Edmonton Restaurant Review: Prairie Noodle Shop

Prairie Noodle Shop’s custom interior

About three years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a Get Cooking event where Prairie Noodle Shop‘s upcoming business was showcased. I was really excited to get a legit ramen restaurant with an Albertan twist. Their dishes were going to incorporate freshly made noodles while utilizing local meats and produce to infuse flavours familiar to our region. From the beginning, they’ve largely stuck to that formula, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Sadly, I don’t make it to the eatery on 103 Avenue and 124 Street as often as I used to. But, I really wanted Kirk to try it for once. So, we stopped by approximately a month ago to give the menu a once over during lunch. To start, we chose to sample the Baowich (2 for $10) and Dumplings (6 for $12). Each of us also got a bowl of the Spicy Garlic Miso Pork Ramen in Broth ($17).

The Baowich were interesting since I’m so used to other places serving their bao with a single steamed bun being topped with filling and then folded for consumption. Here, they sandwich the ingredients between two steamed buns. Thankfully, the amount of filling inside the sandwich provided a decent ratio to the bun. If there was too much bun and not enough of the selected pork belly, I would have been disappointed. The pork belly was covered with their house sauce (no idea what this is made out of), pickled and fried onions, and shredded lettuce. This made for a good combination of textures and it had that umami flavour. My only wish was that the pork belly would have been cut a tad thicker and cooked until a little bit more crisp.

Featured dumplings by Gourmai.

I’ve previously posted about a Dumpling Pop-Up by Gourmai. The chef is better known as Mai Nguyen. She supplies all of the featured dumplings on offer at Prairie Noodle Shop. The day we were there, the dumplings weren’t the most adventurous. Still, we decided to try the half dozen chicken and veggie selection. They were quite voluptuous and juicy with beautifully seared skins from being pan fried. The dipping sauce gave them an extra shot of flavour without over-salting the dumplings. If you are ever at Prairie Noodle Shop, ask about the day’s feature. Mai makes every single dumpling by hand, and they’re delicious.

Now to the best part, the ramen! Their Spicy Garlic Miso Pork Ramen is my absolute favourite bowl to get at Prairie Noodle Shop. The roasted pork belly is essentially the same as what we had in our Baowich; however, when submerged in soup, it doesn’t matter so much about how crispy the meat is. It also comes with smoked and pulled pork, sweet corn, sesame seeds and their umeboshi egg. The soup itself is pork-based and full-bodied; the flavour profile is amplified with miso, garlic, and a house made chili oil that adds a kick of heat at the back of the throat without becoming overwhelming. Their noodles have a nice bite to them (never overcooked), and that seasoned umeboshi egg is to die for.

Fire & Ice and Black Sesame Ice Creams

We finished off our lunch with their Fire & Ice and Black Sesame ice creams ($4 each). The Fire & Ice was a combo of two different flavours: one sweet and one that was sort of peppery. I was intrigued by the idea of the duo and I was the one who decided to order this, but it wasn’t our cup of tea. Partly it was to do with the texture. It reminded me of when I leave a tub of ice cream in the freezer for too long and the cream starts to separate and rise to the top. It gets thick and goopy. That’s what this felt like. I even asked the server if that was normal. It sort of seemed as though she wasn’t sure what to say. In the end, she told us it might be that any fruit puree in the ice cream that wasn’t mixed in well enough might have frozen into clumps and produced that texture. I can’t verify it, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt there. The Black Sesame was much better. The flavour wasn’t as saturated as other black sesame ice creams I’ve had in the past though, so it could use some improvement as well.

After serving the city for the past few years, I can safely say that the petite Prairie Noodle Shop continues to hold their own where it matters. The ramen is just as tasty as I remember it to be when they first opened and the service is commendable, too. I hope that they will always strive for that same consistency with their broth, noodles, and personability for many more years to come.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Red Star Pub

Beef Carpaccio

Over the years, I had been to Red Star Pub a handful of times. It was always to chat over drinks with friends as we extended our night just a little bit longer. Never had I ever tried the food. This fall, that would change.

