Edmonton Restaurant Review: iPho and Grill Vietnamese Cuisine

#91 Special Combination 5 Vermicelli Bowl

I was really waffling on what to eat and where to go for dinner last month. Ultimately, I picked iPho and Grill Vietnamese Cuisine located along Calgary Trail at 6104 104 Street. We showed up right around six o’clock on a Saturday night without a reservation, and we didn’t have any problems getting a table. It was busy when we arrived though. A number of the tables were already occupied, including one with a large group of about ten people. It meant service was a tad slow, but thankfully, we weren’t in a rush to go anywhere else after. Despite the wait to order, the booth was comfortable and the space was new, clean and modern.

To drink, I ordered a Fresh Fruit Mango Bubble Tea ($4.45). Contrary to the name, the beverage doesn’t include any tapioca pearls in it for the base price, so you do have to add them for an extra cost ($0.75). I actually found that the mango tasted more artificially flavoured than fresh, but the consistency was smooth and there was a decent ratio of pearls to smoothie, so I didn’t run out of either before the other.

Fresh Fruit Mango Bubble Tea & Spring Rolls

As his starter, Kirk opted to go with an order of the Spring Rolls ($5.95). These rice paper wraps were freshly fried to a crunchy, thin, golden-brown and filled with a mix of ground meat, veggies, and vermicelli noodles. I didn’t eat any of his, but a couple of pieces came with my own food, and I thought that they were delicious. For the appetizer, they served the spring rolls with a side of fish sauce for dipping. Kirk wasn’t a fan of using it, but I think that the funky sweet, salty, and fishy taste married well to create a nice balance of flavours, amping up the spring roll ingredients.

Kirk’s main dish was the Specialty Chicken Noodle Soup ($10.95). He requested that they make it spicy for a dollar more. It would have been nice to try the broth before it was altered, just to see what it tasted like in a more pure form. All I can say is that the spicy version was HOT. The soup was piping temperature-wise, but the heat on the palate from the spice was even difficult for Kirk to handle. I had two spoonfuls of the broth and, while I enjoyed the flavour profile at first, it definitely kicked you in the throat at the end and the spice really lingered. Otherwise, I believe that the bowl could have used a little more of the chicken as there wasn’t a whole lot of meat, and the same goes for the noodles.

So much food in the #91 Vermicelli Bowl!

Whenever I go for Vietnamese, I usually turn to the vermicelli bowls and their Special Combination 5 (#91 on the menu; $15.45) didn’t disappoint. It had a well-portioned combination of noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce, cucumber, and carrot to form the base of the meal. It was topped off with copious amounts of grilled beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, and spring rolls. A small dish of fish sauce was provided to coat everything (I used all of it). The veggies were crisp and juicy, the noodles had a nice bite to them, and the meats were all prepared nicely. Occasionally, I find that the beef at other restaurants have a lot of tendon running through the pieces, making them chewier, but I didn’t have that issue here. The beef also had a distinct lemongrass flavour. The three meats were tender, and I was especially happy with the shrimp, which were surprisingly plump and perfectly seasoned. I devoured the whole bowl and went home very happy.

Once we were fully satiated, we head over to the counter to take care of our bill. I’m unsure whether or not they will take payment at the table, but we noticed a number of other patrons walking up to the till, so we did the same  thing. Overall, iPho and Grill was pretty good; however, if you aren’t certain that you can handle something truly spicy, you’ve been forewarned about their soups.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Izakaya O-Tori

Izakaya & Ramen

Last year, Edmonton was abuzz with news of a new Korean-Japanese fusion restaurant called Jang located at 11212 Jasper Avenue. They were getting rave reviews from visitors, and I fully intended on trying it out. But, before I knew it, the eatery had been replaced by a spot called Izakaya O-Tori. Being a fan of Japanese ramen and sharing plates, I decided to drop by during a recent date night.

From what the server told us, it turns out that the business is still run by the same people who launched Jang. They simply opted to change their menu. Because of what is now served, they also chose to rebrand with a different name to better reflect the updated items. Now, Izakaya O-Tori holds more similarities to what you might find at their southside sister restaurant, Menjiro Ramen, just expanded.

Therefore, in addition to the ramen bowls — available with either beef (Gyukotsu; not typically the norm for ramen) or pork (Tonkotsu) broth — you can indulge in yakitori (meat skewers), a variety of waffle fries, a poke bowl, or pressed sushi. Kirk and I both went for some ramen; he ordered the Spicy Gyukotsu ($16) and I went with the Black Garlic Tonkotsu ($14). We also shared the Red Dragon Roll ($17).

