2018 Taste of Edmonton Preview

It’s that time again – Taste of Edmonton is back next week! There are some changes afoot to the festival this year, namely, a new location. Due to the construction around Churchill Square, Taste has relocated to Capital Plaza at 99 Avenue and 108 Street (near the Legislature). In addition, the 10 day festival has expanded to 12 days this year, running from July 18-29, 2018, giving diners an extra two days to sample their way through the over 100 food items on the menu (41 of them new!).

Last week, I was invited to preview some of the new items that will be served at this year’s festival. The restaurants we visited are all new to Taste of Edmonton, and are among the 11 first time participants.

We started off downtown at Wishbone, where we sampled both of the items that they will be serving. The spicy fried chicken sandwich is a smaller version of a popular lunch item, featuring marinated chicken thighs battered, fried, and tossed in their house gojuchang hot sauce. The meat was crispy on the outside and tender on the inside, with just the right amount of heat; it was my favourite of the dishes we tried that day.

Taste of Edmonton Preview

Spicy fried chicken sandwich from Wishbone

Wishbone’s second item is a summer festival staple – fried dough. Their version are buttermilk beignets, bite sized and dusted with powdered sugar. Like their chicken sandwich, I think this will be well received by the crowds at Taste – easy to eat, good flavour, and deep fried.

Taste of Edmonton Preview

Buttermilk beignets from Wishbone

Our next stop was Wildflower Grill. Some may remember that last year, the restaurant changed hands and installed a new chef. Even with the personnel change, however, Wildflower maintained some Asian fusion influence on its menu, particularly evident in what we were served that night.

The Taste of Edmonton item that we sampled was easily the most complex that we tried – an Adobo pork belly with house kimchi, garlic rice, a 64 degree egg yolk and puffed wild rice. It was an enjoyable dish to be sure (the pork belly was deliciously crispy, and given an unctuous boost from the yolk), but from the outset, it does seem like an ambitious plate to churn out at a high pace. I do like that it will showcase the fine dining side of Wildflower, however.

Taste of Edmonton Preview

Adobo pork belly from Wildflower Grill

We were also treated to the night’s feature bao, something that is offered daily at Wildflower. That night, it involved an unlikely but interesting combination of seared albacore tuna and strawberries. I would not have thought those ingredients would work together, but they did.

Taste of Edmonton Preview

Albacore tuna bao from Wildflower Grill

Next, we headed south to Loma House Vegetarian Express. A vegetarian restaurant in the same vein as Padmanadi, they also incorporate soy-based meat alternatives on their menu. To start, we tried their vegetarian tacos. While these are not being served at Taste, it gave us a good idea of the types of dishes they serve. While I liked the crispness of the fried wonton shell as its base, it was a bit difficult to eat without all of the toppings falling off.

Taste of Edmonton

Vegetarian taco from Loma House

The Taste item we sampled had a playful presentation. Five deep fried sweet potato balls were served in a waffle cone, topped with coconut whipped cream and chocolate sauce. The sweet potato was deceptively filling, and not too sweet on their own.

Taste of Edmonton Preview

Sweet potato balls from Loma House

Our final stop of the night was the Southgate location of Wine and Beyond. The renovated store opened last September, but I hadn’t yet been. Wine & Beyond will be putting together the wine and beverage pairings for the Taste 2 Remember chef dinners, in addition to sponsoring the entertainment stage. We sampled a few different wines (which was definitely a treat for me, given I’ve severely limited my alcohol uptake).

Taste of Edmonton

May and I enjoying ourselves!

Thanks again to the Taste of Edmonton staff and Big E Tours for hosting a wonderful evening!

Taste of Edmonton runs July 18-29, 2018. A reminder that advance tickets are available until July 18 at a savings of $10 per sheet (40 tickets for $57).

Taste of Edmonton 2015

Mack and I just returned from our third trip around this year’s Taste of Edmonton, and boy, everyone seemed to be talking about Graham Hicks’ takedown of the festival. On Tuesday, the Sun published his harsh take on one of Edmonton’s summer traditions, a litany of his encounter with “awful” food. Although Taste has its fair share of haters, Graham’s piece is surprising in light of his praise of the festival over the past three years, and the fact that nothing significant changed in 2015.

Taste of Edmonton

Taste of Edmonton

We’ve been a bit more deliberate this year in taking advantage of our proximity to the site, stopping by on multiple occasions to gradually use up the tickets we accumulated. This has afforded us the chance to return to our favourites over the course of the week!

Taste of Edmonton

Food trucks were back for a forth straight year

As guests of Taste Alberta, Mack and I were invited to sample the wares inside the Sip ‘n Savour Tent last Friday. The pop-up nature of the tent has enabled the festival to involve chefs who wouldn’t otherwise be willing or available to commit to the duration of the event. That said, with the $10 admission fee, I’m surprised that most of the Sip ‘n Savour dates have sold out – the cost of attending can pretty quickly escalate with the cover charge, given food and drinks inside the tent require Taste tickets. In some ways, should Taste want to expand into the off-season, the Sip ‘n Savour concept could certainly be replicated.

