Have Fun with Your Food: Rebel Food and Drink

Every neighbourhood should have a go-to spot, a place for residents to gather. Piccolino was this focal point for many in Parkview and adjacent Crestwood, but when it was announced it would be replaced by a new Century Hospitality property, I’m sure some were wondering whether it could still be that place.

Rebel Food and Drink opened in mid-December just in time for the holiday rush. Mack and I had the chance to visit the restaurant last Thursday night. Walking in, we weren’t expecting quite the packed house that greeted us. All of the tables were full, with parties ranging from young families to older couples. We took up a pair of empty seats at the bar next to several solo diners, one of whom was a regular. Chef Tony Le indicated that the reception from residents has been very positive, even at this early stage.

I can’t speak to the interior changes as I had never set foot in Piccolino, but we were told the changes were drastic, with the installation of a bar and an expansion of the dining room. A second expansion will take place later this year when the travel agency next door relocates. The interior is cozy with dark accents, lined with a combination of booths and tables. I appreciated the open sightlines, which further inspires the feeling of community in the space.

The menu, as with all Century Hospitality locations, is broad and meant to appeal to a wide range of tastes. While those looking for more traditional dinner selections will be satisfied with classics like pot roast, grilled chicken, and steak and potatoes, I liked the playfulness with other choices like their Hangry Man TV Dinner (meatloaf, tater tots, roasted corn, buttered peas), a breakfast plate dubbed the “most important meal of the day” with eggs, toast, bacon, sausage, and tater tots, and a taco version of chicken and waffles. Mack is always up for having breakfast for dinner, so ordered the breakfast pizza ($22), while I chose the Rebel chz burger ($17).

Service was great during our visit; our bartender/server was a consistent and pleasant presence. Similarly, the kitchen was on top of everything that night, and despite the full house, the food kept flowing. We didn’t have to wait long for our plates.

Mack’s pizza (made with the same Italian "double zero" flour found in Parlour’s crusts) was appealing right from the start, studded with crispy prosciutto, crumbled sausage, tater tots, and of course, a sunny side up egg. It was a winner in his books, the thin but hearty crust holding up to the combination of toppings.

Rebel Food and Drink

Breakfast pizza

My house burger, featuring two beef patties, cheddar, caramelized onions, and "all the groceries" was a solid take on a classic. The beef was well seasoned, and I enjoyed the slight sweetness imparted by the brioche bun. The side of fries was also nicely cooked, crispy and lightly salted.

Rebel Food and Drink

Rebel chz burger

Tony generously treated us to dessert, knowing we were taken with the confetti cake. A few had passed by our seats throughout the night, drawing the attention of the room with an eye-catching sparkler. Continuing with the playful theme found in the mains, the cake is all about nostalgia – the four-layer cake is not only dressed in vanilla buttercream and sprinkles, but comes with a healthy dusting of Fruit Loops. It was sweet, indulgent, and everything your five year old self would want in a dessert.

Rebel Food and Drink

Confetti cake

The brunch menu looks equally appealing (the hangover club has Mack’s name all over it), and yes, you can have that same confetti cake for breakfast, served with a glass of milk. Rebel Food and Drink is a fun addition to the restaurant scene, and hopefully one the neighbours will continue to embrace as a place to meet.

Rebel Food and Drink
9112 142 Street
(780) 752-7325
Monday-Sunday 11am-late (no minors after 9pm)

Polarizing Experiences: Vintage Fork at the Rutherford House

Back in 2013, the Arbour Restaurant in the Rutherford House shut down due to staffing and financial issues. It was a loss to the local food scene to be sure – their afternoon tea (and legendary raspberry butter) was a favourite of many, but it was also unfortunate for the provincial historic site and the home of the first Premier of Alberta to be without a culinary anchor.

In October of last year, Vintage Fork took up the Arbour Restaurant’s mantle. Open during the day, they introduced a slightly different model – instead of the usual a la carte options, Vintage Fork offers up set multi-course menus for lunch. But it was learning that they would also be serving up afternoon tea that I was most excited about.

Two friends and I made a reservation for their first afternoon tea service in mid-November (offered on weekends between 3-5pm). At $34.99 per person, it’s one of the more reasonably priced afternoon teas available in the city (Cally’s Teas would be the most comparable). When we arrived, we found one other party of three seated in the sunroom. We were told word about their afternoon tea was still trickling out; we were just the third group to be served that day.

The furniture and arrangement of the room, as one would expect in a historically designated site, remained similar to its prior occupant. However, instead of the more traditional floral tablecloths, Vintage Fork has opted for butcher paper coverings, even offering guests pencil crayons to doodle during their meal if desired.

Vintage Fork

Sunroom interior

We were provided a selection of a dozen loose teas to choose from (jars are kept on the mantle in the adjacent room for those hoping to rely on their nose to help them narrow their pick). The servers may want to brush up on the tea options however; when asked about some of the different blends, they weren’t able to provide any information about the teas. On the positive end of the service front, when my friend had called to make the reservation, she had requested that any undercooked meats or seafood be left off our plates. Thankfully, they had this duly noted, and substituted beef for the smoked salmon normally provided.

