Edmonton Restaurant Review: Villa Bistro

Braised Short Rib

To my surprise, this summer, I was scrolling through my OpenTable app when I came across a new restaurant called Villa Bistro. It was the first I’d heard of it, so I decided to Google the business. As it turns out, the trusty Free Press Bistro on 100 Avenue and 104 Street had been sold and renamed. Villa Bistro’s goal is to serve high-end comfort food, which, in a city that seems to be in the throws of winter for half the year, seems appropriate.

I kept the new eatery in mind for the past few months, and I finally visited with a friend at the end of November after we completed a big Christmas shopping spree at City Centre. We happened to be hanging out downtown on an Oilers game night, so depending on where we parked, we could have ended up paying for it. However, we lucked out by driving an extra block further where we found a spot on 99 Avenue. The payment machine didn’t indicate that it cost anything after 6:00pm. Yet, just in case, we phoned 311 to double check and they confirmed that the zone we were in fell outside of the event area. Bonus! Otherwise, if money isn’t a concern, there is parking in front of the establishment as well as an Impark lot across the street, too.

When we entered Villa Bistro, it was fairly quiet. I’d say there were, at best, a handful of other tables and a couple of bar stools occupied. I noticed the space had been freshened up with brighter walls, new modern floral art (i.e. the ubiquitous succulent), as well as updated tables and chairs. It looked lovely. The host greeted us from behind the counter and told us we could take any available table. We opted for one tucked into a nook by the windows. Once we settled in, the server brought the menus over along with glasses of water.

Veggie Panini with Fries

The food selection has an Italian leaning with entrees that include panini sandwiches or pasta bowls and appetizers of meatballs, charcuterie, and caprese skewers. My friend ended up ordering the Veggie Panini ($15). I indulged by going with the Braised Short Rib ($24). The two of us also shared an order of the Baked Brie ($15).

As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our meal, it seemed to be getting cooler inside the restaurant. I assumed it was because we were next to a window and didn’t think too much of it at first. But, right before our dishes arrived, my friend stepped out into the building’s adjoining hallway to use the bathroom and, when she returned, she confirmed that the temperature had most definitely dropped. The server eventually let us know that what we were experiencing wasn’t the norm. Apparently, the whole building was hit with a heating problem and someone was being called in to fix it as soon as possible.

Despite the cold, we powered through our dinner like the true Canadians we are. My friend was really hoping that her Veggie Panini would be reminiscent of the vegetarian toasties she had when she visited Australia. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The sandwich, consisting of goat cheese, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and red peppers in a balsamic glaze was still tasty. Her one recommendation to Villa Bistro though? The ciabatta bread was barely toasted, if at all. Paninis are supposed to be heated and pressed and this one didn’t seem to fit that description. Coming with the sandwich was a large side of fries. They looked to be freshly made and lightly seasoned.

Baked Brie

We quite enjoyed the Baked Brie. Honestly, it’s kind of a hard appetizer to screw up. This one was presented with a whole mini round of brie that was topped with fruit compote (the menu said it was blueberry, but the colour and flavour made me think it was more akin to raspberry). There were six slices of focaccia crostini to go with it. When we cut into the cheese, it was warm and nicely melted with the center oozing a little. The sweet compote paired perfectly with the rich, creamy, nutty brie.

I will give myself a pat on the back for choosing the Braised Short Rib because I think it was worth every penny. The meat was braised in-house until it was tender enough to be pulled apart with just a fork. There was only a minuscule amount of fat throughout the cut, so I was able to eat every bite of the short rib. It was also marinated very well with the flavour completely saturating the meat. Since it was so savoury, the combination of the short rib with a large helping of sweet potato puree was kind of ingenious, providing that important balance. The addition of fried parmesan Brussels sprouts that were charred and crisp on the outside just made the whole thing even better (and provided me with some actual veggies).

Braised Short Rib

By the time we polished off our plates, Villa Bistro had become a literal ice box. Our server was tucked behind the bar with a heater while she wore her parka, and my friend had also pulled on her coat. Otherwise, there was a slight chance we would have hung out a bit longer and had dessert. In those circumstances, however, we couldn’t bring ourselves to stay. We grabbed our bills to pay and then head back out into the winter evening.

