Edmonton Restaurant Review: New Dragon Palace

Peking Duck

For as long as I can remember, my parents and I have been frequenting New Dragon Palace Seafood Restaurant (17743 98 Avenue). I suppose it’s just one of those places that becomes a standard, so much so that my fiancé had to ask me why we go there so often. But, it’s family-run and, the owners know who we are, which offers that feeling of familiarity. Plus, as with most Chinese eateries, they’re always open, even when every other business is closed.

Our most recent occasion to visit was over the Chinese New Year weekend. We went in on the Family Day holiday Monday. Walking into the establishment is like stepping back in time to the late eighties or early nineties with washes of muted pinks and greens. Still, they’ve kept it up okay and the space is quite tidy and clean. Although, I do find that their utensils and dishes can feel kind of filmy from washing, I just give them a quick swipe with a napkin and let it go.

We never veer far from our usual menu items: deep fried chicken, sizzling beef, sweet & sour pork, and Chinese broccoli when we want to incorporate some veggies. When we really want to celebrate, we get Peking duck. This time, we made sure to pre-order the latter dish to ensure that we wouldn’t miss out.

It didn’t take long for our food to start making its way out of the kitchen. The fixings for the duck — hoisin sauce, julienned carrots and cucumber, and shreds of scallions — were laid out first while the bird was being prepared. When the wraps and sliced duck came out, I was ready to pounce. While everything looked and tasted great, I was somewhat disappointed because there wasn’t actually a whole lot of meat on the skins. In fact, there was a lot more fat than anything else, turning the wraps into grease pockets. I had to scrape a lot of the fat off to make them more edible. It was a far cry from our last Peking duck at New Dragon Palace, which was perfectly cooked and meaty with a minimal layer of fat and super crisp skin. Of course, I don’t completely blame the restaurant as it’s hard for them to know how the duck will turn out until they actually prep it and take it apart.

What I do love about Peking duck is that the whole bird is used. Along with the wraps, the kitchen also makes a wonderful duck soup using the bones. The cream-coloured broth is savoury and smooth, improved even further with wilted greens and chunks of tofu. I will usually have at least a few bowls during my meal. Additionally, the remaining meat of the duck is sauteed with bean sprouts and carrots into an earthy stir fry that goes so well with a bowl of white rice.

A half order of the deep fried chicken.

The deep fried chicken is always a delight because they get the skin so crispy, yet the meat is still tender inside. The dark garlicky soy-like sauce is a must to drench chicken and rice in. My only wish is that there were more pieces of white meat in each order as, lately, I have found the pieces of half chicken to be rather bony.

We all enjoy the sizzling beef as it comes to the table so hot. Aside from a slice or two that were too chewy to eat, the meat was, otherwise, thick, succulent and well-marinated with plenty of sauce.

The sweet and sour boneless pork.

Last, but never least is the sweet and sour boneless pork. The meat is battered and fried until crisp and then it’s mixed into a sweet and sour sauce with peppers, onions and pineapple. The balance of flavours and the retention of the crisp outer shell of the pork is why we keep going back to it.

To finish off the meal, a complimentary tong sui (sweet, warm soup) is provided. It typically ranges from red bean to tapioca, neither of which are my favourites, at least the way they prepare it. For the new year, I was in for a treat though. We got bowls of almond soup with black sesame dumplings (filled glutinous rice balls), often served during special occasions. These were a real treat. When my fiancé opted not to eat his, I happily helped myself to seconds.

I was so excited to eat at New Dragon Palace again for Chinese New Year. The kitchen had hit it out of the park on our previous visit. However, comparatively, I wasn’t as impressed in February. Each dish seemed smaller in size, more sloppily made, and less fresh than before. It’s possible that someone else was running the show, which could account for the difference in quality. Consistency is probably one of the restaurant’s main issues. The problem is, customers can’t tell ahead of time what they’re going to get on any given day. They basically have to hope for the best.

