Edmonton Restaurant Review: Elm Cafe

The patio space outside Elm Cafe.

Recently, I’ve written pieces about two of Nate Box’s businesses: the established District Cafe at 10011 109 Street and the soon-to-open Salz at 10556 115 Street. He’s had a successful run with smaller eateries that focus on succinct menus made with locally sourced ingredients and products. Having already discussed half of Box’s ventures, this year seemed as good as any to work my way through all four. I still have to pay a visit to Little Brick, but now I can cross Elm Cafe off my list.

In all honesty, for at least two, maybe even three, years now, I’d been sitting on a gift certificate for Elm Cafe. Despite the incentive and my best intentions, I just always forgot to go. I knew that they made some delicious sandwiches though. After all, in the past, I had eaten some of their catering during a TEDx event held at the Citadel Theatre.

The tiny interior of the shop.

Last month, I couldn’t wait any longer. I was adamant about stopping by the shop to pick up some lunch for my family. My boyfriend and I dropped by on a Sunday before noon. It was easy enough to find free street parking on the block. When we walked up to the patio, I noticed a few outdoor tables spaced out nicely. Those spots provide the majority of what seats they have available. In the winter, only a couple of bar stools are to be found inside the cafe for in-house dining. It’s a tiny 200 square foot space with a counter, a kitchen and three staff that have their moves and duties coordinated down to a tee, so as not to stumble over one another.

The day’s menu changes regularly.

Thankfully, there wasn’t anyone waiting behind me to order, so I was able to take a bit of time to decide on what I wanted. The downside to their menu is that it’s regularly updated depending on what’s in stock, so the pizza and sandwiches change daily. I knew ahead of time that they offered early sandwiches (they open early at 7:30am to catch the worker bees in the mornings), lunch sandwiches, soup, salad, muffins, scones, cookies, and an assortment of beverages; however, the specifics were to be a surprise.

As I laid eyes on the menu, I took note of the fact that the day’s pizza and one of the lunch sandwiches had already been crossed off the board. Food sells out quickly here, so the best bet for the most choice is to stop in bright and early. Still, there were some good options. I ended up selecting the following to go: Early 1 ($8), Early 2 ($8), Livin la Sous Vide a Loca ($9), a raspberry white chocolate scone ($4), and a salted caramel ($1). The full package added up $30, which was exactly the amount I had to spend.

My order packaged and ready to take home.

Our food took slightly longer than expected as there was a mistake made with my order; however, it was quickly rectified. While the final sandwich was being prepared, I perused the items on the counter. They’ve sourced a handful of products made in Edmonton (teas, cordials and caramels) as well as craft roasted coffee from Victoria. Eventually, the wait paid off. My goods were bagged up and we were on our way to my parents for lunchtime.

As soon as we got to their house, I unpacked everything and plated the sandwiches. First off, I’ll just say that they did not make for the most photogenic dish; they looked like all bun and no filling. But, hopefully, the images here do them some justice. We split the three sandwiches into quarters for us to share. In spite of their large size, I’m not sure that was truly enough to feed four grown adults. The bread also wasn’t our favourite due to the texture. Regardless, they were decent, especially when it came to overall flavour.

Early 2: cauliflower, egg, crispy onions, greens, chili mayo, and cheese sauce.

I’ll begin with the Early 2. This was a cauliflower and egg sandwich with chili mayo, cheese sauce, crispy onions, and greens. I would have liked more egg for extra protein and for the cauliflower to be more prominent. Yet, this was a much tastier option than I would have expected. The slight bitterness from the arugula was offset by the combo of mayo and cheese, and those crispy onions added texture and saltiness.

Livin la Sou Vide a Loca

Livin la Sous Vide a Loca consisted of turkey, brie, cucumber, pickled onion, arugula, apple jelly, and herb aioli. What a fantastic combination of flavours in this one. This bun was a tad firmer and more toasted than the Early sandwiches, but it worked. The turkey was succulent, there was just a bit of sourness from the pickled onion, and the apple jelly brought in a hint of sweetness. Everything balanced with the creamy brie and the pungent aioli.

Early 1: chicken, egg, roast peppers, lemon, charred green onion, Gouda, and lemon aioli.

My personal favourite turned out to be the Early 1. A chicken sandwich with egg, roast peppers, charred green onion, greens, Gouda, and lemon aioli, this one packed a punch. Savoury with the meat, a little smoky due to the onion’s preparation, and zesty from the lemon, it was somewhat of a revelation. We all enjoyed this one.