I’ll admit that the staff could have offered to compensate us for the inconvenience of eating in freezing conditions. Even though I know what happened wasn’t their fault, it’s still good business practice to acknowledge when something is wrong and to do whatever possible to rectify the situation. The host/server was super friendly and, despite the issue, she did her job pretty well. But, there wasn’t any discount on the bill or anything, which I think another restaurant would have considered. I believe the least they could have done was to offer each of us a hot beverage to keep us cozy as we ate.

Regardless, I hope that Villa Bistro’s building has since fixed the problem and that every visit hereafter will be much more comfortable. While the establishment is still coming into its own and there’s always room for improvement, they’re on the right track. With good service, a fantastic location and delicious food, they can expect to grow a wealth of regular customers.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Black Pearl

The interior of The Black Pearl.

A group of us played an evening of escape rooms at SideQuests Adventures Inc. on a Tuesday night. When we were finished, we parted ways, but a couple of us had planned to stay out and grab a bite afterwards. We didn’t have anything specific in mind. Yet, being on the 4th Street Promenade of downtown Edmonton, it made sense to explore the block to find a place to hang out.

We passed by a few popular spots before we decided to give The Black Pearl a try. Stepping through it’s doors was like walking through the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia. There’s a ton of woodwork throughout the space. At the back are a few fish tanks. Netting and ropes drape down from the ceilings and stairwell as a decorative measure. If it isn’t already apparent, this is an eatery that specializes in seafood.

Arriving a little over an hour before the establishment would be closing for the night, it was surprisingly still quite full. There were even a few people cozied up to the bar indulging in platters of oysters and crab legs. However, we managed to snag a table for two without issue.

Each of us ordered a cocktail to start. My friend went with the Light and Crisp ($7) and I grabbed a Rosemary Gin Fizz ($10). I can’t attest to how her beverage was, but I loved my choice. It was smooth, refreshing and ever so slightly tart. I thought it was a fantastic night cap as it quenched my thirst and hit the spot without coming across as too strong.

Fish Tacos

For our food, my friend opted for the Fish Tacos ($17) while I selected the Beef Tataki ($16). First off, I’ll just say that, looking over the menu, I found the prices to be higher than I would have liked. I do realize that the restaurant is trying to bring in the freshest ingredients by importing most of their seafood from the west and east coasts of the country, but I don’t think that a Seafood Mac & Cheese — made with lobster and baby shrimp — should cost $27 per plate. At least, not when I can go to Bar 94 at LUX Steakhouse and have Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese for $17 instead (only $9 to $10 during Happy Hour on weekdays, too).

Cost aside, the Fish Tacos were sizable. Considering that the dish only comes with two tacos, the pieces of fried haddock wrapped in the tortillas were relatively hefty. Served with in-house made coleslaw and chipotle mayo drizzled on top, these turned out to be very filling. The fish was also prepared well with the meat flaky and moist.

Beef Tataki with a glass of the Rosemary Gin Fizz

I wasn’t entirely sure that a restaurant with a focus on seafood was the place to be ordering Beef Tataki, but one forkful of the sliced beef and baby shrimp put my mind to rest. Honestly, I usually hate baby shrimp. They’re often overcooked and rubbery. In this case, they were actually succulent. Most likely the juices from the tataki marinade helped to keep them from becoming too dry, allowing me to enjoy them for once in my life. The star of the plate was, as it should be, the beef with edges nicely seared. The meat was thicker than I expected. But, it was incredibly tender and perfectly marbled.

Service also plays a big factor, and, here, at The Black Pearl, it was impeccable. Our server was warm, willing to answer questions, checked in on us at appropriate times, and reminded us about last call in case we wanted anything else before we left.

The intimate atmosphere, the delicious cuisine, and the top notch hospitality certainly makes me want to revisit The Black Pearl. When I do, I’ll be keeping in mind their daily specials like the half price fish tacos on Wednesdays and the $10 tapas on Thursdays because as much as I enjoy going out for a meal, I always appreciate it more when it’s also friendly on the wallet.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Little India Cuisine

Our table covered with traditional Indian cuisine.

