Edmonton Restaurant Review: Baijiu Bar

Baijiu’s table settings.

When I’d heard that the owners of North 53 had a new project in the works, I followed their social media feeds religiously to stay in the know. The final product was Baijiu Bar.

Opening in February inside the 110-year-old Mercer Building, the walk-in only restaurant (reservations may be accepted for larger groups) seemed to be a huge hit with visitors. Literally located across the street from the new Rogers Arena and well within the heart of Edmonton’s Ice District, this stylish iteration of a Chinese food joint joined the ranks of its more established neighbours, Rostizado and Mercer Tavern.

As per usual, I didn’t make it there immediately. Even though my office is only about a 10 to 15 minute stroll from Baijiu, it wasn’t until early April that I found myself dining there with a great friend that I hadn’t seen in a long while.

On an early evening after work, I headed straight over to the Mercer Building. As I approached the brick facade, I looked up to see the establishment’s name lit up in neon through the second storey window. I went through the main entrance, but I must have been a bit too early because the door to Baijiu’s unit was still locked when I got there.

The restaurant’s interior.

After a short wait, the host appeared and let me in. Being the first patron for the night allowed me to really absorb my surroundings. The space is long and fairly narrow with tables to one side and bar seating on the other. High windows provide minimal natural lighting that put the focus on the large floral mural on the parallel wall. Bottles that lined the bar were backlit, so that they gave off a minor glow. All of the tables were set with traditional Chinese wares that felt vintage when placed in contrast to framed black and white images of hip hop artists. Old world versus new school was the vibe.

In the few minutes prior to my friend’s arrival, I decided to order the Baijiu Milk Punch. This 2 ounce cocktail (some go up to 3 ounces) consisted of a mix of Black Seal rum, Cremovo, Chinese soy milk, cream, cinnamon & vanilla syrup and pistachio. It packed enough of a punch to provide a reminder that there was alcohol in it, but it was still a smooth drink with a pleasantly nutty and spicy flavour. My friend opted for one of their Mocktails. In this instance, they created some sort of grapefruit agave concoction that was sweet with a hint of tartness and, overall, it was refreshing.

Red Braised Beef Bao

For our meal, we decided to split a few dishes between us. The quickest out of the kitchen was the Red Braised Beef Bao. The plump taco-like buns were folded to hold the slow cooked Pine Haven pork, pickled shallots, cabbage and shaved Brussels sprouts. On top of that was a thick stripe of soy mayo and sprinkles of black sesame seed. With plenty of succulent meat and a variety of texture, these were delicious, if somewhat messy. I should also note that a standard order comes with only three bao. We added a fourth for $5, to make it easier to split the dish.

Lion’s Head Dumplings

Item number two was the Lion’s Head Dumplings. These were filled with Pine Haven pork, white shrimp, soy, garlic and cabbage. They were served drizzled with a ginger-soy sauce and white sesame seeds scattered atop. I thought the filling was juicy and the sauce had a good balance between the salt and spice. My only qualm was that I thought the dough wrapper was a tad too thick. Thinning that out would help to better define the taste of the pork and shrimp.

Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage

Our trio of share plates was finished with the Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage (it was a toss-up between this and the Korean Brussels Sprouts). This did not disappoint. The combination of confit onion, ginger, egg, soy, chimichurri, dry chili, crunchy shredded cabbage and garlic chips was to die for. I especially loved the heat from the flakes of chili pepper and the crispy garlic chips that truly enhanced what could otherwise have been a pretty blasé dish. What kept it interesting was the fact that there were layers upon layers of flavour with each and every bite.

Instead of calling it a night once those items were polished off, my friend suggested we complete dinner with an order of the Fried Bao Ice Cream Sandwich for dessert. The selection changes, so we asked what was available. The choices that evening were the Cinnamon Toast Crunch or the Cap’n Crunch. Unsure of the one to pick, I asked our server to recommend. Cinnamon Toast Crunch it was.

Fried Bao Ice Cream Sandwich

The ice cream sandwich is a decent size; it’s perfect to split between two people. Remember the bao mentioned previously? Instead of steaming the dough, it is fried until it puffs up like a hamburger bun. Soft on the inside and a deep golden colour with a slightly brittle texture on the outside, the bao is then halved horizontally. Between the two layers was placed a thick slab of cinnamon ice cream with pieces of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal added in for good measure. Sort of like ice cream stuffed into a doughnut, this was a heavenly and indulgent end to the meal.

