Edmonton Restaurant Review: Brewsters

Tuna Burger with Tater Tots and the Blue Bison Burger in the background.

I regularly find myself scrolling through Instagram. As I work my way down the feed, I like and save posts that I want to remember. One such image showcased the featured ‘Worship the Burger’ menu that Brewsters offered until the end of September. Until then, I’d never dined at one of their restaurants nor had I planned to any time soon. Alas, photos of the Tuna Burger couldn’t be ignored. I made it a point of dragging my boyfriend to the Summerside location before it was too late.

The merchandise case had some fun branded products.

Walking into the doors, we were greeted by a wall of Brewsters merchandise and signage that indicated we could seat ourselves wherever we liked. We opted to sit in the lounge. There, we perched at a bar table by the windows that overlooked the patio. It’s pretty standard looking in terms of typical pub-like chains; roomy enough to get around the tables while still maintaining a variety of seating options to accommodate different sizes of groups. The bar is a good length with a few TVs in view as well.

Once we had settled in, our server came over to let us know of any specials before going to grab us some glasses of water. When she came back, we were ready to order. My boyfriend chose to go with the Blue Bison Burger ($17.99) and I stuck with my decision to try the Tuna Burger ($17.99).

Blue Bison Burger with Fries

As expected on a quiet afternoon, the wait for our food wasn’t too long. Although, the Blue Bison Burger showed up on a scalding hot plate, which was a sign that it had likely been sitting under a heat lamp to be kept warm. Still, the side of fries had a crispy exterior that gave way to a fluffy middle. They were quite delicious. The burger, on the other hand, was disappointingly made with a prefab bison patty. The free-range meat was packed too tightly to be considered remotely fresh. Despite that, it wasn’t completely dry after the cooking process. All too often, lean bison can lose it’s juiciness easily. This was surprisingly more succulent than I expected. Topped with smoked Gorgonzola, chipotle ketchup, mayo, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, and dill pickle, I thought it was quite flavourful. Smoky with some funk from the cheese, it was a decent balance of what could otherwise be strong or overwhelming profiles; however, my boyfriend would have preferred more of the Gorgonzola.

Sesame seed crusted seared Ahi tuna steak!

I’ve had my share of Ahi tuna burgers over the years. Many of them have been amazing, so it would take a lot to impress me here. Admittedly, the first thing that crossed my mind when I looked at Brewsters’ Tuna Burger was that it was too high to fit in my mouth. The slab of seared tuna was thick to begin with. Stacking it with four large wonton chips and a mound of green pea shoots made it even taller. For fear of having the roof of my mouth butchered by the corners of those crisps, I elected to remove them before I proceeded to eat. To be honest, the initial bites were a bit of a let down. The tuna seemed to be overcooked. My boyfriend sampled it and said it tasted like he was eating a salad in a bun as there were so many greens. Yet, as I kept at it, the rest of the sesame seed crusted Ahi tuna steak was found to be more than adequate; the fish was nicely seared on the edges as it remained raw in the middle. The flavours also improved, especially when I made sure to take mouthfuls of the tuna alongside the wasabi tartar sauce layered wonton crisps. Minimal amounts of the pickled green pea shoots helped, too. The chips were actually quite thin, so they were easy to break and less likely to scrape the insides of my mouth than I originally thought. In hind sight, it may have been fine to leave the wontons in my burger, but better safe than sorry. Overall, this was again a good balance. It veered towards being a healthier option than the other burgers on the ‘Worship’ menu. Well, healthy insofar as the tuna, lettuce, and shoots. Not so much when it came to the side of Cajun spiced tater tots drizzled in a hot sauce and sprinkled with green onion. As full as I was, I managed to polish the skillet of tater tots clean.

I kind of want this polka dot hat.

When it came down to it, I’d say that our experience was mixed. The Blue Bison Burger left something to be desired even though my meal turned out to be great. The service we received was friendly, if a tad slow when we wanted to pay our bill at the end. Brewsters certainly isn’t at the top of my list of places to revisit soon, but I’m not completely deterred either. Now that we know that their burgers aren’t hand-pressed using fresh ground meat, we can avoid those menu items and try something else next time. Live and learn, right?

