Al Fresco on the Boardwalk: Sabor Divino

Sabor Divino is the latest restaurant to join the downtown fray, with a prime location on the Boardwalk along 103 Street – close enough for mall shoppers, theatre goers and festival revellers on the Square to access on foot, but far enough from main traffic thoroughfares to allow for a patio experience shielded somewhat from noise.

Although many (myself included) have labelled Sabor Divno a Portuguese restaurant, co-owner Christian Mena refuses to pigeonhole his eatery, and instead prefers to say their cuisine is inspired by a multitude of flavours, including those from Portugal, Spain, and the Mediterranean.

My first meal at Sabor Divino was a part of Fork Fest, an eight day celebration of Original Fare independent restaurants in Edmonton, offering pre-fixe meal deals for $20 or $35 (Mack had dined there once before, with his colleagues for lunch). The Fork Fest menu that Mack and I enjoyed at Sabor definitely seemed to sample a bit from each of the above regions, with the overall consensus being the kitchen was heavy on both balsamic vinegar and olive oil.

We opted to take advantage of a warm Edmonton day (which seems to be rare this summer), and chose a seat on Sabor’s small patio made up of three two-person tables complete with parasols. I loved that the ground level of the restaurant opened up onto the street, inviting a feeling of al fresco dining even for the tables technically tucked inside. And though the seats on the main level looked sumptuous, befitting the presence of a grand piano in the centre amongst a dark wood and dimly lit setting, I didn’t regret our choice of table.

I spy Mack’s BlackBerry…

The tapas menu was tempting, and one I’d likely consider more closely on a non-Fork Fest occasion. As it were, Mack and I built our individual meals from a $35 fixed menu comprised of two appetizers, two entrees, and four dessert options. I chose the pasta fagioli soup, black cod Mediterraneo, and Leite Crème “Dona Irene”. Mack, in an effort to supply me with more blog fodder (even at my explicit objection), ordered the mista salad, chicken in red wine, and cheesecake with black cherries.

While enjoying our bread, the pair seated behind us were accosted by a passerby looking for a smoke. They began talking, and we couldn’t help but listen (yes, we’re eavesdropping diners – but in our defense, their raised voices made it difficult not to do so). It turned out the wayward pedestrian was a bartender at the nearby L’Azia, and invited the pair to the restaurant. She described it with the following gem: “It’s an infusion restaurant. Like Taste of Edmonton, only year round.”

Bread with olive oil, butter and balsamic vinegar

I thought our appetizers came much too soon after our bread basket had been delivered (I barely made it through two slices), but Mack didn’t mind getting right to the meal. The pasta and bean soup was a hearty way to start off, though the beans were on the too-soft side, permeating the broth with a chalky texture. Mack’s salad was beautiful as it was a towering achievement, with the even larger achievement being that he managed to finish all of the greens. His only comment was that it was overdressed.

Pasta Fagioli Soup

Mista Salad

I expected the entrees to interrupt our first course, but I was pleasantly surprised – the rest of the meal was timed quite nicely. My black cod was a visually stunning dish that screamed freshness – a bed of bright green kale accentuated with bursts of rouge tomato and ink-black olives. The fish had perfectly crossed char marks, and, though I’d been warned that the kitchen often undercooked their seafood, found no unwelcome rawness inside. The pops of sprinkled salt pockets were a welcome touch, and my only flavouring complaint was the heavy balsamic pour.

Black Cod Mediterraneo

Like mine, Mack’s chicken in red wine was also generously portioned, with a theme of red throughout – red onions, red grapes and red pesto sauce. Though enjoyable, it was the less unique of our two entrees.

Chicken in Red Wine

Dessert was presented as a “taster”, which, after the preceding plate, was just the right size. My Portuguese version of a crème brulee was fired fresh to order, with a richer, more flavourful custard than usually encountered. Mack enjoyed the cheesecake portion of his dessert, but could have done without the cherries, which tasted to him like the canned variety.

Leite Crème “Dona Irene”

Cheesecake with Black Cherries

At the end of our meal, I asked our waiter if the restaurant was considering any sustainable seafood choices (guided by, for example, Blue Ocean or Monterey Bay). He said that he himself used to cook, and that sustainability was very important to him personally. As a result, he would be bringing in samples from Ocean Odyssey Inland for the chef to try very soon.

With solid service and a seafood focus that differentiates it from other mid-range establishments, Sabor Divino is a welcome addition to the family of Original Fare restaurants as well as Edmonton’s food scene.

