Thursday, May 18, 2017

Splash Poke - Hawaiian Poke Bowl

I have been waiting for Splash Poke to open for some time now, having seen their storefront on Jasper and 109 St with a "Coming Soon" sign for several months. I didn't plan on attending their grand opening on Tuesday night, but somehow I found myself in a line that snaked around the corner of the block and lasted for 3 hours that night.

For those who don't know, a poke bowl is a rice bowl topped with raw fish chunks tossed with various toppings and sauces. It originated in Hawaii where poke means "to cut into pieces", and it's basically a chopped up and dressed up version of Japanese chirashi.

First let's take a look at the menu. The concept of Splash Poke is very similar to Subway, where you can customize your order to your liking. To make it simple, pricing is based on scoops of protein. I would recommend ordering the double or triple splash (2 or 3 scoops).

For those who don't want to bother with customizing, there are 4 "Splash Favourites" to choose from. These cost the same as the double splash since they all have 2 scoops of protein each.

The setup in the store is the same as Subway as well. All of the available ingredients are displayed behind the counter. Customers can pick and choose, and watch their food being prepared. As I approached the front of the line, the first guy took my order and scooped the rice into the bowl. Then the next guy mixed my choice of protein with sauces and mix-ins, and finally the last person added toppings and garnish. The whole process took several minutes, and was further complicated by the fact that the tall glass partition between us was rather soundproof and the staff and I could barely hear each other above the background noise. We basically had to yell, and my order was heard wrong several times. Hopefully this will not be a problem in the future when things quiet down and there are less customers in the store.

At the end of the lineup was the cashier, who accepted payment and kindly asked if I was interested in dessert. Currently the only dessert option is ice cream mochi. Beside the cashier was a glass display case that housed drinks and grab-and-go orders that had already been prepared ahead of time. I don't think many people went for grab-and-go that night after waiting 3 hours in line, but I'm sure it will be a popular option for the lunch crowd in the future. Speaking of, I'm not even sure if Splash Poke is open for lunch. Try as I might, I could not find their opening hours anywhere. If anyone knows their hours, please let me know.

So after an excruciatingly long wait, I finally got my hands on a customized poke bowl. Since there was a 15% discount on opening night, I splurged and got a triple splash with salmon, scallop, and ahi tuna which was an extra $1. But oh my goodness, it was so worth it. The ahi tuna had a much firmer texture than the regular tuna, and a much more distinct flavour as well. The raw seafood was really fresh, and all of those sauces and toppings just brought everything together so well. Call me crazy, but I almost felt like the wait was worth it as I inhaled my bowl in a matter of minutes.

One issue I noticed was that the rice and the protein were not apportioned equally among different bowls. The rice was not measured in any way and the staff was just eyeballing it. From what I observed, some bowls had less rice and some had way more. As for the protein, the staff used a scoop to measure, but some scoops were not full and some were more than full. I think this is something that needs to be addressed in the future. But in any case, Splash Poke is definitely worth trying and I already have a craving for another tasty poke bowl.

Splash Poke Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Monday, March 27, 2017

Cafe Linnea - High Tea

After years of waiting, there is finally a new high tea place in Edmonton! Cafe Linnea, a recent addition in the same strip mall as Duchess Atelier (Duchess Bake Shop's cooking school), offers high tea every Sunday with two seatings at 3 pm and 3:30 pm. Walk-ins are not accepted and high tea tickets need to be purchased in advance on their website for the hefty price of $55/person. The good news is that this price includes GST and gratuities already. In fact, Cafe Linnea is a no tipping establishment.

I arrived shortly before 3 pm and the doors were locked. They open right on the dot, so don't bother going early or you'll be sitting in your car or standing outside waiting for the doors to open. The restaurant was very bright and open, thanks to high ceilings and large skylights and windows.

The menu listed the offerings of the day including a pot of tea, an amuse-bouche, 5 savoury items and 10 dessert items.

Tea and free refills are already included with the high tea. Other drinks and add-ons are available for a surcharge.

The amuse-bouche was a warm, thick and creamy Gruyere soup. It basically tasted like gooey melted cheese with the added zest of red pepper oil.

Tea arrived shortly after with milk, cream and sugar served on the side. Everyone had their own individual teapot with the tea of their choice. The staff actually steeped the loose leaf tea ahead of time and served the tea at the correct strength with no tea leaves left inside the pot. That does take away the customers' ability to make the tea stronger or weaker to their liking, but I found it a nice touch as I didn't have to worry about removing the tea leaves myself.

I loved the modern presentation of the staggered tiers instead of the traditional tower with round plates.

The picture below shows the portion for one person. It doesn't look like a lot, but it's very filling!

