Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2014

This year I decided to start tackling The Tomato‘s 100 best eats in Edmonton for 2013 and 2014 (once the second year’s was released in March). It pushed me to try a number of local places I had heard about and hadn’t yet made it to, and it also encouraged me to stop at quite a few restaurants that weren’t originally on my radar or on either list. Working my way through as many establishments as I could on the lists, I was inspired to compile my own.

My selections for the top Edmonton eateries are based on the 80 or so restaurants I was able to fit in within the past 12 months. The only stipulation to be a contender for the list is that you’re some sort of food establishment. I believe that whether it is family run, an entrepreneurial business or part of a franchise, it shouldn’t predetermine how good they are perceived to be. I have had amazing meals at chain restaurants, subpar dishes at independently owned eateries and vice versa.

If you already frequent my picks for 2014, you know why they’ve been chosen. But, if these are new to you, I hope this article urges you to get out and take a chance on something different in 2015.

Cibo Bistro interior, salumi, arancini and mezzaluna pasta.

Cibo Bistro interior, salumi, arancini and mezzaluna pasta.

1. Cibo Bistro
An Italian restaurant that is similar to the much lauded Corso 32, the kitchen’s creations blew me away. It’s slightly larger than Corso, their arancini is better, the cured in-house salumi is to die for, and the fresh pasta has the perfect bite.

Review of Cibo Bistro

Dinner at Three Boars Eatery

Dinner at Three Boars Eatery

2. Three Boars Eatery
This tapas style establishment has an ever-changing menu that is meant to be shared. If you can catch them, the lamb neck croquette, roasted beet and carrot salad, oka tart and the pork belly are highly recommended.

Review of Three Boars

Rostizado's Mexican rosticeria is one of Edmonton's newest hot spots.

Rostizado’s Mexican rosticeria is one of Edmonton’s newest hot spots.

3. Rostizado
One of Edmonton’s newest additions, this sit-down rosticeria has changed the landscape of Mexican cuisine in the city. A great place for gatherings, the platter of 2 consisting of juicy and tasty roasted Four Whistle Farms pork and chicken creates a family-like atmosphere during your meal. To top off your lunch or dinner, make sure to order the caramel flan.

Review of Rostizado

Clockwise from top: Rosso Pizzeria's ricotta, Japonais Bistro's matcha crème brûlée and Canteen's duck breast.

Clockwise from top: Rosso Pizzeria’s ricotta, Japonais Bistro’s matcha crème brûlée and Canteen’s duck breast.

4. Japonais Bistro
Their traditional bento box includes everything a sushi lover would want to satisfy any cravings. I’m also a big fan of matcha flavoured anything, and their match crème brûlée begs for a second, third and even fourth helping.

Review of Japonais Bistro

5. Canteen
Situated along 124 Street, it is located among numerous other eateries that are making names for themselves. However, if you’re a fan of duck, this is where I have found some of the best. Canteen’s duck breast was the most tender I have ever had. It was also beautifully plated, so you’re not only eating with your mouth, but also your eyes.

Review of Canteen

6. Rosso Pizzeria
The wood-fired pizza crust is both crispy and chewy as it should be. The ricotta with olive oil is indulgent, but still light, and the green olives were so tasty that they will make those who aren’t fans fall in love. The homemade gelato – pistachio, banana cinnamon and Mayan chocolate are wonderful – is a rich and refreshing finish.

Review of Rosso Pizzeria

Clockwise from top: The Common's duck confit, Wildflower Grill's gnocchi and Woodwork's stocked bar.

Clockwise from top: The Common’s duck confit, Wildflower Grill’s gnocchi and Woodwork’s stocked bar.

7. The Common
This hipster hangout has a number of of-the-moment dishes to match. Go for the chicken and waffles – one of the best renditions available in Edmonton – or the unique tandoori calamari.

Review of The Common

8. Woodwork
The second you step foot into this restaurant, you’re overcome with the scent of wood-fired cooking. Their cornbread is delicious, the dill sausage is worth a second visit, the cocktails made by their master bartenders are strong, and the desserts are simple yet decadent.

Review of Woodwork

9. Wildflower Grill
With a menu that is split into small and large plates, it’s a great place to go to cater to parties that have a mix of petite appetites and those with bigger ones. This also allows for groups to sample a variety of items. The food is rich though, so you won’t leave hungry. Do try the three mushroom ravioli.

Review of Wildflower Grill

Clockwise from left: Tres Carnales' al pastor quesadillas, Cactus Club Cafe's beef carpaccio and Duchess Bake Shop's key lime tart.