No doubt, the presentation of the three-tier tray was a showstopper. Not only was the kitchen very generous with the serving portions, but everything we sampled was delicious. Among the items served were chicken skewers, braised beef, lemon meringue tarts, and croissants.

Vintage Fork

Vintage Fork tray, take one

My favourite of all the treats were the scones. Fans of the Arbour Room’s raspberry butter will be disappointed to know that Vintage Fork serves the more traditional cream and jam, but these were excellent companions to the flaky, buttery scones.

We all left that day with intentions of returning again because we were so impressed. For me, this meant a visit two weeks later with Mack and Grandma Male just before Christmas.

Vintage Fork

Lovely china

Understanding that they were still in the early stages of developing their tea service, I didn’t expect that everything from my first meal would be replicated, but I also didn’t anticipate an experience that took two steps back.

For starters, when I made the reservation, I had asked for a similar substitution regarding undercooked meats and seafood that my friend had requested. But this wasn’t noted anywhere, so smoked salmon ended up being among the savoury bites served. I simply gave my portion to Mack, but given their attention to detail on the previous occasion, I was disappointed they couldn’t follow through again.

It was also very obvious that the kitchen scaled back their portions, including (sadly for me) much smaller scones. The croissants, which the servers had highlighted on our first visit as scratch-made and had showcased the skill of the pastry chef, had also been dropped.

Vintage Fork

Vintage Fork tray, take two

Perhaps most frustrating was the poor service we received after being seated. We had to request cutlery after our tea tray was delivered, and even then, no forks were provided (only butter knives). Staff only intermittently checked on us, even though we were one of just two groups being served that afternoon. To pay the bill, we had to physically notify the staff in the next room that we wanted to settle the cheque, a task that seemed like a burden for our server.

Given my two experiences were so different, it’s hard to reconcile them to determine what a future visit would entail. In all honesty, I will say that based on my second trip, I am hesitant to return again. But I do hope that with time, Vintage Fork will find their footing and find a happy medium where food and service expectations can be met on a consistent basis.

Vintage Fork (in the Rutherford House)
11153 Saskatchewan Drive
(780) 427-4113
Tuesday –Friday 9am-5pm, Saturday-Sunday 9am-5pm, closed Mondays

Pan-Canadian Cuisine with a View: The Butternut Tree

Ten years ago, before Mack and I moved downtown, I worked in Grandin in the building now known as The Ledgeview. The quaint and quiet neighbourhood was just far enough from the hustle and bustle of Jasper Avenue and the more commercial aspects of the core that it felt like its own cocoon. That said, the residential component and draw of Ezio Faraone Park always meant feet on the street, and I always felt safe heading home late in the day.

Now, our evening walks from 104 Street often take us through Grandin, on the multi-use trails or down into the valley. But while much has changed in the areas surrounding the neighbourhood, including new residential developments, additional infrastructure, and more retail outlets, Grandin itself has remained relatively untouched. With the exception of The Hendrix (a rental building), the static nature has preserved the tranquil feel of the community. This may be one of the reasons why one of its most pristine restaurant spaces has also been the most difficult to crack.

A decade back, The Copper Pot was a familiar, albeit understated fixture of the dining scene. The expansive windows overlooking the park ensured it had one of the best views a restaurant could offer, but the downside was its somewhat hidden location; it had to be sought out. They seemed to do fine accommodating the government and business lunch crowd, but evenings were tougher. I had my share of meals there, but the view always trumped the food. When they closed in 2012, I was hopeful a new tenant might bridge that gap. Successive tenants Antonio’s and The Phork came and went, and the space sat vacant for several years while the building itself was upgraded. To be successful, it seemed that the newcomer would have to become a destination – walk-up traffic is minimal, and while the actual distance to entertainment in the Ice or Arts Districts is not daunting, it’s just far enough to make the location a challenge.

Over the summer, it was announced that The Butternut Tree was due to open in that space in September. Helmed by Chef Scott Downey, originally from St. Albert but having gained experience in Vancouver, New York, and Denmark, would The Butternut Tree have the right formula to draw a crowd?

Mack and I were fortunate enough to be among those invited for a media preview last week. The interior has been completely overhauled; the room has been opened up, with views of Ezio Faraone Park on one side, and the open kitchen on the other. The muted grey and brown tones ensure the visual focus is external, and on the food at hand. We were seated with a few fellow food bloggers in a windowed private room with clear views of the Legislature.

The Butternut Tree

Interior

The website addresses the origin of the restaurant’s namesake, stemming from Chef Downey’s memory of a butternut tree in his grandmother’s backyard in New Brunswick. The tree symbolizes the variety of Canadian ingredients available, some of which are celebrated in Chef Downey’s pan-Canadian menu.

The Butternut Tree

Chef Scott Downey

For now, The Butternut Tree is only open for dinner, but they are considering brunch and lunch once they’ve firmed up their systems. We were permitted to order an appetizer, entree, and dessert from the regular dinner menu. Given the size of our group, our table ended up trying most of the dishes, resulting in consensus favourites.