Raspberry White Chocolate Scone

To finish off our meal, we split the moist raspberry white chocolate scone. It defied expectations by avoiding the dry quality of some of its counterparts. Even with a crunchy sugar topping, it refrained from being overly sweet. My only suggestion is that they try to spread out the raspberries and chocolate when they lay out the dough to bake because the distribution was quite uneven. I shared my salted caramel with my mom as our final dessert. I’m pretty sure that these are made by Erica Vliegenthart, the head baker at District Cafe, who sells her pies and caramels under the Red Balloon Pie Company name. The caramel was super soft and fresh. I would have happily eaten a dozen on the spot.

Salted Caramels

A meal from Elm Cafe was a long time coming. I’m glad that I finally tried it out. Although we thought there could be minor improvements made to the food, the important thing is it brought my family together for a lovely afternoon. Nate Box’s venues are grounded in the idea of community, and I think that he and his team are definitely succeeding in that respect.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tiramisu Bistro

The spacious interior of Tiramisu Bistro.

The spacious interior of Tiramisu Bistro.

The 124 Street district is one of my favourite places in Edmonton. It’s home to numerous independent shops and restaurants, including Tiramisu Bistro. I keep saying this lately, and it sounds ridiculous since I’m known for reviewing eateries, but until this year, I didn’t know this place was here.

I guess I have tended to relegate myself to certain blocks within this area and Tiramisu Bistro fell outside of that usual boundary. Granted, it’s only a few doors down from Duchess Bake Shop, and I’ve made a point of going there. In fact, it’s because of my attempt to go to Duchess that I ended up at Tiramisu Bistro at all.

On a free evening at the start of the summer, my mom and I decided we should stop somewhere for a snack, so I suggested Duchess. She’d never tried their desserts and I was more than excited to be the one to introduce their key lime pie to her. Unfortunately, as we drove by looking for a spot, I noticed that the store was closed for the night (I forgot they shutter early). That’s when I spied Tiramisu Bistro.

We figured that it was our best bet, and we easily found parking around the corner from the door. Prior to this, I’d heard about Tiramisu Bistro in passing. Yet, I failed to place its location. Now, I knew.

As we walked into the door, I found myself surprised to see how large the establishment is. The room is spacious with a coffee bar and numerous tables. A server came over to greet us and said that we could choose any seat. My mom thought we should have selected a smaller table, but the server said that it was already late and she didn’t expect to see any large parties coming through before the evening was out, so we stayed put.

I sat and looked at the menu even though we weren’t there for dinner. The selection appeared to be appetizing and I made a mental note to come back another time. On this occasion, we each had a smoothie and we shared a key lime pie.

Smoothies and key lime pie

Smoothies and key lime pie

The smoothies were packed full of pureed fruit, so I was happy with the value there. Although, my mom’s Happy Heart smoothie was rather sour due to the cranberries. I fared much better with the Brain Boost smoothie, which was a mix of strawberry, blueberry and raspberry. Having gone back to Tiramisu Bistro, it’s worth noting that they now list all of the ingredients next to the names of smoothies (they didn’t months ago) and the names no longer match what we had. The Cran-tastic is now what my mom drank, and the Passion Berry Bliss matches mine.

As for the key lime pie, it was just okay. Key lime pie is sort of the dessert du jour lately. Any and every restaurant has added it to their menu. I’ve gotten used to the lovely key lime infused custard-type filling that has become the norm. The one served here is similar in texture to a gel with a meringue topping and toasted coconut sprinkles. It was unique, but not what I was hoping for.

Evening specials

Evening specials

My second visit came a couple of months later when I met some friends for book club. It happened to be a Tuesday night, which is Tiramisu Bistro’s pizza B.O.G.O. (half off the second) evening special. My friend was game, so we shared two pizzas between us. Our selections included the Baked Brie & Duck Confit and the Salmone.

The duck pizza was a mix of duck meat, figs, roasted garlic, caramelized onions, brie and honey drizzled on top. I enjoyed this one. However, it could have used a little more duck on it and it would serve them well to spread the toppings out a little more towards the edges of the crust. The crust itself was pretty good. Although, it didn’t have the same consistency of a traditional thin-crust Italian pizza baked in a wood-fired oven, which I would have preferred. From what I remember, it lacked that slight chewiness.

