Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Altos de Luzon: Wine from Jumilla, Spain

Mediterranean Sunshine and Grapes

I am infatuated with Spain and wine. So when Doug Reichel (Doug Reichel Wine Marketing Inc.) suggested that I try Altos de Luzon, a wine from southeast Spain, I leapt at the opportunity. And I’m glad I did as I enjoyed the wine and will buy it again.
Spanish Wine
Spain produces a huge amount of wine, but most of it is sold in Europe. Some regions, such as Rioja, have gained an international reputation, but there are other wine regions which fly under the radar. One of these is Jumilla, in southeast Spain, slightly inland from the Mediterranean.

Altos de Luzon (Jumilla 2005) is one of several wines produced by Bodegas Luzon winery, which was founded in 1916 by a group of winemaking families.

The Luzon vineyards are located in the Jumilla region, south of Valencia and inland from Murcia. It’s a sunny, hot, dry mountain plateau. Grapes have been grown here for over 2,000 years, starting with the Phoenicians, the Romans, and the Moors.

Soil and Climate
Extreme heat does not usually produce great wine, but in Jumilla the heat is tempered by the cool night-time temperatures, which preserve the wine’s acidity, and the local Monastrell grapes do well here. Legend has it that the grapes were first grown in the monasteries of Catalonia, hence the name.

The hot, dry climate means that there are less pests and disease, so a number of local growers, including Luzon, are producing organic wines.

Jumilla has sandy soil containing very little organic material. As a result, it escaped the phylloxera epidemic, which forced most of Europe to replant its vineyards with vines grafted onto American rootstock. So Altos de Luzon benefits from a blend of 50-year old ungrafted Monastrell vines, combined with 25% Tempranillo and 25% Cabernet Sauvignon from 20-year old vines. A healthy blend of old and new.

Robust but Subtle
Now to the important stuff! I really enjoyed the taste of Altos de Luzon and it was a good combination with a rich eggplant moussaka. It has lots of fruity, acidic flavour and compares very favourably with Pinot Noir (one of my personal favourites). I much prefer it to Malbec wines, which are too strong for my taste.

Altos de Luzon 2005 was aged for 12 months in French and American oak (20% new oak). The wine has a smooth, subtle, smoky finish; it’s not agressively oaky. I’ve always wondered why there was such a difference between wine that was aged in French and American oak. Apparently American oak has much bigger pores so the wine absorbs more of the oaky taste.

Mediterranean Diet
The village of Jumilla is located at the foot of a 15th century castle, and there are several bodegas offering wine tastings. The Wine Travel Guide to the World says that a farmhouse on the Luzon estate has been converted to a hotel with its windows overlooking the vineyards, but I was unable to find any additional information.

There are so many good reasons to visit Spain – the wine, the olives, the architecture, the sun. This description of paella, said to originate in nearby Valencia, evokes so many of the things I love about Spain:

“But paella has come to represent a large part of what I love about Spain and why I have chosen to make my home here. It is a dish that embodies the strange contrast of old and new that forms the powerful identity of this country. Its ingredients have been wholly incorporated into the Spanish cuisine and culture, and yet almost none of them are native to the Iberian Peninsula: rice and saffron were introduced by the Moors between the 8th and 11th centuries; the olive tree and its oil were brought by the Phoenicians roughly two millennia earlier; the indispensible pan that the dish is cooked in comes from the Latin word patella, brought by the Romans; even the Spanish wine (whichever of many you choose) that should always accompany your favourite paella has its origins elsewhere.”

Luzon in Saskatchewan
The Luzon wines are brought to Saskatchewan by Doug Reichel Wine Marketing. Altos de Luzon costs approximately $28 in Saskatchewan and is available in the government liquor stores. The Dulce de Luzon dessert wine and the two organic Luzon wines are also excellent.

Further Information:
     Catavino is an informative website/blog about Iberian wines
     Vinos de Jumilla
     Jumilla Spain and Monastrell Grape
     The Mystery and Magic of Murcia
     Doug Reichel Wine Seminars

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Living Sky Winery, Saskatchewan

“really good fruit wines that are as complex and enjoyable as any grape wine”

For so many years, people wanted to get off the farm and live in the city. But the tide appears to have turned as people are deliberately choosing to make a living in the country. But this is farming with a difference – market gardens, fruit orchards, flower farms. And Saskatchewan now has two fruit wineries, one of them very close to Saskatoon.

Living Sky Winery is the dream child of Sue Echlin and Vance Lester. Sue grew up on a ranch in Alberta and Vance is a biologist by training. Sue had 10 horses, and they were growing hay on their farm near Perdue (about 65 km west of Saskatoon), but they were still travelling to the city to earn a living. They wanted to be full time on the farm.

