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 … Continue reading
Last night, Edmonton’s first Hawaiian-inspired poke (pronounced poh-keh) shop opened its doors to the public with a crowd that snaked down the block and around the corner. Splash Poke, located south of Jasper Avenue on 109 Street, is a fast-casual spot to pick up a healthy, quick and customizable meal. Like Blaze Pizza or Amore Pasta, there are a few preset options to choose from, but at the core, it’s very much a build-your-own dish mentality.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the media and blogger preview lunch yesterday afternoon and doubly fortunate to work close enough to make it there during the two hour time frame. When I stepped into the store, I noticed how bright and modern it was. The tropical colour scheme of coral, turquoise and white runs throughout and makes for a cheerful space. It’s not the largest venue though. There are only about five tables and 14 seats total in the whole restaurant, but it feels spacious and laid out in a way that is still comfortable even if the line inside the establishment grows.
Looking at the menu, I had a tough time trying to decide on what to order. Creating my own bowl sounded great, but I really wanted to sample everything. In the end, I decided to go for The Works, one of the Splash Favourites. This includes cubes of salmon and tuna, shoyu sauce, all available mix-ins, toppings (except avocado at a cost of $1.50), garnishes and both the Splash and Sriracha aiolis. The only thing I asked to have omitted was the cilantro.
Knowing that there’s a need to avoid any contamination with the food, I understood why there was a glass barrier built between the prep station and the customers, but it did seem a tad too tall. Sure, I could see everything they were doing, yet it felt like it was more difficult to talk to the staff as they were assembling the bowls. Also, despite there being three people prepping the food, it seemed to take a bit of time. This could be a slight detriment to patrons if they’re expecting to be in and out, especially if they’re seeking something quick during a short break in their workday. Hopefully, with practice, the staff will be able to speed things up. And, they’ll likely have more premade bowls available for pick up in the cooler once they’re operating on a regular schedule.
Going back to my bowl, it was beautifully put together with layers upon layers of ingredients and flavours. However, my initial thought was that it was a tad too salty. I think the crab mix and the shoyu – a soy sauce made of fermented soy bean and wheat – were the main culprits. Next time, I’ll definitely ask that they lighten up on the shoyu. For my base, I had also selected the vermicelli noodles. Although they were the perfect consistency and refrained from being sticky, they didn’t do as good a job of soaking up extra sauce. Rice may prove to be the better bet and also be more filling. On the plus side, I loved that every bite brought a different flavour to my palate. With everything from seaweed salad to corn and panko to jalapenos merged into one dish, there was so much going on with regards to taste and texture that I never knew exactly what to expect as I continued to eat. Most importantly, the fish was exceptionally fresh as well.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d opt for The Works bowl again. Yes, it was a great way to try it all in one go. But, ultimately, I now know that there are flavours I preferred. If anything, it’s likely that The Tropical bowl would fit the bill for me with salmon, tuna, scallop, pineapple and mango. I found that the fruit paired really well with the raw fish and was wonderfully refreshing; the sweet natural juices actually helped to balance out any spiciness or saltiness in the sauces.
Personally, I think that Splash Poke would be a good alternative to some of the other nearby dining options. While some may argue that the increase in cost between protein portions is a lot – 1 scoop of protein is $9.95, 2 scoops for $13.95 and 3 scoops for $15.95 – I’d say that it’s pretty reasonable considering the type of meat. If one were to go to a sushi restaurant for sashimi, one piece can work out to almost $2 on average. From what I saw, at least during the preview lunch, the portions were generous here, so it seems with merit for the fish and scallop. The chicken and tofu are another story though.
Before leaving, I spoke with the owner, Angela Wong, to clarify the prices of the Splash Favourites, too. Those bowls are all made with two scoops of protein and, therefore, they do come in at $13.95. When I left I was full and satisfied, so the cost would have been justified by me. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to places like The Chopped Leaf where people are willing to shell out money for food there. Except, I truly believe that what I’m getting at Splash Poke is an elevated product at a comparable price point.
