It’s a Saturday night and I’m eating sweet and sour pumpkin and ricotta crostini and paccheri served with succulent pork and fennel sausage sugo.
I’m in southern Italian restaurant Uccellino in Edmonton, northwestern Canada, where the food is as buzzing as the city.
It wasn’t always this way. Just a couple of decades ago the downtown of this oil and gas city was deserted at night and anonymous during the day. Poor urban planning and West Edmonton Mall, North America’s largest, had sucked the life out of the city centre.
In the late noughties, enlightened moves by the city to attract businesses, housing and culture back into the centre saw its residential population rise by 50 per cent in a decade. The culmination of this downtown rejuvenation programme has been the construction of the gleaming Rogers Place arena (which opened in 2016) and an emerging sports and entertainment area called ICE District, as well as the renovation and expansion of the city’s main library and major arts venues.
Nowadays the city has plenty to shout about. It has one of the youngest populations in Canada; an International Fringe Festival that has grown into the second largest fringe theatre festival in the world after Edinburgh; over 160km of trails connecting 20 parks known as the River Valley, the largest continuous stretch of urban parkland in North America; and a downtown alight with restaurants, cocktail bars, coffee shops and farmers’ markets. Last year its Royal Alberta Museum, which charts 13,000 years of Albertan history, reopened in state-of-the-art facilities.
But the reason that visitors make the trip to the Albertan capital is food, which is increasingly inventive and experimental. In 2017, Edmonton had three venues on the top 10 best new restaurants list by enRoute magazine, Canada’s answer to the Michelin Guide. That would be good for any city, but for one with a population of 960,000 that used to be a “fertile ground for boring chain restaurant concepts” according to local food blogger Phil Wilson, it is nothing short of outstanding.
During my far-too-brief stay in YEG (as locals call it after its airport code) I am frequently stopped in my culinary tracks by dishes and drinks. The fragrant roasted cauliflower and fish tacos with coconut salsa at modern Mexican Rostizado for example; or the Belgian endives with preserved pear, pistachio crema and quince honey at Biera; the baked eggs with fennel ragù and spiced cardamom plum crepes at Café Linnea; or sweet and sour pumpkin at aforementioned sleek Italian trattoria Uccellino (owned by chef Daniel Costa who has two other Italian-themed restaurants in town – Corso 32 and Bar Bricco – that regularly get rave reviews).
So how did this under-the-radar prairie city become the backdrop for such a flourishing and adventurous indie food scene? Canada’s history of immigration explains some of its openness to different cuisines, but food writer for paper The Edmonton Journal Liane Faulder thinks the growing emphasis on local food has been instrumental.
Edgar Gutierrez, who is head chef and partner at Rostizado and upscale Taqueria Tres Carnales, believes food trucks were important in opening people up to new flavours and food cultures in Edmonton.
“I think many chefs came back from their travels at a time when the economy was pretty good and so decided to set up their own businesses,” he continues. Philippine-born Gutierrez opened passion project Kanto earlier this year to showcase his culinary heritage and make Filipino food accessible to more people. It’s a laidback, colourful and diminutive space in the city’s Chinatown district, and its menu is short, sticky, high-calorie and full of flavour: barbecued meats, rice and spaghetti dishes and bao buns filled with marinated pork belly, curry and cheddar-flavoured fried chicken or braised beef.
One of the most exciting chefs to come out of the city recently is Christine Sandford, head chef at brewery and restaurant Biera, which opened in 2017. “Sandford is leading a new crop of young chefs that have gone abroad to learn from the best, many at Michelin star restaurants in Europe,” says blogger Wilson. “The result is chefs who focus on flavour and quality when designing dishes, instead of doing things the easy way.”
And at Biera, Sandford has certainly elevated pub food to the ranks of informal fine dining, bringing European flair and techniques to prairie ingredients. She doesn’t favour a set style of cooking but likes to “teach the public about different varieties of things”. Many of the meat and fish dishes here come cooked over charcoal served with home-made preserves, sauces and condiments. But the real draw is the prominence given to vegetables such as broccoli and courgettes. I defy anyone not to fall in love with Sandford’s rich smoked potatoes cooked in a caramelized whey sauce and served with crispy lovage and chives or her grilled spinach served with black sesame, hazelnut and house-made smoked buttermilk cheese.
As I head to the airport I have time for one last brunch at airy French-themed Café Linnea, where chef Kelsey Johnson takes me around her kitchen and tells me about her slow food approach. “I am a real pusher of local and trying to use the whole animal,” she says.
As she shows me around, she kneads the sourdough she will serve at dinner and stirs the buttermilk that will become crème fraîche and talks about the half-acre garden north of the city where she grows cabbage, cauliflower, beets, peas and beans. In her walk-in fridge there’s a recently butchered cow and the shelves are loaded with the ham, sausage, bacon and smoked pork loin they make in-house.
On the plane home I make a list of places to come to on my next visit. Top of that list is Asian-inspired Baijiu and its 16-seater bar Little Hong Kong (voted third in the Canada’s inaugural best new bars list), but also much raved-about newbie Bündok, which made the enRoute top 10 restaurants in Canada list last year, and award-winning indigenous chef Shane Chartrand’s restaurant at the River Cree resort and casino.
With chefs this enterprising and approachable, I can’t wait to come back.
Top five must-try Edmonton restaurants
- Bündok was listed one of the top 10 best new restaurants in Canada by enRoute in 2018. Come here for chef owner Ryan Hotchkiss’s bold flavours and ever-changing seasonal dishes.
- Airy plant-filled Café Linnea uses produce from its own vegetable garden and serves classic French food with a Scandinavian twist. Chef Kelsey Johnson is a fan of nose-to-tail dining. Come for brunch and dinner.
- Biera is a brewery and restaurant that may just be the most exciting culinary spot in Edmonton in the capable hands of chef Christine Sandford. Everything here is made from scratch.
- RGE RD is one of the restaurants that spearheaded the new indie restaurant scene in the city. Chef Blair Lebsack brings the farm to table concept to life with imaginative results, he even has his own in-house butcher’s. Canadian cuisine at its best.
- Corso 32 is one of chef Daniel Costa’s three Edmonton restaurants that have raised the bar for food in the city. This one is inspired by northern Italian cuisine. For an experience of southern Italian food, try Uccellino.
WestJet flies direct to Edmonton from Gatwick between June and September.
Well-located Matrix has a good breakfast and complimentary wine tastings.
Metterra is a boutique hotel in a great location near the city’s best bars and restaurants. Can be noisy on weekends so ask for a room at the back.
Fairmont Hotel MacDonald is a sprawling heritage chateau perched above the picturesque Saskatchewan River Valley with delightful old-school service and bar.
Alberta Food Tours runs tours of Edmonton in spring and summer.
Alberta Craft Tours run drink-themed tours.
For more information about Edmonton, visit Explore Edmonton.