Mack’s broccoli appetizer ($16) was easily the most unique dish on the menu. I’m a sucker for charred broccoli, so I immediately knew this was right up my alley, while Mack was tempted by the pork belly. Complemented with a perfectly prepared soft boiled duck egg spectacularly coated in a leek ash, the silky yolk brought everything together.

The Butternut Tree

Broccoli with pork belly, soft boiled duck egg, pickled garlic scapes, cereal grains

I chose the grilled bannock ($14), a vegetarian option featuring disks of flatbread with wild mushrooms, berries, winged kelp, and pumpkin seed. This was a much more shareable two-bite appetizer, with the kitchen showing a deft skill in extracting maximum flavour from the mushrooms.

The Butternut Tree

Grilled bannock with wild mushrooms, berries, winged kelp, pumpkin seed

The Haida Gwaii halibut ($38) was pretty popular around the table. The substantial portion of fish was paired with a squash ragout, parsley onion pesto, braised leek, and lobster mushroom. The halibut was very well prepared, as again were the mushrooms.

The Butternut Tree

Haida Gwaii halibut with squash ragout, parsley onion pesto, braised leek, lobster mushroom

Mack’s Bentley bison duo ($44) was the most expensive item on the menu, but the kitchen ensured the protein was showcased well. The tenderloin was cooked to medium rare, while the shortrib was fork tender. The accompanying lentil, carrot, and cauliflower were fine, albeit inconspicuous plate mates.

The Butternut Tree

Bentley bison duo with lentil, carrot, cauliflower and Saskatoon berry jus

For dessert, the overwhelming favourite was the plum ($10), served with milk ice cream, honey meringue, and oat crumble. It was full of contrasting textures and comfort, and was light enough to not weigh the diner down.

The Butternut Tree

Plum with milk ice cream, honey meringue, oat crumble

I ordered the ployes cake ($12), made from a buckwheat-based batter served up like a short stack of pancakes. It was topped with maple butter, Alberta Rose, and berries. The cake was very dense, and though I didn’t find it overly sweet, the richness meant a few bites were enough to satisfy me after the preceding dishes. 

The Butternut Tree

Ployes cake with maple butter, Alberta Rose, berries

There is no doubt The Butternut Tree makes a great first impression – the panoramic views will translate well for those celebrating a special occasion, wooing business associates, or having a fine night out. The menu also features enough familiarity to keep a wide swath of diners of happy, but with a few surprises to interest more exploratory eaters. Still, only time will tell if a chef returning to his local roots will make a splash big enough to overcome the inherent challenges of the restaurant’s location.

I wish Chef Downey and his team the best of luck – thanks again to The Butternut Tree and Bonafide Media for organizing a great evening! For alternate perspectives on the evening, read Cindy and Crystal’s recaps.

The Butternut Tree
101, 9707 110 Street (The Ledgeview)
(780) 760-2271
Tuesday – Sunday 5pm-midnight, closed Mondays

A Tale of Two Baos: Chef’s Table at Baijiu

Though living on 104 Street gives us easy access to some of the most trendy restaurants in the city, I’d say the closer they are, the less likely we’ve been to them. We’re just not as spontaneous as we used to be, and don’t tend to venture out once we’re in for the night. So in an effort to make it to Baijiu a mere seven months after opening, we made plans to have dinner there in early September.

It was only fitting in some ways that we waited for my sister Amanda and her boyfriend Jason to visit before hitting up Baijiu. We had dined together at Toronto’s Dailo last year, one of Baijiu’s inspirations. We had enjoyed Dailo’s fusion take on Asian dishes, but were keen to see what Chef Alexei Boldireff has done locally.

We reserved the four top chef’s table on a Thursday night. The stools provide a perfect vantage point into the kitchen, with a view of the camaraderie and a perspective of the night’s most popular dishes. Lex and his team were more than happy to chat throughout our meal, which made for an even more engaging experience. Perhaps the only (small) downside was having our back to the stylish bar and the restaurant as a whole as our attention was directed at the kitchen.

Baijiu

Baijiu

It made sense to leave things up to Lex, so we opted for the small plates chef’s choice tasting menu ($25/person, 4 guest minimum). We found this to be of good value, as we were able to share seven different dishes (some of which were off-menu), and still had room for dessert.

To whet our palate, Lex gave us some of their house-made pork jerky to try, something they’re hoping to introduce as a bar snack in the future. While it didn’t quite have the texture of the jerky I’ve had abroad, the  sweet-salty flavour was definitely coming through. This was just their first crack at the recipe, so I’m sure they’ll land it soon enough!

Baijiu

Pork jerky

Our first course, the devilled tea eggs, were also an example of Lex’s interpretation of a traditional dish. To maintain the soft consistency of the white, he opts not to overcook the eggs, then dresses it with crispy shallots, pickled chilies, togarashi, wasabi, scallion, and sesame seeds. The presentation is beautiful, and they made a lovely two-bite starter.

Baijiu

Devilled tea eggs

The green papaya salad was particularly refreshing that day (having reached temperatures of +30), with the mild heat of the dressing complementing the crispness of the shredded vegetables.