All-in-all, Splash Poke is on the right track. For the shop, it will come down to the quality of service and their ability to keep things as fresh as possible. As long as they deliver on both of those fronts, they’re sure to win over the lunchtime crowd and Edmonton’s downtown dwellers and visitors. Judging by the turnout yesterday evening, it seems that they may have already done so.
About a month after ALTA opened, I finally had a chance to stop by Ben Staley’s new restaurant. With my friend in tow, we headed over right after work at 4:30pm. It was still early for the dinner service, so a number of the tables were empty.
I informed them of my reservation and they let us choose where we wanted to sit out of the available spots for two. With approximately 24 seats in the whole minimalist space, it’s not big; however, with the food requiring less preparation upon ordering, the turnover can be quick.
As we settled in, our server/chef brought over an open wooden box that housed our utensils, napkins and the menu. It was clear that everything had a place and a purpose. “Alta,” short for Alberta was given a nod with the shape of the menu card, which was folded and cut in a way that conveyed the province’s map outline. These little details are the types of things that should be appreciated because, if handled properly, those factors will make all the difference between an average experience versus one that goes beyond expectations.
The staff were very knowledgeable about the drinks and the dishes available. All of the wines selected are no or low intervention. As such, the flavours of the grapes are brought out more. My companion ordered a glass of the Eric Texier Chat Fou Grenache Blend from France. I had a sip of the red to get a sense of it. I thought it was smooth, slightly dry and likely would match a number of plates. Although, I’m no wine connoisseur and, unless a red wine is extremely dry or bitter, they are all alike to me. My beverage of choice to accompany my meal was a glass of the Antech 2014 Brut Mauzac, a sparkling white wine, that refrained from being overly sweet or carbonated. Rather, it was balanced in flavour and pleasantly effervescent. Both glasses were $10 each for five ounces of alcohol.
Moving back to the food, I should explain that ALTA only serves cold dishes. The only option on the menu that will arrive to the table warm is the freshly baked Sourdough & Cultured Butter. All other items are either pre-cooked, raw or preserved (often a combination of those various forms of preparation) and presented at room temperature. Once assembled by a chef on staff, the chef then brings it over and provides an exceedingly detailed description of what you’re going to eat. While we dined, I tried my best to absorb all of the information I was given. Admittedly, I’m positive I missed some of the finer points as there was so much to learn.
What I did discover is that a cold menu can be quite satisfying. I had my apprehensions about an establishment that wasn’t going have any warm dishes. Yet, the Nordic influence of foraging (in this case, using only local ingredients) and fermenting works here. In the end, we sampled a handful of items. I think the chefs were careful to time out the dishes properly, but for the most part, they were brought out as soon as they were ready.
We began our journey through ALTA’s offerings by nibbling our way through a small bowl of the Malted Hazelnuts. The chef, showing his youth, described them as an adult version of cocoa puffs, which isn’t far off. After what sounds like an arduous and time consuming process of hand peeling the hazelnuts, they are then malted to amplify the taste. These little balls, upon hitting the tongue, have a grittiness on the outside and give off a coffee-like flavour that subsides to a slight saltiness as opposed to an anticipated nutty essence. Like the act of smelling coffee beans between tasters of wine, these seemed to be a great snack to have periodically as a way to refresh the palate.
In my mind, the Salted Pork Belly was going to be prepared in a more traditional way with thick pieces of meat and crisp edges giving way to a buttery level of fat. Of course, after seeing the concept of the establishment in motion, I completely understand that the pork belly would have to be done differently than I’m accustomed to. If served conventionally, without being hot or fried immediately before eating, the pork belly runs the risk of being subpar because it’ll lose its crispiness and become limp (think about bacon that has sat out too long). That’s why the thin slices of cured pork belly made so much sense when I saw them laid out over pieces of crostini that had been covered with walnuts and diced apple that had been cooked in overgrown coriander. The meat looked like delicate, semi-translucent strips of prosciutto. The apples were a little tart and helped to offset any salt from the pork. As a side note, I recommend that these be eaten with utensils. We attempted to devour these as if they were finger food, but the pork belly isn’t the easiest to bite apart with your teeth. If you want to maintain your grace in front of other diners, use a knife and fork.
