Edmonton Restaurant Review: Japonais Bistro Omakase Thursday Dinner

Seared Scallops

Around the beginning of December, I was scrolling through my Instagram feed when I came across a post from Japonais Bistro. It was advertising their new Omakase (a Japanese phrase that means “I’ll leave it up to you.”) Thursday Dinner for twenty per cent off with a code to be requested either by direct message or email.

I immediately jumped on the opportunity and, within the day, I had gotten a reply. They provided a code and a copy of the set menus for me to review. There are two options for the dinner. The first is an $80 six-course meal. The second is a $100 seven-course supper that includes an extra Amaebi (sweet shrimp) Sunomono salad and a different steak dish.

I made arrangements with my friend for a double date night in January. Between the choices, the less expensive made the most sense for us. It seemed like more than enough food and, after the discount, it would only be $64 per person, which is reasonable for the number of courses.

Japonais Bistro indicated that there would only be limited omakase spots available every Thursday, so it was recommended to book in advance. I arranged for our evening about six weeks ahead. While that kind of time frame may not be necessary, we were planning around my friend’s birthday. Still, call to reserve because even though they said Thursday is a weekday and it’s slower, the place — located at 11806 Jasper Avenue — was packed when we arrived at 7:45pm. Plus, they will need at least 48 hours notice, if you plan to dine with them for omakase.

Additionally, although the menu is preset and mentions that there are no substitutions, I was told that we could let them know of food allergies upon booking. My friend cannot eat shellfish or avocado, so I made them aware. When we had settled in, the staff already knew about the note and the kitchen arranged to have her scallop course replaced with cod. They were very thorough in ensuring that she would be okay.

Kamo Duck Salad

Beverages were an extra cost. Kirk and I opted to stick to water, but the others grabbed some beers to pair with their meals. Dinner started off with a Kamo Duck Salad. Rather than persimmon and plum, the former was replaced with blackberries. The sweetness of the fruit perfectly balanced with the savoury slices of duck. Atop all of the meat and fruit was a large helping of shungiku greens — these are the stems/leaves of the crown daisy — with mustard and miso-dashi dressing. Sort of prickly and crunchy in texture, the slight bitter taste was reduced by the umami flavour of the accompanying sauce. A very nice and light introduction to our culinary journey.

We received the Seared Scallops next. They were, admittedly, smaller than I expected. Nevertheless, the trio of mollusks were perfectly cooked and wonderfully seared. The meat was tender and could be cut apart with just a fork. These were laid upon a painterly streak of celeriac puree decorated with basil pesto, quinoa and micro greens. Around the rest of the plate were dustings of powdered sesame (excellent when eaten with the scallops). Unique in presentation and taste, it was probably one of my favourite items all night. Thankfully, we were given spoons with this dish so we could scoop up every morsel. My friend’s cod was pretty much served in the same way, just with a cut of cod instead of the scallops. It looked just as appetizing, although I’m glad I didn’t have to carefully pick out fish bones myself.

Chef Choice Fresh Fish Sushi

Following that, we were presented with the first of two sushi plates. This was the Chef Choice Fresh Fish. It came with five pieces, including eel, snapper, yellowtail, bluefin, and amberjack. The eel was quite good in terms of taste and texture. It did have some bones though, so I pricked my lip when bringing the piece to my mouth. I managed to pull out any larger bones and then just ate the rest in a single mouthful. I can usually take or leave snapper as I find it to be too chewy. This one wasn’t bad, but it’s still not something I’d order on my own. The same can be said of this particular amberjack. The yellowtail was a bit smoother and easier to eat. The best, hands down, was the beautiful jewel toned bluefin. I could have devoured a whole plate of that. Each piece of sushi did have a dollop of wasabi placed between the fish and the rice already. It’s the traditional way of serving sushi and I found it manageable, but that may not be everyone’s cup of tea.

Bavette Steak

I suppose the Bavette Steak can be considered the entrée. This was a six ounce cut of sous vide flank steak rested on potato puree and surrounded by a pool of teriyaki demi-glace with dots of black garlic sauce. Even though we were offered utensils, we all insisted we could get away with eating everything using just our chopsticks. In the end, I managed to do it. However, I looked like a child playing with my food as I used the slices of steak to scoop up the creamy potatoes and sauce. Although there was a bit of tendon running through my meat (making it a little harder to bite off pieces at times), the steak was, overall, succulent and I loved how the exterior was crusted and seared. It held in all of the flavour despite being served to us already cut apart.

