Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sushi Sugoi (Closed)

The cover of the Sushi Sugoi menu.

The cover of the Sushi Sugoi menu.

Sushi Sugoi (@sugoiedmonton) is one of the newer Japanese restaurants in the city. Open for more than a year now, I had heard good things about it from reviews, friends and neighbours. I usually have good intentions to try a place when it first announces its presence, but, for some reason, I usually never make it until much further down the road. Perhaps I want to avoid any kinks that they might be working out in the kitchen or on the menu. After all, I want a good experience, not one that I’ll regret.

My ears initially perked up to the idea of an additional sushi restaurant on the south side of Edmonton when my friend told me she dined there one evening last fall. By the sounds of it, she was wowed by the food and the overall presentation of the dishes, telling me that they looked like works of art. I was certainly intrigued. I followed up her description of their outing by reading some other reviews on Urbanspoon and, lo and behold, they were rated quite favourably (currently they have 76% approval out of 199 votes). I jotted the name down on my vast list of eateries to try and vowed I’d make it there eventually.

That brings me to the end of February when I ran into my neighbour on the way to work. Whenever we ride the bus together, food usually ends up being a hot topic of conversation for us. This particular time, I think I was telling her about the amazing sushi that I had eaten in San Diego a few weeks ago, so, of course, we got to talking about sushi in Edmonton. Sure enough, she mentioned Sushi Sugoi, telling me that she quite liked the variety of rolls and that, for the price, the portions served were worth the money.

What did I do next? I called my friend who had traveled with me to California, so we could plan our next dinner. By the time we got together, it had been a full month since we had returned from our trip. For us, that is a long overdue meeting. Sushi was definitely in order. Neither of us barely ate during the day, so were starving on our way there after work.

The interior of the restaurant has a large sushi bar as its focal point.

The interior of the restaurant has a large sushi bar as its focal point.

Located along Calgary Trail, Sushi Sugoi sits next to a strip mall. As we drove into the parking lot, it was evident that little thought was put into the exterior of the building because it still looked very much like its predecessor, Outback Steakhouse. Thankfully, upon stepping inside the doors, we saw that the interior of the space had been gutted and redecorated in a very tasteful manner. The restaurant is sleek and modern with neutral shades, a few pops of colour and a large sushi bar as its focal point.

While we waited at the front counter, I took everything in. Although I could see people standing at the back towards the kitchen, there was no host to greet us when we entered the establishment. A few minutes went by before anyone really acknowledged us, which is something they can improve upon. But, once someone came over, they immediately took us to a booth where we were seated and presented with menus.

As we flipped through the many pages of the menu (I cannot emphasize enough how extensive it is), we were also offered o-shibori (hot wet towels), so we could clean our hands before our meal. I thought that was a nice touch. It’s actually something I haven’t seen in a long time.

What I like about their menu is that it has a clean design, and most items have some sort of description of the dish listed alongside the name, so you’re not going to wonder what exactly you’re about to eat. Similar to other Asian eateries, they still make use of numbering the items and including a selection of corresponding photos for show, but it’s minimal, and the pictures just serve to make your mouth water. Therefore, it took us a while to make our final decisions when it came to ordering our food. Originally, I was quite tempted to go with one of their bento boxes, which are only $15 (even during dinner), or one of their combos. Instead, I changed my mind and opted to test out a few of their rolls.

It was hard to pick just three each because they have three menu pages devoted to rolls. I went with a couple of the tried and true – negitoro maki and scallop maki –  as a way to compare the quality with what I might find at other places in Edmonton. I also chose the dynamite Alaska from their list of specialty rolls. My friend went with the spicy tataki maki, squash maki and inari maki.

Since I didn’t sample any of my friends rolls on this particular occasion, I cannot comment myself on how good hers were, but they did look yummy. She also told me she enjoyed them, and she would definitely come back to eat at Sushi Sugoi again.

I guess my one qualm with the service is that not all of the rolls ordered came out together, which is bound to happen at times. However, my dynamite Alaska showed up quite a bit later than the other two. Often, when I eat, I like to alternate between the different items, allowing you to really take in all the flavours and combinations. It’s like a workout for your taste buds. When you’re eating just one type of roll all at once, sometimes it becomes overwhelming or everything just starts tasting the same. So, I would have liked for the last roll to arrive at the table earlier.

