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.

Advertisements

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Urbano Pizza Co. (103 Street Closed – Visit 124 Street Location)

Portable pizza ovens that fast-fire pies in under 2 minutes!

The first time I tried Urbano Pizza Co. wasn’t at one of their storefronts. It was actually at last year’s Sturgeon County Bounty Culinary Cookout. As one of the participating partners at the event, Urbano was well prepared to serve the masses. They brought with them a couple of their portable pizza ovens (fast-fired in under two minutes) and were cooking up their meat (The Italian Stallion) and vegetarian pies as fast as they they could manage.

Urbano ended up being our favourite vendor of the night. Not only did they provide reasonable portions for the tickets redeemed, but their pizzas had a lovely thin crust and a mountain of toppings. In fact, my only complaint was that the toppings were so heavy that the crust couldn’t withstand the weight, making it tough to keep my slice together.

Fast forward a year later and I was contemplating where my co-workers and I could go for a quick lunch together. The light bulb in my head went off and I suggested Urbano Pizza Co.

The day we went, we arrived at the original downtown shop (at 102 Avenue and 103 Street) a little after 1 o’clock. It was quiet. There were a few staff members lingering behind the counter and one other customer perched on a stool in the seating area.

The menu displayed on a few screens.

We all took a few minutes to review the menu, which consisted of several Signature Pizzas and Pastas as well as the choice to build your own dish ($11.95 each; $7.95 without toppings). Although it was tempting to consider the latter option because I could pick whatever I wanted (similar to LOVEPIZZA and Blaze Pizza), I wasn’t in the mood to put a lot of thought into things. I ended up taking the lead by ordering The Vegetarian pizza.

I watched the staff as they put my pizza together from start to finish. When not in use, they always pull down the cover of the case to keep the toppings fresh. As they went along, I had the opportunity to let them know if I wanted anything excluded or switched out or added on. There are no extra charges for changes made, so it’s completely customizable.

A view of the prep counter from the seating area upstairs.

By the time I’d paid at the till, my pizza was already out of the oven and had been transferred to a wooden pizza board. I guess the staff members typically bring the food to the customer’s table, so the guy who had my pizza was a tad reluctant to hand it over to me at first. Yet, after checking with another person, he passed it over to me and I made my way up the stairs to grab a table.

The rest of my party followed and their pizzas showed up a few minutes later. I didn’t sample everyone else’s lunch. However, I was told throughout our meal that they all enjoyed what they had selected: The Piri Piri, To the Greek, and Pork & Pineapple.

The Vegetarian pizza with a bottle of Root Beer.

I loved my Vegetarian pizza. It’s a bit different from others as the base doesn’t consist of the usual tomato sauce. Instead, it’s replaced with a puree of eggplant curry. Then it’s topped with roasted cauliflower, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Flavourful and filling despite the lack of protein, I’d be inclined to get this one again.

In fact, the pizzas are quite large for the price. None of us were able to finish the whole thing. One of the employees passed by and came back carrying takeaway boxes without us even having to ask. The leftovers served as my lunch the next day.

Just this month, I went back to Urbano for dinner with a friend. We each ordered a pizza. I still didn’t opt to build my own, but I made sure to try something new. This time, I chose the Salmon. I opted to omit the red onions though. What remained of the toppings was Hollandaise sauce, white sauce, smoked salmon, capers and arugula. I will say that the salmon loses a bit of it’s appeal from an appearance standpoint since the fish turns more of a brown colour after being cooked in the oven. Nevertheless, it’s quite delicious. The smoked salmon still had a tenderness to it along with the salty flavour, and the creamy sauces worked well to balance out the slight bitterness from the greens. The one issue I did have, and maybe it’s due to the amount of sauce and the moisture from the salmon, is that over time, the crust can get a bit soggy as it sits. Still, I ate the whole thing.

My friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza on the right.

I also had a bite of my friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza. It’s not one that I’d usually go for, but it was decent. Made with tomato sauce, roasted pork loin, pineapple and Camembert cheese, it was certainly more traditional in flavour. Personally, I do think it was missing a little something; it needed an unexpected punch of flavour to add an element of surprise. Regardless, those who like Ham & Pineapple likely won’t be disappointed.

