Edmonton Event Review: Culinary Lab 01 (Rostizado)

The menu card for Culinary Lab 01.

About a month ago, I was scrolling through my Facebook feed when a sponsored post popped up before my eyes. Rostizado, one of our renowned local restaurants, would be partaking in Edmonton Economic Development Corporation’s (EEDC) Culinary Lab 01.

When I searched for more information through their Eventbrite link, I found out that this was going to be the first in a series of four events happening throughout 2017. Chef David Leeder, trained in some of the world’s top kitchens, would be returning home to Edmonton where he’d team up with a different chef for each dinner.

For the launch, which took place this past Sunday, Leeder’s Nordic cooking would be married with the Mexican stylings of chef Edgar Gutierrez. The kitchen would become their lab. Through six courses (all listed online prior to ticket purchase), Leeder and Gutierrez were to collaborate, innovate, and, hopefully, delight their guests.

The evening itself was extremely well organized. The earlier 6:00pm seating had cleared out by the time my friends and I arrived for the 8:30pm dinner. As the staff were quickly turning the room over for the next round, there was a bit of a wait, but it didn’t take long. Before we knew it, we were being led to our table.

All dishes served were included in the ticket price of $100 per person; however, any beverages were additional to that cost. There was the option of ordering directly off of Rostizado’s drink menu, or there was also a set menu that included an accompanying cocktail or beer  to go with four out of the six courses for an extra $50. Everyone in our party chose to order as we pleased.

Chicharrón with Mussels and Foie Gras

Our initial dish turned out to be very different from what was expected. The menu had indicated uni to be a main ingredient, but as we were informed upon service, uni wasn’t in season and they didn’t want the prospect of feeding us anything subpar. Instead, the same base of chicharrón was prepared with a creamy mussel emulsion, fresh whole mussels, caviar, foie gras and fennel fronds. The fried pig skin was bubbly in texture and crispy when bitten, holding its own against the handful of toppings. I’d worry slightly that this dish could come across as overly salty, yet each component worked well together.

Grilled Octopus

The second plate stayed right on course with the printed menu. Rounds of grilled octopus were placed on the dish like an attempted barrier to keep the roasted kelp sauce in place. I thought the sauce was subtle like a broth with just a hint of salinity. The potato puree added a thicker consistency. Most of the flavours came from the charring on the octopus as well as the ramps and endive. Apparently, there was also some Asian pear hiding in there somewhere, but I don’t think it came across.

Mole Verde

As with any meal, it’s important to get your greens. In the case of this iteration of the Culinary Lab, our veggies came in the form of the mole verde. Pureed rutabaga and tomatilla were the foundation of this plate in which each ingredient had been prepared in a distinct way ─ asparagus was raw, rapini was steamed, cauliflower was roasted, kale was deep fried and onion was preserved (confit) ─ to showcase each at their best. Personally, I was impressed with this plate. At home, I’m a roasted veggie type of woman, and this certainly opened my mind up to a myriad of other possibilities when it comes to vegetarian feasts.

Cochinillo y Tortillas

All three of the previous dishes led to the star of the night, Cochinillo y Tortillas. This included a large wooden platter laid out with three choices of tortilla shells (ancho chili, cilantro and plain), two skillets filled with slow roasted suckling pig, earthy mushrooms and cabbage along with a pile of charred ramps and cabbage. On the side were two sauces: Nordic mole and sesame. The tortillas were soft and the meat succulent. What took this main over the top were those sauces. We guessed at what the Nordic mole was made from, and we weren’t even close (we thought of parsnips). Turns out it was a simple mixture of onions (that explained the sweetness) with cream, butter, vinegar and leek oil. The orange sauce was made from sesame seed and chili, so it had some kick to it. Nothing overwhelming though. The two paired together with the tortilla filling was superb.

Raspado

So far, so good. Unfortunately, while the fifth course was tasty, I’m not sure it should have truly counted as a dish that I was paying for. It was a bowl of Raspado, which is essentially flavoured shaved ice. I did like that the ice was prepared two ways. I also enjoyed the floral fruity combination between the elderflower and the tepache (fermented pineapple that tasted a lot like lychee). Sure, it was refreshing, but let’s be honest, this was kind of a cop out. Even the chefs called it a palate cleanser. At most fine dining restaurants, a palate cleanser is a small bite offered in between plates at no extra charge. Here, this course was costing me about $17 and that seemed wrong.