Clockwise from left: Tres Carnales’ al pastor quesadillas, Cactus Club Cafe’s beef carpaccio and Duchess Bake Shop’s key lime tart.

10. Tres Carnales
This is Mexican street food at its finest. Every time I have been to this establishment, the service has been quick and the food has been fantastic. The guacamole is a tasty starter for the table (I love it even though it contains cilantro). The various aguas – flavoured waters – are a must to quench your thirst on a hot day. If you ever have the chance to eat them, get the duck tacos! They are stellar, but a rarity nowadays. The al pastor quesadilla is a close second.

Review of Tres Carnales

11. Cactus Club Cafe
Sometimes chain restaurants get a lot of flack, but, while Cactus Club venues across western Canada serve the same menu, they treat each location as separate entities working under a shared culture. What we are now witness to are establishments that are more popular than ever because they cater to the cool as well as the foodie. I have yet to have a disappointing meal at the WEM and Jasper Avenue eateries. The dishes that keep me coming back include the beef carpaccio and the BBQ duck clubhouse.

12. Duchess Bake Shop
Their beautifully packaged rainbow coloured macarons are dainty little treats that sometimes come in interesting flavours – rose pops to mind – that have to be sampled. The key lime tart is the dessert for those who enjoy sweet and tangy combinations.

Review of Duchess Bake Shop

Clockwise from top: Under the High Wheel's gnocchi, The Cavern's cheese and charcuterie board for two and Select's gnocchi fondue.

Clockwise from top: Under the High Wheel’s gnocchi, The Cavern’s cheese and charcuterie board for two and Select’s gnocchi fondue.

13. Under the High Wheel
This adorable little cafe decorated with vintage furniture is a lovely place to converse over brunch. Go for the savoury Belgian waffles that are topped with smoked salmon. The gnocchi with mint pesto is delectable, too.

Review of Under the High Wheel

14. Select
I haven’t been since the restaurant apparently underwent a renovation at the end of the summer. However, it looks as though their menu remains the same, thank goodness. The gnocchi fondue paired with prosciutto wrapped apple wedges is so boozy that it feels decadent, and the chicken masala perogies provide an unexpected flavour, but a very pleasant one at that.

Review of Select

15. The Cavern
Giving you the option to select wine in 3 oz. or 6 oz. glasses and the chance to build your own cheese and charcuterie boards that are healthy and filling, you’ll be surprised to find that you don’t actually require anything else. With cheese, meat, nuts, dried fruit, jellies and bread, this is a meal in itself. If it’s available, the Comte cheese is particularly good.

Review of The Cavern

Clockwise from top: Corso 32's chocolate torta, The Glass Monkey's beets salad and Izakaya Tomo's oyster ponzu.

Clockwise from top: Corso 32’s chocolate torta, The Glass Monkey’s beets salad and Izakaya Tomo’s oyster ponzu.

16. Corso 32
A tad overhyped, but the food is still really well made. The fried short rib was incredibly tender and flavourful and worked as a meal on its own. The portion sizes of the appetizers and sides are surprisingly large and excellent for passing around the table. For dessert, the chocolate torta with candied hazelnuts is so rich and has just the right amount of bitter balanced with the sweet.

Review of Corso 32

17. The Glass Monkey
This place has gotten mixed reviews, but I enjoyed my meal there. Carrying on with some of the Jack’s Grill (its predecessor) favourites, the beef carpaccio was awesome and, as served, there was no need for accompaniments nor were any provided. Also, everything I saw being brought to surrounding tables looked so good. And, no, don’t order the wine because it’s pricey, but do have a beer. The service received was great as well.

Review of The Glass Monkey

18. Izakaya Tomo
It’s all about lingering over a bunch of shared plates all evening long. Must tries here include the crispy tako yaki (octopus balls), oyster ponzu and the prawn spring rolls!

Review of Izakaya Tomo

Clockwise from left: Sugarbowl's exterior, Watari's maki rolls, and Tropika's pad Thai, sambal bunchies and home style chicken.

Clockwise from left: Sugarbowl’s exterior, Watari’s maki rolls, and Tropika’s pad Thai, sambal bunchies and home style chicken.

19. Sugarbowl
The number one reason to visit this Edmonton staple is the cinnamon bun. Hands down this is one of the best out there; it’s also one of the most refrained as it entirely does away with cream cheese icing (I know, I never would have thought that would have been okay until I ate their cinnamon bun). The only thing is you have to get there early because they sell out. Stay through lunch for their lamb burger.