Taste of Edmonton

Mack and Mike at Sip ‘n Savour

That evening, Custom Cocktails and Tapas were on the menu. The patio facing the stage was pretty sweet, and on that sunny evening, it was a very comfortable place to enjoy our drinks.

Taste of Edmonton

Patio

Century Hospitality Group catered that night, serving up a variety of small plates, including gazpacho, arancini and pulled pork sliders.

Taste of Edmonton

Outgoing CHG Chef Paul Shufelt

We were also happy to encounter Nomad Espresso, Edmonton’s first mobile coffee cart. Steve is set up inside the tent for the entire festival, which is great for those with access who need a pick-me-up, but it definitely limits his exposure to a wider audience.

Taste of Edmonton

Steve of Nomad Espresso

Outside Sip ‘n Savour, as we found last year, the value for tickets is pretty good, with most samples priced at 3. But as with any large food festival, there are hits and misses.

Some restaurants are reliable and consistently good – perhaps Taste should consider formally recognizing those who, year over year, are creative and seek to elevate the food served at the festival. In my opinion, ZINC is at the top of that list. Their City Market salad, dressed with a champagne and lemon olive oil, was a refreshing reprieve from deep fried dishes (and one I went back twice for!).

Taste of Edmonton

City Market salad from ZINC

Similarly, their decadent banana bread pudding was easily Mack’s favourite dessert, well executed and comforting.

Taste of Edmonton

Banana bread pudding from ZINC

Also on the sweet side, the Hotel Macdonald’s scone, with whipped cream and berry compote, is a classic. And though it’s a plate you shouldn’t have more than once, I couldn’t help myself. It was impressive that Chef Jost was there serving both times!

Taste of Edmonton

With Chef Jost and the Mac scone

There were some restaurants that we weren’t expecting to stand out. Mama Lee’s Kitchen was continuously making small batches of its beef and pork bulgogi – we could definitely taste the difference their efforts made (especially when compared with some of the dishes we tried that had obviously languished under a heat lamp).

Taste of Edmonton

Beef bulgogi from Mama Lee’s Kitchen

The rotisserie roasted pig from the Freson Bros. was another pleasant menu addition, with a good ratio of fat, and finished off with applesauce.

Taste of Edmonton

Rotisserie roasted pig from the Freson Bros.

Overall, we appreciated the other small improvements to the festival – more seating outside of the beer garden, and large overhead signs planted above each of the booths that helped with navigation. We didn’t have a chance to check out the Culinary Championships, but given they’re located separately on Centennial Plaza, hopefully they’ve been drawing the crowds they wanted.

Given Taste of Edmonton will be looking for a new home next year (because of the 102 Avenue construction), only time will tell whether they’ll be able to continue the positive momentum they’ve built over the last four years.

Taste of Edmonton 2014

The Taste of Edmonton has been getting a lot of love this year, and it couldn’t be at a better time. Celebrating its 30th anniversary, Taste is very much a staple in the city’s busy summer festival calendar. But the organizers haven’t been resting on their laurels – over the past few years, they’ve strived to make changes in order to continuously improve the festival experience, and to try and expand their appeal to an even larger audience. To that end, I think they’ve succeeded.

Taste of Edmonton 2014

Taste of Edmonton

Sip ‘N Savour, Taste’s effort to involve chefs and restaurants who might otherwise not participate in the festival with a regular booth, was introduced in 2013. This year, the special workshops and pop-up evenings seemed to have something for everyone, and I loved the idea of the culinary adventures that saw off-site food and drink excursions (in a way, I’d have to think they’d be even more successful in the fall or winter, when festival calendars just aren’t as packed as during the summer months).

Taste of Edmonton 2014

There was a lot more non-beer garden seating this year – hurrah!

But the heart of the festival – the food samples served by restaurants – is the real draw. And with a high menu turnover, and the average item priced at 3 tickets, the value for dollar was better than ever before, and patrons were able to sample an even greater variety of dishes. The complaints heard in previous years about the price of food seemed to fall away this year, as the festival returned to again offering taste-sized portions.

Taste of Edmonton 2014

I wish more booths hawked their wares like Guru

The crowds have been out in full force, and Wednesday was no different. Lines were twenty deep at some booths, and available standing rom in some areas of the Square was sparse. But even at the dinner hour, it only took us about an hour and a half to sample more than a dozen dishes.

Taste of Edmonton 2014

The dinner crowd

One of the highlights for me was the pizza from Canicus Catering. In a way, the food trucks have been a blessing for Taste of Edmonton (introduced in 2012). Whereas restaurant booths are immobile and harder to change over, the addition of trucks provides the festival with the ability to offer “limited edition” items, and with a rotation of trucks throughout the ten days, patrons can return over the course of the event and still try something new.

Taste of Edmonton 2014

The line-up

Canicus Catering is perhaps the most unique food truck in Edmonton, serving up wood-fired pizza cooked out of a converted fire truck (where the water tank has been retrofitted with a pizza oven). It was great to see the pizzas being cooked in front of us (whereas in some cases, restaurants employ the “scoop and serve” model).