Surprisingly, Baijiu stayed pretty quiet throughout our time there. Sure, other people showed up by 7pm, but it was by no means full. My worry about it being difficult to get in on any given day without reservations was quashed and I realized that, depending on my schedule, it’ll be easy to pop in whenever I feel the need.

“Baijiu,” in Chinese, actually has a couple of meanings. The exact translation is “white alcohol,” which is quite fitting for a bar. It took me landing on their webpage and reading that Baijiu is pronounced as “Bye Joe” before I clued in to the second connotation of “celebration.” It never occurred to me that the name of the restaurant was this Chinese word I’ve known for so long and that I’ve always associated with the latter definition.

Having dined there now, I can certainly picture Baijiu as a place of gathering and merriment. The food hints at the traditional in terms of presentation, but the flavours are amped up and honed, if that makes any sense. The atmosphere is laid back and, with the venue being so open, it makes it feel very communal. I’d also say that the service we experienced was top notch; the server was incredibly attentive and knowledgeable. On the whole, the owners have done a fantastic job of bringing their vision to life and, as an Edmontonian, I’m more than happy to welcome Baijiu to the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene.

Edmonton Event Review: Culinary Lab 01 (Rostizado)

The menu card for Culinary Lab 01.

About a month ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when a sponsored post popped up before my eyes. Rostizado, one of our renowned local restaurants, would be partaking in Edmonton Economic Development Corporation’s (EEDC) Culinary Lab 01.

When I searched for more information through their Eventbrite link, I found out that this was going to be the first in a series of four events happening throughout 2017. Chef David Leeder, trained in some of the world’s top kitchens, would be returning home to Edmonton where he’d team up with a different chef for each dinner.

For the launch, which took place this past Sunday, Leeder’s Nordic cooking would be married with the Mexican stylings of chef Edgar Gutierrez. The kitchen would become their lab. Through six courses (all listed online prior to ticket purchase), Leeder and Gutierrez were to collaborate, innovate, and, hopefully, delight their guests.

The evening itself was extremely well organized. The earlier 6:00pm seating had cleared out by the time my friends and I arrived for the 8:30pm dinner. As the staff were quickly turning the room over for the next round, there was a bit of a wait, but it didn’t take long. Before we knew it, we were being led to our table.

All dishes served were included in the ticket price of $100 per person; however, any beverages were additional to that cost. There was the option of ordering directly off of Rostizado’s drink menu, or there was also a set menu that included an accompanying cocktail or beer  to go with four out of the six courses for an extra $50. Everyone in our party chose to order as we pleased.

Chicharrón with Mussels and Foie Gras

Our initial dish turned out to be very different from what was expected. The menu had indicated uni to be a main ingredient, but as we were informed upon service, uni wasn’t in season and they didn’t want the prospect of feeding us anything subpar. Instead, the same base of chicharrón was prepared with a creamy mussel emulsion, fresh whole mussels, caviar, foie gras and fennel fronds. The fried pig skin was bubbly in texture and crispy when bitten, holding its own against the handful of toppings. I’d worry slightly that this dish could come across as overly salty, yet each component worked well together.

Grilled Octopus

The second plate stayed right on course with the printed menu. Rounds of grilled octopus were placed on the dish like an attempted barrier to keep the roasted kelp sauce in place. I thought the sauce was subtle like a broth with just a hint of salinity. The potato puree added a thicker consistency. Most of the flavours came from the charring on the octopus as well as the ramps and endive. Apparently, there was also some Asian pear hiding in there somewhere, but I don’t think it came across.

Mole Verde

As with any meal, it’s important to get your greens. In the case of this iteration of the Culinary Lab, our veggies came in the form of the mole verde. Pureed rutabaga and tomatilla were the foundation of this plate in which each ingredient had been prepared in a distinct way ─ asparagus was raw, rapini was steamed, cauliflower was roasted, kale was deep fried and onion was preserved (confit) ─ to showcase each at their best. Personally, I was impressed with this plate. At home, I’m a roasted veggie type of woman, and this certainly opened my mind up to a myriad of other possibilities when it comes to vegetarian feasts.

Cochinillo y Tortillas

All three of the previous dishes led to the star of the night, Cochinillo y Tortillas. This included a large wooden platter laid out with three choices of tortilla shells (ancho chili, cilantro and plain), two skillets filled with slow roasted suckling pig, earthy mushrooms and cabbage along with a pile of charred ramps and cabbage. On the side were two sauces: Nordic mole and sesame. The tortillas were soft and the meat succulent. What took this main over the top were those sauces. We guessed at what the Nordic mole was made from, and we weren’t even close (we thought of parsnips). Turns out it was a simple mixture of onions (that explained the sweetness) with cream, butter, vinegar and leek oil. The orange sauce was made from sesame seed and chili, so it had some kick to it. Nothing overwhelming though. The two paired together with the tortilla filling was superb.

