Dorinku, an izakaya serving Tokyo street food, had been on my list of places to visit for at least the past year. So, when my friend was able to meet me for dinner a couple of weeks ago, we took … Continue reading
Last night, Edmonton’s first Hawaiian-inspired poke (pronounced poh-keh) shop opened its doors to the public with a crowd that snaked down the block and around the corner. Splash Poke, located south of Jasper Avenue on 109 Street, is a fast-casual spot to pick up a healthy, quick and customizable meal. Like Blaze Pizza or Amore Pasta, there are a few preset options to choose from, but at the core, it’s very much a build-your-own dish mentality.
I was lucky enough to be invited to the media and blogger preview lunch yesterday afternoon and doubly fortunate to work close enough to make it there during the two hour time frame. When I stepped into the store, I noticed how bright and modern it was. The tropical colour scheme of coral, turquoise and white runs throughout and makes for a cheerful space. It’s not the largest venue though. There are only about five tables and 14 seats total in the whole restaurant, but it feels spacious and laid out in a way that is still comfortable even if the line inside the establishment grows.
Looking at the menu, I had a tough time trying to decide on what to order. Creating my own bowl sounded great, but I really wanted to sample everything. In the end, I decided to go for The Works, one of the Splash Favourites. This includes cubes of salmon and tuna, shoyu sauce, all available mix-ins, toppings (except avocado at a cost of $1.50), garnishes and both the Splash and Sriracha aiolis. The only thing I asked to have omitted was the cilantro.
Knowing that there’s a need to avoid any contamination with the food, I understood why there was a glass barrier built between the prep station and the customers, but it did seem a tad too tall. Sure, I could see everything they were doing, yet it felt like it was more difficult to talk to the staff as they were assembling the bowls. Also, despite there being three people prepping the food, it seemed to take a bit of time. This could be a slight detriment to patrons if they’re expecting to be in and out, especially if they’re seeking something quick during a short break in their workday. Hopefully, with practice, the staff will be able to speed things up. And, they’ll likely have more premade bowls available for pick up in the cooler once they’re operating on a regular schedule.
Going back to my bowl, it was beautifully put together with layers upon layers of ingredients and flavours. However, my initial thought was that it was a tad too salty. I think the crab mix and the shoyu – a soy sauce made of fermented soy bean and wheat – were the main culprits. Next time, I’ll definitely ask that they lighten up on the shoyu. For my base, I had also selected the vermicelli noodles. Although they were the perfect consistency and refrained from being sticky, they didn’t do as good a job of soaking up extra sauce. Rice may prove to be the better bet and also be more filling. On the plus side, I loved that every bite brought a different flavour to my palate. With everything from seaweed salad to corn and panko to jalapenos merged into one dish, there was so much going on with regards to taste and texture that I never knew exactly what to expect as I continued to eat. Most importantly, the fish was exceptionally fresh as well.
Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d opt for The Works bowl again. Yes, it was a great way to try it all in one go. But, ultimately, I now know that there are flavours I preferred. If anything, it’s likely that The Tropical bowl would fit the bill for me with salmon, tuna, scallop, pineapple and mango. I found that the fruit paired really well with the raw fish and was wonderfully refreshing; the sweet natural juices actually helped to balance out any spiciness or saltiness in the sauces.
Personally, I think that Splash Poke would be a good alternative to some of the other nearby dining options. While some may argue that the increase in cost between protein portions is a lot – 1 scoop of protein is $9.95, 2 scoops for $13.95 and 3 scoops for $15.95 – I’d say that it’s pretty reasonable considering the type of meat. If one were to go to a sushi restaurant for sashimi, one piece can work out to almost $2 on average. From what I saw, at least during the preview lunch, the portions were generous here, so it seems with merit for the fish and scallop. The chicken and tofu are another story though.
