Dish

Seeking Culina pastures

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Even without my wife, Culina cast a romantic gastronomic spell over me

Dinner without my wife? Ridiculous! Having been married only 14 months,
wherever we go, we go together. But she was at her mother’s, and so I
asked a friend to join me at Culina, if for no other reason than I wanted a
second opinion and another meal to sample. The fact that I would be dining in
one of Edmonton’s most romantic spots with a beautiful Japanese writer
was completely lost on me—I swear!

Despite its enviable location, the restaurant felt intimately hidden, a
secret shared between lovers. Tabletop flames flickered through frosted glass
windows, half-lighting an empty patio on a cool October evening. First
impressions were sensual and sensational: warm chocolate and cream tones
enveloped the tables as soft jazz drifted across the room. Since both of us
had skipped lunch, we needed an appetizer right away. However, we forgot
entirely about selection as we lost ourselves in description: the menu,
clipboard-mounted to accommodate a rotating wine list, read like tiny poems
about exquisite dining experiences. Our server returned to perform the
specials, her gestures and words crafting culinary objets d’art in our
appetites. I wanted it all. We gave our drink orders and huddled again over
the menus.

By the time our drinks arrived—rich cappuccino ($3) for me, refreshing
lingonberry soda ($2) for her and water in a chilled white wine bottle (nice
touch) for us both—we had remembered our hunger. We requested the
calamari in sweet coconut-curry sauce ($9) to start, and for the main course,
my guest took the bison meatloaf special ($14) our server had described so
well. For me, would it be the exotic goatcheese and channa dal baked in
phyllo, or the lamb sausage on spinach leaves with chickpeas, asiago and
roast garlic? I was told the chef has a deft touch with meats and I’m a
diehard carnivore, so I went with the lamb ($15).

As I watched the restaurant fill up, my companion told me about her last
experience at Culina—a Saturday brunch of bacon and eggs on the
grandest scale. She’s loved this place ever since, and her description
of a Sunday night three-course dinner for an incredible $20 made me a
convert. We were just about through our Culina discussion when the appetizer
arrived. I’d never had unbreaded calamari before: tender but not chewy
in a fresh, spicy chutney, it was fantastic. The dish was also about twice
the size I would have expected for “cuisine,” so we were well
satisfied.

Deep into a chat about her enchanting new boyfriend, we fell silent when our
entrées arrived. They deserved fanfare. Size, presentation and aroma
were all off the charts. Nestled beside meatloaf swimming in a sea of gravy,
her mashed potatoes peeked out from under melted cheese. Two lengths of
cobbed corn stood guard over her plate. My dinner, meanwhile, was a symphony
of colour: a bed of fresh spinach was strewn with crisp chickpeas and gilded
with a light garlic sauce. The lamb sausage was tender and savoury, but I
would have traded my magnificent meal for half her bison. Both heavier and
with a stronger flavour than the beef I’m accustomed to, her meatloaf
put the cattle industry to shame.

We had wrapped up a discussion about her upcoming public reading by the time
plates were cleared and dessert broached. Our minds snapped back to an
eloquent description of the overbaked pumpkin cheesecake ($5), but my friend
claimed it first. It turns out that “overbaked” means light, fluffy and
delicious—not at all the kind of dense confection I tend to avoid.
Thrown, I was reaching for the menu when our server stopped me with a
suggestion I couldn’t refuse: cambazola toasts dulce de leche ($5).
Caramelized cream and sugar are drizzled over toasted French bread and thick
slabs of a mild blue cheese are melted on top for a treat that’s
simultaneously crispy, salty and sweet. A $5 pot of the Queen’s Jubilee
black tea with loose flowers, herbs and grasses settled our fantastic meals.
We tottered out of Culina exquisitely satisfied and aware of just how
dangerous a place it is. As friends, we had spent nearly three pleasant hours
over dinner. If this had been a date, who knows what could have happened?
Just don’t tell my wife. V

Culina
9914-89 Ave • 437-5588

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