Located on the lower level of a building on 105 Street and Jasper Avenue, the only sign of the space’s existence is a bright red star that lights up like a beacon in the dark. The interior has the styling of an old Irish bar with dim lighting and dark wood everything. But, it’s also extremely cozy and feels like a respite from our months of desolate winter or the perfect place to huddle up on a rainy day.

Jerk Chicken from Caribbean night, which is sadly no longer.

My first attempt at trying their menu was thwarted when I showed up on the first Wednesday of the month in September. As it turns out, until very recently, that was Caribbean night (they’ve ended after a decade), and the only three items served during that event was jerk chicken, or the chicken/veggie roti wraps. We opted to stay that time, and the jerk chicken was a pleasant surprise, but I wasn’t satisfied that I didn’t get to eat their actual food.

A week later, I was back with another friend in tow. Seeing as how we showed up between 4pm to 7pm, we took advantage of their happy hour by selecting Pork Crostinis ($3 each) and mix and match Mini Burgers ($5 each).

Pork Crostini

Sometimes I’m apprehensive to order sliders and crostini when the individual price still seems rather steep. However, rest assured. You are getting your value at Red Star Pub. The size of the crostinis and the burgers are generous. The Pork Crostini was probably the same diameter as my palm, and it was piled high with braised Pembina pork, shaved fennel and Pecorino cheese. These were succulent and flavourful with a hefty toasted bread as the base.

The Mini Burgers

We tried both of the mini burgers listed on the menu. Their original option is made with ground tenderloin tip, bacon apple relish and Applewood cheddar. There was a ton of chopped bacon stacked under the beef patty and a beautiful smoky flavour from the cheese. The other burger was a newer addition to their lineup, consisting of jalapeno chimichurri, aged cheddar and pickled radish. This one was still tasty, but the jalapeno chimichurri took a little getting used to. I didn’t necessarily mind the heat. It was more the amount of herbs used and the earthiness of the sauce that didn’t quite mesh with my palate at first. At the very least, the meat was superb. The burgers were formed to be thick and oh so juicy.

My friend continued her meal with a their recently created Chicken Sandwich, which I did not sample myself. It looked and sounded delicious though. A combination of confit chicken thigh, arugula, and caper aioli between house-made focaccia, it was a hearty sandwich for sure.

The gorgeous Beef Carpaccio.

I finished off my meal with a dish of Red Star Pub’s Beef Carpaccio ($15). Really thinly sliced raw Spring Creek beef was carefully laid out on the plate until it covered every millimeter. It was then topped with arugula, Granny Smith apple salad, lemon, Parmigiano, pepper, and olive oil. Served on the side was a sliced loaf of dense yet soft bread. The beef was so tender as to almost melt in my mouth, and the balance of fresh meat with the tart flavours of lemon and apple was fantastic.

The dark yet cozy interior of Red Star Pub.

Considering how much food we ate, the approximately $30 cost per person after tax and tip wasn’t bad. Although, what I really like about Red Star Pub is how comfortable it is despite being in a dark basement with little natural light. The service is great, too. The staff are always friendly and helpful, and now I can say the food is worth a visit as well.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wilfred’s

Check-in to Wilfred’s upon arrival.

Wilfred’s is one of the newest restaurants to dot the Edmonton landscape. It’s situated within the popular Brewery District inside a fairly nondescript 100-year-old vintage brick building that used to belong to the old Molson Brewery. Completely refurbished, the heritage space is now unrecognizable. The interior is a wash of light woods, a mix of pink and white accents, dark metals, and whimsical art from Vanguard Works.

The Pink Blazer was the weekly Pink Drink sometime in October.

Even though Wilfred’s, a contemporary diner, had opened by the official start of summer 2018, Kirk and I held off on our visit. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago when we decided it was time to check it out. I’m not going to lie, it was their latest weekly featured Pink Drink ($13), The Pastel Blazer, that got me in the door. It was actually more bitter than I expected it to be, and the ingredients — vodka, Aperol, unsweetened coconut milk, lime juice, and egg white — had to be stirred regularly to avoid separation, but it was, overall, a smooth and refreshing beverage that lasted me through our dinner.

Everything about Wilfred’s is curated from the wallpaper to the menu.

