Edmonton Things To Do: Evoolution’s Taste the World of Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar

Main course for the tasting at Evoolution.

Personally, a good olive oil and balsamic vinegar brings me back to some of the best dinners I’ve had with friends. It seemed like such a fancy thing when I was younger to have a restaurant serve that mixture as a dip for fresh bread because it wasn’t something we ever did at home. It was such a simple thing, yet it was also a treat.

Nowadays, we’ve got a couple of great shops that specialize in these products. Oliv Tasting Room and Evoolution are on a mission to get high quality olive oils and balsamic vinegars into the hands of Edmontonians and Albertans. I’m a fan of both, having frequented each a number of times over the years. However, working downtown, Evoolution on 104 Street and 101 Avenue is the most convenient.

The Evoolution shop on 104 Street in Edmonton.

Often times, I’ve found myself hanging out there during lunch or after work eating cubes of bread doused in a variety of flavours. Bottles range in size and price depending on the the type of oil or vinegar. Nevertheless, there’s always something to please each palate, and they make wonderful gifts, especially for family members or friends who like to cook.

Recently, I was attempting to find an activity for my friend and I to do together. As per usual, I ended up on the Eventbrite app, and that’s where I came across several listings from Evoolution (104 Street & Enjoy Centre locations). Once or twice a month they hold events in the evening. After the store is closed, they prep the space to seat a large table of about ten people — more can be accommodated in St. Albert’s Enjoy Centre — who will be taken through an educational tasting and full 3-course meal that highlights how olive oils and balsamic vinegars can be used at home.

A booklet with lots of info on their products and the menu for the evening.

For $35 plus tax per person, we were taken through the proper way to taste olive oil using the strippaggio method (similar to how one might taste a fine wine). A dark blue tulip glass is cupped in the hands and warmed before taking a sip. With teeth clenched, you then have to suck air into the mouth until the oil hits the back of the throat. Doing so allows for the oil to be stripped and the flavour to be revealed. The difference between basic store bought extra virgin olive oil and the premium ones sold at Evoolution is staggering. Signs of an excellent olive oil come down to three things: smell, taste, and texture. Surprisingly, the colour and clarity doesn’t matter so much. What you are looking for is an earthy/grassy scent, a pepperiness on the tongue (high polyphenols, a.k.a. antioxidants, bring that out), and a smooth finish with no film or residue left in the mouth.

Better quality olive oils shouldn’t even list an expiry date. What needs to be indicated, though, is the crush date of the olives used to make the batch. It should last for 12 to 14 months after the bottle is opened without any issue. Still, it’s ideally consumed within 6 months since the freshness starts to break down as soon as it’s opened and continues to do so every time air comes into contact with the oil. Nonetheless, you’ll know if it has gone bad as olive oil does become rancid. We also learned that the best olive oils tend to have high smoke points because of their fatty acid content, making them fantastic for use at high heats of up to 450 degrees. That’s contrary to the myth that they are not to be used for cooking.

Complimentary mini bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar were given to each guest.

Next up on the agenda was an info session on balsamic vinegars. Honestly, it’d never crossed my mind to question what balsamic vinegar was made of. I was flabbergasted to find out that it’s made from grapes. White Trebbiano grapes to be exact. When crushed, the syrup from the grape juice is what is extracted, fermented and aged either in stainless steel or wooden barrels. The flavour, viscousness, and concentration of every balsamic vinegar is determined by the amount of time aged, evaporation of the liquid as it ages, and oxidization of the syrup when exposed to the barrel used. Lighter balsamic vinegars are usually processed in stainless steel or light wood barrels. Inkier ones are made using dark wood. Due to the fermentation of the product, they can easily last 3 years. I suspect, it’s also why balsamic vinegars have an effervescence when sipped on their own.

Don’t store either olive oil or balsamic vinegar in the fridge though. Condensation in the bottle can spoil them. Just keep them away from direct light and heat and they’ll be fine.