Our Salmone pizza was excellent. The crust was the same, but came off better with these toppings: asiago cheese sauce, pears, capers, arugula and smoked salmon (plus a few pieces of onion). Maybe the juice from the fish and the pears changed the texture of the dough a bit. I’m not entirely sure. In any case, the toppings also made it closer to the edge and each slice could be covered by a full piece of smoked salmon, ensuring you got every flavour in each bite. If I were to go back for their pizza, this is the one I would have again.

Another friend in our party opted for a pasta dish, which may have been the special that day as his was made with short rib, and I can’t find it listed on their regular menu. The dish was nicely presented, but not particularly large. The fourth in our group chose either the Lift Me Up or Quinoa salad with added salmon skewers. Her dinner looked delectable. On sight, the veggies seemed to be fresh with a mix of greens, red bell peppers, grape tomatoes and cheese. The pieces of salmon were sizable, cooked well and seasoned nicely.

Seeing as we took their table for at least a few hours, the restaurant was accommodating. They never once rushed us even when it did get busier (there was never a line up though). I’d certainly go back for their food, especially on nights when they have specials or live music on Friday evenings. Mostly, I like the ambiance. It’s quiet enough to talk to whoever you’re with and they have a great patio during the warm season. Plus, the huge windows let in a lot of light when it’s bright out.

In essence, it’s a great community establishment that makes you feel right at home.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: 97 Hot Pot

Boiling our pots of soup at 97 Hot Pot.

Boiling our pots of soup at 97 Hot Pot.

As a Chinese girl who was born and raised in Edmonton by my parents, far away from the rest of our immediate family, we would eat Chinese food when I was growing up, but I much preferred things like pizza, pasta and the like over traditional Asian fare. I’d happily go to Chinatown to eat sweets like pineapple buns, and, of course, to shop for all things Sailormoon. That was pretty much the extent of it.

It has always been that way for me. If I ever had the option to have anything other than Chinese food, I’d take it. Yet, that mentality has changed over the years. By all accounts, Chinese cuisine still isn’t my favourite; however, I do love a good Peking duck, or freshly made shumai and cocktail buns at what I like to call “Asian brunch” as we usually partake in dim sum late in the morning and on the weekend.

So, now that I’m older and more willing to try everything, when my parents suggested going for a hot pot lunch on a chilly December day, I thought I had better give it a go. I really should refrain from being picky nowadays.

Raw chicken and pork slices, bean curd, dumplings and sauce.

Raw chicken and pork slices, bean curd, dumplings and sauce.

Years since I had had that type of meal – essentially you get boiling hot soup and you cook raw veggies and meat at the table yourself (it actually sounds a lot like The Melting Pot from what I’ve been told) – I figured it was time to open myself up to my heritage. After all, hot pot is the Chinese equivalent of bringing family together.

We ended up at 97 Hot Pot, a somewhat newer establishment in the heart of Chinatown. The location used to be home to a small grocery store, but has been renovated into a spacious, bright and clean restaurant. Tables have individual hot pot plates built into them, so each diner can pick a soup base of their choice. The temperature settings of the heating plates can be changed (on a scale from 1 to 3), allowing patrons to adjust them as needed.

The interior of 97 Hot Pot.

The interior of 97 Hot Pot.

They offer an all-you-can-eat option at 97 Hot Pot, but the lunch menu is more than enough for each person. At around $13 each, there’s plenty of food to ensure you don’t leave hungry. Using the paper menus, we checked off what we wanted, which includes one type of broth along with five entree items. All of us selected different things, but I went with the Szechuan Spicy Chicken soup, sliced sirloin beef, pork wontons, pork & vegetable dumplings, beef balls and vermicelli noodles. Another bowl of fresh veggies (lettuce, tomato, corn on the cob, enoki mushrooms, white button mushrooms and broccoli is provided as part of the price.

First off, let me say that the Szechuan Spicy Chicken soup is SPICY! I love food with a good amount of heat, but, for me, this was more than I expected. On the one hand, I didn’t have to use any additional sauces to flavour my soup and food. On the other, it was spicy enough to take away some of my ability to taste anything else. This soup is made with a number of ingredients, many of which I couldn’t quite pick out, but can be seen in the pot. One flavour in particular was hard for me to pinpoint, but I’m sure it came from some sort of re-hydrated veggie or bean, which is often used in Asian soup bases, and not one I’m that fond of. Nevertheless, it was still yummy, and, if you have a penchant for extremely spicy food, this might be for you.