The Chef Choice Aburi Sushi was definitely where it was at. Give me all of it! Honestly, I was busier taking photos as soon they dropped my plate in front of me and I didn’t listen to what each fish was. However, a few pieces looked to be some sort of torched salmon. Two of them were the Osaka-style pressed sushi. One had a slice of jalapeno and the other had a miso dressing. The three pieces on the other half of the dish were presented more normally, yet with a twist. One was simply seared (unknown fish), the salmon sandwiched in the middle came with silvers of daikon, and the fish in the center of the plate was citrusy with the use of grated yuzu. All of them were excellent examples of the technique utilized by sushi chefs. It doesn’t take a lot to alter what is familiar, but it needs to be done the right way. At Japonais Bistro they know what they’re doing.

Roasted Rice Panna Cotta (Green Tea?)

Completing our meal was the Green Tea and Roasted Rice Panna Cotta. Not totally sure, but they may have changed the flavour of the panna cotta because it wasn’t green and it didn’t have that distinct full-bodied bittersweet taste. I found the amaretto syrup to be quite strong, but it was quickly eaten in the initial bites and after that, I didn’t have enough for the rest. The consistency was also more firm than I prefer and reminded me of a dense tofu. It was alright, but it certainly didn’t live up to their Matcha Crème Brûlée dessert as, quite frankly, nothing else there ever will.

If this post has convinced you to check out Omakase Thursday Dinner at Japonais Bistro, please note that it is required to have a minimum of two orders for the kitchen to even serve this. It won’t be available to a single diner, so definitely gather up a family member, friend or co-worker to go. They’ll be running this menu until the end of February, so there are six more chances to take advantage of this promo. Don’t forget to reach out to them by email or direct message on Instagram for your discount code. For the service as well as the price, amount, and quality of the food, it’s certainly worth it.

Edmonton Event Preview: Vignettes Design Series 2018 & Nuit Blanche

Salvador Dali is hidden in one of the Vignettes rooms.

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to attend the 2018 Vignettes Design Series VIP Gala. It was held inside Edmonton City Centre in the old ATB Branch on the ground floor (next to the 101 Street West Entrance). When we arrived, we found a huge line already snaking across the mall. It seemed that we were in for a less than exclusive event.

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When we finally made it into the Vignettes space, we were each welcomed with a tiny disposable cocktail glass filled with a couple of sips of sangria. After that, all other food (aside from what was available in the Sanctuary room) and drinks required ticket purchases at an additional cost. Needless to say, for a $40 price tag per guest, I wasn’t too impressed with how this event was executed. It became much too packed way too quickly, making it extremely difficult to maneuver around (architecturally, the overall footprint is small).

Mostly, my hope of getting to mix and mingle in-person with the artists that had worked on the individual rooms was dashed. They were much too busy with the hoards of other guests that had also paid to get into this party. While I do understand that the money collected from ticket sales does go back into the creation of future Vignettes events, I would rather that the organizers made it a little more low key. Spend less money on getting a DJ (it’s so hard to talk or hear) and expensive catering and allow people who want a more in-depth experience to get just that.

Still, I don’t want to take away from the creativity of the work or the artists themselves. They did a phenomenal job transforming mundane offices, closets and walls into over a dozen fantastical or modern spaces. My favourites included a hidden bar, a rainforest (designed by a 4th grader and built by her father), a living space that utilized hydroponics (FRESCO Culinary provided snacks!), and The Grand Palastrio where time is questioned.

Thankfully, the Vignettes gallery will be open to the public every Thursday to Saturday for a month starting on Friday, September 28 and running until Saturday, October 27. While it won’t have the same crazy atmosphere of the VIP Gala (if that’s more your thing), tickets are only $15 per person and they will have timed entrances to help mitigate overcrowding. I expect that this setup will give visitors a chance to really engage with what’s in front of them without feeling rushed to move along. If you can fit this into your schedule before it’s gone, I do recommend taking the time to see this.

The Grand Palastrio

The launch of the public gallery for Vignettes also coincides with Nuit Blanche Edmonton 2018. The latter is a free late-night contemporary art party that takes place from 7pm on Saturday, September 29 to 7am on Sunday, September 30. Nuit Blanche is in its second full scale iteration (technically the third year in the city though), and this particular event happens for just the one evening throughout the downtown area. To find out what’s in store for this year’s programming, click here. Vignettes has been incorporated into Nuit Blanche and, based on the ticketing site, it appears as though they will not be charging for entry into that area during Nuit Blanche hours. However, you may want to check with Vignettes in advance just to be sure.

