Edmonton Restaurant Review: Izakaya Tomo

Bottles stacked on open shelves create a wall that partitions the space.

Bottles stacked on open shelves create a wall that partitions the space.

Early in 2013, I started to hear about Izakaya Tomo (@IzakayaTomo780). I was excited to see that a Japanese tapas bar was being opened in the city, the first of its kind here. Having been to Guu in both Vancouver and Toronto, I had an idea of what this new establishment was striving for, and equally high hopes. Of course, it took me almost two years to make it there. Situated on 99 Street and 37 Avenue in a strip mall, it’s a far cry from Edmonton’s more popular areas. Whyte Avenue, downtown, 124 Street it is not. But, after a long drive to the south side of the city, our group wandered into the natural and minimalist venue that is very reminiscent of actual Japanese spaces where we were pleasantly greeted with a loud “irasshaimase.” Outfitted with just nine wooden tables and matching benches and a few seats at the bar, I can see that there is the possibility of a wait on busier evenings. However, reservations are accepted, so if you are prone to planning ahead, give them a call.

With a mix of traditional offerings as well as some dishes with fusion twists – the carbonara udon comes to mind – Izakaya Tomo has made a name for itself in Edmonton since it started welcoming patrons through its doors. The restaurant has racked up numerous accolades from the city’s many foodies who helped push it into The Tomato‘s 2014 list of 100 best things to eat in Edmonton, taking the No. 8 position.

Once we stripped off our bags and winter gear and deposited everything into the storage box next to our table, we got comfortable and began perusing the menus. To get the evening going, we ordered some drinks of which I selected a peach chu-hi (chūhai). I didn’t know what it was made of, but my friend recommended it. As it turns out, chu-hi is typically made with shōchū, a distilled alcoholic beverage, combined with carbonated water and juice. Apparently, some variants may use vodka instead, and canned chu-hi can sometimes have a lot more alcohol content than those prepared at bars and restaurants. I’m not sure if the glass I was given came from a can or not, but it seemed like the amount of alcohol was small. Other drinks on the menu included beer, sake, shōchū, cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages.

As we sipped on our drinks, we selected eleven dishes from the plentiful menu to share between us. About half had been sampled by two of my dining companions when they had visited previously, so, of course, we took their word. The rest of the plates chosen were new for everyone.

Crispy Tako Yaki

Crispy Tako Yaki

The first order that made it to the table was the last one picked on a whim. Crispy Tako Yaki, a battered ball filled with diced octopus and what tasted and felt like a starchy mix and then topped with takoyaki sauce (similar to mayo), aonori (dried green seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried, fermented and smoked bonito flakes). I remember having these at the night market on a trip to Vancouver several years ago and I can’t say I really enjoyed them then, but I quite liked them this time. The nicely battered ball broke away to a smooth potato-like center and pieces of octopus that had a bit of bite to them, but were not over cooked. The savory taste coming from the sauce, seaweed and bonito elevated the dish.

After that, it was like a deluge, and we struggled to keep up with the succession of plates. The tako yaki was followed by the Tuna Tataki where I noted that the fish was very fresh. I know that any time fish is seared, there’s a risk of the meat becoming tough. This wasn’t necessarily the case here, but I did find that the texture of the raw fish wasn’t as smooth as I would have hoped or expected. Still, the simple flavours of the tataki were enjoyable. Around the same time, an order of the Nama Harumaki was dropped off at our table. Leafy greens, julienned vegetables, avocado and smoked salmon all wrapped up in rice paper and dipped in a soy and mayo based sauce, it was kind of like a really healthy order of maki. Although there wasn’t a whole lot to it, the rolls made for a refreshing palate cleanser.

Next up was the Crispy Spicy Tuna Roll. My friend said the heat from the sauce was spicier than she remembered. However, I thought it was pretty mild. I do like a good amount of spice in the food I eat though, so I think it’s a matter of preference. The rolls were a good size – small enough that I could fit the whole thing in my mouth at once, but large enough that they had substance. The batter on the outside was light and not greasy. I’m certain that I could have polished off a second order.