When we finished going over the finer points of each and had sampled half the store, that’s when dinner began. There was a platter of crusty bread to be eaten with our choice of oils and vinegars as well as four different tapenades. Evoolution’s famous truffle butter popcorn was served as well. I’m not a popcorn person, but I could eat a ton of that. Their butter olive oil is made with a plant extract, so it’s free of dairy. Yet, it tastes just like the real thing. Uncanny. To drink, we were given glasses of club soda mixed with their gravenstein apple balsamic vinegar. Turns out that balsamic vinegar is the perfect natural product to flavour water with. For anyone who uses drink crystals or those squeeze bottles to make their water taste “better,” you can stop doing that now.

Supper was more than filling. We were first presented with a spring salad with fresh mozzarella, basil pesto, and black currant balsamic vinegar. Our entrée consisted of an autumn wild rice pilaf — hearty winter veggies, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, olives, and butternut squash seed oil — likely made in their back room using a Crock-Pot and a hot plate (they don’t have a kitchen, so we were impressed). Dessert was an elaborate pumpkin pie cheesecake decorated with vermont maple balsamic candy.

As our host, Christine, pointed out, the menus are made on the fly. Usually they’re created on the day of the event, and the courses are determined by what kind of fresh ingredients are found at the grocery store. Having run these tasting sessions for quite some time, she was confident that within the last year they had yet to duplicate a menu or a single course. I declared that she may as well save me a spot every month because I’d be willing to spend the money on a meal like this regularly. Since they don’t prepare a menu in advance, it may be difficult for attendees to know if their dietary concerns can be accommodated. However, Christine assured us that once a ticket is bought, they can be contacted and informed of issues or allergies, so they can work within those parameters.

When we were finished eating, we were then able to shop the whole store at 15 per cent off. Considering Evoolution never really offers any sales, it’s certainly a plus to attend a tasting event just to get this bonus, particularly around the holiday season.

If you’re looking for something new to do in Edmonton and you like to eat, I highly encourage you to look into the next events at Evoolution. The cost of admission is well worth it. My friend and I learned so much about these kitchen staples while being “wined” and dined. It’s time that you experienced Evoolution like this, too.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Riverbank Bistro (St. Albert)

Dessert in the form of Key Lime Pie!

After a day out at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in August, Kirk and I decided to treat ourselves to dinner out. Instead of sticking around the busy area of Old Strathcona, we made the trek over to Riverbank Bistro in St. Albert. I’d read recent praise about the restaurant, which opened up inside the Victorian-Style house situated on Mission Avenue last fall, and I wanted to try it.

We showed up for our OpenTable reservation early (at about a quarter to 5:00pm), so I snapped some photos of the building and the interior of the house before we went inside. Interesting to note is that Riverbank Bistro also has a lounge serving a very different bites menu; however, it’s completely cutoff from the restaurant. The lounge actually has a different door on the right hand side of the foyer, accessible when you enter the building. The door to the left takes you into the main dining room.

The dining room is through a door on the left.

Upon our arrival we were greeted immediately. Although we could have requested to sit outside on the patio that overlooks the Sturgeon River, we ended up seated at a table for two inside. Personally, I believe we made the right choice seeing as how a couple that had originally opted to dine outside ended up shifting indoors. It sounded like the bugs were invading.

Prior to our visit, I had perused the Riverbank Bistro menu online. The list of classic items had an elevated air to them, and I was excited to sink my teeth into their offerings. What I didn’t realize was that on Sundays, the only menu they have available is their Sunday Feature Menu. It’s a two-course dinner that includes a starter and an entrée for $28.95 per person. While I’m all for the price, I was a tad disappointed that it was our only option. The menu provides four appetizers and three mains to choose from. My singular hope was that the chef had selected the best from their menu to showcase every Sunday.

If anything, the lack of choice made our decisions that much faster. Kirk decided on the Caesar Salad (normally $14) and the Roast AAA Alberta Beef Prime Rib (not on the usual menu). I ordered the R.B.B. Soup Creation (regularly $8) and the Pan Seared Salmon Fillet ($27 on its own). I also began my meal with a Mission Ave Mule ($13).

