Wheat Garden Noodle & Dumpling Bazaar
10703 103 St.
11:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m.
Food: 4 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 2 of 5 Suns
Service: 2 of 5 Suns
Dinner for two (excluding beverages and tip): basic, $20; loaded, $40
Intrigued by the descriptive name and encouraged by optimistic reviews from well-known food blogs linda-hoang.com and letsomnom.com, off we set Saturday to Chinatown to try the relatively new Wheat Garden Noodle & Dumpling Bazaar.
The food is very good, but for ambience and service, I recommend take-out.
The exterior of Wheat Garden looks fine as you pass by – it’s the familiar bright-red house on the northeast corner of 107 Avenue and 103 Street that formerly housed the Old Szechuan Restaurant.
But as you head up the short flight of outside stairs to the restaurant, you realize this is an old, worn-out building with minimal maintenance and no upgrades.
The dining area – allegedly renovated — is without décor or decoration, consisting of white-washed walls and ceiling, plastic tables with plastic tablecloths and dull lighting from numerous ceiling outlets. All is a uniform greyish-white.
Cleanliness is not the issue, being dull and run-down is. The kitchen – seen on the way to the worn-out stairs leading to downstairs bathrooms – was clean and up-to-date as were the bathrooms.
Then there was the table service, if it can be called such. Really, why would a restaurant with a strong social-media presence leave a teenager with minimal English in charge, capable only of writing down the numbers identifying each dish and still botching that one simple chore?
It’s all the more a pity, because the Wheat Garden’s home-made noodle-and-dumpling based menu is very, very good. And inexpensive.
The dumplings are hand-made – we know because the ladies of the kitchen had moved into the dining room and were making dumplings two tables over. (It was a slow night.)
The Wheat Garden’s noodles had that illusive but distinct freshly made quality, a lightness on the tongue that’s missing from the packaged stuff and a special affinity to the broth as both slip smoothly down the throat.
The dumplings are double-bite sized. We ordered the “All-in-One” plate with an 18 piece assortment consisting of chicken/mushroom, beef/cabbage, lamb/dill, lamb/coriander, lamb/carrot and shrimp/egg/mushroom fillings.
They were as fresh as fresh can be, thankfully boiled rather than deep-fried, and colourful with pink, yellow and green tones somehow worked into the dough.
The inside meat mixes were nice and hot. But while the dumplings had a meaty flavour and billowy texture, the difference in the fillings could not be discerned. They all tasted the same. But good!
The mains were excellent – the Zhan Jiang Mian (No. 106, also called Beijing fried sauce noodles) had an excellent tangy taste, thanks to the ground beef/soybean paste mix on top of plenty of fresh vegetables – mostly bean sprouts – on a flat noodle base.
We somehow ended up with another beef dish – Sour Beef Noodle (107) instead of Spicy Chicken Noodle (109) – due to a mix-up with the server. But why complain? The second beef dish was tasty and colourful with pho-style sliced beef, glistening emerald-green bok choy and a fine thin-noodle base.
The rice and braised lamb (306) was the big winner of the evening. The lamb juices had worked their way into the hearty, slightly peppery vegetable stew, the lamb chunks were of good quality and the black pot vessel kept the stew hot to the last bite.
It’s a mystery. If the owner chose to invest in a decent décor and better servers, sales would quadruple. Instead, this restaurant seems content to get by, with its falling-apart building, no-name institutional look, poor service — but excellent food.
* * *
Rarely do I linger over books praising other locales. We’re here, we’ve chosen Edmonton as our home and I prefer to celebrate the flora, fauna and people of our region. It’s a dry cold!
But food writer Jennifer Cockrall-King’s lovingly crafted book, Food Artisans of the Okanagan, is too addictive to put down, drawing the most glowing picture of the Okanagan valley (and its neighbouring Similkameen valley) through personality portraits of hundreds of “food artisans” who make their living off the land in that Shangri-La a long day’s drive from Edmonton.
Food Artisans is much more than a book. It’s a beautifully designed large paperback with gorgeous photos of the people and places of the Okanagan food and food production culture. It’s an experience unto itself, a book to curl up with under a blanket on the living room sofa after Christmas, to be lost in for hours.
One warning: Buying Food Artisans of the Okanagan as a Christmas gift for your spouse (Touchwood Editions, touchwoodeditions.com) may set in motion a future move from Edmonton to B.C.’s mighty lake and its most perfect valleys