SABOR Restaurant’s 3rd Annual Seafood Festival

Portuguese Surf & Turf

Portuguese Surf & Turf

After writing a profile about SABOR Restaurant for the Local Good, I was invited to attend the launch dinner for their 3rd Annual Seafood Festival. Taking place on Tuesday evening, I had the pleasure of experiencing just some of the offerings on this year’s menu.

Designed in a partnership between Chef Lino Oliveira of SABOR and Chef Jan Hansen of Hotel Arts in Calgary, the menu showcases a variety of dishes crafted using seafood approved by Ocean Wise. Served up family-style, guests sampled a range of plates including sardina escalivada, gambas al ajillo, scallop & limpet ceviche, heirloom tomato & queijo fresco montadito (the only one served without seafood was essentially a bruschetta on toasted bread) and amêijoas á bulhão pato.

The latter is a fancy name for clams steamed in white wine, garlic and cilantro. I usually can’t eat food cooked with cilantro as the herb is not a friend to my taste buds. Yet, somehow, I loved these. Maybe the broth helped to wash away the larger pieces of cilantro leaving me with the white wine and garlic reduction. All I know is that the ingredients were relatively simple, but the flavour truly popped.

The sardina escalivada surprised me. I don’t usually eat sardines as I find them to be too fishy and/or salty, but these were wonderfully seasoned and paired well with a bed of eggplant.

Gambas al Ajillo

Gambas al Ajillo

However, my favourite starter of the night had to be the gambas al ajillo, which are jumbo shrimp complete with shell and head prepared using wine and garlic. We hand peeled them open to reveal delicious meat and, as Lino instructed us, we sucked all of the juice out of those heads. Manners aside, everyone seated at the two long tables took to the scampi with gusto!

Croquetas de Bacalao

Croquetas de Bacalao

Appetizers were followed by Jan’s croquetas de bacalao, a dish of lingcod potato fritters with a spicy hot piri piri aioli. Some thought that the spice was a bit strong, but I quite liked it. I found that the heat started strong to give the dish a kick, yet it dissipated quickly enough so as not to overwhelm my palate.

The stars of the evening were absolutely the two main courses though.

Our first was the caldeirada de peixe, consisting of thick cuts of supple sablefish with seared skin still on and full lobster tails bathed in a savoury saffron-lobster broth. I found that the skin of the sablefish wasn’t crisp enough for me to enjoy the texture, but the mouthfeel of the actual meat was great. It fell apart in perfect pieces and the fish really soaked up the broth. As for the lobster, it’s not often that I get to eat it, so it was a real delight to have some that was so perfectly prepared.

Somehow I plated my Portuguese surf and turf perfectly.

Somehow I plated my Portuguese surf and turf perfectly.

Our last entrée was Jan’s take on Portuguese surf and turf. Chorizo-stuffed Alberta lamb rump was matched with a smoked paprika charred octopus. Both were served over a bed of migas – black kale, pine nuts and white navy beans – that provided a light citrus taste. Personally, I would have preferred the black kale to be less wilted, but I will admit that the more I ate it, the more I enjoyed it. The lamb was so tender that it didn’t need to be cut with a knife, and the curled octopus tentacle was fantastically charred just enough to give it that smoky, spiced flavor without overpowering the meat.

Caramel flan for dessert.

Caramel flan for dessert.

Although SABOR was promoting their Seafood Festival, they did not find a way to incorporate seafood into dessert (is that even a possibility?). Instead, they offered up a light and creamy caramel flan with almonds, walnuts and fresh raspberries, which is quite fitting for a restaurant that is known for working with Iberian, Mediterranean and Portuguese cuisines.

Guests during the preview event were also dazzled by the musical stylings of co-owner Christian Mena, who showed off his strong pipes by serenading us with a couple of songs. Having heard that Christian used to be a member of local band Maracujah and that he once toured with Neil Patrick Harris in the Broadway musical Rent, it wasn’t necessarily a shock to hear how good he was. Rather, it was a real treat for everyone there.

Chef Jan Hansen of Hotel Arts and Chef Lino Oliveira of SABOR.