Caesar Salad

For the Caesar Salad, the kitchen refrained from chopping the romaine hearts. Instead, they cut them lengthwise, laying them open and then piling on the dressing, focaccia croutons, shaved Asiago, crispy capers, and grape tomatoes. To finish things off, it was topped with a grilled lemon slice. The juices from that created a charred acidity. I appreciated that the appropriate amount of dressing was used. More often than not, salads either have too much or too little dressing. In the case of Riverbank Bistro it was just right for me. Plus, the ample cheese helped. What kind of gave the Caesar salad a twist was the addition of those grape tomatoes, bringing a pop of tang and sweet here and there.

Roast AAA Alberta Beef Prime Rib

The Roast AAA Alberta Beef Prime Rib was decent. The meat looked to be cooked to a proper medium or medium rare. Yet, I found it to be a bit dry in spots. The rosemary jus was flavourful though, and the smashed potatoes were buttery. I kind of wish there had been more potato. Although, I suppose with a side of Yorkshire pudding, there was already enough starch to go around. Speaking of the Yorkshire pudding, Kirk called it his dessert. Most days he prefers salt to sugar, and I have to agree that Riverbank Bistro’s version is good. It had a crisp outer shell and a fluffy interior with a slight chew, ideal for soaking up leftover gravy. The roasted carrots and turnips were prepared nicely as well.

R.B.B. Soup Creation

The R.B.B. Soup Creation changes all the time, but boy did I luck out that weekend! The chef had made a creamy potato Asiago soup with caramelized onion and bacon. In my opinion, when it comes to soups, I can take or leave a broth. I’m all about an amazing cream soup, and this one was luxurious, to say the least. It was surprisingly smooth. Whatever they did to puree the potatoes, they were undetectable in terms of texture. It was warm, thick and creamy all the way down to the last drop. The flavours of the cheese, onions and bacon melded together perfectly. I’d go back to Riverbank Bistro simply for this.

Pan Seared Salmon Fillet

My main of Pan Seared Salmon Fillet was passable. I will give them props for the fish itself. The cut was large and it was pan seared so that none of the moisture was lost. The fish was succulent and flaky without falling apart too easily. I’m not entirely certain as to how it was seasoned. If I had to guess, I think it was simple salt and pepper with some maple syrup as it looked lightly caramelized on the top. What I wasn’t a huge fan of was the base of the dish, which consisted of an herbed spaetzle along with a bacon and corn succotash. I found the dill heavy handed and the overall taste saltier than I would like. While bites of the noodles seemed to help tone down the brininess, it was still a lot for my palate to take.

Mission Ave Mule

What really assisted with washing away the salt was my Mission Ave Mule. It’s a typical mule cocktail mix with vodka, lime, and ginger. Riverbank Bistro took it up a notch by adding in blueberry. I could clearly taste the fruit in the beverage with every sip, but they also decorate the top of the drink with frozen blueberries as an extra touch. My only wish is that for $13 it came in a bigger cup. I really had to savour that drink slowly.

Key Lime Pie

To cap off our dinner, we decided to share the Key Lime Pie ($10) for dessert. This was plated beautifully on a large white backdrop with colourful dollops of puree and pieces of fruit. It was creative and playful. The pie was delicious with a filling that leaned towards creamy instead of spongy. It was smooth and had a pleasant zestiness. The crust was also different from a basic pie since they incorporated coconut into it giving it a toasty flavour that married well with the key lime.

Despite the initial revelation that their regular menu was not available on Sunday, it turned out to be a pretty good meal. It gave the two of us an idea of the potential that lies in Riverbank Bistro. With the mains, maybe they just had more of an off night since I do believe that improvements are needed. But, wow, did they do a great job with things like their appetizers and dessert. I also think that the service was excellent (aside from one forgetful moment where we were brought our bill prior to our dessert coming out). We’re definitely willing to give Riverbank Bistro another shot as long as we visit on a Tuesday to Saturday instead.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

The open kitchen of Buco Windermere is surrounded by bar seating.

Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group expanded in mid-2015 with Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar in St. Albert. While I’ve never visited that location, a friend of mine is the executive chef at the newer Epcor Tower spot in downtown Edmonton. It’s just blocks away from Rogers Place. For me, the closest and most convenient is in Windermere.

My fiancé and I recently popped in to check it out. We spent an entire $65 OpenTable dining cheque on an indulgent Saturday afternoon lupper (lunch-dinner). The reason why we chose to go at that time is because they offer Social Hour specials daily from 2pm to 5pm and 9pm to close.

It’s nice and airy inside with an industrial feel.

Even in the middle of the day, there were a decent number of guests seated in both the industrial style lounge and dining room. However, there were just a few staff on hand, so service was a little slower than it should have been. It was worth it though, and it kind of forced us to sit there and enjoy our meal rather than quickly rushing through it all.

My Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail at the front and the featured Shock Top draft at the back.

To start, my significant other opted to go for their feature draft. At $5 for 12 oz. it was reasonable (regularly $7.50). That day’s option was Shock Top, so nothing too special. I chose to try their Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail ($5 for Social Hour, usually $9.50) — peach grappa, peach purée, white tea, and peach infused whipped cream. Our server said it took longer to make it because they had an issue with the whipped cream dispenser. That’s no big deal. I was more annoyed with the fact that it was so messy. The drink was filled so high that it was spilling down the sides of the glass and I got whipped cream all over my hands and the table. They never bothered to wipe that down or offered to bring extra napkins or anything. Other than that, I could have done without so much ice. The cocktail comes in a short glass, so the more cubes there are, the less drink there is, and I finished it really quickly.

For sustenance, we shared a Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 people ($12, typically $22), a Carne pizza, and a Fig Prosciutto pizza ($12 each, outside of Social Hour it’s $21). This was a ton of food and could easily have fed another couple.

Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 People

The cheese and charcuterie board was brought out as a starter, so we were able to snack on that first. This actually wowed us because we weren’t expecting the smaller size to be such an extensive spread. I think the only constructive feedback we have about this item is that it needs to come with more slices of bread. There were only two pieces per person. It meant the ratio of bread to cheese and meat was off, and it’d be nice to have more bread to balance everything out. Otherwise, the variety of cheese included a mix of both hard and soft textures and a range of mild to pungent flavours. The meats were also great. They stuck to the more familiar cured meats like prosciutto and salami, which ensures everything will be eaten when it comes to a chef’s choice type of situation.

For the pizzas, we were eventually asked if we were ready to have them fired up. We felt like we’d had enough of the board, so we said yes. It didn’t take too long for them to bake in their oven and they came out piping hot. The Carne is a pie layered with red sauce, meat, meat, and more meat. The toppings included short rib, Italian sausage, pepperoni, and bacon for the protein. Smoked caciocavallo and fior di latte filled the cheese quotient. This pizza was everything a meat lover could want as there was just so much of it and it was incredibly savoury. On the ligher side of scale, our Fig Prosciutto pizza is made without tomato sauce. It consisted of fontina cheese, fig jam, prosciutto, and balsamic drizzle. It has that salty-sweet combo that is appealing to a lot of palates. The crusts were easy to fold, crispy and slightly charred on the outside, and a little chewy in the middle.

Raspberry Ricotta Cake

Half of our meal was packed up to go as there was no way we could finish it all at once. But, we did save some room for dessert. In the end, we shared a slice of the beautifully presented Raspberry Ricotta Cake ($9). It was a bit more crumbly than I thought it should be despite the moistness of the ricotta and vanilla based cake. Still, the raspberry coulis, fresh berries, and fresh whipped cream did a good job of tying everything together.

