Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tzin Wine and Tapas

Sweet endings at Tzin Wine and Tapas.

Each year, when March rolls around, I’m always excited to see what Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) has to offer. In 2017, I almost forgot about the annual event. There seemed to be very little advertising, and I was only reminded, at the beginning of the month, when I overheard a co-worker chatting about it in the office.

With it on my mind, I immediately decided to check the website to see if the menus from the participating restaurants had been posted. Sure enough, most of them were there. To my disappointment, the list was noticeably shorter than in previous years. Yet, after perusing all of them, I had narrowed my choices down to a few places that I had been meaning to try.

The first that my friend and I decided to visit was Tzin Wine and Tapas. Located on the 104 Street Promenade at 101 Avenue, it’s easy to overlook. The standout feature when passing by would be the bright orange door and the small window that may give you a peek at the chefs cooking away in the tiny kitchen at the front of the establishment.

The interior of the restaurant. This photo was taken just inside the entrance.

From what I had already read about Tzin, I knew that it was a small venue, but I still found myself slightly taken aback when I stepped foot into the restaurant. With only about six tables and maybe a handful of bar seating, it’s easy to understand how it fills up so quickly.

When we arrived, there was only a single table left by the door, and it was ours. Thankfully, there were only two of us dining together. A third, as the table was set for, would have made for a tight squeeze and possibly an uncomfortable dinner with people coming and going right next to us all evening.

The sole hostess/server was very personable and polite. She grabbed us a bottle of tap water, as requested, while we reviewed the regular menu and the DTDW selections. We opted for the latter as $45 per person for an executive three-course meal is typically a good deal at some of these more upscale eateries.

Cod with Risotto and Chimichurri

To start, we were presented with a filet of cod about the size of a small palm. It was laid on a bed of black garlic risotto and served with white balsamic chimichurri on top. I was quite keen on the risotto as the consistency was creamy and the rice a little al dente. For me, chimichurri is hit or miss. If made in the traditional way with parsley, I’m a fan. In this instance, I’m fairly certain that the parsley was substituted for cilantro, which is not a friend to my taste buds. Even so, that’s something I can work past. What I cannot forgive is how the cod was prepared. The white fish was overcooked to the point of it being almost rubbery. A knife was necessary to cut the cod apart and it was relatively chewy.

Heritage Angus Beef Brisket Sausage

I felt that the kitchen fared better with the second course: a skillet of heritage Angus beef brisket sausage in a red wine and herbed bean salad. Although the sausage was a bit dry, I thought that the flavours were nice and savoury. The beans were prepared well, refraining from becoming mush. Furthermore, I liked the fresh sprouts, which brought colour and crunch to the dish. Other than infusing more juice into the sausage, my one suggestion is that the dish be served hot. Either it wasn’t warm to begin with or it cooled off too quickly.

Alberta Bison Ranch Meatballs

My favourite was our final plate. This included Alberta bison ranch meatballs in sage cream and pecorino cheese. Honestly, the meat was somewhat parched; however, that isn’t entirely surprising with a leaner meat such as bison. The rich cheese sauce helped to counteract that dryness though. I especially enjoyed the sage leaves as they conveyed a bittersweet, piney flavour and crispy texture. As much as I appreciated this dish, I, nevertheless, had a couple of qualms. Most astonishing was the portion size. There were simply two meatballs that were hardly larger than the Swedish variety found at IKEA. My other issue was that there were no accompaniments in the form of either a veggie or a starch. That would have delivered added appeal and sustenance. Therefore, as the last course of the DTDW dinner, I expected it to be more filling.

By the time we worked our way through the evening’s menu, I wasn’t full, so I considered the desserts. The bourbon and butter cake called to me. My friend caved and ordered the flourless chocolate torte. I’d say that these two sweet endings were the stars of the night when compared to the rest of our meal.

Flourless Chocolate Torte

The torte was actually lighter than I anticipated and the taste of fresh raspberry appeared to be folded into the chocolate with dots of fruit puree and balsamic reduction decorating the plate. There were also pieces of almond brittle that amplified the sweetness of the dessert.