I liked that they didn’t skimp on the extra bowl of vegetables because it could be a meal in itself. Regardless, I’m glad to have the additional entree items. The sirloin beef slices were fresh, the beef balls had a nice spring to them once cooked, the dumplings were plump and juicy, and the vermicelli, which soaked up just the right amount of flavour from the soup, helped to fill my belly. The only misstep of my meal was the tiny wontons. Although several were provided and they were tasty, they were much smaller than regular wontons that are to be had anywhere else. Also, if I had a do over of my lunch, I would maybe have gone with the rice noodles instead. Thick, clear and kind of gelatin looking, I sampled one from my mom’s plate, and they were delicious.

My mom's selection of rice noodles, sliced sirloin beef, shrimp, squid and fish.

My mom’s selection of rice noodles, sliced sirloin beef, shrimp, squid and fish.

With regards to the service, it was busy that day and they don’t have many people on staff, so I would say that they could improve in that aspect. Both my mom and I still had some food to cook, but our soup had boiled down until there was very little left in the pot and you could smell a bit of the food burning. We had to wave a staff member down to get them to add water to our pots before we could continue with our meal.

All-in-all, I enjoyed the food and the outing. It’s a fun, communal type of meal that is as traditional Chinese as one can get.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Absolutely Edibles (Closed)

Waffles with the Works

Waffles with the Works

Serving customers and offering catering since 1999, Absolutely Edibles (a.k.a. AE’s on 118th) took a chance by opening their business in what has long been considered a crumbling neighbourhood. They must have known in their gut that it was the right move though. Within the last few years, 118 Avenue has continued to improve with a number of entrepreneurs opting to set up shop along the previously notorious street.

A commitment to healthily prepared foods – creating dishes from scratch with fresh, local and Canadian products where possible – I wasn’t fully aware of the establishment until I truly began delving into the Edmonton restaurant scene this past January. Around for 15 years now, it had eluded me, but I finally decided to venture towards the unknown (as many of us are not apt to do, preferring to stick to the tried and true) because – say it with me now! – I had a Groupon to use.

When you drive up to the building, it’s unassuming and small. There is a cute patio space filled with tables and umbrellas that shade from the sun on hot summer days. The interior seats only about 30 people; the decor of slate brick walls, mosaic tiled table tops, a mix of red, green and brown leather upholstered chairs and beige tiled floors, which all look recently updated or, at the very least, well kept, giving the space both a modern and slightly ski chalet-like vibe. It was a quiet Saturday afternoon when my parents and I stopped by for lunch, so we had our pick of spots as well as excellently attentive service from Ryan, the lone front of house staff member that day.

On first impression, I was happy to see that the eatery was not only stylish, but impeccably clean. My second impression was that their menu was completely overwhelming. On weekends, I assume, you receive both their brunch and lunch menus. Plus, you also have the option to order from their sister restaurant, Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus, which is located in the adjacent building (perhaps somehow sharing a kitchen). Each list was extensive, taking full advantage of the word “fusion” as used in the establishment’s full name. Menu options pull from various influences that run the gamut from Asian (dim sum) to Southern (jambalaya) cuisines. As I found it difficult to concentrate on all the possibilities, I decided to ask Ryan what his recommendations were. Ultimately, I went with the Pulled Pork Waffles, my mom chose the Waffles with the Works and my dad ordered the AE’s Classic Club.

What Absolutely Edibles lacks in terms of physical space, they certainly make up for when it comes to portion sizes! The plates, especially the two from the brunch menu, were brimming with food enough to feed at least two people each.

My dad raved about the Chicken Cacciatore Soup that came as a side to his sandwich. The tomato-based soup looked incredibly rich, thick and full of chicken and veggies, and the sandwich’s focaccia bread was stacked high with three meats – bacon, turkey and slow roasted ham – cheddar and mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomato and mayo.

The Waffles with the Works was a compilation of two Belgian waffles topped with fried chicken, bacon, cheddar and mozzarella and then drizzled with a spicy maple cream. I tried a couple of bites out of the approximately four or five large pieces of chicken and was met with a crispy, juicy, but not greasy meat. I couldn’t really tell that the maple cream was spicy; however, I always enjoy a mix of savoury and sweet profiles. Pulled pork has become one of my preferred foods to eat when I see it on a menu (probably because I never make it at home), so I couldn’t pass up the Pulled Pork Waffles. The pork is smoked in-house and layered with the same spicy maple sauce, bacon and cheddar and mozzarella as my mom’s dish. It’s then finished off with a “blendmore” waffle sauce, two sunny side up eggs and a bit of maple syrup. If indulgent is what you want, that is exactly what you’ll get when you dine at AE’s. The only downfall of an otherwise fantastic dish was that the sauce smothered pull pork made the waffles soggy fairly quickly. Therefore, instead of having crisp and airy waffles, it became more like a mush with amazingly tasty shredded meat. Next time, instead of leaving everything piled directly on my waffles while I dine, I’ll probably shove everything to the side to avoid that. The two waffle plates also came with large sides of sweet potato fries (the Works was supposed to be covered in cinnamon sugar, but it didn’t taste like it), some aioli for dipping as well as a cup of fruit (this wasn’t mentioned on the menu).