To eat, the two of us split a couple of plates: Wilfred’s Burger ($18) with added white cheddar ($2) and soup ($3) subbed in for the usual fries, as well as the Fried Chicken & Prosciutto Cutlet ($25). Arguably the best thing about both dishes was the size as they were generously portioned. For the price, I’m glad to see that they didn’t skimp. However, I do feel that each one could use some improvement.

Beginning with the burger, this consisted of a hefty nine ounce patty of beef topped with bacon, lettuce, tomato and onion. It’s so thick that I found it rather difficult to unhinge my jaw to take a real bite out of the burger. The bun also didn’t fare too well as it slid around and fell apart as I ate. The meat itself was cooked to about a medium well, so it wasn’t completely colourless, but it also wasn’t as juicy as I hoped it would be. Thankfully, it was fresh though. It certainly didn’t seem to be a prefab patty, and, that, I’ll commend Wilfred’s for. Had it not been for the added cheese and the crispy bacon, the burger would have had relatively no flavour. I highly recommend that the restaurant creates a signature sauce to go with this menu item.

Cauliflower & Potato Soup with bacon and chives

The upgrade to their Cauliflower & Potato Soup was the saving grace to this dish. It was thick, creamy and smooth. When served hot, it makes for the perfect hearty soup to have during the onset of winter. The tiny bits of bacon and chives added a little fattiness and herbaceousness.

Fried Chicken & Prosciutto Cutlet

Our second plate of Fried Chicken & Prosciutto Cutlets was enormous. The two breasts or legs of meat had been pounded until evenly thin throughout. Layered with prosciutto and then breaded and fried, they were super crispy without tasting or feeling greasy. I could have used some more prosciutto as it was hard to discern its presence. Yet, upon careful inspection, I did see it there. If you try this, definitely squeeze some fresh lemon juice onto the chicken. The zest kicks the dish up a notch, and the acidity breaks down some of the salt. On the side was an arugula salad with tomatoes and Parmesan. This was a great accompaniment to the chicken. The sharp taste of the greens, the tartness of the tomatoes, and the pungency of the cheese paired very well with the meat.

Postcards designed by Vanguard Works are provided with the bill.

When all was said and done, our meal at Wilfred’s was a bit of a miss. Sure, the service was quite good, the atmosphere was pleasant (admittedly a tad cramped though), and they have an excellent bar program. Nevertheless, the food isn’t meeting it’s full potential. I understand that simplicity is key at times, but, in the case of Wilfred’s, the kitchen needs to do something to set themselves apart from the rest. Right now, they’re not. They should take a chance and be as playful with the menu as they are with the decor.

The interior of Wilfred’s is light and whimsical.

Edmonton Things To Do: Evoolution’s Taste the World of Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar

Main course for the tasting at Evoolution.

Personally, a good olive oil and balsamic vinegar brings me back to some of the best dinners I’ve had with friends. It seemed like such a fancy thing when I was younger to have a restaurant serve that mixture as a dip for fresh bread because it wasn’t something we ever did at home. It was such a simple thing, yet it was also a treat.

Nowadays, we’ve got a couple of great shops that specialize in these products. Oliv Tasting Room and Evoolution are on a mission to get high quality olive oils and balsamic vinegars into the hands of Edmontonians and Albertans. I’m a fan of both, having frequented each a number of times over the years. However, working downtown, Evoolution on 104 Street and 101 Avenue is the most convenient.

The Evoolution shop on 104 Street in Edmonton.

Often times, I’ve found myself hanging out there during lunch or after work eating cubes of bread doused in a variety of flavours. Bottles range in size and price depending on the the type of oil or vinegar. Nevertheless, there’s always something to please each palate, and they make wonderful gifts, especially for family members or friends who like to cook.

Recently, I was attempting to find an activity for my friend and I to do together. As per usual, I ended up on the Eventbrite app, and that’s where I came across several listings from Evoolution (104 Street & Enjoy Centre locations). Once or twice a month they hold events in the evening. After the store is closed, they prep the space to seat a large table of about ten people — more can be accommodated in St. Albert’s Enjoy Centre — who will be taken through an educational tasting and full 3-course meal that highlights how olive oils and balsamic vinegars can be used at home.

