Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2015

Last year I decided to begin working my way through The Tomato‘s 100 best eats in Edmonton for 2013 and 2014.  There are still places that I haven’t made it to, and the challenge has only become harder with the release of the 2015 list this past March. Not to mention, new restaurants continue to spring up and compete for my attention. Needless to say, I wasn’t as on top of trying different places this year, but my second annual breakdown of my personal favourites in Edmonton does have some variation from my choices in 2014.

I still stand by the belief that any eatery is capable of blowing me away. Whether it’s an independent restaurant or part of a chain, there’s a reason why these places have lasted and continue to bring customers through their doors.

All of my selections are based off of the dishes that I’ve tried, so I by no means can vouch for the entire menu at each restaurant. However, I do feel that whatever I’ve eaten at these establishments are good indications of their brilliance or potential.

If you’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a great meal at the following locations, you’ll understand why they’ve made the cut. Otherwise, this list is my way of nudging all of you to step outside of your comfort zone to try somewhere and something new.

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1. Cibo Bistro
Still my favourite place in 2015. Everything is made from scratch. Delicious arancini, amazing cured in-house salumi, and fresh pasta with the perfect bite.

Review of Cibo Bistro

2. Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen
The official grand opening took place in November and the food really impressed me and my friend. Absolutely fantastic bone marrow agnolotti and tender, smoked duck were the stars.

Review of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

3. Woodwork
I recently visited again and it reminded me of why I like this place so much. Talented bartenders mix perfect cocktails, which are usually imbibed with plates of food that often consist of flavourful house-smoked meat.

Review of Woodwork

4. Canteen
The menu changes seasonally, but I still think about the duck breast I had. Visually, it was gorgeous, but it was also incredibly succulent. The chickpea fries and corn fritters are also great for sharing.

Review of Canteen

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5. Rostizado
A great place for gatherings, the platter of 2 consisting of juicy and tasty roasted Four Whistle Farms pork and chicken creates a family-like atmosphere during your meal. Make sure to order the caramel flan for dessert, which is arguably even better than the churros.

Review of Rostizado

6. Duchess Bake Shop
My mom’s first visit to Duchess took place this year, and she loved the desserts. She’s pretty critical, so if she says something is good, it is. The key lime tart is still my top pick here. The banana cream pie has a wonderfully flaky crust, plenty of banana and lots of fresh whipped cream.

Review of Duchess Bake Shop

7. Corso 32
I was maybe a little harsh with Corso 32 last year. My expectations were very high after hearing all the rave reviews before trying it for myself. But, I concede that the fried short rib was a more than memorable dish.

Review of Corso 32

8. Tres Carnales
My quick and dirty review from last year still stands: “This is Mexican street food at its finest. Every time I have been to this establishment, the service has been quick and the food has been fantastic. The guacamole is a tasty starter for the table (I love it even though it contains cilantro). The various aguas – flavoured waters – are a must to quench your thirst on a hot day. If you ever have the chance to eat them, get the duck tacos! They are stellar, but a rarity nowadays. The al pastor quesadilla is a close second.”

Review of Tres Carnales

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9. El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar
I was skeptical of El Cortez prior to visiting in August. When it first opened, I had heard the food wasn’t all that great, but chef Lindsay Porter who took over a few short months later created a top notch menu. The fried cauliflower and the bulgogi steak tacos are awesome.

Review of El Cortez

10. Rosso Pizzeria
The wood-fired pizza is a must.  I also highly recommend the ricotta with olive oil, which is indulgent, but light. Don’t leave without dessert. The homemade gelato is superb.

Review of Rosso Pizzeria

11. Nosh Cafe
This restaurant moved to 124 Street within the last year and business has been slow to build at their new location. However, I’ve been several times and the traditional Indian dishes – palak paneer and butter chicken – are consistently good.

Review of Nosh Cafe

12. Cactus Club Cafe
I know this is a chain. But, arguably, they know what they’re doing when it comes to food and drinks. I’ve never had a disappointing meal at either location. The dishes that keep me coming back include the beef carpaccio, the BBQ duck clubhouse and the calamari (the addition of the fried jalapeno slices is genius).

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13. Joey Restaurants
Don’t start rolling your eyes. This is the second chain on this list and there are reasons for it. I’ve been frequenting Joey for as long as I can remember. It was the place my friends and I would go for a night out. We’d feel like adults as we had long conversations over what we considered to be pretty fancy food at the time. Not much has changed. Joey has always been a mainstay for me. The menu has been revamped many times over the years, but I hope that they never remove that spectacular ahi tuna sandwich. I crave it.

14. Japonais Bistro
They have filling bento boxes that satisfy your belly and the matcha crème brûlée is addictive.

Review of Japonais Bistro

15. Izakaya Tomo
Must tries here include the crispy tako yaki (octopus balls), oyster ponzu and the prawn spring rolls. Gather a group of friends, order a bunch of plates and share everything!

Review of Izakaya Tomo

16. The Common
Go for the chicken and waffles – one of the best renditions available in Edmonton – or the unique tandoori calamari. They also have a great selection of craft beers and tasty cocktails.

Review of The Common

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17. Three Boars Eatery
This tapas style establishment has an ever-changing menu that is meant to be shared. If you can catch them, the lamb neck croquette, roasted beet and carrot salad, oka tart and the pork belly are highly recommended. The intimate space also makes it feel a little more special.

Review of Three Boars

18. Lazia
They’ve recently shifted the focus of their menu back to more Asian influenced dishes, and I think that was smart. The kitchen pleasantly surprised me with gorgeously plated and flavourful dishes that rivaled their sister restaurant, Wildflower Grill, but with price points that are slightly more accessible.