What is great about the eatery is the value. Five of us ate that day for about $110 after tax and tip was included. Not only did everyone leave with their bellies full, we also left with a handful of containers to take home, too. If the cost justifies the caliber, then I think things are on par here.

Edmonton Business Review: Hansen Distillery

A bit of family history before being led into the production area.

Opened mid-December of 2016, Hansen Distillery was, by a slim margin, the second producer to enter the Edmonton market. Strathcona Spirits beat them to the punch by just a day. Although, to their advantage, Hansen Distillery has been welcoming customers through their doors from the very start.

Located in the west end of the city at 174 Street and 111 Avenue, their warehouse and retail space sits in the middle of a largely industrial area, which would be easy to miss. Nevertheless, the shop’s sweet lounge (available Tuesday to Saturday) as well as the tour and tasting offered Thursdays to Saturdays have given locals a great reason to pop by and expand their knowledge and palates.

Back around the Christmas holidays, I was given a certificate for two people to attend a tour and tasting at Hansen Distillery. I had been meaning to redeem it for a while, but I ended up holding onto it. Upon researching potential wedding venues in the new year, I came across their retail space as an option. I decided to reach out to owner Shayna Hansen to inquire about renting it out. Since I’d never been there, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to use my voucher and to preview the place in person at the same time.

My fiancé and I were scheduled in for the 2:00pm slot on a Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, there were no formalities. We were simply asked if we were there for the tour and when we nodded in confirmation, we were told that we could just relax until the rest of the group made it in. As we waited for things to start, I walked around the room snapping photos. For a business that has only been open for a little over a year, they have certainly done a fantastic job with the branding. The custom logos, signage, metalwork and bar are a perfect mix of rustic and industrial design. Along with that, history and Albertan roots are hammered home here.

Several minutes later, our tour kicked off with Shayna talking about her family’s long tradition. Moonshiners go back four generations to her great grandparents who made it through World War I only to have to deal with the Great Depression. In those years, the spirits were made as a means of trading for food to keep the family fed. Fast forward to a framed photo of her grandparents driving a 1928 Ford Model A (the same vehicle sits in the showroom) in a parade with “Moonshiners” blatantly painted on the side. Things certainly have changed from then to now where moonshining has become a legitimate business. The trade passed down to Shayna’s parents and, after some hesitation, down to Shayna’s now husband, Kris Sustrik, who handles it all from the distilling down to the bottling at Hansen Distillery.

When we passed through the doors into their production area, we got our first glimpse of the gorgeous copper still, named The Mistress. It happened to be distilling a batch of their Barn Owl Vodka on that day. Unfortunately, I didn’t retain the exact details of the distilling process. I will chalk it up to the fact that I’m encouraging everyone who reads this to book their own tour and tasting in support of this local business. Yet, I can relay that we were allowed to taste vodka directly from the machine by dipping our finger into a tiny pool of the liquor. I probably wouldn’t do that under normal circumstances. However, Kris assured us, at 98 to 99 per cent alcohol, it was extremely sterile. The lick of vodka was strong, but also quite sweet.

Each ingredient used for their spirits are natural and/or locally sourced. The single fake ingredient (Kris was very honest about this) is the stabilizer in the cream used for their cream liqueurs, giving the products about a year of shelf life. As soon as a batch of liquor is ready, they bottle it right there. On a typical day, they’ll likely be able to do 500 bottles and labels, although the record stands at over 700. It’s actually such a small crew, that Kris pretty much has his fingerprints on every single item that leaves the warehouse.

Expanding their current line of vodka, rye, gin and moonshine, they’re just over a third of the way to finishing their first batch of rye whiskey, which by Canadian standards must be mashed, fermented and then distilled in a wood cask for a minimum of three years. When the barrels are ready, they’ll bottle and sell everything through the shop to ensure fans of Hansen Distillery get to be the first to try them. Explaining the steps and how the wood of the cask affects the flavour, I could tell that Kris is incredibly passionate about the craft. A year in, they’ve already won a couple of awards. Call it beginners luck, or perhaps it’s a real knack. Either way, Hansen Distillery seems to have a good thing going for them. If anything, they’ve come into it at the right time, acting as influencers in a new and burgeoning industry.