A booklet with lots of info on their products and the menu for the evening.

For $35 plus tax per person, we were taken through the proper way to taste olive oil using the strippaggio method (similar to how one might taste a fine wine). A dark blue tulip glass is cupped in the hands and warmed before taking a sip. With teeth clenched, you then have to suck air into the mouth until the oil hits the back of the throat. Doing so allows for the oil to be stripped and the flavour to be revealed. The difference between basic store bought extra virgin olive oil and the premium ones sold at Evoolution is staggering. Signs of an excellent olive oil come down to three things: smell, taste, and texture. Surprisingly, the colour and clarity doesn’t matter so much. What you are looking for is an earthy/grassy scent, a pepperiness on the tongue (high polyphenols, a.k.a. antioxidants, bring that out), and a smooth finish with no film or residue left in the mouth.

Better quality olive oils shouldn’t even list an expiry date. What needs to be indicated, though, is the crush date of the olives used to make the batch. It should last for 12 to 14 months after the bottle is opened without any issue. Still, it’s ideally consumed within 6 months since the freshness starts to break down as soon as it’s opened and continues to do so every time air comes into contact with the oil. Nonetheless, you’ll know if it has gone bad as olive oil does become rancid. We also learned that the best olive oils tend to have high smoke points because of their fatty acid content, making them fantastic for use at high heats of up to 450 degrees. That’s contrary to the myth that they are not to be used for cooking.

Complimentary mini bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar were given to each guest.

Next up on the agenda was an info session on balsamic vinegars. Honestly, it’d never crossed my mind to question what balsamic vinegar was made of. I was flabbergasted to find out that it’s made from grapes. White Trebbiano grapes to be exact. When crushed, the syrup from the grape juice is what is extracted, fermented and aged either in stainless steel or wooden barrels. The flavour, viscousness, and concentration of every balsamic vinegar is determined by the amount of time aged, evaporation of the liquid as it ages, and oxidization of the syrup when exposed to the barrel used. Lighter balsamic vinegars are usually processed in stainless steel or light wood barrels. Inkier ones are made using dark wood. Due to the fermentation of the product, they can easily last 3 years. I suspect, it’s also why balsamic vinegars have an effervescence when sipped on their own.

Don’t store either olive oil or balsamic vinegar in the fridge though. Condensation in the bottle can spoil them. Just keep them away from direct light and heat and they’ll be fine.

When we finished going over the finer points of each and had sampled half the store, that’s when dinner began. There was a platter of crusty bread to be eaten with our choice of oils and vinegars as well as four different tapenades. Evoolution’s famous truffle butter popcorn was served as well. I’m not a popcorn person, but I could eat a ton of that. Their butter olive oil is made with a plant extract, so it’s free of dairy. Yet, it tastes just like the real thing. Uncanny. To drink, we were given glasses of club soda mixed with their gravenstein apple balsamic vinegar. Turns out that balsamic vinegar is the perfect natural product to flavour water with. For anyone who uses drink crystals or those squeeze bottles to make their water taste “better,” you can stop doing that now.

Supper was more than filling. We were first presented with a spring salad with fresh mozzarella, basil pesto, and black currant balsamic vinegar. Our entrée consisted of an autumn wild rice pilaf — hearty winter veggies, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, olives, and butternut squash seed oil — likely made in their back room using a Crock-Pot and a hot plate (they don’t have a kitchen, so we were impressed). Dessert was an elaborate pumpkin pie cheesecake decorated with vermont maple balsamic candy.

As our host, Christine, pointed out, the menus are made on the fly. Usually they’re created on the day of the event, and the courses are determined by what kind of fresh ingredients are found at the grocery store. Having run these tasting sessions for quite some time, she was confident that within the last year they had yet to duplicate a menu or a single course. I declared that she may as well save me a spot every month because I’d be willing to spend the money on a meal like this regularly. Since they don’t prepare a menu in advance, it may be difficult for attendees to know if their dietary concerns can be accommodated. However, Christine assured us that once a ticket is bought, they can be contacted and informed of issues or allergies, so they can work within those parameters.