Review of Sugarbowl

20. Watari
One of the few all-you-can-eat sushi restaurants in the city, and it’s good sushi at that! Sashimi is included with lunch and dinner, and the fish is fresh. There are also a few specialty rolls on the menu along with dishes like beef tataki and ponzu muscles. You get two hours to dine. With the quick turnaround, you’ll have no problem getting your fill and then some.

Review of Edmonton AYCE Sushi

21. Tropika
This Malaysian and Thai establishment is a staple for me and my family. The pad Thai rocks and the satay peanut sauce can go with pretty much anything they serve. For lunch, the combos (available at the west end location…not sure about the south side) are a great value – three pre-selected items and a side of rice – that are super filling and oh so tasty.

Review of Tropika

Clockwise from left: The Art of Cake's mini cupcakes and cookies, The Parlour's truffle and short rib pizzas, and Absolutely Edibles' waffles with the works.

Clockwise from left: The Art of Cake’s mini cupcakes and cookies, The Parlour’s truffle and short rib pizzas, and Absolutely Edibles’ waffles with the works.

22. The Art of Cake
Seriously, what can’t they bake here? The cupcakes, slab cakes, cruellers, and shortbread cookies have ensured that I probably gained 5 pounds this last half of the year. No matter though, every bite was worth it.

Review of The Art of Cake

23. The Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar
Part of the Century Hospitality Group, this place exceeded my expectations. Their signature thin crust pizza flavours are different than the norm – the truffle was especially good. The prices during Monday to Friday happy hour (3 to 6pm) really can’t be beat, and, if you still have room, the desserts are worth it.

Review of The Parlour

24. Absolutely Edibles (Closed)
The brunch menu is fabulous with massive portions that you just can’t stop eating. The waffles with the works (breaded chicken) are my top choice, but there’s no wrong decision when it comes to any of their options. I will tell you to be wary of leaving saucy items on top of the waffles though. If they’re left to sit too long, your waffles will become soggy!

Review of Absolutely Edibles

Happy New Year and Happy Eating! See you in 2015!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Upper Crust Cafe

Upper Crust Cafe opened in 1986, just a year after I was born, and has lived up to their initial goal of becoming a popular yet unpretentious place to enjoy a good meal. After 28 years, they are now well-known for their desserts and catering services. However, it’s their knack for making sandwiches using freshly baked in-house molasses or oat bread (other types are available; however, they are not housemade) that made me a fan several years ago.

The interior of Upper Crust Cafe.

The interior of Upper Crust Cafe.

I was dragged there by a friend the very first time I visited. She couldn’t stop telling me about the fantastic sandwiches and potato salad. Never having been much of potato salad lover, I was skeptical. But, upon sitting down at one of their distinctive green-topped tables and biting into a deliciously thick roast beef sandwich that was layered with alfalfa sprouts, tomato, lettuce, cheese, cucumber and house mustard, I was a convert. Not only were the sandwiches filled to the brim with healthy yet tasty ingredients, the included side salad was there to ensure that your stomach would be completely satisfied. I took my friend’s advice and tried the potato salad and, to this day, I find myself getting a hankering for it at times. I think what I love about the salad is that it isn’t overly creamy or eggy, which I tend to find off-putting with other variations. It’s actually been a long while since I’ve eaten an actual meal there and I hope to do so in the near future.

Bringing this back to the present though, my most recent experience there was after a hearty brunch at the Sugarbowl (@sugarbowlcafe) about three months ago. My friends and I wanted to keep chatting and decided that we would walk over to Upper Crust for dessert. Since they had made The Tomato‘s second annual list of best eats and drinks in the city, coming in at No. 78 this year, this presented a good opportunity to hit up another top 100 location.

A slice of the carrot cake.

A slice of the carrot cake.

Walking into the establishment, you are met with the dessert display where every cake, pie and square looks rich and decadent. The three of us perused the choices for probably fifteen minutes, asking what each iced cake was before making our decisions. After we ordered, we made our way to a table by the window. It was rather quiet in there that afternoon, with maybe a handful of tables occupied.

My friends had carrot cake and chocolate cake with raspberry filling, both of which looked delicious. The carrot cake was without raisins, pineapple and nuts as my friend prefers. I didn’t try their slices, so all I am going off of is the appearance of the cakes. They seemed to be quite moist and fairly dense with the perfect amount of icing to go with each piece.