Overall the desserts were all spectacular and impressive. From the top tier from left to right:
1) raspberry pate de fruit - very tart and fruity, tasted more like blackcurrant to me
2) shortbread - soft and crumbly with a light buttery taste
3) macaron - light brown one had banana cream filling, pink one had cream filling with a jam centre
4) blueberry banana tart - who knew banana and blueberries could go so well together?
5) marshmallows - coconut and strawberry, very sweet with delicate flavours
6) French pastry - basically a piece of puff pastry, can't go wrong with that
7) scone - flaky with white chocolate chunks but not too sweet
8) jam and creme fraiche - went well with the scone
9) madeleine - bite-size (too tiny!), moist and fluffy with a light and refreshing lemon flavour
10) eclair - chocolate-covered with a matcha cream filling

The savoury items on the bottom tier were not as consistent in quality. From left to right:
1)  spiced beans on sourdough
This was the worst item of the lot. It tasted like an Indian curry that was too spicy and too greasy. I got yellow oil all over my mouth from eating this. I noticed that all three customers sitting at the table beside mine left this item almost completely untouched. They packed other leftovers to take home, but left this on their plates.
2) foie gras cinnamon bun
I'm not sure who came up with the idea to pair foie gras with cinnamon bun, and while it may sound innovative in concept, it did not do well in execution. The creamy foie gras was lightly seasoned with salt and tasted great by itself, but the flavour and texture really did not go well with the large chunk of hard and slightly stale cinnamon bun on the bottom.
3) shrimp cocktail
This was actually one of the best items on this tier along with the devilled egg. The piquant cocktail sauce complemented the shrimp well. Honestly I would've preferred a larger portion of the shrimp and less fois gras and spiced beans. In fact, I wouldn't mind skipping the spiced beans completely...
4) devilled egg, house bacon, sprouts
Though a bit hard in texture, the bacon was very meaty and flavourful and went well with the egg.
5) cucumber, Comte, brioche
I expected the brioche bread to be soft, but it was actually a dry and crunchy piece of toast. Apart from that, this was just your average cucumber and cheese open-faced sandwich.

In conclusion, I enjoyed all of the dessert items and about half of the savoury items. Service was top-notch and surpassed the service I've received at the Fairmont Macdonald afternoon tea. My server provided a great introduction and explanation of the menu, and was also very attentive to my needs. The seating was comfortable and the environment was suitable for a relaxing afternoon chat with family or friends. In my opinion, this high tea experience was worth the price paid and would be a good option for a special occasion.

Café Linnea Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Have Mercy Southern Table & Bar

Have Mercy is a relatively new addition near Whyte Ave, located on the second floor above El Cortez. Once you walk up the stairs into this Southern bar, you're surrounded by loud and upbeat music. This is not a place to sit and chat, but a place to hang out and have a drink or two.

Disclaimer: I was invited to try out the recently revamped fall/winter menu for 2016, so the meal was on the house except for the extra drink I paid for.

The drink menu features a number of cocktails, almost all consisting of at least 2 oz of liquor. And with all that ice in the cup, I would say these drinks are pretty strong. My favourite out of the three I've tried was the sherry cobbler ($12) on the right below. It also had the most alcohol content (2.5 oz), but it was smooth and fruity and went down easy. The other two I had were the gin cocktail #6 ($12) and rattlesnake ($12) topped with foamy egg white, both very good cocktails in their own right. Complimentary pretzels were served with the drinks, and I must say the golden BBQ sauce was very addictive! It was smoky and tangy with just a bit of heat.

I'm not very familiar with Southern cuisine, so I thought the idea of shrimp and grits ($13) as a starter was interesting because I always thought of grits as a breakfast food (and not a particularly appealing one either). However, the grits in this dish was not bland as I had expected, but very savoury and rich combined with the slightly spicy sausage gravy. Surprisingly, I enjoyed the grits more than the shrimp.

The jalapeno queso dip ($12) was very rich and gooey with quite a good kick to it. But this starter needs to be eaten quickly because the cheese solidifies as it cools and loses that stringy gooey consistency.

Fried chicken and donut ($18) is one of the most popular entrees here, and for good reason. The chicken was tender and the coleslaw was refreshing. I would've liked a bit more coleslaw to balance out all of the fried food though. I did not think that chicken and donut go so well together, but the combination works just like beef and Yorkshire pudding. Also the advantage of getting this dish is that there's no need to order dessert because you can just save half of the donut for last.

The picture below is a half order of the Memphis dry rub pork ribs ($18), which is a pretty good portion for one person. I liked how the meat was not too dry and came off the bone easily. The seasoning was flavourful but not overly intense. However, the side of molasses BBQ beans was overwhelmingly salty and bitter. I think there was too much BBQ sauce and/or molasses, and I was unable to take more than a couple spoonfuls.

