Edmonton Restaurant Review: Elm Cafe

The patio space outside Elm Cafe.

Recently, I’ve written pieces about two of Nate Box’s businesses: the established District Cafe at 10011 109 Street and the soon-to-open Salz at 10556 115 Street. He’s had a successful run with smaller eateries that focus on succinct menus made with locally sourced ingredients and products. Having already discussed half of Box’s ventures, this year seemed as good as any to work my way through all four. I still have to pay a visit to Little Brick, but now I can cross Elm Cafe off my list.

In all honesty, for at least two, maybe even three, years now, I’d been sitting on a gift certificate for Elm Cafe. Despite the incentive and my best intentions, I just always forgot to go. I knew that they made some delicious sandwiches though. After all, in the past, I had eaten some of their catering during a TEDx event held at the Citadel Theatre.

The tiny interior of the shop.

Last month, I couldn’t wait any longer. I was adamant about stopping by the shop to pick up some lunch for my family. My boyfriend and I dropped by on a Sunday before noon. It was easy enough to find free street parking on the block. When we walked up to the patio, I noticed a few outdoor tables spaced out nicely. Those spots provide the majority of what seats they have available. In the winter, only a couple of bar stools are to be found inside the cafe for in-house dining. It’s a tiny 200 square foot space with a counter, a kitchen and three staff that have their moves and duties coordinated down to a tee, so as not to stumble over one another.

The day’s menu changes regularly.

Thankfully, there wasn’t anyone waiting behind me to order, so I was able to take a bit of time to decide on what I wanted. The downside to their menu is that it’s regularly updated depending on what’s in stock, so the pizza and sandwiches change daily. I knew ahead of time that they offered early sandwiches (they open early at 7:30am to catch the worker bees in the mornings), lunch sandwiches, soup, salad, muffins, scones, cookies, and an assortment of beverages; however, the specifics were to be a surprise.

As I laid eyes on the menu, I took note of the fact that the day’s pizza and one of the lunch sandwiches had already been crossed off the board. Food sells out quickly here, so the best bet for the most choice is to stop in bright and early. Still, there were some good options. I ended up selecting the following to go: Early 1 ($8), Early 2 ($8), Livin la Sous Vide a Loca ($9), a raspberry white chocolate scone ($4), and a salted caramel ($1). The full package added up $30, which was exactly the amount I had to spend.

My order packaged and ready to take home.

Our food took slightly longer than expected as there was a mistake made with my order; however, it was quickly rectified. While the final sandwich was being prepared, I perused the items on the counter. They’ve sourced a handful of products made in Edmonton (teas, cordials and caramels) as well as craft roasted coffee from Victoria. Eventually, the wait paid off. My goods were bagged up and we were on our way to my parents for lunchtime.

As soon as we got to their house, I unpacked everything and plated the sandwiches. First off, I’ll just say that they did not make for the most photogenic dish; they looked like all bun and no filling. But, hopefully, the images here do them some justice. We split the three sandwiches into quarters for us to share. In spite of their large size, I’m not sure that was truly enough to feed four grown adults. The bread also wasn’t our favourite due to the texture. Regardless, they were decent, especially when it came to overall flavour.

Early 2: cauliflower, egg, crispy onions, greens, chili mayo, and cheese sauce.

I’ll begin with the Early 2. This was a cauliflower and egg sandwich with chili mayo, cheese sauce, crispy onions, and greens. I would have liked more egg for extra protein and for the cauliflower to be more prominent. Yet, this was a much tastier option than I would have expected. The slight bitterness from the arugula was offset by the combo of mayo and cheese, and those crispy onions added texture and saltiness.

Livin la Sou Vide a Loca

Livin la Sous Vide a Loca consisted of turkey, brie, cucumber, pickled onion, arugula, apple jelly, and herb aioli. What a fantastic combination of flavours in this one. This bun was a tad firmer and more toasted than the Early sandwiches, but it worked. The turkey was succulent, there was just a bit of sourness from the pickled onion, and the apple jelly brought in a hint of sweetness. Everything balanced with the creamy brie and the pungent aioli.

Early 1: chicken, egg, roast peppers, lemon, charred green onion, Gouda, and lemon aioli.