Raspado

So far, so good. Unfortunately, while the fifth course was tasty, I’m not sure it should have truly counted as a dish that I was paying for. It was a bowl of Raspado, which is essentially flavoured shaved ice. I did like that the ice was prepared two ways. I also enjoyed the floral fruity combination between the elderflower and the tepache (fermented pineapple that tasted a lot like lychee). Sure, it was refreshing, but let’s be honest, this was kind of a cop out. Even the chefs called it a palate cleanser. At most fine dining restaurants, a palate cleanser is a small bite offered in between plates at no extra charge. Here, this course was costing me about $17 and that seemed wrong.

Tres Leches

Dinner was redeemed with the final dessert course. Tres Leches, traditionally a sponge cake soaked in milk, was the inspiration for this dish. Sort of like four desserts in one, this plate consisted of dulce de leche, burnt milk candy, lime and avocado mousse and grapefruit mezcal sorbet served atop a bed of milk crumble. The bitterness from the mezcal and the acidity of the lime played off of the sugariness in the dulce de leche and burnt milk candy. My favourite part though? I’d say it was the milk crumble. It had this crushed cookie texture that was a bit crunchy and delicately flavoured, adding dimension and toning down the stronger tastes.

For the most part, my crew and I left satiated and satisfied. I’d even be open to attending another one of these Culinary Lab events in the future. My only qualm is that the value has to be there throughout all aspects of the menu. After this meal, I couldn’t quite justify the $100 per person for what we received.

I’m not sure when and where the next events will take place, but there are supposed to be three more to come this year (keep an eye out for news on the EEDC Twitter and Facebook pages). What I do know is, regardless of the cost, this will be a unique experience and a Sunday dinner that you’re likely never to have again. These menus are served only once (twice during the evening) and that’s it. Therefore, if you’re a big fan of food and you have a chance to, I’d recommend you give the Culinary Lab a shot.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Rostizado by Tres Carnales

"Water for oxen, wine for kings."

“Water for oxen, wine for kings.”

The backs of the coasters are printed with the Spanish proverb, “El agua es para los bueyes y el vino, para los reyes.” Roughly translated to English, it means, “Water for oxen, wine for kings.” While my friends and I did not drink any wine on our evening out, we did feast like royalty at Rostizado by Tres Carnales.

Originally, we had a group of eight that planned to get together, so I had attempted to book a table in advance. However, I was told that they had taken the maximum number of reservations for the evening (they only accept them for groups of 8 or more, 48 hours in advance). Being that all my friends were going to be off work by 5pm that Wednesday, we decided to chance it and do a walk-in. One friend arrived early and put the group down on the waiting list as a table for 6 (a couple of people could no longer make it). We were told that it would likely be ready by 5:15, so we sat on the benches outside the restaurant as there isn’t much room to linger inside. Just shortly after the indicated time, my friend received a text message letting us know that we could come in if our whole party was there. Thankfully, our last two members were within sight as they ambled down the block.

When we walked into the restaurant, I noticed that the Mexican style living room was to my left with the open kitchen directly ahead, seating behind and to the right with a private room (or two) at the far end. Retaining the rustic sensibilities of its predecessor, Roast Coffeehouse & Wine Bar, it’s a decent sized, 70-seat space that allows them to rearrange tables as needed. Mostly though, it has a homey feeling to it. You’re meant to sit back and relax. We were placed at a table against the wall that gave half of us a full view of the chef working away. Warmth was emanating from the rotisserie that was slow cooking chicken and pork, requiring that I acclimate during our meal (I eventually did).

Our server, Monika, was great; she brought us still filtered water (no charge) as soon as we sat down, provided us with drink recommendations (FYI…the pitchers of sangria that can be ordered at Tres Carnales, Rostizado’s sister restaurant, are not on offer here) and she indicated whether or not we had ordered enough food for the group. The menu isn’t large by any means, but everything other than the cemitas (sandwiches) are meant to be shared family style. We basically decided to go big or go home, so we ended up ordering the smoked salmon sopes, the albondigas, and queso fundido to start. The salteados verde and the jicama salad accompanied our two platters for two.