Tres Leches

Dinner was redeemed with the final dessert course. Tres Leches, traditionally a sponge cake soaked in milk, was the inspiration for this dish. Sort of like four desserts in one, this plate consisted of dulce de leche, burnt milk candy, lime and avocado mousse and grapefruit mezcal sorbet served atop a bed of milk crumble. The bitterness from the mezcal and the acidity of the lime played off of the sugariness in the dulce de leche and burnt milk candy. My favourite part though? I’d say it was the milk crumble. It had this crushed cookie texture that was a bit crunchy and delicately flavoured, adding dimension and toning down the stronger tastes.

For the most part, my crew and I left satiated and satisfied. I’d even be open to attending another one of these Culinary Lab events in the future. My only qualm is that the value has to be there throughout all aspects of the menu. After this meal, I couldn’t quite justify the $100 per person for what we received.

I’m not sure when and where the next events will take place, but there are supposed to be three more to come this year (keep an eye out for news on the EEDC Twitter and Facebook pages). What I do know is, regardless of the cost, this will be a unique experience and a Sunday dinner that you’re likely never to have again. These menus are served only once (twice during the evening) and that’s it. Therefore, if you’re a big fan of food and you have a chance to, I’d recommend you give the Culinary Lab a shot.

Vancouver & Whistler 2016: Trip Recap and Photostream

The camp/cabin spot also had cool rusty cars with overgrown wild flowers. I had to stop for photos.

The camp/cabin spot across the road from Shannon Falls had cool rusty cars with overgrown wild flowers on the grounds. I had to stop for photos.

Towards the end of April, I finally decided to book a trip to Vancouver during the month of May. A bit of a whirlwind, I convinced my boyfriend to join me for an extended weekend that would also encompass an overnight jaunt to Whistler and Squamish.

The majority of the vacation was quite low-key; there isn’t a whole lot we did that most who’ve been or have researched anything about Vancouver wouldn’t already be aware of. But, I always like to share my adventures with those that may happen upon this blog, and a big part of that is having a chance to showcase some of my favourite photographs from my holidays.

So, armed with a small duffle bag of necessities and my camera, we set off for four days of visits with friends/relatives, food, shopping, nature and a whole lot of walking.

Day 1

We arrived in Vancouver by 7:30am, and our Airbnb wasn’t going to be ready until about ten o’clock. Making our way from the airport to Main Street, which is where we were staying for two nights, took a little while. The rest of our time was killed at a coffee shop just down the block from our rental and at the grocery store where we picked up some food to cook breakfast after check-in.

Once we settled into the apartment (it was an excellent unit and location, by the way), we met up with my friend at El Camino’s on Main Street for brunch. The Latin American food was so flavourful. I also liked that they were playful with the eggs benny dish I ordered – corn bread replaced the usual English muffin – and the house made hot sauce is awesome.

I couldn’t start my trip off without some doughnuts from Lucky’s. After brunch, we headed north down Main to 49th Parallel to pick some up. They were just as good as I recalled. No word of a lie, I’d been thinking about these desserts masked as breakfast staples for more than a year, and attempts to have them mailed to me or brought home for me were thwarted time and again. Every calorie eaten from Lucky’s Doughnuts was worth it.

With our early rise to get to Vancouver, we took it easy in the afternoon. Following a short cat nap, we strolled to Queen Elizabeth Park, which was about five minutes away from our Airbnb. The gardens there are lovely and the park provides wonderful views of the city’s downtown.

We finished off the night enjoying a meal and drinks with friends at Rogue, and then we ambled through Gastown for a bit before a nightcap of dessert and beer at the Flying Pig.

Day 2

Compared to the first day of the trip, this was a relatively relaxed Sunday.

At my boyfriend’s recommendation, we started off with lunch at Jinya Ramen where my cousin and my friend joined us. Sometimes people question ramen as a dish to be appreciated, and I get it. The resemblance to a bowl of instant noodles is uncanny. However, ramen noodles that are made well have a bite that is springy, and the broth should be tasty, yet not overly salty. Jinya Ramen fit the bill. I could have gone for seconds, and I would have, if anyone else was willing to join me. Alas, there were no takers.

