Crave-worthy Kanu Cafe takes root on Jasper Avenue

Celebrated American chef Matthew Kenney has planted roots in Edmonton.

Burger was a disappointment but other offerings were 'divine'

Potatoes with lemon zest, truffle salt, parsley and truffle mayo. (Twyla Campbell)

Celebrated American chef Matthew Kenney has planted roots in Edmonton. In September, he helped to open Kanu, a plant-based café in the Mayfair, a mixed use building on Jasper Avenue owned by his real estate developer friend and fellow wellness advocate, Sherry Schluessel.

2018 has seen a boon of plant-based restaurants in Edmonton. Kanu Cafe makes the fifth new meat-free restaurant I've reviewed this year. In 2017, I reviewed one.

This restaurant, though, despite the credibility of Kenney, nominated twice for a James Beard Award and named best new chef in 1994 by Food & Wine Magazine, left much to be desired on my first visit in October. 

By then, Kenney was stateside, leaving his chef de cuisine, Justin O'Reilly in charge of the kitchen.

The culprit was the burger, with a patty made of mushroom and vegetables. It was so dry that it crumbled at first bite.

The beetroot ketchup added a subtle earthiness to the mass, and the salad, while pretty enough with multi-coloured leaves, lacked the amount of dressing needed to add flavour and creaminess to the pile of greens.

Dryness was also the issue with the spelt bun and the sunflower "cheddar," a pasty glob that sat too long under the broiler and looked as bad as it tasted. 

Had it not been for the smoothie — a golden concoction of coconut and tropical fruits (mango, pineapple) with spicy zip from turmeric, cinnamon, ginger and black pepper, I'd have walked straight out.

The food looked divine.- Twyla Campbell

Maybe the oil containing MCT (medium chain tryglycerides) or the tocos (fat soluble tocotrienols) had a calming effect on me. Both are believed to have health benefits for brain, skin and energy functions, so who's to say? 

But last week, intent on satisfying a pizza craving, I drove down Jasper Avenue past Kanu. Snow was softly falling and I turned my head at the warm light spilling from the café windows.

At a table I saw a smiling couple, their heads bent in conversation.

They were obviously enjoying each other's company. The scene looked like something out of a Hallmark Christmas movie. My car pulled over, as if by magic, and parked itself in front of Kanu's doors.

I was seated at a table in the corner by a very pleasant server. My eyes strayed to the couple I'd spied from the street. I'll have everything they're having, I thought. The food looked divine. 

'Too beautiful to destroy'

I ordered the kimchi dumplings and at first sight, I knew I was in for a treat. They looked too beautiful to destroy. 

The dumplings' filling, a blend of cashews and house-made kimchi, is pocketed inside bright green wontons made of  spinach and coconut. The pyramid-shaped parcels are topped with sesame and ginger foam and placed on little puddles of purple cabbage reduction. 
Spicy udon noodles. (Twyla Campbell)

The texture and flavour of all things combined was so fantastic, I forgave the $5-per-dumpling price and wished they came more than three to a plate.

The potatoes arrived next; piping hot, crispy and smelling of truffles, thanks to an accompanying pool of truffled mayo. Each bite was delectable. 

Had it not been a woman two tables over enjoying the udon noodle dish, I would've chosen the cacio e pepe kelp noodles.

I was trying to rationalize that if I couldn't have pizza, I'd go for something as close to Italian food as I could get, but the udon dish looked so fantastic, I switched gears. 

The chewy noodles are placed in a deep bowl amidst a generous amount of creamy cashew hoisin sauce and topped with a smattering of whole cashews, bits of roasted pink oyster mushrooms, and a few circles of spicy red chilies. You can pick those out if you want; the heat level of the sauce, as it is, is about a medium.

The dish, tasty and satisfying as it is, could benefit from less sauce and more mushrooms. If you order this dish, do not wear anything white; the thick, slippery noodles are hard to wrangle and you will end up wearing a healthy amount of the sauce by the meal's end. 

As enjoyable as I found the food (on my second experience) I loved the room even more. It is elegant but not pretentious with modern but comfortable furniture set against a calming palette of browns and white, with brick and wood on walls and floor. 

A mushroom and vegetable burger with sunflower cheddar, pickles, beetroot ketchup atop a sesame bun. (Twyla Campbell)

It is a lovely place to sit for food or drink; the wine, beer and cocktails on offer are not only interesting, but affordably-priced — in contrast to some of the food that seems steep considering the shy amounts of goods on the plate. 

It's hard to grumble about the price though, when two days later, you're still thinking about the food. 

On this particular December night, all was right with the both the world and Kanu. It looks like chef O'Reilly has found his groove. ​

Kanu is located at 10803 Jasper Ave.

You can hear Campbell's reviews on Edmonton AM every second Friday. You can also see more of her reviews on her blog, Weird Wild and Wonderful, and can follow her on Twitter at @wanderwoman10.