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Edmonton Restaurant Review Duo: Joey Restaurant & Earls Kitchen + Bar

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

Nowadays, chain restaurants like Joey and Earls – both founded by the Fuller family – get a lot of flak. People say these establishments are too corporate, that they take away from the smaller, independent eateries. But, I beg to differ. There was a time, not too long ago, when those were the go to places in Edmonton. Always bustling with people, there could be lines of up to an hour (or more) for a table and patrons would patiently wait.

While still relatively casual, these places give off an upscale air. During my lifetime, the trio has become synonymous with living up to a standard in service (for the most part) and quality of food. No matter which city across Canada that a customer happens to be, if they walk into one of the Fuller offshoots, they’d likely come away satisfied.

Yet, in recent years, we’ve had a bit of a love affair with a smattering of great entrepreneurial chefs and business owners who have gone above and beyond in growing the food offerings available in E-Town. Why go to a chain restaurant when you can support something more local? However, let’s not forget that the first Earls opened in 1982 in this very city as an independent, local eatery. Sure, the chain’s headquarters is now situated in Vancouver, but its roots are here.

It’s not to say that we’ve all abandoned Joey and Earls. Far from it. They remain popular hangouts for the typical diner. There’s just a lot more competition from the single storefront eateries with their award winning menus that dot our city. Those who frequent these, arguably, awesome establishments on the regular seem to forget that the chains were once our saviors when it came to a night out on the town. Friends (a few, not all) sometimes turn their noses up at the idea of stepping foot into a chain restaurant, and it’s fine if that’s how they feel. I’ll even concede that the menus are relative carbon copies of one another, and sometimes the selection isn’t all that exciting or adventurous, but there are still things I enjoy about these places.

Personally, I believe that there’s room for the chains and the independents in my heart and my stomach. So, this is my review of and love letter to Joey and Earls.

Joey really does have a permanent slot in my heart. I have many memories of great meetings and conversations over delicious meals with friends and family within the confines of Joey walls. At one point, my parents and I were frequenting the Jasper Avenue location so much that we became well acquainted with a server named Ryan. In my younger days, a good friend and I would often takeover a table for the entire evening as we lost track of time. It was almost like a second home (slightly exaggerating), but with better food (sorry Mom).

I don’t make it to Joey as much as I used to anymore. The locations around town aren’t the most convenient for me. However, I always think it’s worth it when I get to go.

Although the menu has changed over the years to better suit whatever food trends pop up, I’ve never been truly disappointed with a dish. From the lettuce wraps, chili chicken and flatbread to the rotisserie chicken, salmon (used to be cooked with maple) and fettucine alfredo, it was/is all so tasty.

For at least a few years, they’ve had simply one of the best sandwiches on their menu. The Ahi Tuna. Grilled so that the middle of the tuna steak remains rare, it’s a good value for the portion at under $17. The tuna is topped with bacon, crispy onion rings and a flavourful sweet pepper relish. All the layers combine to make for an extremely delicious sandwich. If you’re a fan of sushi and burgers, you can’t really go wrong with this choice.

I’m also a fan of Joey desserts. They’re known for the Molten Lava Chocolate Soufflé and Baked to Order Apple Pie, both of which have been on their menu for as long as I can remember. Those two are tried and true classics that continue to belong because Joey does them so well. Recently though, they added in a key lime pie as a third option. I was a bit skeptical when I first saw it, but I tried it and I have to say that it’s another win. There’s a good balance of sweet to tart and if you like fresh cream, they put a very generous helping of the whipped topping on the plate, too. It’s not quite on par with what one would find at Duchess Bake Shop, but it’s better than the version on offer at Cactus Club.

I often can't pass up this caesar salad from Earls. Photo from Earls site.

I often can’t pass up this caesar salad from Earls. Photo from Earls site.