Scallop Maki

Scallop Maki

No matter though, it is what it is. I was started off with the scallop maki. In my mind, I saw it as the traditional maki, wrapped in black seaweed with just a small center of scallop. Turns out, it was uramaki (an inside-out roll) with the rice wrapped around the seaweed and a fairly large middle of chopped scallop. The taste and texture of the rice was just right (slightly sticky and vinegary). The tender raw scallops were paired with tobiko and then coated with a decent amount of Japanese mayo – mixed in to give it a little bit of creaminess and tang – to create a bite that had a melt-in-your-mouth consistency.

Negitoro Maki

Negitoro Maki

The negitoro maki is how I imagined my scallop maki would be. Bite sized rolls filled with fatty tuna and chopped green onion (I believe the onions might be grown in their Urban Cultivator, which they use to grow their own organic greens and herbs year round), these were delicious. The green onions were extremely flavourful and fresh, as was the fish.

The dynamite Alaska roll was massive. Each piece was about the size of my fist, so it’s not conducive to keeping your food from falling apart. As anyone who eats sushi knows, the bigger the roll, the more difficult it is to eat in a polite manner. Etiquette suggests that you eat with either your chopsticks or your hands (as long as they’re clean), and typically, you should eat a piece of sushi in one fell swoop. The problem in North America lies with the idea of “bigger is better” where the rolls have become so large that it’s near impossible to do so. Sometimes you can still stuff the whole roll in your mouth, but you likely look like a chipmunk storing food away for the cold winter months. Inevitably, with these huge rolls you must give in and bite it apart. That’s when it usually becomes a messy pile on your plate (probably because you couldn’t quite cut that seaweed apart with your teeth). Luckily, that wasn’t really the case this time. I credit it to the fact that the roll was fried on the outside, giving the seaweed a crunchy texture that was much easier to break apart.

Dynamite Alaska

Dynamite Alaska

The ease with which this dish was consumed despite the size of its portions, is one of the main positives of this roll. While it tasted pretty good, it was quite heavy as the fried batter on the outside was thick (thankfully not greasy), so it was maybe too much in that respect. According to the menu, the middle was stuffed with smoked salmon, tobiko, prawn tempura, yam tempura, crab meat and vegetables. Smoked salmon, being a strong flavour was the most distinguishable ingredient by taste. I couldn’t really tell there was any yam tempura in the roll and the crab meat is of the imitation variety. This roll was simply okay. The main problem with rolls this large is that when it has to be divided into fractions, you’re probably only getting a bite with crab meat and nothing else. The point of combining all of those things in the middle is that they should really be eaten as a whole, and you can’t do that here. I most likely won’t order this one again, unless someone shares a plate with me. It really is best in smaller doses.

Overall, I’m leaning towards saying that I like Sushi Sugoi. The service, once they noticed us, was decent. Since the food was brought out in stages, our server was at our table enough to ensure that she checked on our satisfaction thoroughly. Regarding the food, I really liked the more traditional rolls that I had. Those were delicious; they used what seemed like very fresh ingredients while keeping the consistency of the rice perfect, which is so important when it comes to sushi. My only wish is that they stop relying so much on the imitation crab meat in their rolls (20 out of 58 make use of it) because that brings the quality down a notch, and that’s a shame. I really want the food to match the beauty of the space, and it does in some aspects, but not all. Hopefully, they’ll work on that since so many of those rolls sound absolutely scrumptious. I certainly don’t regret this visit though. In fact, I’ll probably be back soon, but I’ll be sure to stick to the tried and true classics from now on.

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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?

Edmonton Restaurant Review: CRAFT Beer Market

Since CRAFT Beer Market opened their first Edmonton, Alberta location back in December 2013, within the last month it has quickly become a bustling downtown venue for a casual, yet fun night out. Whether you’re meeting friends for late night snacks or heading out with co-workers during lunch or having a vent session over drinks, it has turned into the new popular place to see and be seen. I would also say that it is acting as an additional anchor in the revitalization of the downtown core.

The bar - the focal point of the restaurant.

The bar – the focal point of the restaurant.

I have been there on three separate occasions, all for different reasons, so I now feel like I can give a fair review of the restaurant and bar.

My first visit to CRAFT was for what was considered to be the VIP grand opening on December 17th. We were invited as our office had just booked out the top floor for a company mixer to take place in the New Year and this was a chance for a few of us on the party planning committee to check out the space, the food and the extensive drink selection.