My personal favourite turned out to be the Early 1. A chicken sandwich with egg, roast peppers, charred green onion, greens, Gouda, and lemon aioli, this one packed a punch. Savoury with the meat, a little smoky due to the onion’s preparation, and zesty from the lemon, it was somewhat of a revelation. We all enjoyed this one.

Raspberry White Chocolate Scone

To finish off our meal, we split the moist raspberry white chocolate scone. It defied expectations by avoiding the dry quality of some of its counterparts. Even with a crunchy sugar topping, it refrained from being overly sweet. My only suggestion is that they try to spread out the raspberries and chocolate when they lay out the dough to bake because the distribution was quite uneven. I shared my salted caramel with my mom as our final dessert. I’m pretty sure that these are made by Erica Vliegenthart, the head baker at District Cafe, who sells her pies and caramels under the Red Balloon Pie Company name. The caramel was super soft and fresh. I would have happily eaten a dozen on the spot.

Salted Caramels

A meal from Elm Cafe was a long time coming. I’m glad that I finally tried it out. Although we thought there could be minor improvements made to the food, the important thing is it brought my family together for a lovely afternoon. Nate Box’s venues are grounded in the idea of community, and I think that he and his team are definitely succeeding in that respect.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Brewsters

Tuna Burger with Tater Tots and the Blue Bison Burger in the background.

I regularly find myself scrolling through Instagram. As I work my way down the feed, I like and save posts that I want to remember. One such image showcased the featured ‘Worship the Burger’ menu that Brewsters offered until the end of September. Until then, I’d never dined at one of their restaurants nor had I planned to any time soon. Alas, photos of the Tuna Burger couldn’t be ignored. I made it a point of dragging my boyfriend to the Summerside location before it was too late.

The merchandise case had some fun branded products.

Walking into the doors, we were greeted by a wall of Brewsters merchandise and signage that indicated we could seat ourselves wherever we liked. We opted to sit in the lounge. There, we perched at a bar table by the windows that overlooked the patio. It’s pretty standard looking in terms of typical pub-like chains; roomy enough to get around the tables while still maintaining a variety of seating options to accommodate different sizes of groups. The bar is a good length with a few TVs in view as well.

Once we had settled in, our server came over to let us know of any specials before going to grab us some glasses of water. When she came back, we were ready to order. My boyfriend chose to go with the Blue Bison Burger ($17.99) and I stuck with my decision to try the Tuna Burger ($17.99).

Blue Bison Burger with Fries

As expected on a quiet afternoon, the wait for our food wasn’t too long. Although, the Blue Bison Burger showed up on a scalding hot plate, which was a sign that it had likely been sitting under a heat lamp to be kept warm. Still, the side of fries had a crispy exterior that gave way to a fluffy middle. They were quite delicious. The burger, on the other hand, was disappointingly made with a prefab bison patty. The free-range meat was packed too tightly to be considered remotely fresh. Despite that, it wasn’t completely dry after the cooking process. All too often, lean bison can lose it’s juiciness easily. This was surprisingly more succulent than I expected. Topped with smoked Gorgonzola, chipotle ketchup, mayo, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, and dill pickle, I thought it was quite flavourful. Smoky with some funk from the cheese, it was a decent balance of what could otherwise be strong or overwhelming profiles; however, my boyfriend would have preferred more of the Gorgonzola.

Sesame seed crusted seared Ahi tuna steak!

I’ve had my share of Ahi tuna burgers over the years. Many of them have been amazing, so it would take a lot to impress me here. Admittedly, the first thing that crossed my mind when I looked at Brewsters’ Tuna Burger was that it was too high to fit in my mouth. The slab of seared tuna was thick to begin with. Stacking it with four large wonton chips and a mound of green pea shoots made it even taller. For fear of having the roof of my mouth butchered by the corners of those crisps, I elected to remove them before I proceeded to eat. To be honest, the initial bites were a bit of a let down. The tuna seemed to be overcooked. My boyfriend sampled it and said it tasted like he was eating a salad in a bun as there were so many greens. Yet, as I kept at it, the rest of the sesame seed crusted Ahi tuna steak was found to be more than adequate; the fish was nicely seared on the edges as it remained raw in the middle. The flavours also improved, especially when I made sure to take mouthfuls of the tuna alongside the wasabi tartar sauce layered wonton crisps. Minimal amounts of the pickled green pea shoots helped, too. The chips were actually quite thin, so they were easy to break and less likely to scrape the insides of my mouth than I originally thought. In hind sight, it may have been fine to leave the wontons in my burger, but better safe than sorry. Overall, this was again a good balance. It veered towards being a healthier option than the other burgers on the ‘Worship’ menu. Well, healthy insofar as the tuna, lettuce, and shoots. Not so much when it came to the side of Cajun spiced tater tots drizzled in a hot sauce and sprinkled with green onion. As full as I was, I managed to polish the skillet of tater tots clean.

