Edmonton Restaurant Review: Blaze Pizza (Brewery District)

Worked my way through my White Top pizza.

On a whim, my boyfriend and I decided to pop over to the Brewery District last month. We were both hungry, so we opted to try Blaze Pizza for lunch. Similar to Edmonton’s own Urbano Pizza Co. or LOVEPIZZA, this Californian chain of franchises started infiltrating the city with their version of the build your own pizza process back in the spring of 2016 on the north side. Just a little over a year later, two more have risen. This location in the west end and another at South Common.

I’m going to assume that the three shops are relatively the same in terms of quality. From what I gathered on the Blaze Pizza website, franchisees are expected to sign on to develop a market area, so it’s very likely that all of the current spots in the city actually share the same ownership. Plus, with standardization across a chain, it should be expected that dining at one is equivalent to eating at another. In that case, I have to say that, going forward, my expectations will be relatively high.

When we arrived at Blaze Pizza, it wasn’t too busy (the line picked up five minutes later), so the first staff member we encountered was able to explain the whole process to us. Instead of creating our pies from scratch, we both chose to go with their signature pizzas ($11.65 each) — BBQ Chicken for him and White Top for me — supplementing our very own unlimited customizations as we saw fit.

I enjoyed watching them prep the balls of dough with a pressing machine that flattened them into a thin base. The dough was then transferred onto a wooden board that made its way down the assembly line. It begins with the sauces, then moves to the cheeses, followed by the meats, and then the final toppings. At that point, the board is handed over to the “pizzasmith” who slides the pie into the oven. The three minutes it takes to cook is when payment is processed. After that, either find a table and come back to grab the pizza, or wait by the prep area next to the oven for it to be done.

There seemed to be somewhat of a bottleneck during the baking of our pizzas because it took longer than 180 seconds for them to come out. When they’re fetched from the oven, they are placed onto a pan, sliced and then finished off with any last sauces or toppings. I had to ask for the pesto drizzle and I also had to remind the employee to put my arugula on before he handed it to me (I was informed earlier that those greens were placed on at the end to avoid wilting from the heat). My boyfriend’s pizza took another few minutes.

Initial impressions for me: 1) thin, foldable crust; 2) a tad too crispy on the bottom and edges, but still had a nice chew in the middle; 3) flavourful; and 4) plenty of different toppings. I never did sample the BBQ Chicken pizza, but the White Top was made with white cream sauce, mozzarella cheese, applewood bacon, chopped garlic, oregano, and arugula. Personally, on its own, I don’t think the toppings would have sufficed. The staff were kind of skimpy with those ingredients. Thankfully, I had garlic pesto sauce, grilled chicken, artichokes, zucchini, and goat cheese added to the mix, which helped to fill it out.

For the most part, our experience at Blaze Pizza turned out to be a good one. I’m not yet sure if it’s the best pie joint in the build your own pizza realm, but it’s certainly decent enough for the price.

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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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Fionn MacCool’s

The bar at Fionn MacCool’s in west Edmonton.

Fionn MacCool’s has been one of my go-to lunch places for the last few years. Working in Edmonton’s core, the downtown location at City Centre has become an easy choice. There have also been the occasional visits there prior to Paint Nite events. My boyfriend has enjoyed their affordable brunch selections, and I love their Chicken Fettuccini with its atypical, but tasty lemon-cream sauce. In the past, I also swore by their Beet Hummus and Tandoori Chicken Sandwich; however, the newest iterations of the menu have been pared down with several of my favourites now removed.

The dining room of the west end location of Fionn MacCool’s.

Therefore, when I received some coupons in the mail recently, I felt inclined to stop by once more. This time, my boyfriend and I opted to try out the west end venue. We arrived early in the afternoon where we seated ourselves in the dining room. It’s a clean space that’s decorated to look like every other Irish pub: dark woods, patterned upholstery, and vintage lighting. The plus is that this building has lots of windows, so it’s brightly lit during the daytime, unlike the dimness of the downtown Fionn MacCool’s.