Surprisingly, upon stepping into the restaurant, my initial thought was that it was way larger than I expected it to be. The main floor is deep set with booths at the front as well as bar height seating taking over a wall on a slightly raised area of the section. There is essentially no wasted space. If they can fit a seat, they probably will. The back portion of the street level space is lined along the east and west walls with booth seats, bar stools and raised wooden tables and at the very back some lower booths look into the room where all the beers and wines currently available are stored and tapped. However, the real focal point is the huge bar that houses over 100 different taps with large pipes running the kegs from the back room to the bar, giving the place an industrial rustic feel. If you love beer, I really think you won’t be disappointed. And, if, like me, you don’t know much about beer, this is the perfect place to test some out and find one you enjoy drinking.

The restaurant's main floor.

The restaurant’s main floor.

The second level overlooks the main floor. Windows give you a peek into a kitchen and there are large booths and long tables that are perfect for hosting larger groups. Come summertime, the rooftop patio should be open and I think it will be wonderful for soaking up the sunshine over lunch or an early supper. Although, I suspect there will be long lineups to get a table. The basement provides extra keg storage, a coat check and the bathrooms along with ATM machines for those who find themselves in need of extra cash. It’s also about 10 degrees cooler in the basement, which, believe me, is fantastic as the main and second floors can warm up rapidly.

Now, I’m sure you’re wondering about the food. At this grand opening event they had two stations set up. One served their Baja Fish Tacos and the other their Hawaiian Ahi Poke. I have to say that, on this occasion, the fish tacos were just okay. I think that there just wasn’t enough fish in the taco, so mostly I was eating cabbage, wrap and hot sauce. On the other hand, the ahi poke was amazing. The sashimi-grade tuna was incredibly fresh and melted in my mouth. The dish is served with cucumber, vinaigrette and crispy wonton chips. I believe if you order the dish there is also a spicy sauce that can be added, but that was included at this event. The texture of the fish against the crunch of the chips and cucumber was great, and the coolness of the tuna and cucumber nicely offset the spice from the sauce. It was my favourite appetizer. Servers also came around with samples of the Fast Food Sushi (cheeseburger and fries wrapped in bacon) and pretzel bites (stuffed with cheese and served with what I’m guessing is an aioli). What I like about CRAFT is that they do source out local produce if they can, and, from those few tasters, I saw the potential of the food. Without a doubt, the ahi tuna was enough to convince me to make a return trip.

For their first night being open, the service was superb that evening. Our server seemed very knowledgeable about what was on tap and she made recommendations based on what we mentioned to her. She even brought us small glasses of a few different beers to try before we made our decisions for our full pints. Overall, on first impression, the staff was very friendly. It was extremely busy though, so it took a bit of time for our server to make it back to take an order or drop things off. That’s not necessarily a terrible thing. If you go in without the expectation of making it in and out within an hour, you’ll have a good time.

The extensive beer selection - over 100 on tap!

The extensive beer selection – over 100 on tap!

I visited CRAFT for the second time on January 10th. This is where I was a little less than impressed. I had phoned two days prior to make a lunch hour reservation. The hostess took my information and, while she initially mixed up the date, I corrected her and expected that they would have it on file when I arrived to meet my friend. Unfortunately, when I approached the desk, the hostess working that shift could not find my booking at all. Thankfully, she explained the situation to her manager and he immediately offered me two seats at the bar. His quick solution was satisfactory on this occasion since I was meeting just one person. Yet, if I had made a reservation for a group of four or more people, I would have been quite upset. Sitting at the bar with that many people doesn’t allow for conversation and, from what I could see, most of the other tables were occupied or likely reserved. I have absolutely no idea what happened with my booking as they never figured it out, but I really hope that it isn’t a regular occurrence. For the time being, I’m just glad they are taking reservations at all. They may rid of that eventually as I think the CRAFT site said it is temporary since they are new and unsure of how busy it will be, but typically their restaurants are first come, first serve. All I know is that had I not made a reservation, I may have been waiting for a table for a long time as one woman who was at the front when I walked in asked how much longer it would be and was told it was still going to be about twenty minutes and she replied, “but that’s what you said twenty minutes ago when I arrived.” Yikes! I understand that new restaurants are always going to have growing pains while they figure out staffing, routines and procedures, so I will give them the benefit of the doubt for now.