Fruit Wine
They decided to try making fruit wines after a wine touring holiday in BC. Five years ago they planted their orchards – 10 acres of cherries, raspberries, black currant, haskap and rhubarb. (They purchase strawberries from a Hutterite colony.)
Fruit wine is a lot more flexible than grape wine. Sue and Vance hired Dominic Rivard as their winemaker, but Dominic is a consultant. He lives in Nova Scotia and works with a number of different wineries around the world. In fact, when Sue and Vance first contacted him, he was in Thailand setting up a fruit winery.

Dominic, Sue and Vance chose fruit that would grow well in Saskatchewan and that Dominic felt would make good wine. Sue and Vance are responsible for growing and harvesting the fruit. The fruit is then frozen and stored until Dominic comes out to make the wine.

And they don’t know in advance what kind of wine they will be able to make. First of all, it depends on the harvest. There were no cherries this year because of winter kill, but there was a good harvest of black currants. Dominic will test the fruit for sugar and acid levels, and that information will guide the winemaking process.

The fruit ferments for two weeks and is then filtered and clarified. Most fruit wines don’t require aging as they don’t have tannins. They did age their cherry port, and black currants have tannins so they might be able to age them as well. “We’re planning to try to age a port in oak this year,” Sue says.

Environmentally Conscious
Living Sky Winery is not certified organic. However, Sue says that they are very environmentally conscious. “We avoid chemicals if at all possible,” she explains, “and we till to get rid of weeds.”

They moved the Delisle Co-op building onto their farm, and it has a new lease on life. The back end is used to manufacture the wine, while there is a small tasting area at the front.

There are no neck wraps on the bottles because they’re unnecessary, and Living Sky Winery relies on online marketing (website, Facebook, Twitter) rather than print materials.

“Our biggest challenge is convincing people that you can make really good fruit wines that are as complex and enjoyable as any grape wine,” says Sue.

I’ve just finished a bottle of rhubarb wine, and it was great. Fruit has a lot of sugar, so it can’t be as dry as grape wine. But it’s an awesome option for people who like a slightly sweeter wine or who enjoy port and dessert wines.

The second challenge is based on location. “It’s a whole different ball game from BC,” Sue says. “Sourcing equipment is difficult when you’re so far away from the industry. Let alone getting delivery trucks to find your farm.”

There is a second fruit winery in Saskatchewan, so perhaps this will be less of a challenge in the future. Cypress Hills Vineyard & Winery is just off the Trans Canada Highway and close to Maple Creek and Fort Walsh.

Living Sky Winery is currently selling Rhubarb, Raspberry and Strawbarb table wines, a Framboise dessert wine and a Juliett cherry port. The port won a bronze in the 2010 Canadian Wine Awards. And I’ve just learned on Twitter that they hope to start making cider in 2011.

Sue and Vance started selling their wines at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market two weeks ago, and they hope to have a permanent booth in January. You can also contact the Winery and make arrangements for shipping, pick up or home delivery (Saskatchewan only).

Taj Mahal restaurant now serves Living Sky wines, and Sue hopes that they will be able to sell more wine directly to restaurants in the future. “Some BC wineries sell 100% of their wine to restaurants,” she says.

Once the good weather returns, I’m looking forward to driving out to the winery for a tour and tasting. Tours are by appointment only. “We want to be able to spend some time with people,” Sue says. “We don’t want people to just taste and leave.”

Good luck, Sue and Vance. Living Sky Winery is a welcome addition to our province.

Note: Mooberry Winery in Parksville, Vancouver Island is also a fruit winery.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Great Places to Eat in Edmonton

local food, lots of vegetarian options

I have written in depth about some of the great places to eat in Edmonton – Blue Plate Diner, d’Lish, Wild Tangerine. Here’s a brief review of some other places where I had a really good meal.

Moriarty’s Bistro and Wine Bar (downtown Edmonton)
Nothing defines a holiday better than a relaxed lunch in sophisticated surroundings. Other customers were having a serious business lunch; I was sipping my wine and enjoying an incredibly decadent dessert. It would be worth a trip to Edmonton just for the apple and pear tart with its rich, buttery red wine caramel sauce.

Moriarty’s, at 10154 100 Street, is next door to the Sherlock Holmes Pub and just up the street from the Citadel Theatre. They have an extensive list of wines by the glass, with an enosystem ensuring a broad selection of fresh wines.

Moriarty’s is a member of Original Fare, a group of independent restaurants that emphasize local food.

Café Mosaics (Whyte Avenue)
Imagine! A restaurant that serves nothing but vegetarian food. What a treat! I had a grilled tofu sandwich with mushrooms, onions, red pepper and cheese slices that was moist and flavourful. The vegan chocolate cake was a little odd, but it came with a huge scoop of chocolate mousse that was excellent.

Café Mosaics is located at 10844 82 Avenue NW. It’s young and funky with a colourful, cheap décor. It wasn’t elegant, but it was welcoming and flavourful.