The tasting begins.

As the tour came to a close, we were led to a long table laid out with popcorn, water, and taster cups sitting in specially made horseshoe-shaped trays. While most of the hard liquors were quite smooth, admittedly, I’m not inclined to drink them straight, so I only had small sips of their vodka (a bit like disinfectant), Border Crossing Rye (a decent precursor to an aged whiskey), and Trouble Gin (lots of juniper berries with a hint of citrus). They absolutely knocked it out of the park with their seasonal spirits though. After initial tastes of the two cream liqueurs (Saskatoon Berry and Chocolate Hazelnut), Ring of Fire, and Cherry Rye, I went back to finish each of those off as they were all delicious on their own. The one that took me by surprise the most was the Ring of Fire. As a rye spirit, I was fully expecting not to like it, but the cinnamon really comes through and the chilli peppers provide just the right amount of heat to warm the body.

For about an hour and approximately three ounces worth of alcohol, the usual price of $7 per person for the Hansen Distillery tour and tasting is well worth it. Plus, if inclined, grab a bottle of a favourite as they’ve recently lowered the prices of their bottled spirits, passing along savings incurred when the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Corporation reduced the markup for small manufacturers who self-distribute products. When the tour and shopping spree is over, the cozy lounge space is ideal to relax and chat over a cocktail, too. Heck, it’s so adorable that I really could picture having a wedding reception there. At about thirty seats, including the bar, it would be quite intimate. A few extra tables could be squeezed in though. It may not work for me and my fiancé. Yet, it could be another couple’s dream spot.

Overall, this was a fun, casual learning experience. Shayna and Kris have been hitting it out of the park. With more than twelve months under their belt, I wish them the best of luck as they continue building the family’s legacy. They are the true embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit in Edmonton and Alberta, and I look to them as an example for what can be accomplished here in my hometown.

A fun use of storage in their warehouse.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Characters Fine Dining

A shot with the kitchen in the background.

My friend and I both love food and, every so often, we’ll gratify ourselves with a tasting menu. For the past several months, I’ve been talking about visiting Characters Fine Dining for that reason. After over 18 years in business, chef Shonn Oborowsky, who opened the restaurant when he was just 26 years of age, has truly refined his offerings. The listing of dishes found online sounded too good to pass up, and at $95 before tax and tip for seven full courses, it’s actually quite fairly priced.

So, the two of us made it our mission to visit on a miserably cold and snowy Friday night at the beginning of February. We arrived at the building on 102 Avenue and 105 Street right ahead of our 5:00 pm reservation. The host greeted us immediately as we walked through the doors and offered to take our coats. We were then seated at a table for two next to the central fireplace and in direct view of the open kitchen. Our chairs felt quite regal with their deep, high backs. As I eyed the space, I noticed how classical and rustic it looked with lots of tuscan colours, brick walls, and wooden beams. By the same token, it also had a slightly industrial feel with exposed piping and ventilation, along with metal accents.

Throughout the almost four hours we were there, only a few people dropped in for drinks and maybe a handful of other groups came in later for dinner. We were the first table dining that evening though, so the service we received was attentive. Our server allowed us a few minutes to go through the menu and available beverages. I opted to stick with water while my friend went with a Broken Negroni ($14). As we had our minds set on the tasting menu we let her know at the same time.

Characters drink menu with a glass of their Broken Negroni.

The Broken Negroni was prepared quickly and my friend was pleased with it. This cocktail was made with sweet vermouth, Campari, orange bitters and prosecco. I had a sip and found the citrus to be enjoyable and it helped to cut through the bitterness of the alcohol.

