Sunday, October 19, 2014

Gini's Restaurant

Gini's Restaurant switched ownership in July this year, and the new owner invited me to try his restaurant and give my honest opinion of the food and service. Although my meal was reimbursed later, I chose to visit the restaurant anonymously with a friend for a more authentic experience.

The location is a bit out of the way, just off the roundabout on 142 St and 107 Ave. As I stepped inside, I found the interior bathed in a soft and soothing yellow light. The decor was not very modern or upscale, but rather quite intimate and cozy with family style charm. It was very much like stepping into a quiet French restaurant from decades past. Incidentally, I noticed that most of the clientele were an older population.

The walls were decorated with French-inspired sticker art.

As I was waiting for my friend to arrive, an extremely cheerful and enthusiastic waitress came over to ask me what I wanted to drink. I asked for a drink menu, but she mentioned there wasn't one available. She explained that there was a wine list, and they could also make all kinds of cocktails. I asked if they could make a cocktail with egg white, and she seemed genuinely apologetic as she smiled and said they didn't make those. I ended up ordering a simple gin and tonic. The presentation of my drink was unimpressive, and looked like a small glass of iced water with a green straw like the ones from Starbucks. It tasted fine, but for such a small drink without even a garnish, I was surprised that the price tag was $9.75. I think it would've been smarter to order wine at a French restaurant, and I did note that the restaurant had quite an extensive wine list.

As we were perusing the menu, our waitress explained the daily specials very thoroughly and was patient and helpful in answering our questions. We ordered the table d'hote 5-course dinner for $55/person. Shortly after, a complimentary bread basket arrived with a side of butter. We each got two large buns (Portuguese style, I think), and they were served warm with a super soft and airy texture like fluffy pillows. I would've liked to finish the bread, but I knew I wouldn't be able to eat anything else if I did.

When the first course arrived, both of our jaws dropped. We had both ordered mussels, but this was more like an entree than an appetizer! We started wondering how we could get through all 5 courses. The sauce was intense and piquant with a kick of spice. My friend, being a fan of spicy foods, really enjoyed it. However, the mussels were small and slightly overcooked, so some were a bit shrivelled. Luckily the sauce made up for it.

The second course was a mixed greens salad with smoked salmon. Again, the portions did not disappoint. It was a very light and refreshing salad with a vinaigrette instead of a creamy dressing. I was already starting to get full at this point, so I left about half of the greens. This was almost an entree-sized dish as well!

The third course was a palate cleanser of mango sorbet. We breathed a sigh of relief as this gave us a chance to recover before taking on the next course. The sorbet was cool and refreshing with a strong mango fragrance. I felt it had a very calming effect.

For the entree, we were given a choice of ostrich or rabbit, but instead I opted for the filet mignon aux deux sauces for an extra charge of $5. There were two pieces of steak; one was topped with wild mushrooms while the other was topped with Madagascar peppercorns. Sides included cooked carrots, string beans, mashed potatoes, and roasted potatoes. I had asked for a rare steak, but the smaller of the two steaks was cooked to medium-rare, and so was half of the larger steak. The other half was a nice and red colour — a true rare, and that was delicious with the savoury sauce. The overcooked parts didn't matter though, because I could only manage to finish the rare half of the meat anyway!

Dessert was a choice between mixed berries and creme brulee, and I chose the latter. The custard was creamy and aromatic, but the burnt sugar topping was not very crispy. My friend ordered the mixed berries, and she was shocked at the portion size. Yes, at this point we should've expected it, but she got a HUGE bowl of fresh berries and she could barely finish half of it.

Apart from the drink, the price of this meal was very very good value. The table d'hote portions were large enough to feed two people easily, so this restaurant is great for people with big appetites. Also our waitress provided great service, and was attentive without being intrusive. Food quality was decent, but could use some brushing up. Though I think the extremely large portions more than compensate for the shortcomings in quality.

Gini's on Urbanspoon
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Sunday, September 07, 2014

Coco Deep Fried Chicken

I've noticed that many Korean dramas make references to fried chicken and beer, or "chimek" as they call it ("chi" for chicken and "mek" for mekju, the Korean word for beer). This seems to be the go-to comfort food for failed relationships and work woes, or just a casual takeout meal. And now Edmonton has its own authentic Korean fried chicken store — Coco Deep Fried Chicken.

