Edmonton Restaurant Review: District Café & Bakery

District Café doesn’t always immediately come to mind as a place to go for supper. When it was first opened, it was a tiny coffee shop with little room for patrons to stick around. Yet, since expanding into a full-service eatery, it has become a much more welcoming bright and airy space for guests to linger over an all-encompassing menu of food and drinks.

Prior to this past week, I’d only ever visited for drinks and snacks with friends. Therefore, I was eager to have a complete meal on this particular occasion. Although District Café is known for their tasty brunch, I’d argue that the latest dinner menu from chef Spencer Thompson (previously of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen) gives the day’s earlier items a run for their money.

My friend and I walked over to the restaurant right after work on a Friday afternoon. The sign at the door indicated that we could seat ourselves, so we headed straight in. The majority of the tables were already occupied. Thankfully, there were a couple of spots available towards the far side of the venue.

A frosty bottle of Jamaican Ginger Beer.

As soon as we sat down, a server brought glasses of water and some menus over. He also answered our questions about the evening’s specials. In the end, we decided to stick with non-alcoholic beverages. While my companion quenched her thirst with a glass of lemonade ($3.50), I opted for a bottle of the Jamaican Ginger Beer ($3; spice that lingers in your throat!). We also selected the Roast Eggplant ($13) as an appetizer to share.

The Roast Eggplant is an ideal starter to split. It came with four slices of lightly toasted focaccia that had been brushed with olive oil. Rounds of salted eggplant, pieces of zucchini and halves of tomatoes lingered next to a dollop of house made ricotta. When I think about it, it’s really such a straightforward plate, but it’s done so well. All of the veggies were roasted to the perfect point. Combined with the creamy ricotta, my first assembled portion was to die for.

Hand Cut Pasta

Next up were the entrees. We’re big fans of fresh pasta, so it was a no-brainer for my friend. She went for the featured Hand Cut Pasta ($18) without any added meat. Large, broad, flat pappardelle noodles were evenly coated in a buttercream sauce and tossed with roasted walnuts, apple and arugula. I ate a mouthful of the pasta and it was unexpectedly refreshing and summery for what would typically be considered a denser dish. The merging of bitter arugula, sweet apple and nutty walnuts were a match made in heaven.

Flat Iron Steak

As a home cook (I doubt I should even call myself that), I often refrain from making dishes that have a meat component to them as I dislike handling the food. For that reason, when I indulge in a meal out, I tend to go for things I wouldn’t otherwise have on a regular basis. In this case, I chose the Flat Iron Steak ($20). Upon ordering, I indicated to the server that I would prefer the steak to be medium-rare. He let me know that the meat is prepared sous-vide, so they were unable to cook it exactly as requested. Nevertheless, he assured me that if I enjoy a medium-rare doneness, it would probably be to my satisfaction.

He certainly wasn’t wrong. In fact, the Flat Iron Steak came out just right. The meat was still pink in the middle and the pieces were succulent enough to cut through them with a butter knife. Generous helpings of steak were accompanied by a tomato arugula salad with roasted green beans, potatoes and radishes. Mint chimmichurri provided another element that helped to keep it seasonal to spring and summer.

Now, I’m sure we would have been okay leaving after those three satisfying dishes; however, I knew that I’d be kicking myself later if I didn’t have some dessert. Indeed, I had two. Okay, three, if you count the sampling I had of my friend’s cake.

Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread

The first was one of the bakery’s Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread cookies ($0.50). I’m not sure I loved the texture. I like shortbread to have that melt-in-your-mouth sensation. This one wasn’t quite as buttery, but the strong taste of lemon made up for that.

A big slice of Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake.

As far as cakes go, the Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake ($7) that my friend ordered was truly decadent. The layers of cake were unbelievably moist yet fluffy. It was rich in flavour and the frosting was sweet, but not overly so. It’s one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve eaten in a long time.