We’ll definitely have to go back again soon to sample more items. Nevertheless, judging by what we’ve eaten there so far, overall, Buco Pizzeria’s menu is up to snuff. Where they can certainly use improvements is with the servers and management. They seemed kind of oblivious to the fact that they had guests. They were more preoccupied with setting up the restaurant for the evening and ignored current patrons unless they were blatantly waved at. It shouldn’t be a requirement to make full on eye contact with a staff member in order to get any service. They need to be trained to be more attentive. Hopefully, I’ll see changes with respect to that next time I’m there.

Edmonton Happenings: Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids

The stage at The Arden Theatre in St. Albert.

About two weeks ago, I dragged my fiancé to the latest Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids (GRTTWaK) event in St. Albert. It was the second one I’d attended. The first was two years before at The Mercury Room in Edmonton. I was, and still am, just a listener though. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to get so personal with a room full of strangers.

My ticket into the event as an attendee.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the name of the event pretty much speaks for itself. However, to expand, this is essentially a ticketed touring open mic show run by Dan Misener and his wife Jenna. They’ve been doing this since 2007 after a Christmas trip the year before led them on a journey through Jenna’s old diaries and inspired them to gather friends to do the same. It’s now become a podcast hit with recordings made live during dates that are frequently scheduled across the country.

Grownup

Locals in each city they visit sign up to go on stage for about 5 minutes per person to read something from their past. It could be anything from a short story to a poem, or a letter to a class assignment, or something from one’s journal. Those who enroll have to check in with Dan and Jenna before the big day, so they get a sneak peek of what’s to come. Nevertheless, watching Dan react to each person’s share, I could tell he was just as surprised and delighted as the audience was whenever those big “oh my god” moments happened.

Admittedly though, GRTTWaK isn’t my first foray into this world of teenage and childhood artifacts. In fact, I became obsessed with the film Mortified Nation when I saw it on Netflix a few years back (they now have a Netflix series called The Mortified Guide). The premise was pretty much the same. Yet, the founder of Mortified, David Nadelberg, was based out of the United States and launched his similar endeavour in 2002. I loved it so much that I wanted to be the one to bring it north of the border.

Little did I know that Dan Misener already beat me to the punch. It was my friend who introduced me to GRTTWaK, which really doubled my fun when it came to hearing these stories of adolescent horrors, gut wrenching heartbreak, true happiness, etc. that almost everyone can relate to whether or not they realized it when they were younger.

I guess that’s the irony of it. Things always seemed like such a huge deal as kids. We blew things out of proportion and we assumed we were the only ones to be feeling the way we did. More than likely though, our neighbour or our friend was experiencing it, too. It shows us how caught up in ourselves we can become, but I also think that we sometimes have a depth that goes beyond our years. Many of the things people have shared are so insightful and introspective. Others are lighthearted and hilarious.

What I do think is important to remember is that, whatever it is we have in our history, whether it’s good or bad, we’ve come through it. We can look back and learn from our pasts and, hopefully, we can have a chuckle at it as well.

I definitely recommend that if you’re located in Canada, register for the GRTTWaK newsletter. You won’t get a ton of emails. You’ll just be looped in on upcoming events that you can attend. Also, be sure to check out the podcast. It’s available through their website, Spotify, Apple, or Google. While each episode of the Mortified podcast delves deep into the share of a single individual (even doing a follow-up with the reader who provides a bit of extra discussion about their story), GRTTWaK episodes are usually about 25 to 35 minutes long and cover multiple brave souls in one sitting. It can lead to a roller coaster of emotions, but it’s worth the ride.

Check out this GRTTWaK episode, posted on August 27, 2017 where my friend Michelle decided to read an original story she penned about a horse family:

https://art19.com/shows/grownups-read-things-they-wrote-as-kids/episodes/883b32c2-7483-4bb7-8048-7c7c87fd0f9b/embed?theme=light-custom

If you’re interested in hearing an episode from Mortified, listen to this one about Amy, a first generation kid, growing up in America:

https://play.prx.org/e?uf=http:%2F%2Ffeeds.getmortified.com%2FMortifiedPod&gs=_blank&sp=all

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nello’s Cucina Italiana (St. Albert)

The giant plate of Carbonara pasta.