Sabor Divino
10220 103 Street
(780) 757-1114
Main dining room: Monday-Friday 11:30am-10pm, Saturday-Sunday 5-10pm; Cafe lounge: Monday-Friday 2:30-10pm, Saturday-Sunday 5-10pm

Fork Fest Frenzy: Red Ox Inn

My original plan was to try and snag a Fork Fest reservation at the Red Ox Inn (9420 91 Street NW) for Monday, January 24 (fitting, it seemed, to eat in a restaurant named for this Chinese Zodiac year). But after a particularly maddening day at work on Thursday, I called Mack before entering into a late meeting to see if he could look into what might be available that night. We were lucky enough to obtain the last seating of the day at 8:45pm.

 

Fork Fest!

I had been to Red Ox Inn before, but was hoping that this occasion would bear an entree better suited to my tastes. We entered an absolutely packed restaurant, and were promptly greeted by a server and directed to a table. It turned out we were seated next to the authors of Loosen Your Belt and Eat Around Edmonton, Marriane and Zed – the last in a series of online food writers that have patronized the Red Ox this week (perhaps the restaurant should receive some sort of award for blogger attraction). It’s always nice to meet local culinary counterparts in person – I’m sure it won’t be the last time we run into them!

As I commented in my previous post, the Inn is a tiny, boutique-style restaurant. Space and intimacy are definitely two things they cannot offer though, and between the hardwood floor and tile-like ceiling, the Red Ox ends up having one of the highest sound levels of any restaurant in Edmonton. At the same time, as laughter and conversation echoes through the venue, it’s hard not to loosen up and feel like a part of one large group, dining and enjoying the experience together. Just don’t head to the Red Ox if you’re looking for a quiet evening out.

 

Red Ox Inn interior

We settled in with both the Fork Fest and a la carte menus, though like everyone else in the restaurant, would be ordering from the former only. Mack and I both decided on the puree of wild mushroom with maderia and gruyere-mushroom rye crostini to start, but deviated in choice on the rest of the meal. He chose the fish (seared Arctic char with ratatouille, roast garlic butter sauce and mashed potatoes) as his main, while I opted to stay away from their char and ordered the pork (marinated pork rack chop, Moroccan BBQ sauce, tropical fruit chutney, savoy cabbage and herbed rice) instead.

We aren’t very accustomed to late dinners, so the pacing of the meal didn’t quite match our appetites that evening. Still, we found the service to be attentive and gracious overall, though Mack commented that he could have done without the overemphasized “sir” at the end of seemingly every sentence.

Our first course arrived without a moment to spare, a wide bowl containing a thick grey-brown “paste”, in Mack’s words. My first spoonful of soup was the best, as the flavour somehow seemed to dull over the course of the bowl. The floating crostini was actually the best part, as the puree was made to be eaten with a bread accompaniment, to soak up the savoury goodness. 

 

Puree of Wild Mushroom with Maderia and Gruyere-Mushroom Rye Crostini

Our entrees took a bit longer than we would have liked, though I’m sure being the last table of the night didn’t help. My plate was stacked, my pork chop sitting high atop a bed of rice, vegetables, and garnished with a healthy amount of chutney. The Moroccan BBQ sauce was lovely (even though it tasted slightly like my Mum’s own sweet and sour base), and complimented the juicy, perfectly-cooked pork well. I made sure to soak up the rest of the sauce with my rice!

 

Pork

Mack was also happy with his char, though he said it was a tad over seasoned for his liking. The green beans were well-cooked as well.

 

Arctic Char

Dessert for me that evening was the warm chocolate cake, the same dessert I ordered on my other visit. It was the same as I had remembered – rich and sweet, my only wish was that raspberries were in season to accompany the cake.

 

Warm Chocolate Cake with Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Mack’s blueberry and white chocolate bread pudding turned out to be better than both of us had expected. Not overly sweet, it appealed to Mack and ended his meal nicely.

 

Blueberry and White Chocolate Bread Pudding with Creme Anglaise

I’m happy I had the opportunity to try a three course meal at the Red Ox for a very reasonable $35 per person. As the server indicated to us that they only had one time slot remaining until next Thursday, we are sure many others will be treated to a great meal as well. Fork Fest runs until January 29, but many of the tables at choice restaurants will likely be booked solid (I would recommend taking a look at availability on Open Table, but calling to see if they have any cancellations if you really are intent on one particular restaurant).

Red Ox Inn
9420 91 Street NW
(780) 465-5727
Tuesday-Sunday 5pm-close, closed Mondays

Trial Run Success: Von’s Steakhouse & Oyster Bar

For my second and final Fork Fest meal, I met up with a few friends at Von’s Steakhouse & Oyster Bar (10309 81 Avenue) a new frontier for all of us.