Nuit Blanche is an experience like no other with a lot of volunteers working behind the scenes to get the exhibits up and running (I was one in 2015). Although the weather forecast is looking chilly on Saturday night, venture out! Bundle up in a warm coat with a hat and gloves, and maybe bring a thermos with your favourite hot beverage. Participating works come from artists across the globe, and everyone who attends is bound to discover something that they fall in love with.

Edmonton Happenings: Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids

The stage at The Arden Theatre in St. Albert.

About two weeks ago, I dragged my fiancé to the latest Grownups Read Things They Wrote as Kids (GRTTWaK) event in St. Albert. It was the second one I’d attended. The first was two years before at The Mercury Room in Edmonton. I was, and still am, just a listener though. I’m not sure I’m brave enough to get so personal with a room full of strangers.

My ticket into the event as an attendee.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, the name of the event pretty much speaks for itself. However, to expand, this is essentially a ticketed touring open mic show run by Dan Misener and his wife Jenna. They’ve been doing this since 2007 after a Christmas trip the year before led them on a journey through Jenna’s old diaries and inspired them to gather friends to do the same. It’s now become a podcast hit with recordings made live during dates that are frequently scheduled across the country.

Grownup

Locals in each city they visit sign up to go on stage for about 5 minutes per person to read something from their past. It could be anything from a short story to a poem, or a letter to a class assignment, or something from one’s journal. Those who enroll have to check in with Dan and Jenna before the big day, so they get a sneak peek of what’s to come. Nevertheless, watching Dan react to each person’s share, I could tell he was just as surprised and delighted as the audience was whenever those big “oh my god” moments happened.

Admittedly though, GRTTWaK isn’t my first foray into this world of teenage and childhood artifacts. In fact, I became obsessed with the film Mortified Nation when I saw it on Netflix a few years back (they now have a Netflix series called The Mortified Guide). The premise was pretty much the same. Yet, the founder of Mortified, David Nadelberg, was based out of the United States and launched his similar endeavour in 2002. I loved it so much that I wanted to be the one to bring it north of the border.

Little did I know that Dan Misener already beat me to the punch. It was my friend who introduced me to GRTTWaK, which really doubled my fun when it came to hearing these stories of adolescent horrors, gut wrenching heartbreak, true happiness, etc. that almost everyone can relate to whether or not they realized it when they were younger.

I guess that’s the irony of it. Things always seemed like such a huge deal as kids. We blew things out of proportion and we assumed we were the only ones to be feeling the way we did. More than likely though, our neighbour or our friend was experiencing it, too. It shows us how caught up in ourselves we can become, but I also think that we sometimes have a depth that goes beyond our years. Many of the things people have shared are so insightful and introspective. Others are lighthearted and hilarious.

What I do think is important to remember is that, whatever it is we have in our history, whether it’s good or bad, we’ve come through it. We can look back and learn from our pasts and, hopefully, we can have a chuckle at it as well.

I definitely recommend that if you’re located in Canada, register for the GRTTWaK newsletter. You won’t get a ton of emails. You’ll just be looped in on upcoming events that you can attend. Also, be sure to check out the podcast. It’s available through their website, Spotify, Apple, or Google. While each episode of the Mortified podcast delves deep into the share of a single individual (even doing a follow-up with the reader who provides a bit of extra discussion about their story), GRTTWaK episodes are usually about 25 to 35 minutes long and cover multiple brave souls in one sitting. It can lead to a roller coaster of emotions, but it’s worth the ride.

Check out this GRTTWaK episode, posted on August 27, 2017 where my friend Michelle decided to read an original story she penned about a horse family:

https://art19.com/shows/grownups-read-things-they-wrote-as-kids/episodes/883b32c2-7483-4bb7-8048-7c7c87fd0f9b/embed?theme=light-custom

If you’re interested in hearing an episode from Mortified, listen to this one about Amy, a first generation kid, growing up in America:

https://play.prx.org/e?uf=http:%2F%2Ffeeds.getmortified.com%2FMortifiedPod&gs=_blank&sp=all

Edmonton Happenings: Streetcar Shows Edmonton

Singer Ken Stead performs for us atop the High Level Bridge.

Streetcar Shows Edmonton has been chugging along since 2013. Founded by Tad Hargrave and Zizi Lievers with Peter Seal hosting and photographing events, it’s probably one of the city’s true gems. These are intimate concert experiences taking place on electric streetcars run by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. I’ve been registered to their mailing list — currently closed on their site, so check their Twitter page or join their Facebook group for updates — for two or three years now, but I always found it difficult to get my hands on tickets. By the time I’d read the newsletter and linked over to Eventbrite, the 32 spots would already be sold out.

The streetcar being prepped for our trip across the High Level Bridge.