Moving along to Earls, who remembers the parrot décor (while I’m at it, don’t forget about the red and white checkered table cloths and giant tomato decor of Joey in its original form)? The Earls chain has come a long way since those days. The original Tin Palace on Jasper Avenue has shifted from the beer and burger joint it was to a fancier iteration of itself. It still has a wonderful, large patio for those short summer months, and a few burgers up for grabs, but the menu has expanded.

Over the last couple of years, I’ve found myself at Earls (mainly the one by the U of A Campus) for many a book club meeting. I admit that, yes, I was getting a little tired of going to the same place so much, but I have to say that the food and the drinks are more than decent.

I do miss their old Thai flavoured chicken wings. Nevertheless, Mojito Friday and Saturday is the best. I also love their Dynamite Prawn Rolls and the Cajun Chicken Caesar Salad (the Pecan Chicken Rocket Salad is fantastic, too; sadly, I think it was replaced within the past season). The one misstep I made recently was ordering their Forager Burger. It was just okay. I’m all for a good veggie burger, but something was missing. Maybe the roasted mushroom patty wasn’t patty-like enough for me. The flavours didn’t pack much of a punch either.

Where the Forager Burger fails, Earls has plenty of other choices to fill its place. My friend has enjoyed their take on Korean Bibimbap a few times now. The Fettucine Alfredo or the Confit Chicken and Pancetta Fettucini are good for carb fans. The Jeera Chicken Curry is a mild dish for those who like Indian flavours without the spicy heat, and the Chicken, Brie and Fig Sandwich has become a mainstay for many.

Aside from the food, the appeal of Joey and Earls comes from the fact that, because each location is part of a larger corporate entity, they’re never quick to shoo patrons out the door. Sure, high table turnover on a busy night means a larger pool of tips for staff, but the bottom line is often determined by a few factors: affordability, service, atmosphere and flexibility.

Allowing customers to linger a little (or a lot) longer because they’re having a good time is something that these chains understand. After all, my friends and I, deep in conversation, have been prone to stay the night. It’s where we’ve shared many a story with one another, and where we’ll likely continue to do so as long as we always feel welcomed by the corporate exterior with the heart of a family who decided to start their business right here.

Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2015

Last year I decided to begin working my way through The Tomato‘s 100 best eats in Edmonton for 2013 and 2014.  There are still places that I haven’t made it to, and the challenge has only become harder with the release of the 2015 list this past March. Not to mention, new restaurants continue to spring up and compete for my attention. Needless to say, I wasn’t as on top of trying different places this year, but my second annual breakdown of my personal favourites in Edmonton does have some variation from my choices in 2014.

I still stand by the belief that any eatery is capable of blowing me away. Whether it’s an independent restaurant or part of a chain, there’s a reason why these places have lasted and continue to bring customers through their doors.

All of my selections are based off of the dishes that I’ve tried, so I by no means can vouch for the entire menu at each restaurant. However, I do feel that whatever I’ve eaten at these establishments are good indications of their brilliance or potential.

If you’ve had the pleasure of enjoying a great meal at the following locations, you’ll understand why they’ve made the cut. Otherwise, this list is my way of nudging all of you to step outside of your comfort zone to try somewhere and something new.

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1. Cibo Bistro
Still my favourite place in 2015. Everything is made from scratch. Delicious arancini, amazing cured in-house salumi, and fresh pasta with the perfect bite.

Review of Cibo Bistro

2. Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen
The official grand opening took place in November and the food really impressed me and my friend. Absolutely fantastic bone marrow agnolotti and tender, smoked duck were the stars.

Review of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

3. Woodwork
I recently visited again and it reminded me of why I like this place so much. Talented bartenders mix perfect cocktails, which are usually imbibed with plates of food that often consist of flavourful house-smoked meat.

Review of Woodwork

4. Canteen
The menu changes seasonally, but I still think about the duck breast I had. Visually, it was gorgeous, but it was also incredibly succulent. The chickpea fries and corn fritters are also great for sharing.

