Our original intent, complete with planning and forethought, was to head to dinner in Edmonton at a guaranteed gluten-free establishment, for which that city (with its thrumming and active food reputation) is justly famous. The Gluten Free Diner, perhaps, or Deluxe Diner, with their drop-dead array of delicious burgers, or maybe back to the redoubtable Cajun delights of Louisiana Purchase. On top of that were the recommendations sought and helpfully provided by obliging Edmontonians on the Twittersphere – for the four of us up from Calgary for the weekend.
The point was, we weren’t really all that hungry, having passed a tasty and entirely happy birthday celebration with Mom earlier in the afternoon, but past experience suggested we really needed to decide on something in advance. I don’t know what made us stuff the best-laid plans into the trunk of the car and start the kind of aimless wandering drive that normally characterizes the best of any vacation – but we did, drifting slowly westward along 104 Avenue. I suppose the best part about not being that hungry means that it is relatively easy to drive right past Red Robin’s and Hudson’s Tap House without feeling any pangs – and it became pretty obvious without saying a word that the general consensus in the car was to find something memorable.
We found ourselves in the High Street – that tiny section of Edmonton just off the western edge of Jasper Avenue and 124 Street – replete with quaint boutiques and specialty stores – and the Urban Diner. We dropped in to look at the menu. It featured the usual – burgers, salads, pizzas, and “we can do Gluten Free on request”. Nothing against the Diner – out we went, and around the corner, right past Violino Traditional Italian Restaurant (dismissing it out of hand because it looked like the usual expensive place having taken up residence in one of those huge, old, and charming Glenora mansions), and wound up inside Manor Casual Bistro next door. It had a Chaine des Rotisseurs plaque by the door – and was every bit as promising inside another mansion, yes, but very tastefully laid out with small tables in an expanded living room…
But we walked out of this one, too. It can be very disconcerting to ask the waitstaff what we might have, as a result of two of our party having a medical requirement not to eat gluten – and see the telltale flash of confusion as you say the words “gluten free”, coupled with a long pause, and the questioning word “Salad?” in reply… Apparently, Manor Casual Bistro’s website claims their specialty is adapting menu items to suit special dietary needs. Someone forgot to tell this waitperson. No malice, though – we didn’t really feel like a fifteen dollar burger with eight dollar fries.
Back to the sidewalk – where, Violino had decided that perhaps its imposing image might be made more welcoming if their menu was out there for all to see, sheltered in a wooden and glass house-shaped enclosure out front. Kenna spotted something immediately, something which made her really excited about a menu for the first time all day. We peered more closely. Boneless slow-braised short ribs, woodland mushroom risotto with barolo demi sauce? Beef tenderloin wrapped with wild boar bacon? Pan-seared scallop, black rice, pomegranate vinaigrette with a basil chiffonade?
Let’s go see!
First, the usual spiel at the front entry – which was particularly warm and inviting (the entry, not the spiel) – “we have a medical need for gluten free, wondering if you…..”
One staff person magically became three, listening very attentively to every word. The boss (for clearly it was he) didn’t even have to let us finish. “Table three!” he directed the maitresse, then “We WILL take care of you!” to us.
We entered an utterly charming, utterly beautiful dining room. Chairs covered in tasteful cream linen, with tabletops sensibly squared off in brilliant white paper (to catch the drips of uncaringly blissful diners). Blonde granite sheathed the walls all around, with antique sidebars and credenzas nestled in alcoves, and beautiful, antique original glass panes still in their frames providing a chiaroscuro view of the sunset outside on the patio, right behind Violino’s authentic outdoor brick and stone forno oven.
Our server arrived. This is one of those rare guys who exudes passion for his job, and his job is your satisfaction. We repeated our Gluten Free message after a good look at the full menu – and when he told us that everything but two items on the menu could and would be made without gluten, Shauna and Rae were both rendered speechless. When he went on to ask if they would like some Gluten Free bread to start – which would take about 12 minutes, as it is fresh-baked to order (!) – they actually teared up.
The bread followed. It was slim, creamy-colored, with a caramel brown edge, like the finest crepes, and steaming from the oven. They took a first bite. More tears, whispers of “It’s crunchy on the outside, and so soft inside!”
And complete with its own obviously homemade dipping marinara sauce. The quandary was whether to go olive oil or tomato – but honestly, this bread stood on its own merits, defiantly, triumphantly wheat free, and finally every bit as delicious as “the real thing”. Which arrived for Kenna and me a moment later – but to be honest, eating an admittedly outstanding loaf of hot sourdough came second to watching the other two enjoy theirs so much.
We could have died happy then. But our entrees were on their way. We dispensed with appetizers, determining (correctly as it turned out) that the bread plus entree combo would more than do the job.
Rae determined she was going to have meatballs. Hand formed veal and pork meatballs, simmered in an authentic Italian tomato sugo, with herb goat cheese, on fusilli.
We quietly bet she’d get three meatballs. She had seven. Did we each try a forkful? Yes, we did. Did Chef Boy-Ar-Dee let out a final desperate groan and disappear forever? Yes, one can imagine he did.
Shauna elected the bone-in chicken breast with crab and goat cheese stuffing, with woodland mushroom risotto (those must have been chanterelles, we thought), and roasted garlic lemon cream with her vegetables. The risotto was letter perfect. Too often, risotto-meisters claim they’re serving you the dish al dente, and you get “al crunchy“, and find yourself too embarrassed to complain – but these guys had it absolutely perfect in its creamy goodness, with the mushrooms bringing back all the rich scent of a walk in the woods after a heavy rain….
Kenna had the black and white linguine, with shrimp, sundried tomato, and charred fennel – in a Sambuca cream sauce. This was remarkably brave for someone who is not that impressed with Sambuca to start with, but she determined that she was going to give the combined liquorices a chance, reasoning that “it couldn’t possibly be as in-your-face as the liqueur is”.
Smart observation – it was light, delicate, and just the right underpinning to the jumbo prawn tails and sweet rosy sundried tomato shards – something she also said she was not normally a fan of, but this dish won her over.
Speaking of risotto – my plate was the lobster version, with bits of lobster claw, charred fennel, and Grana Padano cheese (a nice touch – every bit as flavorful as Parmigiano Reggiano without the condescension). And, totally unexpectedly – a whole baked lobster tail nestled right in the middle. Lobster can be fussy – a bit too chewy if overdone, a bit bland if underdone. Not this time – bang-on again. And again – who knew the faint anise of charred fennel could bring out the sublime richness of the shellfish like that?