We were then given our amuse-bouche. This is a bite that is additional to the expected courses, often setting the tone for the meal. Now, this is the only thing I really had a problem with during our entire experience at Characters. When we had placed our order for supper, my friend checked with the server to ensure that her shellfish allergy wouldn’t be an issue. The server said she would let the kitchen know. Typically, the amuse-bouche served is their baby octopus. As it turns out, it is made using shellfish, so the kitchen decided to come up with something different. However, they didn’t alter the menu only for my friend, they changed it for both of us. I do understand that it simplifies things for the chefs to make the same dish for both people and that it reduces the risk of cross contamination to avoid cooking the octopus for me, but I suppose I would have appreciated them asking what I would have preferred since I didn’t have the same food restrictions.

Our alternative amuse-bouche.

In any case, the octopus was exchanged for a wooden slab topped with a large slice of cured ibérico ham, pickled cucumber and artichoke, cantaloupe, and pine nuts. Unlike the typical one-bite amuse-bouche, this one required several bites to finish and was somewhat awkward to cut on the high perch as the nuts kept falling off onto the table. I also found it funny that with a single table to cook for, the kitchen made a mistake by forgetting to plate my artichoke. I noticed it wasn’t there as the difference between my friend’s block and mine was glaring, but I wasn’t planning to bring it up. In the end, the chefs realized on their own and the server brought out the missing ingredient right before I was about to eat. Still, the combination of flavours was excellent. The salty, fatty meat paired with the sweet melon perfectly and the tartness of the pickled veggies added an extra element of surprise.

Our first course of Grilled & Smoked Sardine had the best presentation of all the dishes we ate that night. The fish was plated under a bell jar filled with smoke that slowly dissipated once lifted. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of sardine. I do like the stronger taste of the marinated fish, and the meat is often quite supple, but I do not handle bones well. It was easy enough to pull out the larger backbone; yet, the tiny, thinner bones were much more difficult to deal with. Although they are edible, I find it unpleasant to eat them, especially when and if one pricks my throat. Therefore, this was a slow course to get through as both my friend and I were careful to pick out as many bones as possible and to set them aside. Otherwise, this was pretty delectable with the smoked paprika lemon mayo, charred tomato, arugula, and the recurring artichoke.

Following the sardine, we continued with a seafood theme. This second course consisted of a slate slab laid with a small salad of baby beets, a streak of butter, a crab claw-shaped pretzel, and two rolls of horseradish crusted Beet Cured Salmon. Because of the beets, the salmon had this incredibly deep, translucent red colour and a sweetness that lingered with the smokiness. Fresh beets on the side really anchored the plate and alleviated any dry mouth due to the saltiness and starchiness of the pretzel.

Course three was another item from their appetizer menu. The Carrot Risotto was made with a carrot beurre blanc. It ended up with a super creamy texture where the carrot wasn’t really discernible until bites of the peeled or roasted carrot were had.

Beef Tartar is one of my favourite things, so our fourth course did not disappoint. I also liked that this was, again, presented differently. A handmade wooden bowl housed the round of beef tartar that was topped with an egg yolk, balsamic onions and arugula. Inside the bowl was also a long copper spoon for scooping. On the side, we were given a wooden board of grilled black bread. The bread was a warm, buttery and soft base for dollops of the melt-in-your-mouth tartar. I would have gladly had another portion.

At this point, it was sinking in that there were still three more courses to go. I felt fine and I knew I could power through, but my friend was starting to wane. She did make it through the next course of Cider Glazed Pork Belly though. Underneath the meat was braised red cabbage. On top was a helping of julienned carrots and green apple. The slab of pork belly was sizeable and so delicious as the meat was juicy on the inside yet the cider glaze and the fatty layers had rendered while cooking into this gloriously crisp and caramelized outside. This is a star and absolutely a steal at $15 for the solo appetizer on their regular menu.

