Edmonton Event Review: Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up

Donair Dumplings

Placing in the top four of MasterChef Canada competitors (her season aired in the spring of 2017), chef Mai Nguyen returned to Edmonton with talent to spare. I’m going to call her the Dumpling Queen since she has parlayed her knowledge of cooking into making these delectable pocketed treats.

I’ve kept my eye on her social media, and I have drooled at photos of all the food that she has posted. I also lamented missing out on previous pop-ups that she has run. Every time one occurred, I happened to have previous plans that prevented me from attending. But, a week and a half ago, she hosted another one at Prairie Noodle Shop. You best believe that I booked a reservation as soon as I found out.

The full menu for the Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up on Oct 28.

Kirk and I arrived at the restaurant at noon (the earlier the better as the dumplings only last until sold out), and proceeded to order almost the entire wallet-friendly menu: Donair ($9 for 6 pieces), Bacon Cheeseburger ($11 for 6 pieces), Peaches & Shrimp ($11 for 5 pieces), Satay Chicken ($10 for 6 pieces), Oyster Soup Dumpling ($4 for a single), Roasted Kabocha Squash ($7 for 4 pieces), and Marinated Quail Eggs ($4 for 4 eggs). We also received a House Salad ($5) at no charge due to a delay with one of our items. Each dish was presented as they were prepared, so everything was served fresh and hot.

Peaches & Shrimp Dumplings

The first to come out was the Peaches & Shrimp. Kirk would have preferred that the shrimp was minced and mixed with other filling. But, I was okay with the shrimp being whole. The outside of the dumpling showcased a beautiful braided edge. The wrap was slightly crisp and a little bit sweet from the mayo. It’s a classic combo of flavours, taking influence from the famous Chinese favourite.

Next up was the Donair, which seemed to be filled with minced lamb. The meat was slightly drier, probably from the leaner cut. Still, these were very tasty when combined with the donair sauce, pickled onions and tomatoes. Having additional donair sauce for dipping would have taken these just a step further.

Marinated Quail Eggs

As we dined, I snacked on the Marinated Quail Eggs. These were delicate and delicious. Extremely well-flavoured with a smooth texture and not too hard. They were paired with pickled radishes that added crunch.

Bacon Cheeseburger Dumplings

Returning to the dumplings, we continued on our lunchtime journey with the Bacon Cheeseburger. These were fabulous. I kind of questioned them at first, mostly for the regular pickles listed in the ingredients. Thankfully, the pickles were just used as a topping to the dish and could be removed easily. The meat was incredibly juicy, and the fats that oozed out with every initial bite reminded me of eating a xiao long bao (soup dumpling). These ended up being my top choice of the day!

Oyster Soup Dumpling

Because Kirk isn’t keen on eating bivalve molluscs like oysters or mussels, I couldn’t convince him to give the Oyster Soup Dumpling a try. These were perfectly folded with black wraps coloured using squid ink. Admittedly, the high salinity content of the oyster can be hard for many to swallow. But, overall, I think that these showed a lot of craft, and if tweaked slightly, they could be winners.

House Salad

Part way through our meal, we realized it was likely that our last plate of dumplings was forgotten, so we quickly mentioned it to one of the servers. While we waited, they provided a complimentary House Salad. A rainbow mix of sliced raw radishes, carrot slivers and greens were tossed in a fragrant ginger soy sesame dressing. The acidity was such a nice cleanser on the palate before lunch ended.

Satay Chicken Dumplings

It wasn’t long before we received our Satay Chicken dumplings. These were massive! The minced chicken had been combined with ginger for a simple touch of spice. The seared dumplings were served with pickled veggies (chili peppers and cucumber) and a thick peanut satay sauce. Compared to the rest of the options at the pop-up, Kirk and I both thought that these were a tad bland on their own. However, when eaten with the dip and veggies, they were superb.