Baijiu

Green papaya salad

The kitchen had just received the first corn of the season, so were excited to serve it up with some Fairwinds Farm goat yogurt mixed with charred scallions, mint, fish sauce, chives, and Korean chili. The yogurt was so rich it had a taste reminiscent of parmesan, making even non-dairy fan Jason a convert.

Baijiu

Corn, Baijiu style

The lap cheong fried rice is an Asian staple, and I particularly appreciated the fact that the kitchen makes sure to dry the rice for a few days to produce the optimal consistency.

Baijiu

Lap cheong fried rice

Lex, back when he was slinging sandwiches at his food truck S’wich, was known for his house-made breads. For that reason, we knew that his steamed baos were probably a good bet – and we weren’t disappointed. The braised pork bao were easily my favourite dish, dressed with soy mayo, and pickled and shaved cabbage. Even better, we were reminded that Baijiu offers bao specials every Tuesday – just 2 for $7.

Baijiu

Braised pork bao

The pork and shrimp lion’s head dumplings were Amanda and Jason’s favourite, and were fairly authentic in their flavour and execution, served with a ginger-soy sauce.

Baijiu

Pork and shrimp lion’s head dumplings

The vegetable tempura was a nice plate to share (it was my first time trying a tempura zucchini blossom), but the lightly battered vegetables didn’t elicit the same level of interest as the previous dishes.

Baijiu

Vegetable tempura

We split the fried bao matcha ice cream sandwich; if we weren’t so full, I’m sure all of us would have ordered an individual portion. It’s definitely one of the tastiest desserts I’ve had recently, not overly sweet, and a fun take on a doughnut ice cream sandwich.

Baijiu

Fried bao matcha ice cream sandwich

Though Mack and I were predisposed to rate Baijiu above Dailo, Jason and Amanda both agreed that this meal did reign supreme. It’s really great to see a restaurant of this style and caliber in Edmonton; I look forward to my next (planned) visit!

Baijiu
10359 104 Street (Mercer Warehouse)
(780) 421-7060
Tuesday-Thursdays 5pm-midnight, Friday-Saturday 5pm-1am, closed Sundays and Mondays

Spanish Brunch: Bodega Highlands

Sabor Divino and its family of restaurants is a local success story. Sabor is known as one of the top seafood establishments in the city, while Urbano Pizza helped usher in the wave of quick-serve, thin-crust pizza parlours in Edmonton. Bodega, on the other hand, occupies a unique position with its authentic approach to Spanish tapas, allowing diners an accessible way to traverse the globe for Mediterranean flavours. It’s a successful formula that has translated into a need to expand the original location on the Boardwalk downtown, spawned a cozy second location in Highlands, and later this year, will add a third just off 124 Street in the former Dish and the Runaway Spoon space.

That said, each Bodega branch will offer something slightly different; for instance, we were told that the 124 Street location will be open for lunch. The Highlands location on the other hand, serves what they term "Spanish brunch" every Saturday and Sunday from 11am-2pm. The menu carries over some of their tapas-style dishes, but features other, egg-based dishes to tempt the palate of weekend brunch seekers.

The dishes are variations of familiar dishes, but with a Spanish or Portuguese twist – a Spanish potato omelette, baked eggs with chorizo and Serrano ham, and a breakfast sandwich topped with the chef’s special sauce, a unique recipe every Portuguese restaurant has on its roster, or so we were told.

My friend May and I met up at Bodega Highlands for brunch on Saturday. There were only a handful of other tables during our stay, which was a bit surprising given the usual brunch hustle in Edmonton. Our server indicated that it’s typically busier on Sundays, but we also had to wonder whether their brunch program is still relatively under the radar.

Bodega Highlands

Bodega Highlands

I ended up ordering the migas con huevos ($15), sautéed bread crumble and bacon with two fried eggs and beef sausage. May selected the Francesinha ($18), a Portuguese baked sandwich with Edam, sausage, ham, beef tenderloin, chorizo, fried egg, and the aforementioned special sauce – definitely not a dish for the faint of heart. We also decided to share the salt cod fritters ($9) to start.

Given the quiet state of the dining room, we received our dishes relatively quickly. The fritters were nice and light, though probably would have paired better with a glass of wine or beer as opposed to coffee.

Bodega Highlands

Salt cod fritters

Our mains were generous; a side salad wasn’t mentioned on the menu but I appreciated the pop of freshness on the plate. The mixture of toasted bread, bacon, and eggs was satisfying, but it was the well-seasoned beef sausage that was the star of the dish. My only quibble was I had to send my eggs back once to have them cooked to the requested doneness; unfortunately, even after that they were still not right.

Bodega Highlands

Migas con huevos

May really enjoyed her sandwich, a meat eater’s dream. The sauce soaked right through the bread, and provided a nice accompaniment to the different layers of meat.

Bodega Highlands

Francesinha

Service was attentive throughout, and refills of water and tea were plentiful. It may have been different with a busier room, but we were satisfied with the experience overall.

Afterwards, we walked off brunch with a stroll through the neighbourhood – Bodega works well as a starting point to explore Highlands, if you don’t frequent it often (as is the case for me). We checked out the elegant MacGrath Mansion, then popped into some of the shops on 112 Avenue, including Mandolin Books, Majesty and Friends, and Be-a-Bella.