This was followed by our favourite of the evening, a Lamb Tartare. I’m a sucker for a good beef tartare, and lamb is one of my preferred types of meat. Therefore, to find this uncommon take on a fairly common dish felt like a real treat. Oftentimes, people dislike lamb due to the gamey, earthy flavours often associated with the meat; however, that didn’t come through as I ate it raw. My taste buds really honed in on the salty and savoury taste of the chickpea “miso” that also created a smooth texture typically endowed by the addition of egg yolk in a usual beef tartare dish. Pickled baby peaches added a bit of acidity and dried flowers sprinkled over the meat supplied extra texture and a floral aroma. Served with the lamb was a bowl of house made potato chips. Unfortunately, I thought the chips were a tad too greasy. What I did love about the lamb tartare was that all of the components combined created a zestiness that couldn’t be duplicated by any single ingredient in the recipe. I think it goes to show that each element that went into the dish is needed in order to produce something entirely innovative.
After polishing off the two heftier plates of food, we decided that we had room for another main, so we opted to split the Salmon. This was an excellent choice and highly recommended if one is hoping for a lighter meal that gratifies. Not only was this a beautifully composed dish ─ the sauce was gorgeous in colour and provided visual appeal ─ it was one that introduced a new method of preparing cucumber (lightly cooked and charred). Dill was a huge part of the plate as it was done three ways: laid atop the fish in its natural form, as flavouring for the pickles and as a creamy buttermilk sauce. Most importantly, the salmon was cooked to perfection with the meat moist and flakey as it practically melted in my mouth.
No dinner is complete without dessert. With only a couple of options on the menu, we chose to go with the Tart of Black Malt. It hadn’t occurred to us that the malt was actually the malted hazelnuts eaten throughout the evening just pulverized and blended with beeswax and butter to give it the consistency of a chocolate ganache. The mixture was set over a crust made of crushed pumpkin seed. If we’re going by size, this half moon tart is excellent for sharing as there’s plenty to go around. Still, by far the greatest part of this dessert had to be the coating of finely granulated freeze dried black current on the top (sparsely accented with flakes of salt), which not only gave it a rich magenta colour, but also a sweet tartness that played well with the deep and aromatic flavour of the malt.
While this may not be a meal that I’d crave on a regular basis, I found it to be pretty inspiring and unique. Ben Staley and his team at ALTA should be commended for attempting to keep the business as localized as possible. Finding alternative ways of creating flavours that come from ingredients grown only outside of Canada (I’m talking about the malted tart alternative to chocolate) is impressive and really a testament to their kitchen’s talent.
All in, our bill came to $77 for food and $20 for wine plus tax. The restaurant is one of a few in Edmonton that has a no tipping policy. Even though I knew that going in, it still came as a nice surprise when I saw the receipt and was reminded of that. In all honesty, I hadn’t planned to order a glass of bubbly that night, and when I thought about it, the money I would have spent on the tip essentially went towards my drink. Is it a better value over other downtown establishments? Possibly. Most likely not though. The gratuity is probably already reflected in the price of each dish. What’s beneficial with it being a no tipping establishment is that what you see is what you get when it comes down to the cost.
That idea is almost the opposite to the menu. Tiny details and layers of intricate flavours lead to this sense of there being more behind the curtain. Where can they continue to take their offerings? How is it going to change with the seasons? That’s what I’m interested to find out.
Paired with attentive service, food that is more filling than expected and an experience that currently cannot be found elsewhere, I’m certainly inclined to revisit ALTA soon.