Warm Spinach & Artichoke Dip

After spending some time reviewing the options, we decided on the Warm Spinach & Artichoke Dip ($12.50) as a shared appetizer. The notes on the menu indicated that the dip was freshly prepared in-house, and while that may be the case, it did remind me a lot of what I might buy from Costco. Also, it was surprisingly hot to the touch as it must have been baked with additional cheese on top. A tad greasy because of that, it was still good, yet it wasn’t necessarily special. The tortilla chips were fine, although maybe a bit oily as well. Regardless, we took the leftovers home to use the spread as a topping for our homemade turkey burgers, which turned out to be delicious.

Double-Stacked Cod-Wich

For his main, my boyfriend chose the Double-Stacked Cod-Wich ($15.95). The buttermilk-breaded fish was indeed crispy. That would be okay, but the exterior turned out to be too crunchy and the cod slightly overcooked. We also thought that the breading wasn’t quite right to go with the fish as the seasoning used was strong. It felt like it was meant to go with chicken instead of the more delicate nature of the white cod. On a positive note, the ACE Bakery bun used was the perfect density, and it held up well throughout. I also really enjoyed the thick cut fries that came with the sandwich; they were super fluffy on the inside and not completely crisp on the outside, and, personally, I don’t mind that.

Butter Chicken Boxty with Caesar Salad

When it came to my own entrée, I selected something new for me: the Butter Chicken Boxty ($15.50). This dish consists of a large, rolled potato pancake filled with chicken and onions in a thick curry sauce. Mildly spicy, it packed a lot of flavour. The sauteed onions were tender and the chicken was supple. For my side, I went with the Caesar salad. This was nothing out of the ordinary. It was just a really decent version with a good amount dressing to coat the lettuce.

The more I go there, the more I learn what to stick to and what I should probably avoid. Despite improvements that can be made, I have found that Fionn MacCool’s is usually pretty dependable for a standard pub meal. As such, I’ll continue to dine there. If not for the food and friendly service, definitely for the convenience.

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 Review: Grandin Fish ‘n’ Chips

The letter board menus on display at the entrance of the restaurant.

Grandin Fish ‘n’ Chips has been on my radar since they opened in early spring of this year. As the sister restaurant to The Common, located just next door, the concept couldn’t be more different from the older gastro-lounge in terms of style. Rather than elevated comfort food, the seafood laden sibling leans heavily on the idea of traditional London street fare served in a fast-casual setting.

When I went for dinner in mid-August, I noticed that the entrance of the shop places the customer right at the counter where the menu is laid out across three letter boards. My friend, who had been there before, thought we would have to order at the front. But, a sign indicated we could seat ourselves, and one of the servers came by with a couple of menus as soon as we had settled in at our table.

I quite like the space. The design incorporates an understated look with a lot of natural wood throughout, vintage lighting and nautical rope accents. Yet, the bold navy and white colour scheme does add some punch. I especially love the wallpaper, which was illustrated by local tattoo artist Heath Smith. His images really tie the ocean and prairie elements together in a unique and creative way (my personal favourites are: the half horse, half mermaid and the whale with the barn on its back).

Atmosphere aside, I have to say that narrowing down my choices on the menu was a difficult task. I really wanted to try as much as possible. While I did get to sample my dining companion’s Haddock & Chips ($14), I wasn’t able to split much more with her. Because of her shellfish allergies, the only thing I could share was my bowl of Fried Brussel Sprout Bubble & Squeak ($5). We didn’t want to chance her having a reaction to anything else. Therefore, when it came to eating my half order of the Seafood Chowder & Cheddar Biscuit ($8) and the Fried Escargots & Tartar Sauce ($9), I was on my own.

After we ordered our dishes, they arrived pretty quickly. I suppose there isn’t a whole lot of prep time required when the majority of the food served is fried in some form or another. However, I would like to note that there are three ways to enjoy the fish: classic, gluten free (still breaded), or pan-fried (the lighter of the trio).