The rolls were proceeded by a couple servings of the Prawn Spring Roll. Raved about by my friends, the thin, crunchy shells were stuffed with prawns, avocado and cheese. The cheese, likely cream, was a surprising yet excellent addition to the spring roll. That ingredient, along with the avocado, created a wonderfully rich and velvety texture.

Two kinds of Chicken Karaage were ordered: original and one finished off with a layer of mayo sauce. The original version is similar to KFC chicken in that it is marinated, coated in batter and fried. Paired with a light soy based dipping sauce, it arguably bests the fast food version. The second type of karaage was the same chicken, but cooked with mayo (I think it was spicy). A couple of us thought it was better than the original because the mayo provided an extra layer of flavour. Yet, as my friend pointed out, the mayo did take away some of the crunch that came with the original recipe. Again, this comes down to personal appetite. Aside from the two chicken karaages that we picked, there were, I believe, three other options available.

To finish off our main meal, we had a bowl of Oyster Ponzu. Fresh, meaty, juicy oysters that are breaded, fried and served in a ponzu sauce with a squeeze of lemon, this was so delicious. Dinner was then capped off with an order of California Sesame Seed rolls. On par with other sushi places in Edmonton, these weren’t much to write home about. I would say that they did hit the spot though. We also had a bowl of Yaki Edamame. Salted and grilled so they were slightly charred, I think the method used to prepare them helped to infuse more flavour into the beans.

All-in-all, it was quite a bit of food, but I definitely don’t think we overdid it. I think for a quartet, this was the perfect number of tapas plates. The favourites of the evening that will have me craving more from Izakaya Tomo are: Crispy Tako Yaki, Crispy Spicy Tuna Roll, Prawn Spring Roll and the Oyster Ponzu. I seem to like all the stuff that has been fried. Go figure!

Each of us saved some room for dessert as well. One person went with the Vanilla Ice Cream with Koku-To Uneshu (brown sugar plum wine syrup). It looked like one of the lighter choices. Another ate the Caramalized Sweet Potatoes with Ice Cream. Waffling between that selection and the Matcha Ice Cream Sandwich, the latter wound up being my final decision. I was very happy with my selection because it gave me a bit of everything I wanted. The potent green tea ice cream sat inside a sandwich of two mini pancakes with cooked red beans on the side and soft, fluffy peanut flavoured mochi (Japanese rice cake).

The food at Izakaya Tomo is prepared at lightning speeds, so you can get in and out quickly even if you order several items. This probably helps for turnaround of tables on nights when they have a full house. At the same time, while they don’t actually rush you out, the fact that the food is served so fast sort of means you don’t really linger as long as you might have wanted to. The whole point of an izakaya is to be a gathering place where people hang out for a whole evening. Even though that is what the establishment is aiming for, the small size of the restaurant and the impeccably prompt service almost create the opposite effect, which is a little ironic.

Despite that, this place is great. Drinks included, we each paid about $40 to $45 for dinner, which when you take into account everything we packed away, I would say was worth the money. The staff are extremely friendly, and, if there are no people waiting for a table, I’d be inclined to spend the entire night with friends or family snacking on the food and imbibing the various beverages that are available.

The Travelling Concertgoer: San Francisco Photostream

Walking from the BART station to see the Rolling Stones at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA on May 5, 2013

Walking from the BART station to see the Rolling Stones at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, CA on May 5, 2013

I’m not sure about you, but I haven’t met anyone in my life who has said they don’t enjoy music. Most find a genre they like and the majority are pretty passionate about music in some form or another. Whether they’re a musician or just a lover of the lyrics, beats and rhythms that make up the variety of songs out there in the universe, there is literally something for everyone.

I’m one of those passionate ones. I find artists I love all the time and I remain a devoted fan throughout the majority of an artist or band’s career. The genres of music I listen to run the gambit. Everything from top 40 to rap to folk to country can probably be found in my playlist, so I’m lucky that I live in a city that has become one of the major stops on many a concert tour. However, there are still some artists that don’t quite make it to my city, let alone my country because they either haven’t managed to crack the North American market to the point that it’s worth their time to tour here extensively or they’re such bloody legends that they know people will follow them instead. I’ve travelled to New York and Montreal to see Kylie Minogue, Toronto to see U2, London, England to see Girls Aloud and this coming December to New York once again to see P!nk. But, just earlier this month, I booked a whirlwind trip to San Francisco to see the Rolling Stones.