Bourbon and Butter Cake

As for the bourbon and butter cake, it looked to be on the heavier side, but it was moist and the bourbon caramel wasn’t sticky at all. There was a streak of pomegranate molasses to the side of the cake that provided a delightful tartness. It elevated the dish by giving it some dimension where the dollop of lavender whipped cream failed.

DTDW is meant to be a showcase for downtown restaurants. If they’re able to wow patrons, the hope is that they’ll return. Based on my experience of Tzin, I’m highly unlikely to make a point of going back. Sure, the service was excellent and attentive. Moreover, I was thoroughly impressed with how well the chefs were able to function in such a small kitchen space. Perhaps the regular menu would have proven to be more satisfying as well.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to discount the shortcomings I saw on this occasion, and even harder for me to be convinced that this is a place worth opening up my wallet for. When it comes to similar food at a great value, I’d much rather stop by Tapavino, situated on Jasper Avenue and 110 Street.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: SEORAK Teppan & Bar

A chef lighting up the teppan grill.

A chef lighting up the teppan grill.

At the start of the year, I found myself scrolling through the list of participating OpenTable restaurants in the Edmonton area. I was attempting to remind myself of places I’d had yet to visit, which I would then be able to recommend to my friend as suggestions for our upcoming lunch or dinner meeting.

As I perused the directory, one popped up that I hadn’t heard of. SEORAK Teppan & Bar was unfamiliar to me. I Googled the name and it seemed to have opened on Whyte Avenue just a few months prior.

Fast forward a couple of weeks later to when my boyfriend and I were heading to Nongbu for dinner with our friends. We happened to drive east down 82 Avenue and I spotted the exterior of SEORAK on 108 Street. Its simple signage is unassuming. Paired with the fact that there aren’t many happening restaurants past about 106 Street, SEORAK could be easily overlooked. Yet, maybe the lack of much else on that block is what made it stand out to me that night.

Towards the end of January or beginning of February, it was decided that we would make some sort of plans for Valentine’s; however, we wouldn’t be partaking on the actual day. It was going to be low key. My only stipulation was that I wanted to go somewhere new because it would allow me to blog about it. So, I complied about a handful of restaurants.  I sent them to my boyfriend to check out all of the menus and asked him to pick. Ultimately, we landed on SEORAK.

When this particular Saturday finally rolled around, our day started off with brunch at home and then a few hours of painting ceramics at Crankpots ahead of dinner. We arrived in advance of our reservation and it was still rather early in the evening, meaning it was relatively quiet at that point. Only about four other tables were seated.

One of the servers came up to greet us and he immediately apologized for the wait. He cited that the restaurant was short staffed and then he quickly brought up my name. Once he checked us in, he started to lead us to a table closer to the teppan grill, but, at the last second, he guided us over to a booth nearer the windows.

Now, here’s the thing, I never tell restaurants that I’m a blogger (although, they can probably guess when I pull out my camera and start taking photos). It’s a rarity that I mention anything because I don’t really want to be treated differently than anyone else who walks through the door. However, on this occasion, I pulled the card and asked if it’d be possible to be sat across from the teppan as I hoped to take photos without getting in anyone’s way. The server then introduced himself as the owner, Sa Hwang. He explained that it was going to be busy that evening and his manager had made the arrangements regarding the reservations, so he’d speak to him and see if we could be moved. The manager was over a couple of minutes later and he had us swiftly placed at another table with an optimal view of the show. We thanked him for being so understanding.

The SEORAK logo along with a few of their signature cocktails.

The SEORAK logo along with a few of their signature cocktails.

Our server for the evening, Joanna, came by shortly after to introduce herself and to ask us if we’d like any drinks to start. With ten minutes to spare before happy hour was over, we managed to sneak in an order of four cocktails at the lowered prices. Basically, all of their signature drinks are offered for $1.50 to $2 less. I’d say the one that makes the most of the Asian theme would be the Lychee Lollipop as it incorporates both the lychee flavour as well as soju, a Korean liquor. The Aloe-Ha is a typical tropical drink that went down smoothly, and the Kraken Cider was a delicious mix of spiced rum, Asian apple cider, ginger ale and fresh squeezed lemon that was garnished with a stick of cinnamon.