Where I think District Café’s pastry chef really excelled was with the Orange Blossom Pavlova ($10). The foundation of the dessert was a giant meringue cookie. In the center, it was filled with a thick layer of custard that was dotted by vanilla bean. A mix of fresh fruit (blueberries and peach this time) and sliced almonds decorated the top. Then it was dusted with powdered sugar and served with caramel sauce on the side. The edges of the meringue dissolved on the tongue; the middle of the cookie remained a bit chewy. Not only was it beautiful, it was sublimely delicious.

District Café has kept things simple and succinct. The menu caters to many while staying focused. Personally, I believe it’s better to do a dozen things exceptionally well than to do many things halfway. Here, at District Café, with the current chefs and their offerings, I’d say that they’ve managed to achieve the former.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: KB & Co

Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwich with a Vegan Cream Cheese Filling

KB & Co, found on the main floor of the Fox Tower building on 104 Street, is relatively new. I’d heard about their health-conscious menu through word-of-mouth recommendations from friends; their smoothies and smoothie bowls often coming up as items to try.

After some delay, I made a point of planning a recent lunch date at the eatery. It’s strictly a fast-casual business with the counter set up for orders to be placed at one end and picked up on the other side. Once items are collected, the take-away packages can be carried out. Or, there’s also the option of eating in-house at one of several tables inside the space or outside on the sidewalk patio. Either way, the food is provided in disposable packaging without the choice of reusable plates or cutlery. I thought that it was interesting to see that a business that prides itself on the idea of wellness and sustainability would decide to use takeout only containers and bags, even if some of it is eco-friendly.

That aside, I was there to try the food. As much as I wanted to sample a smoothie bowl, I felt as if something less liquid-based would be more appropriate for lunch. Since I had perused the menu beforehand, my mind was already made up. I quickly paid for my Tahini Beet Wrap and tacked on one of the Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwiches for dessert.

Sweet Green Smoothie and Coconut BLT

While I waited for the staff to assemble my meal, I joined my friend at one of the tables. She had already received her Coconut BLT and Sweet Green Smoothie. One close look at the menu and it’s easy to see that it’s strictly plant-based; they’ve committed themselves to using organic and local ingredients to create items free of meat, dairy, egg and soy products.

My girlfriend enjoyed her smoothie of spinach, parsley, pineapple, apple, banana, dates and almond milk. I didn’t try it, so the most I can say is that the mix of ingredients sounded well-balanced in terms of greens to fruits. Additionally, her Coconut BLT was stacked high with smoked coconut bacon, spinach, tomato, avocado, date jam, mayo and hemp seed pesto (she had the red onions omitted). Although I didn’t have any of it either, there seemed to be an overall lack of “bacon.” Still, I’d be willing to give it a shot next time I’m there.

Tahini Beet Wrap

I’m sort of on the fence about my Tahini Beet Wrap. It’s built with a flax wrap base, which is filled with mixed greens, quinoa, beets, carrots, apples, cranberries, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds and tahini-lemon dressing. All of the components are things I like and everything was fresh. Yet, a large portion of it came across as kind of bland. It was also somewhat difficult to eat as the quinoa tumbled out with every bite I took. The best part of the wrap was towards the bottom of each half. That’s where I found most of the dried cranberries and the tahini-lemon dressing. When those two elements were present, the wrap shone. On a side note, the greens (there’s also the option of chips) that came with the wrap were stellar. It’s a simple kale salad with a zesty dressing and it was really delicious.

The Strawberry Nanaimo Bar all bagged to go.

Before we left, my friend picked up a small Strawberry Nanaimo Bar to go. She texted me later to tell me it was yummy, but rich. Back at the office, I snacked on my Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwich throughout the afternoon. The texture was lighter than I expected and not as dense as some oatmeal cookies can be. Albeit, it was slightly crumbly. The vegan cream cheese middle was to die for though. I don’t know how they emulated the flavour of cream cheese frosting without real cream cheese. Whatever they did, it worked.

Honestly, I was expecting KB & Co to be better. I had heard so many good things. My biggest issue is the price. The two items I purchased came to about $19. My friend paid about $27 for her trio. I think that for a place that doesn’t provide much added service, the cost does appear to be a tad high.