If you’re looking for something different to change up your weekend brunch routine, I’d suggest giving Bodega Highlands a try.

Bodega Highlands
6509 112 Avenue
(780) 757-0137
Monday-Thursday 4:30-10pm, Friday-Saturday 4:30-11pm, Sunday 4:30-9pm; brunch Saturdays and Sundays 11am-2pm

Schnitzel-mania: Haus Falkenstein

My friend May was intrigued by the idea of Haus Falkenstein, a small restaurant near Westmount that holds the Guinness World Record for serving the largest variety of pan-fried schnitzels (347, if you were wondering). An article in the Journal back in January reminded the public that the restaurant re-opened after rebuilding from a fire next door, but other than that, there hasn’t been too much buzz about the place. We met up there for dinner a few weeks ago on a Friday night to check it out for ourselves.

Located in a nondescript strip mall, Haus Falkenstein would have to be sought out; it’s not easily stumbled upon otherwise. It was about half full when we arrived, with several large parties on hand.

Décor is kitschy, with clothing and beer mugs on display, and a full wall dedicated to their favourite soccer team. It contributes to the overall charm of the family-run restaurant which started in the small town of Lougheed, southeast of Edmonton.

Haus Falkenstein

Interior

May and I were both a bit overwhelmed by the menu, even if it’s been a bit reduced for every day service to only 67 varieties. They range from more traditional schnitzels with fresh lemon, or fried onions and mushrooms, to more creative options topped with shrimp, eggs and cheese, or ham and pineapple. I decided to keep things classic with the Jäger cream schnitzel

($18.95 with fries), topped with a mushroom-bacon cream sauce. May was a bit more adventurous with her order of the FC Schalke 04 schnitzel ($21.45 with potato salad), topped with homemade curry sauce.

The menu promises freshly cut, pounded, and fried schnitzel, which necessitates some patience. The wait was reasonable though (made easier with a simple salad starter, included in the price), and we were rewarded with hot, made to order plates. As expected, the portion size was generous, but not untenable; as the schnitzel had been prepared very thin, the meat itself wasn’t as heavy as I anticipated, crispy with a nice light breading. The Jäger cream sauce, however, was on the salty side for me, and I much prefer fresh to canned mushrooms. The menu reasons that prices and food waste would be higher if they relied on fresh mushrooms, but that’s a choice they made.

Haus Falkenstein

Jäger cream schnitzel

I actually enjoyed the flavour of May’s curry sauce much better, a nice balance of sweetness and a touch of heat.

Haus Falkenstein

FC Schalke 04 schnitzel

We both agreed that in the future, we’d opt for the potato croquettes instead, as our neighbouring parties had done. The fries didn’t remain crispy for long, and while May didn’t mind her potato salad, it was nothing special.

Service was fine, if perfunctory, though I appreciated that the server asked us how we heard of Haus Falkenstein. She told us it had been full immediately after the Journal piece was published, but only just steady since then. They had recently run some radio ads, but were not certain how else they could increase traffic to the restaurant. It’s not a new challenge in the food business, especially with regards to keeping interest alive in a saturated market. With their central dish seen by some (including me) as an occasional indulgence however, they may have more difficulty securing consistent, repeat business than some other establishments.

That said – they do have a schnitzel for every craving, so I know I’ll be back at some point, with more than a few left to try.

Haus Falkenstein
15215 111 Avenue
(780) 483-5904
Wednesday – Sunday 4-9pm, closed Mondays and Tuesdays

Tapas Tuesdays at Art Gallery of Alberta’s ZINC Restaurant

In mid-May, the Art Gallery of Alberta announced an initiative called “all access evenings”, offering free admission to the gallery between 5-8pm every Tuesday and Wednesday night. This replaces their previous promotion of once monthly free admission evenings; museum officials hope this will encourage even more people to take advantage of the cultural institution.

In conjunction with this, the gallery’s in-house restaurant, ZINC, has developed a special “tapas Tuesday” menu to entice patrons to include a meal along with their visit. All of the items are priced under $20, and though most dishes can be found on their regular lunch or dinner menus, a half dozen dishes are exclusive to Tuesday evenings.

In early July, I met up with Mack after work on a Tuesday night for a bite to eat and a walk through the gallery. Signage signifying the dinner deals would be helpful to their cause, either outside the restaurant or at the gallery desk; the menu wasn’t visible until it was presented to us at the table.

ZINC

ZINC interior

We chose to share the weekly mac and cheese ($16) and the sweet spicy prawns ($12.50). Given the pulled pork burger was just $4, we opted to order two.

Linda wasn’t a huge fan of the mac, but we both enjoyed how creamy it was – it’s a quality many other local versions surprisingly lack. This incarnation featured lots of bacon, mushrooms, and kale, and left us satisfied.

ZINC

Mac and cheese

I ultimately ordered the prawns because my favourite dish at ZINC remains their prawns over risotto, and this didn’t disappoint. The prawns were well prepared (as always), and we liked the punchy flavours of the accompanying tomato ginger chutney.