I went with the coconut cupcake. It was touted as the best cupcake in the city by Edmonton Journal (@edmontonjournal) writer Liane Faulder (@EatMyWordsBlog) a few years back when cupcakes were all the rage. Being someone who certainly appreciates the humble dessert, I was intrigued at the time. Despite that, I never did make my way to Upper Crust on a Saturday (the only day they are available) to eat one. That is until now. I have to say that I did like the flavour of the cake and that the icing was topped with shredded coconut; however, I was a little disappointed with the overall texture. I’m not sure if it was just this particular batch, so I can’t be definitive about this, but the cake seemed too solid to the point of being slightly dry and the icing wasn’t as creamy and smooth as I would have liked.

Regardless, we popped in for a quick dessert and ended up staying for around a couple hours because we had so much to discuss. The server was attentive and, though his shift was over before we were ready to go, we never felt rushed. This relaxed atmosphere makes this restaurant a wonderful place – nice and quiet – for an afternoon or evening out with with family or friends.

Writing this review, I now find myself salivating and wanting, very badly, to eat some of their potato salad and a sandwich. I’ll be back soon to quell that craving!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sugarbowl

The Sugarbowl (@sugarbowlcafe), serving Edmontonians in various forms since 1943, is a community favourite in an area peppered with popular independent restaurants. Known for their famous cinnamon buns (Seriously, who would have thought that a roll without cream cheese icing would be so good! Plus, one bun is essentially a meal on its own.), they have plenty of other items to please the palate.

Patrons enjoying their meals and conversations.

Patrons enjoying their meals and conversations.

My very first visit to the establishment was several years ago, likely when I was still finishing up my Bachelor’s degree. I ordered the lamb burger and was blown away by the flavour of the meat and the use of goat cheese, a combination I had not yet experienced at the time. I’ve never forgotten that burger or the restaurant. It was the place to be before it really mattered where you hung out. And, while I was a bit late to the game considering I was born and bred in the city, it has since become a top venue to chat with family over breakfast or meet up with friends for drinks.

My girlfriends and I did exactly that approximately a month and a half ago. We met up for brunch at about 11 AM on a Saturday morning knowing full well that, by arriving at that late hour on the weekend, we might possibly miss out on the coveted cinnamon buns (we were, in fact, too late to get one!). On the other hand, it was during that sweet spot between the early morning risers and the lunch crowd, so my friend managed to grab a table quickly before the rest of us got there.

The brunch menu is pretty succinct, so it wasn’t too hard to make our decisions that day. After finding out that the cinnamon bun was no longer an option, my friend chose to go with the french toast. My other friend ordered the huevos rancheros, which was one of the menu items that was mentioned on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton this year (overall, the restaurant came in at No. 5 in 2014 and No. 15 in 2013). I went with the chicken & waffle, a dish that seems to be a little more prevalent at food establishments lately.

The chicken and waffles from the breakfast menu.

The chicken and waffles from the breakfast menu.

I didn’t sample my friends’ orders, but I was told that the french toast – fried brioche pastry/bread covered in berry compote and whipped cream – was a worthy alternative to the cinnamon bun goodness that she didn’t get to eat. I’m certain that if you’re looking for a somewhat sugary breakfast, the french toast will certainly do the job. The huevos rancheros, touted by patrons as one of the top selections for breakfast, turned out to be a bit underwhelming. Consisting of 2 eggs, corn tortilla, spicy beans, three cheeses and salsa verde, my friend wanted me to say that she thought the addition of a starch would have been ideal – hash browns or toast perhaps?

Personally, I was really happy with my chicken & waffle. Plated with two perfectly cooked waffles and two pieces of lightly breaded buttermilk, spice marinated chicken breasts, I knew I was in for a filling and hearty meal. Served with a small side of greens and a little cup of maple butter, it presented the scrumptious combination of savoury and sweet flavours. The spices from the chicken were strong enough to break through the almost too sugary maple taste as well as the blueberry syrup that I had added to my waffles. All-in-all, the dish is very well-balanced and a good contender for those who can never decide between having something salty or sweet during brunch.

Sometime this summer, when the weather decides to stay steadily warm with just a light breeze, I would like to visit again for lunch or dinner on the patio. It’s been a while since I have had the opportunity to sample from those menus and I’d love to see if the lamb burger still lives up to my memory of it.

I also have to hand it to the servers here. They always have smiles on their faces, they are fun, friendly and they do a great job of checking in throughout your meal to remove empty dishes and refill drinks as needed without giving you the sense of being overbearing. There’s a real feeling of camaraderie between the staff that shines through, too.

When we were done our food, cappuccinos and orange juice, we cleared out to make room for others who were waiting patiently for tables. The only downside is that they don’t take reservations. But, I suppose that is part of the charm of the Sugarbowl. There’s something about being in line, anticipating your turn to sit down, watching everyone else have a great time, and knowing that you will soon join them.