Having trouble deciding on what to eat, I asked Joanna for recommendations. She indicated that some of the menu items had been updated recently, so she suggested a few that she really likes, including the Kimchi Bombs. As we needed a bit more time to come to a conclusion on our meal, we opted to go with those as our appetizer. The plate appeared at our table not too long after. Three balls of kimchi rice stuffed with mozzarella cheese and deep fried until crisp on the outside were garnished with green onions or leeks and a sweet aioli. I love a good mac and cheese ball, and this is, essentially, its cousin. At first, I wasn’t overly impressed. I mainly got a bite of the rice and no cheese. But, as soon as I had a taste of the rice with the gooey mozzarella and crispy outer shell coated in the sweet aioli (surprisingly not creamy like a mayo) with the tanginess of the onions, I realized that all of the flavours just balanced each other out and the textures definitely worked together.

By the time we had devoured our starter, the mains that we opted to share were being put together in the kitchen. I took in the whole restaurant while we waited. The design is sleek and modern yet also welcoming. The marbled countertops at the grill and the bar are gorgeous. Nearly every table in the house (granted, not all of the seats) have a view of the teppan. The only thing I noticed was off were the bar stools. I didn’t try sitting in them, but they seemed a tad too tall for the height of the bar. Otherwise, down to the outlines of Mount Seorak (located in South Korea) on the wall next to us and the use of diverse textures and neutral colours, it’s a really well thought out space.

By 6:30, all of the tables were occupied, so there was a buzz in the place. Not loud though, so it was perfect for conversing. I was watching the chefs cooking up a storm on the grill and snapping photos. Eventually, the Pork Belly Trio was dropped off at our table with a bowl of rice. Not long after, the Korean Shortrib that I had selected showed up as well. We had been warned that due to the different cooking times for each dish, the arrival of them may be staggered. Since we were planning to share, it didn’t really matter, but I suppose it’s something to take into consideration when dining at SEORAK.

Although the menu at SEORAK integrates both Korean and Japanese (i.e. okonomiyaki) cuisines,  we stuck strictly to the Korean selections in this instance.

For the Pork Belly Trio, my boyfriend picked the Seoul Chili flavour for the meat. That particular option came with sheets of nori, pickled radish and a carrot/purple cabbage slaw in a sesame dressing. I hadn’t expected it to come out plated the way it was. When I absorbed what I saw, it occurred to me that all of the separated portions of the dish could be compiled together to make mini wraps. Personally, I really enjoyed the opportunity to play with my food. Each thing tasted great on its own, but the layers of flavour experienced when everything is combined is stellar. The Korean BBQ pork belly was cooked well and most of the really fatty parts had rendered away. I expected the meat to be spicier, but it was actually very subtle. The nori was fresh and had that snappiness to it that gave way without a struggle when I took a bite.  I always appreciate a good sesame slaw, too. This, paired with the acidity from the pickled radish just added an extra oomph of flavour. The colours were also beautifully vibrant.

I voted for the Korean Shortrib dish and it did not disappoint. Sure, it could have used a little extra garnishing. Perhaps a side of veggies to go with it. Aside from that, the AAA Alberta boneless short ribs were top notch. Yes, the meat is sliced fairly thin, but there were three long slabs of beef placed on the hot skillet, likely amounting to about ten ounces of steak. The bottom piece was about half to three quarters of an inch thick and cooked to medium/medium rare. The meat was succulent with just a slight amount of fat, which helped to ramp up the flavour of the Korean Kalbi (or Galbi) marinade of Asian pear, soy, honey garlic and sesame.  I ate up every last bite of the short ribs and the rice. In the end, I even added in the leftover radish and slaw from the pork belly dish for good measure.

Green Tea-rimisu

Green Tea-rimisu

To finish off our celebratory evening, we skipped the snowbowl (a finely shaved ice dessert only available in Edmonton at SEORAK) and went for the Green Tea-rimisu. I’m not going to lie, it took me a second to grasp that it was a matcha flavoured take on the traditional Italian tiramisu. It was presented in a pretty ceramic bowl with a matching lid. I opened it to reveal matcha powder sprinkled on the top in the shape of a clover (maybe a regular leaf would be a better shape and more in line with the idea of a tea leaf, but I digress). This was a well executed dessert. Nevertheless, I’d argue that it lacked the matcha flavour throughout. I did like the use of a Korean cookie as the base of the tiramisu though. I couldn’t quite put my finger on the flavour. I wanted to say it was black sesame or something, but it may have simply been chocolate.