Always looking for a deal and to try somewhere new, my fiancé and I recently ended up at Nello’s Cucina Italiana in St. Albert. We stopped in to use our dinner Groupon on a Sunday night at 6:00pm. We had reserved a table in advance to ensure a spot; however, it wasn’t actually all that busy during that hour.

It’s a cute, inviting restaurant with a bit of a European flair: warm lighting and wall colours, tiled floors, and paintings of Italian landscapes. Nothing fancy, just relaxed and casual. As we were left to make our decisions, I took a look around. There was a table of two about to leave with a huge bag of leftovers. Then, a few minutes later, the guests seated next to us received their dishes. The portions were massive. This was not going to disappoint.

In the end, my fiancé opted for the Pollo Parmigiano ($23.50) and I selected the Carbonara Pasta ($22). We both stuck with water for the evening, and complimentary bread with butter was provided to start.

Considering that the Pollo Parmigiano really doesn’t come with a whole lot other than a flattened breaded chicken breast topped with tomato sauce, parmigiano, and mozzarella cheese that is then baked in the oven, this was still quite filling. To go with the chicken, there is a choice between the Di Casa (house) or Caesar salad. He went with the latter of which they certainly gave a generous amount, especially when taking into account the size of the plates used to serve all their meals. I found the greens in the salad to be quite fresh. There was plenty of dressing to coat everything. The croutons were crunchy and buttery and I enjoyed the bacon bits for that added saltiness. Along with the salad, the chicken had been sprinkled with extra Parmesan for good measure. Dried chili flakes finished it off. Personally, I think the ratio of tomato sauce to melted cheese was perfect. It created a seal that kept the heat in the meat, and added that unmistakable heartiness to a very comforting dish.

Getting ready to take a bite of carbonara pasta.

Arguably though, the pasta options are where patrons will find the best value for their dollar. Sure, pasta is pretty inexpensive to cook at home. Yet, when it comes to restaurant quality pasta, Nello’s most definitely does not skimp. I swear that the pile of Carbonara that was placed in front of me was almost the size of my head (the pictures don’t do it justice). It was a giant plate of spaghetti sautéed with chopped bacon, mushrooms, fresh herbs, parmigiano, and eggs. As expected, it was relatively salty. Nevertheless, the sauce was pretty creamy, and every single bite was enhanced by the bacon and/or mushrooms. As my fiancé noted, by the time he finished eating, it appeared as if I had still barely made a dent in my supper. At least half of it was packed up to go (and reheated as dinner for two the next night).

A slice of the tiramisu for dessert.

Had I kept on devouring my food, we wouldn’t have had room for dessert. It seems that their usual offerings include either a Crème Brûlée ($9) or Tiramisu ($10). We chose to share an order of the classic Italian sweet. Seeing as how I dislike coffee and anything flavoured that way, it really was atypical for me to go with the tiramisu. But, my fiancé favoured it, and I was willing to give it a try. For the most part, it was alright. I would have preferred more ladyfingers. The thin layer of cookies used didn’t soak up enough of the liquid, leaving behind a small pool underneath that made the dessert somewhat soggy. Otherwise, it was surprisingly light enough on the coffee that I didn’t mind the taste much.

Overall, our time at Nello’s was wonderful. The service we experienced was kind and attentive, and the kitchen must have a great rhythm as we were in and out in just over an hour. However, I expect that if the intention of one’s visit is to hang out for the whole evening, the establishment wouldn’t have any issue with that. It comes across as a place where family and friends can feel free to catch up with each other over food and drinks. It’s also hard to beat some of their daily specials, such as Bring Your Own Bottle Mondays (no corkage on wine), All You Can Eat Pasta on Tuesdays (this one had me intrigued), and Kids Eat Free Sundays. This is a spot that my fiancé and I can now add to our favourites.

Their list of daily specials.