Roasted Kabocha Squash

The Gourmai Pop-Up was completed with a helping of the Roasted Kabocha Squash, Mai’s take on dessert dumplings. These were decadent while retaining a lightness in the whipped mascarpone cheese and squash filling. Sitting in a generous pool of spiced crème anglaise (I drank all of it) and decorated with graham cracker crumb and pumpkin seed, it was the perfect fall-inspired finish to our outing.

Mai definitely outdid herself by making each and every dumpling by hand for the event. I can’t even fathom the amount of time it took for her to prepare all of them. The love certainly showed though, and I look forward to her next endeavour(s). If you want the chance to attend her next Gourmai Dumpling Pop-Up, follow her on Instagram (@maicaroon). You’ll want to be there!

Edmonton Things To Do: Evoolution’s Taste the World of Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar

Main course for the tasting at Evoolution.

Personally, a good olive oil and balsamic vinegar brings me back to some of the best dinners I’ve had with friends. It seemed like such a fancy thing when I was younger to have a restaurant serve that mixture as a dip for fresh bread because it wasn’t something we ever did at home. It was such a simple thing, yet it was also a treat.

Nowadays, we’ve got a couple of great shops that specialize in these products. Oliv Tasting Room and Evoolution are on a mission to get high quality olive oils and balsamic vinegars into the hands of Edmontonians and Albertans. I’m a fan of both, having frequented each a number of times over the years. However, working downtown, Evoolution on 104 Street and 101 Avenue is the most convenient.

The Evoolution shop on 104 Street in Edmonton.

Often times, I’ve found myself hanging out there during lunch or after work eating cubes of bread doused in a variety of flavours. Bottles range in size and price depending on the the type of oil or vinegar. Nevertheless, there’s always something to please each palate, and they make wonderful gifts, especially for family members or friends who like to cook.

Recently, I was attempting to find an activity for my friend and I to do together. As per usual, I ended up on the Eventbrite app, and that’s where I came across several listings from Evoolution (104 Street & Enjoy Centre locations). Once or twice a month they hold events in the evening. After the store is closed, they prep the space to seat a large table of about ten people — more can be accommodated in St. Albert’s Enjoy Centre — who will be taken through an educational tasting and full 3-course meal that highlights how olive oils and balsamic vinegars can be used at home.

A booklet with lots of info on their products and the menu for the evening.

For $35 plus tax per person, we were taken through the proper way to taste olive oil using the strippaggio method (similar to how one might taste a fine wine). A dark blue tulip glass is cupped in the hands and warmed before taking a sip. With teeth clenched, you then have to suck air into the mouth until the oil hits the back of the throat. Doing so allows for the oil to be stripped and the flavour to be revealed. The difference between basic store bought extra virgin olive oil and the premium ones sold at Evoolution is staggering. Signs of an excellent olive oil come down to three things: smell, taste, and texture. Surprisingly, the colour and clarity doesn’t matter so much. What you are looking for is an earthy/grassy scent, a pepperiness on the tongue (high polyphenols, a.k.a. antioxidants, bring that out), and a smooth finish with no film or residue left in the mouth.

Better quality olive oils shouldn’t even list an expiry date. What needs to be indicated, though, is the crush date of the olives used to make the batch. It should last for 12 to 14 months after the bottle is opened without any issue. Still, it’s ideally consumed within 6 months since the freshness starts to break down as soon as it’s opened and continues to do so every time air comes into contact with the oil. Nonetheless, you’ll know if it has gone bad as olive oil does become rancid. We also learned that the best olive oils tend to have high smoke points because of their fatty acid content, making them fantastic for use at high heats of up to 450 degrees. That’s contrary to the myth that they are not to be used for cooking.

Complimentary mini bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar were given to each guest.

Next up on the agenda was an info session on balsamic vinegars. Honestly, it’d never crossed my mind to question what balsamic vinegar was made of. I was flabbergasted to find out that it’s made from grapes. White Trebbiano grapes to be exact. When crushed, the syrup from the grape juice is what is extracted, fermented and aged either in stainless steel or wooden barrels. The flavour, viscousness, and concentration of every balsamic vinegar is determined by the amount of time aged, evaporation of the liquid as it ages, and oxidization of the syrup when exposed to the barrel used. Lighter balsamic vinegars are usually processed in stainless steel or light wood barrels. Inkier ones are made using dark wood. Due to the fermentation of the product, they can easily last 3 years. I suspect, it’s also why balsamic vinegars have an effervescence when sipped on their own.