Chef Jan Hansen of Hotel Arts and Chef Lino Oliveira of SABOR.

SABOR’s Seafood Festival runs through the month of August, and I’d highly recommend it. This is the ideal place to unwind with friends and/or family. The restaurant has a warm and welcoming atmosphere and the food has always been superb. Plus, be sure to visit from Wednesday to Saturday when they have live music. Perhaps you’ll even catch Christian at the mike. No matter what, if you’re a seafood fan, you won’t be disappointed.

Read more about SABOR in my original review

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Normand’s Bistro

Bison Carpaccio

Bison Carpaccio

The list of eateries located right around the Winspear Centre in Edmonton isn’t extensive. Within a block, I can only think of about a handful. Although, you’ll find some great ones if you branch out a little further. One that I think is often overlooked is Normand’s Bistro. Tucked inside the Citadel Theatre building, it’s popular with theatre goers who are seeking some food prior to a show. Otherwise, I don’t expect that it’s a place people go out of their way to eat at.

I’ve found myself there on just two occasions since it opened.

My first visit was during Downtown Dining Week in 2014. Over a quick lunchtime catch up with friends, I selected the pan seared salmon. I remember it being nicely plated with the perfectly cooked fish and vegetables sitting atop a pool of delicious sauce. At $15 for two courses, it was a steal during the annual showcase. I’m pretty sure that dish is still on offer today as an entrée on the restaurant’s menu, albeit, for an increased price.

Despite the good impression Normand’s Bistro left on me, I didn’t make a point of going back for nearly two years.Without a reason to be there, I ventured off to other eateries instead.

Recently, however, I had tickets for a show at the Winspear, which is right across the street from the Citadel building. My dad and I were trying to decide where we should go to grab a bite before the concert. I suggested Normand’s Bistro because of the proximity.

Since the Citadel had a play scheduled that night, I made sure to book a table at the restaurant ahead of time. I’m glad I did as Normand’s Bistro was packed that evening. Most of the seats were occupied, but there was no wait with our reservation, which means we were promptly shown to our table.

I had already studied the menu ahead of time, so I had an idea of what I wanted to try. We decided to share a few plates: Candied Lamb Sliders, Bison Carpaccio and Double Bacon Pizza (I had hoped to get the Prosciutto, Mushroom Pizza, but it didn’t seem to be offered any longer).

It may have been best to ask that our pizza come out after the appetizers. Instead, we said everything could arrive at the same time, and it led to food sitting out and getting cold before we were able to get to it. Also, not really realizing at the time, we made the mistake of ordering more carbs than intended.

Candied Lamb Sliders

Candied Lamb Sliders

The Candied Lamb Sliders are a decent size and the meat is well-seasoned (garlic, brown sugar with pear and onion compote). I liked it so much that I saved my last half of the third “slider” as my final bite before dessert. The only issue with waiting until the end of the meal to eat the lamb is that the meat firms up as it cools down. Ideally, it’s better to have that one as soon as it’s delivered from the kitchen. One minor qualm with the appetizer that I want to mention is that it isn’t a true slider. Without both the bottom and top of a bun, I’d consider this to be a crostini dish. Don’t assume you’re going to be given a plate of mini burgers.

I was interested in sampling the Bison Carpaccio as I’m a big fan of beef carpaccio, and I thought it would be neat to taste a different type of meat prepared in this fashion. I enjoyed this iteration of the dish. The bison has a heartier texture than the beef usually used for carpaccio. I’m sure that’s an outcome of the meat itself as well as the length of time the meat is cured for. Otherwise, it was a basic carpaccio dish with the bison accompanied by white truffle oil and reduced balsamic. Some slices of rye crostini were served, too.

Double Bacon Pizza

Double Bacon Pizza

Pizza is one of the more affordable options on the Normand’s Bistro menu. At under $20, the restaurant doesn’t skimp on the toppings. Our Double Bacon Pizza was generously loaded with cheese, wild boar back bacon, double smoked bacon and tomato basil pesto as its base. The only downfall is that the thin pizza crust didn’t hold up that well. I alternated between the various dishes we ordered and I noticed that the pizza crust sort of got soggy quickly and didn’t have the bite or chew of a traditional Italian pizza. The smoky flavour of the bacon was delicious though.

