Edmonton Restaurant Review: Café Linnea

Brunch at Café Linnea.

Well into its second year of business, Café Linnea has already accomplished a lot as far as new endeavours go. Being the brainchild of the owners behind Duchess Bake Shop, it’s no wonder that what started off as a local brunch destination (now also open for dinner) has become a favourite within Edmonton as well as on a national level. In 2017, Air Canada named it the sixth best new restaurant in the country. The accolades have been steady, and, with that, so has the hype.

During a busy day scouting out venues across the city, I decided to drag my fiancé here for sustenance. We arrived at around 10:45am on a Saturday morning. From what I understand, Café Linnea works on a first come, first serve basis. Reservations are only taken for large groups and, even then, they set aside a the majority of tables for walk-ins. Still, we had good timing because there was no one ahead of us and we were seated within minutes.

Once I settled in, I examined the room. It kind of has this outdoors brought indoors look with greenery inside a low concrete planter wall, skylights, big windows, retro chairs, bright white walls with splashes of colour, and natural wood tables and shelves. I totally think of minimalist Scandinavian design when I view it, and I suppose it’s meant to match the Scandinavian inspired dishes.

We perused the menu. While my significant other opted to stick with water, I decided to splurge on a glass of their feature juice ($6.50). On this particular day, it was a lovely deep pink that tasted like grapefruit and raspberry. If I remember correctly, I believe there was also lychee in there as well. However, I couldn’t taste it. Overall though, it was refreshing. I just wish the glass was bigger for something that costs so much.

Turning our attention to the food, my fiancé chose the Chicken Pot Pie ($22) and I went with the Fig & Cheese Galette ($17) with added House Bacon ($5). Both of these selections are considered mains, so they are meant to be filling.

I have to say, the Fig & Cheese Galette isn’t quite what I was hoping for. The menu description is detailed: “A buckwheat crêpe with fresh honey roasted fig, fig compote, today’s selection of soft, French cheese, smoked hazelnuts, finished with a drizzle of honey.” What I thought would be a mix of savoury and sweet, fell towards the latter.

 

There was way too much of the fig compote. I’d hazard a guess that they simply emptied out a whole jar of the compote with giant dollops placed right onto the slightly flavourless grainy crêpe. The extra honey simply took the sugariness to another level. The smoked hazelnuts and the cheese helped to a point, but, in the end, they failed to provide enough of a balance. The best part in an otherwise mess was definitely the honey roasted fig, which I loved for the natural flavour and texture. Thankfully, I listened to the server’s suggestion about the bacon. Without it, I would have been severely disappointed in this dish. The house bacon brought a necessary saltiness that offset all of that sweetness and saved my meal.

On the other hand, the Chicken Pot Pie was a winner. As described by my future husband, it was “like the equivalent of a peaty scotch — complex, subtle, and smoky.” This was absolutely delicious. Although I could have done without a couple of full-on bites of pure fat from the meat used (not a fan of that type of mouthfeel), everything else about it was fantastic.

 

The poached egg atop the flaky pie crust broke open to reveal a gorgeous runny yolk that seeped right into the bowl of béchamel sauce that lay hidden beneath the pie top. The sauce itself came across like a delicious creamy soup and the veggies that resided there were cooked until perfectly tender. The accompanying green salad had an earthy flavour and a light vinaigrette, but it was so tiny. Unless there’s enough salad to truly help one get their greens in, it may as well have been omitted. The Chicken Pot Pie is definitely for diet cheat days, not for those wanting a healthy brunch.

Before we made it to Café Linnea, I had fully intended on ordering a starter or a dessert to build a complete picture. Yet, by the time we finished our plates, there was no way I could squeeze in anything more. So, at this point, what I ate has me sitting on the fence between all of the good publicity they’ve received versus the reality of our experience. Regardless, Café Linnea does have a great atmosphere and pretty decent service even if the food is somewhat hit or miss. I’ll probably have to give it another go down the road (I’ve got my eye on their Tuesday Prix-Fixe dinners). In the meantime, I stand by what I’ve said here. If one plans to visit, you’ve been forewarned about the Fig & Cheese Galette.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Ampersand 27 (2018 Update)

The bar and dining room of Ampersand 27.