Highlevel Diner (South Edmonton)
Highlevel Diner is an Edmonton culinary institution with a 28-year history. Directly south of the Highlevel Bridge, it is a busy restaurant with a menu to suit every taste. People of all ages will feel comfortable here. Sunday brunch appeared to be very popular with a line extending out the door and around the corner.

Food is purchased from local suppliers – “responsible growers who care as much about nutrition and health (both yours and the planet’s) as we do.” The eggs Florentine arrived piping hot, and the website reassured me that the eggs were from locally-raised, free-range chickens.

Culina Mill Creek (South Edmonton)
This small restaurant was jam-packed at lunchtime on a Friday, but the service was fast and the food was awesome. Located at 9914 89th Avenue, they describe themselves as a friendly, neighbourhood café, but that description does their fine cuisine a disservice.

Culina Mill Creek is a member of Slow Food Edmonton and supports local businesses and suppliers, including Cally’s Teas. The Persian Flatbread Sandwich with Quinoa Salad was absolutely amazing.

Cally’s Teas (South Edmonton)
Cally’s Teas (8608 99 Street) is a tea-themed gift shop just south of Culina Mill Creek. It is jam-packed with an extensive range of teas (both house blends and well-known international suppliers). There is an eclectic collection of china and small items that defies description. It was great fun to browse while sipping the cup of tea provided when I walked in the door.

     Blue Plate Diner
     Credo Coffee    
     d’Lish Urban Kitchen and Wine Bar
     Wild Tangerine

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Alley Kat Brewing, Edmonton

small is beautiful - and profitable

I ventured deep into Edmonton’s south industrial area to find the home of Alley Kat beers. Alley Kat was founded in 1995 and is the longest-running microbrewery in Edmonton.

Their first beer, Aprikat, remains their most popular and reminded me of a fruit cooler. They add apricot extract to the conditioning tanks, and it is sweet with lots of fruit flavour. They also make Alley Kat Amber brown ale, Charlie Flint’s organic lager and Full Moon pale ale (double the hops – oof!) on an ongoing basis.

Alley Kat produces approximately one million bottles of beer annually. They sell primarily to Alberta as well as a little to Saskatchewan, but they also send 300-400 kegs of Full Moon to a bar in Seoul, Korea, each month.

An Edmonton teacher working in Seoul recommended the beer. The Korean bar owner came to Edmonton, tried the beer and liked it, and now stocks it in his bar.

Small = Flexible
This example illustrates how flexible small businesses can be.

As a consumer, I like buying from small, independent businesses. I know who I’m dealing with, and that gives me a greater sense of trust for the product they are selling.

There are several additional advantages from a business perspective. Small businesses can offer personalized service and pay attention to even the smallest details.

Personalized Service
Alley Kat not only makes a special shipment to Korea, they also produce specialty beers for individual restaurants and liquor stores. Their chilli beer is only available at Dadeo, a Cajun restaurant on Whyte Avenue in Edmonton. They are also thinking about producing a mead (fermented honey drink) that would only be available from the Sherbrooke Liquor Store, Edmonton’s biggest beer store.

Alley Kat is celebrating its 15th anniversary by producing 5 limited-edition beers. Employees have had an opportunity to experiment with different types of beer or different processes that might not be productive on an ongoing basis. I really enjoyed the Apple Wit, which tasted much like dry English cider. They also made a Smoked Porter, a Cascadian dark ale and a Ginger Beer (not the sweet variety, but a genuine beer made with juiced ginger root).

Quality before Quantity
Alley Kat beer is not pasteurized, so it only stays fresh for about six months. They personally visit the local liquor stores and trade out expired product.

Reuse and Recycle
Alley Kat, like most breweries uses recycled bottles. They also recycle the yeast, harvesting it and using it for 20-25 generations. They reuse some of the water for two different parts of the brewing process.

The leftover wort is scooped into big barrels, and farmers come and pick it up to feed their cows. One of the teachers in NAIT’s culinary program picked up 10 pounds to make bread with his students.

Visiting Alley Kat
Alley Kat is located at 9929 60 Avenue, Edmonton. They offer free walk-in tours on Thursdays and Fridays between 2 and 4 pm, and the tours include a small taste of about five of their beers.

See Also:
     Penny Bright Brewery, Saskatoon

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Saskatoon Farmers' Market: November Newsletter

featuring Living Soil Farms, Prairie Sun Orchard, Soul Majick Soul Mates

I’m on a short-term contract with the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market and am having a great time interviewing and finding out more about the vendors.

The November newsletter includes an interview with a fourth-generation Prairie farmer who is growing organically. Steve Guenther, Living Soil Farms, says, “The nutritional quality of our food has been declining for 50 years. We need to reverse the trend of declining quality and declining taste, and the only way to do that is by using organic methods.”

Joanne Jensen of Soul Majick Soul Mates makes bath products that are good for the soul. She welcomes feedback from her customers and is always interested in developing a new scent or in preparing soap for people with sensitive skin or allergies.
Wayne and Clare Pearson, Prairie Sun Orchard, are growing hardy prairie fruits – from sour cherry to haskap and hardy kiwi. Their ice cream receives rave reviews, particularly toasted coconut, sour cherry chocolate chunk and caramel pumpkin.

