Optimistically Cautious

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Still Looking for that Elusive "Wow": Culina

Shermie’s annual birthday dinner has become so much of a tradition that I end up looking forward to it as if it were my own party. A few years ago, before my own foodie inclinations revealed themselves (because I believe everyone has an inner foodie), she started introducing me to Edmonton’s fine dining purveyors, including the Harvest Room at Hotel MacDonald, Madison’s Grill at the Union Bank Inn, Hardware Grill, and Ruth’s Chris last year.

This year, she chose Culina (9914-89 Avenue), Brad Lazarenko’s brainchild, renowned in Edmonton for its original approach to ethnic comfort food. I had been there for brunch a year ago and was less than blown away. For a restaurant whose reputation precedes it, I can understand how difficult it must be to live up to such high expectations, but then again, what other outlook should be held?

For those wondering where the name of the restaurant comes from, an explanation from Lazarenko himself (taken from a recent interview with Original Fare):

"Culina is Latin for culinary, the art of cooking or the oven to cook in. My father also comes from Kalyna Country which is a region northeast of Edmonton. Kalyna means cranberry in Ukranian. I thought it was fitting."

Walking in to the polished, dark dining area, I do think the space functions better as an evening venue. Seated at a corner table lined with wooden benches on two sides, a combination of the decor and dim lighting allowed for an intimate experience despite the cramped quarters.

A change in the Culina website from one presenting detailed menu information to a frontpage that hasn't been updated since last June and the fact that I didn't "take notes" at last night's sitting means my description of the dishes will be unfortunately spotty. Shermie, May, Gord and myself all ordered arguably the most unique entree - Spring Creek Ranch steak topped with chocolate and blue cheese sauces served with dirty mashed potatoes ($26).

Dark, rich and sweet, the chocolate sauce didn't quite tasted right with the steak - it teased the back of my throat for sure, but didn't compliment the tender strips of meat (pre-sliced into manageable pieces; I wonder why?). An interesting idea, it strikes me as a "trademark" Culina dish that people hear about, come to try, and either return to experiment with the rest of the menu, or not at all. Mack enjoyed his chicken, but in the end, said that there wasn't anything particularly special about it.

Dessert was another thing - the flourless chocolate torte topped with a dollop of dulce de leche was delicious (and for the birthday girl, came with a candle!). Definitely a cake to indulge in, if the note in the menu was true (about the Queen of Tarts being Culina's dessert supplier), I will be sure to look for her booth when the City Centre Market resumes operation in mid-May (or for those more eager, she has a table at the Salisbury Greenhouse Market on Thursdays until May 8).

Still, the wow factor that I hoped for - that intangible moment when you feel that the restaurant really *gets* it - was lacking. But between the ambiance, attentive service, and reasonable, reliable entrees priced in the mid $20-range, I can see why Lazarenko continues his brusque business. Good for groups, casual get togethers, and comfortable catch-ups with friends, I would return to Culina in the future.

Steak and dirty potatoes topped with chocolate and blue cheese sauces

Moroccan Chicken (we needed a tripod for some of these shots)

Flourless Chocolate Torte with Dulce de Leche

Gord & Andrea

Andrea, Shermie, May, me

Happy birthday Shermie!

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Blogger Andrea said...

Hey Sharon, can you send me that picture of Gord and I? Thanks!

Also, my pork tenderloin was good, but not memorable. Not that you asked....

April 24, 2008 at 3:25 PM  
Blogger Andrea said...

How come you didn't mention that "Culina" is female dog in Fiji?

April 24, 2008 at 3:26 PM  
Blogger Sharon said...

It's actually a picture from Mack's camera, but you can download it from his Flickr page: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mastermaq/2437167693/

As for the translation of "culina", I wanted to verify the word...but got too lazy. Still am.

April 24, 2008 at 10:48 PM  

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