The Haddock was cooked with a classic crisp batter. The filet itself was quite large, spanning the entirety of the plate it came on. It seems like Grandin Fish ‘n’ Chips doesn’t really offer the option to add extra pieces of fish, and I could see why. It isn’t necessary when the first portion is already so large. Accompanying the haddock was a bed of Kennebec chips, coleslaw, a small cup of tartar sauce and a lemon wedge. The meat refrained from being greasy; it was succulent, flaky and pulled apart easily with a fork. I always like the zest of citrus juice cutting through the fish, and the tartar sauce they provided gave it some savouriness. The chips (fresh cut fries) consisted of large, evenly cut strips of potato with a crunchy exterior and fluffy center. Even without any dip or seasoning applied, they were delicious. I found the coleslaw to be pretty good as well. The cabbage and carrots were lightly dressed, so the texture of the veggies weren’t hindered at all.

Half order of the Seafood Chowder & Cheddar Biscuit

With my trio of plates delivered at the same time, I had to assess what would be best to eat first. The obvious choice was the small bowl of Seafood Chowder as I didn’t want that to get too cold. A half size Cheddar Biscuit with a generous helping of butter was served on the side. The cheddar biscuit lost its warmth quickly and came across as a tad dry and salty. Because of the latter characteristic, I probably should have avoided dipping pieces in the soup and applying the butter, but both of those, at the very least, helped to moisten the baked good a bit. The chowder seemed to congeal rather quickly as well. Although, once I stirred it up, the subtle soup became thick and creamy. Also, for the size of the cup, there was a lot more seafood than I expected; about three or four mussels along with cuts of fish filled the bowl. They paired so well with the soup base.

I alternated between the rest of my food, taking an escargot here and a sprout there. The escargot was pretty lightly battered in tempura and, again, didn’t seem greasy despite being fried. They were tossed over the same tartar sauce as the fish & chips, giving my taste buds a kick. My one dislike when it comes to eating snails is that sometimes they can have a gritty, sandy texture. Out of the whole batch in this dish, there was only one that ended up falling into that category. The remaining dozen or so were ever so slightly chewy (as they are), but still tender. Mostly, I think the price is more than reasonable for the quantity. Additionally, they did not get at all soggy as they sat there throughout the meal. The Fried Brussel Sprout Bubble & Squeak is actually a combination of deep fried Brussels sprouts, potatoes, turnips and onions. They’re heavily flavoured and have a little crispness. Wonderfully tasty during the initial mouthfuls, both dishes resulted in salt overload by the time I was finished.

Walterdale Pudding

That feeling was the perfect excuse to cleanse my palate with a dessert. I opted for the Walterdale pudding ($7), the latest offering on the menu. Served in a stemless wine glass, it’s supposed to be comprised of grapefruit, pistachio, marshmallow, and coconut ice cream. On this occasion, it was modified to include both orange and grapefruit slices. The two together helped to offset any potential bitterness from the latter. The rest of the ingredients were layered throughout. I’d note, too, contrary to how the ingredients may be read, the ice cream is not a combination of marshmallow and coconut flavouring. It is, in fact, fresh marshmallow pieces with dollops of coconut ice cream (an example of the importance of the oxford comma). I could have done with a few less marshmallows as they were quite sugary, and I would have preferred more ice cream instead. Regardless, each spoonful was different, and overall, it was a refreshing way to finish off a summer dinner.

Before we left, the server who put our payments through asked me about the photos I was taking. I was honest about being a blogger and planning to review the restaurant. She was very sweet and started talking about following more of the local writers on social media, and she wished us a good evening as we departed. I do believe that Grandin Fish ‘n’ Chips is filling a niche market in the city. Other than some eateries and Irish pubs that happen to serve fish & chips, there aren’t a whole lot of alternatives when it comes to seafood done casually. Admittedly, I wasn’t all that enthralled with my choices after realizing just how much of each dish I was working through. Over the duration of the meal, the flavours melded and turned one note. On the other hand, I do think that this is truly a place where sharing multiple plates with several people is the way to go. With a large variety and less of each item, every bite will pop that much more.