Groupon struck again with a lunch voucher for Little India Cuisine (9250 34 Avenue). Knowing that it was valid towards the buffet ($14.99), which is available daily, I couldn’t pass it up.

My boyfriend and I decided to do a walk-in on a Sunday afternoon. When we stepped through the doors, on the right hand side, I noticed the decor with draped fabrics, hand-carved wooden doors, lantern lights hanging from the ceiling and traditional paintings. It looked stylish and classy from afar; it was a little run-down on closer inspection. On the left hand side was the payment counter and their sweets shop.

We didn’t have to wait for a table as they were able to seat us immediately. However, I did not appreciate where we were placed. We were taken to the back room where the bar is situated. They had modified the tables in that area to accommodate a large party of people who basically took it over and didn’t seem to understand the concept of personal space. It felt like I was sitting in a cafeteria, not a relaxing restaurant. I do realize that probably isn’t the norm there, but it really dampened my experience on this occasion. Had we managed to get a table out front instead, I think it would have been much quieter and more comfortable.

That aside, we helped ourselves to the buffet and it was superb. There was a decent amount of variety, including a salad bar, soups, rices, appetizers, mains, and a few desserts. I only managed to consume one large plate of food (I can’t eat as much as I used to) that was comprised of Aloo Gobi, Mutter Paneer, Lamb Curry, Tandoori Chicken, Butter Chicken, and Saffron Rice.

Papri Chaat and my plate from the lunch buffet.

Everything was marinated well with the flavours saturating and soaking into the veggies and meats. The Tandoori Chicken was actually succulent compared to some I’ve had at other places where it often ends up dry, especially when it can be sitting out for a long period. I love that they serve lamb as part of their lunch buffet because a lot of other Indian restaurants tend to save it for the dinner lineup. I managed to scoop up a few tender pieces of the lamb. It was all meat with very little fat or tendon to be found (although, the bowl had a lot of bones left behind). My absolute favourite thing at any Indian eatery is butter chicken, mainly for the sauce. This was a creamy, slightly spicy and incredibly tasty rendition. In fact, a small pot of the sauce was the only thing I went back to get a second helping of. I dipped our fresh naan bread into that dish and it was worth each and every additional calorie.

I was also surprised to find a plate of Papri Chaat sitting at our table when we first returned from gathering our food at the buffet. I can’t ever recall eating it anywhere else, so it was new to me. The recipe consists of crispy chips, potatoes, chickpeas, and yogurt chutney. Before we were able to ask one of the servers what it was, I took a chance and had a few bites. It was delicious! There are a lot of different textures and I liked the cooling sensation of the yogurt on the palate. Personally, I like it way more than the Papadam that is often offered as a starter.

Mango Custard

Usually, I skip dessert at Indian buffets. After all, I’ve never been a fan of Gulabjuman (milk balls in hot sweet syrup) as they’re way too sugary. Yet, this time, they presented a mango custard and I had to give it a try. It was, admittedly, a slight disappointment. The only reason I say that is due to the number of pieces of custard skin that ended up in my bowl. Those had a sort of unpleasant mouthfeel, like crumbly gelatin. I picked my way around them and ate the smoother custard on its own, and that turned out to be pretty good. Honestly, it could almost pass as a replacement for those wonderful lassi drinks.

When we were finished, we went up to the till to pay our bill. It took forever for the woman to assist us. She seemed more preoccupied with answering the phone than anything. But, her main issue was that she didn’t know where we were sitting and she was apparently trying to get the attention of the servers to ask them before she finally just inquired with us. The staff definitely came across as a bit disorganized. Otherwise, the service was alright while we were dining.

This visit left me with mixed feelings about Little India Cuisine. To go out for a meal is a treat (even if it’s something I do more than the average person). As a customer, I’m spending my hard-earned money by choosing to eat at your establishment. Therefore, it’s not just about filling my body with food. I want to be able to have an enjoyable lunch with my significant other without having some child run into our table, knocking over our stuff. I want to be able to pay my bill in a timely manner. I just want it to be a nice escape from my typical day. In this case, the ambience didn’t do the kitchen’s work any justice, and I couldn’t wait to leave.