Taste of Edmonton 2014

Canicus Catering

The pizza had a wonderfully crisp crust, and bubbly cheese atop the prosciutto. The fact that it was freshly prepared made all the difference.

Taste of Edmonton 2014

Canicus Catering’s prosciutto pizza

Mack’s favourite item was the chicken marsala perogies with sauteed bacon and onion from Select. The tangy flavour was a bit off-putting for me, but Mack had a different opinion.

Taste of Edmonton 2014

Select’s marsala perogies

Although many restaurants claimed to use local ingredients, few named the producers, or, in Culina’s instance, put them front and centre. Listing Calgary’s White Gold and Gull Valley as its primary suppliers for its “Prairie” caprese skewer, it really did live up to its name. Mack didn’t find fault with the chicken and bacon kofta with tomato chutney either, remarking that the dish had a lot of flavour.

Taste of Edmonton 2014

Culina’s caprese skewer and chicken and bacon kofta

Mack, of course, couldn’t turn down crack chicken from The Lingnan. It was actually the perfect portion size in my opinion!

Taste of Edmonton 2014

The Lingnan’s dry spicy chicken

The ricotta cheese fritters from the Edmonton Petroleum Club were disappointing. We had high expectations, but unfortunately, the fritters just needed more salt.

Taste of Edmonton 2014

Edmonton Petroleum Club’s ricotta cheese fritters

Creole Envie’s fried green tomatoes are probably an acquired taste, as they were a little too tart for me. But I did anticipate a thicker breading that would hold up a bit better.

Taste of Edmonton 2014

Creole Envie’s fried green tomatoes

We ended our meal with Eva Sweet’s liege waffle – one of my favourite sweet treats!

Taste of Edmonton 2014

Eva Sweet’s liege waffle

I’m already looking forward to what Taste of Edmonton may have in store for us in its 31st year – see you then!

Taste of Edmonton 2013

The Taste of Edmonton festival continued its evolution this year. In 2012, with the addition of trendy food trucks and community-engaging cooking competitions, it was clear Taste not only wanted to capture some of the excitement surrounding well-made street food, but also wanted to take advantage of a growing number of people who were interested in participatory opportunities beyond just eating.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Taste of Edmonton

Along with the debut of a new logo and a much-improved website, the 29th annual Taste of Edmonton also introduced Sip ‘n Savour, which combined elements of culinary lessons, pop-up dinners and specialty markets all under one roof. It was a bold move, one that the organizers should be commended for, as it was far from their status quo. To me, it spoke to the festival’s desire to connect with the rising number of people who appreciate knowing both the producers and chefs behind the food on their plates.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Sip ‘n Savour tent

With events ranging from cooking demonstrations, hands-on workshops, tastings and dinners, there really did seem to be something for everyone seeking refuge from the crowded aisles and beer garden outside. Though I wasn’t able to partake in any of the activities (save for one competition below), I heard from a variety of people that the sessions were perhaps not as well-attended as they could have been. Some of this, no doubt, had to relate to scheduling; afternoon workshops would be difficult for those with standard work hours. But some of the attendance issues might relate to the fact that Taste of Edmonton is still primarily associated with serving up al fresco nibbles and beer. Still, with time, it’s possible that Edmontonians will embrace these additions to the festival – it will be interesting to see what is kept and modified for 2014.

I was fortunate enough to be asked to participate on the judging panel of the Mystery Box Cooking Competition on July 21, 2013. Three teams of three were presented with a basket of ingredients that they then had to incorporate into a dish in an hour’s time. The dish would be judged on taste, wow factor, use of ingredients, originality, temperature and timing.

My fellow judges included food blogger Phil Wilson, Mercer Catering Chef Lindsay Porter and Lia Kurylo of ATCO Blue Flame Kitchen. I had to give huge props to those who stepped up to participate, as I am not an improvisational cook to say the least. I couldn’t live without meal planning, so the idea of having to create something on the fly, under the spotlight glare, terrifies me more than a little bit.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

With fellow judges Phil, Lia and Lindsay

The mystery ingredients ended up being yak, gojuchang paste, eggs, duck fat and kale. It was great to see the teams take the time to discuss their approach before jumping in and develop a plan of attack!

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Plan for Team E-lemon-ators

Breakfast Television hosts Bridget Ryan and Courtney Theriault kept things lively and upbeat, checking in with contestants and judges throughout the cooking time. It really was a shame that the competition didn’t take place on the Taste main stage as it did in 2012. Tucked away in the Sip ‘n Savour tent meant that most of the spectators sought it out. Without the opportunity to pique the interest of casual passerby, the organizers lost an opportunity to grow the audience even further this year.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Phil chats with Team Perfect

In addition, this venue wasn’t ideal for the competition. It appeared the stage was a bit of an afterthought in itself, with only one row of chairs and a few awkwardly place cocktail tables in front, it was almost as if organizers didn’t plan for a crowd at all. Mack, who was in the audience for some time commented that many people wandered listlessly in front of the competitors as they made their way to the outdoor patio seating. As well, the tent also contained an odd potpourri mix of art and a few vendors including Real Deal Meats, Knifewear and a prepared Indian food product. I had to wonder if they were successful; I would imagine most come to Taste ready to eat, not to buy groceries and tools.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

View from the judging table

Back to the competition, at the end of the hour, I took my seat alongside my fellow judges to sample the finished product.