Von’s

Having passed the building many times over on Gateway Boulevard, I never had the opportunity to notice the nice stone water features by the front doors. Upon entering the restaurant, I was immediately greeted and promptly directed to the table where two of my friends were already waiting. The particular room we were seated in was “masculine,” as Shermie described it – leather chairs, aged brick walls, smooth stone and dark wood wine cabinets – the type of space calling for a cigar, fireplace, and fine scotch. There are several rooms in the building, but I only managed to see one other en route to the restroom. With high ceilings, a dominant red color scheme and wooden chairs, it had a markedly different, more open and relaxed feel.

After Andrea joined our party (always fashionably late), we all ordered the three-course, $35 Fork Fest menu without hesitation. May’s soup, an interesting salmon cream concoction, actually tasted better than it initially sounded. My Caesar salad starter was not remarkable, but good (as expected, the bacon was real, and the croutons house-made).

Caesar Salad

Shermie’s entrée was the lone steak at the table, which she quite enjoyed. The rest of us opted for the Prime Rib (slow cooked for sixteen hours), which was served with steamed vegetables, Yorkshire pudding and au jus. With nice marbling through the generous cut of meat, it was a filling and satisfying dish.

Prime Rib with Yorkshire Pudding, Vegetables, Horseradish and Au Jus

For dessert, Andrea, May and I all ordered Ice Cream Crepes, with Shermie again the odd one out with the Pecan Pie. I wasn’t a fan of this last course – the rubbery texture of the crepe and the chilled banana did not appeal to me.

Ice Cream Crepes

All of us were stuffed by the end of our meal, and after an evening of attentive service and good food, we all agreed that Fork Fest accomplished what it was set-up to do – we would all be back at Von’s, ready and willing to pay for a dinner at regular price.

Von’s Steakhouse & Oyster Bar
10309 81 Avenue
(780) 439-0041
Dinner Monday – Sunday from 4:30 p.m.

Going Through the Motions: The Blue Pear

I had heard a lot of good things about The Blue Pear (10643 123 Street) – a small boutique restaurant, their creative menu changed on a monthly basis to reflect seasonal ingredients. Of course, given that they only served four-course pre-fixe menus at $85 per person, it wasn’t the type of place I would pick for a spontaneous dinner. With July’s Fork Fest, however, the $35 three-course meal was a great opportunity to give The Blue Pear a try without breaking the bank.

Mack and I had a reservation for 6pm on Thursday. The restaurant offers seatings every half hour, but because it was still relatively early, I was surprised that there were already a few parties in the dining room. The friendly hostess seated us in a dim corner, and left us with the wine list and the food menu, which included the Fork Fest specials at the top. I ordered a Sangria ($7) to start – a blend of red wine, fruit juices, and orange brandy – while Mack opted for a glass of Stella ($6), and we both asked for the Fork Fest meal.

Through the course of the evening, we were served by four different people. This could have made us feel taken care of, but the opposite actually occurred – the service as a whole was less personal and attentive because of the number of hands involved.

At any rate, our appetizer arrived promptly with the verbal promise of bread to come. The layered salad of marinated summer vegetables and fresh mozzarella was finished with a dressing of sundried tomatoes, herbs, and balsamic and mustard oil. The cheese overwhelmed the carrot, eggplant, roasted red pepper and zucchini, but I didn’t mind this as much as Mack did. Our bread didn’t arrive until after we requested it when our entrees were brought to us.

Marinated summer vegetables, mozzarella cheese, sun-dried tomato, herbs balsamic and mustard oil

Thankfully, the grilled Alberta pike fillet made us forget temporarily about the need for any carbs. Perfectly seared, the fish was flaky and tender on the inside. Served with a Bobby Flay-esque corn and black bean salsa and a deliciously rich herb butter sauce, the dish showcased well what the chef was capable of.

Grilled Alberta pike fillet with prawn, corn and black bean salsa, horseradish mashed potato and herb butter sauce

Dessert was a flourless chocolate cake topped with whipped cream, fennel and slivers of basil and accompanied by rosewater almond cream, milk chocolate rosemary sauce and basil oil. We both found the shredded basil an interesting garnish, one that Mack would have preferred left off his last course. The cake itself was lovely – sweet and dense as a flourless cake should be, with an intense chocolate flavour.

Flourless chocolate cake, confit of fennel, rosewater almond cream, milk chocolate rosemary sauce and basil oil

At dinner’s end, Mack said it felt like something was missing, as if the staff were just “going through the motions”. I couldn’t disagree – compared with our recent visit to Characters, Blue Pear just didn’t offer us the experience we were looking for. The food was great, but I’m not sure I’d return for an $85 meal.

The Blue Pear
10643 123 Street, 780.482.7178
Dinner only, Wednesday to Sunday from 5pm