Review of Canteen

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5. Rostizado
A great place for gatherings, the platter of 2 consisting of juicy and tasty roasted Four Whistle Farms pork and chicken creates a family-like atmosphere during your meal. Make sure to order the caramel flan for dessert, which is arguably even better than the churros.

Review of Rostizado

6. Duchess Bake Shop
My mom’s first visit to Duchess took place this year, and she loved the desserts. She’s pretty critical, so if she says something is good, it is. The key lime tart is still my top pick here. The banana cream pie has a wonderfully flaky crust, plenty of banana and lots of fresh whipped cream.

Review of Duchess Bake Shop

7. Corso 32
I was maybe a little harsh with Corso 32 last year. My expectations were very high after hearing all the rave reviews before trying it for myself. But, I concede that the fried short rib was a more than memorable dish.

Review of Corso 32

8. Tres Carnales
My quick and dirty review from last year still stands: “This is Mexican street food at its finest. Every time I have been to this establishment, the service has been quick and the food has been fantastic. The guacamole is a tasty starter for the table (I love it even though it contains cilantro). The various aguas – flavoured waters – are a must to quench your thirst on a hot day. If you ever have the chance to eat them, get the duck tacos! They are stellar, but a rarity nowadays. The al pastor quesadilla is a close second.”

Review of Tres Carnales

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9. El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar
I was skeptical of El Cortez prior to visiting in August. When it first opened, I had heard the food wasn’t all that great, but chef Lindsay Porter who took over a few short months later created a top notch menu. The fried cauliflower and the bulgogi steak tacos are awesome.

Review of El Cortez

10. Rosso Pizzeria
The wood-fired pizza is a must.  I also highly recommend the ricotta with olive oil, which is indulgent, but light. Don’t leave without dessert. The homemade gelato is superb.

Review of Rosso Pizzeria

11. Nosh Cafe
This restaurant moved to 124 Street within the last year and business has been slow to build at their new location. However, I’ve been several times and the traditional Indian dishes – palak paneer and butter chicken – are consistently good.

Review of Nosh Cafe

12. Cactus Club Cafe
I know this is a chain. But, arguably, they know what they’re doing when it comes to food and drinks. I’ve never had a disappointing meal at either location. The dishes that keep me coming back include the beef carpaccio, the BBQ duck clubhouse and the calamari (the addition of the fried jalapeno slices is genius).

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13. Joey Restaurants
Don’t start rolling your eyes. This is the second chain on this list and there are reasons for it. I’ve been frequenting Joey for as long as I can remember. It was the place my friends and I would go for a night out. We’d feel like adults as we had long conversations over what we considered to be pretty fancy food at the time. Not much has changed. Joey has always been a mainstay for me. The menu has been revamped many times over the years, but I hope that they never remove that spectacular ahi tuna sandwich. I crave it.

14. Japonais Bistro
They have filling bento boxes that satisfy your belly and the matcha crème brûlée is addictive.

Review of Japonais Bistro

15. Izakaya Tomo
Must tries here include the crispy tako yaki (octopus balls), oyster ponzu and the prawn spring rolls. Gather a group of friends, order a bunch of plates and share everything!

Review of Izakaya Tomo

16. The Common
Go for the chicken and waffles – one of the best renditions available in Edmonton – or the unique tandoori calamari. They also have a great selection of craft beers and tasty cocktails.

Review of The Common

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17. Three Boars Eatery
This tapas style establishment has an ever-changing menu that is meant to be shared. If you can catch them, the lamb neck croquette, roasted beet and carrot salad, oka tart and the pork belly are highly recommended. The intimate space also makes it feel a little more special.

Review of Three Boars

18. Lazia
They’ve recently shifted the focus of their menu back to more Asian influenced dishes, and I think that was smart. The kitchen pleasantly surprised me with gorgeously plated and flavourful dishes that rivaled their sister restaurant, Wildflower Grill, but with price points that are slightly more accessible.