Team Bird was up first. They presented a deep-fried wonton containing gojuchang-marinated yak accompanied by a gojuchang and feta dipping sauce, duck fat potatoes and an egg, fennel and dill salad. Having tenderized the meat, Team Bird was most successful in ensuring the tough meat would still cook up somewhat tender within the allotted time. The rest of the judges were also impressed with the flavour of the dipping sauce.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Team Bird entry

Team Perfect presented a compartmentalized plate, with yak that had been seared in bacon fat, a kale and egg salad, potatoes and bell peppers and onions. The plate was colourful, and made great use of seasonal ingredients, but the meat was still quite tough.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Team Perfect entry

Team E-lemon-ators had by far the most composed dish, a deconstructed yak poutine. Duck fat potatoes were layered with kale, gojuchang-marinated yak, and a fried egg. It was easily the most restaurant-ready plate, but the meat was unfortunately chewy.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Team E-lemon-ators entry

Scoring was not easy! We knew how tough the mystery box element was, and how hard the teams worked! The teams were ultimately separated by just a handful of points.

In the end, Team Bird took home the prize with their creative yak-filled wontons. Congratulations to all of the competitors for taking on the challenge! Check out Andrea’s write-up about her experience in the competition.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Team Bird wins!

After the competition, Mack and I bought $20 worth of tickets for lunch. Perhaps the most noticeable change for festival goers was the addition of smaller portion sizes, and thus, the ability to try more samples for less. Although neither of us were full after eating, we felt satisfied with the variety we had tried for the amount of money we spent, something that hasn’t been true in past years.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

The always crowded aisles (probably something that will never change)

It was great to see some of the eye-catching booths (Naanolicious should have been recognized for their display), and vendors like The Lingnan hawking their product to the passing crowd, livening up the atmosphere even further.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Naanolicious

We loved the bulgogi meatballs from Molly’s Eats (tender, with a hint of sweetness) and fellow food truck Smokehouse BBQ’s pig ball (how can you pass up a deep fried pulled pork rice ball?).

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Bulgogi meatballs from Molly’s Eats

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Pig ball from Smokehouse BBQ

The Alberta bison cannelloni from Bistecca was delicious (though perhaps on that white hot day, not the ideal plate), while Mack knew he couldn’t go wrong with the 2012 fan favourite Tandoori samosa from Guru.

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Bison cannelloni from Bistecca

Taste of Edmonton 2013

Tandoori samosa from Guru

The smoked mac and cheese from Select wasn’t creamy enough for our liking, while Mercer Tavern’s s’more fritters didn’t quite live up to their name, tasting simply like fried graham cracker crumbs.

Taste of Edmonton 2013Bacon mac and cheese from Select

Taste of Edmonton 2013

S’more fritters from Mercer Tavern

This year, Taste of Edmonton saw even higher numbers than 2012. Organizers credit this with the revamped portion sizes and the Sip ‘n Savour tent. With its 30th incarnation next year, it will be interesting to see how Taste of Edmonton pulls out all the stops to celebrate that milestone.

Still Not Perfect, But Getting There: Taste of Edmonton 2012

The Taste of Edmonton just racked up its most successful year ever, as defined by ticket sales. There was such a high demand for food that organizers ended up having to utilize their 2011 ticket inventory.

So in the face of stagnant or declining attendance at Capital Ex/K-Days, what made the Taste of Edmonton such an attractive festival in this packed summer calendar? Was it truly the changes and additions to its 2012 incarnation that had such a huge impact? In part, I think the answer is yes.

First Annual Taste Festival Cook-off

Taste of Edmonton introduced several different initiatives in an effort to reach a new, younger demographic this year. One of these initiatives was the on-stage cook-off.

Over two days, bloggers and food enthusiasts put their skills on display in live cooking competitions. Although Taste has hosted cooking demonstrations in the past, the inclusion of amateur chefs was a new element.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

On stage

Mack and I were present for one competition involving three food bloggers, who had an hour to put up their best food truck-inspired entrées. It was an absolute scorcher that afternoon, but Phil, Teresa and Michelle all toughed it out and made it look easy. Hosts Liane and Amanda also kept the crowd entertained, providing relevant commentary and opportunities to win prizes throughout.

The final dishes were judged by three local chefs – David Omar of Zinc, Lindsay Porter of 4th and Vine, and Shane Chartrand of Murietta’s. They tasted, tasted again, and agonized over the scores, as it turned out only a single point separated the winning dish from the other two.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Judges

In the end, Phil was crowned the victor. But in a surprise announcement, it turned out that all three were victorious in a way – each of the three chefs had agreed to adopt one dish to be featured on their restaurant’s menu.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

The winning dish

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Congrats, Phil!