Located on 106 Street and Whyte Avenue, Ampersand 27 is right in the heart of Edmonton. Seeking out potential venues for our upcoming wedding, my fiancé and I popped in for a venue meeting with Restaurant Manager Laura Rudd and Executive Chef Fan Zhang. It’d actually been a little while since my last visit (read my previous review here), but my recollection of the place was spot on.

Those twinkling lights on the ceiling make for an excellent backdrop.

The space is just as beautiful as I remembered with twinkling lights on the ceiling, a statement fireplace against the back wall, modern teals and metallics mixed with natural woods and stone, and a funky amoeba-shaped bar. What I didn’t realize was its direct attachment to the Varscona Hotel right next door, which we consider to be a big plus as we’re going to have plenty of guests travelling from out of town. With accommodations nearby, room for a dinner, reception, dance, and hopefully a ceremony, this seems like an incredibly versatile spot with plenty of possibilities.

Their charcuterie menu is quite extensive with all meats made in-house.

Neither of us really had a solid idea of what we want for our celebration. However, during our discussion with Laura and Chef Fan, both of them had some excellent suggestions and seemed eager to bring our vision to life. They gave us a lot to think about, and, when we were done our tour and conversation, they actually invited us to stay for a drink and some charcuterie.

Look at this amazing cheese and charcuterie board!

In all honesty, they were super generous. When they offered to make us a plate, we expected that they’d provide just a small sampling of food to whet our appetites. Afterwards, if we were still hungry, we were more than willing to stick around and make a night of it on our own. But, wow! We received a humongous board chockablock full of house cured meats (my faves were the Bresoala, Truffled Mortadella, and Kielbasa), homemade pickles, preserves, and beer mustard (the best!), in-house baked sourdough bread, and a variety of cheeses (creamy Port Salut and Goat Gouda won the night). All in, I guessed the total value was around $100, including our beverages. They outright spoiled us!

Although we technically didn’t need anything else to eat, we opted to treat ourselves to an order of their 3 Pork Buns ($15) with an Extra Bun ($5) to make it even, as well as a side of the Brussels Sprouts ($5).

Brussels Sprouts in Garlic Butter

The latter was cooked until the greens were tender, but still had bite. The outer leaves were also charred and crispy, just the way I like it. The sprouts may have been a tad greasy, yet I suppose that’s a given considering they’re prepared in garlic butter.

As for the Pork Buns, they were mentioned by a couple of the staff, so we thought it made sense to try them. I’m glad we did because they absolutely did not disappoint. The thick cut pork belly was seared until crisp on the outside and the fats had rendered. Sriracha mayo, hoisin, thinly sliced pickled cucumbers along with baby leaves and chopped green onion finished them off. Pillowy soft steam buns held everything together.

Warm Brownie for dessert!

Before we left, we had to try a dessert. Our choice of the evening was the Warm Brownie ($11; it may not currently be available). It was sort of deconstructed and served with caramel sauce, sponge toffee bits, roasted peanuts, fresh whipped cream, and a mint leaf for garnish. This was absolutely decadent and sweet; it’s the perfect dish for sharing as the portion size is more than decent.

I can’t lie. Ampersand 27 completely won us over. Laura and Chef Fan showed such amazing hospitality. Additionally, their fantastic server Janell cannot go unmentioned. I previously knew her from another restaurant that she worked at simultaneously as she held a position here, and she’s wonderful. Janell has a way of putting the customer at ease and making them feel like a friend.