I really liked the vibe of this place and would return for drinks and snacks. Also I think the fried chicken and donut dish is something I will develop a craving for from time to time.

Have Mercy Southern Table & Bar Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Narayanni's Indian Buffet

Narayanni's, an Indian buffet restaurant that has been serving dinner for 9 years, recently started serving a $12 lunch buffet as well, and they have kindly invited me to give it a try. The restaurant is located on 81 Ave and 102 St with plenty of parking out front.

Lunch Buffet Hours: Tue-Fri (11:30 am - 1:30 pm)
Dinner Buffet Hours: Tue-Sat (5:30 pm - 9 pm)
Closed Sunday and Monday

The exterior of the restaurant did not seem very impressive, so I was surprised to find that the decor inside was quite fancy and elegant. One thing that struck me in particular was how clean and neat everything was. The floor was spotless (not a crumb in sight), and all of the tables were squeaky clean. This is probably one of the cleanest restaurants I have ever been to.

The seating area is comfortable and spacious, with booth and table seating on both sides of the central buffet table. The restaurant is actually quite big and can accommodate large groups.

While the food was delicious, the selection was limited and most of the dishes were vegetarian. Meat lovers who like to pile butter chicken and lamb curry onto their plate at Indian buffets would not appreciate this place, but Narayanni's is perfect for vegetarians, vegans, and people who prefer a lighter meal. For starters, the lunch buffet serves up a soup and salad that change daily. The soup and salad of the day for me were vegetable curry soup and traditional wedding salad. I could tell the veggies in the salad were very fresh and crunchy. The soup was very flavourful and thick, but it was a bit too heavy for me. Great flavour, but I almost felt like I was drinking a sauce.

The lunch buffet consists of 4 main dishes: chicken curry and 3 vegan dishes that rotate daily. The chicken is locally sourced, free-range, and hormone/antibiotic-free. On the day I visited, the vegan dishes were dhal with eggplant, mushrooms and chana masala, and butternut squash. I really enjoyed the spicy eggplants and sweet butternut squash. There was also a dessert of cinnamon infused rice pudding to wash it all down and help alleviate the spiciness. I was impressed to find that all of the food is free from MSG, preservatives, artificial flavours and colours, and the sauces do not contain cream.

Unlike most other Indian buffet restaurants, Narayanni's does not serve naan bread. They serve something different and much better in my opinion — a flaky and buttery pancake known as the roti. It is pretty much the same as the roti canai found in Malaysian restaurants, but I found it just a bit crispier and firmer in texture. The roti is not part of the buffet, and would have to be ordered on the side.

Drinks are also not included in the buffet, but this traditional chai tea is worth a try. It is prepared with a secret blend of hand-ground spices and is especially comforting on a cold day. On the first sip, the creaminess reminded me of a warm cup of cocoa. Then the chai flavour kicks in, but the spice is gentle and not overpowering. It's actually not a very strong tea; it's more soothing and comforting.

Narayanni's prides itself in using top quality ingredients (locally sourced whenever possible), and that is apparent in the food they serve. They show their commitment to healthy eating by hosting a vegan dinner buffet every Tuesday for only $15/person! I would love to give this a try even though I'm not vegan. I'm looking forward to my next visit, and when I come back, I will definitely order a cup of hot chai and a roti to go with it.

Narayanni's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Sunday, November 08, 2015

Kazoku Ramen

When I first moved to Edmonton, Nomiya was probably the only place that served ramen. Thankfully in the past few years, other Japanese restaurants like Japonais Bistro have started serving ramen as well. And as of Oct 15 of this year, we now have Kazoku Ramen, a new restaurant specializing in ramen in the west end.

There are currently 5 types of ramen:
kazoku ($15), tonkotsu ($14), miso ($13), shoyu ($13), shio ($12)
I was told that kazoku is made with minimal seasoning (though I still found the broth quite salty), and it's also the only bowl that comes with a full soft-boiled egg instead of just half. It was a good portion compared to the ramen from Japonais Bistro. Apart from the egg, toppings included 3 thinly sliced pieces of char siu, seaweed, bamboo shoots, corn, wood-ear fungus, beansprout, green onion, and even toasted sesame seeds served separately in a suribachi (Japanese mortar)!

The dessert menu consisted of only 3 items: waffle-yaki ($6), purin ($4.5), and matcha ice cream ($3). I was interested in the waffle-yaki, a waffle sandwich with red bean filling topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. When I first tried to order, the server told me it was sold out as the chef might not have time to mix more batter. But my disappointment was short-lived, as the chef agreed to make more after all! I love waffles and I love red bean, so needless to say, I really enjoyed this dessert. However, I did find the texture of the waffle slightly mushy.