Though the crowds could have been larger for the cook-off that we attended (and perhaps would have been if the competition had been kept to half an hour), it was a great first time event. It added a community dimension that has been lacking, and is something I hope organizers expand in the future.

Curb Your Hunger

In a way, food trucks were an inevitable addition to Taste of Edmonton. With organizers looking for a way to punch up the food offerings, food trucks were an easy way to do it – they are self-sustaining (and thus would not need to draw on power or water sources), offer consistent and unique products, and are undoubtedly fashionable. So Curb Your Hunger, Taste’s food truck corral, was born.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Drift in the thick of things

Given our experience with the trucks at What the Truck?! and other events, Mack and I weren’t sure how well the trucks would fare. No doubt their food would be a hit, but could they keep up with the volume demanded by the large crowds and long hours? How would they store that amount of food in the truck? Could they compete price-wise, given some trucks use superior, locally-sourced ingredients? And with organizers taking a significant percentage of ticket sales, would it be worth their while?

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Curry ‘N’ Hurry, one of the newest trucks

Organizers admit that this was a bit of a mixed bag. It probably didn’t help that the trucks weren’t consistently present (some through no fault of their own, having made other commitments prior to signing on to Taste). Their menus were also listed separately from the other restaurants, while some trucks like The Act were probably easily overlooked because they faced away from the rest of the vendors. In addition, some trucks did sell out early to the dismay of some patrons, without kitchen staff to lean on to replenish supplies.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

The Act

Of course, it should be noted that Taste’s embrace of food trucks (and the recent announcement that Eat St. will be filming in our city) means that these darlings of the food scene may finally be considered mainstream. No doubt this provided some Edmontonians with their first exposure to gourmet mobile food, and that’s a good thing.

So – should trucks continue to be a part of Taste? Obviously, this is ultimately up to the trucks if they want to participate (and if the festival is open to having them), but I hope organizers tweak this aspect for next year if Curb Your Hunger returns.

New Menus Items

Food festivals like a Taste of Edmonton are extremely democratic. Patrons eat what they want, and vendors who can cater to that are rewarded with monster sales. For that reason, it’s easy to see why crowd-pleasing dishes like green onion cakes and mini burgers will forever remain on the menu at Taste, and restaurants are unwilling to risk serving something outside of the box. Understandably, organizers are also faced with a dilemma: sure, an exotic menu peppered with innovative dishes would be easier to promote, but would it appeal to the average festivalgoer? Edmontonians are known for their fairly conservative palates.

Still, to attract patrons who are tired of seeing the same dishes return year after year, or to pique the interest of those with more adventurous tastes, organizers heralded a menu boasting 65% new menu items. Some of the most anticipated items came from the food trucks, but some new restaurants like Guru and TZiN stepped up to the plate as well, bringing with them a reputation of quality and higher-end food.

As a whole, Mack and I were satisfied with the food we tried this year. We were very deliberate with our choices, but were much more impressed with the quality of the dishes we at this year when compared with 2011.

The grilled pork dumplings from Urban China were easily my favourite. The skin was nice and crispy, and the three ticket price didn’t hurt either. We also enjoyed the falafel and pork belly sandwich from Drift, but that was no surprise given we’ve had it many times before!

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Pork dumplings from Urban China

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Pork belly sandwich from Drift

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Falafel from Drift

Guru’s samosa had been freshly fried and absolutely packed with tandoori chicken, while the accompanying tamarind sauce cut the heat in one sweet stroke. Moreover, TZiN’s vegetarian dish of panzanella  salad was a nice change of pace, light and refreshing.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Samosa from Guru

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Panzanella from TZiN

We are admittedly not immune to having old favourites, though – Mack couldn’t leave the grounds without a sample of his favourite crack chicken from The Lingnan!

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Dry spicy chicken from the Lingnan

Given the record ticket sales, I would imagine most who attended Taste had positive food experiences. Hopefully the organizers can build on that momentum for next year.

Still Not Perfect, But Getting There

Although some seem to think this year’s event was near flawless, I disagree. I’ve written in the past about what changes could make the event better, and though organizers have made some great enhancements and improvements this year, I think there is more to be done.

The layout still needs to improve in places, where flow is obstructed due to lines or a lack of room to move.

Taste of Edmonton 2012

No room to move

In addition to Centennial Square, couldn’t 99 Street between the Art Gallery and City Hall be better utilized? Telus had set up a booth there, but really, couldn’t the organizers have utilized the space better and placed food vendors there, instead of a promotional vehicle that was only present for a few days?

Taste of Edmonton 2012

Waste of space

More non-beer tent seating would also be appreciated. It’s hard to get past the Churchill Square visual of Taste essentially being a giant beer garden when so much real estate is allocated to the 18+ zone.

