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.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Pho Boy

The interior of Pho Boy.

Aiming to bring authentic pho and Vietnamese street food to Edmonton, locally owned and operated Pho Boy opened on Whyte Avenue and 100 Street in December of last year. They focused on a soft launch menu until the restaurant’s official grand opening in February, meaning the time was taken to hone their selection.

My friend and co-worker has been a fan since the beginning, and I would see her food posts from Pho Boy on social media frequently. Everything always looked so good. Therefore, when I happened across a Groupon deal, I jumped on it. Rather than use it immediately, I set the voucher aside until August. I knew I’d be hanging out around Old Strathcona during the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, so it’d be the perfect time to go. Plus, by then, I hoped that any and all growing pains would have worked themselves out of the establishment.

The entrance is tucked away past the somewhat hidden front patio space.

Between shows on a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I ambled towards the address. I had recalled driving by the building on a previous occasion and seeing their round, bright yellow sign hovering above the sidewalk, but as we proceeded east, it didn’t stand out. In fact, I almost passed right by. The entrance is kind of masked by a somewhat gated front patio space. It’s actually a cozy sort of outdoor dining area that’s a bit tucked away from the pedestrians and traffic. However, it wasn’t nice enough that day for us to sit there, so we headed inside. One of the servers saw us a minute after we arrived. She seated us along the booth bench. Being later in the day, no more than a few of the other tables were occupied.

Playing the Street Fighter II arcade game.

The space is fun and well thought out. A sunset mural of Vietnamese farmers covers the one wall, while the other is plastered with vintage looking posters and the “Pho Boy” scrawl. The furniture consists of heavy, dark woods that keep the focus on the rest of the art and the unique lighting. There’s even a Street Fighter II arcade game sitting in the corner with a large TV screen hanging above it for other diners to watch players beat the high score.

Design aside, I was there for the food. At first the menu confused me because the Legend Vermicelli was listed under two different pages, but after consulting with the server, she pointed out that one included the regular spring roll with pork and the second was a vegetarian version without any meat. Either way, I was somewhat dismayed at the shortage of beef, chicken, pork or shrimp options that one would typically see at a Vietnamese joint. The only way of getting anything like that was with the Hero’s Feast ($17; it includes lemongrass beef and a shrimp skewer), which I was warned about in terms of portion size.  Regardless, I went with the latter. My boyfriend opted for the regular size Pho Boy Phoenix Special ($10).

While we waited, two other plates were brought out. One had a couple of large shrimp chips on it. The other had the usual pho garnishes: basil leaves, bean sprouts and a wedge of lime. Each ingredient looked fresh.

Our dishes arrived shortly after. To my dismay, the Phoenix Special was covered in cilantro (it’s my nemesis). Although the herb isn’t my boyfriend’s favourite either, he said he didn’t mind it this time. He stated that the heat of the soup made the flavour less apparent, and it worked well with the shredded chicken. I also think that his generous dousing of Sriracha sauce into the chicken broth may have helped to mask it. When I first took a spoonful of the soup to try it, I thought to myself that it had quite a pleasant kick of spice to it. That is, until I put two and two together and realized he’d already mixed in the Sriracha, so to be honest, I have no clue what the true broth tastes like. It seemed pretty clean though. There weren’t any grease bubbles in the bowl; it was just an aromatic and savoury soup that was perfect for a somewhat chilly day.

When it came to my Hero’s Feast, I was bracing myself. I thought that there was no way I’d be able to finish it. From what I was told, it would be huge. But, it showed up and I knew it wouldn’t be much of an issue. To start, I will contend that they do not skimp on the rice noodles or the veggies. There was a mountain of bean sprouts and julienned cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, and lettuce sitting atop the vermicelli. Yet, I had my eye on the prize. After I poured every last drop of the fish sauce into the bowl and tossed the components together, I worked my way through the dish. Admittedly, the shrimp were lackluster. The texture of the crustaceans was rubbery. The kitchen fared much better with the lemongrass beef; well-marinated, a little bit charred, thinly sliced and still tender, the meat, along with the crispy Legend Rolls were the star of the show. Initially, I didn’t understand why the eatery would offer the Legend Vermicelli with nothing other than spring rolls. From all past experiences, the spring roll is sort of the after thought to a vermicelli meal. Here, they were pairing it with the noodle bowl as the single source of protein. After trying the Legend Rolls, I get it. They are succulent and they provide that umami flavour to the dish without having to go the distance that other Vietnamese restaurants so often do. On my next visit, I know that the spring rolls will be enough to satiate my hunger.

Did Pho Boy wow me? They excelled in some ways (the crunch of the Legend Roll was unlike any other spring roll I’ve had) and there’s certainly room for improvement. Overall, I’d say it was decent. The food was satisfying, the prices were fairly reasonable and the service was stellar. Like their menu, Pho Boy is just slightly off the beaten path, but it’s one that is worth taking at least once.