I kind of want this polka dot hat.

When it came down to it, I’d say that our experience was mixed. The Blue Bison Burger left something to be desired even though my meal turned out to be great. The service we received was friendly, if a tad slow when we wanted to pay our bill at the end. Brewsters certainly isn’t at the top of my list of places to revisit soon, but I’m not completely deterred either. Now that we know that their burgers aren’t hand-pressed using fresh ground meat, we can avoid those menu items and try something else next time. Live and learn, right?

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Stone & Wheel Pizzeria

Gooey, cheesy pizza!

The Stone & Wheel Pizzeria is easy to miss. But, I’d bought a Groupon on a whim as an excuse to try a new place, and my boyfriend and I went in search of it. We showed up at the eatery on a Sunday afternoon to find that it’s a tiny spot with just four seats.

No one greeted us. We simply waited. While we hung around the till, I pulled a menu off of the clipboard that was hanging from the kitchen’s glass partition, and the two of us reviewed the options.

Eventually, the woman working that shift came out from the back and offered to take our order. We needed a couple more minutes though. She went back to busying herself prepping some shredded cheese before returning to help us.

Our choice was the large (14 inch) Garlic Chicken house pizza ($21). Our voucher covered everything except the taxes on the bill. We were short on coins, and she wasn’t able to provide change on a larger bill, so the woman graciously told us not to worry about the difference. Feeling bad about it, we decided to pop into Square 1 Coffee, a roomy cafe, that was situated next door.

The two establishments actually share the same owner. Therefore, purchasing a cinnamon knot (delicious, by the way) from the cafe really ended up benefiting the same people. Regardless, we had been told that the pizza would take about 15 to 20 minutes to prepare. As such, we chose to bide our time on a comfy couch in the coffee shop.

The interior of the establishment.

When we returned to the parlour, our order was nearly done. As the woman readied everything, we let her know of our appreciation by dropping off a tip. It was the least we could do considering she let us off on the GST earlier. Honestly, I think it put a skip in her step because she was extra nice to us the rest of the time we remained there. Once our pizza was finished baking, she asked if we were staying or going. Since we opted to eat in, she sliced up the pie, put it into a to go box (in case of leftovers), got us some paper plates, napkins, and a serving utensil, so we could dig right in.

The Garlic Pizza is a combination of white cream sauce, roasted chicken breast, bacon, mushrooms, roasted garlic, feta, and mozzarella cheese on a soft, puffy crust. A bit crispy on the bottom, but fluffy on top, it was my idea of the perfect pizza dough. Best of all, The Stone & Wheel Pizzeria did not skimp on the toppings or the cheese. Sure, it was a somewhat greasy, likely due to the latter ingredient. Yet, every inch, almost to the very edge, was covered with something tasty; the practice of skipping the crust as is so often the case with other pizza joints need not be repeated here. I devoured my portions completely, and after just two slices per person, we were both full.

We tossed out our used plates, returned the cutlery, and packed up our remaining food to take home.

Overall, I’d say that our experience was alright. At first, the service almost seemed to border on disdain towards the customer; however, as we stuck around, the demeanor of the employee got better. Well, she treated us nicer.

Still, the business could work on further training of their front of house. While we ate, we witnessed a family of four or five people who tried to come in for lunch. Instead of welcoming them in, the woman simply told them that the cafe was around the corner. She didn’t even fathom asking if she could get them a pizza. As they left, we overheard the mother tell her children that she’d find them a spot to eat their pizza, so clearly that’s what they had come for. If I was the face of the business, I would have checked with Square 1 Coffee to see if a table was available there. Then I would have arranged to have the family pick up their pizza to eat over at the cafe. It would have been a quick solution to their lack of dining space, and it would have shown that they cared about their potential patrons.