Prior to the Rolling Stones announcing their 50 and Counting tour, they were still one of the bands on my musical bucket list, if you will. I admit when I was younger I wasn’t much of a fan. I never really listened to them much and wasn’t necessarily inclined to, but after about a year of working full-time at my first “real” job after graduating from university, in an effort to create a regularly occurring social event for my friends and I, I decided to start a movie club. One month, in 2008, we chose to see Shine A Light, a documentary about the Rolling Stones that was directed by Martin Scorsese. I went in excited to see it because it was a documentary about one of the world’s biggest bands seen through the eyes of one of the best filmmakers and I wasn’t disappointed. That was the day I fell in love with their music and the characters that make up this long lasting group that, despite the pitfalls that rock and roll has brought to others, has stayed together with its original lineup for half a century.

Last year when the Rolling Stones announced their November/December shows in London and New York I thought my chance was finally here. The last time they had come to Edmonton, AB was back in 1997, so I wasn’t holding my breath that they’d grace my hometown with their presence, but maybe they’d come to Vancouver? Well, it was a long wait before they officially announced cities and dates for 2013 and while the west coast of Canada didn’t make the cut, San Francisco did.

I was more than determined to see them. With Mick, Keith, Ronnie and Charlie between the ages of 65 and 71, this could very well be the last time they’ll perform on a tour like this and I couldn’t miss out. And, I wouldn’t call it fate exactly, but I do think it was by luck that I happened to come across the band’s $85 link on their website the morning the tickets for San Francisco went on sale. The catch with those tickets is that you could only purchase them in pairs and you wouldn’t know where your seats would be until you arrived at the venue and picked them up. That was perfectly fine with me! A chance to see the Rolling Stones at half the price of even their lowest priced tickets in the main sale meant I couldn’t go wrong.

The concert was superb. I loved seeing the crazy array of people at the venue. The audience was having such a great time, dancing like there was no tomorrow and Mick Jagger literally is more energetic at his age than I am right now. They played many of their hits, but with their extensive catalog, I missed hearing songs like Wild Horses or Ruby Tuesday. I can understand why people follow them around from city to city on their tours. They are notorious for changing up their sets every show, so they’re never exactly the same, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll hear your favourite song.

This is their set list from Oakland, CA on May 5:

  1. “Get Off Of My Cloud”
  2. “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll (But I Like It)”
  3. “Live With Me”
  4. “Paint It Black”
  5. “Gimme Shelter”
  6. “Little Red Rooster” (with Tom Waits)
  7. “Dead Flowers”
  8. “Emotional Rescue”
  9. “All Down The Line”
  10. “Doom and Gloom”
  11. “One More Shot”
  12. “Honky Tonk Women”
  13. “Before They Make Me Run”
  14. “Happy”
  15. “Midnight Rambler” (with Mick Taylor)
  16. “Miss You”
  17. “Start Me Up”
  18. “Tumbling Dice”
  19. “Brown Sugar”
  20. “Sympathy for the Devil”

Encore

  1. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”
  2. “Jumping Jack Flash”
  3. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”

Even after a 2 and a half hour show, I still wished it was longer. But, alas, I can now say that I have seen the Rolling Stones live. The experience was certainly worth the trip, and though they’re the reason why I booked a vacation to San Francisco, I do try to make the most of my time in the cities I visit.

Over my three days in the home of the Golden Gate Bridge, I visited the Ferry Building on the Embarcadero and perused the stalls at the weekly farmer’s market, walked the streets of Chinatown, shopped around Union Square, ate at Tadish in the Financial District (apparently the oldest seafood restaurant in San Francisco) and at Bask SF (only a year old), walked up Lombard Street, followed Columbus Avenue from California Street past North Beach and all the way down to Hyde Street Pier and then down to Pier 39 to see the seals. I regret the shoes I brought with me because I thought those flats would kill me by the end of the trip, but I made it and it was fantastic.

Another trip and plenty to document it! As my friend said, she knew I must have just returned home and finally gotten Wi-Fi because I started Instagraming one photo after another to share with everyone. She also asked me how long I was there for, and when I replied that I was only there for three days, she was pretty amazed at how much I managed to do in such a short time span.