The entrée came from the restaurant’s list of main courses. Regularly, the Venison Wellington costs just under $50, so the value of their tasting option becomes very apparent here. Plated with asparagus and raspberries as well as a generous amount of sauce and Miataké mushrooms, this pastry crusted venison was a rich dish. Arguably, it was worth every calorie. Even if I was full, I wouldn’t have stopped myself (my friend only managed one mouthful and then had the rest packed to go). The meat was the focus and it was ridiculously succulent. In fact, it was so tender that I’m certain the steak knives provided weren’t needed. A butter knife would have sufficed.

Dessert was our seventh and final course of the evening. Named The Honey Pot, this was a duo of a ceramic cup filled with a crème brûlée-like custard decorated with a piece of honeycomb imprinted bee pollen meringue and a square of Georgian honey cake with a piece of sponge toffee atop it. I couldn’t decide which component was my favourite — the meringue with the chocolate nibs, the bubbly sponge toffee, the dense cake with fig purée, or the thick yet smooth custard — so I alternated bites between them all while dipping my spoon into the bee-shaped sprinkling of icing sugar for added sweetness.

Considering that Characters is about to close in on twenty years of business in Edmonton and that the eatery serves impeccable dishes in a wonderful atmosphere, my friend and I were astonished to see that it was so quiet there on a Friday night. It’s a shame that it wasn’t busier. As this was my first time there, I’m hoping that this is not usual for them. The setting is too beautiful and the food is too good for this place to sit so empty. I mean, the restaurant essentially takes up the entire main floor (and basement?) of the building, so they have plenty of room and tables for many to enjoy.

Sure, the price point is a tad higher than other nearby venues, so it won’t become the norm to pop in every week or every month. Nevertheless, consider a visit to Characters Fine Dining to be an event or a treat. Once I took into account the amount of food we received and the number of hours we were there, it all made sense. Do yourself a favour and give in to the indulgence of a meal there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sumo Sumo Sushi (Sherwood Park)

Our initial order of food from the Sunday Buffet.

Early in January, I came across a deal for the Sunday Brunch at Sumo Sumo Sushi in Sherwood Park. Their website listed an offering of five dollars off their usual price throughout the month. I hadn’t been there for years and was excited to learn that there was another all-you-can-eat option near the city, so I made a point of dragging my fiancé there over the last weekend it was available.

We arrived at the location on Lakeland Drive shortly after noon, so we kind of hit the lunch rush. The host at the front counter reminded us that the only menu on offer that day was the buffet and she asked if that was okay. She was also sure to let us know that the cost had been reduced to $29.95 per person instead of the regular $32.95 (updated February 2018). Once we had agreed to those stipulations, she checked to see if we had a reservation. Since we did not, we were seated in their enclosed patio space. The room was heated, but we were by a window and I found it got a little chilly after a while.

The Sunday Buffet menu.

Service was also slow to start as no one came by our table for a good ten minutes after we sat down. Once the server showed up, it wasn’t too bad though. She brought us our drinks (one beverage each is included). I opted for orange juice that came in a very tall glass, so I think the value was decent, especially since the majority of alternative sushi places charge extra. My fiancé chose to go with a pot of green tea. Sushi, sashimi, udon and shrimp tempura orders must be placed through the servers. On this occasion, the restaurant was out of toro and octopus. To make up for that, they relaxed their limit on the tuna, yellowtail and scallop. For our first run, we got six pieces of shrimp tempura, three pieces of chop chop sushi, and I maxed out on my sashimi portion by getting eight pieces of salmon and seven pieces of tuna.

While those items were being prepared, we ventured out to the ready made buffet. They do have a decent spread with a number of cold salads, a few hot salads, mussels, several maki rolls, meat skewers, teriyaki and tonkatsu, vegetarian tempura and a handful of dessert options.

I brought back a large plate full of seaweed salad, bean sprout salad, sesame beef pasta salad, California rolls, Aloha rolls, yam tempura and ponzu mussels. When we returned to our table, we realized that we were never given any utensils. To prevent further delay, I ended up grabbing a couple of forks from the buffet, but we did have to inquire with our server who apologized as the chopsticks and napkins should have been set out earlier. When she came back, she had those as well as a dish of wasabi and pickled ginger for us. Within the following ten minutes, she brought us our sashimi, tempura and sushi, too.