The store is simple with no fancy decor, but it is quite spacious for what one would consider a takeout joint. Food is ordered at the counter, and eating utensils (paper plates, plastic forks, wooden chopsticks) are self-serve. There is a pretty good selection of domestic and imported beers in the fridge including Korean brand Cass (330mL: $3.99) and Japanese Sapporo (500mL: $4.49).

I ordered a 10-piece half-and-half family pack ($22.99) which includes both crispy chicken and sweet and hot chicken. So what makes Korean fried chicken different from its American counterpart? First of all, the battered chicken is double-fried to create a crunchy, crackly, and non-greasy skin. Secondly, the meat inside is more juicy and moist due to the use of younger chickens.

The same double-fried chicken tossed in a specialty sweet and hot sauce offers a completely different taste. The skin on the marinated chicken is not crunchy but moist with a strong garlic flavour. The sauce is not too spicy with a subtle sweetness that adds to the tanginess.

The 10-piece family pack also comes with a complimentary side dish. This time I got pickled radish cubes, but on other occasions I have also gotten a free can of pop instead. It seems to vary from time to time.

Since I was dining in on this particular visit, I also ordered a large rice ($2.49) and a side of large kimchi ($2.49).

I'm glad to see the chimek craze coming to Edmonton. I tend to crave the foods I see people eating on TV, so next time I see chimek in a Korean drama, I can go and get some too!

Coco's Deep Fried Chicken on Urbanspoon
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Wednesday, September 03, 2014

La Poutine

I was quite excited when I discovered another store in Edmonton that specializes in poutines. I still crave the authentic poutine with squeaky cheese curds from La Belle Patate (Vancouver), and was hoping that La Poutine's offerings would be similar. The ordering process was simple: choose a poutine from the list available, and specify a size (regular/large) and type of gravy (traditional, beef, or gluten-free). I opted for the traditional poutine (reg: $6.19) with no toppings other than the typical cheese curds and gravy. I selected the traditional gravy, a vegan option that was light and not very rich in flavour. Overall I enjoyed this poutine much more than the one at MyFries, but there were some parts I did not appreciate. First of all, the fries were not crispy on the outside; they were not mushy, but just kind of soft. And although the cheese curds did not melt into gooey strings, they were also on the soft side and did not "squeak" as they were not firm enough.

I also tried a bit of the Hawaiian poutine (reg: $8.50) with a topping of smoked meat, crushed pineapples, and BBQ sauce in addition to cheese curds and gravy. The sweet-tart pineapple was refreshing, and worked well to balance the heaviness of the fries, meat, and cheese. Unfortunately the Hawaiian is only a seasonal flavour available in March.

The store was small and cramped, and seemed to be a popular hangout for students due to its location near U of A. Lunch hour was especially busy, so it was difficult getting a table. (The entire store has only 10 seats excluding outdoor seating.) And even with a table, it was not enjoyable dining in because of the cramped surroundings and people coming and going with their takeout orders. Not particularly convenient for me, but I think it's a good takeout option for people studying or working nearby.

La Poutine on Urbanspoon
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Sunday, August 03, 2014

Ginseng Restaurant

I was craving meat one night, so what better place to go than all-you-can-eat Korean BBQ? It's a good thing I don't crave meat often, because I was surprised by the $32/person price tag. And according to new reviews on Urbanspoon, the price has gone up to $33/person. But at least that includes unlimited drinks (Pepsi, iced tea, ginger ale, green tea and coffee).

The alcohol menu had some interesting creations like soju martinis and cocktails.

I ordered the Silk Road ($6), a blend of lychee and grenadine juice on ice with a splash of soju. It was a very fruity cocktail and I thought it was quite tasty. A bit too sweet, perhaps, but I enjoyed the flavour.

There was a small variety of cold dishes including kimchi, salad, bean sprouts, and radish. These were not done well and they all tasted rather bland.

Hot food included fried rice, stir-fried noodles, two soups, two stir-fried dishes, and two deep-fried dishes. The vegetable fritters seemed to be the most popular, as I saw many customers take plate after plate. Indeed the fritters were quite good with a light and crispy batter and savoury veggies inside. This was actually the only item I enjoyed out of the bunch, but I also found it quite heavy and greasy. The seaweed soup was just a bit salty, but didn't have much flavour otherwise. The other bright red soup looked more like a sauce, and seemed much too oily to drink.