Putting all that aside, the pizza itself was fantastic. For that alone, I’d return to The Stone & Wheel Pizzeria in a heartbeat. For about $20, it’s enough sustenance to provide two filling and flavourful lunches or dinners for a duo. The only thing is, it’s not a place conducive to lingering over a meal, which means I’ll likely just stick to takeout at this location from here on out.

Their logo emblazoned window.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Butternut Tree

Crab Tart

A few years have passed since The Phork opened and closed its doors. The eatery sat on the raised main floor of the Ledgeview Business Centre on 97 Avenue and 110 Street. With panoramic views of Edmonton’s Legislature, the High Level Bridge, and the River Valley, it was a gorgeous location that deserved to be utilized. Yet, to my knowledge, it sat empty until now.

The beginning of September marked the launch of The Butternut Tree and this venue’s chance at a second life. Although it had already been in business for a few weeks, the media event was only held this past Wednesday, and luckily, my boyfriend and I were invited as guests. After weeks of salivating over posts of their food on social media, I was extremely excited to acquaint myself with St. Albert-born Chef-Owner Scott Downey’s menu firsthand.

Arriving at the building, we managed to snag the very last spot in their underground parking lot; however, there is also free parking available at an adjacent Impark lot as well as on the street after 6:00 pm.

Making our way up to the lobby, the entrance to the restaurant is marked by simple signage over a glass door. As soon as the threshold is crossed, there’s a host to greet patrons and a view of a handful of the windows that overlook Constable Ezio Faraone Park. As we were led through to our table, I observed the kitchen with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls that give diners a look behind the curtain. There are also only 58 seats in a 2,500 square foot dining room (including an eating area for private parties with its own separate entrance), providing everyone — servers and guests — ample space to breathe and move.

The decor is somewhat sparse. Save for a painting hanging behind the bar at the far end of the room, the rest of the walls were pretty bare. But, when there is such picturesque scenery outside, there isn’t really a need to dot the place with much else. The overall design was a mix of modern and rustic. Grey-brown wide plank floors, accent wood beams, vintage pendant lights, recessed lighting, black wood tables and matching vintage chairs set the mood. It felt somewhat homey while simultaneously coming across as an elevated ambiance. As the sun set, the room dimmed and candlelight took over; it became intimate and romantic despite the echoing din from those around us.

On this occasion, we were given the choice of ordering à la carte or going with their tasting menu. The two of us opted to do the latter. Between the meat and vegetarian versions, many of the individual dishes were covered, albeit in smaller sizes to take into account the multiple courses. Therefore, we had the opportunity to try seven of the twelve plates off of the menu, along with a couple of creations only to be found in the table d’hôte.

To drink, my boyfriend decided to try both of the beers — Farmer’s Daughter Pale Ale and Shotgun Wedding Brown Ale (my personal preference) — from Cochrane’s Half Hitch Brewing Company. I, on the other hand, chose to go with their Sumacade cocktail: sumac spice, lemon verbena, dandelion honey, soda, and Eau Claire Three Point Vodka. This one actually surprised me as the dandelion is what I picked up on the most; it made for a very botanic and floral Kool-Aid flavoured drink.

The pretty and petite amuse bouches.

Our meal then began with a palate prepping amuse bouche each: cured halibut for him and baby corn for me. Off the bat, I noticed how delicately they had been prepared and plated on their custom-made ceramics. They were almost too pretty to eat. After admiring them, we sampled the food. Since the halibut was cured, it was cooked, but it retained that raw fish texture. Paired with tart apple and edible flowers, it was a balance of herbaceousness and zest. The baby corn was tender while still remaining firm. It was covered in a thin layer of sauce and then sprinkled with dried and crushed flowers and salt. It was the perfect way to whet our appetite.