Before leaving, I spoke with the owner, Angela Wong, to clarify the prices of the Splash Favourites, too. Those bowls are all made with two scoops of protein and, therefore, they do come in at $13.95. When I left I was full and satisfied, so the cost would have been justified by me. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to places like The Chopped Leaf where people are willing to shell out money for food there. Except, I truly believe that what I’m getting at Splash Poke is an elevated product at a comparable price point.
All-in-all, Splash Poke is on the right track. For the shop, it will come down to the quality of service and their ability to keep things as fresh as possible. As long as they deliver on both of those fronts, they’re sure to win over the lunchtime crowd and Edmonton’s downtown dwellers and visitors. Judging by the turnout yesterday evening, it seems that they may have already done so.
RGE RD has been open for about four years now. In that time, it has racked up numerous accolades on both a local and national level. As the spotlight on the restaurant and chef Blair Lebsack grew, so did my yearning to visit. Yet, with me, it’s always the case that I’m late to the party.
After sitting on a gift certificate for almost a whole year, I decided to cash it in when my boyfriend and I celebrated our one-year anniversary together this past weekend. To ensure that we secured a spot during regular dinner hours on a Saturday evening, I made a reservation about two months in advance through RGE RD’s website.
Knowing that the establishment had already been around for quite some time, I’ll admit that I was a bit apprehensive about this being my first experience with them. When there has been so much talk and praise for a chef and their restaurant, it’s easy to buy into the hype. Flashbacks of my dinner at Corso 32 ran through my head and I told myself not to have too high of expectations.
When we arrived, the dining room was nearly full. A couple happened to be leaving as we walked in, thereby opening up a second table, and the hostess was nice enough to let us choose the seats we’d prefer. I opted to take the spot nearest the door as it gave me a peek into the kitchen, provided sightlines of the bar and allowed me to people watch (my boyfriend got to stare at me and a window without a view).
It’s a compact space. I counted about forty seats total, but the website mentions that there are sixty. Perhaps that includes the seating on the other side of the building? Called The Butchery, that area is typically reserved for large groups and private events. Our half of RGE RD was cozy though. With all of my design expertise (thank you, HGTV!), I’d like to call the look ‘Industrial Farmhouse.’ The mishmash of cement walls, natural woods, metal lighting fixtures and sheepskin chair backs really conveyed a modern rustic feel.
I will mention that once we settled in, it seemed to take some time before our server came to check on us. Once she did, however, we received relatively steady service throughout our meal. She provided information on that day’s specials and was able to answer a few questions regarding the menu.
One of my inquiries was about the RGE RD Trip Multi-Course Dinner. Personally, I’d been hoping that it would be possible to order one RD Trip between two people. My thought was that we could split all of those courses and then order more off of the regular menu in an effort to sample their popular plates as well. I figured that was a win-win situation. Much to my chagrin, we were told that everyone at the table must participate in order to do the RD Trip, so my boyfriend caved and adventured with me. For $85 each (price may vary), we received six undisclosed courses that served as a canvas of Canadian-inspired cuisine.
The initial dish consisted of a single plump tomato sitting in tomato sauce with slightly charred bright green furled fiddleheads to accompany it. I’d only ever seen fiddleheads once before while walking around an organic grocery store, so I was surprised to find them here. My boyfriend, who is from New Brunswick where fiddleheads grow wild, was also excited to see them in our bowls. That’s when it clicked in. We were being taken on a culinary journey across the country and that trip started in the Maritimes. This was a small salad to whet our appetites and the lightest thing we ate all evening. I liked the balance of the acidity from the tomato and the slight bitterness from the fiddleheads, which seemed similar in texture to asparagus.
Our second plate was a combination of seared scallop and pork belly presented with garlic emulsion and a slice of cayenne pepper. My boyfriend said his piece of pork belly was amazing; apparently juice literally shot out of the meat when he ate it. I can’t confirm that the same thing happened to me, but it was succulent and smoky with the caramelized fat. I especially loved the scallop as it was firm yet delicate on the teeth with just the right amount of searing on the top and bottom. The garlic emulsion and the hit of heat from the seedless cayenne pepper also played off of the tongue nicely.
