Every Christmas or so I go visit my sister in London, ON—an occasion she looks forward to since she’ll have some company trying out ethnic restaurants that her family of unadventurous eaters aren’t interested in. And every Christmas, I’m thoroughly underwhelmed by the quality of the experience. In recent years I’ve sampled the most middling Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Thai and, this year, Persian cuisine I’ve ever tasted and I wonder if London is some kind of foodie purgatory.
It occurs to me now the more likely answer is that Edmonton, often seen as a bit of a cultural hinterland, is inordinately blessed with great places to eat, from the finest fruits of the global diaspora to the fleet of inventive food trucks patrolling our streets, from our well-established boutique dining rooms to our growing assortment of locally oriented artisanal eating experiences.
There’s no way to do justice to all the good food served to me in 2013, but I humbly offer a random assortment of memorable gustatory moments from the past year, secure in the knowledge that 2014 will be no less surprising and satisfying.
Based on sheer frequency of visits, my favourite restaurant must be Castle Bake (16845 – 109 St), the site of numerous offbeat, vegetarian-friendly weekend brunches. Not only is its Lebanese cuisine fresh, authentic and affordable, but the folks who run the place are surpassingly hospitable and proud of what they do, and the recent renovations have all but effaced the prior donair-shop ambience. While they deal in delicious shwarma, hummus, falafel and other Middle Eastern favourites, sharing Lebanese breakfast staples like fatti (chickpeas, toasted pita and toasted almonds in garlicky yogurt) and ful (simmered fava beans) or the grilled pita wrap with labneh and zataar is a fantastic (and cheap!) way to start the day, along with a cup of sweet black tea with a sprig of fresh mint dropped in it.
By this same metric, my favourite new restaurant (moveable feast category) has to be the Bully Food Truck, which took my lunch money on numerous occasions through seasonable months. In a milieu where you never know if you’ll get adequately filled for under $10, Bully consistently delivered well-rounded meals, whether it’s Philly cheese steak, Vietnamese brisket banh mi or grilled meatloaf in whiskey mushroom gravy with dilled potato salad and marinated onions. By the end of the truck’s season, I had developed a bit of a fixation on its homemade peanut butter cups topped with bacon.
I pride myself on ferreting out hidden gems tucked in our city’s many strip malls, but I can’t believe it took me until 2013 to find Kathir (9318 – 34 Ave), an unpretentious yet outstanding vendor of Southern Indian eats in Mill Woods. The house specialty might be the dosa, a comically large crispy crepe stuffed with curried contents of your choosing and savoury condiments, but the bargain price point encourages experimentation with other unique dishes like idli, sambar and the Sri Lankan-derived kotthu roti.
In the category of local favourites I should have tried a long time ago, I finally got to try Café Amore Bistro (10807 – 106 St), which might have furnished the platonic ideal of a hearty, well-made Italian repast featuring an abundant salad, grilled calamari and perfect smoked salmon penne with baby shrimp. Be sure to book ahead—Amore packs ’em in.
I shared many fantastic higher-end meals with my Very Special Co-diner this year at places like Corso 32, RGE RD, The Common and Canteen (twice), but she agreed with me that the sweetest of our date nights might have transpired at Tavern 1903 in the newly resurrected Alberta Hotel (9802 Jasper Ave), with its open yet cozy interior, excellent service, mind-boggling array of wines by the glass and procession of heavenly comestible delights like the ridiculously succulent spinalis ribeye rolls—possibly the most delicious beef preparation I ate all year—the duck tacos with marinated carrot slaw and dried cherries and the smoked pork ribs in bourbon-molasses glaze, chased with a little jar of Glenlivet butterscotch pudding with candied pretzels.
Tavern 1903 also exemplified a welcome trend in fine dining, the sharing of small plates that enable you to experience a bewildering array of premium flavours in one sitting. I’d say my most extravagant meal of 2013 was at the Wildflower Grill (10009 – 107 St), but it was so densely saturated with sensual delights that it resolved into a hedonic blur in my memory. Guess I’ll have to save up and go back.
As I mentioned above, Edmonton seems almost ludicrously oversupplied with excellent ethnic eateries of many extractions, but 2013 saw the closure of Sabzy, our sole purveyor of Persian cuisine. I hope 2014 sees the Persian gap filled, maybe by more than one establishment, just to make things interesting; I also hope that my former favourite Vietnamese noodle house, Thài Bính, resurfaces in a new location or someone points me in the direction of a reasonable replacement to supply my authentic phở fix.
Correction: Sabzy has not closed. The restaurant relocated to 9314 34 Ave.
Scott Lingley’s Top picks of 2013
Best date night:
Most welcome trends:
Signature restaurants; small plates; more vegan options
Biggest culinary gap:
There is no longer a Persian restaurant in Edmonton.
Nicest pre-show meal
(kids not invited category):
Most extravagant meal:
A replacement for Thài Bính
as my go-to noodle house [/box]