Review of Lazia

19. Sloppy Hoggs Roed Hus BBQ
I was greatly disappointed when I found out that Absolutely Edibles closed. However, their sister restaurant, Sloppy Hoggs, still exists just down the block on 118 Avenue and 95 Street. The barbecued and slow-cooked meat served here is great and the portion sizes are generous. To top it off, the Absolutely Edibles brunch menu transferred over to this location. The waffles with the works (breaded chicken) are my top choice.

Review of Sloppy Hoggs

20. Ampersand 27
A beautiful atmosphere with equally beautiful dishes made for sharing. Get the melt-in-your-mouth maple butter pork belly.

Review of Ampersand 27

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21. The Cavern
Giving the option to select wine in 3 oz. or 6 oz. glasses and the chance to build a cheese and charcuterie board that is healthy and filling, you’ll likely be surprised to find that you don’t actually require anything else. With cheese, meat, nuts, dried fruit, jellies and bread, this is a meal in itself.

Review of The Cavern

22. The Art of Cake
Cupcakes, slab cakes, cruellers, and shortbread cookies are just a few of the baked goods that they offer at their store. It’s impossible to go wrong.

Review of The Art of Cake

23. Tiramisu Bistro
With an extensive menu, there’s probably something to satisfy everyone. I particularly liked the salmone pizza. Even better, after 5pm on Tuesdays, pizzas are buy one, get one half off.

Review of Tiramisu Bistro

24. Belgravia Hub
Tucked away in the Belgravia neighbourhood, this is an easy restaurant to overlook. However, don’t miss out on their contemporary comfort food. The corn fritters, mac and cheese bites and the braised beef are worth a visit.

Review of Belgravia Hub

Happy New Year and Happy Eating! See you in 2016!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Local Public Eatery

The crispy chicken sandwich.

The crispy chicken sandwich.

Local Public Eatery, part of the Joey Restaurant Group, took over from the previous OPM.

I’d never been to OPM before it was replaced with Local, and it took me a few years before I finally visited the latter, but I’m glad that I did.

My first stop at Local was for brunch with my friend earlier this year. I opted to skip the brunch menu (although the banana pancakes with bacon sounded delicious) and went for the tuna club sandwich. Knowing how fabulous the Ahi tuna club is at Joey, I thought it’d be interesting to see how different they would be.

The Local tuna club sandwich comes on some sort of sliced rye-type bread, toasted. It’s a bit too crusty for my liking and not quite thick enough that it holds the sandwich together well. However, the tuna was nicely seared and the avocado tasted cool and fresh against the salty bacon. My only wish was that the cheddar be more melted. Somehow, stringy cheese just seems more decadent.

More recently, I had a gift card to use, so I treated my parents to lunch on a Saturday. I love that their drinks are all quite affordable and that they have some great daily specials. Yet, they’ve attempted to be jump on the craft beer bandwagon without really offering anything more or different from places like MKT or Craft Beer Market.

Despite that, the service on both occasions was fantastic, and sometimes that trumps extra food and beverage options. More importantly, the dishes up for grabs meet the idea of elevated pub fare.

The Brooklyn Burger with sweet potato fries.

The Brooklyn Burger with sweet potato fries.

My Brooklyn burger with the beer battered onion ring, red pepper relish and 3 year old aged cheddar was deliciously juicy and seemed to borrow the idea of the relish from that aforementioned Ahi tuna club at Joey. You can’t go wrong with the added sweet potato fries and aioli dip.

The crispy chicken sandwich that my mom ordered, was gorgeously breaded and fried, but not greasy. Placed on a soft Portuguese bun with coleslaw and BBQ mustard sauce, it had a delicious tang that played well with the chicken. My father went the more traditional route with a plate of fish and chips. 2 pieces of beer battered fish with house-made tartar sauce on the side. The pieces of fish were large and whole and not overly breaded, which is preferable.

By and large, Local is the younger, less mature cousin to the Joey Restaurant. The menus, both good, are distinct. Flavours on the Joey menu are more developed, a little more refined. But, if all you’re looking for is a fun, casual atmosphere with a menu that appeals to most and some beer and cocktails to wash it down, Local is the place to be.