A positive outcome of eating here is that for about $55 for three people (tax and tip included, no drinks), you will not only leave completely full, but you’ll also likely have leftovers to last you at least one more meal. In less than two hours, Absolutely Edibles became my father’s new favourite restaurant. He has even gone back twice more with different friends who were all equally impressed. I think this is where the establishment has found its success – word of mouth recommendations from trusted friends and family. I know I would not only tell people to go, but I’d make sure that they bring me with them whenever they do!

If you have a chance, I suggest that you also check out Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus, situated around the corner, because the food is just as good and the portion sizes are equally as generous. It’s also a great place for larger groups as most of the tables can seat about 6 to 8 people, maybe even more. The service is top notch, too.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Bothy Wine & Whisky Bar (Closed – Downtown Location)

The bar at the 124th Street location of The Bothy.

The bar at the 124th Street location of The Bothy.

The Bothy Wine & Whisky Bar (@BothyWineWhisky) expanded from the south side with a location on the ever-popular 124 Street. I’ve been to the new destination, which sits on the cusp of the Oliver neighbourhood, a couple times now. While it is never full to the brim with patrons, the dimly lit tavern presents itself as a nice venue to tuck into a good meal and an evening of engrossing conversation with friends.

As the full name of the establishment suggests, they are known for an extensive list of whiskies and scotches (over 175 varieties according to their newly revamped website) as well as wines. The food menu is decidedly less all-encompassing, pared down to cheese and charcuterie sharing plates (excellent for nibbling on with a drink in hand), a handful of appetizers, and some traditional Scottish entrees including haggis (this particular dish putting The Bothy onto The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton, coming in at No. 55 in 2013).

The dinner menu at The Bothy.

The dinner menu at The Bothy.

Although I wasn’t so adventurous with my own order upon dining there, I was sure to have a bowl of their famous Bacon Tomato Soup, which single-handedly drove the restaurant into the No. 23 spot on The Tomato‘s 2014 list. Coming as a side to the Maple Yam Spread sandwich, it’s a hearty bowl of pureed tomato and herbs that simmer with spice and large chunks of bacon. Slightly tangy, but offset by the saltiness of the bacon, it certainly warms you up on a cool evening. For a side of soup, you get quite a large portion, too, so you’ll definitely be full after finishing off your main.

As I mentioned earlier, I ordered the Maple Yam Spread sandwich. You’re probably wondering what exactly that entails. The first time I ate it, I really didn’t know what I was in for. I swear, but I have no proof, that in its original form the sandwich was filled with a steak of yam, goat cheese, roasted red peppers, smoked maple mayo, pesto and greens, so the yam was a solid. However, upon seeing what I got this last time at the end of April, the yam was processed into an actual spread. The good thing is that the form the contents of the sandwich came in didn’t take away from the overall flavour of it at all. The combination of the ingredients was wonderful. However, it made for a much more messy dinner.

IMG_20140427_202638

One of my dining companions ordered the Bothy Club, which had a chicken breast, smoked bacon, a sunny side up egg, tomato, cheddar cheese and smoked maple mayo. While I didn’t get a bite of it, it sure looked delicious and it was gone within minutes.

After looking through the menu that is currently showing on the website, it seems like they no longer serve the sandwiches, which is really too bad as they do a good job with them. But, I’m sure that the other items are sure to please as well.

What I liked most on both occasions is the service received. My initial encounter with the staff at The Bothy came during a friend’s birthday celebration. A table of about eight of us came in for drinks and food, most of us never having been before. They had our table ready to go, the server was able to answer questions and provide recommendations and they were prompt with our orders. The same courtesy and knowledge was also bestowed upon me and my friends the last time I went, making me all the more inclined to visit again.

If you decide to go, settle in with a drink that you can savour and some good company. They don’t actually list any set closing hours, so you know they are committed to staying open late for your pleasure. For a place that isn’t too far off the beaten path, but still provides a homey experience, The Bothy is one that you should keep in mind.