Midway through March, I received a note from Rocky Mountain Icehouse. They had noticed that my previous review was a couple of years old and they decided to extend an invitation to me and a few friends. The meal — consisting of several plates from their revamped menu ─ would be complimentary. In turn, I’m now providing an update on my thoughts of their food.
The first thing I’d like to note is that I’m not certain of when the menu was redone. I was simply told that it was new. Yet, I’d been there almost a year ago for a friend’s going away party and, from what I can recall, the options are pretty similar. Some identical selections were even discussed within my initial blog post back in 2014. Perhaps they’ve kept the most preferred and replaced the others with fresh picks. Although I’m not entirely positive of that, what I do think may have drastically changed are the recipes for a couple of the dishes I’ve either had or seen previously.
Kelsey was the staff member who organized this tasting event for us and she also acted as our server that afternoon. Once everyone was settled in with their drinks, Kelsey began to bring the plates over to our table. All items were selected by the chef, so we were constantly being surprised throughout our time there.
Our first offering was a Spinach and Garlic Dip with their house-made potato chips. I found this to be an interesting choice because the chip and dip combo seemed to be missing from the menu completely. The potato chips alone, however, are provided as a side to any of the sandwiches and they’re large, crisp and not overly greasy. Against the lighter dip, they held up well. I’m just not convinced they’d stay whole with a dip of a thicker consistency.
Next up was the Mac & Cheese Hushpuppies, which turned out to be a favourite among the group. This starter consisted of six fritters made using a mix of pasta, corn and peppers. Deep fried and golden brown in colour, these were then drizzled with chipotle aioli. Cheesy with a bit of heat (both in temperature and taste), it meant that each of us jostled to get our fair share before they all disappeared.
An order of the Steak Bites continued our foray into their appetizers. This dish was comprised of eight skewers of tenderloin tips wrapped in bacon. According to the description on the menu, these steak bites were to be served with a lemon tarragon dip. Even though I couldn’t quite distinguish those exact flavours, I did enjoy these immensely. The meat was cooked to a medium rare and was tender enough. We especially loved the bacon. Still crispy, we guessed that the bacon strips must have been cooked separately from the steak to ensure that both meats were prepared properly. Balsamic vinegar added a touch of acidity and sweetness.
The round of starters finished with their Signature Crab Cakes. These two generous patties of shredded Alaskan crab claws mixed with Boursin, feta and cream cheese came out batter and fried with a decent helping of garlic aioli on top. The menu made mention of a roasted tomato sauce that was to accompany the cakes; save for a few halved grape tomatoes, there seemed to be nothing of the sort. We ladies leaned towards this appetizer as we appreciated the quantity and the mix of cheese. It was particularly appetizing with a spritz of lemon. I also liked the texture as I could tell that real crab meat had been utilized. My boyfriend was on the fence. Granted, he’s from the east coast where seafood comes straight from the ocean and nothing in landlocked Edmonton can truly compare.
With barely any time to sit and digest, our first main dish showed up at the table. The BBQ Pork Ribs were a feast for the eyes and the belly. Just as described on the menu, this huge half rack of ribs was slow cooked until the meat fell right off the bone when touched. A knife wasn’t even necessary. The pork was succulent and the bourbon BBQ sauce was deliciously smoky and rich. Sides of garlic mashed potatoes, homemade baked beans and roasted seasonal vegetables ─ each delectable ─ were included as well. For less than $20, this was a superb value and something I’d definitely be sure to have on a return visit.
Entree number two was the half size of the Jambalaya (only $12 and a huge portion for the price). This also came with a couple of the Mac & Cheese Hushpuppies. I’m not sure they were really necessary. Nevertheless, I suppose it’s a bonus as they are tasty. Otherwise, the jambalaya was a combination of rice, onions, peppers, chicken and spicy sausage sautéed in a southern sauce. My friend’s husband couldn’t get enough of it and managed to polish off what remained towards the end of the meal. Personally, I found it to be okay. While I was pleased with the consistency of the sausage and there was a good amount spice, which provided a bit of a kick, I couldn’t imagine eating the full plate as a main on my own. Because everything is cooked in the same sauce, I think it eventually becomes too much of a singular flavour. Sharing this dish helps to sidestep this issue by allowing for a smaller sampling among a handful of other offerings.