There are also lots of upcoming events:
     Gluten-Free Food Fair, December 5
     Staff Christmas Parties, December 7, 9, 14, 16, 21
     Cooking Classes for Kids and Seniors, November 17-December 15
     Friday Market Lunch Buffets

You can follow the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market on Facebook. Or send an email to sfmnews@sasktel.net in order to receive email bulletins and copies of future newsletters. Thank you – and I hope to see you at the Market!

September newsletter
October newsletter
November newsletter

Photos provided by the vendors.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Chef Moe Mathieu, White Birch Catering Dinner Club

Changing Saskatoon’s culinary landscape: education and entertainment

Chef Moe Mathieu is an influential player in Saskatchewan’s developing food culture. As owner and executive chef at The Willow on Wascana, Regina, he promoted local, seasonal food, and he played a key role in opening Beer Bros. Bakery & Cuisine, which focuses on pairing beer and food. He is now the Head Chef Instructor for SIAST’s Journeymen Cooking Program.

But Chef Moe hasn’t stopped there. With the help of his students, he ran a successful pop-up restaurant at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market this past summer, and he has now established White Birch Catering and Dinner Club. At the moment, the dinner club is very informal. Put your name on the email list (moeandree@hotmail.com) and Chef Moe and his wife Reola will keep you informed about upcoming events. If you’re interested and available, you can sign up for individual events.

The first dinner club event was held on Saturday evening at the Forestry Farm House. Approximately 22 of us enjoyed six courses, each of which was paired with a different beer. Two brewmasters were on hand to introduce the beers, and Chef Moe joined us at the start of each course to explain how he had incorporated the beer and its flavours into the dish.

I was super impressed because Chef Moe planned a vegetarian menu just for me, taking care to match the dishes as carefully as possible to the beers and to the meat dishes.

Creative Combinations
My absolute favourites were the first and last courses. The first course was a layered soup – pureed potato chowder with a layer of orange saffron sauce with a trio of small potato dumplings and citrus crackers. The spices matched the coriander seed and orange peel in the Blanche de Chambly beer. I was intrigued by the combination of sweet and salty flavours, and I enjoyed scooping up the different layers, letting the flavours mix in my mouth.

Dessert was a chocolate lover’s delight with both chocolate mousse and chocolate ice cream on top of bread pudding. Chef Moe had incorporated Paddock Wood’s Heartstopper Hot Chocolate Stout, with its notes of chocolate, vanilla, and cayenne pepper, into the ice cream, and the jalapeno jelly on the side was the perfect fruity complement to the deep rich chocolate flavour.

Cooking Lessons
One of the pleasures of fine dining is eating dishes that you would never take the trouble or be able to make at home. But I did pick up some ideas to incorporate into my home cooking:
     - A touch of hot mustard is the perfect complement to a poached egg;
     - Cornbread made with a dark, hoppy, malty beer is delicious;
     - Layer your flavours – you don’t have to blend them; and
     - Mushrooms have so much meaty flavour and texture – use them more often.

Shiny Penny Brewery
Chef Moe had invited two young brewers to introduce each of the six beers served over the course of the evening. Chloe Smith and Cedric Dauchot have recently incorporated Shiny Penny Brewery (great name!) and plan to open a brewpub in Saskatoon with an emphasis on craft beer and beer-themed food.

Chloe is from Saskatchewan and says she has an inventive approach to beer-making and will try adding anything to the brew. Cedric, who has an engineering and brewing degree from a Belgian university, said he is more precise and more inclined to follow a recipe. They met while working at breweries in Montreal.

We tried Red Tractor, which is one of their beers. This is an English special bitter, a dark, strongly-flavoured beer with lots of malt and hops. Chloe explained that Red Tractor is one of four beers that will always be on tap at their brewpub. They’ll also have two rotating, seasonal beers.

You can follow Shiny Penny Brewery on Facebook.

The Beer
My favourite beers were Blanche de Chambly, a Belgian white ale from Unibroue in Quebec and the London Porter and Czech Mate from Saskatoon's own Paddock Wood Brewery. The Blanche de Chambly is light with citrus notes, but not watery. I’m always surprised that I enjoy Porter as it’s such a dark beer, but the sweetness and mellow flavours are really attractive.

We tried Maudite, also from Unibroue, a strong beer with a fascinating legend attached to its name. Hobgoblin is from the Wychwood Brewery in England (the graphics and guerrilla marketing on this site are awesome).

White Birch Catering and Dinner Club
I had a lot of fun as the evening was both entertaining and educational. The dinner club is the perfect setting for groups of friends who enjoy food and drink and light-hearted conversation.