ZINC

Sweet spicy prawns

We expected slider sized pulled pork sandwiches, but instead, were each presented with a full-sized burger. Mack loved the soft, pliable pretzel bun, and we both commented on the generous portion of pork. It’s notable that the locally-sourced Bear and the Flower Farm pork is not doused in sauce so it can stand on its own, though it was paired with cabbage for texture. Chef David Omar confirmed that they are taking a loss on this dish with the hopes that it will bring diners in.

ZINC

Pulled pork sandwich

During our stay, there were only four other tables occupied. While ZINC is a beautiful space, with its vaulted ceilings and grand windows overlooking City Hall, the atmosphere may be too formal for more casual diners seeking to share a few small plates. If ZINC is serious about attracting a different crowd, could they consider carving up the dining room to include a few communal tables or feature some less conventional seating? Or (recognizing that this is easier said than done), set up some makeshift seats in the foyer just outside of ZINC, and perhaps reduce the menu offered in this space to just a handful of items (potato skins, pulled pork, sausage, a feature cocktail and beer)? It’d help make ZINC much more approachable, which seems to be one of the motivations behind the idea of “tapas Tuesdays”.

At any rate, we did enjoy our night out – we walked off our meal with a spin through the gallery (in time for Canada 150, most of the current exhibits feature Canadiana, including my favourite of the bunch, Gretzky is Everywhere). Hopefully this promotion does encourage more Edmontonians to consider visiting the gallery – and to take a chance on the restaurant as well.

Fit for the Neighbourhood: Pho Boy

After a few rounds at The Batting Cages for my birthday in late June (and realizing there were many muscles Mack and I haven’t put to use in some time), we needed some restorative sustenance. It seemed like the time was right to finally try Pho Boy nearby, the newest Vietnamese restaurant on Whyte Avenue.

Located east of the more well-worn Old Strathcona strip, Pho Boy has taken over the former B’s Diner space. We chose to sit on the enclosed patio at the front of the restaurant, set back from the busy street just enough to feel shielded from most of the traffic noise. A quick peek inside revealed an intimately lit space, laid back with a retro Street Fighter arcade game and a train set table to keep even the smallest diners entertained. While it wasn’t completely full on that Saturday night, business was steady.

Pho Boy

On the patio

The menu is small but interesting, with the appetizers standing out the most. As a whole, the restaurant seems to cater to a wide variety of dietary needs, as they have the option of building your own pho (including a rarely seen vegetarian soup base). We ordered a couple of appetizers to share.

Of note is Pho Boy serves freshly fried shrimp chips to start the meal! Mack isn’t a fan, so I happily indulged in our table’s serving.

Pho Boy

I love shrimp chips

The legend rolls ($6 half order) were incredibly addictive, crispy and full of flavour. They’re served with a side of fresh vegetables (which you could presumably use to wrap each roll) which we deemed unnecessary.

Pho Boy

Legend rolls

The banh xeo ($10) isn’t a dish easily found in Edmonton, so we gravitated towards it when we came upon it on the menu. The crepe was nicely browned, but a little on the crumbly side. We loved the filling of creamy mung beans, shrimp, and pork.

Pho Boy

Banh xeo

For our mains we both ended up with the same build your own pho combination – beef broth with steak, flank, and beef balls, with cilantro and green onions ($10 regular). While the broth was aromatic, I was hoping for a bit more depth. Of the meats, the meatballs and steak were fine, but the flank was noticeably fatty.

Pho Boy

Build your own pho

Service was great throughout, and we never felt neglected or rushed. Pho Boy definitely has the right vibe for the neighbourhood – a modern Vietnamese establishment targeting a younger demographic to gather, unwind, and graze.

While Pho Boy wouldn’t replace my Chinatown standards of Pho Tau Bay and King Noodle House, if I was in the area, or had a hankering for some of their appetizers, I wouldn’t hesitate to come back.

Pho Boy
10037B 82 Avenue
(587) 521-2444
Tuesday-Thursday 11am-9pm, Friday-Saturday 11am-10pm [summer hours Sunday 12-9pm]

Exploring Our Backyard: Lacombe and Pigeon Lake

I’ve wanted to be more intentional with exploring the areas just outside of Edmonton, so at the end of April, Mack and I planned an overnight excursion just south of our city.

Last year on our way to Calgary, we stopped over in Lacombe. They had a charming Main Street lined with well preserved historic buildings, and we stretched our legs in a few of the small shops after lunch at Cilantro and Chive. We didn’t have time to hit up all of the notable businesses, so we made a note to return.

Sweet Capone’s

Sweet Capone’s has received some press for selling out of their specialty cannolis on a daily basis. A few months ago, they moved into a larger space just a half block down from their original location on Main Street.

Sweet Capone's

Pastry case at Sweet Capone’s

On this trip, we were finally able to give them a try ourselves. The pastry was lightly dusted and perfectly flaky, and we preferred the vanilla to the artificial-tasting lemon cream.

Blindman Brewing

Blindman Brewing has been helping to raise the profile of Lacombe through its craft beer. Located in an industrial area of the town, Blindman offers a lively, comfortable taproom where visitors can sample their various brews.