Course three was actually my favourite of the night. This was a mushroom risotto with ricotta and cracklings served with semolina bread and sour cherry & sage butter. If done well, risotto can be so delicious and hearty. In this case, the rice was still al dente and the sauce was incredibly creamy and flavourful once the dollop of ricotta cheese was melted in. My boyfriend argued that it would have been made better with added protein, but I was happy to eat it with just the mushrooms as the fleshiness of the fungi felt satisfying enough and the crunch from the cracklings provided a twist to the typical risotto dish. The slices of bread were soft and, although the pink-coloured butter didn’t pack as much of a punch as I hoped it would, I noticed hints of sour cherry with a couple of bites.
The risotto was followed by a plate of duck breast with a cube of duck rillette bread pudding, apple puree and pickled pear. I anticipated that the duck breast would be tenderer, but there was a little more chew to it. Still, it was delicious when combined with morsels of the pickled pear as the sweetly tart taste offset the earthiness of the meat. Rillette is similar to a pate and it was pressed into the bread pudding, creating a savoury version of the dessert that disappeared way too quickly.
Having travelled across Canada during our dinner, it was practically inevitable that our main entrée would utilize bison in an effort to represent RGE RD’s home province of Alberta, and represent they did. We were offered a wrapped bison medallion where one portion of the gamey meat was from the shank and the other was braised. Aside from a couple of small pieces of bone lingering around, I found the meat to be juicy and the braised meat fell apart so easily. Underneath the bison was a mix of sunchokes, potatoes and green beans with eggplant puree as well as some wine reduction swirled around the edge of the plate. Sunchokes are supposed to be fragrant and nutty in flavour, but honestly, I don’t think any were in my dish. Only pieces of potato ended up on my fork as everything was starchy in texture. Granted, I lucked out with the green beans though because my boyfriend said he didn’t get any of those.
Already stuffed, we had one final course to go. Dessert was a dense white chocolate ganache filled buttermilk tart topped with red wine poached pear. The shell was like a cookie base and, oddly enough, it wasn’t too sugary even with the white chocolate middle. The taste of the red wine in the pears really came through and they mostly helped to counter the sweetness. Despite being so full, I sort of wished dessert had been bigger.
Counting the wait time at the start of our evening and the duration of our full meal, we were there for three hours. Now that I’ve completed the RD Trip dinner once and I’ve seen the value (the available bison dish on the a la carte menu is $36 on its own), I’d say that foodies should consider this to be worth the money. Three out of six plates included some sort of protein and most of the portions were quite large in size. In fact, I was actually questioning whether or not I’d manage to finish everything (I did).
I’ll have to go back to try their standards like the questionable bits and the octopus. But, based on the gastronomic voyage we took, it turns out that RGE RD, for the most part, is deserving of the acclaim. While this is not an everyday place to dine, it’s certainly one to keep in mind for a treat or a special occasion.
Opening in February inside the 110-year-old Mercer Building, the walk-in only restaurant (reservations may be accepted for larger groups) seemed to be a huge hit with visitors. Literally located across the street from the new Rogers Arena and well within the heart of Edmonton’s Ice District, this stylish iteration of a Chinese food joint joined the ranks of its more established neighbours, Rostizado and Mercer Tavern.
As per usual, I didn’t make it there immediately. Even though my office is only about a 10 to 15 minute stroll from Baijiu, it wasn’t until early April that I found myself dining there with a great friend that I hadn’t seen in a long while.
On an early evening after work, I headed straight over to the Mercer Building. As I approached the brick facade, I looked up to see the establishment’s name lit up in neon through the second storey window. I went through the main entrance, but I must have been a bit too early because the door to Baijiu’s unit was still locked when I got there.