Chef Moe says that future Dinner Club events will include a hors d’oeuvre lesson and tasting as well as a anti-valentine event. White Birch is also available for catering private parties. For more information, contact Moe and Reola Mathieu at moeandree@hotmail.com.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Souleio Foods, Saskatoon

“a creative collaboration between farmers, producers, chefs and consumers – with European flair”

Souleio (265 3rd Avenue South) is a complex, fascinating place. It combines restaurant, bakery, deli and wine bar. Every time I go in, there are more products and more options to explore.

I have a much better understanding of what the owners and staff are trying to achieve after visiting with Chef Uwe.

European Flavour
Chef Uwe is from Germany. He has been part of Souleio for almost a year, and before that, he was the head chef at Calories for two years.

Chefs in Europe undergo a rigorous three-year apprenticeship with theoretical and practical training in every aspect of the restaurant business. Uwe says that he and Chef Rémi speak the same language as they have the same European training and background.

And Souleio certainly has a European flavour. The deli is stocked with housemade sausages, prosciutto and rillettes. They have an outstanding selection of cheeses as well as all sorts of European delicacies – Uwe’s carrotkraut, housemade aioli, crème fraîche and quark. “Quark is used a lot in Germany for cheesecakes,” says Uwe. “It’s less heavy than cream cheese. Crème fraîche is used in France to finish a cream sauce or as a topping for strawberries.”

Healthy Food
But the most important aspect of the food at Souleio is that it’s healthy. “My grandma and grandpa survived two world wars but lived to 92 and 95,” says Uwe. “Healthy food is good for your health and may extend your life. It’s organic, with no chemicals. It’s knowing what we eat, serve and where it comes from.”

Souleio sources as many products as possible locally. The day I visited there were local jalapeno peppers, organic ginger root and elephant garlic, and carrots from a Hutterite colony near Milden. “They’re the best I’ve had in my whole life,” exclaims Chef Uwe.

The chefs at Souleio are always eager to meet and talk with local farmers and to visit their farms. “We work closely with the farmers to give them a chance to match our market and to give us something unique on the shelf,” says Uwe. Souleio and Calories restaurant combine orders to make it more profitable for the farmer and the store. Both parties are willing to experiment. They tried black garlic this past summer, but it was too wet to be successful.

Foragers provide Souleio with seasonal surprises from northern Saskatchewan: wild strawberries, lingonberries, chanterelle and pine mushrooms, fiddleheads.

The focus on Thursdays is on sustainable, wild seafood. Only a shortage of time stopped Uwe from going out with the fisherman when he was on Vancouver Island. “There are no secrets,” says Uwe. “It comes from building a relationship between the farmer, the butcher and the consumer. There is a basis of trust.”

If a local, organic product isn’t available, Souleio aims for the best possible quality. And they are trying to produce as much as possible in-house – from charcuterie to dairy products to jams and pickles and sauces.

The creativity displayed by the chefs is amazing – and really, really tasty. I love Chef Rémi’s jams – green tomato and cardamom, pear and fig, caramelized plum, apricot/vanilla/licorice and many, many more! There is also an amazing range of pickles – roasted pickled cauliflower, pickled cupid’s sour cherries, oriental pickled wild pine mushrooms. There’s house ketchup and barbeque sauce, lentil hummus, olives, and peach and raisin moustarda.

“Everything brought to perfection is a challenge,” says Uwe. “We’re always looking for a better technique or spices to bring out the flavour of the fruit.” But the central ingredient is always the fruit or the vegetable; “everything else is just the frame,” Uwe says.

Mutual respect and collaboration are underlying principles for all Souleio’s activities. They have a huge amount of respect for the farmers and producers. They respect their staff’s skills and specialties.

And they respect their customers. “One of the reasons I came down here was to give customers advice and ideas on how to use things,” says Uwe. “We want them to have someone to talk to and to help them experience food in a new way.”

The combination of store and restaurant is unique. “We don’t want customers to feel insulted by a formal atmosphere,” says Uwe. “It’s more casual. You can walk around with your drink and browse.”

And browse you must, because Souleio stocks such a wide variety of products. There’s a full-scale kitchen and bakery in the basement, so you can enjoy fresh bread or pastries every day. There is focaccia and ciabatta on Saturday, German pretzels and sourdough bread that Uwe says he really loves (my personal favourite is still the wild rice bread that I’ve enjoyed for years at Calories).

Every Friday you can enjoy a wine tasting, and you can buy bottles of wine when you eat a meal. You can eat lunch or dinner in the restaurant or take a full supper home with you (from chicken on Monday to ribs on Friday). You can also rent Souleio for a birthday or Christmas party.

Come explore Souleio. Sample the cheeses. Ask Uwe to show you around. Take home some bread and jam or pickles. Enjoy. I know I do.