Those three shared plates left us comfortably full, but I’d heard that the dessert was worth getting. In particular, the Bananas Flambé. At first glance, it looks like you’re given a huge portion size, but the slices of banana that have been set ablaze in maple syrup and dark rum aren’t all that filling. Presented with pecans, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a few berries, it’s a relatively light dessert, especially when split with a dining companion. For the simple fact that it becomes a very sweet dish after a handful of bites, divvying it up between a couple of people is something I would recommend anyway.

Bananas Flambé

Bananas Flambé

Normand’s Bistro isn’t the place to go if you’re hoping for exciting, experimental dishes. Like its sister eatery, Normand’s Restaurant, the food falls under more traditional fare. The offerings are passable and the service is decent (they seem to be aware that their customers have a short time frame to eat before heading out to a show or event nearby). Should one be in need of some sustenance in the general vicinity, this is an okay choice.

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 Restaurant Review: Canteen

A close-up photo of the seared duck...beautiful.

A close-up photo of the seared duck…beautiful.

Within the past year, I have made it to Canteen (@Canteenyeg) on 124 Street just two times, the second of which was about 11 months after the first. Taking such a long break between visits was not due to the quality of the food. On the contrary, the first meal I had was delicious. I’ll chalk up the delay to Edmonton bursting at the seams with great restaurants that are kicking ass and taking names while keeping me from going back to previously tried eateries.

However, Canteen (sister establishment to the beloved Red Ox Inn) did warrant another tasting, especially since it has made The Tomatos list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton for two years in a row now (No. 8 in 2013 and No. 40 in 2014). My initial dinner at the establishment happened well before my friend and I decided to tackle the 2013 restaurants. As such, I felt that we needed a more recent evening sampling their menu before I could give Canteen an actual review.

During our original meal we had chickpea fries to share as our appetizer. Then my friend followed that up with an entree of white fish (likely halibut, tilapia or cod) as well as the bread pudding for dessert. For my main, I selected the lamb, and to finish off my meal, I had the chocolate ganache. Supper was incredibly filling, but completely satisfying.

This last dinner in October was no different. Arriving probably 15 to 20 minutes earlier than our booked OpenTable reservation, we were greeted warmly by the hostess who took us right to our table.

The interior of Canteen...very modern and industrial.

The interior of Canteen…very modern and industrial.

Our server came by to say hello, so we each chose a beverage off of the menu – a cider for myself and a cocktail for my friend – and we decided to split an order of the corn fritters with smoky maple syrup to start. I noticed that, while the selection of items changes regularly at Canteen, a number of the dishes remained the same as previous. That’s not a bad thing though. It kind of ensures that what you’re eating is likely what has remained popular with patrons and that, if you loved that plate, you’ll probably be able to get it when you return. The corn fritters were very tasty. Nice and fluffy, but crisp on the outside like little beignets, they were savoury and just a tad spicy. Once dipped in the smoky maple syrup that came with them, the sweetness from the sauce created this excellent contrast.

An order of the sweet and spicy corn fritters to share on our second visit!

An order of the sweet and spicy corn fritters to share on our second visit!

When duck is available in any form, both of us have a hard time passing it up, so we didn’t. We each ordered the seared duck breast for our entree. Beautifully plated, the dish looked like a work of art – slightly pink meat with seared brown skin, bright green snap peas, dark beluga lentils, magenta and white butter radishes, deep burgundy cherry mostarda and dollops of green garlic. Yet, it wasn’t so gorgeous as to stop us from polishing everything away. The duck breast was the most tender I have ever eaten. You could literally almost cut the meat apart with only a fork. The meat was juicy and the skin and fat gave it some bite as well as amped up the flavour without being overly salted. All of the other additions to the plate created a fantastic balance of textures.

The two of us opted to move along to another location for dessert, but before we did, I asked to have a look at the menu. Their amazing bread pudding, which I happily had a bite of when my friend ate it the first time, is not currently being offered. A different variation of the chocolate ganache I had eaten graces the list, as does a lemon crema and a poppyseed cake. I’m certain that no matter what is consumed here, it’ll be scrumptious.