After a short wait, the host appeared and let me in. Being the first patron for the night allowed me to really absorb my surroundings. The space is long and fairly narrow with tables to one side and bar seating on the other. High windows provide minimal natural lighting that put the focus on the large floral mural on the parallel wall. Bottles that lined the bar were backlit, so that they gave off a minor glow. All of the tables were set with traditional Chinese wares that felt vintage when placed in contrast to framed black and white images of hip hop artists. Old world versus new school was the vibe.
In the few minutes prior to my friend’s arrival, I decided to order the Baijiu Milk Punch. This 2 ounce cocktail (some go up to 3 ounces) consisted of a mix of Black Seal rum, Cremovo, Chinese soy milk, cream, cinnamon & vanilla syrup and pistachio. It packed enough of a punch to provide a reminder that there was alcohol in it, but it was still a smooth drink with a pleasantly nutty and spicy flavour. My friend opted for one of their Mocktails. In this instance, they created some sort of grapefruit agave concoction that was sweet with a hint of tartness and, overall, it was refreshing.
For our meal, we decided to split a few dishes between us. The quickest out of the kitchen was the Red Braised Beef Bao. The plump taco-like buns were folded to hold the slow cooked Pine Haven pork, pickled shallots, cabbage and shaved Brussels sprouts. On top of that was a thick stripe of soy mayo and sprinkles of black sesame seed. With plenty of succulent meat and a variety of texture, these were delicious, if somewhat messy. I should also note that a standard order comes with only three bao. We added a fourth for $5, to make it easier to split the dish.
Item number two was the Lion’s Head Dumplings. These were filled with Pine Haven pork, white shrimp, soy, garlic and cabbage. They were served drizzled with a ginger-soy sauce and white sesame seeds scattered atop. I thought the filling was juicy and the sauce had a good balance between the salt and spice. My only qualm was that I thought the dough wrapper was a tad too thick. Thinning that out would help to better define the taste of the pork and shrimp.
Our trio of share plates was finished with the Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage (it was a toss-up between this and the Korean Brussels Sprouts). This did not disappoint. The combination of confit onion, ginger, egg, soy, chimichurri, dry chili, crunchy shredded cabbage and garlic chips was to die for. I especially loved the heat from the flakes of chili pepper and the crispy garlic chips that truly enhanced what could otherwise have been a pretty blasé dish. What kept it interesting was the fact that there were layers upon layers of flavour with each and every bite.
Instead of calling it a night once those items were polished off, my friend suggested we complete dinner with an order of the Fried Bao Ice Cream Sandwich for dessert. The selection changes, so we asked what was available. The choices that evening were the Cinnamon Toast Crunch or the Cap’n Crunch. Unsure of the one to pick, I asked our server to recommend. Cinnamon Toast Crunch it was.
The ice cream sandwich is a decent size; it’s perfect to split between two people. Remember the bao mentioned previously? Instead of steaming the dough, it is fried until it puffs up like a hamburger bun. Soft on the inside and a deep golden colour with a slightly brittle texture on the outside, the bao is then halved horizontally. Between the two layers was placed a thick slab of cinnamon ice cream with pieces of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal added in for good measure. Sort of like ice cream stuffed into a doughnut, this was a heavenly and indulgent end to the meal.
Surprisingly, Baijiu stayed pretty quiet throughout our time there. Sure, other people showed up by 7pm, but it was by no means full. My worry about it being difficult to get in on any given day without reservations was quashed and I realized that, depending on my schedule, it’ll be easy to pop in whenever I feel the need.
“Baijiu,” in Chinese, actually has a couple of meanings. The exact translation is “white alcohol,” which is quite fitting for a bar. It took me landing on their webpage and reading that Baijiu is pronounced as “Bye Joe” before I clued in to the second connotation of “celebration.” It never occurred to me that the name of the restaurant was this Chinese word I’ve known for so long and that I’ve always associated with the latter definition.
