Thursday, July 30, 2015

Buco Pizzeria + Vino

Buco Pizzeria + Vino is the newest member of the Sorrentino's family. This casual yet trendy restaurant is located in St Albert and will be opening to the public this Saturday August 1. I attended a sneak peek on Sunday, and it was a great experience true to its name, with good pizza and good wine. Loved the prosecco! So light and crisp and bubbly.

The pizzaiolo (read pizza chef) hails all the way from Naples, Italy, and he makes the pizza in this fiery wood-burning oven. These are guaranteed to be authentic Neapolitan pizzas!

The first to make its debut was the margherita pizza, a signature Neapolitan pizza fashioned after the colours of the Italian flag. This is probably the pizza of choice for a true Neapolitan. I was sitting next to the owner's mother-in-law and she specifically requested a couple slices of margherita pizza for dinner.

I tried several different kinds of pizza that night, but my absolute favourite was the quattro-formaggi (below right), the four-cheese pizza. The cheeses were just so rich and aromatic, blended together in warm and gooey strings of satisfaction.

The assistant corporate chef kept busy shaving various cured meats and preparing bruschetta with the other staff. I tried the one topped with pancetta (Italian bacon), roma tomato, and basil. I'm not a fan of bruschetta, but I liked that the bread was not too greasy and I was pleasantly surprised that Italian bacon had a more delicate flavour and was not nearly as dry and intense as regular bacon.

Other appetizer choices include a variety of carne and formaggi (meat and cheese), as well as salads such as the buco chop salad below. It was a mix of romaine lettuce, cherry tomato, and chickpeas. The meats were tasty, but salads are not Buco's forte. When I visit next time, I don't think I'll be ordering any salads. Instead I'll focus on the pizza and antipasti.

Talking about antipasti, the cauliflower goat cheese fritters were something new to me. They were little balls of batter with cauliflower embedded inside, a tasty vegetarian alternative to fried meatballs.

I saved the best for last. The prosciutto wrapped figs were also new to me, and I have to say, the salted ham and sweet fig were the perfect pairing. This was so addictive that I wanted a whole plate to myself.

Although my visit was short, I could see that Buco conveyed a strong sense of family and hospitality. The founding family behind the Sorrentino's Group is obviously tight-knit, as pretty much the entire clan showed up to the event, from the grandmother to the grand-kids. The grandmother is a very sweet lady, and she introduced me to every single one of her family members who happened to pass by. And I could see that this sense of family extends to the staff as well. Most of the attendees that night were employees of Sorrentino's, and it was like a giant family reunion. I have no doubt that this hospitality would be extended to the customers as well. I look forward to visiting after the grand opening and trying some pasta and desserts which I missed out on this time.

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Sunday, July 19, 2015

Gama Cafe

Gama Cafe is one of the only places in Edmonton that offers trendy Taiwanese snacks and drinks. I really miss this type of cutesy and semi-pretentious decor that is common among Taiwanese style cafes in Vancouver.

The owner is very talkative if you speak Mandarin, and he kept convincing my friend and I to check in on Facebook for a free gift. The gift turned out to be a small scoop of ice cream.

Complimentary cookies are offered at the beginning of the meal. They look like Kjeldsens butter cookies, but they taste homemade.

Gama's signature drink is the cap tea ($4.95), a Taiwan invention that places frothy cream on top of iced brewed tea. The "cream" is actually made largely of butter, and tasted quite salty by itself. But combine it with the refreshing sweet wintermelon tea on the bottom and the flavour is perfect!

Gama Cafe has a very limited food menu, but it does offer a few hot dishes that include pasta and risotto options (all $14.95). I've tried both the alfredo and basil pasta and the flavours were quite mild. I personally really like it, but others may think it's too bland if they're used to authentic Italian flavours.

I wanted to try the waffle on my first visit, but the owner recommended the Tommi Toast ($14.79) instead. He said waffles can be found anywhere, but the Tommi Toast is a new and more unique trend from Taiwan. Basically these are toasted bread cubes stacked into a tower, cemented together with custard and topped with ice cream and cream. Very good for sharing, but probably too much for just 2-3 people. I also think there's too much custard and cream in general, making it very hard to enjoy more than a few cubes.