See Also: Cheese, Glorious Cheese

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

d’Lish Urban Kitchen and Wine Bar, Edmonton

d’Lish is a small wine and tapas bar on 124th Street in Edmonton. Sparkling in black and white, the bar runs the length of the room. My eye is continually drawn to the cut-out patterns in the chair backs and bronze lampshades. Toe-tapping jazz plays in the background, but when a group of people request a French musician, the sommelier hurries to see if she can fill their request.

Chef Sebastian Lysz says that the key elements of a great wine and tapas bar are a lack of pretension and a really social, relaxed environment. “Great food, great wine and a good time,” says Sebastian. “You’re there for the company more than anything else.”

The menu includes a variety of small plates that can be shared as well as some larger dishes if you’re looking for a full meal. There is a tasting menu that changes weekly with small servings of 5-7 different dishes that can be accompanied by a 3- or 5-wine pairing. d’Lish also offers a lunch menu and brunch on the weekends.

Be Prepared to Change
d’Lish originally opened as a catering and meal assembly kitchen. The catering business is well established and is “the bread and butter of our operation,” says Amanda Babichuk, the owner. d’Lish has distinguished itself by not using disposable plates and utensils. Amanda explains that not only does this show environmental stewardship, but it also emphasizes the importance of presentation as the commencement of the dining experience.

The meal assembly side of the business was meeting increasing competition from grocery stores that were also providing fresh meal solutions. In addition, d’Lish was failing to take advantage of its streetfront location on 124th Street, which offers a range of art galleries and restaurants. “It’s evolving into an adult culture playground,” says Amanda. So, on September 15, d’Lish reopened as a wine and tapas bar.

Creative Warrior
Amanda Babichuk has much in common with her customers. She has recently moved downtown after living in St. Albert; she shops at City Market; and she’s concerned about food safety. “People are so much more aware of localization versus globalization,” Amanda says. “We’re really keeping with local proteins as all of that garbage – antibiotics, etc. – affects you the most. We have visited every single farm where we get protein.”

Amanda has a marketing background, and she is using it to reach her audience, who she defines as “a younger demographic; a little bit edgy, urban.” I had some misgivings when I heard her describe herself as a Creative Warrior, and yet it rang true. She is passionate, determined and caring.

Amanda says that she had a crisis moment when she first opened d’Lish. Her focus was on local food, but it could be more expensive. Should she opt for the cheaper options in order to secure her first big catering contracts? “It’s a terrifying choice when you’re faced with impending doom,” Amanda says. She realized that she had to remain true to her principles as this would be customers’ first impression of her business, and she couldn’t compromise.

Local Food
Local food is a priority at d’Lish. Chef Sebastian says that the menu will change with the seasons: “If tomatoes aren’t great, I don’t want them on the menu. We’ll serve a roast squash and root vegetable salad instead.”

D’Lish relies on Full Course Strategies that supplies Edmonton restaurants with a range of local food products, saving chefs from the difficult task of sourcing all their food products themselves. One is Brassica Mustard that is Prairie grown and Prairie made. “Globalization is great for things like truffle oil and vanilla extract,” says Sebastian, “but mustard isn’t something you need to send around the world.”

I tasted a wonderful three-month old Pecorino cheese from The Cheesiry in Kitscoty (5 minutes from Lloydminster). The farmers invited Sebastian to help them develop their product. “It was nice to really understand what goes into the product from start to finish, from milking the sheep, to monitoring temperature and humidity, to washing the rinds,” says Sebastian. (O’Sol Meatos also produces a range of charcuterie products.)

Chef Specialties
Sebastian worked at Waterton National Park for two seasons where they used a lot of local food. He has two food passions that are front and centre at d’Lish. One of them is vegetables. “Vegetables are ignored a lot. They fall to the side of meat preparations, and that’s unfortunate as they have so much flavour,” he says. I sampled the spinach salad, and it was a wonderful showcase for spinach, roast beets, and candied pecans with fig balsamic preserve and herbed goat cheese on a small pastry biscuit on the side.

Sebastian also recommends the cheese and meat boards. “If you’re having a glass of wine after work, a couple of cheeses and meat along with some bread and preserves is a wonderful way to go,” he says. “We try and have everything of the same high quality as the cheese. The olive oil is from the Turkish mountains. It’s imported and produced by a local company.”

Education and Information
Amanda believes that restaurant-goers want information and education. They want to understand why the menu is changing, and they’re looking for information about food and wine pairings. To meet that need, she has hired Kasia, a level two sommelier, as her front house manager. Kasia started working in restaurants because she enjoyed cooking and food. She realized that some restaurants required a knowledge of wine, so she began taking the courses offered by the International Sommelier Guild.

“The courses are hard, intense. It’s like a degree,” says Kasia. “I feel I have so much to learn.” I was surprised to learn that very few of the people taking the sommelier courses were actually in the restaurant industry. Kasia says that the vast majority are professionals and business owners who want to make better choices for themselves. That seems unfortunate.