I was tempted to visit Kazoku when it first opened, but I'm glad I waited because new restaurants usually need some time to run smoothly. And of course the first couple weeks are always too busy as everyone in town wants to try the new place out. But I think the hype has settled now, as the restaurant was only about 70-80% full on a Saturday night. There have been some reviews about poor service, but I have not found that to be the case. I received a rather comprehensive explanation of the menu items when I asked, and when I finished the ramen, more than one server came to ask if I was ready for dessert and promptly collected the empty bowls. Also at the end of the meal, a lady whom I think is the owner went around the tables to ask customers if they enjoyed their food. Taking into account portion size, taste, and service, I think Kazoku is currently the best ramen place in town, so give it a try if you haven't already.

Kazoku Ramen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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Wednesday, September 09, 2015

Sorrentino's South - 21st Annual Mushroom Harvest

After my visit to the new Buco Pizzeria in St Albert, I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend another Sorrentino's event — the 21st Annual Mushroom Harvest. This is a month-long event (September) at all Sorrentino's locations in the city including sister restaurant Bistecca, though Bistecca's menu offerings are different and less extensive. Last week, I was invited to a media event at Sorrentino's South location that showcased almost all of their Mushroom Harvest menu items this year. In past years, I have tried a couple of Mushroom Harvest dishes at Bistecca and I was happy with them. But this year, I think Sorrentino's really outdid themselves. And remember, I generally dislike mushrooms (in fact, I hate them), so I'm especially impressed that Sorrentino's managed to get me to lick the plate clean with all these mushroom dishes.

Starters (right to left):
1) Cream of Wild Mushroom Soup
This is the only dish I did not particularly enjoy. I expected a smooth and creamy consistency, but the soup was a coarse mixture of mushroom bits and cream like the ingredients had just been dropped together into a blender. I also found it a bit too salty, which was further enhanced by the sherry infusion.
2) Mushroom Salad
The salad was pretty standard with a refreshing lemon vinaigrette. Mushrooms were well-seasoned and did not have any grassy taste.
3) Wild Mushroom Fritelle
My absolute favourite starter! The fritelle was basically a moist cake doughnut with specks of savoury mushroom inside. I would call this a dessert disguised as a starter. If I could only order one dish, it would be this one.
4) Stuffed Portobello
I was slightly apprehensive of this one since I never enjoyed the taste of portobello mushrooms. But the way this was prepared was quite nice, and honestly the goat cheese filling dominated the flavour, along with the crunchy pine nuts topping.

Before going into the entrees, I would like to mention some of the drink pairings we sampled. The first was La Marca Prosecco, a light and crisp sparkling wine with fresh citrus notes. For the month of September, this drink is available in mini individual bottles as pictured, so you don't need the whole table to participate in order to enjoy some bubbly. I don't have pictures of the other featured wines, but they are the Santa Cristina Le Maestrelle and Tenuta San Guido Le Difese, both red wines exclusively available at Sorrentino's. Apparently you can't find them anywhere else in Alberta.

Risotto and Ravioli
5) Risotto
Made with Carnaroli rice, this soft and creamy risotto is the perfect comfort food with a mild flavour that complements the grilled shrimp and lobster mushroom. Maybe it's partly due to the shrimp's flavour absorbing into the mushroom, but I think the lobster mushroom actually has a distinct seafood taste to it. No wonder Executive Chef Sonny Sung claims this is his favourite mushroom!
6) Wild Mushroom Ravioli
A well-executed pasta with a delightful savoury filling. The ravioli was al dente, which is actually pretty rare since most places make them soft.

7) Veal and Mushrooms
For me, the highlight was the salted caramel sauce. It was delicate and savoury, and perfectly complemented the meat.
8) Catch of the Month
September's catch is the cobia, poached in San Benedetto mineral water (fancy!). Cobia has large flakes with a firm texture and mild flavour. I prefer tender and fatty fish, so this fillet wasn't for me. But just like the veal, the sauce really made this dish. The beautiful thyme lemon chardonnay reduction was light and refreshing.

9) Grand Marnier Rice Pudding
The rice pudding is similar in texture to the risotto, except it's not as creamy and a bit more sticky. I could definitely taste the Grand Marnier (kind of like how you can taste the rum in a rum cake). Not my cup of tea, but I really enjoyed the sweet candy cap mushrooms. (Yes, candy cap is a type of mushroom!) They have a rich and aromatic maple syrup flavour. Very unique indeed.

I was impressed with the Mushroom Harvest dishes at Bistecca, but now I am even more impressed. I need to remember to make a reservation at Sorrentino's before the Mushroom Harvest ends. Must-try dishes? The wild mushroom fritelle for sure, and either the risotto or ravioli (or both!). Sorrentino's will also be hosting a number of events throughout the month. Find out more on their website: Click here!

Sorrentino's South Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato
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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.

Click to add a blog post for Buco Pizzeria + Vino on Zomato
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