This year, I happened to sign into my webmail account at just the right moment and I snagged two tickets for the inaugural show of the 2018 season. I was ecstatic to finally be going to a Streetcar concert. Taking place last Thursday, May 17, we arrived at the train platform located behind the ATB Financial Arts Barn in Old Strathcona about 15 minutes prior to embarking. Peter checked our names off of his list and we waited until we were told to climb on. NOTE: There are no washrooms on board. If needed, make sure to use the one in the barn beforehand.

Ernie, one of the drivers of the streetcar, gave us a history lesson.

The restored streetcar had two drivers for the night, but Ernie was our guide. He gave us a little bit of a history lesson as the vehicle made it’s way down the tracks towards the middle of the High Level Bridge. Moving along, Edmonton’s downtown skyline eventually game into view. Once we’d come to a full stop, Peter introduced our performer of the evening, Ken Stead. While he sang (and joked), the river and traffic flowed quietly beneath us as we basked in the slowly setting sun.

 

Ken Stead, born and raised in Edmonton, and now residing in Calgary, has a soulful voice. Despite living in Canada, his Irish-Scottish background seems to come out, in the form of a slight lilt, when he speaks. He flipped between his own original songs and covers that ranged from Foy Vance to Bill Withers, fully encompassing the persona of a down-to-earth folk-rock artist.

 

Lasting about 45 minutes, the first half of the show went by quickly. The streetcar then trundled northward towards the other side of the High Level Bridge. We were supposed to take a break at the stop directly across the street from the Legislature Building, but the driver overshot it, and we ended up going all the way to the Grandin Station terminal. There, we were able to get off and stretch our legs while the musical equipment was shifted to the other end of the streetcar. The backrests of all the seats were flipped to face the opposite direction, allowing passengers to be seated again in the direction of travel. It also gave all of the riders an opportunity to be closer to the show as those who previously sat at the front were now at the rear of the train.

Out on the bridge once more, we were treated to another 45 minute set. Being above the water, it started to get chilly as the darkness fell, but the close quarters and the music helped to warm me to my soul. As we returned south, we came to a surprise standstill in a heavily graffitied tunnel for one final (sing-along) song. It sounds like this is something they do at every show, but I won’t give every single detail away. All I can say is that it makes for a special moment.

Inside the tunnel at the end of the night.

Two hours after our departure, we found ourselves back where we started our musical journey. It’s definitely a night that neither my fiancé or I will ever forget. It was so much fun, and I’m already itching to go to second Streetcar Show as soon as possible. Haven’t been yet? I urge everyone to follow their pages. You may luck out and catch a post about tickets in the nick of time.

Edmonton Happenings: MINBID MINBattle 2018 Launch Party & Art Battle

Co-founder of MINBID, Michel Côté, was one of the artists drawn to participate.

From what I know, MINBID (short for Minimum Bid) has existed for at least 5 years in the underground art scene of Edmonton. The collective began as a gathering of local creators; it gave them an outlet to share work with their peers and the public. The showings doubled as auction events, too, providing a way for artists to gauge the value of their pieces based on the highest bid received.

The banner ad for their 2018 MINBattle.

One of the things that MINBID has become known for is their annual MINBattle. Friday, May 11 marked the launch of the 2018 series and my initial visit to one of their functions. Kicking off at Vacancy Hall (103 Avenue and 104 Street), sixteen artists registered, but only eight had the opportunity to compete through a lottery draw. There were two rounds of four contestants. Each person had an hour to complete a 24 inch x 24 inch canvas.

Audience members voted with tickets stubs dropped into each artist’s bucket. Bids for the finished pieces could also be placed on the cards.

A group of three to four judges circled the room as they all painted. Audience members even got to partake in the judging process with ticket stubs to be deposited as a vote towards their favourite in both rounds. Plus, all of the pieces were up for auction with bidding starting at $50 and going up in increments of $10. The selling price would count in the final tally of each artist’s score as well. Whoever prevailed in each round (we didn’t stay for the announcement of the winners) will move on to the final MINBattle later this summer.

Co-founder Darren Bolz DJ’d throughout the evening.

Speaking to Darren Bolz, one of the co-founders of MINBID and the evening’s DJ, we found out that this is the first time they’ve used this particular format. Usually they’ve only had two artists battle head-to-head on any given night. This year, they thought they’d change things up, bringing in multiple artists at a time with the top two at each battle duking it out in a huge showdown later this year.

For the launch event, the ticket price was $25 plus fees in advance through their website or Eventbrite. At the door, the cost was $30. Although notes on the Eventbrite page said the cost covers gallery membership, it’s not like buyers receive a card or anything. Ultimately, the money simply covers entrance and the open bar.