The smoked salmon sopes was the first appetizer to come. A plate of three hand-made corn flour sopes – they look like thick tortilla shells, but they’re fried until the outside is cooked and they are still soft on the inside – topped with an avocado cream salsa, tequila cured smoked salmon, mesquite, radishes and white onion, it was easy to split between the six of us. Personally, I wish there had been just a bit more salmon on it to cover every bite. Yet, this was my favourite of the three entradas we ate. The mix of textures from the sope, fish, salsa and raw vegetables, plus the range of flavours in the few mouthfuls that I had was enough to make me want more.

Albondigas are Mexican meatballs made of house ground veal, pork, beef and rice served with tomato and warm chile de árbol salsa, which gives the dish a heat that slowly builds and lingers. I’m a fan of spice and I could handle it, but a couple of my companions thought it was a bit too much for them. Regardless, I think you get four large meatballs that are juicy and really hold the essence of the salsa well. The last starter was the queso fundido, a skillet of melted smoked gouda and monterrey jack cheeses mixed with wild mushrooms, poblano chile strips and sautéed onions served with a side of bread and tortilla chips. This was really tasty. The cheese stayed hot and stringy because of the iron skillet. Unfortunately, it was also smaller than I would have liked, but definitely worth a try.

We opted for two salads, so we’d get some sort of green during our meal. The salteados verde is listed as sautéed seasonal greens cooked with garlic, apple cider vinegar, poblano strips and pumpkin seeds. Seasonal greens on this evening turned out to be kale, which was excellent. The kale really soaked up the vinegar, taking on a tanginess that was offset by the nuttiness of the seeds. Jicama salad, for me, was a nice alternative to the rest of the dishes, which were largely savoury. The salad was a mix of jicama (reminds me of apple), pickled red onion, orange segments, cucumber, mint and lime juice, which I considered to be a refreshing palate cleanser before beginning on our main platters.

The combination platter for two! We ordered two of these.

The combination platter for two! We ordered two of these.

Two huge wooden boards emblazoned with the Rostizado logo had to be fit onto our table. Each was covered with a combination of local Four Whistle Farm chicken (half) and pork roasted in-house (Chris, one of the owners, came by to say hello, and he said they’re experimenting with other meats on the rotisserie, including duck, which they know is my favourite!), garnished with peppers and carrots and served with rosti-papas (potatos) and tortillas. Let me just say, wow! While we all preferred the pork over the chicken, it’s not to say that the chicken wasn’t any good. The bird was perfect; it was slow roasted on the rotisserie so that the meat practically dissolved in your mouth. The difference is that the pork was incredibly juicy and the rub used to marinate the meat was so flavourful that it didn’t require anything else. A bit of pork inside a tortilla shell was all that I needed. The rosti-papas were delicious as well, and they were nice to have as a starch when we ran out of the tortilla wraps that came with the platters. As we were warned by Monika, we did have plenty of meat left over. She packed the rest up in two boxes for us. I happily took one home and it became my lunch the next day.

That meat was saved for leftovers on purpose, of course. Why you ask? Well, because we had to save a bit of room for dessert. They only offer two desserts on the menu: flan de queso and churros con dulce de leche. We made sure to sample both, so we ordered two of each to share. I had seen posts of the churros on Rostizado’s Twitter feed (@Rostizado_yeg) and seen them make them on the morning news, so I definitely wanted to eat some. While they were delectable, especially made fresh and drizzled with dulce de leche sauce, it was the flan that won me over in the end. It looked like traditional flan, but it had cream cheese folded into it, so it was a lot more dense than I expected and incredibly smooth, and it was drenched with a thin caramel sauce and tossed with almond slices. It was spectacular.

We were there for about two and a half hours and felt welcome the entire time. The service and the food was stellar. Between Tres Carnales (@TresCarnales) and Rostizado, I’d say that Chris Sills, Dani Braun and Edgar Gutierrez are doing things right when it comes to the Edmonton restaurant scene. They focus on and perfect core dishes to ensure that no one walks away hungry, but, most of all, they give their full attention to everything – the atmosphere, the service and the patrons – so you feel as if you’re experiencing something special and memorable every time you dine with them.

The Tres Carnales - Chris and Dani watching over Edgar who's busy in the kitchen.

The Tres Carnales – Chris and Dani watching over Edgar who’s busy in the kitchen.

Open for exactly four weeks as of today, the restaurant has been getting raves and seems to be quite busy already. However, I know that there are still some who haven’t learned of its existence yet. Although, that won’t last for long! I fully expect that it will become a quick favourite for foodies and casual diners all across the city, and, no doubt, it will make The Tomato‘s list of best eats and drinks in Edmonton come 2015.

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