I got to try the plain waffles ($9.45) on another visit. The texture was very dense and pillow-like, kind of like a spongy cake. And it was served with the same cream and custard that was in the Tommi Toast. I really didn't like that stuff very much. I actually enjoyed the waffles more than the Tommi Toast because at least I can have this as a meal.

My favourite specialty item at the Gama Cafe is the Taiwanese pancake (a.k.a. wheel cake or 車輪餅, $3.95/order [2 pieces]). There are a variety of flavours including red bean, custard, taro, oreo, chocolate, cheese, etc). The most traditional filling (and also my favourite) is the red bean. I think Gama Cafe is the only place that offers this traditional Taiwanese snack in Edmonton. Please let me know if there are others!

All in all, Gama Cafe is a nice place to catch up with friends. The atmosphere is quiet and private, so it's perfect for chatting. The drinks are unique and tasty, and the dishes are great for sharing. I'm hoping more Taiwanese cafes with more extended menus open in Edmonton!

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Sunday, May 10, 2015

El Cortez Tequila Bar + Kitchen

El Cortez, a Mexican restaurant just off of Whyte Ave, has invited me to join their Cinco de Mayo celebrations on May 5. It was quite a coincidence actually, as I had just dined there the week before. At the time, I did notice the food was a bit different. It turns out the restaurant has just released a new food menu, as well as a reinvented craft cocktail menu (based on tequilas of course, since El Cortez is a tequila bar). And this Cinco de Mayo event was the perfect chance to showcase the new offerings. It was a bit cold that evening, and as the event was held outside in the patio, I was pleased to find that the heat was on and blankets had been thoughtfully laid out for guests.

On one side of the patio, staff from Calgary's Rodney's Oyster House were busy shucking away for a good portion of the evening. The El Cortez folk really know how to throw a party. All-you-can-eat raw oysters? I'm in. I didn't realize how much I missed Rodney's, or any good oyster place really. There is definitely a shortage of oyster bars in Edmonton.

West Coast - smaller but sweet, the more popular choice
East Coast - fat and juicy, but more brine
In addition to raw oysters, there were also free cigars. My friend convinced me to try it, but can't say I'm hooked.

As the early comers sat and indulged in oysters and cigars, the appetizers started making their rounds. The first was ceviche, with a choice of tuna or swordfish. I found the tuna too mushy, but the swordfish was nice and firm with good flavour and a complementing accompaniment of avocado and tomatoes.

Next up were spicy chorizo meatballs and pork tenderloin served with salsa. El Cortez did a good job with the sauces and seasoning. Flavours were intense, but not overwhelmingly so.

Tacos are usually the main focus of a Mexican restaurant, and El Cortez serves up a variety of different fillings. I tried the beef and fish, and as previously mentioned, the meat was seasoned perfectly with just the right amount of sauce and garnishes. The tortilla, however, did not really capture my heart. I was told it was made in house and it tasted fine, but I would much prefer traditional corn tortilla to this mixed corn and flour tortilla. It didn't have the full corn flavour, and the texture was a bit doughy and gummy.

I have to say, the cauliflower was pretty amazing. One of the guys sitting next to me kept raving about it. It was like the veggie version of sweet and sour pork. The sauce was an appetizing bright orange with sharp tangy notes.

I finished off with a freshly fried churro in warm gooey chocolate sauce. I don't normally enjoy churros too much, but this was light and moist with no greasy aftertaste. I would definitely order this for dessert next time.

Blue Hour Tequila came to advertise their spirits and served up a few tasty cocktails.

These included a lemonade, a tamarind drink, and a Manhattan, all made with the Blue Hour brand tequila. My favourite was the tamarind (lower left). As my friend put it, it was like a spiked chai with rich and aromatic spices.

Overall, I enjoyed the food and drinks at El Cortez. The flavours were bold, but subdued enough to allow one to finish the entire dish without overstimulating one's taste buds. There is an art in this balance, and El Cortez is pretty good at it.

El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar on Urbanspoon
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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Tea Sparrow Tea Box - Mother's Day Gift Idea!