Kasia says that you can never assume people will like what you like. “You have to ask the right questions to work out what they’d like,” she says. “Everyone has a different palate, and you have to respect that.” She was, however, prepared to recommend the Frog’s Leap Petite Sirah, which she says is an absolute gem. And according to the Frog’s Leap website, it goes well with chocolate – I’ll have to try it!

My thanks to Amanda, Sebastian and Kasia for ensuring that my visit to d’Lish was so enjoyable. In the best tradition of wine and tapas bars, there was good food, good wine and good company.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

The Affordable Wine Guide to California and the Pacific Northwest

A down-to-earth guide to good wines for everyday enjoyment

I’m not a wine connoisseur, and I can’t afford to drink wine that costs $40+ a bottle. Unfortunately, some of the cheaper wines are really good and some are really terrible – but it’s hard to tell the difference. So I welcome The Affordable Wine Guide to California and the Pacific Northwest by Mark Spivak.

Spivak uses a simple, straightforward rating system – A is outstanding, worth a splurge; B is good to very good; C is fair to average; while D is poor to below average and overpriced.

The descriptions are concise and straightforward. As Spivak says, he “focuses on two things: what does the wine taste like, and what type of food does it go with? For the most part, the exotic descriptors (lime blossom, etc.) have been left on the cutting-room floor.”

Spivak also provides a short, informative history of each winery.

Lots of the wines listed are available in Saskatoon, so they should be readily available elsewhere. I’ve tried several of them, and I’m in overall agreement with Spivak’s ratings. I also appreciate the fact that he is upfront about his personal preferences.

The Affordable Wine Guide to California and the Pacific Northwest by Mark Spivak is available from Smashwords for $9.99US. I will receive an affiliate commission of 11% if you use this link to make a purchase. Thank you!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Urban Development in Edmonton: 104th Street and Whyte Avenue

I stayed in two different neighbourhoods when I visited Edmonton – downtown near 104th Street and on Whyte Avenue in south Edmonton. They provide an interesting contrast in urban development.

104th Street
When the Blue Plate Diner opened on 104th Street seven years ago, there was a roughneck saloon hotel on the corner, empty parking lots, drugs and prostitution. Rima says that she had to call the police on several occasions to escort her to her car at the end of the evening.

Nowadays, the situation is completely different. There’s a mix of businesses and restaurants; housing options have brought new life to the area. Trees line the street, and there is very little traffic, so it’s a comfortable place to stroll.

I talked to several local business owners, and they gave me some clues to the successful turnaround.

Political Will: City Council targeted this street as being something special and put a lot of effort into redeveloping it. I believe there were also local residents who lobbied hard for responsible development, but I can’t confirm it.

Grocery Store: The sleazy hotel at the corner of 104th and Jasper has been replaced by a Sobey’s Urban Fresh. And what a difference it has made. At 9 o’clock on a Sunday night, there were shoppers coming and going from the store, and the street felt safe.

“Sobey’s has been an anchor for developing this street,” says Geoff Linden, Credo Coffee. The store offers a range of grocery staples and fresh fruit and vegetables, but it also has an extensive deli and salad bar that see heavy traffic from the business crowd at lunchtime.

Dirk Chan of DeVine Wines & Spirits says that the grocery store has gone out of its way to support local products and community events.

High Density Housing: Increasing numbers of people want to live downtown, and there are lots of housing options on 104th. Some of the old warehouses have been converted into lofts. Condominium high-rises have been built, but care has been taken to ensure that they do not dominate the streetscape. The traditional street façade has been maintained, with the towers set back from the street so that they don’t overwhelm.

And the local residents play an important role in supporting the local businesses.

City Market: 104th Street comes alive every Saturday from May to October with 20,000 people visiting City Market each week. I heard nothing but excitement and praise for the Market and the role it plays in revitalizing this area as well as providing income for local farmers and producers.

Independent Businesses: 104th Street is home to a range of independently-owned businesses – Blue Plate Diner, Carbon, Credo Coffee, DeVine Wines & Spirits and many more.

And independent businesses seem to suit this neighbourhood. While the independents appear to be thriving, a branch of Taco del Mar had just shut its door because of lack of business.

“Edmonton was always chainland, and the downtown really suffered from developments on the outskirts, like West Edmonton Mall,” says Rima of Blue Plate Diner. “It’s only in the last five years that people have begun to support local food and go downtown.”

There is strong community spirit with the businesses supporting each other and working together. Go Local – Keep Edmonton Original provides pamphlets and window decals identifying local, independent businesses. Original Fare unites local restaurants, while eatlocalfirst lists local food suppliers, producers and retailers.

And the community spirit works both ways. Dirk Chan of DeVine Wines told me that the local businesses had recently held a block party and raised $40,000 for kids’ lunches.

Whyte Avenue
Perhaps the only similarities between 104th Street and Whyte Avenue are the fine heritage buildings and the markets.