The finale to our mains was the Blackened Bison Burger. I was actually astonished to bite into meat that was juicy and not dry as the latter is often found to be the case with bison. Despite the burger being made using a prefab patty, this was still pretty satisfying on my part. The combination of jalapeno jelly and jalapeno havarti cheese won me over. Additionally, as expressed by one of my dining companions, the bun also held its own; it was soft yet strong enough to keep the layers of the burger intact.
The kitchen’s single misstep during our entire lunch was the Southern Gumbo. It can be ordered as an individual cup or bowl of soup or as an upgraded side for $3. The cup came with our burger and, disregarding my fullness, I felt an obligation to try it. Now, in my first review of Rocky Mountain Icehouse, I quickly referred to the gumbo since my friend had eaten it when we dined there together. From what I recall, it looked like a hearty broth with plenty of fillings. On this occasion, the soup was incredibly thick with a gravy-like mouthfeel and slices of Italian chorizo sausage that felt oddly dry and off-putting. Maybe it was meant to be that way. Maybe not. Regardless, it’s safe to say that it’s doubtful we’d to give that one another go.
Last was the dessert. Kelsey let us choose between the two options available. Warm apple crumble called to me, but after Kelsey mentioned that it was the sweeter one, I changed my mind and we went with the Bailey’s Chocolate Ganache Pie. I expected this to be quite dense, yet it turned out to be slightly lighter, albeit a bit sticky. Overall, it was still sugary. What made it seem less so was the balance of bitterness from the chocolate and a tinge of tartness from the raspberries infused into the ganache.
All in, this meal would have cost us approximately $110 plus tax and tip (drinks extra). That much food between five people is a total steal. Everyone left happy and no one left hungry. In fact, we ate as if we were royalty. Out of nine items, there was merely one that we disliked and those are decent statistics. As a local gathering place, Rocky Mountain Icehouse presents patrons with a great atmosphere and a casual menu that was created to please.
The restaurant, located on the main floor of Crash (previously known as the rundown Grand Hotel), is an unexpected gem in a revamped and refurbished building that has been brought back to its glory days. With heavy woods throughout and a bar wine rack disguised as vintage cubbies — likely to be found at the front check-in desks of older hotels — it’s a nod to the history of one of Edmonton’s long standing structures.
It’s not a large space by any means. Nevertheless, although it filled up as my friend and I hung out for the evening, it didn’t seem like anyone coming in had any issues finding a spot to perch on. To be fair, there was no hockey game going on at the nearby Rogers Place arena that night. I’d assume that it’d be much busier if that were the case. That’s why I’m glad to see that Crash offers reservations through the OpenTable system. When I arrived, they had my table all set to go. A card with my name and the time of my booking was sitting there waiting for me.
Our server was quite attentive. She provided a couple of suggestions for drinks based on our palate preferences. I took one of her recommendations and tried the namesake martini, which was a mix of muddled ginger with marmalade, grapefruit vodka and lemon. It satisfied my penchant for slightly sweet yet sour cocktails. My companion went with the other, known as The Donald. A combination of vodka, lychee and grapefruit juice, this came off a little bit sweeter, but was still pleasing, especially with that kick of lychee fruit.
Unlike some of the other DTDW participants that create special dishes for the week, Crash opted to showcase their standard menu by allowing diners to choose any item for both the starter as well as the entree of their $28 three-course dinner. My friend and I decided we’d each go for the DTDW dinner and we’d split four dishes, which would allow us to sample more of the offerings.