Review of Lazia

19. Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus BBQ
I was greatly disappointed when I found out that Absolutely Edibles closed. However, their sister restaurant, Sloppy Hoggs, still exists just down the block on 118 Avenue and 95 Street. The barbecued and slow-cooked meat served here is great and the portion sizes are generous. To top it off, the Absolutely Edibles brunch menu transferred over to this location. The waffles with the works (breaded chicken) are my top choice.

Review of Sloppy Hoggs

20. Ampersand 27
A beautiful atmosphere with equally beautiful dishes made for sharing. Get the melt-in-your-mouth maple butter pork belly.

Review of Ampersand 27

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21. The Cavern
Giving the option to select wine in 3 oz. or 6 oz. glasses and the chance to build a cheese and charcuterie board that is healthy and filling, you’ll likely be surprised to find that you don’t actually require anything else. With cheese, meat, nuts, dried fruit, jellies and bread, this is a meal in itself.

Review of The Cavern

22. The Art of Cake
Cupcakes, slab cakes, cruellers, and shortbread cookies are just a few of the baked goods that they offer at their store. It’s impossible to go wrong.

Review of The Art of Cake

23. Tiramisu Bistro
With an extensive menu, there’s probably something to satisfy everyone. I particularly liked the salmone pizza. Even better, after 5pm on Tuesdays, pizzas are buy one, get one half off.

Review of Tiramisu Bistro

24. Belgravia Hub
Tucked away in the Belgravia neighbourhood, this is an easy restaurant to overlook. However, don’t miss out on their contemporary comfort food. The corn fritters, mac and cheese bites and the braised beef are worth a visit.

Review of Belgravia Hub

Happy New Year and Happy Eating! See you in 2016!

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: Wildflower Grill

Bread to start off our meal.

Bread to start off our meal.

Wildflower Grill (@LaziaWFEast), brought to us by the owners of Lazia and the relatively new EAST, opened as part of the Matrix Hotel several years ago. Since it landed, it has received various accolades and continues to be recognized for their Canadian cuisine. In fact, readers of The Tomato named them the No. 90 best place to eat and drink in the city in 2013 for their braised beef short ribs alone.

In all the years that it has been there, I had heard so many good things and read some excellent reviews, but had never made a point of going. I think the price point may have been one reason that I steered away from it, but as I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve decided that food is literally one of my great loves in life, and I’m okay with the idea of indulging in a sumptuous meal every once in a while.

As such, since my friend and I were spending an evening nearby at the Art Gallery of Alberta to attend the museum’s most recent Road Trip themed Late Night Refinery event, we selected Wildflower Grill as the place to start our festivities.

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The menus

Because I’m a fan of reservations, I made sure to book a table in advance using the OpenTable system, so we were seated promptly when we arrived at the restaurant. Although it was starting to get warmer outside at the end of May, it still wasn’t quite mild enough to sit on the patio, so we opted to stay indoors as did everyone else. The interior of the establishment is quite sleek and modern, using lighter brown woods and shots of yellow, orange and green in the walls and art to make it feel welcoming.

Our server gave us the daily specials soon after we sat down and he was able to answer any questions we had about the food. He was also friendly, joking with us a little, but always remaining professional. When our food was ready, two other staff members brought our plates to us, but as soon as our server walked by he noticed that one was missing and immediately went to see why it hadn’t made it with the rest of the items, so it showed me that he was very attentive, which deserves props.

Three mushroom ravioli.

Three mushroom ravioli.

The menu isn’t extensive, but it still offers plenty of choices, which made it hard for my friend and I to choose what we wanted to go with. All the mains sounded fantastic; however, in the end, we both ordered two small dishes each. Assured by our server that it would be enough, we were happy to go that route as it meant we could sample more items, and we figured that if we were still hungry, we could always get dessert afterwards. Despite that thought, we never had to worry about leaving the restaurant with a half empty stomach because they started us off with an amuse bouche of smoked salmon and grapefruit as well as fresh baked bread that readied us for what lay ahead.

My dining companion ate the Potato Gnocchi and the Sour Cherry & Maple Glazed Duck Confit. The gnocchi was served with a sweet pea puree, triple smoked bacon, serrano ham chips and egg floss. I took a bite of it and the flavours were wonderful. They really popped and the gnocchi was browned and crisped from pan frying, so it had the proper texture. The sweet pea puree and the tomatoes were there to balance out the saltiness of the bacon and ham. Aside from gnocchi, my friend can usually never pass up the opportunity to eat duck and I think that it was appropriate. The meat was tender and paired well with the roast garlic risotto, caramelized brussel sprouts and carrots that it sat upon.

My meal consisted of the Three Mushroom Ravioli and the Braised Beef Shortrib (I couldn’t go there without trying this). The ravioli had a nice, not too thick pasta shell, and was amply stuffed with mushrooms. Placed on a bed of asparagus and drizzled with truffle oil, smoked applewood cheddar fonduta and topped with some shaved piave vecchio cheese (similar to Parmigiano Reggiano), the ravioli was a great example of pasta made from scratch. The beef short ribs were nothing short of spectacular. It was pure meat with very little detectable fat, if any at all, that pretty much melted in your mouth. The port demi glace and white balsamic reduction actually tasted great with bites of the ravioli that I combined with my short ribs.

Needless to say, we left completely satisfied and stuffed from those dishes (no room at all for dessert). I’m happy that The Tomato‘s list pushed me to try another establishment that I just never seemed to get to. Whether I’m back there this year or a few years from now, I am positive that it will be another good experience.

For a more in-depth look at the establishment’s involvement in the community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of Wildflower Grill.