In terms of the food that afternoon, I had their CRAFT House Soup – a cheddar, jalapeno and Rice Howard House Ale concoction – that was quite delicious. It wasn’t overly creamy, the cheddar wasn’t overpowering and the pepper gave it a nice kick, but not so much so that it burned my taste buds. I also tried the crab cake sliders, which had crab cakes sandwiched between cucumber, arugula and a pretzel bun with citrus aioli and pepper salsa on the side. I enjoyed them, but make sure you eat them with the aioli and salsa as that really upped the flavour quotient. My suggestions for improvement with them is that the crab cakes should have been charred a bit to better keep the crab meat together and that maybe the cucumber only be placed under the crab cake rather than above and below it which acted as a press that subsequently squished the cake every time I took a bite of the slider and resulted in the meat falling out the sides. I’m also not a huge fan of the pretzel buns that seem to be more of a staple nowadays. Unless they’re baked fresh I find them to be too hard and dry to really add to a dish. I would much prefer a soft whole wheat bun over a pretzel bun. Of course, that’s just my opinion and I’m sure that many out there love pretzel buns. My friend ordered the Yucatan Chicken Salad, which looked really fresh and like a very substantial meal. The service, again, was stellar. The bartender was very attentive and checked on us throughout to take our orders, make sure the meals were alright and refill our glasses.

My third and most recent visit was just this past Friday, January 17th for my workplace get together. It took a bit of convincing to get some people to go, but quite a few of my friends either wanted to try something new or had been to the Calgary location and were looking forward to checking it out in Edmonton, so this party was the perfect excuse to do just that. We rented out the second floor for four hours of the evening. The package we went with included six different appetizers, two drinks per person and a variety of bite sized desserts. They moved the long tables usually situated in the center of the space to the sides and placed cocktail tables in the middle making for a variety of places to sit or stand. Initially, I was skeptical that the floor would accommodate 125 people, but it worked.

My co-worker and I at our holiday party.

My co-worker and I at our holiday party.

The selection of appetizers chosen included a veggie platter with hummus and flatbread, chicken wings, pulled pork sliders (not available on their regular menu), fish tacos, pretzel bites and the ahi poke. I can’t speak to all of them as I only tried four out of the six items. However, I can say that the fish tacos were much better than at the grand opening – plenty of fish and more flavour. The ahi poke was just as delectable this second time around, so much so that many of us said we would have just taken the whole bowl of tuna if we wouldn’t have been frowned upon. The pretzel bites were soft and had just the right amount of cheese stuffed inside, but I tried them after they had been sitting out for bit and they were no longer fresh. Had I had some when they arrived at the tables, I’m sure they would have been even more enjoyable. The last appetizer I tasted was the pulled pork slider. Now, I love pulled pork sandwiches. They have become one of my favourite meals, and while I won’t say that these were terrible, they certainly could have used a little effort from the kitchen. It was literally just a bit of shredded pork on a pretzel bun. The sauce was subtle, but should have packed more of a punch with the barbeque flavour and it needed additional texture such as a slaw to really bring it up a notch. I was satisfied though and everyone else I spoke with raved about the food. CRAFT also did a good job of ensuring that the dishes were replenished regularly, so there was food consistently present.

Another aspect that I was happy with was the fact that CRAFT supplied servers to our party, and that they actually took drink orders throughout the evening. Prior to attending the party I wasn’t sure if we would have to take our drink tickets down one floor to the bar, but this simplified things for the party goers. And, for the most part, the servers were excellent at bringing the beverages back to the proper people (difficult at times as people moved around as they mingled with others), only seldomly mixing something up. In addition, I did read some of the reviews of the restaurant on Urbanspoon that complained of them being out of certain beers that were listed on their menu, so I was a bit worried that would be the case for our party, but it wasn’t. From what I could see they didn’t have a problem fulfilling the orders that were taken. This being one of CRAFT’s first large events for hire since opening, I would say they provided us with a memorable time and great service.

One thing I will note is that the acoustics were terrible. We were provided with a PA system for a quick speech and the handing out of door prizes, but with the music in the background as well as all the commotion from the patrons on the main floor as well as our zone, it was almost impossible to hear even from 10 feet away. I’m not sure if the microphone was turned up, but that’s something to consider should you decide to throw a party there and require that.

