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.

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: KB & Co

Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwich with a Vegan Cream Cheese Filling

KB & Co, found on the main floor of the Fox Tower building on 104 Street, is relatively new. I’d heard about their health-conscious menu through word-of-mouth recommendations from friends; their smoothies and smoothie bowls often coming up as items to try.

After some delay, I made a point of planning a recent lunch date at the eatery. It’s strictly a fast-casual business with the counter set up for orders to be placed at one end and picked up on the other side. Once items are collected, the take-away packages can be carried out. Or, there’s also the option of eating in-house at one of several tables inside the space or outside on the sidewalk patio. Either way, the food is provided in disposable packaging without the choice of reusable plates or cutlery. I thought that it was interesting to see that a business that prides itself on the idea of wellness and sustainability would decide to use takeout only containers and bags, even if some of it is eco-friendly.

That aside, I was there to try the food. As much as I wanted to sample a smoothie bowl, I felt as if something less liquid-based would be more appropriate for lunch. Since I had perused the menu beforehand, my mind was already made up. I quickly paid for my Tahini Beet Wrap and tacked on one of the Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwiches for dessert.

Sweet Green Smoothie and Coconut BLT

While I waited for the staff to assemble my meal, I joined my friend at one of the tables. She had already received her Coconut BLT and Sweet Green Smoothie. One close look at the menu and it’s easy to see that it’s strictly plant-based; they’ve committed themselves to using organic and local ingredients to create items free of meat, dairy, egg and soy products.

My girlfriend enjoyed her smoothie of spinach, parsley, pineapple, apple, banana, dates and almond milk. I didn’t try it, so the most I can say is that the mix of ingredients sounded well-balanced in terms of greens to fruits. Additionally, her Coconut BLT was stacked high with smoked coconut bacon, spinach, tomato, avocado, date jam, mayo and hemp seed pesto (she had the red onions omitted). Although I didn’t have any of it either, there seemed to be an overall lack of “bacon.” Still, I’d be willing to give it a shot next time I’m there.

Tahini Beet Wrap

I’m sort of on the fence about my Tahini Beet Wrap. It’s built with a flax wrap base, which is filled with mixed greens, quinoa, beets, carrots, apples, cranberries, pumpkin seeds, hemp seeds and tahini-lemon dressing. All of the components are things I like and everything was fresh. Yet, a large portion of it came across as kind of bland. It was also somewhat difficult to eat as the quinoa tumbled out with every bite I took. The best part of the wrap was towards the bottom of each half. That’s where I found most of the dried cranberries and the tahini-lemon dressing. When those two elements were present, the wrap shone. On a side note, the greens (there’s also the option of chips) that came with the wrap were stellar. It’s a simple kale salad with a zesty dressing and it was really delicious.

The Strawberry Nanaimo Bar all bagged to go.

Before we left, my friend picked up a small Strawberry Nanaimo Bar to go. She texted me later to tell me it was yummy, but rich. Back at the office, I snacked on my Coconut Oatmeal Cookie Sandwich throughout the afternoon. The texture was lighter than I expected and not as dense as some oatmeal cookies can be. Albeit, it was slightly crumbly. The vegan cream cheese middle was to die for though. I don’t know how they emulated the flavour of cream cheese frosting without real cream cheese. Whatever they did, it worked.

Honestly, I was expecting KB & Co to be better. I had heard so many good things. My biggest issue is the price. The two items I purchased came to about $19. My friend paid about $27 for her trio. I think that for a place that doesn’t provide much added service, the cost does appear to be a tad high.

Nonetheless, I won’t be deterred by that alone. KB & Co is a promising business. It’s catering to a specific clientele whose needs aren’t always met at other restaurants. Even though I’m lucky enough to be able to eat what I want, I appreciate that there’s an alternative out there to help even out the scales when required.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: ‘Ono Poke Co.

The traditional ‘Ono Poke bowl.

As a food lover, it has been fantastic to see new restaurants popping up all over Edmonton. Within the last month, there have been about a handful of new establishments gracing our streets, including Ono Poke Co., which celebrates their grand opening today.

Located north of Jasper Avenue on 104 Street, the spacious shop will be open six days a week to serve guests. Although Ono Poke Co. is not the first to introduce the beloved Hawaiian dish of poke (raw fish salad) to Edmontonians, Executive Chef Lawrence Hui has taken a very different approach with his offerings.

Initial plans for Lawrence’s fast-casual restaurant were similar to Splash Poke‘s Build-Your-Own-Bowl concept. Yet, after an eye-opening trip to Maui at the beginning of May, Lawrence decided to focus on a chef-driven menu instead.

Chef Tom Muromoto imparting his wisdom on Chef Lawrence Hui. Photo by Liv Vors.