Spicy Gyukotsu

I guess the first thing I’ll note is that the Spicy Gyukotsu is somewhat pricey considering the portion size. I don’t think that the bowls are quite as hefty as what you might get at local fave, Tokiwa Ramen, yet it’s more expensive. Kirk also wasn’t super keen on the roast beef that came with it and he thought the broth wasn’t hot enough. On the plus side, I sampled the soup and I found it to be incredibly creamy and rich in flavour with just the right amount of heat on the palate for me.

In comparison, the Black Garlic Tonkotsu broth was also smooth, but felt lighter overall. Packed with umami flavour, the springy noodles married very well with the soup and the huge slice of succulent pork belly. Joined by half of a seasoned egg, bean sprouts, green onion, fungus, and red onion, the bowl provided a landscape of textures that delighted and satisfied. I thought my broth was hot enough, too; however, I’ve never liked my food scalding, so to each their own in that respect.

Despite the tasty ramen, the star of the show really was the Red Dragon Roll, a large maki made with shrimp tempura, cucumber, spicy creamy cheese sauce, ahi tuna, and avocado. It was laid in front of us and then torched at the table until the tops of each piece had been delicately seared. Kirk is slowly coming around with more of the raw fish, so it helps when there’s even a slight bit of cooking applied to sushi. He absolutely loved this dish and told me that he would have been happy to eat the whole thing, if he didn’t have to save some for his better half. Admittedly, I felt the same way.

To finish off our meal, I selected the Matcha Crème Brûlée ($6). The sugar top was caramelized nicely and, once cracked, it gave way to a soft-set pudding-like custard. It was heavily flavoured with green tea, which was perfect. The worst thing is not having a strong enough taste, and thankfully, that wasn’t the case here.

The interior of Izakaya O-Tori

We enjoyed our meal at Izakaya O-Tori. It’s clean, the service is great, the decor is simple, and the food is comforting. The only thing we thought was odd was how empty it was for a Saturday night. Hopefully word gets out about this place. We can never have too many ramen shops in town!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: vivo Ristorante (Windermere)

Bruschetta & Ricotta

I’m always looking to try new eateries, so I was super excited to hear that vivo Ristorante was opening a Windermere location, which is in my neck of the woods. In late spring, they welcomed patrons into the space previously occupied by Chili’s (layout remains the same). At first, the reviews seemed somewhat dire, so I was apprehensive to go right away; we waited until this month before we ventured over.

Now, to be fair, this iteration of vivo Ristorante is not the same as their two other restaurants in west Edmonton or Sherwood Park. Although I’ve never been to either of those (yet), they have a reputation for serving upscale Italian food. While the menu still leans towards Italian-style dishes in Windermere, the atmosphere is a lot more casual and they’re catering towards a clientele that wants to have an enjoyable meal out without breaking the bank.

Their menu is reasonably priced with the most expensive pizza/pasta/burger coming in at $18 and the majority of the mains in the mid-twenties range. Plus, they offer a daily happy hour that includes drink specials or food items such as arancini, meatballs, and bruschetta from 2:00pm to 6:00pm and again from 10:00pm to close for a steal.

Beer & Cocktails are on special during happy hour!

When we dropped by during the August long weekend, we found out that on Mondays they have all day happy hour, so even though it was past their usual time frame, we were able to take advantage of the deals. Kirk got a Snake Lake draught ($6 after a $3 discount) and I got a High Tea signature cocktail ($11 after $3 off). I found the beer to be pretty good; it was cloudier than expected, but it was smooth and didn’t leave a lingering bitterness at the end. The High Tea cocktail had two ounces of alcohol in a small glass, so it was initially quite potent; however, after some food, the flavour seemed to mellow and it was pleasant to sip throughout our meal.

To eat, we shared a few happy hour plates (all up to fifty per cent off) including four Meatballs ($0.97 each), four Sliders ($2.50 each), and Bruschetta ($5). Additionally, I wanted to try their Brussels Sprouts ($9), and Gnudi ($16) for some variety. The food was prepared quickly and, before we knew it, dishes were being presented at our table.

Sliders

I’ll start with the Sliders because we did have an issue with them. The patties in the first batch that came out actually had raw centers. We made our server aware of the problem, and she was quick to take them away and offered to either have the dish taken off of the bill or to have them remade. We still wanted to eat the miniature burgers, so we asked that the kitchen just make a second order for us. They turned out much better. Fully cooked all the way through, the all-beef patties were juicy on the inside with a nice char on the outside. The sweet pepper relish, provolone cheese, and vivo sauce hit the spot with a mix of salt and sweet. When we got the bill, I saw that they actually comped both the original plate and the replacement for us, which I thought was excellent on the part of their management and staff.