Also, I know it’s too late to make this suggestion to CRAFT, but they certainly should have contemplated adding an elevator into the building. I can see potential issues with overzealous customers who’ve had a little too much to drink having a difficult time navigating the staircase. If anything, as a precaution, I suggest they think about placing a bouncer in the stairwell area who can escort anyone who needs help to a cab.

All-in-all, I really like CRAFT. The sleek look, the relatively well CRAFT-ed (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) food (seriously, the ahi tuna makes this place), the welcoming atmosphere and the pleasant service are all things that will bring me back.

The much raved about Hawaiian Ahi Poke!

The much raved about Hawaiian Ahi Poke!

Grab some friends and have a nice meal, a couple drinks and some good conversation. More than anything, this place is about bringing people together and rediscovering the social aspects of your life again. They also offer daily deals on drinks and food, so check them out here.

If you’ve tried CRAFT in Edmonton, tell me what you thought of it by leaving a comment below. You can also follow the restaurant for up-to-date news on Twitter: @CRAFTbeeryeg.

NYC Winter Wonderland: Photostream

Wow! My trip to NYC really crept up quickly this year. My friend and I booked it all the way back in March (see my April post about planning for our vacation) and, at the time, we were thinking it was forever and a day away. But, before we knew it, it was the end of November and we only had a few more days to prep for our holiday. If there’s nothing else I’ve learned with this trip, I will walk away with the knowledge that time sure slows down for no one as we get older. I mean, it’s already been three weeks since we returned home and I’m only just getting to this post.

Aside from my contemplation of the passage of time, this, my sixth visit to the Big Apple, proved to be as spectacular as ever. All of my vacations in 2013 sprung up as a result of a concert and this was no different. Shopping and shows was the name of the game, along with a bit of sightseeing and partying, lots of eating and getting into the Christmas spirit.

What never ceases to amaze me is how much of Manhattan you can cover in the span of a day. It is also an extremely walkable city. My friend’s wireless fitbit® surprised me by telling us that on Day 2 we took over 28,000 steps, climbed more than 40 flights of stairs, walked over 12 miles and burned over 2,000 calories, and I wasn’t even tired. That’s the thing with New York; it’s a little like Las Vegas where you don’t realize how long you’ve been awake or how much you’ve been doing until you get home and you’re completely burnt out and you need another vacation from your vacation. New York City is like this magical place where the atmosphere completely makes you forget that you require sleep to survive. New York City right before Christmas is like that times a hundred.

My photos are grouped into galleries by day and I’m going to let them do most of the talking, but I thought I’d give a little synopsis as well.

Day 1:

Compared to last December in New York City as well as what we left behind in Edmonton, Alberta, we were extremely lucky when it came to the weather. Goodbye -30 degrees Celsius! Hello +14! It was so nice outside that, unlike the rest of the New Yorkers and tourists we encountered, we walked around in just our sweaters and still felt warm. I certainly wasn’t complaining. After we checked into our hotel, 6 Columbus, we started off our first afternoon with a Japanese meal at Natsumi, a quick jaunt to Times Square and then followed up with a Broadway musical called First Date. We loved the show – it was a little clichéd, but so true and very funny – and we left the theatre with newfound crushes on Zachary Levi (@ZacharyLevi) whom I already was a fan of from NBC’s Chuck and Disney’s Tangled. I’m a bit sad to share the news that the show closes on January 5, 2014, so I’m glad that I had the chance to see it while I was there. The night ended with a trip to Whole Foods (please open up a location in Edmonton!) for sustenance to keep us energized for the rest of the trip.

Day 2:

The day started with one of my favourite meals ever. Norma’s Lox & Lox of Bagel and their Waz-Za Waffle. I sort of feel like it’s the quintessential breakfast place and if I’m going to eat anywhere whenever I visit New York, Norma’s is definitely going to make the list. Ever since my cousin took me there, I haven’t skipped it once on any subsequent trips. That breakfast powered us through a visit to Statue of Liberty Island, a shopping excursion to Century 21, a walk through St. Paul’s Chapel and an introspective look around the 9/11 Memorial site. That evening, we had a delicious Greek meal at Ethos Gallery, strolled along Fifth Avenue looking at the holiday window displays and made our way back to our hotel and another stop at Whole Foods (seriously, this place would make so much money from us if they opened in Edmonton).

