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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Saturday, January 03, 2015

Japonais Bistro

I've wanted to visit Japonais Bistro ever since it opened. After all, it is the second izakaya to open in Edmonton (that I know of) after Izakaya Tomo in the South. Of course, the thing to get at in izakaya is alcohol, so I tried the sake sampler ($10.95) which included 1.5 oz each of Hakkaisan Honjozo, Wind Water Man Junmai, and Takara Nigori. It was a decent portion for sampling purposes.

The saba pressed sushi ($14.95) was quite good with onion chips, but I found it a bit dry as it lacked sauce. The description on the menu advertised "yuzu miso", but this was absent in the sushi. Miku in Vancouver still makes the best pressed sushi I have tried to date!

The pizza sushi ($8.95), unlike the one at Mikado, was coated in a thin layer of fried batter. The rice itself was like a sticky pancake, and individual grains were not visible. I prefer Mikado's version with unfried rice, but this tasted pretty good too with the sweet soy sauce and mayo and toppings of raw salmon, scallops, and avocado.

Viv ordered a bento box which I did not try, but it looked way too big for one person to finish.

At Viv's insistence, I ordered the matcha creme brulee ($7.95) for dessert. The presentation was excellent with a pretty fork pattern created with icing sugar. Tastewise it was just okay. Not something I would spend $8 on.

Apart from the saba, I didn't really get a chance to try the nigiri sushi here. Next time I'm interested in trying the omakase ($75/person).

Japonais Bistro on Urbanspoon
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Friday, January 02, 2015

Sushi Sugoi

The first time I went to Sushi Sugoi was in March 2014, shortly after it first opened. At the time, the place was still working out a few kinks and the food took a while to come. I also found out that the owners were most likely Korean, as most of the staff spoke Korean amongst themselves.

We were given hot towels on this first visit, but they have done away with this in subsequent lunch visits. I think they still offer hot towels during dinner time though.

The sashimi bento ($15) was a good price for lunch, and consisted of miso soup, salad, fruit, sashimi, tempura, teriyaki chicken, and a bowl of rice. The salad and fruit were very fresh, but the rest of the food was just average. The teriyaki chicken, in particular, was rather disappointing in its rubbery texture and lack of flavour.

I also ordered two "special rolls": the Fiji Island and Magma, both of which seem to have been removed from their menu, and perhaps for good reason. I found both rolls to be below average, bland, and lacking flavour. The rice was loosely packed and fell apart easily. The Fiji Island roll ($15) below was supposed to have pineapple as a filling, and I thought the chef had forgotten it, but it turned out there was only one tiny piece of pineapple in the whole roll.

The Magma roll ($17) was supposed to have hot sauce, but it was not in the least bit spicy. (And I'm quite sensitive to spiciness.) It also lacked flavour despite the seemingly abundance of sauce on the plate, since the filling ingredients were bland and not seasoned at all.

The best dish of the visit was the truffle oil sampler nigiri ($18). Nigiri is where Sushi Sugoi shines because their fish is usually very fresh. However, I was disappointed in the lack of variety since I had expected 6 different types of fish instead of only 3 for the price of $18.

Due to the general disappointment in this first visit, I did not return for a few months. But after some coworkers brought me here for lunch again, I have been quite pleased with the nigiri sushi. The fish is fresh, the portions are decent, and the prices are reasonable. Also, they have improved on the rice and it is no longer loosely packed. So I have been back several times since, and I always order the nigiri.

Sushi Sugoi on Urbanspoon
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Thursday, January 01, 2015

Spring Cafe

Spring Cafe is one of the worst food establishments I have visited recently (or ever). I saw a lot of advertisements for this place on local Chinese papers where they promoted Macau specialty food items such as the pork chop bun and the Portuguese egg tart. The Macau style pork chop bun ($5) was the size of a slider. The bun had been toasted to a crisp and was completely dry with no moisture at all. The pork chop inside still had the bone attached, and was very oily with minimal seasoning (just salt perhaps). There were no other toppings or sauces in the bun, so the thing was dry and flavourless.

As I have been craving a good Portuguese egg tart similar to Lord Stow's, I was pretty excited to give this place a try. Well this Portuguese egg tart ($2.25) did not even qualify as a regular egg tart. My failed baking experiment tasted a hundred times better. The crust was neither puff pastry nor shortbread pastry; it was simply a dry, chewy, and extremely oily shell. The filling was a chunky pudding with an overdose of artificial vanilla flavouring. The tart was served lukewarm, and tasted like a leftover pastry that had been reheated multiple times.

This is a Hong Kong style cafe after all, so I also tried a bowl of Hong Kong style fish balls noodle soup ($5.95). The noodles were thick and slightly undercooked, the "soup" tasted like water with a bit of chicken extract powder, and the veggies were also undercooked and crunchy. This bowl of noodle soup was pretty much flavourless, and I honestly would've preferred a bowl of instant noodles to this.

Maybe I was just really "lucky" and ordered the worst dishes possible, but if 3 out of 3 items are bad, then I think it's fair to say it's a strikeout.

Spring Cafe on Urbanspoon
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