All-in-all, SEORAK was an excellent choice in the Old Scona area. Everything from the food to the service was first-rate. Even on a night when they were short staffed (Sa was at the grill cooking and there were only two servers), the manager and Joanna were really attentive to us as well as the other diners. The dishes and drinks all made it out to customers in a prompt fashion and the integrity of the restaurant never wavered.

With our bellies full, I caught Sa when he had a moment away from the teppan. I praised the fantastic meal and said we’d be back. In fact, I’m already licking my lips in anticipation of our next visit to SEORAK.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

An interior shot of El Cortez from my visit.

I first heard about El Cortez Mexican Kitchen + Tequila Bar from a good friend of mine. She had the opportunity to get a sneak peek of the restaurant and bar before it opened to the public about 15 months ago. It was the space, more than anything, that she said I should see. Even she conceded that the food wasn’t all that great at the time. However, the artwork and the basement (remains a mystery to me) were worth a visit.

As weeks, months and then almost a year passed by, I still hadn’t set foot in El Cortez. One of the big reasons being that Old Strathcona is just not all that convenient for me. But, from what I had gathered, the eatery had reassessed their menu and brought in new chef, Lindsay Porter, to revamp the offerings. My expectations went up.

Before I knew it, August was upon us. The Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival is the one annual event that is guaranteed to get me to Whyte Avenue, and, as it turns out, it also provided an excellent opportunity to finally try El Cortez.

Knowing that the area would be teeming with people during the festival, I decided to make an advance reservation through OpenTable. While the restaurant wasn’t entirely full when we arrived, I’m still glad that we did. Seats filled up rather quickly while we were dining . Some were there for a meal, others simply grabbed drinks as they waited for the basement to open up for whatever Fringe play was being performed that afternoon (El Cortez served as a new BYOV during the festival).

My first impression of the place was a good one. After all, you eat with your eyes first, and this was a restaurant that created a fun atmosphere that I was more than happy to spend time in. The look of El Cortez is meticulously detailed. There’s art covering each wall. All of them unique, but unifying in design. The lighting is worked into the art or is the art itself, casting shadows of colour everywhere you look. And that bar. The bar is gorgeous, housing bottles of tequila – the establishment is one of only nine in the world certified by the Consejo Regulador del Tequila (The Tequila Regulatory Council) – backlit by an enticing blue.

Now, the question was whether or not the food would be up to par. My friend and I carefully perused the menu as we sipped on our beers. Eventually we decided to share orders of the Valentina’s fried cauliflower and the tuna ceviche. Since my friend wasn’t as hungry as me, I also opted to try a trio of the steak taco “bulgogi.”

The Valentina’s fried cauliflower was lightly breaded with the right bite, so there was still some crispness to the vegetable. The slightly tangy sauce coating the cauliflower was good on its own, but the crema dip on the side gave the dish that extra kick.

Sushi is one of my favourite cuisines, so it’s safe to say that I like raw foods. When there’s anything close to that on a menu, I usually like to sample it. The tuna ceviche sounded too good to skip. Chunks of tuna mixed with pineapple, mango, ginger, jalapeno, mint, cucumber and peanuts made this an interesting appetizer. My one qualm while eating it was that I came across a rather large tuna bone, so I was really cautious after that. However, the tuna was fresh and the flavours were really great. The ginger, mint and cucumber made it refreshing and light, and the peanuts helped to balance out the sweetness from the fruit. Jalapeno was added in to give it that necessary Latin heat without overtaking any of the other components. This was served with a tin of fresh tortilla chips and potato chips (I liked the latter more because they were seasoned and that worked well with the ceviche).

Tacos, when done properly, are a force to be reckoned with. Those little shells can hold any sort of meat or filling that you desire. Yet, we’d been without anything close to true Mexican street food for as long as I can remember. That is, until Tres Carnales popped up over four years ago. While I still love Tres, there are differences between the two. The major one being the type of taco that they use. The shells at El Cortez seem to be thicker and softer, and they might hold up slightly better. The dishes at El Cortez are arguably more aesthetically pleasing as well. Food is colourful at both, but there’s a bit more flair at El Cortez, which isn’t surprising considering the overall look of the restaurant. El Cortez is flashy, but Tres is a little more humble and its sister establishment, Rostizado, falls somewhere in between.