While nothing is set in stone at this time, Ampersand 27 is at the top of our list. Not only are the share plates such a delight, but the people who run the place can’t be beat. Even if it doesn’t end up being the venue for our nuptials next year, it’s still going to be one of our favourite Whyte Avenue businesses and restaurants for a long time to come.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: New Dragon Palace

Peking Duck

For as long as I can remember, my parents and I have been frequenting New Dragon Palace Seafood Restaurant (17743 98 Avenue). I suppose it’s just one of those places that becomes a standard, so much so that my fiancé had to ask me why we go there so often. But, it’s family-run and, the owners know who we are, which offers that feeling of familiarity. Plus, as with most Chinese eateries, they’re always open, even when every other business is closed.

Our most recent occasion to visit was over the Chinese New Year weekend. We went in on the Family Day holiday Monday. Walking into the establishment is like stepping back in time to the late eighties or early nineties with washes of muted pinks and greens. Still, they’ve kept it up okay and the space is quite tidy and clean. Although, I do find that their utensils and dishes can feel kind of filmy from washing, I just give them a quick swipe with a napkin and let it go.

We never veer far from our usual menu items: deep fried chicken, sizzling beef, sweet & sour pork, and Chinese broccoli when we want to incorporate some veggies. When we really want to celebrate, we get Peking duck. This time, we made sure to pre-order the latter dish to ensure that we wouldn’t miss out.

It didn’t take long for our food to start making its way out of the kitchen. The fixings for the duck — hoisin sauce, julienned carrots and cucumber, and shreds of scallions — were laid out first while the bird was being prepared. When the wraps and sliced duck came out, I was ready to pounce. While everything looked and tasted great, I was somewhat disappointed because there wasn’t actually a whole lot of meat on the skins. In fact, there was a lot more fat than anything else, turning the wraps into grease pockets. I had to scrape a lot of the fat off to make them more edible. It was a far cry from our last Peking duck at New Dragon Palace, which was perfectly cooked and meaty with a minimal layer of fat and super crisp skin. Of course, I don’t completely blame the restaurant as it’s hard for them to know how the duck will turn out until they actually prep it and take it apart.

What I do love about Peking duck is that the whole bird is used. Along with the wraps, the kitchen also makes a wonderful duck soup using the bones. The cream-coloured broth is savoury and smooth, improved even further with wilted greens and chunks of tofu. I will usually have at least a few bowls during my meal. Additionally, the remaining meat of the duck is sauteed with bean sprouts and carrots into an earthy stir fry that goes so well with a bowl of white rice.

A half order of the deep fried chicken.

The deep fried chicken is always a delight because they get the skin so crispy, yet the meat is still tender inside. The dark garlicky soy-like sauce is a must to drench chicken and rice in. My only wish is that there were more pieces of white meat in each order as, lately, I have found the pieces of half chicken to be rather bony.

We all enjoy the sizzling beef as it comes to the table so hot. Aside from a slice or two that were too chewy to eat, the meat was, otherwise, thick, succulent and well-marinated with plenty of sauce.

The sweet and sour boneless pork.

Last, but never least is the sweet and sour boneless pork. The meat is battered and fried until crisp and then it’s mixed into a sweet and sour sauce with peppers, onions and pineapple. The balance of flavours and the retention of the crisp outer shell of the pork is why we keep going back to it.

To finish off the meal, a complimentary tong sui (sweet, warm soup) is provided. It typically ranges from red bean to tapioca, neither of which are my favourites, at least the way they prepare it. For the new year, I was in for a treat though. We got bowls of almond soup with black sesame dumplings (filled glutinous rice balls), often served during special occasions. These were a real treat. When my fiancé opted not to eat his, I happily helped myself to seconds.

I was so excited to eat at New Dragon Palace again for Chinese New Year. The kitchen had hit it out of the park on our previous visit. However, comparatively, I wasn’t as impressed in February. Each dish seemed smaller in size, more sloppily made, and less fresh than before. It’s possible that someone else was running the show, which could account for the difference in quality. Consistency is probably one of the restaurant’s main issues. The problem is, customers can’t tell ahead of time what they’re going to get on any given day. They basically have to hope for the best.