Urbano Pizza Co. is the sister to the upscale Sabor Restaurant. Owners Christian Mena and Chef Lino Oliveira took a sharp left turn when they decided to go the fast-casual route. Yet, it’s a concept that works. With others like it popping up all over the city, it’s obvious that they were on the right track. Perhaps it’s because I’m often going there before or after the lunch and dinner rushes, but I’ve experienced nothing but friendly faces, quick service and tasty food each time I’ve visited Urbano. Plus, it’s fairly affordable for a relatively healthy meal with fresh ingredients, many of which are made in-house.

They’ve also got a great deal on their Pizza of the Day. Ask for details when visiting!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Splash Poke

The staff member who completed assembly of my bowl.

Last night, Edmonton’s first Hawaiian-inspired poke (pronounced poh-keh) shop opened its doors to the public with a crowd that snaked down the block and around the corner. Splash Poke, located south of Jasper Avenue on 109 Street, is a fast-casual spot to pick up a healthy, quick and customizable meal. Like Blaze Pizza or Amore Pasta, there are a few preset options to choose from, but at the core, it’s very much a build-your-own dish mentality.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the media and blogger preview lunch yesterday afternoon and doubly fortunate to work close enough to make it there during the two hour time frame. When I stepped into the store, I noticed how bright and modern it was. The tropical colour scheme of coral, turquoise and white runs throughout and makes for a cheerful space. It’s not the largest venue though. There are only about five tables and 14 seats total in the whole restaurant, but it feels spacious and laid out in a way that is still comfortable even if the line inside the establishment grows.

Looking at the menu, I had a tough time trying to decide on what to order. Creating my own bowl sounded great, but I really wanted to sample everything. In the end, I decided to go for The Works, one of the Splash Favourites. This includes cubes of salmon and tuna, shoyu sauce, all available mix-ins, toppings (except avocado at a cost of $1.50), garnishes and both the Splash and Sriracha aiolis. The only thing I asked to have omitted was the cilantro.

Knowing that there’s a need to avoid any contamination with the food, I understood why there was a glass barrier built between the prep station and the customers, but it did seem a tad too tall. Sure, I could see everything they were doing, yet it felt like it was more difficult to talk to the staff as they were assembling the bowls. Also, despite there being three people prepping the food, it seemed to take a bit of time. This could be a slight detriment to patrons if they’re expecting to be in and out, especially if they’re seeking something quick during a short break in their workday. Hopefully, with practice, the staff will be able to speed things up. And, they’ll likely have more premade bowls available for pick up in the cooler once they’re operating on a regular schedule.

The Works, a Splash Favourite.

Going back to my bowl, it was beautifully put together with layers upon layers of ingredients and flavours. However, my initial thought was that it was a tad too salty. I think the crab mix and the shoyu – a soy sauce made of fermented soy bean and wheat – were the main culprits. Next time, I’ll definitely ask that they lighten up on the shoyu. For my base, I had also selected the vermicelli noodles. Although they were the perfect consistency and refrained from being sticky, they didn’t do as good a job of soaking up extra sauce. Rice may prove to be the better bet and also be more filling. On the plus side, I loved that every bite brought a different flavour to my palate. With everything from seaweed salad to corn and panko to jalapenos merged into one dish, there was so much going on with regards to taste and texture that I never knew exactly what to expect as I continued to eat. Most importantly, the fish was exceptionally fresh as well.

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d opt for The Works bowl again. Yes, it was a great way to try it all in one go. But, ultimately, I now know that there are flavours I preferred. If anything, it’s likely that The Tropical bowl would fit the bill for me with salmon, tuna, scallop, pineapple and mango. I found that the fruit paired really well with the raw fish and was wonderfully refreshing; the sweet natural juices actually helped to balance out any spiciness or saltiness in the sauces.

Personally, I think that Splash Poke would be a good alternative to some of the other nearby dining options. While some may argue that the increase in cost between protein portions is a lot – 1 scoop of protein is $9.95, 2 scoops for $13.95 and 3 scoops for $15.95 – I’d say that it’s pretty reasonable considering the type of meat. If one were to go to a sushi restaurant for sashimi, one piece can work out to almost $2 on average. From what I saw, at least during the preview lunch, the portions were generous here, so it seems with merit for the fish and scallop. The chicken and tofu are another story though.