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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Soda Jerks

The entrance to the West Granville Soda Jerks.

I remember when Soda Jerks opened their first location at West Point Centre in 2011. The concept of building your own burger from top to bottom at a restaurant was pretty foreign. As such, going there became somewhat of a treat.

Eventually, that first shop closed, and I didn’t give Soda Jerks much thought afterwards. Not until this year, anyway.

A few months ago, I launched YEG Food Deals on Facebook to share my knowledge of restaurant happy hour and daily specials on another platform. It’s the sister site to the pages already found on this blog. In keeping those resources up-to-date, I’m constantly researching and I happened to see that Soda Jerks still existed, just in different areas of the city.

With my information provided to them, I started receiving their newsletters in addition to getting a promotion in the mail. Summertime yielded a feature menu and a BOGO burger offer that was to expire over the September long weekend.

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I’m not one to pass up a deal, so I was inclined to give Soda Jerks a try once more. We ended up at the West Granville location on Winterburn Road (near the River Cree Resort & Casino). It was lunch hour on a Sunday and about a third of the space was occupied by customers.

One of the servers greeted and seated us promptly before giving us several minutes to review the selection. We waffled for a while, but my mind was pretty much set on the Electric Pulled Pork sandwich ($13.50) from their seasonal “Pitch A Tent” options. I thought my boyfriend had made a solid decision. However, upon placing his order, he surprised me by going for the Bacon Jerk Jr. ($17+).

Bacon Jerk Jr. Burger

The latter was a double patty burger with bacon and an extra layer of bun in between. Processed cheese, lettuce, red onion, pickles and thousand island dressing garnished and flavoured the meal. I had a couple of bites and we both agreed that something was missing. I think it may have come down to charring of the meat and toasting of the bun. It didn’t have that grilled or buttery taste that’s so necessary. I also don’t understand why they bother to use processed (American) cheese slices. They still looked like plastic sheets when the burger was delivered from the kitchen.

Electric Pulled Pork Sandwich

As for my sandwich, I felt that it fared much better overall. It was a lot smaller, so I suppose it made for a lighter meal, too. The pulled pork was cooked with a root beer BBQ sauce that had a slight spiciness and sweetness to it. I do believe that they could have left the potato chips out of the sandwich. I get that the chips were included to diversify the textures. Yet, it failed because the sauce made them so soggy that I almost couldn’t tell they were even there. Just the beer bun with grains would have sufficed as the sole starch. On the other hand, I enjoyed the electric kale slaw. I’m quite certain that the base of the slaw used came from those Eat Smart Sweet Kale Vegetable Salad kits found in most grocery stores. But, that’s okay. The slaw was deliciously prepared; I think it was sautéed, so it was warm, and the slightly tangy dressing partnered well with the meat. A slice of melted havarti added a luxurious creaminess to the handheld lunch.

Both of us kept our side simple: Soda Jerks hand cut fries. These were decent. Cut to the same dimensions for even cooking, they were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. I did find them to be a bit bland though. I definitely needed the ketchup. I also tried to sprinkle some of their signature seasoning on a portion of the fries. It helped somewhat, but to really add enough flavour, I would have had to douse a lot more on and I didn’t want to do that either.

I do plan to go back to Soda Jerks to eat one of their donut burgers because I’m still trying to find something similar to what I sampled in Chicago last year. Although, once that happens, I’m not certain I’d go out of my way to revisit again. Yes, the service was good when we went on this occasion, and the prices are reasonable (especially on Wednesdays for 25 percent off burgers). But, the food was truly just alright. For the money and the calories, I know that better exists.

Edmonton Things to Do: Clay & Cupcakes

One wall of available ceramics at Clay & Cupcakes.

For the past few years, my obsession became Paint Nite events. I went on numerous outings with friends and I amassed more pieces of art than I know what to do with. I also outfitted myself with canvases, paint, brushes and easels for creative nights at home.

While I still love to do a quick session here and there (it’s such a relaxing activity), the eagerness to go every few weeks has abated. Tucked away between those times have been various other outings: dinners, festivals, escape games and pottery painting.

My finished ramen bowl, which was painted at Crankpots.

I don’t do the latter often. In fact, prior to a February evening at Crankpots Ceramic Studio on Whyte Avenue, I hadn’t been since I was a child. The hours we spent painting our ceramics was a lot of fun. Yet, the experience at that venue wasn’t the best. The space was overcrowded, customers hoarded paint colours, instructions from staff were poor, and we were almost charged twice for our items. Despite my ramen bowl looking gorgeous, I do think that the glazing was subpar because it chipped off (even though my boyfriend and I had been careful to hand wash everything) in a few spots after only several uses. Plus, Crankpots doesn’t phone or email to let patrons know if their pieces are ready to be picked up. I guessed and showed up the following weekend with fingers crossed that our stuff would be available.