Still, the meal was affordable and executed well enough that I’d be willing to give Little India Cuisine another shot. Hopefully what we went through that day was a one off and it’ll be better next time.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Mai Vietnamese Fusion

The exterior of Mai Vietnamese Fusion.

Had I not strolled by Mai Vietnamese Fusion along West Edmonton Mall’s Bourbon Street earlier this year, I never would have known of its existence. Intrigued, I searched for it online and found that the restaurant itself had no website or Facebook page. The only trace of it came through reviews left by patrons on Yelp and Zomato. Their only social media presence was on Instagram and even that hadn’t been updated since the summer of 2016.

Those reviews I’d seen weren’t very flattering either. Yet, a Groupon deal was all I needed to forgive any negatives and give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a try. I waited almost the full four months before I went to redeem that voucher on a Saturday night. When my boyfriend and I walked up to the host standing outside the front of the establishment, we indicated that we needed a table for two people. She seemed disorganized and asked us to wait while she ran inside to find an empty space (shouldn’t they have a seating chart at their disposal?). When she came back, we were told that there wasn’t anything available, but something would be ready within ten minutes or so.

The entrance into the restaurant.

As we waited, my eyes explored the room, and I have to say it was designed well. A giant Buddha greets patrons as they come in through the door. To the left hand side of the entrance is a whole wall of smaller figurines of the same in a variety of colours. On the main level, there are a couple of semi-private rooms for larger groups as well as some more intimate tables for couples. Up a few steps on the right hand side are a number of large velvet-lined booths overlooked by a handful of portrait paintings. Overall, the aesthetic was modern with just a touch of the traditional.

Condiments at the table along with fresh basil and bean sprouts.

Once we were seated, we reviewed the menu. Initially, I thought it was a bit expensive in comparison to other restaurants that serve the same type of food. However, I do understand that the cost of rent at WEM is much higher than it would be anywhere else, so I’m assuming that is reflected in their prices. Ultimately, my boyfriend opted for the large Pho with Steak ($15.70) and I went with the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli ($16.20).

It didn’t take much time for them to prepare everything because, before we knew it, our bowls were brought out to us, along with a plate of fresh basil and bean sprouts. Then we went to work devouring it all.

Pho with Steak

The Pho with Steak was very generous in size. There were plenty of noodles in the bowl and enough steak that my boyfriend nearly failed to finish off the meat (unheard of). The soup wasn’t particularly hot, but it was warm enough. Fattiness was apparent in the broth with bubbles of oil at the top, yet it didn’t seem greasy when consumed. It was a nice, simple soup. I wish I could give a true sense of what it tasted like on its own though. Unfortunately, I only had some after my boyfriend added in a bunch Sriracha sauce to it. Arguably, that added a delightful heat that also elevated the flavour of the dish. Of course, I won’t know for sure how pure the soup is until I go back and try the pho again without that alteration. In any case, it was good enough for me to want to keep drinking the broth.

Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli

My portion of the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli did not disappoint. Sure, it wasn’t as big as the pho, but it was all noodles, veggies and protein. I almost had a hard time stirring the components together for fear of anything jumping ship out of the side of the bowl. In the end, I managed to get the fish sauce mixed in well though. Again, they did not skimp on the noodles (as a cheap ingredient, they shouldn’t be). The ratio of vermicelli to beef was almost perfect. I especially enjoyed the meat as it was marinated really well; the lemongrass flavour definitely came through and there was a pleasant charring from the grill. The two spring rolls were deliciously crisp and filling, too.

Our only issue with the restaurant was the service. Each staff member that we encountered came across as friendly, and, as I mentioned before, our food was presented pretty quickly. Despite that, there was still a sense of mismanagement. With several people working that evening, two tables, including ours, never received our requested glasses of water. Both of us had to ask random employees for our drinks towards the end of our meals because we couldn’t find the person who was supposed to be our server.

