wraps) with vegetables. The hefty pile of meat and leaves were served with cucumber and jalapeno slices and a hot sauce. I tasted a piece of the pork belly. It was succulent and perfectly coated with just the right amount of marinade.

JjimDak

JjimDak

My boyfriend wasn’t really a fan of the sweet potato noodles that came with his JjimDak (good thing he also received a bowl of rice). When he saw the words “sweet potato,” he was expecting something more orange and probably starchier. As it turns out, these noodles were translucent and a medium thickness. Any so-called colouring was caused by the spicy soy sauce used to flavour the dish. I missed out on trying the chicken and the veggies as my boyfriend devoured everything so quickly. I ate what was left of his noodles though. Personally, I loved the smooth texture of them. The soy sauce was also savoury without being overly salty, albeit lacking any heat.

KimChi BoKumBap

KimChi BoKumBap

For my own dinner, when I see that there’s a fried egg served on top of something, I usually find it difficult to skip over. Attempting to warm up after an hour spent outdoors, my eyes and stomach were quick to pick the KimChi BoKumBap.

My plate was filled with a mountainous pile of kimchi and pork belly fried rice. That was topped by the egg with its beautiful yellow yolk, sesame seeds, green onions and nori. I popped the yolk and watched the egg drip down into the rice. The fried egg is completely necessary to give the BoKumBap the proper consistency. Otherwise, this dish is tasty and has a subtle fieriness due to the ample kimchi. I also appreciated the earthy flavour profile from the flakes of nori and would have liked to see more of it. My one complaint is that they could have included larger pieces or an increased amount of the pork belly as I didn’t necessarily feel that there was enough meat. Still, it was a huge amount of food, which meant I packed up a serving big enough for lunch the next day.

By the time we were done eating, we had pretty much closed the place down. There wasn’t any time for dessert. Although, I’d argue that the desserts aren’t really all that appealing. I can go to the grocery store to buy myself a box of Melona bars, if I want to. I can even make my own Melona float or cocktail, and I won’t miss a yogurt drink, so there’s room for improvement at NongBu.

Nevertheless, everything else I experienced would bring me back in a heartbeat. From the food to the service and the quiet, casual atmosphere, I think this is a great location for a gathering of friends.