That leads me to the steak taco “bulgogi” dish. Damn, those were delicious. You only get three per order, and I wanted more when I was done. The steak was cooked perfectly. Juicy and tender meat with enough sauce in every bite and just a bit of crunch from the coleslaw meant this was a superb choice as my main.

Banana Custard for dessert

Banana Custard for dessert

With time left to spare before our next Fringe show, I opted for a dessert, too (I know, I know). I chose a banana custard with tequila marinated fruit and coconut granola. Honestly, I’m not sure I would order this one again. The texture of custard doesn’t really bother me like it does some people, but this one seemed watered down. I did enjoy the coconut granola, which also consisted of pumpkin seeds and slivered almonds. However, the tequila marinated fruit, interesting at first, felt like a misstep by the end.

All-in-all, I’d recommend El Cortez. The appetizers and the mains were all beautifully executed (minus the fish bones). Our server was friendly. However, she didn’t make it to our table as often later into our meal, so it was difficult to flag her down for dessert and the bill. Otherwise, the service was decent. If you can, you should also check out their Taco Tuesday when tacos are only $3 each and you can mix and match your order. Be sure to book a reservation though, or you could be in for a long wait. Plus, if this place wasn’t already cool enough, you should lookout for secret shows that take place every so often in the basement.

El Cortez's Twitter Image. I love this logo.

El Cortez’s Twitter Image. I love this logo.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Izakaya Tomo

Bottles stacked on open shelves create a wall that partitions the space.

Bottles stacked on open shelves create a wall that partitions the space.

Early in 2013, I started to hear about Izakaya Tomo (@IzakayaTomo780). I was excited to see that a Japanese tapas bar was being opened in the city, the first of its kind here. Having been to Guu in both Vancouver and Toronto, I had an idea of what this new establishment was striving for, and equally high hopes. Of course, it took me almost two years to make it there. Situated on 99 Street and 37 Avenue in a strip mall, it’s a far cry from Edmonton’s more popular areas. Whyte Avenue, downtown, 124 Street it is not. But, after a long drive to the south side of the city, our group wandered into the natural and minimalist venue that is very reminiscent of actual Japanese spaces where we were pleasantly greeted with a loud “irasshaimase.” Outfitted with just nine wooden tables and matching benches and a few seats at the bar, I can see that there is the possibility of a wait on busier evenings. However, reservations are accepted, so if you are prone to planning ahead, give them a call.

With a mix of traditional offerings as well as some dishes with fusion twists – the carbonara udon comes to mind – Izakaya Tomo has made a name for itself in Edmonton since it started welcoming patrons through its doors. The restaurant has racked up numerous accolades from the city’s many foodies who helped push it into The Tomato‘s 2014 list of 100 best things to eat in Edmonton, taking the No. 8 position.

Once we stripped off our bags and winter gear and deposited everything into the storage box next to our table, we got comfortable and began perusing the menus. To get the evening going, we ordered some drinks of which I selected a peach chu-hi (chūhai). I didn’t know what it was made of, but my friend recommended it. As it turns out, chu-hi is typically made with shōchū, a distilled alcoholic beverage, combined with carbonated water and juice. Apparently, some variants may use vodka instead, and canned chu-hi can sometimes have a lot more alcohol content than those prepared at bars and restaurants. I’m not sure if the glass I was given came from a can or not, but it seemed like the amount of alcohol was small. Other drinks on the menu included beer, sake, shōchū, cocktails and non-alcoholic beverages.

As we sipped on our drinks, we selected eleven dishes from the plentiful menu to share between us. About half had been sampled by two of my dining companions when they had visited previously, so, of course, we took their word. The rest of the plates chosen were new for everyone.