During Lawrence’s trip to the island, he stayed at the Ka’anapali Beach Hotel where their executive chef, Tom Muromoto, took Lawrence under his wing. In addition to teaching the history of poke and the best techniques to make it, Chef Muramoto also took Lawrence out surfing.

As Lawrence toured Maui, he also met with Chef Charlie Owen of Hula Grill Ka’anapali, Chef Jesse Anacleto of Roy’s Ka’anapali (named after Chef Roy Yamaguchi, the great pioneer and champion of Hawaiian cuisine) and Chef Ikaika Manaku of Mauka Makai at the Westin Nanea. Through and through, the hospitality of the island’s chefs shone. Each one gladly shared their version of “traditional” poke along with some modern takes that used different proteins such as beef, scallops, shrimp and beets.

It was through this educational experience that Lawrence came to fully understand the fusion of flavours in Hawaiian food. A combination of Filipino, Portuguese, Puerto Rican, Chinese, Korean and Japanese tastes and traditions can be deciphered and it’s that willingness to blend them all together that makes their dishes so unique.

As soon as Lawrence returned home, he scrapped his original idea and menu. Starting from scratch, he came up with a succinct list of items: ‘Ono Poke, The G.G., The Twitch in Tuna, Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke (inspired by and named after Chef Tom Muromoto), Prairie Luau and the vegan and gluten free Beet the Poke.

Crafting the samples of poke during our pre-opening event.

I had the opportunity to try a few of their dishes at a pre-opening event earlier this week and I was definitely impressed. What I loved most was how large and fresh the cubes of fish were. They were marinated to enhance the flavour rather than mask the taste of the seafood, which is so important when it comes to poke.

The ‘Ono (‘Ono means “delicious” and ono means “fish) Poke bowl is their most traditional offering. It utilizes Ahi tuna ─ yellowfin tuna that swims in warmer waters and is pinker in colour ─ with shoyu sauce, sesame oil, ginger, seaweed, white onion, macadamia nuts, Hawaiian salt, sea asparagus, green onion and their Asian slaw (red cabbage, daikon carrot and cilantro). Admittedly, I’m not a big fan of cilantro, but I felt that all the flavours and textures were there. As Lawrence said, it was imperative to ensure that there were layers to the bowls; each one needed to finish with some sort of crunch and had to have excellent palate profiles.

Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke

Uncle Tom’s Surf Poke was my personal favourite. This brought a creamier consistency to the tuna with the use of a spicy tobiko aioli instead of the shoyu sauce. White onion, cucumber, edamame beans, green onion, micro greens, sea asparagus and wasabi crab chips gave it several punches of colour and just a slight amount of pungency. It’s also the only selection on the menu that didn’t include cilantro in it. However, on a second visit, it was made with the herb sprinkled on top, so I’d definitely suggest letting the staff know to exclude any cilantro if there’s an aversion to the taste. In any case, the Surf Poke was a less salty offering and it felt pretty refreshing.

Prairie Luau

Of the three that I sampled, I’d say that the Prairie Luau fell in the middle for me. Rather than a protein of fish, it came with gochujang (red chili paste) marinated braised pork, gochujang vinaigrette, Chinese black fungus mushroom, cucumber, white onion, green onion, house-made kimchi (contains shrimp), chili oil and cilantro. It was certainly the spiciest option, but not in a way that scorched your taste buds. On the contrary, the pork was so succulent and the kimchi was fermented to bring out that balance of heat and acidity.

All of the bowls can be customized with a base of either short grain Japanese rice, salad greens or quinoa. Once the bowl is made and collected, I’d also recommend splashing some of their Hawaiian Chili Water into the mix as it adds a whole new dynamic to the dish.

The menu boards at ‘Ono Poke Co.

Even though the prices seem a tad high ($11.95 to $14.95 for a regular size bowl), the quality of the ingredients speak for themselves. Everything is prepared fresh daily and, if it can be made in-house, it is. Apart from the fully prepared bowls, there will even be containers of kimchi, shoyu japchae (sweet potato noodles and veggies) and fresh marinade poke, bags of house-made taro chips, and bottles of Hawaiian Chili Water for sale, so a feast can be laid out at home.

In a way, this spread of one of Hawaii’s most popular foods across the Pacific Ocean shows just how dynamic a place Edmonton is. If we can’t go to Hawaii, why not have the chance to familiarize ourselves with that State’s cuisines and culture right in our own back yard? I’m thankful that Ono Poke Co. is bringing us this authentic poke experience.

For Hawaiian’s, it’s typical to end the work day with some beer, snacks and poke. In fact, there are dozens of varieties of poke available (even in liquor stores). While the menu at Ono Poke Co. is a small one, Chef Lawrence and his team are doing their absolute best to pay tribute to their Hawaiian mentors. By providing the most genuine poke possible, I imagine that they’ve made all those Maui chefs proud.

Sou Chef Matt with Executive Chef Lawrence