Some of the items I picked up from the ready made buffet.

I’ll begin by reviewing the buffet items that I chose. I felt that the seaweed and bean sprout salads were standard. The seaweed salad was seasoned well and the kelp had that crunchy, chewy texture. The bean sprouts were pretty fresh, and I enjoyed the flavour of the sesame dressing. My one issue was that the sauce was somewhat watery. Surprisingly, I really liked the sesame beef pasta salad. It’s kind of an unusual find in a Japanese eatery; however, the beef was tender and marinated nicely. I believe it had the perfect amount of mayo-type dressing on it (not drenched) that gave it a slight tang.

Tempura at Sumo Sumo was decent as the kitchen avoided over battering and the shell remained crisp despite sitting out in the buffet servers. Despite the California rolls tasting great with their use of cucumber, avocado and sesame seeds, I was a tad disappointed to see that they utilize fake crab meat. I appreciated the Aloha roll as it provided a balance of sweet and heat through the combination of tuna, avocado, masago, green onion, eel sauce, spicy mayo, pineapple, shredded coconut, soy and sesame oil. I loved the Kiwi mussels because they were so large and fleshy, and the ponzu sauce was light with a kick to it.

Chop Chop Sushi, Shrimp Tempura, Salmon & Tuna Sashimi and buffet items.

I’m very glad that they make the shrimp tempura fresh when requested. It meant that each batch came out piping hot. The chop chop sushi had a good ratio of scallop to masago to mayo to rice with a perfectly dry nori wrap. Shockingly, the pieces of sashimi were massive, at least when it came to the tuna and salmon. They were incredibly thick cut, meaning there was a ton of protein. I thought the tuna was the better of the two as it tended to melt in the mouth whereas the salmon was tougher and required more chewing. Since my fiancé isn’t a fan of raw fish, he took full advantage of the cooked meats (kebabs and tonkatsu at the buffet).

The second order of sashimi. The snapper on the top right corner of the plate were still frozen.

To maximize the value, I made sure to put in our second order for sashimi. This time, I chose to try three pieces each of the tuna, salmon, yellowtail, scallop, and snapper. It was a long time before this plate made it to our table and I know why. When I bit into my first slice of snapper, it turned out that it was still frozen in the middle and I could feel the ice inside the fish. The kitchen must have been hoping it would thaw. I informed our server of that problem and, thankfully, she offered to switch the snapper for something else. The salmon and tuna (more sinewy) were comparable to our initial dish of sashimi. I’m not sure that I liked the scallop sashimi that much. It sort of left a bitterness at the back of my throat and I don’t think it should have. On the other hand, the yellowtail was fantastic. The slices of this last fish were much more manageable in size and the flavour was sweetly tangy.

Chocolate Mousse and Crème Brûlée

By the time I made it through that portion of sashimi, I was so full. Yet, I wasn’t willing to leave without dessert. I was capable of fitting in a small cup of crème brûlée and a glass of chocolate mousse in my stomach. Both refrained from being too heavy, making either an ideal way to complete the meal. The restaurant allows diners a total of two hours to eat and we finished almost exactly within that time frame.

After doing the math, I surmised that all of the food I ate myself was equivalent in value to what I paid for our lunch. Everything that my fiancé ate was the cherry on top. Ultimately, I would say that our experience at Sumo Sumo was a fun one. Even though I don’t think it’s as good as Watari ($36 during dinner gets each person 30 pieces of reasonably sized sashimi and all items are made to order from the kitchen), this was, overall, alright. I think if Sherwood Park isn’t too out of the way, it’s worth dropping by once in a while to fulfill any cravings. Otherwise, Sumo Sumo is a place that I probably won’t be going out of my way to visit for another few years.