San Francisco through my eyes is here for you to view. Hopefully it inspires you to visit, too. Maybe for a show, maybe not. Either way, it’s worth seeing and with many things within walking distance of one another, you can cover a lot more ground than you think.

Photostream: London UK Holiday

Well, it’s been awhile since I’ve done a photostream post. My last was after my trip to Toronto in June/July 2012. This time I’m sharing pictures of my travels to London (in the UK, not Ontario).

I tried to do it all and for the most part I think I succeeded in seeing as many of the sites, eating the food, visiting the galleries and museums, tube and double decker bus riding, walking, shopping and show watching as I possibly could have in just 8 days.

I stayed in the Hammersmith district at the Best Western Plus Seraphine Hammersmith, which was excellent. Their staff was quite friendly and helpful (contrary to reviews we read prior to leaving on our trip). And, though the room was small for three people, it wasn’t actually any worse than others I’ve stayed at. The bathroom, thank goodness, was normal sized and the double bed more than accommodated two people. If you’re thinking of European standards, this exceeds it byfar.

Other than that, we mostly stayed within zones 1 & 2, making good use of our unlimited weekly transit pass. We took in Trafalgar Square, went to the Victoria and Albert Museum, saw a performance of The Woman in Black, now in its 24th year at the Fortune theatre in the West End, had high tea at Fortnum and Mason, shopped at Primark (fabulous clothes for affordable prices – their limited edition collection is amazing) and ate at the pubs as well as the ever-popular Pret A Manger, among many more things.

However, the best part of the trip for me was seeing singing group, Girls Aloud, at the O2 arena on their 10 year anniversary tour (please stay together!). I actually cried a little. It was like seeing the Spice Girls in Las Vegas in 2007 on their reunion tour or seeing Kylie Minogue live. Like the previous concerts, I never expected to see them in front of my very eyes. Yet, I decided to take this trip just for them. I’m so glad I did. Not only was the show amazing, but the whole experience was much better than what I recall of my last trip to London.

While this is not my whole collection of photos (I won’t bore you with the over 1000 I took during my time there), these are my favourite ones. I took the time to Instagram them when I got home. I find them a little more pleasing this way. At least until I have a chance to edit the other 900+.

I hope you enjoy perusing the images. Maybe they’ll spark a memory of your own trip to that vibrant, historical city. Or perhaps they’ll inspire you to visit one day. And, if you like, please take a moment to share with me your recollections of London or what you wish to see when you’re there in the future.

Follow me on Instagram @crystalcarwin

Lighten Your Load: Learning to Travel Compactly Through the Seasons

Heys 21″ Peacock Hardcase Luggage

I’ve once again gotten the travel bug. I used to fly away for leisure a few times annually, but in the last few years I’ve been lucky to have the time to take one trip per year. 2012 seems almost an anomaly having been to both Las Vegas and Toronto. Now, I’m anticipating my next holiday, whenever and wherever that may be. What strikes me everytime I’ve traveled with friends or whenever I visit anyone is that they always seem surprised to see how little I pack. I likewise am surprised when I look at their giant suitcases. Why carry such a large piece of luggage when all the things that are necessary can fit into carry-on sized baggage?

The explanations I’ve been given for packing heavy are 1) sometimes you don’t feel like wearing something you’ve packed and options are good, 2) you can never have enough shoes, and 3) you can never be too prepared. My reply is that if you pack properly and think about how you will pair pieces together, 1) it simplifies your days while you’re away from home, 2) you know you’ll look good if you stick to what you brought, and 3) you can pack a small suitcase for a week and still have room to bring a few things home.

In actuality, my obsession with packing compactly started five years ago after I returned home from a six week European bus tour. Being gone for that amount of time I undoubtly took a large suitcase with me. That was proabably a mistake. There is a reason why people go backpacking. Aside from it being a lot less expensive, it guarantees a lighter load. I learned then and there that I never wanted to drag around something so large again. Therefore, no matter where my trips have taken me, my suitcase is now always 21″ or less in size.