Taste of Edmonton

Churchill Square

Though the reality is that the festival won’t ever be a “taste of the best of Edmonton”, when the draw isn’t just the food, but the atmosphere of it all, it would still be great if one of the summer’s premiere events did continue to attract the crowds that came out this year. It will be interesting to see how the event manifests itself in 2013, especially with Giuseppe Albi retiring. Former Northlands employee Paul Lucas will be taking over Events Edmonton (and Taste of Edmonton along with it), so we will see.

2012 Taste of Edmonton Launch

I was able to spend my lunch hour at the Taste of Edmonton media launch on Wednesday at the Citadel Theatre, fortuitously scheduled in between meetings I had nearby. Daytime events are always a challenge for me (and I would imagine for other bloggers as well), and though I appreciate that the invitation was extended to us online folk this year, the timing really was aimed at the mainstream media.

Taste of Edmonton

Caprese salad from Lit

This was no more evident than when Mack and I arrived around the advertised start time of 11:30, but discovered that the food wouldn’t be served until about forty-five minutes later; by that time, we needed to leave to get back to work.

Taste of Edmonton

Giuseppe Albi, General Manager of Events Edmonton

That said, it was a nice opportunity to catch up with some people I hadn’t seen in a while. The mood was light (helped no doubt by pours of Alley Kat), and the weather outside seemed to mirror the optimism organizers had about some of the new elements they have put together for this year’s festival. Those include:

  • 7 new restaurants (including Guru, Share and TZiN )
  • 65% new menu items
  • a feature food truck area called Curb Your Hunger (which will include Drift, Molly’s Eats, Smokehouse BBQ and The Act)
  • a return to live cooking demonstrations, which this year will involve a competition between food bloggers
  • a partnership with Race Week Edmonton to expand family-friendly programming with activities on Centennial Plaza

I have been very critical of Taste of Edmonton in the past, and will not fully pass judgment on their 2012 incarnation until we’ve had a chance to experience it firsthand. That said, the core of any event with “taste” in their name should be good food. Unfortunately, our brief sampling that day didn’t showcase some of the restaurants in the best light –forty-five minutes in an unheated chafing dish ruined many plates that needed to be served hot, notably, the bacon maple poutine from Hudson’s and the butter chicken samosa from Guru.

Taste of Edmonton

Poutine from Hudson’s

As expected, Mack and I are most curious about Curb Your Hunger. We are really happy for the vendors that have been permitted to participate, as this will hopefully expose even more Edmontonians to the wonderful fare that trucks can offer. That said, it will be interesting to see how the trucks will manage with the twelve hour service days. Relief staff isn’t a given with trucks, and unlike the restaurant booths with room for plug-in coolers, there is a limit to the amount of food that can be contained in a vehicle. We’ll see whether or not the festival can accommodate the unique challenges faced by food trucks, or if they will be adhering to a one-size-fits-all model for all vendors.

Taste of Edmonton

Susan from Molly’s Eats

Thanks again to the Taste of Edmonton staff for the invitation. We look forward to checking out some of the new features this year!

Taste of Edmonton runs July 19-28, 2012. Discounted tickets are on sale at Tix on the Square until July 18, 2012.

Taste of Edmonton: is this it?

Back in high school, when I started to enjoy the city’s festivals on my own, attending the Taste of Edmonton was an annual tradition. I loved the atmosphere out on Churchill Square, the music, the smells. The food was nothing special, but what always brought me back was the unique aspect of sampling from many outdoor vendors.

But after a few years, it was clear that the Taste of Edmonton is a stagnant and forgettable festival. Sure, complementary enhancements like a “Taste of Wine” have been added recently, but the heart of the event – the food – remains uninspiring and perhaps most significantly, unchanged from year to year. Without interesting and different menu items, what is the draw of the festival?

When it was announced this year that the Taste of Edmonton was putting a policy in place that would see restaurants having to include new items every two years, I was encouraged. To see what, if anything, had changed, Mack and I decided to sample a few items on the weekend.

The crowds were decidedly smaller on Saturday afternoon – I’m sure the long weekend and competing Heritage Festival had something to do with it. Because of that, we had a much easier time manoeuvring the aisles than we did when we had walked through the Square earlier in the week. The layout of the food vendors – along the outside of the square, ceding prime real estate to the beer gardens – just seems inefficient.

Taste of Edmonton

Smaller crowds

The pulled pork sandwich from The Hat (4 tickets) looked good, and was all right. It was definitely better than the bacon wrapped scallops from The Palace (5 tickets) that Mack sampled. Charred and much too salty, if the skewer was meant to entice patrons to the restaurant, I’d say they would be better off serving nothing at all.

Taste of Edmonton

Pulled pork sandwich from The Hat

Taste of Edmonton

Bacon wrapped scallops from The Palace

The best (and new for 2011) item we tried was the petit tender with blue cheese potatoes from Zinc. Cooked to medium rare just before plating (instead of languishing under a heat lamp), the Spring Creek Ranch beef was juicy and flavourful, accented by crunchy fried green onions. The serving of creamy potatoes was also quite generous, well worth the 4 tickets we paid.