Interestingly, the buffet lineup also included a California roll. The sushi looked out of place beside a tray of raw meat, and I didn't dare try it out of fear of contamination.

There were six trays of red meat and three seafood options (mussels, squid, prawns).

Veggie options were much more limited, with only mushrooms and onions for grilling and lettuce leaves for wrapping the meat in. Korean dramas have taught me that the authentic way to eat barbecued meat is to wrap it inside a crisp piece of lettuce.

Fresh orange and melon slices served as a refreshing dessert to complement the meat.

This was truly a dining experience for the carnivore. Korean hot sauce and sweet vinegar sauce were provided on the side, but all of the meats had already been seasoned and marinated, so extra seasoning was really not necessary. I personally enjoyed one of the spicy meats the most.

The staff were quiet and seemed a bit shy, but they were very prompt in replacing the grill once it became too charred. I think our grill was replaced 2-3 times during our meal. This place was not that great in terms of food quality, but I would enjoy hanging out here with friends, grilling meat and having a few soju drinks together.

Ginseng Restaurant on Urbanspoon
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Sunday, July 20, 2014

Devonian Garden - Rose Day High Tea

The University of Alberta's Devonian Botanic Garden hosts an annual Rose Day High Tea in July. The garden is a 40-minute drive to the southwest of Edmonton, just north of a small town called Devon. Admission to the grounds is free with purchase of the high tea, so it's a good opportunity to check the place out. I attended this event last year, and I'm sure it was just as popular this year. I prepaid for tickets online and picked them up at the greeting table outside of the garden entrance. We followed the signs all the way to the Pine Pavilion where tables with settings were already set up for the event.

We were assigned to the Grebe table, which we shared with a few other visitors. Tea was standard black tea served by the pot.

The food was catered and I saw the staff unpacking and loading items onto the tiered towers. Needless to say, the quality wasn't particularly impressive, but I didn't expect too much anyway.

On the bottom tier were the cucumber mozzarella sandwich, shrimp mayo sandwich, and egg salad sandwich. The fillings weren't that great, but the bread was very soft and fluffy.

The dessert tier was probably the most palatable tier. The chewy Florentine, the chocolate cup with cream and stewed cherry, the shortbread with fennel seeds, the macarons, and the chocolate meringue were all quite decent. I really liked the marmalade filling in the orange macaron, and the chocolate meringue tasted similar to the one from Duchess Bake Shop.

The scones were the most disappointing part of the experience. All three flavours (cranberry, blueberry, cheese) were cold, soggy, and undercooked. The strawberry preserve was fresh, but the cream was hard and didn't spread at all.

The high tea was really not the highlight; it just gave me a reason to come visit the garden. What a relaxing afternoon to take a stroll among the greenery after a spot of tea!

Kurimoto Japanese Garden
Tropical Butterfly House
There was also a gift shop at the garden entrance where I picked up a few pairs of fancy chopsticks to take home. Overall it was a nice little visit, and I would recommend taking time out of your busy schedule to come check it out.
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Thursday, July 10, 2014

Palace Casino: Aces Grill - Breakfast

I heard about Aces Grill, a restaurant in West Edmonton Mall's Palace Casino, from a group of seniors who go there for the weekday breakfast special. It costs $3.99 for one of three choices: pancakes, two eggs with toast and hash brown, or ham and cheese omelette. Brewed coffee is complimentary. It sounds like a good deal, but I wouldn't choose to come back again given the lack of service and mediocre food. As expected, the clientele was mainly comprised of seniors, many of whom were regulars. Some of them were just dropping by after an early morning in the casino. Nobody greeted us when we walked in, and I had to walk up to the counter to ask a staff member if we could sit wherever we wanted. She said yes, and we proceeded to seat ourselves. Menus arrived shortly after, but it took a while for the waitress to return to take our order. And after we placed our order, we had to wait nearly half an hour for the food, while the restaurant wasn't even half full!