The introductory course on the meat side was the Crab Tart whereby a rye crust was filled with crab in smoked crème fraîche and topped with unripe crab apple and herbs. It was way lighter than I expected. The rye shell was thin enough to imbue a deep, slightly sour flavour without overpowering the taste of the crab and the tart’s decorations. On the vegetarian side, dinner started with a dish of Kohlrabi. The bulbous stem was served as raw shavings in the salad, similar in flavour and texture to radishes and turnips. Just a tad crunchy and spicy as it married itself with the caraway, golden flax, and juniper.

Grilled Bannock

Both of us received the same second course of Grilled Bannock. A quick flat bread traditionally made by First Nations people, The Butternut Tree’s take reminded me of an open-faced English muffin piled high with wild mushrooms, berries, winged kelp, and pumpkin seed. It was probably one of my top dishes of the night even though I found the bannock to be overly charred. Initially, the burnt flavour was overwhelming; however, a couple more bites in and I saw how this seemingly simple plate was layered in a complex way to become earthy, sweet and nutty.

Leaning towards the lighter side of what I considered to be our first entrées were the Miss Tatum Rockfish for my boyfriend and the Broccoli for me. The filet of rockfish was thick as it laid on a bed of Saskatchewan wild rice, beans, and herbs. The finishing touch was a separate cup of kelp broth poured over the bowl before our very eyes. By adding the broth just prior to eating, the kitchen avoided presenting a bowl of wilted greens and flowers. I do wish that the fish had been a bit more supple. Otherwise, it worked well with the produce. As I’m not one to pass up some good pork belly, I really would have liked to experience the Broccoli as listed under the appetizers on their à la carte menu. Alas, the vegetarian rendition of the recipe obviously did away with it. Funnily enough, they kept the duck egg though, and I’m glad they did. The soft boiled egg is the star of the dish. Covered in leek ash, it has a gritty looking texture to it. Yet, the flesh gives way easily to reveal one of the most beautiful runny yolks I’ve ever seen. Combined with pickled garlic scapes (the flower stalks of the garlic bulb) and cereal grains, this was likely my favourite offering of the evening.

Our main dishes took a little longer to prepare. But, eventually, we were rewarded with my dish of Prairie Gardens Squash and his Bentley Bison Duo. I found that as an entrée, the squash wasn’t quite filling enough. I did like seeing the different ways in which the gourds were prepared as well as the use of the squash blossom (a soft, delicate, edible flower that grows from summer and winter squashes). The searing of the wilted spinach was another pleasant flavour profile. When I do go back to The Butternut Tree, I’d certainly be inclined to order the bison duo again. Both cuts of meat were succulent and juicy. Served with lentils, carrot, cauliflower, Saskatoon berry jus and some magical purée, it was heaven on a plate for me.

Last, but never least, was dessert. My boyfriend’s tasting menu finished with the Cherry ice cream with bee pollen atop rolled rye grains. We enjoyed the ice cream, but we both agreed that the rye was way too crunchy and strong in flavour. The Plum: duo of plum fruit with milk ice cream fared much better. Compatibly integrated with an oat crumble and a marshmallowy, sticky honey meringue, this was a sweet ending to die for. As an extra, we gluttonously added on the Ployes Cake from their regular dessert menu. I had seen a photograph of it on their Instagram account, and I didn’t want to leave without trying it. Looking like a stack of pancakes, the dense cake’s taste emanated from the use of maple butter. On its own, it was seemingly bland. The whipped cream, flakes of Alberta rose, nuts and berries helped to give it some depth, but I still wasn’t satisfied. On closer inspection, I think the issue stemmed from the kitchen missing one of the main components: black currant jam. The jam was supposed to be sandwiched between each layer of the cake, and it was clear that it hadn’t been incorporated. I have no doubt that had the jam made an appearance, this would have been an excellent choice.

Regardless of the few minor missteps we came across, this was a top notch meal that would be perfect for a special occasion. Chef Downey has taken what he’s learned from his time working with world-renowned Michelin-starred restaurants Daniel and Noma and applied those teachings to his own take on Canadian cuisine. Along with a phenomenal team, The Butternut Tree’s kitchen has shown us just how talented they truly are when showcasing their creations. I also have to give a huge shout out to the rest of the staff who kept the service running smoothly, and who also spend an inordinate amount of time polishing the silverware as every course comes with a new set of utensils.

