I sometimes wonder what tourists that visit Edmonton ultimately think of the city. Festival central? Expansive river valley? Pedestrian unfriendly? Dominated by big box stores (and a monolithic mall)?
I suppose a lot of it comes down to what the visitors are interested in (and as a result, what they seek out), and who, if anyone, recommends certain attractions over others. For that reason, I was delighted to be asked (alongside Mack) by Bin of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation to attend a dinner at Wild Tangerine two weeks ago to “share my Edmonton” with travel writers from other parts of Canada, the United States and Germany. Chef Ned Bell (of Cabana in Kelowna) was leading the group of six writers through Alberta over an eight day period.
We received the journalists’ itinerary a few days before the function. They would be on the second (and final) night of a whirlwind tour of the Edmonton area. Their time in the city was jam-packed, including stops at the Yellowhead Brewery, dinner at Skinny Legs and Cowgirls, a walk through the Victoria Promenade, a visit to the Little Potato Company, and a drive to Pigeon Lake for lunch at Eco Cafe.
I realize how time is of the essence, and geographically speaking, that not all attractions are in close proximity to one another, but remembering my own experiences on a Contiki tour bus in Europe, I know I would have preferred more time exploring by foot instead of traveling from place to place by vehicle, and based on their comments that night, they would have liked the same. Given the amount of time they spent driving in circles as well (Judy Love Rondeau, the Travel Alberta liaison on the trip, is originally from Edmonton, but has been living in Texas for several years now, and while Ned spent many years in Calgary, he wasn’t at all familiar with Edmonton), it was curious why EEDC didn’t arrange for a local guide for the Edmonton leg of the trip. Mack and I also had to wonder why at least one of the meals weren’t scheduled for Wildflower Grill, given the guests were staying at the Matrix Hotel, and Nathin Bye’s award-winning reputation (he earned the top prize at the Gold Medal Plates in 2009).
As for our dinner at Wild Tangerine, Wilson and Judy pulled out all the stops. They closed the restaurant off, and presented a meal comprised partly of dishes off their regular menu, but mostly conceived just for this function, utilizing ingredients purchased at the City Market as a means of highlighting our local bounty.
I am all for supporting local producers (Madison’s Grill is one of my favourite restaurants partly because of their commitment to area farmers), and Wild Tangerine is a good example of another Edmonton restaurant with ties to Alberta producers, an off-menu meal isn’t the best representation of what tourists – on a random weekday – would be able to order. One of the journalists said as much, noting that she wouldn’t be able to focus on dishes that her readers would be unable to ask for.
My only other grievance was the lack of producer names on the menu. Wilson chose to go the route of listing where the product had come from in place of the farm name (Leduc instead of Greens, Eggs and Ham, for instance – something I know the regular Wild Tangerine menu does as well). Perhaps this was borne out of a necessity to appease writers who would be overwhelmed by the names of individual producers, but especially having sourced many of the ingredients from the City Market, they should have emphasized the sheer breadth of local producers they used.
That said, Judy is an absolutely amazing chef, and the meal showcased her kitchen abilities above all else. Ned was particularly impressed that the menu was conceived after a routine walk through down the aisles of the City Market.
Wilson Wu and Chefs Ned Bell and Judy Wu
It is a meal I will remember for a long time – not only because of the company (it was only after the meal that I realized why Ned’s voice was so familiar – Mack and I see his clips of It’s Just Food every night before we go to bed, in between commercials during our late night programming), but also because every dish was so exceptional, it was difficult to pick a favourite. Each course had something exquisite, unique and memorable, and with the chatter at the table, it was evident the guests felt the same thing.
You can’t be a food writer these days without a camera
We started off with Wild Tangerine’s famous shrimp lollipops, which are an absolute must at the restaurant. Wrapped in phyllo pastry, they are one of the most creative and delicious appetizers I have ever come across. Messy, but worth every explosive bite.
Shrimp Lollipops (fabulous presentation)
The next dish, a Pacific octopus salad with Greens, Eggs and Ham mixed heritage greens and an oregano vinaigrette, totally changed my view on octopus. I most often avoid octopus because of the rubbery texture I associate with the protein, but here, it was tender, with a consistency similar to chicken! I also loved the crunchy taro root fries – they were a fun addition.
Pacific Octopus Salad
A Slave Lake pickerel (from Fin’s), served with a Mo Na morel mushroom-butter glaze, was stunning. If not for decorum and common decency, I would have licked the plate – seasoned perfectly, and velvety rich, it enhanced the fork-tender fish. We seriously did something wrong with the morels that we purchased – they tasted nothing like that. But then again, I’m far from a chef.
Slave Lake Pickerel with Morel Mushroom Butter-Glaze
The jasmine tea, wok-smoked Greens, Eggs and Ham duck breast with a spicy tangerine aioli was also not a regular menu item, but it should be. It was Judy’s 2008 Gold Medal Plates-winning dish, and it was easy to see why. Gorgeous presentation aside, the duck was moist, with crisp skin encasing an even layer of delicious fat, the sweet heat from the aioli punching up the flavour. The accompanying chanterelle and duck confit wonton was just as good, and was better than any other fried wonton I’d ever had.
Jasmine Tea Smoked Duck Breast with Spicy Tangerine Aioli
Amber Lane elk, done two ways, was next. The “Lions Head” meatball, stuffed with Sylvan Star gouda and pan-seared tenderloin with a Saskatoon berry compote, was a dish to conquer. I appreciated the tenderloin, well-cooked as it was, but really, I probably could have eaten a second meatball in its place – the cheese surprise was the icing on the cake.
Amber Lane Elk Two Ways
The penultimate dish of Siang Hseng wine slow-cooked Rimbey bison short ribs is thankfully on the regular menu, and is one that I will have to order next time I’m in – they were meltingly tender (and without the egregious fat sometimes seen on beef short ribs). The coconut gnocchi were also really good – light and refreshing, Janet, the journalist across from me commented on how it combined two things she really liked, but had never thought to put together.
Slow-cooked Bison Short Ribs
Dessert that night was an en Sante Green Envy-infused “double-yolk” crème caramel, made using eggs from Sunshine Organic, and raspberries from Wilson’s backyard. Crème caramel isn’t something I’ve ever ordered, but it was a nice, fairly light alternative to my usual choice of a rich, heavy cake. Ned was impressed by the texture and consistency of the flan, and commended Judy for choosing to make such a dessert for food writers.
Green Envy-Infused Crème Caramel (Mack had a few bites before he remembered to take a photo)
I should mention that each dish was paired with a lovely wine, but being the lush I am, I wasn’t able to keep up, and ended up only tasting the last few glasses of wine.
Wilson called the meal a “Dinner of True Love”, because of Judy’s sincere, honest cooking. I couldn’t have agreed with the description more. Thanks again to Bin for the invite, and I do hope the journalists enjoyed their time in Edmonton!