One of the best surprises during our holiday was getting to visit with artist Jon Shaw. My boyfriend wanted to catch up with him while we were visiting, and Jon was gracious enough to invite all of us to his studio. Jon had just presented seven Star Wars inspired pieces at a show in his apartment/studio the week before we arrived, so most of them were still up on the walls. I had seen Jon’s work on his website prior to meeting him, and his talent is impressive. In fact, the images online don’t seem to do his art justice. Hopefully, I’ll have a chance to own one of his originals some day.

The rest of our afternoon was spent walking around downtown and then back on Main Street. On Main, I did some more shopping at one of my favourite stores, Front & Company. The shop stocks fantastic pieces of jewellery, and I’m never able to walk out without at least a few items (or ten). I also popped into Barefoot Contessa where I found a couple of other whimsical accessories to bring home with me. The best part about buying jewellery is that the pieces are small enough to fit into your luggage when all you’ve got is a duffle bag smaller than a carry-on suitcase.

Personally, I love Main Street because it’s a quiet neighbourhood that has plenty of coffee shops, food establishments and many shops (tons of antique stores, if that floats your boat) to peruse. It’s sort of an escape from the hustle and bustle of Vancouver’s true downtown, which I really appreciate.

Later in the evening, we met up with more friends for dinner and drinks at Portland Craft, located on Main between 22 and 23 Avenues. This place was chosen on a whim because we happened to be waiting for a bus right in front of the pub’s doors earlier in the day. They have late night happy hour that runs for two hours before close from Sunday to Thursday, and the prices are reasonable. In fact, the pizzas that were served at a mere $8 each were phenomenal. But, honestly, all of the food exceeded my expectations.

Day 3

Since they would make for a good snack on our road trip to Whistler, we started the day off right with some more doughnuts from Lucky’s. Then we went for a quick drive through Stanley Park before we were off on the winding Sea to Sky Highway (a.k.a. BC Highway 99, north of Vancouver).

In Whistler, we were ravenous, so we hunkered down at BrewHouse for lunch. The pizza I had hit the spot. When we were done eating, we wandered around the shops (my favourite was Ruby Tuesday Accessories) and took photos by the Olympic rings before taking our leave.

With beautiful views on the way to Whistler Village and even more breathtaking ones on the way back as we headed to Squamish for the night, it was a lazy, yet, somehow, tiring day.

Day 4

Fresh from a deep slumber, we woke up to the sight of The Chief through the window of our room at the Sandman in Squamish. We grabbed some breakfast at the hotel for fuel, and then we took the show on the road. We made a few stops between Squamish and Vancouver, the best of which was Shannon Falls. It’s definitely a tourist spot since a lot of buses were parked and waiting. But, it wasn’t overly crowded and it was a nice sight. More photo opportunities were found across the way in the camp/cabin area as well. I can’t remember what it’s called, but it’s literally right across the road from the entrance to the Shannon Falls ramp.

When we got back to Vancouver, my boyfriend drove us up to a viewing spot on Cypress Hill where we were able to get a view of the entire city. Unfortunately, it wasn’t particularly clear out – it was quite smoggy – but I definitely saw the appeal of the location. On a day when the visibility is good, it’d be the perfect spot to grab some panoramic shots.

With time left for lunch, we decided to try a Mexican restaurant that a friend of ours recommended. Sal y Limon is a casual dining establishment where you order at the counter, you’re given a number and they’ll bring the food to you when it’s ready. I felt like having quesadillas. The woman working the till said they weren’t large, so I ordered two: vegetarian and al pastor. Well, they were each a pretty darn big ten inches, and my stomach was more than full by the time I finished them. My boyfriend tried one of the tacos (actually sold individually) and also a torta. He said the taco was great, but the torta was a bit underwhelming. The food didn’t live up to my expectations either. Maybe I’ve been spoiled at home over the last few years. Considering Edmonton is home to Tres Carnales, which has been named one of the best restaurants in Canada, I was kind of comparing the food at Sal y Limon to the flavours there. The al pastor was just very different in taste, but still decent. Surprisingly, I quite enjoyed the vegetarian quesadilla though. I think it was the zucchini and all the cheese.