At least on that day, most of the patrons appeared to be regulars, treating the taproom as a place to meet up with friends for a pint. In addition, Blindman offers on-site sales, so many folks ducked in for growler refills or to pick up a case or two of beer.

Blindman Brewing

Flight of beer at Blindman Brewing

We were both surprised at just how many varieties Blindman produces. On that day they had nearly a dozen varieties, most of which we hadn’t seen before. Of the types we tried that day, Mack’s favourite was the New England Pale Ale, while I preferred the light, inoffensive Saison Lacombe Printemps (I’m not much of a beer drinker most days).

Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery

Next door to Blindman sits Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery. In operation since January, they’ve been overwhelmed with demand.

At present, they offer four varieties of vodka and gin, with their most unique product being the Pickled Pepper Vodka, which was made to be mixed with Clamato for a quick but flavourful Caesar. They hope to add rye and rum to their roster soon, in addition to a gin for "juniper heads". Most of their bottles are being distributed in Lacombe and the surrounding communities, but there are plans for wider distribution – Eau Claire was mentioned as the model small distilleries hope to emulate.

Old Prairie Sentinel Distillery

Varieties at Old Prairie Sentinel

Although Old Prairie Sentinel doesn’t yet have a tasting room (it’s in the works), the few minutes we spent in there with Rob Gugin were enlightening. His passion for spirits is contagious; we’ll definitely be back when the tasting room is in place.

Elizabeth Lake

Before leaving Lacombe, we stopped by Elizabeth Lake just before the rain came.

It’s a small lake adjacent to a university and a residential area, so it’s not really worth seeking out, but I liked seeing the exercise equipment integrated along the natural paths.

Lacombe

Mack humoured me at the sit-up station

They’re apparatuses we’ve seen in Toronto and Ho Chi Minh as well – it would be great if Edmonton would consider them for some of our park spaces, too.

On our way towards Pigeon Lake, our resting place for the evening, we detoured to a couple of farms.

Pik-N-Pak

Pik-N-Pack is made up of three member greenhouses in the Lacombe area that Edmonton farmers’ markets consumers would be very familiar with: Doef’s, S4 Greenhouses, and Gull Valley Greenhouses. They process, package, and market their products under the Pik-N-Pack label for wholesale purposes (you can also find these at Save On Foods, among other grocery stores).

Pik n Pak

Self-serve Pik-N-Pak

However, Pik-N-Pak’s warehouse also operates an honour-based self-serve store, open daylight hours Monday to Saturday. It’s amazing to me that stores like this still exist, but based on a sign posted on the door of the store, it’s likely they’ve experienced some issues with theft.

Pik n Pak

Picking out some goods!

We picked up some tomatoes, peppers, and potatoes for the road home, but they also had cucumbers, eggplant, hot peppers, and carrots on hand.

Brown Eggs and Lamb

Near Pik-N-Pack is the family-run farm Brown Eggs and Lamb. They also have an honour-system store for their eggs.

In addition, the on-farm store has a good selection of meat proteins, dairy products, and value-added products produced in Central Alberta. We bought a jar of Red Deer made Chai Wallahs honey, creamed honey enhanced with a blend of spices so consumers can easily produce a cup of chai at home.

Brown Eggs and Lamb

Brown Eggs and Lamb

Brown Eggs and Lamb is actually hosting a customer appreciation day in July, so if you’re hoping to explore more of the farm (as Sharman did last year), make sure to mark your calendar for a road trip!

Village at Pigeon Lake

I’ve been very fortunate to have been a part of a few off-season work retreats to the Village at Pigeon Lake over the years. It’s only an hour away from the city, but the pace of life seems much more relaxed. Mack and I stayed at the Village Creek Country Inn, a basic but well-kept hotel. I particularly appreciate that the hotel is adjacent to several other amenities in the "village", including restaurants, a grocery store, gift shop, and clothing boutique.

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Happy to be back in the village

Chef N’ Pigeon Lake

We ended up at Chef N’ Pigeon Lake that night, as the more well-known Eco Café was closed for a tasting event. I didn’t mind, as our experience at those work retreats with the catering from Chef N has been very positive. Their "uptown country" menu in the restaurant was more extensive than I expected, ranging from burgers and steaks to chicken and dumplings and steamed mussels.

I ordered the hot turkey, a fun take on turkey dinner: pulled turkey overtop a stuffing waffle, doused with gravy and coleslaw and a side of cranberry sauce. My only complaint was that the coleslaw should have been served on the side, but otherwise, I enjoyed the diner-style comfort food.

Chef N' Pigeon Lake

Hot turkey

Mack went ahead with the 8oz signature farmer burger, with sauteed mushrooms, Sylvan Star gouda, house-made bacon, crispy potato hay and garlic mayo. The patty was impressively juicy and flavourful, and though it was definitely a five-napkin burger, he said it was worth the mess.

Chef N' Pigeon Lake

Signature farmer burger

Daisy McBeans

The only hot breakfast option in the village, we stopped at Daisy McBeans the next day. Their homestyle breakfast menu isn’t extensive, but features all of the classics you would expect.