It’s come down to a bit of a science. Only the basics for makeup come with me and all other toiletries are travel size. For the days I’ll be on the plane, I wear leggings and a top or a dress with flat sandals or shoes. I avoid wearing metal entirely to help get me through security faster. I usually have a jacket or a sweater in my bag in case it gets cold on the plane or the weather is a bit chilly when I land.

I have a general plan for my outfits before I pack. The pieces I bring can usually be mixed and matched, so I don’t feel like I’m without any choices. Items that are interchangeable, layerable and able to be accessorized are absolutely necessary. Pick clothing that resists wrinkling and is comfortable. Comfort does not mean dressing like you’re heading to the gym though.

The key is to bring a pair of walking shoes – optimally cute ballet flats or strappy sandals that you know won’t hurt your feet – to wear while you tour around during the day and a second pair of dressier heels for nights out on the town. Both should be in a metallic or neutral shade to make it easy to match all of your looks. The second thing is to pick a neutrally colored jacket or coat. Thirdly, choose clothes that can be dressed up or down depending on how you put things together. A great pair of jeans can be worn out to dinner, dancing, a concert or a show when matched with a sequin top. By the same token, a dress that might typically be meant for more formal occassions can be dressed down by wearing a pair of casual flats and a leather jacket. The fourth thing is to color coordinate everything. Your shoes and clothes should be able to be intermixed as if you were at home with your full closet. Bring seven different outfits to give you at minimum seven days worth of clothes. If you are traveling for longer, those pieces should be able to be switched around to create alternate looks.

You can be comfortable without sacrificing style on holiday. Afterall, every city is a new place to show off your personal fashion sense.

With the help of Polyvore I’ve compiled packing blueprints to help you prepare for your next trip. I’ve created each set of suitcase essentials based on the seasons, so that you have a general idea of what to bring depending on the time of year and where you’ll be going. There’s also a special beach/hot weather blueprint for those who are heading to Las Vegas, Hawaii or any other all-inclusive destinations.

Update: My friend has made it known to me that I did not think (I did, but decided to ignore it initially) about the fact that some people have to bring their hair dryers, diffusers, curling irons and hair products with them when they travel. My first thought is that if you’re staying with a friend or at a hotel, check to see if they have those items and if they’ll let you borrow them while you’re there. Those items take up room and increase the weight of your luggage. If it’s not entirely necessary just think twice about it first. If you absolutely must bring those items along, make sure you take a medium sized overnight bag with you as carry-on. I usually stuff my purse into it and pack slippers and a change of clothes and my jacket or sweater, so that I only have to carry the one piece. By putting those items into an extra bag, that frees up space in your main luggage (check-in or not) for more of your hair and product essentials.

Spring

Summer

Fall

Winter

Beach

Do you have any packing tips? I’d love to hear your ideas. Please share in the comments section below.

Photostream: Toronto Adventures

I took a bit of a break from blogging over the last week as I was on holiday in Toronto. Yet, the whole time I kept contemplating what my next post would be about. After some thought, I have decided to go with a photostream of my adventures during my vacation.

Photography has been an interest of mine for years. However, like many people who love the medium, I am no professional. Though I have considered purchasing a fancy DSLR camera, it is a bit out of my reach at the moment, so I’ve stuck with my Nikon and Ricoh point-and-shoot cameras instead.

What I find interesting nowadays is despite carrying around a real camera almost everywhere I go, I tend to grab my smart phone first when I want to capture a moment or an image. Cell phone cameras have come a long way over the years, and with the addition of all the apps that are available, even those who have little experience with photography can create share-worthy photos. A good eye for composition still helps, but the ability to crop and apply filters gives everyone the ability to become an artist in their own right.

While there are many apps out there that are probably as good as Instagram, I did stick with that particular app for my entire trip. My apologies for not noting which filter I applied for each photo as I didn’t keep track myself (I will be sure to do so next time). On the plus side, you can likely gauge some of them based off of the frames that you see. Some of the images have also been brightened or blurred for greater effect. All of the images were shot using my HTC Incredible S Android phone.

I hope you enjoy the ride and perhaps consider your own trip to Toronto, the NYC of Canada!

If you like my pictures, follow me on Instagram at: crystalcarwin.

(Click individual photos for enlarged images and to leave comments)