Having dined there now, I can certainly picture Baijiu as a place of gathering and merriment. The food hints at the traditional in terms of presentation, but the flavours are amped up and honed, if that makes any sense. The atmosphere is laid back and, with the venue being so open, it makes it feel very communal. I’d also say that the service we experienced was top notch; the server was incredibly attentive and knowledgeable. On the whole, the owners have done a fantastic job of bringing their vision to life and, as an Edmontonian, I’m more than happy to welcome Baijiu to the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene.
About a month after ALTA opened, I finally had a chance to stop by Ben Staley’s new restaurant. With my friend in tow, we headed over right after work at 4:30pm. It was still early for the dinner service, so a number of the tables were empty.
I informed them of my reservation and they let us choose where we wanted to sit out of the available spots for two. With approximately 24 seats in the whole minimalist space, it’s not big; however, with the food requiring less preparation upon ordering, the turnover can be quick.
As we settled in, our server/chef brought over an open wooden box that housed our utensils, napkins and the menu. It was clear that everything had a place and a purpose. “Alta,” short for Alberta was given a nod with the shape of the menu card, which was folded and cut in a way that conveyed the province’s map outline. These little details are the types of things that should be appreciated because, if handled properly, those factors will make all the difference between an average experience versus one that goes beyond expectations.
The staff were very knowledgeable about the drinks and the dishes available. All of the wines selected are no or low intervention. As such, the flavours of the grapes are brought out more. My companion ordered a glass of the Eric Texier Chat Fou Grenache Blend from France. I had a sip of the red to get a sense of it. I thought it was smooth, slightly dry and likely would match a number of plates. Although, I’m no wine connoisseur and, unless a red wine is extremely dry or bitter, they are all alike to me. My beverage of choice to accompany my meal was a glass of the Antech 2014 Brut Mauzac, a sparkling white wine, that refrained from being overly sweet or carbonated. Rather, it was balanced in flavour and pleasantly effervescent. Both glasses were $10 each for five ounces of alcohol.
Moving back to the food, I should explain that ALTA only serves cold dishes. The only option on the menu that will arrive to the table warm is the freshly baked Sourdough & Cultured Butter. All other items are either pre-cooked, raw or preserved (often a combination of those various forms of preparation) and presented at room temperature. Once assembled by a chef on staff, the chef then brings it over and provides an exceedingly detailed description of what you’re going to eat. While we dined, I tried my best to absorb all of the information I was given. Admittedly, I’m positive I missed some of the finer points as there was so much to learn.
What I did discover is that a cold menu can be quite satisfying. I had my apprehensions about an establishment that wasn’t going have any warm dishes. Yet, the Nordic influence of foraging (in this case, using only local ingredients) and fermenting works here. In the end, we sampled a handful of items. I think the chefs were careful to time out the dishes properly, but for the most part, they were brought out as soon as they were ready.
We began our journey through ALTA’s offerings by nibbling our way through a small bowl of the Malted Hazelnuts. The chef, showing his youth, described them as an adult version of cocoa puffs, which isn’t far off. After what sounds like an arduous and time consuming process of hand peeling the hazelnuts, they are then malted to amplify the taste. These little balls, upon hitting the tongue, have a grittiness on the outside and give off a coffee-like flavour that subsides to a slight saltiness as opposed to an anticipated nutty essence. Like the act of smelling coffee beans between tasters of wine, these seemed to be a great snack to have periodically as a way to refresh the palate.
In my mind, the Salted Pork Belly was going to be prepared in a more traditional way with thick pieces of meat and crisp edges giving way to a buttery level of fat. Of course, after seeing the concept of the establishment in motion, I completely understand that the pork belly would have to be done differently than I’m accustomed to. If served conventionally, without being hot or fried immediately before eating, the pork belly runs the risk of being subpar because it’ll lose its crispiness and become limp (think about bacon that has sat out too long). That’s why the thin slices of cured pork belly made so much sense when I saw them laid out over pieces of crostini that had been covered with walnuts and diced apple that had been cooked in overgrown coriander. The meat looked like delicate, semi-translucent strips of prosciutto. The apples were a little tart and helped to offset any salt from the pork. As a side note, I recommend that these be eaten with utensils. We attempted to devour these as if they were finger food, but the pork belly isn’t the easiest to bite apart with your teeth. If you want to maintain your grace in front of other diners, use a knife and fork.