Don’t store either olive oil or balsamic vinegar in the fridge though. Condensation in the bottle can spoil them. Just keep them away from direct light and heat and they’ll be fine.

When we finished going over the finer points of each and had sampled half the store, that’s when dinner began. There was a platter of crusty bread to be eaten with our choice of oils and vinegars as well as four different tapenades. Evoolution’s famous truffle butter popcorn was served as well. I’m not a popcorn person, but I could eat a ton of that. Their butter olive oil is made with a plant extract, so it’s free of dairy. Yet, it tastes just like the real thing. Uncanny. To drink, we were given glasses of club soda mixed with their gravenstein apple balsamic vinegar. Turns out that balsamic vinegar is the perfect natural product to flavour water with. For anyone who uses drink crystals or those squeeze bottles to make their water taste “better,” you can stop doing that now.

Supper was more than filling. We were first presented with a spring salad with fresh mozzarella, basil pesto, and black currant balsamic vinegar. Our entrée consisted of an autumn wild rice pilaf — hearty winter veggies, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, olives, and butternut squash seed oil — likely made in their back room using a Crock-Pot and a hot plate (they don’t have a kitchen, so we were impressed). Dessert was an elaborate pumpkin pie cheesecake decorated with vermont maple balsamic candy.

As our host, Christine, pointed out, the menus are made on the fly. Usually they’re created on the day of the event, and the courses are determined by what kind of fresh ingredients are found at the grocery store. Having run these tasting sessions for quite some time, she was confident that within the last year they had yet to duplicate a menu or a single course. I declared that she may as well save me a spot every month because I’d be willing to spend the money on a meal like this regularly. Since they don’t prepare a menu in advance, it may be difficult for attendees to know if their dietary concerns can be accommodated. However, Christine assured us that once a ticket is bought, they can be contacted and informed of issues or allergies, so they can work within those parameters.

When we were finished eating, we were then able to shop the whole store at 15 per cent off. Considering Evoolution never really offers any sales, it’s certainly a plus to attend a tasting event just to get this bonus, particularly around the holiday season.

If you’re looking for something new to do in Edmonton and you like to eat, I highly encourage you to look into the next events at Evoolution. The cost of admission is well worth it. My friend and I learned so much about these kitchen staples while being “wined” and dined. It’s time that you experienced Evoolution like this, too.

Edmonton Business Review: Square 1 Coffee

The ordering counter is situated at the back of the cafe.

Kirk and I randomly came across Square 1 Coffee in southwest Edmonton about year ago. It’s situated on 15 Fairway Drive just north of the Derrick Golf & Winter Club. We had ordered a pizza from Stone & Wheel next door, and we needed a place to kill time while we waited. As it turns out, both the pizzeria and the cafe share the same ownership. But, for whatever reason, the coffee shop is huge and the pizza place is not (strictly takeout).

As much as I loved the cinnamon knots at Square 1 Coffee and the spaciousness of the venue — a variety of seating including couches, tables, and even a small patio — I kind of forgot about it. That was until we happened across a second address inside the EIA outlet that opened in May. Tucked away towards the back end of a local business-oriented area of the mall, we found ourselves snacking on a sandwich and muffin to help energize us. By doing so, it helped to remind me of their original location.

A packed house and live music on a Thursday night.

Fast forward to this August when we had several meetings with photographers for our wedding next year, and Square 1 Coffee popped into mind as a great spot to meet. At least, it would have been perfect without live music going on. Their website is still not fully up and running, and none of their social media pages had indicated any events, so we showed up on a Thursday night to find a band playing. The place was packed with drop-in performers and friends of those artists there to support. It was actually really cool to see that community come together. However, it was not conducive to having a decent conversation. In that particular case, we ended up purchasing our drinks to go (a yummy chai latte for $5). All was not lost though. The three of us found a bench outside where we hung out and chatted for a couple of hours.