The late-summer opening of The Butternut Tree brings another welcome addition to the city’s burgeoning food scene. With a focus on global flavours made using unique ingredients that hail from our very own lands, this new restaurant exhibits a refined menu for those willing to go on a spectacular culinary adventure.

Edmonton Restaurant Preview: Salz

One of the main dishes.

This past weekend, my boyfriend and I attended a Sunday pop-up dinner. In preparation for the anticipated fall opening, owner Nate Box decided to run an event to get Edmonton foodies excited about his latest business, Salz. It will be the youngest sibling to his current trio of eateries — Elm Cafe, District Cafe and Little Brick — and the focus will be on pickles, bratwursts and beer (or, as the logo says: Brine, Bier, Brats).

The meal was presented at District Cafe with chef Allan Suddaby at the helm. For about $20 per person, diners were treated to a starter of pretzels with honey mustard, a main dish of our choice of one sausage with house pickles and German salads, and a dessert of apple strudel. Extra sausage was just $4 for one or $7 for two. Drinks were also an additional charge.

To make the most of our night out, we opted to split all three sausage flavours (Classic, Käsekrainer and Spicy Hungarian) between us by tacking on a second bratwurst to one of our orders. My boyfriend also ordered a pint of the Blindman Saison to pair with his dinner. Box’s plan is to serve German/European-style beers made by local brewers.

While we waited for our entrees, we snacked on the pretzels. These were puffy, but also dense. They had been brushed with a bit of butter or oil on the top and were just a tad salted. The accompanying honey mustard was the perfect dip to go along with them. My only wish is that these had arrived at the table warm. Had they been fresh from the oven, it would have elevated them that much more.

My dinner and my dining companion.

Before we knew it, our sausages were placed in front of us. The plate itself consisted of my Käsekrainer, coleslaw, potato salad, tomatoes with pumpkin seeds, pickled beet and cucumber, macaroni and cheese, and a whole grain mustard. All of the salads were unique, yet each one complimented the others. The coleslaw was fresh, crunchy, and easily, the most subtle of the bunch. The potato salad had a light, creamy dressing and dill sprinkled throughout. My favourite was probably the baby tomatoes with the pumpkin seeds though. The seeds must have been roasted or toasted, giving a smokiness to the sweetly tart tomatoes. I also appreciated their version of mac and cheese. It could have been served hotter as I found that the sauce seemed to have curdled slightly at room temperature. Still, it was packed with cheese, and I couldn’t really complain. Compared to the creamy honey mustard we had with the pretzels, the whole grain mustard, with yellow, brown and black seeds intact, packed quite a punch with a lingering pepperiness. I loved it.

Sausages galore!

Granted, the sausages weren’t super strong in terms of taste, so I could make an argument that too much of the mustard would almost have masked the flavour of the bratwurst. The Käsekrainer was a pork sausage stuffed with Sylvan Star gouda. It fell in the middle in terms of juiciness. The cheese certainly helped it to retain some moisture. It reminded me of when I was younger and I got to eat Mitchell’s cheese smokies. The Spicy Hungarian was a mix of pork and beef, and it happened to be the smallest and driest of the bunch as it must have shrunk during the cooking process. Any expected heat, or hints of pine and citrus from the Szeged hot paprika spice and marjoram herb didn’t really come through. Hands down, the best of the trio was the Classic pork sausage. It was the perfect example of why one shouldn’t mess with a good thing. Succulent and plump, it was truly delicious.

The meal was completed with a dessert of apple strudel and fresh whipped cream. I have to say that I wasn’t all that impressed with it. Mainly, I was not a big fan of the layered filo pastry shell. In this instance, the sheets didn’t flake apart as I assumed it would, and the sugar on the top could have been caramelized more. The whipped cream was divine though.

For the most part, the two of us thoroughly enjoyed the Salz Pop-Up Dinner. I took my time savouring every single bite, and I’d do it all over again. The details of the actual restaurant — location, opening date, hours, menu, etc. — have not been released. I’m hoping all of that information will be presented sooner than later. When it does launch, I think they should stick with the beer hall pricing. They should even have a set menu available like the one we experienced this weekend. Not only was it affordable, but it also gave diners a chance to try a little of everything. I’m wishing Nate Box and his team the best of luck as they prepare for this new addition.