By Jessica Festa, Epicure & Culture Editor
While on a recent trip to Edmonton, I found myself in a restaurant nibbling a selection of local cheese and house-cured meats with a local friend. The topic of conversation was cuisines, and we discussed different cities and how they have their own staple foods and culinary trends.
“In New York our water gives us great bread, so we’re known for our pizza and bagels,” I said. “What about Edmonton?”
She took a moment to think before saying, “Edmonton is a true melting pot of cultures. We have a thriving Ukrainian community, while one of our most typical street foods is Chinese. We’re also surrounded by nature and farmland, giving us access to Alberta beef, potatoes and fresh dill and other ingredients. To me, Canadian cuisine is really the local influences and making use of our land.”
Whenever I think of Canada, I think of wilderness. Edmonton, while a hip city, is the northernmost city in North America. If you look at a map, there’s still a ton of land above it. It’s a country favorite for those who enjoy hiking, camping, national parks, farm touring, vineyard exploration and long table dinners under the stars. Farm-to-fork is truly the cuisine of the country, though what you find on your plate really depends on where exactly you are and what tasty eats Mother Nature has grown nearby.
There are also creative chefs, mixologists and entrepreneurs starting local trends to take the dining scene to the next level. And they know how to have fun while doing it. I was able to explore this on a recent trip to Edmonton, where I happily ate more than three-square meals a day. So what Edmonton restaurants should you check out, and what culinary experiences are not to be missed? Check out these recommendations.
1. Stay: Varscona Hotel on Whyte
Let me start off by saying every hotel should offer a complimentary wine and cheese hour. By the time I got to the Varscona Hotel on Whyte it was toward the tail end of theirs, and within minutes of grabbing a glass of riesling I’d already met a fellow Nikon lover (he complimented my camera lens) and another couple from the US visiting for the Edmonton International Fringe Festival. It was great to be able to easily meet people at a hotel when traveling solo.
The property was also very well located in Old Strathcona — known for its boutique shopping — and featured free high speed Wi-Fi, buffet breakfast and robes, as well as my favorite brand of bath amenities, Molten Brown.
2. Taste Terroir At RGE RD
A farm-to-fork meal is a great way to better understand a destination through the palate, and in Edmonton one of the best places to do this is RGE RD. Featuring a rotating menu of seasonal local ingredients and whole animals butchered in-house, typical dishes get a creative, local spin. There’s an epic kitchen board with rotating items like local Sylvan Star dill gouda, duck rillette, roasted goat leg and lamb sausage. You also can’t leave without sampling the “Questionable Bits,” which make use of less typical animal parts (it was a beef heart tartar when I was there). For a fun surprise opt for the RGE RD Trip, a surprise six-course tasting menu showcasing unlisted items for $79+ per person.
Pair it all with a farm-to-bar cocktail, like the “Inclement Weather” shown above blending Canadian Chic Choc Spiced Rum with Grizzly Paw ginger ale, lime and bitters.What's your favorite restaurant in #Edmonton? #ExploreEdmonton #Canada Click To Tweet
3. Meet The Purveyors At City Market
There are two main farmer’s markets to choose from in Edmonton: Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market and City Market. While I was told both are impressive, a number of locals I met touted the year-round City Market as their favorite for the ~200 purveyors and the open-air ambiance. As soon as I entered, the voice of a young man singing soulfully with his guitar blending with aromas of fresh baked bread and stinky cheeses, I was in heaven.
While you definitely don’t need a plan to visit the market, a few noteworthy stalls include:
- Beanstalk Honey. They do ethically-made varietal honeys (and I’m very passionate about ethically-made honey!).
- Brio Bakery. Loved their baguette made with wild yeast.
- Ada’s Soap Shop. I never seem to leave a market without purchasing at least one bar of all-natural soap. I also got raw body butter made with Fair Trade shea butter from Western Africa.
- Mojo Jojo Pickles. They do creative pickles and preserves, from pickled grapes and mushrooms to kimchi-style brussels sprouts.
- Brodie Brothers Root Beer. Homemade root beer which they serve free samples of from giant barrels.
- Bacon Boss. I mean, do I need to say more than bourbon brown sugar-candied bacon?
4. Explore Ukrainian Heritage Through The Palate
Surprisingly, Edmonton has a rich Ukrainian heritage thanks to the Ukrainian pioneers that settled in east central Alberta between 1892 and 1930, and you’ll find this influence apparent in the city’s dishes. At RGE Road — mentioned above — you can order pierogies (pyrohy). While usually a heavy comfort dish theirs are more gourmet, stuffed with local Sylvan Star gouda, adding in a warm cabbage slaw for a sweet acidity, and gowning them in a white onion cream — so good I used a spoon to drink it like soup.
There’s also the nearby Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village, a living museum with over 40 original buildings and costumed interpreters, about 25 minutes from Edmonton. Here you can savor typical Ukrainian dishes like kovbasa (sausage), holubtsi (cabbage rolls), borscht, beet and feta salad, and cucumber salad made with sour cream and onions. Within the village there are opportunities to take part in cooking workshops, like making pyrohy.