Crispy Tako Yaki

Crispy Tako Yaki

The first order that made it to the table was the last one picked on a whim. Crispy Tako Yaki, a battered ball filled with diced octopus and what tasted and felt like a starchy mix and then topped with takoyaki sauce (similar to mayo), aonori (dried green seaweed) and katsuobushi (dried, fermented and smoked bonito flakes). I remember having these at the night market on a trip to Vancouver several years ago and I can’t say I really enjoyed them then, but I quite liked them this time. The nicely battered ball broke away to a smooth potato-like center and pieces of octopus that had a bit of bite to them, but were not over cooked. The savory taste coming from the sauce, seaweed and bonito elevated the dish.

After that, it was like a deluge, and we struggled to keep up with the succession of plates. The tako yaki was followed by the Tuna Tataki where I noted that the fish was very fresh. I know that any time fish is seared, there’s a risk of the meat becoming tough. This wasn’t necessarily the case here, but I did find that the texture of the raw fish wasn’t as smooth as I would have hoped or expected. Still, the simple flavours of the tataki were enjoyable. Around the same time, an order of the Nama Harumaki was dropped off at our table. Leafy greens, julienned vegetables, avocado and smoked salmon all wrapped up in rice paper and dipped in a soy and mayo based sauce, it was kind of like a really healthy order of maki. Although there wasn’t a whole lot to it, the rolls made for a refreshing palate cleanser.

Next up was the Crispy Spicy Tuna Roll. My friend said the heat from the sauce was spicier than she remembered. However, I thought it was pretty mild. I do like a good amount of spice in the food I eat though, so I think it’s a matter of preference. The rolls were a good size – small enough that I could fit the whole thing in my mouth at once, but large enough that they had substance. The batter on the outside was light and not greasy. I’m certain that I could have polished off a second order.

The rolls were proceeded by a couple servings of the Prawn Spring Roll. Raved about by my friends, the thin, crunchy shells were stuffed with prawns, avocado and cheese. The cheese, likely cream, was a surprising yet excellent addition to the spring roll. That ingredient, along with the avocado, created a wonderfully rich and velvety texture.

Two kinds of Chicken Karaage were ordered: original and one finished off with a layer of mayo sauce. The original version is similar to KFC chicken in that it is marinated, coated in batter and fried. Paired with a light soy based dipping sauce, it arguably bests the fast food version. The second type of karaage was the same chicken, but cooked with mayo (I think it was spicy). A couple of us thought it was better than the original because the mayo provided an extra layer of flavour. Yet, as my friend pointed out, the mayo did take away some of the crunch that came with the original recipe. Again, this comes down to personal appetite. Aside from the two chicken karaages that we picked, there were, I believe, three other options available.

To finish off our main meal, we had a bowl of Oyster Ponzu. Fresh, meaty, juicy oysters that are breaded, fried and served in a ponzu sauce with a squeeze of lemon, this was so delicious. Dinner was then capped off with an order of California Sesame Seed rolls. On par with other sushi places in Edmonton, these weren’t much to write home about. I would say that they did hit the spot though. We also had a bowl of Yaki Edamame. Salted and grilled so they were slightly charred, I think the method used to prepare them helped to infuse more flavour into the beans.

All-in-all, it was quite a bit of food, but I definitely don’t think we overdid it. I think for a quartet, this was the perfect number of tapas plates. The favourites of the evening that will have me craving more from Izakaya Tomo are: Crispy Tako Yaki, Crispy Spicy Tuna Roll, Prawn Spring Roll and the Oyster Ponzu. I seem to like all the stuff that has been fried. Go figure!

Each of us saved some room for dessert as well. One person went with the Vanilla Ice Cream with Koku-To Uneshu (brown sugar plum wine syrup). It looked like one of the lighter choices. Another ate the Caramalized Sweet Potatoes with Ice Cream. Waffling between that selection and the Matcha Ice Cream Sandwich, the latter wound up being my final decision. I was very happy with my selection because it gave me a bit of everything I wanted. The potent green tea ice cream sat inside a sandwich of two mini pancakes with cooked red beans on the side and soft, fluffy peanut flavoured mochi (Japanese rice cake).

The food at Izakaya Tomo is prepared at lightning speeds, so you can get in and out quickly even if you order several items. This probably helps for turnaround of tables on nights when they have a full house. At the same time, while they don’t actually rush you out, the fact that the food is served so fast sort of means you don’t really linger as long as you might have wanted to. The whole point of an izakaya is to be a gathering place where people hang out for a whole evening. Even though that is what the establishment is aiming for, the small size of the restaurant and the impeccably prompt service almost create the opposite effect, which is a little ironic.