Otherwise, it turned out to be a decent dinner out. I think I understand why the restaurant doesn’t necessarily have the greatest reviews out there. Nonetheless, if someone can see past possibly subpar service and they happen to be at West Edmonton Mall with a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine (and other Asian-style dishes), I would tell them to give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a chance.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sir Winston’s Fish & Chips

Atlantic Haddock Full Meal Deal

At the end of October, shortly before leaving for our vacation, my boyfriend and I planned a last minute gathering with our friends. We were going to be tackling another escape room together, which meant we’d need some sustenance and some time to catch up before playing. So, we racked our brains trying to think of a nearby place that was new to all of us.

Ultimately, we decided on Sir Winston’s Fish & Chips. Located at an unassuming strip mall in south Edmonton on 105 Street and 51 Avenue, it has apparently been family owned and operated for over twenty years.

The interior of Sir Winston’s Fish & Chips.

We had arranged to meet there shortly after noon. I thought that we would be coinciding with the Sunday lunch rush, but when we arrived, the establishment was still empty (it did get slightly busier as we ate). Overall, it’s a fun venue with a strong English-style pub vibe.

However, there were two downsides on this occasion. First, the restaurant had no working bathrooms due to a plumbing issue that affected most businesses on that side of the mall. Second, upon ordering our food, we were told that their ovens weren’t running either, meaning their house made pies were out of the question and only deep fried dishes would be available.

Still, we were able to look past those issues. Our friends ordered the Vegetarian Samosas ($5), Calamari ($12) and the Atlantic Cod Full Meal Deal (~$17). I went with a one-piece Atlantic Cod with Chips ($12). My boyfriend opted for the Sunday lunch special of the Atlantic Haddock Full Meal Deal ($16). The two of us also shared a plate of the Coconut Shrimp ($12).

Vegetarian Samosas and Calamari

I did not sample the Vegetarian Samosas or the Calamari. Yet, my friend’s husband thoroughly enjoyed them. He especially loved the calamari, telling the server that it was probably the best he’s had in the city. From his experience, calamari is often overcooked and rubbery. The offerings here were made perfectly.

Coconut Shrimp

Our starter of Coconut Shrimp was quite pleasing, too. For all I know, it came frozen out of a box, but I wasn’t picky. The shrimp were relatively large, they were crisp and they were coated with plenty of coconut to give it that sweet flavour. Alongside the tangy cocktail sauce, I’d say this was a winner.

Atlantic Cod Fish & Chips

I personally found the batter on the fish to be a bit heavy-handed though. It didn’t stick to the fish very well, often falling off each time I cut a piece. Otherwise, I thought it was alright. The creamy tartar sauce provided a nice acidity to the moist, flaky cod. As for the side of chips, they failed to make enough for all of the dishes, so mine was brought out with a smaller amount of fries. The good thing is that the kitchen was already aware of the mistake and our server showed up with an extra side of chips soon after. The thick fries seemed to be fresh cut, soaking in all that delicious vinegar that I sprinkled on top.

If one goes for the Full Meal Deal, it includes one piece of fish, chips, coleslaw, and a non-alcoholic beverage. Prices vary depending on the type of fish selected. The Atlantic Cod is less dense, but also only four ounces in size. Whereas, the Atlantic Haddock is an additional two ounces and has a drier, firmer texture to the meat.

With plenty of time to spare, we decided to stay for dessert. Three of us went in on the Deep Fried Mars Bar ($5) and the Deep Fried Oreos ($5). Again, the batter was laid on thick, but unlike the fish, this was similar in texture to a crispy cake doughnut, so it worked in this case. Both were served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream to help combat the heat from the fryer. Arguably, these are very pedestrian desserts. Nevertheless, in this context, they felt highly rich and indulgent. I mean, how often does one eat sweets like these?

Admittedly, service slowed down as more patrons came in, and it was difficult to get our waters refilled towards the end. Despite that and the other shortcomings mentioned earlier, we had a decent time during this visit.

From the reviews I’d read online, I will say that I was expecting outstanding fish and chips. Although I cannot say that Sir Winston’s has the best, they’re okay. What I really am willing to go back for are those pies (Butter Chicken is calling my name). I just have to keep my fingers crossed that their ovens will be functioning next time!