Nonetheless, I won’t be deterred by that alone. KB & Co is a promising business. It’s catering to a specific clientele whose needs aren’t always met at other restaurants. Even though I’m lucky enough to be able to eat what I want, I appreciate that there’s an alternative out there to help even out the scales when required.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Vaticano Cucina

A slice of the St. Francis Montanara pizza.

Whenever I’m making plans for an outing with friends, one of the first places I check for restaurant possibilities is the OpenTable app. I love that the ability to make a reservation is just a few clicks away. Sometimes it’ll even bring up a total gem.

During a recent search, I happened upon an eatery called Vaticano Cucina. New to Edmonton’s south side, it took over the space vacated by Koutouki Taverna on Gateway Boulevard and 45 Avenue.

As it turns out, the business opened their doors at the beginning of May. Only in operation for a few weeks before we visited, I had kept it in the back of my mind until I was planning an escape room event. Just four minutes away by car from the game venue, Vaticano Cucina was the perfect spot for our get together.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we headed over to the restaurant where we found a couple of our friends circling the building. A lack of signage and multiple doors threw them off, so they were looking for the main entrance (it’s the one facing the Travelodge). Once inside, we were greeted and led to our table. It was situated on a raised platform to the side, but it didn’t feel enclosed at all. It actually provided great vantage points of the kitchen and the expansive interior while allowing us to talk without any distractions. We also noted the fresco-like ceilings. Inspired by the Sistine Chapel, Vaticano Cucina had large scale canvas prints of classic Italian paintings made and wallpapered to raised portions of the ceiling throughout. This was a neat detail in an otherwise neutral, but stylish room.

A cup of coffee.

The atmosphere lends itself well to the idea of brunch, and I think it’s important to note that only those items are served until 2pm during the weekend. Afterwards, the regular menu takes effect. I was unaware of that before we arrived, so I wasn’t expecting to find a pared down list. Nevertheless, there was no problem finding something I wanted to eat.

In the end, two people opted for the Chicken Parmesan Panini with Chips, one selected the Italian Prosciutto & Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto (or Cubano Pork Traditional; I may have them confused) Eggs Benedict and the last of us chose the Strozzapretti Funghi.

Eggs Benedict

Off the bat, I’ll make it known that I didn’t try any of the Eggs Benedict ($15), but it looked wonderful and hearty. Focaccia bread was laid with large slices of Cubano pork, two soft poached eggs and covered in a brown butter Hollandaise sauce. Their version of hash browns was served on the side and was different than anticipated as they were prepared more like smashed potatoes. My friend reluctantly shared a bit with his wife before devouring the whole thing himself.

Chicken Parmesan Panini

I did get to try some of the Chicken Parmesan Panini since my boyfriend generously cut off a corner of his sandwich for me. It was better than I imagined it would be, too. The chicken was breaded and fried until succulent on the inside and crunchy on the outside. It was then placed between the slices of bread with the perfect amount of tomato sauce and melted cheese. In addition, the bread was incredibly buttered and sprinkled with herbs before being grilled. It was simple, but also rich and indulgent. The side of chips was prepared in-house and came with a refreshingly creamy dill dip.

Strozzapretti Funghi

My dish was the Strozzapretti Funghi. I’ll quickly note that their pasta is handmade, but it’s not freshly created at the restaurant. The dry pasta is actually imported from Italy. Taking that into consideration, it’s still very good. The noodles were cooked until perfectly al dente and stirred with cream sauce, spinach, Fontina cheese and a trio of mushrooms. The dish was garnished with some arugula to round out the flavour profile. I also sprinkled on some grated Parmesan cheese and chili flakes. Surprisingly, the dish refrained from being too dense. I polished it off without any issues and still had room for a snack.

Joe, who co-owns Vaticano Cucina with his brother and both of their wives, chatted with us while we dined. He happily shared some of his family’s Italian history with us while also taking the time to describe what a Montanara pizza is – flash deep-fried dough that is then baked in their wood burning oven – before fully convincing us to try one.