Continuing with the meats, vivo’s Meatballs are made with all-beef as well. They’re covered in a rich marinara sauce with a decent sprinkling of asiago cheese and focaccia crumbs. The balls were pretty succulent and they fell apart easily with a fork. Since you can order as many as you want from the happy hour menu, I recommend getting them as a side to one of their meatless pasta dishes.

I was surprised by the portions of the Bruschetta, which not only came with the diced compilation of sweet bell pepper, jalapeno, and roma tomato, but also included a generous bowl of herbed ricotta cheese with grape tomatoes, basil, and mint oil. Five or six large slices of crostini completed the dish. It was light and refreshing, and, despite having jalapeno in it, it was not spicy.

The wonderfully fried Brussels Sprouts were a different take on the veggie in that they were served in a spicy honey. The requisite crispy pancetta was there for the savouriness, but the heat and the sugar was unique. Most other restaurants avoid the sweet route with Brussels sprouts whereas vivo jumped right in. It totally works, especially when the tiny cabbages are fried so beautifully and the honey plays off the smokiness of the charred leaves.

Gnudi

My pasta dish came out a little later as a main course, but I snacked on the Gnudi between helpings of everything else that we were still working on. It also arrived with a rolled slice of crispy pancetta that I broke apart and stirred into the sauce. The meat provided hits of salt that cut through the otherwise bright and citrusy in-house lemon cream sauce. Green peas and pine nuts brought in texture that balanced out the pillowy pieces of fresh-made toasted ricotta and spinach gnocchi. A thick slice of garlic toast came with the dish, too. I was worried it might be overly crunchy, but it was actually perfect and soft in the middle, making it the ideal vessel for sopping up any leftover sauce.

In the end, I didn’t have anything to worry about with vivo Ristorante. The service was attentive and caring; they went out of their way to make things right. Sure, they have some poor reviews online. Yet, I think most of them were from patrons of their other locations who expected the same sort of menu and upscale quality they were used to. They didn’t realize that the new vivo Ristorante Windermere was aiming to be more relaxed with a very unpretentious menu. It’s not five-star dining by any means, but the food is affordable and satisfying nonetheless.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Situation Brewing

The interior of Situation Brewing.

Often times, when we’re driving by Whyte Avenue, we pass Situation Brewing along Gateway Boulevard and see patrons enjoying drinks and food behind their big glass windows or on their sidewalk patio. I’d only been once before, but it was at least a couple of years ago, so it’s been on my list to revisit for a while.

 

On the weekend, Kirk and I decided to make it our stop for date night. We arrived at around 6:30pm on the Saturday and found it to be surprisingly empty. There were other customers, yet it was by no means full, although it did get busier later into the evening. Still, with the few groups near us, it was noisy. The surrounding glass, flat walls, and open ceiling created a lot of echo. If you’re loud or with people who can project their voices, it’s fine; however, for anyone else who might be hard of hearing or who prefers not to have to yell across the table, you may want to seek out an alternative.

It took a few minutes for our server to greet us, but once he did, he was quite attentive, checking on us regularly without being intrusive. Kirk was trying to be good before the wedding, so he skipped on the beer, but I ordered a pint of the Salty Señorita Kettle Sour ($9). I always find that Situation Brewing does sours really well. There is the tartness that hits the tongue, but it doesn’t linger. It subsides fairly fast to reveal the other flavours in the beer at the back of the throat. This one was no different.

For our food, we shared an order of the Brussels Sprouts & Cauliflower ($15). A mix of the veggies were sauteed in garlic butter and topped with shaved Parmesan. Personally, I thought that the level of garlic was perfect as it added the right amount of spice. The cheese brought in some extra salt and nuttiness. We would have liked for the sprouts and florets to have more char though; they weren’t exactly crispy enough, otherwise. I also found that the price was rather high considering the size of the dish. With only about five pieces of cauliflower and four whole sprouts, it didn’t feel worth the cost.

Our handheld entrees fared better with both Kirk’s The Big Stitch ($18) and my Lamb Burger ($17) satisfying our appetites. Both of us opted to stick with the house-cut fries as our accompanying side. Those were prepared to a beautiful golden yellow colour with a nice crunchy exterior giving way to a soft center. They were also lightly seasoned with spice that provided a hint of heat on the palate.