What is great about the eatery is the value. Five of us ate that day for about $110 after tax and tip was included. Not only did everyone leave with their bellies full, we also left with a handful of containers to take home, too. If the cost justifies the caliber, then I think things are on par here.

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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Farrow

The menu is written on the chalk board above the front counter.

The menu is written on the chalk board above the front counter.

Farrow has been around for a little over a year and a half, and, in that time, it has made The Tomato‘s list of top 100 eats in Edmonton twice. In fact, it was voted by readers to the number one spot in 2015.

Being close to the Garneau and Old Strathcona, it’s a bit out of my way, so it wasn’t until this past summer’s Taste of Edmonton, which takes place near my office, that I was able to sample their offerings. Their menu changes all the time, but during our annual food festival, they presented two choices: roast beef and pulled pork.

I tried the roast beef when I was there. It was a small little slider served with chips, but I could tell all of the ingredients were extremely fresh. The arugula was crispy and the roast beef was thinly sliced. Most of the flavour came from the horseradish mayo and the pickled onions. It was decent, but not totally memorable. When my friend finished her roast beef sandwich, she stated their pulled pork slider was the better of the options they brought to Taste.

Flash forward a few weeks to August and the both of us were hanging out at the Fringe Theatre Festival. Since we were spending a full day trekking all over the Old Scona area from show to show with ample time in between, we decided that this was our opportunity to drop by the actual shop on 109 Street.

We perused the succinct menu and, in the end, we both chose to go with the Grick Middle, which is the sandwich that has been heavily lauded by the media and fans of the eatery. It’s the only one that remains a staple at Farrow. By and large, this is basically a glorified breakfast sandwich. Filled with a Four Whistle Farm fried egg, Sangudo bacon, smoked cheddar, rosemary aioli and arugula, the idea of the “unprocessed” comes to mind.

One of the staff packing up my sandwich.

One of the staff packing up my sandwich.

As they were preparing our orders, I watched the staff in the open kitchen fry up the eggs and put everything together. They wrapped up the sandwich lovingly in thick deli packing paper and sealed it with their logo. The location itself is tiny. There are about three bar stools that look out the window and another four to six seats at the picnic table that sits outside the shop’s steps right next to the sidewalk. It’s not the most comfortable, so we took our parcels and walked over to the park between Garneau Theatre and Upper Crust.

I unwrapped my package and, after examining the sandwich and how to approach it, I took a few bites. So far, it was okay. Eventually, I hit the egg yolk and, not only was the bread now soaked, but so were my hands. It’s a messy one. Once the egg yolk breaks, it coats the sandwich and it gives it a different mouthfeel. A fried egg on anything just improves it, and I think this sandwich needs that.

You can tell that everything is made fresh and from scratch, which is great, but I wasn’t blown away by the combination or the flavours, and I sort of think that it was lacking in terms of portion size. The sandwich looks big, but it mostly consisted of bread, egg and arugula. There wasn’t enough bacon for me to really discern that taste in every bite I had. Maybe for $7.50, my expectations were too high, but considering that is over $2 more than a breakfast sandwich at Starbucks and it didn’t truly satisfy me, I probably won’t be spending that much on the Grick Middle again.

My wrapped Grick Middle sandwich from Farrow.

My wrapped Grick Middle sandwich from Farrow.

It’s not to say that Farrow isn’t what everyone says it is. To each their own, really. I can see why people like the place. They’ve brought the popularity of the sandwich back. This isn’t what your mom packed for you during your school days. These are grown up versions, and I love a sandwich that is piled high with ingredients that play off each other and make you crave having it over and over.

This one didn’t do it for me, but it’s not to say another of Farrow’s sandwiches won’t be the one that wins me over. For now, Farrow is good, but, personally, it’s not great. It might get there someday though.