The full St. Francis Montanara Bianca Pizza.

We figured that it wouldn’t be a problem for five people to eat a whole pizza and we were correct. The most difficult part was deciding which one to order. There are over a dozen choices, and each one is creatively named after various saints. Ultimately, we went with the first one Joe suggested, St. Francis. Quite honestly, I couldn’t really decipher a change from the regular Neapolitan pizza preparation as the consistency of the baked and charred dough was so similar. But, I’ve heard that the main difference actually comes down to the taste, which is deeper in flavour with the Montanara. Regardless, the crust had just the right amount of chew and crispness. The toppings of fig, chevre (goat cheese), arugula, onion jam and balsamic glaze made for a light yet punchy pizza.

Thanks to the wonderful food, relaxed venue and friendly hospitality, we left Vaticano Cucina in a great mood and we felt more than ready to take on the day. We also unanimously agreed that each of us would be happy to go back. For such a newcomer to the Edmonton restaurant scene (especially in the south of the city), they’ve already proven themselves to be worthy of a second helping.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: ‘Ono Poke Co.

The traditional ‘Ono Poke bowl.

As a food lover, it has been fantastic to see new restaurants popping up all over Edmonton. Within the last month, there have been about a handful of new establishments gracing our streets, including Ono Poke Co., which celebrates their grand opening today.

Located north of Jasper Avenue on 104 Street, the spacious shop will be open six days a week to serve guests. Although Ono Poke Co. is not the first to introduce the beloved Hawaiian dish of poke (raw fish salad) to Edmontonians, Executive Chef Lawrence Hui has taken a very different approach with his offerings.

Initial plans for Lawrence’s fast-casual restaurant were similar to Splash Poke‘s Build-Your-Own-Bowl concept. Yet, after an eye-opening trip to Maui at the beginning of May, Lawrence decided to focus on a chef-driven menu instead.

Chef Tom Muromoto imparting his wisdom on Chef Lawrence Hui. Photo by Liv Vors.

During Lawrence’s trip to the island, he stayed at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel where their executive chef, Tom Muromoto, took Lawrence under his wing. In addition to teaching the history of poke and the best techniques to make it, Chef Muramoto also took Lawrence out surfing.

As Lawrence toured Maui, he also met with Chef Charlie Owen of Hula Grill Ka’anapali, Chef Jesse Anacleto of Roy’s Ka’anapali (named after Chef Roy Yamaguchi, the great pioneer and champion of Hawaiian cuisine) and Chef Ikaika Manaku of Mauka Makai at the Westin Nanea. Through and through, the hospitality of the island’s chefs shone. Each one gladly shared their version of “traditional” poke along with some modern takes that used different proteins such as beef, scallops, shrimp and beets.

It was through this educational experience that Lawrence came to fully understand the fusion of flavours in Hawaiian food. A combination of Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Korean and Japanese tastes and traditions can be deciphered and it’s that willingness to blend them all together that makes their dishes so unique.

As soon as Lawrence returned home, he scrapped his original idea and menu. Starting from scratch, he came up with a succinct list of items: ‘Ono Poke, The G.G., The Twitch in Tuna, Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke (inspired by and named after Chef Tom Muromoto), Prairie Luau and the vegan and gluten free Beet the Poke.

Crafting the samples of poke during our pre-opening event.

I had the opportunity to try a few of their dishes at a pre-opening event earlier this week and I was definitely impressed. What I loved most was how large and fresh the cubes of fish were. They were marinated to enhance the flavour rather than mask the taste of the seafood, which is so important when it comes to poke.

The ‘Ono (‘Ono means “delicious” and ono means “fish) Poke bowl is their most traditional offering. It utilizes Ahi tuna ─ yellowfin tuna that swims in warmer waters and is pinker in colour ─ with shoyu sauce, sesame oil, ginger, seaweed, white onion, macadamia nuts, Hawaiian salt, sea asparagus, green onion and their Asian slaw (red cabbage, daikon carrot and cilantro). Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of cilantro, but I felt that all the flavours and textures were there. As Lawrence said, it was imperative to ensure that there were layers to the bowls; each one needed to finish with some sort of crunch and had to have excellent palate profiles.

Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke

Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke was my personal favourite. This brought a creamier consistency to the tuna with the use of a spicy tobiko aioli instead of the shoyu sauce. White onion, cucumber, edamame beans, green onion, micro greens, sea asparagus and wasabi crab chips gave it several punches of colour and just a slight amount of pungency. It’s also the only selection on the menu that didn’t include cilantro in it. However, on a second visit, it was made with the herb sprinkled on top, so I’d definitely suggest letting the staff know to exclude any cilantro if there’s an aversion to the taste. In any case, the Surf Poke was a less salty offering and it felt pretty refreshing.

Prairie Luau

Of the three that I sampled, I’d say that the Prairie Luau fell in the middle for me. Rather than a protein of fish, it came with gochujang (red chili paste) marinated braised pork, gochujang vinaigrette, Chinese black fungus mushroom, cucumber, white onion, green onion, house-made kimchi (contains shrimp), chili oil and cilantro. It was certainly the spiciest option, but not in a way that scorched your taste buds. On the contrary, the pork was so succulent and the kimchi was fermented to bring out that balance of heat and acidity.

All of the bowls can be customized with a base of either short grain Japanese rice, salad greens or quinoa. Once the bowl is made and collected, I’d also recommend splashing some of their Hawaiian Chili Water into the mix as it adds a whole new dynamic to the dish.

The menu boards at ‘Ono Poke Co.

Even though the prices seem a tad high ($11.95 to $14.95 for a regular size bowl), the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. Everything is prepared fresh daily and, if it can be made in-house, it is. Apart from the fully prepared bowls, there will even be containers of kimchi, shoyu japchae (sweet potato noodles and veggies) and fresh marinade poke, bags of house-made taro chips, and bottles of Hawaiian Chili Water for sale, so a feast can be laid out at home.

In a way, this spread of one of Hawaii’s most popular foods across the Pacific Ocean shows just how dynamic a place Edmonton is. If we can’t go to Hawaii, why not have the chance to familiarize ourselves with that State’s cuisines and culture right in our own back yard? I’m thankful that Ono Poke Co. is bringing us this authentic poke experience.

For Hawaiian’s, it’s typical to end the work day with some beer, snacks and poke. In fact, there are dozens of varieties of poke available (even in liquor stores). While the menu at Ono Poke Co. is a small one, Chef Lawrence and his team are doing their absolute best to pay tribute to their Hawaiian mentors. By providing the most genuine poke possible, I imagine that they’ve made all those Maui chefs proud.

Sou Chef Matt with Executive Chef Lawrence

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Dorinku

Dorinku Appetizer Platter ($15.30)

Dorinku, an izakaya serving Tokyo street food, had been on my list of places to visit for at least the past year. So, when my friend was able to meet me for dinner a couple of weeks ago, we took the opportunity to stop by Whyte Avenue to check it out.

The block surrounding the restaurant has ample free parking, so it was easy to find a space nearby. When we arrived at around 6:30pm on the Tuesday evening, the establishment was fairly busy. A number of the tables were already occupied; however, there was no wait. We were immediately greeted and taken to our seats.

Homemade Fresh Ginger Ale ($4)

Our server was prompt to grab us our drinks (homemade fresh ginger ale at $4 each), yet he also gave us ample time to peruse the menu when we couldn’t quite make our decisions.

Ultimately, we started our meal off with the Dorinku Appetizer Platter ($15.30), which is apparently offered in limited quantities every day. Luckily, we managed to snag an order. On this particular night, our seven tasters consisted of Tuna Tataki, Tsukune Yakko, Tuna Avocado, Tako Wasabi, Chicken Karaage, Tomato Kimchi and Pickled Eggplant. Aside from the eggplant, all of the other samplers could be found within the menu. Therefore, this is a fantastic way to go about trying a number of their items.