The Big Stitch is a burger that consists of a seven ounce patty of beef and boar topped with thick cut bacon, grainy dijon mustard, fig ketchup, lettuce, tomato, and cheddar between a brioche bun. The bun held together well until the last bite (it’s the worst when your bun falls apart). I had a couple mouthfuls of Kirk’s meal and it was tasty even though the patty was drier than both of us would have liked. Cooked until well done, the meat was more of a brown-grey than reddish brown in colour. The flavour from the char was good though and the fixings were appropriate. It’s also a hefty burger that fills you up.

I thought that my six ounce Lamb Burger could have used some extra feta cheese and the cucumber, mint, and pickled onion relish, but I really enjoyed the taste. It was refreshing and light, which is perfect for a summer meal. The bursts of juice from the cucumber gave the meat some succulence. The patty was also charred well and the combination of lamb and boar provided a decent ratio of lean to fat while also cutting the gaminess of the lamb that some people (excluding me) don’t like.

We were too full to grab dessert on this occasion, but we’ll certainly be back to try more at Situation Brewing, including happy hour. Next time, we’ll probably attempt to visit at a quieter time of day and also ask to be seated away from the larger tables, so it won’t be as noisy and we can converse more easily. Otherwise, Situation is an awesome pub with a satisfactory menu and a great selection of their own house brews.

Edmonton Things To Do: 4Cats Arts Studio Clay Party (Summerside Location)

The entrance to 4Cats Arts Studio Summerside.

This is a quick shout out to 4Cats Arts Studio in Edmonton’s Summerside area. Run by Michelle, this is one of the few locations that is still independent of head office. Although it probably caters mostly to camps for children and kids events, workshops can be booked for adults, too. They offer painting (acrylic or splatter), pouring, and clay parties (and sometimes clay wheel classes) for the older lot.

My bachelorette clay party!

Since I’ve never been much of a bar goer, for my bachelorette, my bridesmaids planned an afternoon at 4Cats Arts Studio where we were to create sloth mugs/planters molded out of clay. Eight of us attended at a cost of $25 per person. The large group table was laid out with settings for each of us. Once we’d all taken our seats, Michelle led us through the process from start to finish while her assistant handed out extra supplies.

The project was one that anyone could do. We didn’t have to master the use of a clay wheel. All we needed was clay, templates, a rolling pin, water, a brush, a pointed tool, our hands, and some paint.

Tips:

  1. Roll out the clay by putting your body weight on the middle of the rolling pin and not by using the handles. It’s a lot easier. Make sure the clay stays about half a centimeter thick, and don’t manipulate it with your hands too much, otherwise it’ll dry out and crack.
  2. To join pieces, use the scratch and slip method. Take the pointed tool and scratch X marks on both of the pieces at the points where they need to come together. Apply a little bit of water to each side and they should stick. Use your fingers to gently meld the pieces by “erasing” the joints. For hard to reach spots, take a bit of water and a brush to close up the crevices.
  3. If you want an interesting texture, roll the clay out over the canvas and use the canvas side as the outer part of the cup. You can keep a more rustic feel by leaving the clay unpainted, so it stays rough and textured as opposed to smooth and glossy when it’s coated with paint.
  4. The grey colour of the clay will actually turn to an off-white colour after it’s burned in the kiln. If you like the white, you don’t have to paint it to cover it up.

While we had selected the sloth pattern for our workshop, Michelle was nice enough to show us a number of other possibilities. Most of my friends still stuck with the sloth (every single one looked unique), but a couple of them ventured out and made a bunny or a dog instead. Because of the nature of clay and the fact that our cups still had to be fired in the kiln, we weren’t able to take our creations home right away; I’m definitely looking forward to seeing all of the finished products when they’re ready though.

Ultimately, it was a really relaxing activity for about two hours. Admittedly, each person was kind of in their own world at times, yet the ambiance is perfect to gather a larger group for a catch up while crafting. We were warned that the clay could get messy. But, with the provided aprons, we all managed to keep our clothes clean. Our hands were the only things that got a bit dirty (don’t wear your jewelry while manipulating the clay); however, a quick rinse with water was enough to remove any residue.

I’m not sure if 4Cats Arts Studio is still pre-scheduling many adult workshops into their calendar. Nevertheless, if you’re interested in setting something up for an event or just a fun meetup for your friends and family, it’s an excellent and creative option. Michelle is a wonderful host who provides great instruction and keeps things spirited throughout.