Despite that, this place is great. Drinks included, we each paid about $40 to $45 for dinner, which when you take into account everything we packed away, I would say was worth the money. The staff are extremely friendly, and, if there are no people waiting for a table, I’d be inclined to spend the entire night with friends or family snacking on the food and imbibing the various beverages that are available.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Leva

Happy diners on the patio saying hello to me!

Happy diners on the patio saying hello to me!

To me, Leva (@cafeleva) was like this apparition that I would periodically spot whenever I was in Edmonton’s Garneau neighbourhood, never realizing it was an actual cafe until friends started mentioning it here and there. I’d pass by many more times before I finally made a point of trying it out at the end of May. Like a hidden gem, it’s slightly off the beaten path, tucked away among the residential enclave of the university area.

My friends and I met up for a late lunch on a Sunday afternoon. Two of us arrived together and, neither having visited previously, weren’t really aware of how their system worked. After we clarified with a staff member that we could seat ourselves and order at the counter when ready (they offer full service during dinner), we staked out a table that bridged both the interior of the cafe and the patio, so we could soak in some vitamin D without being blinded by the sunshine. The outdoor space is actually quite small, but they make good use of it and they even have outdoor heaters for those slightly chilly days or evenings. The interior is nice and bright with wood topped tables, white chairs, hints of yellow in the decor and big windows that let in lots of light.

The order counter and interior of Leva.

The order counter and interior of Leva.

Once our third party showed up, we headed over to the counter to take a look through the menu. One friend went with the Chicken Breast Panini, the other just ordered a chocolate gelato milkshake, and I got the 12″ Spicy Chicken Avocado thin crust Neapolitan Style pizza as well as a chai latte. Upon paying for our items at the till, we were given metal placards with numbers on them, which were to be placed on our table, so the servers would know who to bring the food to. In a way, it’s very similar to the set up at Famoso.

Drinks were ready within minutes. My chai latte was steaming hot. I almost mistook it for someone’s milkshake because it came in this very tall ceramic cup that looked like an old fashioned soda glass. I thought it was a cute touch. Unfortunately, I have to say that the brand of chai latte tea bags that Leva uses are only okay. I left it steeping the entire time we were there and the flavours never got that strong, remaining rather bland.

My chai latte. Cute cup, but not the most flavourful.

My chai latte. Cute cup, but not the most flavourful.

On the other hand, the food completely made up for the subpar beverage (I’ve heard the coffee is fantastic though, but I don’t drink it). My friend’s sandwich was filled with chicken breast, brie, sweet potato, rosemary, buckwheat honey and seasonal greens. She said it was really tasty, especially liking the use of sweet potato to add an extra flavour profile to an otherwise basic panini. My pizza was topped with mozzarella, spicy chicken, avocado and cherry tomatoes. I can’t say the chicken was all that spicy (I can definitely handle more), but I enjoyed the combination of the four items and the overall simplicity of the meal. Everything tasted so fresh and the crust was crispy on the outside yet soft enough to fold for easier eating. I devoured the entire thing in the one sitting.

The dessert case was awfully tempting, too. I was absolutely stuffed after eating my whole pizza, so I refrained from indulging further, but one of my friends did pick up a macaron that she said was very good.

Edmonton foodies knew much earlier than I did about Leva – voted by readers into the No. 47 spot on The Tomato‘s directory of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton for 2014 and No. 38 in 2013), so I have them to thank for nudging me towards the place. I also happened to catch a glimpse of who I’m sure was local celebrity, Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 32 and Bar Bricco, stopping by to pick up a drink. If that’s not enough to tell me that Leva should be on the radar after 10 years in business, I don’t know what is.

Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 31 and Bar Bricco (or his doppelganger) stopping by for a drink.

Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 31 and Bar Bricco (or his doppelganger) stopping by for a drink.

The food seems to be relatively healthy, keeping to the basics of the ingredients. That’s something that I think is important when eating out, so I’m excited to add this establishment to my ever-growing list of city restaurants to revisit. And, after having been twice in the last month, it’s now also one of my friend’s new favourite hangouts, so I’m sure I’ll be coming around more in the future.