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.

Edmonton Bakery Review: Duchess Bake Shop

One of the dessert cases at Duchess.

One of the dessert cases at Duchess.

Where have I been all this time? Duchess Bake Shop (@duchessbakeshop) opened up along 124 Street in the fall of 2009 when I still lived at home and was about a five minute drive away. Yet, it took five whole years and me moving all the way across the city before I ever set foot in the shop.

As far as I know, I had never had anything from Duchess before. Perhaps they had catered events I had attended in the past, but I couldn’t be sure, so I count my summer date with some potential guy I met online as my first time eating something from the bakery. Meeting there for tea and dessert seemed like a great idea. It was an area I knew well and it was a public place, so win-win. We split some of the dainty little macarons while we chatted before we had to vacate the premises as they were closing for the day (I do wish they stayed open a little bit later every day). I walked away thinking the macarons were delightful and even unique (the rose flavour is unlike any pastry I’ve ever had before). I also very much enjoyed the European feel of the shop. I even thought well of the guy for a short time. Although the date didn’t really pan out in the end, I found a not so secret new hang out.

Fast forward a few months and after dinner down the street, my friend and I popped into Duchess for some sweets to finish off our evening. Wanting to write about this bakery that was voted onto The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton for two consecutive years now (No. 14 in 2013 and No. 16 in 2014), this was the perfect opportunity for me to try several items.

I decided to order a key lime tart to stay, as well as a few other items to take home with me. The tart was superb. You could tell that it had been made fresh that day. The graham cracker crust was tightly packed, so the crumbs didn’t fall apart with each bite, but they were still dry enough to provide a bit of a crunch. That subtle sweetness from the crust as well as the texture contrasted really well with the rich and creamy filling of the tart, which you could see was generously infused with key lime zest. The overall tanginess that came from the freshly squeezed lime juice really made this a home run. As full as I already was from dinner, I savoured each and every bite until my plate was empty, and I can honestly say that I still wanted another one (I’ll put this into perspective; each 4 inch tart provides 1 to 2 servings).

The desserts that I opted to pack up with me included a pumpkin pie macaron, a coconut meringue and one each of the three flavours of shortbread cookie available – regular, chocolate pearl and earl grey. Those were all devoured within a day. The coconut meringue is large, raised nice and tall, gorgeously shaped with ruffled sides and a hollow center. A crisp outer layer melts away at the touch of your tongue. The inside is fluffy, moist and a little chewy with some shredded coconut. It was really tasty, but the sheer size means that it becomes surprisingly sweet by the last piece. Duchess sells bags of the smaller meringues, and I think the more petite versions would be the perfect amount for a snack.

Being that it was fall, I couldn’t pass up trying the pumpkin pie macaron. The cookie portion, made up of two meringue wafers, actually doesn’t provide much flavour. The taste comes from the buttercream-like filling. It was delicious though. I would have loved to have left the shop with a macaron gift box; the rainbow coloured cookies are a pretty treat that anyone would appreciate.

Shortbread is one of my favourite kinds of cookies, so I had to sample the ones they offered at Duchess. I was a little bit surprised because, while they are buttery, the shortbread leaned towards a salty profile rather than a sweet one. The cookies were actually more dense than I expected, too, meaning there was more bite and they didn’t dissolve in my mouth like some other shortbread cookies are apt to do. There was nothing wrong with that though. They were different, but worth eating. I also liked that the chocolate pearl one used a semi-sweet chocolate, so it wasn’t overly sugary, and the earl grey cookie had a nice mild citrus flavour.

I absolutely love the desserts that are prepared at Duchess, and I cannot wait to go back. Perhaps I’ll go for lunch one day, so I can try their soups, sandwiches or quiches (I hear those are all great) followed by a pastry.

If you’re a baker, you may also want to drop by Provisions by Duchess. Located next door to the bakery, the shop sells everything you need to make confections just like theirs. In fact, starting mid-November, Duchess released their own cookbook, which opens up almost all of their recipes to the public. Try your hand at making the desserts they have perfected. And, if it doesn’t turn out just right, rest easy knowing that the experts are still there to back you up. I know I would love a copy for Christmas. I’m sure that you or a baker close to your heart would appreciate a beautifully bound book as well! That, along with a few choice pastries from the shop itself, would make for a thoughtful gift.