Mother's Day is soon upon us! If you are having trouble deciding what to buy, why not consider ordering a monthly tea subscription as a gift? Tea Sparrow works with various tea blenders around the world to send out a selection of 4 different loose leaf teas every month for $20/month. Each box contains both caffeinated and herbal options.

Please read my previous post for more details:

Tea Sparrow is still running the promotion that offers the first tea box for only $8. To obtain the promotion, please visit this link:
And enter teas as the promo code.

Once again, I have to thank Tea Sparrow for providing a tea box for me to sample and review. I have been ordering tea boxes from them on and off because I find that I cannot finish a box in just one month. It is convenient to be able to pause and restart the subscription at any time.

April's featured teas were:

Clouds and Mist (organic, caffeinated)
There was a special note about this tea included in the box, so I was most excited to try this one.

It was a light green tea, and I have to say the name is very fitting. It was mild, mellow, very smooth, and had a slight hint of woodiness and smokiness that evoked the image of a wisp of smoke escaping the chimney of a cottage in the mountains. I kept picturing that in my mind as I was sipping this tea.

Organic Cheery Fruit Tea (herbal)
This smooth herbal tea contained some rooibos, but the dominating flavour was dried orange peel. The taste reminded me of dried mandarin orange peels commonly used in Chinese cooking and medicine. I had this tea just before bed, and I felt it was a very soothing tea for the throat and also helped me relax.

Blood Orange Smoothie (herbal)
Oddly enough, this blood orange smoothie blend had less of an orange peel taste than the cheery fruit tea. Instead it had a more floral flavour and I found it quite refreshing. I drank it hot, but I think it would make a very nice iced tea for the summer.

Chocolate Blueberry Organic (caffeinated)
I somehow managed to save the best for last. I really enjoyed this creamy black tea with strong berry notes and just a hint of chocolate. The recommendation was to add honey to make a dessert tea, but I liked it just plain.

Keep in mind that if you find a tea you really like, you can order directly from the tea blender labelled on the bag. For only $8 the first month, Tea Sparrow is definitely worth a try as a gift for someone else or yourself.
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Saturday, May 02, 2015

New Tan Tan - Dim Sum

I've made it a goal to try every dim sum restaurant in the city, so I always keep an eye out for places that advertise dim sum. Well, I've passed by New Tan Tan many times and figured I should give it a try. However, I should probably have stayed away due to numerous warning signs. First of all, I have never heard any mention of it in the Chinese community. Secondly, the restaurant does not even have a Chinese name displayed outside. Later I realized that it actually does have a Chinese name, but the fact that it was not obvious means the restaurant mainly caters to a different audience. This was confirmed when I stepped in and found that there were no other Chinese customers. And instead of being able to choose the tea we wanted, we were simply given a jar of iced water and complimentary green tea. I guess that wasn't really a bad thing since dim sum restaurants usually charge for tea, but I think the tea was free because the food was slightly higher priced. Dishes generally range from $3.50 to $5.50, but most fall in the middle or higher. There are even special dishes that cost $6 to $7! The food was satisfactory, but definitely not worth the price.

Now to get into the food...
The shrimp dumpling was a fail. It actually looked pretty good and the skin appeared to be thin and translucent. Good sign, I thought. But in fact, the skin broke readily as I picked it up with my chopsticks and turned into mushiness as I put it in my mouth.

The next item was flattened beef on a stick. I've never seen something like this at a dim sum restaurant before. Interesting... The meat was so tender that it did not seem natural. Tenderizer powder maybe? But the flavour was quite good with lots of honey brushed on top.

I've read several positive reviews about the cocktail buns, so I got some to try as well. They had a sweet yellow coconut custard filling and tasted alright. Nothing to write home about though.

The other dishes were average at best, and not too memorable.

shrimp wrapped in noodle
BBQ pork buns
chicken feet
eggplant with shrimp
steamed pork and veggie dumplings

The dim sum carts came around frequently, but they always contained the same dishes. I think the restaurant is just not big enough to merit the use of carts. I came for lunch on a Sunday right around noon, and there were only 2-3 carts going around with the same items over and over again. The lack of variety in both food and tea, as well as the elevated prices, would discourage me from returning.

New Tan Tan‎ on Urbanspoon
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