Wedding planning and matcha lattes go together well.

Another meeting that was planned in advance had us arrive to find it much quieter on a Tuesday evening, allowing us to sit at a table indoors while we enjoyed a scratch made pecan pie and a matcha latte ($5.50). The service was friendly and you could tell that this was clearly a place where regulars come in and out all the time (a la Friends).

Square 1 Coffee is certainly a cute cafe with decent beverages and food. I just think that they need to keep on top of their presence on social media or online. If they can finish revamping their website or post more regularly on Facebook and Instagram, patrons can make better informed decisions on whether or not the shop is the right place for them to be on any given day. If you do plan to go there for a study session or a meeting, I recommend phoning ahead to ask if they have any live events happening first. Otherwise, you may be in for a surprise.

Edmonton Things To Do: Art Gallery of Alberta Adult Drop-In Studio

Tons of Ideas by Vera Gartley

Earlier this summer, I was making plans with a friend of mine. Due to scheduling conflicts, it was somewhat difficult to find a time that worked for both of us to get together. Futhermore, I didn’t want to do our typical thing of just going for dinner or doing a Paint Nite event. So, I started to scour the internet for ideas of what else we could do in Edmonton.

Honestly, I don’t even know how I eventually ended up on the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) website, but I did. What I found is that they actually offer a weekly Adult Drop-In Studio every Wednesday night. While that particular day of the week didn’t work for her, I was intrigued and I wanted to check out a few of those sessions for myself. I gathered other friends of mine and I made it to three different classes over the span of September.

The first one I went to, I phoned ahead to reserve spaces for me and my friends because I wasn’t sure what kind of attendance to expect (there is a maximum of 20 spaces). You are able to hold spots the day of the drop-in, but you do have to provide payment info at that time. You can phone it in and pick up the tickets at guest services upon arrival at the gallery, or you can walk-in and pay in person.

Tickets are $18 plus tax per person and that includes all of the materials that you’ll be using. The price point is stellar for a two hour activity, especially when compared to the majority of other creative events running throughout the city.

As it turns out, reservations weren’t really necessary. Only half a dozen people showed up for printmaking the first night. Initially, there didn’t seem to be a whole lot of direction. The website had indicated that we would be doing lino carving with a theme of cityscapes. Yet, it pretty much turned into a freestyle situation in that we weren’t at all limited. Everyone was allowed to design whatever they wanted, and guidance only came into play once we started doing more of the printmaking itself.

In fact, I loved printmaking so much that I made my way to Delta Art & Drafting Supply that weekend in order to pick up all of the materials needed to do the same thing at home (I have a couple of special projects planned). Thankfully, there was a sale going on.

The following week, my colleague and I ventured out into the cold to make it to the AGA for their Floral Studies drop-in. We arrived a little bit late, but, once we paid, we managed to catch the group of about ten people as they were heading up to the galleries. The instructor for the night wanted us to take inspiration from an exhibit called Vanitas by artist Samantha Walrod. She turned the RBC Work Room (a studio-like residence space) from an empty gallery into several pieces of finished art that explored the idea of life and loss using floral imagery and the passing of time. Her work utilizes layering through multiple mediums like collage, ink and paint.

I was kind of hoping that we would be doing something similar to what we’d seen. Instead, the focus was more on learning to work with chalk pastels and acrylic paints together. Not quite what I expected. Still, I managed to learn some new ways of applying colour and paint to paper, as well as creating my own colours using pigments from the chalk pastels and mixing it with the acrylics.

Finished Japanese stab bounded books.

The final session that I made it to was about book binding. I failed to take photos during this one, but I do have a picture of the finished products. We were taught how to put our own travel journals together using just paper, a couple of binder clips, a push pin, a needle and some thread. We used a simple Japanese stab process, which is easily searchable on Google or YouTube. After we each completed two books, we took them up to the James Wilson Morris gallery where we practiced our sketching techniques (i.e. shading, blind contour, gesture, etc.).