The food, when it finally arrived, did not look very appealing. The eggs were too brown and the hash brown was dry and lacked oil. I'm not a fan of grease, so I never thought I'd say that. It's obvious in the picture that there is no oil glistening on the potato chunks, which were also under-seasoned and bland. Add on dry toast, and that completes this flavourless dish.

The pancakes were just as underwhelming. No buttery flavour and no fluffiness. The texture was actually kind of mushy. I'd rather have McDonald's hot cakes because they at least have some flavour to them.

I suppose $3.99 is a reasonable price for breakfast, but in terms of value, I'd take IKEA's $1 breakfast over this any day.

Aces Grill on Urbanspoon
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Monday, July 07, 2014

EAT! Vancouver 2014: Food + Cooking Festival

Vancouver guest blogger Py takes us to EAT! Vancouver 2014.

EAT! Vancouver 2014 is a great celebration of food as well as a great snapshot of food trends in Vancouver. I first visited EAT! Vancouver in 2009, when the words "gluten-free", "vegan" and "organic" were just starting to appear in the common vernacular. At EAT! Vancouver 2013, there were much more "gluten-free", "vegan" and "organic" labels, but none so much as this year, when many vendors proudly announced that they were (any or all of the below):
- vegan
- organic
- GMO-free
- vegetarian (can something be vegan but not vegetarian?)
- wheat free
- no preservatives
- all natural
- no MSG
- artificial coloring free
- gluten free
- sugar free
- egg free
- dairy free
- lactose free
- kosher

It got to the point that I would actually take the product and read the ingredients list to see what was actually in the product! This sentiment was echoed by my partner in crime, Mau5, and his parents. As food trends go, this isn't a bad food trend. It makes for healthier eating and living!

Maille, a producer of some very delicious mustard, is one of the newcomers to EAT! Vancouver, and since the food festival, have been appearing at numerous day festivals around Vancouver. In addition to the traditional honey and dijon mustard, they also have "moutarde a l'ancienne": a delicious, spicy mustard that is an emulsion of sauce and multi-colored mustard seeds for an extra textural and gustatory kick.

Granola Girl and Chef Kev, two side-by-side booths, offered healthy granola mix and delicious candied nut mixes. I wonder if they deliberately paired up together; granola with candied nuts sounds like the perfect dual buy!

Dolly's Delicious Treats is a Vancouver-based company that sells deliciously sweet and spicy jelly condiments. At their stand, they had samplers of habanero tequila jelly, red pepper vodka jelly and sangria jelly (alcohol seems to be the common theme here).

Blaze's Beans has the best pickled green beans I have ever tried. They're not cringingly sour, eye-watering spicy, but hover at the limits of being boldly pickled and spiced without crossing over into being intolerable. The other best thing about their beans? Every single bean I've ever tried from Blaze's Beans has given me a crisp crunch when I bite into it. Their canners know what they're doing.

Otimo, selling Brazilian cheese puffs, is another newcomer to EAT! Vancouver. Their puffs can be bought and reheated and puffed up in the oven at home. To my surprise, they're not gooey, hot or greasy, but taste like a nice, slightly heavier, savory version of cream puffs.

Raw Canvas, located in Yaletown, also had a booth at EAT! Vancouver this year. Raw Canvas is a lounge, a wine bar, and a place to paint. While definitely on the pricey side, it's a fun place to go to paint a farewell canvas for a friend or workmate over glasses of wine and delicious charcuterie.

There were two products that made me go WOW this year.
The first is Sriracha Mayo. Yes sriracha plus mayonnaise. Produced by Asian Family, and apparently appearing in grocery stores like T&T, it is a taste combination that at first, results in quizzical eyebrows being raised, before putting all doubts to rest. It is surprisingly and brilliantly delicious. It is mayonnaise with a kick, mayonnaise in 3D. Go try it.

The other is Pulo. Pulo is a company that specializes in Philippino sauces for cooking, use as a marinade, and seriously, just as a topping on rice. It's delicious, and makes me wonder what I've been missing in Philippino food and culture all these years.

While EAT! Vancouver has become a little typical in its offerings, it is nevertheless a great place to discover new foods and tastes (sriracha mayo, Pulo), food and drink clubs (like Tea Sparrow), and to observe food fads (gluten free, dairy free, vegan, sugar free, GMO-free, egg free cookie, anyone?)
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