Before leaving, I spoke with the owner, Angela Wong, to clarify the prices of the Splash Favourites, too. Those bowls are all made with two scoops of protein and, therefore, they do come in at $13.95. When I left I was full and satisfied, so the cost would have been justified by me. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to places like The Chopped Leaf where people are willing to shell out money for food there. Except, I truly believe that what I’m getting at Splash Poke is an elevated product at a comparable price point.

All-in-all, Splash Poke is on the right track. For the shop, it will come down to the quality of service and their ability to keep things as fresh as possible. As long as they deliver on both of those fronts, they’re sure to win over the lunchtime crowd and Edmonton’s downtown dwellers and visitors. Judging by the turnout yesterday evening, it seems that they may have already done so.

Visit Splash Poke when you have a chance!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nosh Cafe

The interior of Nosh Cafe's new 124 Street location.

The interior of Nosh Cafe’s new 124 Street location.

In its first incarnation on 156 Street and 100 Avenue, Nosh Cafe was not on my radar. In fact, I didn’t know of the restaurant’s existence until my co-worker told me that she had tried their food after purchasing a Groupon. The place quickly became a favourite of her and her fiancé’s when it came to Indian cuisine. She told me that the dishes were excellent and the portions were large.

I never ended up visiting that location, but I have become a frequent patron of their new space on 124 Street and 102 Avenue, which opened towards the end of 2014. It’s a spot that’s more central for me, so it feels like less of a trek.

The eatery serves a mix of Indian and Canadian (really Lebanese) cuisines; the latter apparently remnants of the former Dahlia’s Bistro that used to be housed there. The Lebanese plates only make up approximately a handful of the choices available. I’ve yet to try those items, although I’m sure they’d be alright. Perhaps the owners hoped that leaving those selections on the menu would entice Dahlia’s old regulars to come back. Either way, I’ve stuck with what they’re originally known for.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Since the spring, I’ve dined at Nosh Cafe about five or six times with various people. Through all of those meals, I’ve drunk, eaten or sampled the mango lassi, Kashmiri chai, veggie samosas, palak paneer (fresh spinach and cottage cheese), butter paneer (creamy tomato sauce and cottage cheese), veggie korma (cooked in creamy sauce), lamb burger and coconut shrimp pasta.

Personally, I’ve found that everything I’ve had from their kitchen has been great. The palak paneer is my favourite out of the bunch though. I ordered that dish two outings in a row and the server politely suggested that next time I should branch out and try something new. I didn’t disagree with him, but honestly, the palak paneer is so flavourful and satisfying that I had absolutely no regrets on those occasions.

The butter paneer is excellent as well, replacing the spinach with the same sauce as a butter chicken. It’s delicious and you’ll definitely use your rice to sop up all of the sauce. All of the entrées come with rice, but, for an extra $2, you can substitute in some naan bread.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Less than a block away, you’ll find a similar menu at the ever-popular Remedy Cafe, a place that always seems to be bustling, no matter the location in the city. Unfortunately, the opposite can be said of Nosh Cafe. The competition likely isn’t helping Nosh, and almost every time I’ve dined there, it’s been next to empty. However, I’ve done my part by either telling people about Nosh or taking friends and family there whenever I can, so it makes me a little bit sad that, after almost a year, it isn’t doing better.

Nosh Cafe has offset the lack of people at their tables with a takeaway option as well as delivery service through SkipTheDishes, JUST EAT and Dial and Dine. However, my hope is that things will pick up for them as people either realize they’ve moved to this area or they give the restaurant a chance. On a positive note, during my last visit, I noticed that more seats were filled and there was a steadier stream of customers coming in and out for both dine-in and takeout. The owner confirmed with me that business was starting to improve. That’s a good sign.

I will say that, yes, they can likely work on the overall service they provide. Often times, when it’s slower, staff can’t necessarily be found out front as soon as you walk through the door. But, the staff (the two I’ve seen) are quite friendly and accommodating. They’ve always been happy to take our order at the table even though the concept of the restaurant is similar to eateries like Remedy where you’re supposed to order at the till first and then find a table.

Overall, I’ve really enjoyed Nosh Cafe. The meals are relatively affordable and filling, the service is decent and it’s the perfect place to go when you need or want a quiet place to have a conversation over tasty food.