One more visit to Lucky’s Doughnuts on Main was on the agenda. It was my last chance to have them in who knows how long again. I bought a half dozen to take home with me, and believe me, I carried those things all the way back home like the box was my baby or something. I will say that, apparently, I wasn’t the only one. The attendant who checked me in for my flight back to Edmonton told me I was the fourth person she’d seen that day carrying a box of doughnuts home. It also sounded like mine were the first she’d seen from Lucky’s, so now it may be my mission to find out where the other ones came from. Doughnut taste tests might have to be part of my next trip to Vancouver.

Anyway, a final drink was had at Colony prior to leaving Main and dropping off our rental vehicle downtown. This place has some great daily specials, and it’s a chill spot to hang out for a while.

As always, I hope that those who happen upon these travel posts enjoy my photographs and may also benefit from some of the information shared about each city.

Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2015

Last year I decided to begin working my way through The Tomato‘s 100 best eats in Edmonton for 2013 and 2014.  There are still places that I haven’t made it to, and the challenge has only become harder with the release of the 2015 list this past March. Not to mention, new restaurants continue to spring up and compete for my attention. Needless to say, I wasn’t as on top of trying different places this year, but my second annual breakdown of my personal favourites in Edmonton does have some variation from my choices in 2014.

I still stand by the belief that any eatery is capable of blowing me away. Whether it’s an independent restaurant or part of a chain, there’s a reason why these places have lasted and continue to bring customers through their doors.

All of my selections are based off of the dishes that I’ve tried, so I by no means can vouch for the entire menu at each restaurant. However, I do feel that whatever I’ve eaten at these establishments are good indications of their brilliance or potential.

If you’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a great meal at the following locations, you’ll understand why they’ve made the cut. Otherwise, this list is my way of nudging all of you to step outside of your comfort zone to try somewhere and something new.

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1. Cibo Bistro
Still my favourite place in 2015. Everything is made from scratch. Delicious arancini, amazing cured in-house salumi, and fresh pasta with the perfect bite.

Review of Cibo Bistro

2. Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen
The official grand opening took place in November and the food really impressed me and my friend. Absolutely fantastic bone marrow agnolotti and tender, smoked duck were the stars.

Review of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

3. Woodwork
I recently visited again and it reminded me of why I like this place so much. Talented bartenders mix perfect cocktails, which are usually imbibed with plates of food that often consist of flavourful house-smoked meat.

Review of Woodwork

4. Canteen
The menu changes seasonally, but I still think about the duck breast I had. Visually, it was gorgeous, but it was also incredibly succulent. The chickpea fries and corn fritters are also great for sharing.

Review of Canteen

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5. Rostizado
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. Make sure to order the caramel flan for dessert, which is arguably even better than the churros.

Review of Rostizado

6. Duchess Bake Shop
My mom’s first visit to Duchess took place this year, and she loved the desserts. She’s pretty critical, so if she says something is good, it is. The key lime tart is still my top pick here. The banana cream pie has a wonderfully flaky crust, plenty of banana and lots of fresh whipped cream.

Review of Duchess Bake Shop

7. Corso 32
I was maybe a little harsh with Corso 32 last year. My expectations were very high after hearing all the rave reviews before trying it for myself. But, I concede that the fried short rib was a more than memorable dish.

Review of Corso 32

8. Tres Carnales
My quick and dirty review from last year still stands: “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

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9. El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar
I was skeptical of El Cortez prior to visiting in August. When it first opened, I had heard the food wasn’t all that great, but chef Lindsay Porter who took over a few short months later created a top notch menu. The fried cauliflower and the bulgogi steak tacos are awesome.

Review of El Cortez

10. Rosso Pizzeria
The wood-fired pizza is a must.  I also highly recommend the ricotta with olive oil, which is indulgent, but light. Don’t leave without dessert. The homemade gelato is superb.

Review of Rosso Pizzeria

11. Nosh Cafe
This restaurant moved to 124 Street within the last year and business has been slow to build at their new location. However, I’ve been several times and the traditional Indian dishes – palak paneer and butter chicken – are consistently good.