When we were finished eating, we were then able to shop the whole store at 15 per cent off. Considering Evoolution never really offers any sales, it’s certainly a plus to attend a tasting event just to get this bonus, particularly around the holiday season.

If you’re looking for something new to do in Edmonton and you like to eat, I highly encourage you to look into the next events at Evoolution. The cost of admission is well worth it. My friend and I learned so much about these kitchen staples while being “wined” and dined. It’s time that you experienced Evoolution like this, too.

Edmonton Bakery Review: Destination Doughnuts

Snickerdoodle, Strawberry Cheesecake, Birthday Cake, All the Reese, Ode to Sunshine and Triple Play

Opened by a father-daughter duo who saw the potential in the growing food trend, Destination Doughnuts‘ storefront resides in the equally fashionable pocket of 124 Street in Edmonton. Unlike most businesses in the neighbourhood, the shop on 105 Avenue has several free parking spots in the building’s front lot, making it prime real estate.

The bakery space is very open and you can see everyone working in the back.

On our first visit, we were meeting friends for a snack and we decided to walk over. Upon entering the shop, you’re immediately greeted by visuals of their open kitchen and a lineup of the day’s doughnut selection behind a long glass partition. To the far left side is also a self-serve mini doughnut machine ($5 per bag). If intending to stay, I suggest keeping it short as there are only a few tables. Let others have a chance to sit down as well. In our case, our friends arrived a little early and they managed to snag spots for the four of us. On a side note, it seemed like there was a bit of a yellow jacket issue as several were getting into the bakery. Hopefully they were able to take care of that.

Kirk left me to do the purchasing. He mistakenly assumed I was just going to buy a single doughnut each ($3.50; I question how well he knows me), but I showed up at the table with a box of a half-dozen ($18.45). Considering that we made it there later in the afternoon and Destination Doughnuts closes by 3pm every Tuesday to Sunday (or when sold out), I was happy to see that they still had a decent variety available.

My box of a half-dozen doughnuts: Crème Brûlée, S’mores, Angel Flakes, Snickerdoodle, Strawberry Cheesecake and Oreo.

We snacked on two sizeable desserts while we hung out. Kirk thought the Oreo had a bit too much chocolate with the glaze and cookie crumble topping all being the same flavour. Although I did agree that, for the sake of aesthetics, it would have made more sense to use a white glaze in order to emulate the look of an actual Oreo cookie, the doughnut itself tasted very much like the real thing, so they hit it out of the park there.

I decided to sample the White Chocolate Coconut doughnut. It was sweeter with the white chocolate glaze as a base. Yet, the coconut shavings were plentiful and a delicious combo. Both of the yeast dough foundations were really fresh, light and fluffy. Neither one of them felt overly sugary, contrary to some of the choices from the popular Doughnut Party (I’m only able to eat maybe a quarter or half of their doughnut at once, otherwise it feels like too much).

S’mores

The remaining four doughnuts were devoured through the evening and into the next day. Surprisingly, the quality didn’t degrade as I was worried they would. We simply left the covered box out on our counter overnight. Even as day-old doughnuts, they retained their soft texture. The glazes stayed in tact (little to no melting) and the fillings kept fine without making the surrounding dough soggy. I’d say the last one we ate, the S’mores, probably fared the worst of the quad. It did dry out a little by the time we got to it. The Strawberry Cheesecake, Crème Brûlée and Snickerdoodle were excellent though.

Look at that cinnamon sugar dusted Snickerdoodle doughnut!

More recently, at the office, we convinced our co-worker to upgrade our usual order of Timmies treats to those from Destination Doughnuts. While I did find that particular batch to be a tad greasier than normal (perhaps a change of oil in the fryer was soon in order), I’ll just say that everyone was a convert. It’s really difficult to go back to the Tim Hortons ones after trying pretty much anything else from the several local and independent businesses now on the scene.

Personally, when it comes to the more elaborate style of fried dough confections, I think Destination Doughnuts may do it best in this city. They refrain from the standards and stick to specialty options that are just the right amount of sweet.