Whyte Avenue stretches for miles with everything from secondhand bookstores and Chapters to car dealerships and bars. It’s located close to the University of Alberta, and it turns into party city in the evenings. Everyone I talked to told me to stay off Whyte Avenue at night, and I could see why as a school bus disgorged a large group of students on Friday evening ,and I was woken up by the noise when the bars closed at 2 am.

There are two attractive boutique hotels (I stayed at the Varscona), and there are some nice restaurants and stores, but the area is dominated by bars catering to the university crowd. A different group arrives on Saturday mornings to visit Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market, but I certainly won’t bother to stay in this area again. Downtown Edmonton is far more attractive.

Further information:
Snapshots of Downtown Edmonton
Credo Coffee
Blue Plate Diner
ElDesigno and Carbon
Gail Hall: Culinary Entrepreneur
Gail Hall: Supporting the Local Food Culture
DeVine Wines & Spirits

Monday, November 1, 2010

Blue Plate Diner, 104th Street, Edmonton

“eating, talking, drinking, good conversation”

It’s 8 pm on a Sunday evening, but the Blue Plate Diner in downtown Edmonton is crowded. There are families with children, a group of young women celebrating a birthday, couples and single people like myself. Everyone is happy and enjoying their food.

A neighbourhood diner
“I’ve always loved restaurants,” says Rima DeVitt, co-owner of the Blue Plate Diner. “I love eating, talking, drinking, good conversation. It changes every day, and it’s so satisfying. I couldn’t imagine a desk job.”

Rima tried several different career options when she was at university, but none of them really suited her. She found her niche when she and her partner John Williams opened their first restaurant. “I love the adrenalin, being on my feet and moving around. I love the people.”

Seven years ago, Rima and John were looking for a larger restaurant that they could own outright and have total control. “We wanted to be on the street, to see people walking by, to have a neighbourhood feel,” says Rima. Drugs, prostitution and empty parking lots didn’t make 104th Street a very attractive proposition, but they saw it had potential. Other people were also interested in the site, but the building owner leased it to them. “He liked our passions and ideas, despite being the little guys with little money,” says Rima. “We bet our shirts on it.”

And seven years later, their gamble appears to have paid off.

An extension of our lives
John and Rima had a limited budget when they opened up, but that has worked in their favour. The mismatched mugs and one-of-a-kind table lamps that Rima had collected over the years add to the homey atmosphere, and the combination of purple paint and chandeliers in a very small women’s washroom made me laugh.

Rima and John are both vegetarians, so the menu is rich in vegetarian options, but that was not the primary focus. “We wanted people to come in and love the food, to enjoy the sensual pleasure of eating,” says Rima. The menu includes a number of all-time favourites. “We’ll never take the veg. burger off the menu; it took us ages to develop. And people would kill us if we stopped offering the macaroni cheese,” laughs Rima.

I had the pozole enchiladas, which are another staple on the menu, because “One reason I opened a restaurant was so I could eat enchiladas whenever I wanted to,” says Rima, who grew up in Arizona. I also really enjoyed the lentil and nut loaf with gravy and mashed potatoes – comfort food at its best.

The kitchen staff compete to come up with the best daily and weekly specials. The wine list changes on a weekly basis with recommendations from local wine and beer stores, and all the wines are offered by the glass – “not just cheap rotgut house wine.”

The Blue Plate Diner strives to offer “real food prepared by real human beings,” and the food is locally sourced as much as possible. John and Rima were founding members of Original Fare and value the connection with other restaurants with similar types of beliefs.

Crazy schedule
Rima loves Blue Plate Diner and hopes that it will be around forever and become an Edmonton institution, “like the Highlevel Diner,” but she is also aware of how demanding it is.

Labour and the cost of goods went up a “crazy amount” a few years ago, and Rima and John wondered if they would survive. “We were working 60 to 70 hours a weeks on this crazy schedule,” says Rima. “We were either at work or with the kids.”

In the last few years, Rima has made a conscious effort to create a division between her work and home life. “I don’t do nights any more,” says Rima. “I’m too old, and I have kids.” Her dreams for the future include taking a little time to travel and explore the world with her children.

Complementary skills
Running a restaurant requires a diverse skill set, and John and Rima appear to excel at sharing responsibilities. “I focus on the front of the restaurant – the atmosphere, music, menus, advertising,” says Rima. “John is more well-rounded. He can work the line in the kitchen if they’re short staffed, and he knows who to call if something breaks. He fixes stuff and order supplies.”

Rima’s people skills are an obvious asset. I had a hard time interviewing her as she was so busy asking me questions! And she went out of her way to drive me to my next appointment.

The Blue Plate Diner has a staff of over 60. I watched Rima working with the staff at lunch one day, and you could tell that they got along really well together. “They’re all really interesting, well thought out and artistic,” says Rima. “It’s a little ecosystem of people who all have their own interests.”

Be sure to visit Blue Plate Diner when you’re in Edmonton. The warm atmosphere and good food will make you smile.