Review of Nosh Cafe

12. Cactus Club Cafe
I know this is a chain. But, arguably, they know what they’re doing when it comes to food and drinks. I’ve never had a disappointing meal at either location. The dishes that keep me coming back include the beef carpaccio, the BBQ duck clubhouse and the calamari (the addition of the fried jalapeno slices is genius).

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13. Joey Restaurants
Don’t start rolling your eyes. This is the second chain on this list and there are reasons for it. I’ve been frequenting Joey for as long as I can remember. It was the place my friends and I would go for a night out. We’d feel like adults as we had long conversations over what we considered to be pretty fancy food at the time. Not much has changed. Joey has always been a mainstay for me. The menu has been revamped many times over the years, but I hope that they never remove that spectacular ahi tuna sandwich. I crave it.

14. Japonais Bistro
They have filling bento boxes that satisfy your belly and the matcha crème brûlée is addictive.

Review of Japonais Bistro

15. Izakaya Tomo
Must tries here include the crispy tako yaki (octopus balls), oyster ponzu and the prawn spring rolls. Gather a group of friends, order a bunch of plates and share everything!

Review of Izakaya Tomo

16. The Common
Go for the chicken and waffles – one of the best renditions available in Edmonton – or the unique tandoori calamari. They also have a great selection of craft beers and tasty cocktails.

Review of The Common

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17. 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. The intimate space also makes it feel a little more special.

Review of Three Boars

18. Lazia
They’ve recently shifted the focus of their menu back to more Asian influenced dishes, and I think that was smart. The kitchen pleasantly surprised me with gorgeously plated and flavourful dishes that rivaled their sister restaurant, Wildflower Grill, but with price points that are slightly more accessible.

Review of Lazia

19. Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus BBQ
I was greatly disappointed when I found out that Absolutely Edibles closed. However, their sister restaurant, Sloppy Hoggs, still exists just down the block on 118 Avenue and 95 Street. The barbecued and slow-cooked meat served here is great and the portion sizes are generous. To top it off, the Absolutely Edibles brunch menu transferred over to this location. The waffles with the works (breaded chicken) are my top choice.

Review of Sloppy Hoggs

20. Ampersand 27
A beautiful atmosphere with equally beautiful dishes made for sharing. Get the melt-in-your-mouth maple butter pork belly.

Review of Ampersand 27

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21. The Cavern
Giving the option to select wine in 3 oz. or 6 oz. glasses and the chance to build a cheese and charcuterie board that is healthy and filling, you’ll likely 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.

Review of The Cavern

22. The Art of Cake
Cupcakes, slab cakes, cruellers, and shortbread cookies are just a few of the baked goods that they offer at their store. It’s impossible to go wrong.

Review of The Art of Cake

23. Tiramisu Bistro
With an extensive menu, there’s probably something to satisfy everyone. I particularly liked the salmone pizza. Even better, after 5pm on Tuesdays, pizzas are buy one, get one half off.

Review of Tiramisu Bistro

24. Belgravia Hub
Tucked away in the Belgravia neighbourhood, this is an easy restaurant to overlook. However, don’t miss out on their contemporary comfort food. The corn fritters, mac and cheese bites and the braised beef are worth a visit.

Review of Belgravia Hub

Happy New Year and Happy Eating! See you in 2016!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

I first heard about El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar from a good friend of mine. She had the opportunity to get a sneak peek of the restaurant and bar before it opened to the public about 15 months ago. It was the space, more than anything, that she said I should see. Even she conceded that the food wasn’t all that great at the time. However, the artwork and the basement (remains a mystery to me) were worth a visit.

As weeks, months and then almost a year passed by, I still hadn’t set foot in El Cortez. One of the big reasons being that Old Strathcona is just not all that convenient for me. But, from what I had gathered, the eatery had reassessed their menu and brought in new chef, Lindsay Porter, to revamp the offerings. My expectations went up.

Before I knew it, August was upon us. The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is the one annual event that is guaranteed to get me to Whyte Avenue, and, as it turns out, it also provided an excellent opportunity to finally try El Cortez.