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French toast and sausage

Portions were large – I barely finished my French toast and sausage, but it is the kind of place you can linger all morning without worry.

Pigeon Lake Provincial Park

We eventually made our way to Pigeon Lake Provincial Park, comprised of day use areas and camp sites.

Pigeon Lake

Pigeon Lake in the spring

The weather was spotty (rain clouds soon rolled in), explaining the likely reason of why the trails were so quiet, but I did appreciate having most of the area to ourselves that day.

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Trails at Pigeon Lake

The trails connected us to the yurt options now available at Pigeon Lake, described as "comfort camping" by Alberta Parks (also more commonly known as "glamping" – glamour camping). They do provide convenience – beds, a fridge, and of course, ready-made shelter, but the price per night ranges from $120-165 per night – a little steeper than I would have expected.

Yurt

Yurt

We ended up taking the backroads to Edmonton, which, in addition to encountering less traffic, meant the potential for more photogenic scenes like this one.

Clouds & Hay Bales

Hay bales

While many may overlook Lacombe and Pigeon Lake in favour of the mountains, they’re worth considering for those who are time-conscious, or just looking to further explore their backyard.

Showcasing Alberta Avenue: Eats on 118

It was kismet for the 2017 season of Eats on 118 food tours to start at the end of April. My office just relocated to 118 Avenue this week, so I thought the tour would be a great way to acquaint (or reacquaint) myself with some of the eateries I’ll be frequenting more.

Wild Heart Collective (the same folks behind the 124 Grand Market, among other placemaking events) was brought in by the Alberta Avenue Business Association to run a pilot of food tours in September 2016. The four tours in four weeks were so successful that they decided to continue in 2017. It appears to be a good decision so far; the first tour of the season was so popular Wild Heart had to open up a second seating to accommodate those interested.

Eats on 118

Eats on 118

As with most food tours, the hope for participating restaurants is that patrons will return on their own after the guided introduction. Happily, Business Association Executive Director Joachim Holtz shared that many of the restaurants that participated last fall did notice an uptick in traffic following the tours.

On this tour, the $40 ticket would include tastes at three restaurants that we would reach by foot. As I mentioned in a recent post however, the value for organized tours is not found in the food alone, but in the information or access provided by the guide. In some ways, the buy-in from the Business Association (and the connections they can bring) has resulted in a solid foundation for Eats on 118; all three restaurants were enthusiastic and well prepared for their showcase.

Mack and I joined about two dozen others for the first seating on Wednesday evening. Kirsta Franke was our tour guide.

Eats on 118

A welcome from Kirsta and Joachim

We began at Battista’s Calzones, an Alberta Avenue gem. Battista Vecchio has been in business for six years, and his handmade calzones have been featured on Food Network’s You Gotta Eat Here. But you have to visit in person to understand why Battista’s Calzones is worth seeking out. Hot out of the oven, the dough is soft and yielding, encasing savoury combinations ranging from all-beef meatloaf (my favourite) to prosciutto, artichokes and truffle oil (Battista’s favourite).

Eats on 118

Battista’s Calzones

That night, everyone had the chance to sample two calzone flavours. Though I could have easily finished a whole calzone, it was probably wise of the organizers to limit this appetizer to only part of a calzone so we’d be able to pace ourselves for the other establishments.

Our second stop was on the next block at T & D Noodle House. A family-run restaurant open for more than two years, T & D is named after its proprietors Thien and Diep. Their daughter Laura (who also happens to serve on the Business Association Board of Directors) offered us a warm welcome. She served up one of their most popular dishes – chicken, beef, and spring roll combination plate.

Eats on 118

Chicken, beef, and spring roll combination plate at T & D Noodle House

Everything was well-prepared, but I was really hoping for a sample of their pho. One of the things I’m still mourning with our office move is not being within walking distance of Chinatown’s Pho Tau Bay any longer (my go-to for quick lunches), so I’ll be back to T & D to see if they’ll work out as an adequate stand-in.

Our final visit was another neighbourhood favourite – El Rancho. Open for thirteen years, El Rancho has been a part of the Avenue’s revitalization efforts. Last year, restaurant owner Dora Arevalo founded a street festival that celebrated Latin food, dancing and music; expect the event to return again this July.

Although Dora was away in El Salvador last night, her hospitable staff ensured we were well-fed and happy. Each table was provided with a platter of chorizo, beef, and chicken tacos to share. Although we’ve been to El Rancho many times, we typically stick with their pupusas and flautas, so it was great to be reminded of their other menu options. The chicken tacos were by far our favourite.

Eats on 118

Tacos at El Rancho

Mack and I agreed we were served just enough food to be comfortably full – any more and we would have had to bag leftovers!

It sounds like the Business Association recognizes the assets they have in the neighbourhood, and have found a good way to highlight them. I hope these initiatives do encourage ongoing return visits to an area that is often overlooked.

Thanks to Wild Heart and the Alberta Avenue Business Association for organizing a fun evening! If you missed it, there are two additional tours to come on June 28 and August 30, 2017 – tickets are now available, and are likely to sell out fast.