Day 3:

After a couple of late nights staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning for no reason whatsoever, we started the day a bit later and headed over to one of the better rated sushi restaurants according to Yelp and Urbanspoon. Aoki provided us with a comfortable atmosphere and an affordable and tasty lunch of miso soup, assorted rolls and über fresh salmon sashimi. We took an express train to Brooklyn and got a little lost (we shouldn’t have been on the express), but we eventually made it to the borough where we met a couple of friends for dinner at The Burger Bistro, completely stuffing our faces with burgers, fries and sangria. Then we ventured to Barclays Center for the first Knicks vs. Nets game of the NBA season. Apparently both teams are doing abysmally this year, but I would say that the Knicks are doing better based on this particular game. Since we missed out on the tree lighting festivities the night before at Rockefeller Center, we went back to Manhattan and took pictures in front of the rink and the giant tree. It was so beautiful! As it lightly snowed we hopped onto a carriage and Benny the horse towed us over to the bar, so we could ring in our friend’s 30th birthday at midnight.

Day 4:

We slept in a bit and upon waking we headed to Central Park where we found the fabulous Columbus Circle Holiday Market, which had been set up for the Christmas season by UrbanSpace. Locally made gift items, Christmas ornaments and festive snacks and drinks to warm up customers really helped to bring out the cheerfulness of the season despite the rainy day. After browsing around for a little while, we made our way to Greenwich Village for a pre-booked dessert tour. Unfortunately, the guide did not show up to meet us, but thankfully, we were just a few steps away from Joe’s Pizza (even after a half dozen trips to New York, this was my first time enjoying a famous Big Apple slice) and numerous other food establishments where we decided to create a tour of our own. If plans don’t pan out, you just have to make the best of it! Since we had some time to kill upon finishing our impromptu meal, we ventured back to Fifth Avenue where we came across the New York Public Library’s Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. Afterwards we enjoyed supper at a cozy Italian restaurant in the lower east side called Grotto. And, last, but not least, we, again, met up with our friend to officially ring in her 30th birthday at Tao Downtown and then Le Souk.

Day 5:

I have to say this day was a bit of a write-off. We were at Le Souk until 5am and I was wired from the night out dancing. I didn’t sleep until we got onto an 8:30am shuttle bus to Woodbury Common Premium Outlets just outside of Manhattan. Dead tired, but determined, my friend and I were real troopers and pretty much got our shopping done within the first few hours. Maybe if we had more energy and it wasn’t so bitterly cold in contrast to the first few days of our trip, we may have walked around a bit more. But, after days of late nights and next to no sleep for at least 24 hours, we just couldn’t do it any more. Once we made our way back to the city, we went to Aoki for dinner (becoming regulars) and then I bought myself a last minute ticket from the TKTS Discount Booth in Times Square to see Big Fish at the Neil Simon Theatre, which I am, again, sad to say has ended its run as of December 29th due to poor sales. The night I attended, it was a packed house, probably with those wanting to catch the well-reviewed show before the curtains officially closed, but it was too little, too late.

Day 6:

This was another slightly late day where we worked our way to Murray Hill for lunch at S’MAC. The portion sizes of our mac and cheese dishes were massive and I only finished about half of mine. A walk to burn off the heavy meal led us to Grand Central Terminal and the MetLife Building and back to Fifth Avenue where we shopped at Saks and Bloomingdale’s before having our final three-course meal in New York at David Burke at Bloomingdale’s (delicious by the way!). A stroll back to the Columbus Circle Holiday Market for one last look around before it closed for the night and a quick stop at our hotel to drop-off of all our stuff from the day and we were off to Barclays Center to finally see what we had booked the trip for in the first place – P!nk’s The Truth About Love Tour! Let me just say that I have seen many concerts over the years and this one just blew me away. P!nk is a topnotch performer who entertained us with her acrobatics, dancing, and incredible voice, which, to my knowledge, was live and not recorded. She was everything I hoped and, honestly, her show was a perfect cap to our holiday. I left thinking that if I could still get just a single ticket to her sold out, but postponed Edmonton show on January 16, it would be worth it to see her one more time.

I really hope you enjoyed my adventure and that it inspires you to visit New York soon. Whether you go on your own, with family or friends, you’ll be sure to have a great time.

I thought I would leave you with some extra information that would be useful for your travels to New York or wherever your next trip finds you.

General travel tips:

– Use deal vouchers – Groupon and LivingSocial can save you a lot of money on what would be otherwise extravagant meals or shows!