This was followed by our favourite of the evening, a Lamb Tartare. I’m a sucker for a good beef tartare, and lamb is one of my preferred types of meat. Therefore, to find this uncommon take on a fairly common dish felt like a real treat. Oftentimes, people dislike lamb due to the gamey, earthy flavours often associated with the meat; however, that didn’t come through as I ate it raw. My taste buds really honed in on the salty and savoury taste of the chickpea “miso” that also created a smooth texture typically endowed by the addition of egg yolk in a usual beef tartare dish. Pickled baby peaches added a bit of acidity and dried flowers sprinkled over the meat supplied extra texture and a floral aroma. Served with the lamb was a bowl of house made potato chips. Unfortunately, I thought the chips were a tad too greasy. What I did love about the lamb tartare was that all of the components combined created a zestiness that couldn’t be duplicated by any single ingredient in the recipe. I think it goes to show that each element that went into the dish is needed in order to produce something entirely innovative.
After polishing off the two heftier plates of food, we decided that we had room for another main, so we opted to split the Salmon. This was an excellent choice and highly recommended if one is hoping for a lighter meal that gratifies. Not only was this a beautifully composed dish ─ the sauce was gorgeous in colour and provided visual appeal ─ it was one that introduced a new method of preparing cucumber (lightly cooked and charred). Dill was a huge part of the plate as it was done three ways: laid atop the fish in its natural form, as flavouring for the pickles and as a creamy buttermilk sauce. Most importantly, the salmon was cooked to perfection with the meat moist and flakey as it practically melted in my mouth.
No dinner is complete without dessert. With only a couple of options on the menu, we chose to go with the Tart of Black Malt. It hadn’t occurred to us that the malt was actually the malted hazelnuts eaten throughout the evening just pulverized and blended with beeswax and butter to give it the consistency of a chocolate ganache. The mixture was set over a crust made of crushed pumpkin seed. If we’re going by size, this half moon tart is excellent for sharing as there’s plenty to go around. Still, by far the greatest part of this dessert had to be the coating of finely granulated freeze dried black current on the top (sparsely accented with flakes of salt), which not only gave it a rich magenta colour, but also a sweet tartness that played well with the deep and aromatic flavour of the malt.
While this may not be a meal that I’d crave on a regular basis, I found it to be pretty inspiring and unique. Ben Staley and his team at ALTA should be commended for attempting to keep the business as localized as possible. Finding alternative ways of creating flavours that come from ingredients grown only outside of Canada (I’m talking about the malted tart alternative to chocolate) is impressive and really a testament to their kitchen’s talent.
All in, our bill came to $77 for food and $20 for wine plus tax. The restaurant is one of a few in Edmonton that has a no tipping policy. Even though I knew that going in, it still came as a nice surprise when I saw the receipt and was reminded of that. In all honesty, I hadn’t planned to order a glass of bubbly that night, and when I thought about it, the money I would have spent on the tip essentially went towards my drink. Is it a better value over other downtown establishments? Possibly. Most likely not though. The gratuity is probably already reflected in the price of each dish. What’s beneficial with it being a no tipping establishment is that what you see is what you get when it comes down to the cost.
That idea is almost the opposite to the menu. Tiny details and layers of intricate flavours lead to this sense of there being more behind the curtain. Where can they continue to take their offerings? How is it going to change with the seasons? That’s what I’m interested to find out.
Paired with attentive service, food that is more filling than expected and an experience that currently cannot be found elsewhere, I’m certainly inclined to revisit ALTA soon.