Taste of Edmonton

Alberta beef petit tender with blue cheese tomatoes from Zinc

I recognize how difficult it is for long-standing festivals to make changes, but the fact the Taste of Edmonton is implementing even the two year item limit is a positive sign. Here are a few other suggestions that I think would help bring some zest to the event:

The Layout

Congestion, especially on the east side of the Square, could easily be averted if more of the booths were better spread out (the beer gardens are more prominent than the food!). When Mack tweeted this out, Paula responded that this is the fault of the City – they don’t want to stain the concrete! How’s that for rendering Edmonton’s largest gathering space useless for one of its biggest annual events?

Taste of Edmonton

Wasted space

That said, I really liked the new partnership with the Art Gallery of Alberta. A Taste of Desserts and Liqueurs was held in the lobby of the AGA, which probably helped to expose many festival-goers to the beautiful building for the first time. Most of the desserts were, unfortunately, the same dishes that had been served in years past, but the offshoot has great potential.

AGA

Taste of Desserts at the AGA

Even better, the precedent set by using adjacent spaces gives me hope that perhaps some underutilized areas downtown will finally be taken advantage of. For example – Centennial Square, just south of Stanley Milner Library, could easily accommodate ten vendors. Plus, with a built in stage, it could accommodate another act! It’s also just down the street from the main festivities, and would help alleviate some of the congestion during high-traffic times.

Centennial Square

Centennial Square

Of course, Centennial Square probably isn’t built to accommodate the power, water and weight needs in the same way that Churchill is, but perhaps this would be a good reason to upgrade a space downtown that is more rife with tumbleweeds than people.

The Menu

I referenced the unchanging, tiresome Taste of Edmonton menu already, but it is worth mentioning again. Moreover, what’s worse, with a few exceptions, is that the items offered are predictable. Green onion cakes? Check. Sliders? Of course! Chicken satay? Step right up. I’m hoping the two year limit will help reinvent the menu in the future, but it will probably be slow going.

We heard that the organizers do their best to limit duplication, but this is half-hearted at best (e.g. is ginger beef really different than Szechuan beef? Or, is a pulled pork sandwich so essential to the festivities that it has to be offered first by the Hotel MacDonald and then by The Hat?). I think a better approach would be to fully embrace duplication, throwdown style. Invite attendees to vote for their favourite spring roll, the best burger, the tastiest tart. That way, there’s an added incentive for restaurants to put their finest food forward, and another way for the festival to promote what’s new.

The Food

What baffles me the most about the Taste of Edmonton is why people are willing to pay for such low quality food. Ten years ago, when this was one of the only outdoor sampling venues in the city, I could understand it. Now, with so many fantastic warm weather taste alternatives (Al Fresco, Taste of Summer, Tomato Fare, most farmers’ markets, just to name a few), I’m surprised the crowds haven’t dissipated.

Again, there are some exceptions, but for the most part, portions are small, prices are high and creativity is non-existent. I suppose restaurants want to cater to the widest tastes possible, which limits ingenuity, but also, if the people don’t demand it, the status quo will continue. I also have to wonder if people do seek out the establishments after enjoying a dish – because if name recognition is the only reason restaurants participate, I suppose it really doesn’t matter what food is churned out.

The unfortunate reality is that restaurants that have great reputations don’t participate (they probably can’t due to staffing, or don’t need to promote their business), but their involvement could help raise the bar for others. I have ideas for what restaurants and cuisines I’d like to see included, and I’m sure others do as well. Does the Taste of Edmonton actively seek feedback? Has it ever?

My ultimate hope for something branded the “Taste of Edmonton” is for it to provide a decent snapshot of what the city’s restaurants have to offer. Knowing the quality of food that is available, the event certainly isn’t living up to that standard. But then at the end of the day, maybe that isn’t the role of Taste of Edmonton. Maybe pedestrian, crowd-pleasing fare is what festival-goers are looking for. What say you?

Lunch at Taste of Edmonton 2009

I was reluctant to go to Taste of Edmonton this year because not only is the value for dollar not there, but I’ve been shown the light for tasting events (in the forms of Taste of Summer and Indulgence). That said, it’s undeniable that the festival is ingrained in the city’s culture (it celebrates it’s 25th anniversary this year), and sampling small plates outdoors on Churchill Square can be the cure for the common lunch. So when a few coworkers asked if I wanted to join them, I gave in.

I decided to buy just 10 tickets ($1 per ticket), and planned my meal accordingly. While I admit it isn’t the best way to go about the event, I was looking for a full stomach as opposed to the full experience.

I decided on the sweet potato fries from Zen and the cheese empanada from Roma Bistro, both only 3 tickets each. The sweet potato fries were good, particularly with the accompanying dip. I couldn’t complain about the portion size either.

Sweet Potato Fries from Zen

I actually remembered to pull out my reusable container for my second course, and was pleasantly surprised when the attendant at the Roma Bistro booth took the time to cut the empanada so it would fit into my container. The deep-fried pastry didn’t lack cheese, but it wasn’t anything special either.