5. Try Edmonton’s Unofficial Dish: A Taiwanese Green Onion Cake
Yes, you read that right. While not native to Edmonton, the dish was brought to the city in the 1980s when Hong Kong immigrants Siu and Yeenar To brought it with them and served it at local festivals. Edmonton is known for putting on 60+ major festivals each year — including the Edmonton International Fringe Festival, the second largest in the world — and once event-goers got their hands on the savory snacks they were hooked.
Along with festivals and local Chinese, Vietnamese and Korean restaurants, you can also try green onion cakes at Pub 1905, The Underground and XIX Nineteen. While in Asia they’re typically made like a thin pizza crust, in Edmonton you’ll find them prepared thick, ranging in texture from gooey to spongey to crispy to puffy.
6. Try High End Dining…In A National Park
Picture kayaking on an island-dotted lake, seeing cormorants fly and dive into the water, before beaching your boat and making your way up a small hill. At the top, a smiling man in an apron is slow cooking local bison, while his wife passes out glasses of local wine and snacks like griddle cakes topped with wild mushroom cream sauce and bacon candied with brown sugar and maple syrup. After socializing, you sit down at a long table, clinking glasses with new friends before a decadent family-style meal ensues.
This was my reality at Elk Island National Park, with Chef Brad Smoliak of Kitchen By Brad at the helm (aka the grill). The menu rotates at his dinners, but some items you may find include a barley salad infused with fresh veggies and sherry dressing, Ukrainian slaw with lots of fragrant dill, corn and Swiss chard done in a cold pressed canola oil (which, side note, tastes exactly like sunshine). What you’ll always find is bison, slow roasted to perfection and done in a pale ale onion reduction.
Bonus: The dinners take place in a Dark Sky Preserve, meaning there’s no artificial light. The setting is prefect for star gazing.Which of these #Edmonton culinary trends have you savored? #food #canada Click To Tweet
7. Sip Edmonton’s Up-And-Coming Coffee Scene (With Homemade Gelato To Pair!)
Edmonton is starting to have a really serious coffee scene. Though Transcend was one of the first to bring caffeine culture in 2006 and are still well-respected (they even offer workshops and classes), my go-to spot became DaCapo Caffe. While the decor is minimalist with a white and wood palate and lots of natural light, the menu packs a punch, even serving wine! Yes, they serve American coffee (described on the menu as “weak and diluted”), but you should really opt for the single-origin drips, traditional Italian espressos or affogato made with homemade gelato.
At 9am, with absolutely no shame, I paired an apple and cinnamon gelato with a “Caffé Canadese,” a Canadian invention of their own with two shots of espresso and a strong and bold flavor pulled from their own beans.
8. Get Buzzed At Brunch
I was told by the locals I met that boozy brunch isn’t insanely popular; however, the few that do it do it really well. My Sunday Funday of Fringe festivities started off right at MEAT, a locally owned and operated smokehouse. Because the food pays homage to the USA’s delicious southern fare, the cocktail menu focuses on Buffalo Trace bourbon with drinks like the Old Fashioned, Lynchberg Lemonade and a Bourbon Ceasar (Ceasars are a Canadian thing, kind of like a Bloody Mary with Clamato juice). I loved my boozy coffee paired with corn grits topped with slow cooked brisket, a poached egg and sausage gravy. Bonus: the entire staff here were insanely friendly, from the hostess who profusely complemented my dress to my server who never lost his beaming smile.
9. Savor Sweets That Take The Cake
Edmonton is a hip city, so you’ll definitely find a slew of bakeries for all your sugary needs. Despite the 20-minute Uber ride from my hotel in Old Strathcona I decided to go to Duchess Bake Shop at the insistence of a number of locals. I literally felt like a princess entering the beautiful shop, filled with patterned antique furniture in royal blue and medium brown. And when I ordered an Ancient Grain Tart — a gorgeous almond frangipane and almond cream-filled treat topped with ancient grain crumble, fresh plum and violets and marigolds, I really felt like I should have some royal company. Warning: you will finish every last bite, no matter what you go in telling yourself.Ukrainian #food, dainty desserts and craft #cocktails are just a few reasons to visit #Edmonton! Click To Tweet
10. Discover Creative Craft Cocktails
I never travel to a city without visiting at least one craft cocktail bar (I am a cocktail tour guide in NYC, after all). Woodwork became my favorite in Edmonton, a candlelit bar with a short but creative cocktail list of classics, riffs on classics and their own imagination creations. Each item offered incredibly detailed descriptions, which is helpful because many of the ingredients are uncommon to most. For something refreshing, the “Hush & Wonder” blends South American pisco with Kentucky bourbon, two world’s colliding with hibiscus syrup and lemon juice for a well-rounded drink. Another suggestion is the “Summer in the Andes,” essentially a tomato-infused margarita for a more savory, earthy experience.
I was also a huge fan of El Cortez‘s margarita, as their bar uses only 100% agave-based spirits.
What are your favorite Edmonton restaurants and dining trends? Please share in the comments below!
*A big thank you to Edmonton Tourism for sponsoring our trip!
How To Explore Ukrainian Culture In Edmonton [Blog Inspiration]
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