I’m already imagining my next meal there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tropika Malaysian & Thai Cuisine (West)

About two weeks ago, my friend Ashley and I braved the cold weather on the way to West Edmonton Mall to stop at Tropika Malaysian & Thai Cuisine for dinner. I’ve been going to the 149 Street and Stony Plain Road location ever since it opened. It’s a favourite of my family’s and, therefore, we eat there frequently.

Ashley and I selected the restaurant for the evening because it is one of the establishments listed on The Tomato’s 2013 list of the top 100 eats and drinks in Edmonton, coming in at number 36. While we’ve gone separately before, we had never been there as a duo, and as it is on the list we’ve currently decided to tackle, we thought it would be a great opportunity to enjoy a supper together.

The food is consistently good and the service is impeccable (the servers make sure to refill your glass of water even when it’s still half full and they come by to clear away things like cleaned off satay sticks, so your table stays clutter free), which is why it holds an 86% positivity rating on Urbanspoon.

Some of my favourites - pad Thai, sambal bunchies and Tropika homestyle chicken - amazing food, plenty to go around!

Some of my favourites – pad Thai, sambal bunchies and Tropika homestyle chicken – amazing food, plenty to go around!

The menu at Tropika is extensive, but my parents and I have narrowed down our favourite dishes to satays (beef and lamb) with peanut sauce, Indonesian spring rolls, roti canai (Malay bread), pad Thai, sambal bunchies, Tropika home style chicken, stir-fried eggplant with chicken in Thai’s bean sauce and sayur lemak hot pot (vegetables in coconut milk).

What I love about going there for a meal (really any Asian restaurant is like this) is that it brings individuals together by allowing you to linger, converse comfortably and encourages sharing. The dishes served are meant to be split between everyone at the table, allowing you to try several items as opposed to limiting yourself to merely one or two things.

On this particular occasion, we did only end up ordering a couple of plates as it was just the two of us. Unfortunately, we did not order the sambal bunchies that were specifically singled out on the Tomato’s list. We attempted to have it made without the prawns since Ashley is allergic, but unlike the traditional sambal sauce made simply out of chili peppers, Tropika’s sauce is made using shrimp paste as well, so there was no getting around that for her. However, I can still vouch for those who voted to have it added to the Tomato’s top 100. Sambal bunchies, a mix of fried green beans, tomatoes, prawns and sambal sauce, is addictive because of the spicy flavours of the sauce mixed with the acidity from the tomato and the nice crunch of the beans.

I especially like to have the sambal bunchies with their pad Thai, which we did order this time. Again, the prawns were cooked and placed in a side dish. The stir fried rice noodles are cooked with chicken, fried tofu and egg in a Thai style sauce, topped with crushed peanuts and served with bean sprouts, lettuce and a slice of fresh lime on the side. The taste of the pad Thai is so good that sometimes my family orders two plates because one isn’t enough to go around. This evening, it was no different. One plate was plenty for the both of us, but we each probably could have eaten a whole order on our own if we wanted to indulge. Instead, we ordered two Indonesian spring rolls to complement our pad Thai.

My plate that evening out with Ashley - pad Thai and an Indonesian spring roll - so delicious!

My plate that evening out with Ashley – pad Thai and an Indonesian spring roll – so delicious!

The spring rolls are a good size, made with pan-fried chicken, Chinese mushroom and shredded jicama inside a crisp flour shell that is coated with peanuts. It comes with a side of chili sauce for dipping. I was happy to introduce this scrumptious appetizer to Ashley, and I’m pretty sure she really liked it as she told me, “I could have 20 of these. Well, I can definitely have at least 2.” When someone has eyes bigger than his or her stomach when it comes to their appetite, you know you’re on the right track.

As long as Tropika continues to serve up interesting dishes with layers of contrasting yet complementing flavours, I will continue to support the restaurant, and I’m certain that, if you try it, you will find some new menu items to call favourites as well.

Should you be unable to make it to a physical location, you can still treat yourself by having them deliver (free within a 6 km radius from their south side or west end locations and only $4 outside of those areas). Or, if you happen to be in a rush and want to get takeout on the way, you can save 10% on all orders over $30.

Have you been to Tropika before? What’s your go to dish?