Bartender for the night was Christopher Hughes.

Speaking of the bar, it could have been a little more diverse. There were only four drinks available, which I realize is essential to keeping things easy for the organizers, especially in a space that isn’t equipped for bar service. However, the options were so-so, and there was only one non-alcoholic choice. It was a PC brand watermelon soda that was sweet. I think offering just a simple cup or bottle of water would have been appreciated. Not everyone wants something carbonated and sugary to drink. Water would have been a nice alternative to help cool off in the warm space.

The lighting in the space is dim to create a non-intimidating vibe for the artists, allowing them to work without feeling too exposed.

They also struggled a bit with lighting in the basement of the Mercer Warehouse. In order to keep the vibe, the lighting has to be relatively dim. Nevertheless, it’s equally as important to allow enough brightness for the artists, which means there’s a balancing act that’s required. Being that this is a nighttime event, the place emptied out quite a bit by the second round. Yes, it’s unfortunate that people didn’t stick around to watch it all unfold. But, if I’m being honest, I was happy for the extra breathing room.

The participating artists were allowed to paint whatever they wanted within the allotted time, leaving it open ended. Still, if they haven’t already done this in the past, I think it could be very interesting to see them paint to a specified theme. It’d add another dimension to the competition. Additionally, for those not already in the Edmonton art industry and who didn’t know the competitors personally, it would have been beneficial for the emcee to announce the names of the artists before they started each battle

There was only one person, Peter Gegolick, who blatantly advertised himself and had a sort of “I don’t give a shit” attitude as he painted while wearing sunglasses. He actually had a finished piece of art already hanging on the gallery wall with an asking minimum bid of $700 (his battle piece could have been purchased for less than $100). The rest of them were pretty low key. While their first names were listed on the bidding cards, their last names weren’t always there, so it was otherwise hard to follow-up on some of the artists after the fact.

Another piece from Michel Côté was hanging in the MINBID gallery for sale.

I understand that one of the goals of these parties is to assist artists in determining how their work should be priced. It’s a bit of a catch-22 to do that though. I mean, it’s entirely reliant upon the audience that shows up. If there are people with the income and they happen to like the work they see, there’s a chance that a piece will go for much more. But, based on this particular event, I’d say it was mostly a youthful crowd that didn’t necessarily have the money to burn. Most didn’t seem willing to shell out the extra cash after what they spent on the actual event ticket.

The 2016 MIN Royale breakdown.

Maybe I’m wrong and it was an anomaly, or maybe they simply didn’t like what they saw. Either way, this aspect kept the number of bids to a minimum and kept the overall price of the bids low with most going for under $100. For comparison, I looked at how much battle auction pieces went for back in 2016. Of the 30 creations born out of MINBattle events, a dozen sold for over $150. That included one from my favourite artist of the 2018 launch night, Reece Schulte, that went for a cool $450.

I loved his dynamic Edmonton skyline piece so much that I put a couple of bids on it to the tune of $90 (this was a total steal). I left my name and number on the bidding card and walked away. Since the art is still wet on the evening of the event, they just phone or text the winning bidder to make arrangements for pickup and payment (either cash or credit is accepted) over the following week. Sadly, I didn’t end up hearing from MINBID by the end of the weekend, so I assumed someone else swooped in at the last second to snag it. Then, to my surprise, I received a message on Monday afternoon. It turns out that the person who outbid me couldn’t be reached, so it went to the next highest bidder! I’m super excited to add Reece’s work to my modest art collection.

Aside from the late start (listed as 9:00pm, yet didn’t truly begin until 10:30pm) and the crowdedness of the venue during the first round of the evening, my fiancé and I left with an awesome appreciation of what MINBID and MINBattle had to offer. Sure, I initially felt a little out of place. The majority of the other attendees came across as younger and artsier than me.

Nonetheless, MINBattle certainly made for a different kind of date night where we got to experience something new to us. We had some drinks, danced to music, mingled with the artists, and watched canvases come to life. What I like best is that it’s an excellent way to potentially find and buy art for an affordable price.

The next MINBattle event date is still to be determined. Make sure to sign up for their newsletter through the MINBID website to be kept in the loop. In the meantime, think about attending their Udell X & MINBID Collaboration (buy tickets here). Two parties will take place at the Udell Xhibitions Gallery (103 Avenue and 124 Street) on June 22 and 23. Any art aficionado won’t be disappointed. I know that we’re definitely looking forward to our second outing.

UX MB Art Xhibition + Auction