I was actually very excited to visit Crash as I had heard that chef Nathin Bye had created the menu. Bye brought Ampersand 27 to life, so I could only imagine where he’d take these pub style plates. What I hadn’t realized was that Bye had completely left Ampersand 27 behind. Crash is his new full-time position and that’s interesting. A hotel restaurant doesn’t usually come to mind as the cool, hip place to hang out, and working in an environment where the goal is to gratify the masses can often be limiting. On the other hand, it’s not unfathomable that Bye would choose to take on the challenge of attempting to change that notion.
We selected the Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt salad, Alberta Beef Short Rib, Brussels ‘n Bacon and the Crash Burger. The majority of the dishes are made to be shared among the group, tapas style. The latter is most ideal for an individual meal, but it’s easy enough to divide that into halves (I’m not sure it’s the best if it needs to be allocated between more than two people). It’s important to note that plates are brought out as they’re ready. That means nothing is sitting for too long in the kitchen; it certainly makes for a compelling argument to share the food, ensuring no one at the table feels left out while others may already be eating.
The Brussels ‘n Bacon were presented to us first. My initial thought was that the size was generous and that it could serve as a whole meal. Regularly just $9 for an order, it’s a great value, too. Prepared with Moroccan spices and sweet chili, the balance of flavours was excellent. The bacon was crisp and smoky; the taste melding with the rest of the spices. Fried chickpeas completed the dish. They were an unexpected accompaniment that provided an extra layer of texture and raised the Brussels ‘n Bacon to star status. It became my favourite dish of the night.
A plate of the Alberta Beef Short Rib showed up next. There were two pieces of beef, each about four ounces in size, along with hickory sticks and broccoli. The menu indicated that there were supposed to be pickled mushrooms. I don’t recollect eating any of those. Nonetheless, I was happy with the dish as the meat was succulent. I still used a knife to cut it, but it was quite tender. Aside from what looked to be a bed of broccoli puree, the meat was cooked in an Asian inspired sauce, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and topped with hickory sticks (house made versions of the snack chip), which added dimension and made me forget about the lackluster broccoli florets, which were cooked fine, just nothing special.
Our third dish was the Crash Burger. Admittedly, this was a bit disappointing. The brioche kaiser bun was, in my opinion, over toasted. The ingredients listed on the menu include braised short rib. I couldn’t tell if there was any in the burger. There was also supposed to be an onion ring, but I don’t recall that either. If it was there, it wasn’t memorable. The patty was decent though; it was well-seasoned and the meat was fresh. There was also plenty of aged cheddar and I enjoyed the fried egg. This burger comes with a side of fries (salad is an alternative) and a deep fried pickle. I’m not usually a fan of the second, but I had a bite of the pickle and it was good. The fries were fine. No dips were served with them though, and I could have used some ketchup or aioli.
Of all the dishes, we would have thought that the cold salad would have been the quickest to prepare, but it turned out to be the last to show up. Was this on purpose à la the mindset of the French and Italians where it’s believed that salad at the end of a meal helps to improve digestion? We don’t really know, but it’s a thought. I will say that the Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt salad was quite a refreshing way to finish off our mains. I would have liked to see more beets and the Greek yogurt was a deceiving replacement for the typical goat cheese. Greens, squash and burnt Mediterranean honey ensured we got our fix of vegetables in a delightfully tasty way.
Dessert was our third and final course. This consisted of a thin slice of tall Cookies & Cream Cheesecake served with a liberal dollop of raspberry jelly or puree. The cake was smooth and silky with layers of chocolate cookie crumble and what tasted like a caramel center. It wasn’t overly dense and, since the slice wasn’t thick, it came across as the perfect portion.
After getting this opportunity to taste a handful of Bye’s creations, I think he made the right move. It’s a chance for Bye to broaden his foodie fan base by showing us how well pub food can be done. The location is accessible and the menu is affordable. Every single dish has an element of surprise – from fried chickpeas to hickory sticks — that elevates each one from something ordinary to something superb (or nearing that, anyway).