All of these turned out to be fun in their own unique ways. I’ve got my eye on a silk screening class in early-November, but in the meantime, they have a variety of other drop-ins like plaster casting or slow stitch through October. Additionally, if you show up to the gallery early, you can take advantage of the All Access Evenings. Those happen every Tuesday and Wednesday from 5pm to 8pm and it grants all patrons entrance to the exhibits for free.

The Art Gallery of Alberta is definitely making an effort to increase the accessibility and affordability of art and art-related activities. Don’t miss out. Sure, not every workshop is going to call to you, but in the scope of a year, there’s bound to be something that will get your creative juices flowing. Keep an eye on the AGA calendar and carve out some time at this local gem of an institution.

Edmonton Happenings: Streetcar Shows Edmonton

Singer Ken Stead performs for us atop the High Level Bridge.

Streetcar Shows Edmonton has been chugging along since 2013. Founded by Tad Hargrave and Zizi Lievers with Peter Seal hosting and photographing events, it’s probably one of the city’s true gems. These are intimate concert experiences taking place on electric streetcars run by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. I’ve been registered to their mailing list — currently closed on their site, so check their Twitter page or join their Facebook group for updates — for two or three years now, but I always found it difficult to get my hands on tickets. By the time I’d read the newsletter and linked over to Eventbrite, the 32 spots would already be sold out.

The streetcar being prepped for our trip across the High Level Bridge.

This year, I happened to sign into my webmail account at just the right moment and I snagged two tickets for the inaugural show of the 2018 season. I was ecstatic to finally be going to a Streetcar concert. Taking place last Thursday, May 17, we arrived at the train platform located behind the ATB Financial Arts Barn in Old Strathcona about 15 minutes prior to embarking. Peter checked our names off of his list and we waited until we were told to climb on. NOTE: There are no washrooms on board. If needed, make sure to use the one in the barn beforehand.

Ernie, one of the drivers of the streetcar, gave us a history lesson.

The restored streetcar had two drivers for the night, but Ernie was our guide. He gave us a little bit of a history lesson as the vehicle made it’s way down the tracks towards the middle of the High Level Bridge. Moving along, Edmonton’s downtown skyline eventually game into view. Once we’d come to a full stop, Peter introduced our performer of the evening, Ken Stead. While he sang (and joked), the river and traffic flowed quietly beneath us as we basked in the slowly setting sun.

 

Ken Stead, born and raised in Edmonton, and now residing in Calgary, has a soulful voice. Despite living in Canada, his Irish-Scottish background seems to come out, in the form of a slight lilt, when he speaks. He flipped between his own original songs and covers that ranged from Foy Vance to Bill Withers, fully encompassing the persona of a down-to-earth folk-rock artist.

 

Lasting about 45 minutes, the first half of the show went by quickly. The streetcar then trundled northward towards the other side of the High Level Bridge. We were supposed to take a break at the stop directly across the street from the Legislature Building, but the driver overshot it, and we ended up going all the way to the Grandin Station terminal. There, we were able to get off and stretch our legs while the musical equipment was shifted to the other end of the streetcar. The backrests of all the seats were flipped to face the opposite direction, allowing passengers to be seated again in the direction of travel. It also gave all of the riders an opportunity to be closer to the show as those who previously sat at the front were now at the rear of the train.

Out on the bridge once more, we were treated to another 45 minute set. Being above the water, it started to get chilly as the darkness fell, but the close quarters and the music helped to warm me to my soul. As we returned south, we came to a surprise standstill in a heavily graffitied tunnel for one final (sing-along) song. It sounds like this is something they do at every show, but I won’t give every single detail away. All I can say is that it makes for a special moment.

Inside the tunnel at the end of the night.

Two hours after our departure, we found ourselves back where we started our musical journey. It’s definitely a night that neither my fiancé or I will ever forget. It was so much fun, and I’m already itching to go to second Streetcar Show as soon as possible. Haven’t been yet? I urge everyone to follow their pages. You may luck out and catch a post about tickets in the nick of time.