Therefore, when my friend suggested we check out BYOB Ladies Night Out (held every Thursday night; a waiver must be signed if consuming alcohol on the premises) at Clay & Cupcakes, I was slightly apprehensive. However, I figured that there was no harm in checking out a new place. It couldn’t be worse than Crankpots. I was right.

The night we decided to go, the two of us rode the LRT and bus from downtown to the Summerside location on Parsons Road. It was easily accessible by transit.

The door prizes for BYOB Ladies Night Out.

We had booked spots in advance through their website. Therefore, when we walked in, tables had already been reserved with each of our names. The $10 payment for the event included a free cupcake ($3.75 otherwise) as well as the chance to win some door prizes. Unlike Crankpots, they do not charge paint, studio or firing fees. The use of all supplies and the space, as well as glazing, is built into the price of the ceramic piece(s) chosen, which means dropping in on any other night shouldn’t even require an additional reservation cost like it does for Ladies Night.

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Should one visit Clay & Cupcakes, I’d suggest sitting to the left side of the door when walking in and closer to the windows for the best lighting. Once we’d settled our stuff down at our table (no cocktails or beer, just bubble teas), we got up to peruse the selection of pieces on the shelves. I noticed that many of them were repeats as I looked around, but several caught my eye. It’s certainly wasn’t difficult to find something to decorate. The only thing one might be weary of is the dollar amount. I’ve learned that these ceramics tend to be a bit expensive. I lucked out on this occasion as I had an ADmazing Savings coupon for 15 percent off. With the discount, I ended up selecting a doughnut jewelry box for under $30, which quite honestly was perfect for me in terms of price and style. The staff member who was working that shift rinsed my ceramic in water to get me started.

All prepped with paint and brushes!

I then went about deciding on paints, which were all laid out by hue on a shelf, essentially in rainbow order. Palettes were stacked beneath them. I grabbed a couple trays and started to fill them with the colours I planned to use. The bottles of paint are to be placed back onto the shelf for others to refill as needed. Brushes — they could use more with finer tips for detailing — and sponges were also available from that area as well. Bowls of water for rinsing brushes had already been set out for each group. Overall, it was a very organized setup and there was actually ample room for guests to work since tables are comfortably set for four people each.

Painting completed! The slip on the right is to be filled out, so they can keep track of your piece.

As is typically the case, it’s recommended to layer the paints two to three times to get an even coat. My friend and I sat there for about two and a half hours making sure we did just that on both of our ceramics. Clay & Cupcakes has a good variety of paint colours, including ones that are speckled. Just check with the staff to make sure that there’s enough in stock to cover everything you plan to do with your piece; we were warned in advance of one or two bottles nearing empty, which they did not have replacements for.

My raspberry chocolate cupcake.

When all was said and done, we filled out a small slip of paper with our email address, phone number and the description of what we had made. We brought that up to the counter with our painted ceramic, and the employee rang our bills through. After I wiped up my hands, I finally ate my raspberry chocolate cupcake. I’m not sure where they get them from, but mine was delicious. While the raspberry icing was sweet, it wasn’t overly sugary, and the cake itself was dense, moist and tasted of dark chocolate, so there was a great balance.

About six days later (shorter than the 7 to 14 days mentioned on their website), I received a phone call to let me know that my box was ready. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it until the weekend, and I should note here that Clay & Cupcakes is surprisingly closed on Saturdays.

My fired and glazed doughnut jewelry box.

I eventually made it there on my Monday off of work. When I showed up, all I had to do was give them my name. The staff member went to the back and I watched as she looked through the shelves at rows of paper bags. It seems that they have all of the fired pieces wrapped up and sorted in alphabetical order by moniker to keep them organized and make them easier to find.

After a few minutes, she brought a package over to me and unraveled the tissue paper to show me the contents. It was my doughnut box and it turned out beautifully! The glazing was applied evenly and thickly, so I’m expecting it to hold up well. I could not be happier with it.

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Before I left the shop, I had to take another peek around. They really weren’t kidding when they told us that new stock arrives regularly. Dozens of new ceramic designs lined the shelves on both sides of the store, and I wanted to buy half of them. I even saw on their social media pages and their website that they sometimes offer glass fusion and silk screening workshops. Both would be extra reasons for me to revisit. Not only does my boyfriend want to go back with me, but my co-workers even thought it’d be a wonderful idea for a future night out, so I suppose Clay & Cupcakes is now my new thing. Crafters and artists, make it yours, too.

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