– Prepay for what you can (it’ll help take the sting out of it come bill time if it’s all spread out). Although make sure you can cancel and get a refund in case plans go awry.

– Make reservations for restaurants that you really want to try out – many restaurants, in the States especially, use Opentable and it’s a great way to ensure you get a table.

– If you don’t have a particular show in mind and you’re willing to take a chance, get last minute discounted tickets – in NYC go to the TKTS locations to see what Broadway and Off-Broadway shows are available the day of.

– Check Booking.com for hotel deals – many of the hotels offer free cancellation up until just a few days before you are supposed to arrive. They also don’t charge booking fees and most hotels don’t require that you pay ahead of time, so you can keep a watch out for better deals in the meantime.

Tips for NYC in December:

– Layer – you never know if the weather will take a turn!

– Mix and match pieces, so that it looks like you’re wearing something different everyday even though you only brought a few things.

– Winter items are heavier, thus taking up more space, so re-wear items, such as pants, throughout the trip, but bring enough, so you can alternate.

– Bring an umbrella, a hat and gloves. While we were there, it was balmly (to us anyway), wet and snowy within the span of 6 days.

Things to check out in NYC in December:

– Rockefeller Center – the Christmas tree is a must see!

– Columbus Circle Holiday Market was lovely, especially if the weather is nice and you can take your time. Grand Central Terminal also had a market set up for Christmas and it’s indoors, so you can stay nice and warm.

– Fifth Avenue – Christmas displays at the department stores are quite exquisite. I didn’t even get inside Bergdorf Goodman, but the windows were beautiful!

Lastly, I wish I was going back to NYC in 2014. I want to see Neil Patrick Harris (@ActuallyNPH) kick serious ass in Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway, which is playing a limited engagement run from the end of March through to almost the end of July 2014. I’m so jealous of anyone who is planning to see that. If you’re going, take me with you.

If you liked my photos, please follow me on Instagram @crystalcarwin.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Select

It has been almost 7 years since my last visit to Cafe Select, which has now been branded by new owners (their other restaurant is Packrat Louie just off Whyte Ave.) simply as Select in an effort to contemporize the name.

The restaurant itself has always been rather inconspicuous sitting on 106th Street just south of Jasper Avenue. Even though it had a reputation as an excellent restaurant specializing in French cuisine and it had existed in that same spot since my parents can remember, I never would have known about it had my friend not suggested we go for dessert one night. While we didn’t get to try anything on our first attempt to eat there (it was late and they were about to close), the restaurant certainly had a cozy feel to it, comforting and inviting.

When we eventually managed to sit down at a table there, it was to celebrate the same friend’s birthday. We enjoyed tea and dessert and I recall it being good, but maybe not overly memorable. What I can tell you is that food blogging wasn’t such a big thing back then and it was more important to get a photo of us together as opposed to pictures of the food.

2006 - Birthday Celebration

2006 – Birthday Celebration

Well, over the last couple years, I’ve found myself trying out more new restaurants and revisiting ones that for some reason or another I just never quite made it back to. I have Groupon to thank for that. It has actually been difficult to keep track of the vouchers I’ve purchased and, as such, I often find myself leaving their use until the last possible moment. This was certainly the case for my evening at Select.

In preparation, I made a reservation through OpenTable (it’s all about the points!), perused the menu online and, of course, read reviews on Urbanspoon and Yelp. I like to know what I’m getting into even if it means feeling worried that I’m not going to get what I bargained for.

The first thing I want to say though, is for the people who complained about promptness of seating and service at the restaurant, I will gladly do the opposite and give the staff props for attentiveness. As soon as my companion and I walked into the doors, we were pleasantly greeted by a hostess who seated us at roomy booth. Our server came over within a couple of minutes to offer us water and throughout the night she was very friendly, she refilled our glasses without us having to ask, she checked in on us periodically, but not too often and she offered us meal suggestions.

The ambience of the place was also quite lovely. The restaurant is small, so if seated at tables rather than booths, it may have been a bit tighter. However, it was comfortable with the lighting creating a nice soft glow. Yet, it wasn’t so dark that you couldn’t read the menu. Also, from what I can recall, I believe the space has been slightly revamped with new paint and art on the walls.

But, onto the food because, really, the most important thing about eating out is how the dishes stack up and I have to say that I give the restaurant a 7 out of 10 for what we managed to fit into our bellies that night.