Canteen's dessert menu on our last visit in October.

Canteen’s dessert menu on our last visit in October.

Canteen is just one of many wonderful establishments that has popped up in the last few years, and I can definitely say that it is one worth trying.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment’s involvement in the local community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of Canteen (and Red Ox Inn).

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sugarbowl

The Sugarbowl (@sugarbowlcafe), serving Edmontonians in various forms since 1943, is a community favourite in an area peppered with popular independent restaurants. Known for their famous cinnamon buns (Seriously, who would have thought that a roll without cream cheese icing would be so good! Plus, one bun is essentially a meal on its own.), they have plenty of other items to please the palate.

Patrons enjoying their meals and conversations.

Patrons enjoying their meals and conversations.

My very first visit to the establishment was several years ago, likely when I was still finishing up my Bachelor’s degree. I ordered the lamb burger and was blown away by the flavour of the meat and the use of goat cheese, a combination I had not yet experienced at the time. I’ve never forgotten that burger or the restaurant. It was the place to be before it really mattered where you hung out. And, while I was a bit late to the game considering I was born and bred in the city, it has since become a top venue to chat with family over breakfast or meet up with friends for drinks.

My girlfriends and I did exactly that approximately a month and a half ago. We met up for brunch at about 11 AM on a Saturday morning knowing full well that, by arriving at that late hour on the weekend, we might possibly miss out on the coveted cinnamon buns (we were, in fact, too late to get one!). On the other hand, it was during that sweet spot between the early morning risers and the lunch crowd, so my friend managed to grab a table quickly before the rest of us got there.

The brunch menu is pretty succinct, so it wasn’t too hard to make our decisions that day. After finding out that the cinnamon bun was no longer an option, my friend chose to go with the french toast. My other friend ordered the huevos rancheros, which was one of the menu items that was mentioned on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton this year (overall, the restaurant came in at No. 5 in 2014 and No. 15 in 2013). I went with the chicken & waffle, a dish that seems to be a little more prevalent at food establishments lately.

The chicken and waffles from the breakfast menu.

The chicken and waffles from the breakfast menu.

I didn’t sample my friends’ orders, but I was told that the french toast – fried brioche pastry/bread covered in berry compote and whipped cream – was a worthy alternative to the cinnamon bun goodness that she didn’t get to eat. I’m certain that if you’re looking for a somewhat sugary breakfast, the french toast will certainly do the job. The huevos rancheros, touted by patrons as one of the top selections for breakfast, turned out to be a bit underwhelming. Consisting of 2 eggs, corn tortilla, spicy beans, three cheeses and salsa verde, my friend wanted me to say that she thought the addition of a starch would have been ideal – hash browns or toast perhaps?

Personally, I was really happy with my chicken & waffle. Plated with two perfectly cooked waffles and two pieces of lightly breaded buttermilk, spice marinated chicken breasts, I knew I was in for a filling and hearty meal. Served with a small side of greens and a little cup of maple butter, it presented the scrumptious combination of savoury and sweet flavours. The spices from the chicken were strong enough to break through the almost too sugary maple taste as well as the blueberry syrup that I had added to my waffles. All-in-all, the dish is very well-balanced and a good contender for those who can never decide between having something salty or sweet during brunch.

Sometime this summer, when the weather decides to stay steadily warm with just a light breeze, I would like to visit again for lunch or dinner on the patio. It’s been a while since I have had the opportunity to sample from those menus and I’d love to see if the lamb burger still lives up to my memory of it.

I also have to hand it to the servers here. They always have smiles on their faces, they are fun, friendly and they do a great job of checking in throughout your meal to remove empty dishes and refill drinks as needed without giving you the sense of being overbearing. There’s a real feeling of camaraderie between the staff that shines through, too.

When we were done our food, cappuccinos and orange juice, we cleared out to make room for others who were waiting patiently for tables. The only downside is that they don’t take reservations. But, I suppose that is part of the charm of the Sugarbowl. There’s something about being in line, anticipating your turn to sit down, watching everyone else have a great time, and knowing that you will soon join them.