Knowing that the area would be teeming with people during the festival, I decided to make an advance reservation through OpenTable. While the restaurant wasn’t entirely full when we arrived, I’m still glad that we did. Seats filled up rather quickly while we were dining . Some were there for a meal, others simply grabbed drinks as they waited for the basement to open up for whatever Fringe play was being performed that afternoon (El Cortez served as a new BYOV during the festival).

My first impression of the place was a good one. After all, you eat with your eyes first, and this was a restaurant that created a fun atmosphere that I was more than happy to spend time in. The look of El Cortez is meticulously detailed. There’s art covering each wall. All of them unique, but unifying in design. The lighting is worked into the art or is the art itself, casting shadows of colour everywhere you look. And that bar. The bar is gorgeous, housing bottles of tequila – the establishment is one of only nine in the world certified by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (The Tequila Regulatory Council) – backlit by an enticing blue.

Now, the question was whether or not the food would be up to par. My friend and I carefully perused the menu as we sipped on our beers. Eventually we decided to share orders of the Valentina’s fried cauliflower and the tuna ceviche. Since my friend wasn’t as hungry as me, I also opted to try a trio of the steak taco “bulgogi.”

The Valentina’s fried cauliflower was lightly breaded with the right bite, so there was still some crispness to the vegetable. The slightly tangy sauce coating the cauliflower was good on its own, but the crema dip on the side gave the dish that extra kick.

Sushi is one of my favourite cuisines, so it’s safe to say that I like raw foods. When there’s anything close to that on a menu, I usually like to sample it. The tuna ceviche sounded too good to skip. Chunks of tuna mixed with pineapple, mango, ginger, jalapeno, mint, cucumber and peanuts made this an interesting appetizer. My one qualm while eating it was that I came across a rather large tuna bone, so I was really cautious after that. However, the tuna was fresh and the flavours were really great. The ginger, mint and cucumber made it refreshing and light, and the peanuts helped to balance out the sweetness from the fruit. Jalapeno was added in to give it that necessary Latin heat without overtaking any of the other components. This was served with a tin of fresh tortilla chips and potato chips (I liked the latter more because they were seasoned and that worked well with the ceviche).

Tacos, when done properly, are a force to be reckoned with. Those little shells can hold any sort of meat or filling that you desire. Yet, we’d been without anything close to true Mexican street food for as long as I can remember. That is, until Tres Carnales popped up over four years ago. While I still love Tres, there are differences between the two. The major one being the type of taco that they use. The shells at El Cortez seem to be thicker and softer, and they might hold up slightly better. The dishes at El Cortez are arguably more aesthetically pleasing as well. Food is colourful at both, but there’s a bit more flair at El Cortez, which isn’t surprising considering the overall look of the restaurant. El Cortez is flashy, but Tres is a little more humble and its sister establishment, Rostizado, falls somewhere in between.

That leads me to the steak taco “bulgogi” dish. Damn, those were delicious. You only get three per order, and I wanted more when I was done. The steak was cooked perfectly. Juicy and tender meat with enough sauce in every bite and just a bit of crunch from the coleslaw meant this was a superb choice as my main.

Banana Custard for dessert

Banana Custard for dessert

With time left to spare before our next Fringe show, I opted for a dessert, too (I know, I know). I chose a banana custard with tequila marinated fruit and coconut granola. Honestly, I’m not sure I would order this one again. The texture of custard doesn’t really bother me like it does some people, but this one seemed watered down. I did enjoy the coconut granola, which also consisted of pumpkin seeds and slivered almonds. However, the tequila marinated fruit, interesting at first, felt like a misstep by the end.

All-in-all, I’d recommend El Cortez. The appetizers and the mains were all beautifully executed (minus the fish bones). Our server was friendly. However, she didn’t make it to our table as often later into our meal, so it was difficult to flag her down for dessert and the bill. Otherwise, the service was decent. If you can, you should also check out their Taco Tuesday when tacos are only $3 each and you can mix and match your order. Be sure to book a reservation though, or you could be in for a long wait. Plus, if this place wasn’t already cool enough, you should lookout for secret shows that take place every so often in the basement.

El Cortez's Twitter Image. I love this logo.

El Cortez’s Twitter Image. I love this logo.

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!