Tomato Kimchi

We opted to work our way clockwise around the dish from opposite sides of the plate, so the first thing I sampled was the Tomato Kimchi. Surprisingly, the heat wasn’t as strong as I expected. I’ll chalk it up to the juiciness of the fruit as I believe it watered down the spice. Granted, I don’t necessarily mean that to be a criticism. I actually quite liked it and wished I could have had another piece.

Tako Wasabi

Next up was the Tako Wasabi and I wasn’t quite ready for it. The chopped octopus mixed with a wasabi dressing was, initially, overwhelming to my taste buds. It didn’t burn, but the wasabi was incredibly strong. As such, it takes away from the flavours of the tamago that topped the octopus and the sheets of nori wrap.

Tuna Tataki

One of my preferred was the Tuna Tataki with fresh fish that was nicely seared at the edges. A mix of sesame soy citrus sauce and homemade chili oil was drizzled over the tuna and then topped with green onion. Super tasty and just a tad spicy. There was also a little bit of crunch that possibly came from panko or tempura crumbs.

Chicken Karaage

If I’m correct, the Chicken Karaage was a bite size version of the available full order. The pieces of deep fried chicken were crisp and likely sprinkled with the green tea salt and covered in the chili mayonnaise mentioned on the menu. Everything worked well together and the batter refrained from being oily.

Tsukune Yakko

Tsukune Yakko is deep fried minced chicken patty and sliced white scallions served with fresh tofu, teriyaki sauce and chili oil. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure about this appetizer. It was decent though. It came across kind of lighter than I thought it would and it utilized a variety of textures.

Pickled Eggplant

Personally, I think Dorinku is doing a disservice to their customers by not putting the Pickled Eggplant on the menu as a regular item. Maybe it’s always made as part of this platter; nevertheless, I’d go for a bigger dish if it was an option. The eggplant was slightly acidic with a wonderful spongy consistency that soaked up all of the marinade.

Tuna Avocado

The last bite I had was the Tuna Avocado. Made with albacore tuna sashimi, avocado and a pureed Japanese citrus seaweed sauce, it was a refreshing mouthful. It was easily the simplest in terms of preparation, but the tuna melted in my mouth. Combined with the avocado, it created a buttery quality.

Mozzarella Minced Katsu ($9.80)

We continued our dinner with a plate of the Mozzarella Minced Katsu ($9.80). These were balls of minced beef and pork cutlet wrapped around mozzarella cheese filling, which were then breaded and deep fried. I squeezed some fresh lemon juice onto them before dipping them into the accompanying sesame soy sauce. These were pretty delicious. Although, I would suggest adding even more cheese into the center as the first one I ate lacked in that department and that’s what makes them worth eating.

Corn and Kale Kakiage ($7.80)

As we ate our food, we’d take into account what people around us were ordering and those seated next to us convinced us to try the Corn and Kale Kakiage ($7.80). If I had my way, kale would only ever be prepared in fried form.  The patties of tempura coated corn and kale were lightly breaded, allowing for just the right amount of crunch. Any bitterness from the kale was masked by the sweetness of the large, fresh corn kernels and the butter soy sauce.  Honestly, these tasted good, but they felt a tad too greasy.

Carbonara Udon ($13.80)

Not completely satiated, we finished off our meal with one more item. The whole time we were at Dorinku, the Carbonara Udon ($13.80) on the Days’ Special Menu called to us. This did not disappoint! The thick Japanese wheat flour noodle had the perfect chew and the carbonara sauce ─ creamy with bacon and a poached egg ─ was to die for. It also came to the table in a hot stone bowl, so the sauce stayed bubbling hot. As long as it’s still being offered, it would be my top pick next time I’m there. Our server agreed that it’s his favourite, too.

Overall, Dorinku has a laid back, casual atmosphere, making it a great place for a get together. Their diverse menu should satisfy most diners and the friendly service we experienced was top notch.

Frozen grapes, in place of candies, came with the bill.