The server started us off with a basket of mini cheese buns, which were soft and warm enough that the butter immediately melted upon contact. It is often said that the bread at the start of a meal can tell you a lot about how the rest of the food is going to be, and those little carb-loaded buns were a good sign.

Cheese buns...more, please?

Cheese buns…more, please?

The bread was followed by an appetizer of gnocchi fondue. The actual fondue is made of Fontina cheese and white wine, so it is a bit strong, but paired with the pan fried gnocchi (I’d say equal in quality to David Burke Townhouse and South Gate, both in NYC and both scrumptious), asparagus and prosciutto wrapped apple, it was a match made in heaven. At first I dipped everything separately just to see how the fondue went with each, but when all the flavours are paired together, that’s when you get the best results. The tartness of the apple with the saltiness of the prosciutto and the slight crispness from the outside of the gnocchi and from the asparagus paired with the Fontina cheese and white wine created nice texture and was absolutely delicious. My only disappointment was that there was a still a bit of fondue left and nothing left to dip in it.

Gnocchi Fondue

Gnocchi Fondue

Once we polished off our appetizer, our main courses arrived shortly after. I had heard good things about their panella, which is really their one and only vegan dish (also celiac friendly), so I decided to give it a go. Basically a square of chickpea polenta cut into two triangles atop a salad of spinach, potatoes, mushrooms, sun dried tomatoes and hazelnuts drizzled with sherry vinegar, it was quite the colourful plate. While it didn’t look like a lot of food, with the chickpeas providing so much protein, and the buns and appetizers that came before, I felt pretty full rather quickly. I did persevere though and for good reason. The chickpea polenta was done nicely – crisp on the outside, but soft on the inside. It had a lot of flavour as well. But, like the appetizer, I felt it was best when I got everything in one bite and was able to taste the palate as a whole. The salad underneath was great; the sherry vinegar added a nice bite to the mix. Overall, I’m not sure that this is a dish that would make me a regular patron, but I was certainly happy with it.

Panella

Panella

My dining partner decided to go with their Select burger. A beef patty with black truffle cheddar, greens, bacon jam (she asked to have this omitted), tomato relish and pickled onion, it sounded like a good choice. Turns out that was the furthest from the truth. The taste wasn’t bad. I had a couple bites and thought it had some nice layers to it, but the patty was not that thick and was definitely overcooked, leaving it rather dry. The fries that accompanied the burger were also overdone. My companion finished the burger despite that. She also mentioned to our server her dissatisfaction with the dish, saying it was as if it was made using a frozen store bought patty rather than fresh ground beef. The server was quite apologetic, leaving to tell the manager our comments and insisting that he would be by to talk to us.

IMAG2244

Select burger…very dry

We still had a few dollars to use up on our Groupon, so we decided to share a dessert. Since we were already stuffed, we wanted something a little lighter, which left us with either their meringue or their lemon tart. Because we couldn’t make up our minds, we left it to our server to make our decision for us. What we got was the lemon tart topped with a strawberry basil salsa. Before tasting the dessert, I had my reservations about it. I’ve never had basil paired with anything sweet before; I’ve always thought of it more as a savoury herb simply because I usually have it in sandwiches or pasta. But, this was quite the surprise. The lemon tart had just the right amount of tang in it with a nice cookie-like bottom balanced out by the sweetness from the strawberry salsa and an interesting hint of basil poking through every so often. In fact, it was so delectable that I wish we had ordered two of them because half (or less than as my friend was unable to put down her fork) just wasn’t enough.

Lemon tart...get your own!

Lemon tart…get your own!

All-in-all, I would say that the outing to Select was well worth it, even more so with the voucher. Just food with no drinks would have cost us $56 plus tax and tip, but the Groupon saved us $25. For two people and three courses, that’s not too bad.

My only qualm with the restaurant was that the manager never did come to speak to us about the entree. Honestly, it seemed like he was avoiding having to deal with the issue by spending about 20 minutes at another table that had ordered a bottle of wine. They never even offered to discount the dish, which is really something they should have done. Perhaps it’s because they saw us as patrons who weren’t spending the full amount, but the fact that the manager didn’t bother to handle a problem in his restaurant is something I’ll remember about the place. Those are the things people think of when they make a decision as to whether or not they’ll be back to dine again.

And, will I be back? Probably. I doubt it will be any time soon, but the satisfaction I got from 3 out of the 4 plates we did like is enough to keep this Edmonton staple in mind.