Cheese Empanada from Roma Bistro

With 4 tickets left, I could have gone for something slightly more substantial (the dry spicy chicken from The Lingnan was tempting), but I ended up with a dessert. On the Rocks’ apple crumble with Jack Daniels caramel sauce won my vote because of the ice cream. It melted much too fast for me to enjoy it, but some fruit was a nice way to end an otherwise deep fryer-heavy meal.

Apple Crumble from On the Rocks

Have you made it to Taste of Edmonton? What were your favourites?

Taste of Edmonton runs until July 25.

Taste of Edmonton 2008

After the Taste of Summer in St. Albert, and experiencing firsthand how an ideal Taste of Edmonton could be with less people, excellent food, and a picturesque, green setting, I knew Saturday’s visit to Churchill Square would be lacklustre at best. Perhaps because of this approach with low expectations, I escaped the event with a better impression than I had thought possible.

Entertainment in Churchill Square (thankfully, the grey skies held up)

Mack and I didn’t plan on filling up at Taste of Edmonton – we figured the 30 tickets I pre-purchased at the discount rate would allow us to whet our appetite, and we intended on filling up on a full sit-down meal elsewhere.

I found that the vendors would better spread out this year, with the exception of one congested row pressed up right along the glass display on the east side of the square. It was so well fanned, in fact, that I ended up completely missing the set of vendors directly in front of the City Hall pool!

 

Crowds

If it has happened in past years I haven’t noticed it, but the verbal and quite competitive hawking of dishes was entertaining, as vendors tried to entice the finicky crowd by promoting their fare as a sideshow attendant would. In terms of promotion though, I do think the event should provide a contact sheet like the organizers at the Taste of Summer did, with a full list of names, addresses, phone numbers, and descriptions of participating restaurants – the tasting should be a means to something instead of an end in itself.

Amy’s famous! (the Chicken for Lunch lady)

While I did make a peripheral glance at the menu prior to Saturday, most of our food choices were made after strolling through to see what was being offered. Although organizers trumped this as the year of more participants and better variety, neither Mack or I were that impressed by any one dish.

At the El Rancho booth

The portion of ginger beef from Beijing Beijing was quite large, but as expected, a large proportion of the serving was batter and not meat. Mack enjoyed the bacon wrapped scallops (I enjoyed the bacon) from Firestone, though they were nothing special. Hudson’s Mini Cheddar Burger was a perfectly formed slider, and would be a great party hors douvres. The pad thai from Krua Wilai was a welcome concentrate of carbs coated in a sweet sauce, and my only complaint was for a slightly spicier version. El Rancho’s pupusa, served with cabbage and tomato salsa, was a bit on the soggy side, and sadly enough, the corn-flake rolled-then-fried Mexican deep fried ice cream was as well. Our favourite ended up being butter chicken from Khazana – tender morsels coated in a rich and creamy sauce, with enough kick to make us both happy.

Mack enjoys ginger beef

 

Firestone’s Bacon Wrapped Scallops

Mini Cheddar Burger from Hudson’s

Pad Thai from Krua Wilai

El Rancho’s Pupusa

El Rancho’s Mexican Deep Fried Ice Cream

Last but not least – Butter Chicken from Khazana

Our container experiment, gleaned from Jane, was our effort to minimize the waste produced from an evening of small plates. While it wasn’t enough to bring just one container (we ended up using a plate for the ginger beef, dried burger and dessert ice cream), it was a learning experience – perhaps we’ll bring two reusable vessels with us next year? Props go to attendants of the Krua Wilai and Khazana booths for not blinking an eye when presented with the plastic dish.

Food aside, the relaxed atmosphere, music, and the general ease which comes from being outdoors made for a nice summer evening. My full set of photos are here.

Taste of Edmonton 2007

Though I know I said I would cut out the “extras,” at least until returning to my pre-Europe weight, I couldn’t resist a trip to the annual Taste of Edmonton festival on Monday.

I had previewed the menu somewhat on the website before heading down to Churchill Square, so it wasn’t as much of a shock to me that tickets were astronomically priced at $1 each. When taking into consideration portion sizes, and the questionable quality of food cooked en masse in an outdoor tent, this summer tradition has really become an expensive one.

Thus, Dickson and I decided to sample just a few dishes, with the intent on filling up on more reasonably priced fare elsewhere. Out of habit, I chose Hong Kong Bakery’s green onion cakes and was pleasantly surprised that they were tastier than last year’s version – more flaky and crispy this time around. Dickson scruputously redeemed his tickets on stuffed mushrooms from the Gas Pump and Beijing Beijing’s ginger beef. He much preferred the former dish, if not only for its smaller grease rating (and no pictures…just two days back from Europe, I wanted to step away from the camera for a while).

I’m not sure I’ll go back to the Taste of Edmonton next year, especially if it is similarly priced. I’d be more likely to skip down south to give Taste of Calgary a try, simply because most of the particpating restaurants are new to me.

Taste of Edmonton runs until Saturday.