Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Needle Vinyl Tavern

The open bar and stage at The Needle Vinyl Tavern.

Since The Needle Vinyl Tavern opened about a year and a half ago, I’ve frequented the place a few times. It’s located right on Jasper Avenue and 105 Street. When the business was first announced, it was a welcome addition to the city as it wasn’t simply another bar, but a small live music venue as well. On the cusp of the loss of several others like it in the span of a year or two, Edmontonians were happy to know there was something coming in to fill that void.

The wall opens up to allow for an expanded patio space.

Although I haven’t gone to any of the shows (they do have some great artists coming through), I have been for food and drinks. The first time was last summer when my friends and I decided to walk a few blocks from the office for our lunch break. It was a beautifully sunny day and we managed to snag a table out on the extended sidewalk patio, one of the few spaces like it in the downtown core. Personally, I think it’s a great spot to catch some rays and grab a bite. The only thing is I prefer sitting a little further in from where the pedestrians are constantly passing by.

The original vinyl drink menu is no longer used, but was a great touch.

On that occasion, I was really impressed with the details that went into The Needle. The overall menu had a decent mix of options and the dishes were promising. What we ate tasted good and the service was prompt. I especially loved that, to go with the theme, they had their list of drinks printed on actual vinyl discs. It was a fun feature. However, over time, those intricacies have disappeared and been replaced with what I would say are watered down versions of their previous offerings.

The last time I visited, my friend and I popped in for lunch. Instead of sitting out on the patio, we ate at a booth inside. While I enjoyed getting to view the bar and the stage, I found the service to be extremely slow even though there were a lot of staff on hand (chatting to each other) and not many people dining in.

Eventually, a server came over to take our order. I opted to make a meal of two of the appetizers: Mac N’ Cheese Bites ($9) and Cauliflower 78 ($13). My friend chose the Taco Supremo House Pizza ($17).

Taco Supremo House Pizza

I have to say that the slice of taco pizza was the best thing out of the trio. Yet, I don’t think that’s saying much. Sure, the flavours were okay, but I felt that the crust was bland and lacked in texture. I also disliked the fact that it was difficult to see past all of the lettuce and tomato that topped the pizza. It was like the kitchen was trying to hide what was underneath. The red sauce was basic and there was not enough beef.

The Mac N’ Cheese Bites with Ketchup

Still, the pizza was better than both of my starters. The Mac N’ Cheese Bites were passable. The thing is, it seemed as though they literally took a box of Kraft Dinner and made the pasta into nugget shapes before breading and frying them. The ten greasy pieces were served with a side of ketchup for dipping. They may have added some extra cheese as the interior of the bites were creamier than I expected. Regardless, the execution was poor. If you’re going to serve something like this, take a page from the many other restaurants that serve similar items. Jazz it up with a ketchup that’s made in-house or incorporate some spice or seasoning.

Cauliflower 78 with Sweet & Spicy Dip

The worst of the bunch was definitely the Cauliflower 78. These tiny florets were over-breaded (somehow not that crispy) and the portion was way too small for the price. They came in a bowl the size of a cup of soup. The side of sweet chili dip was probably store bought as well. This was absolutely nothing special and such a disappointment.

My takeaway from the whole experience is that The Needle Vinyl Tavern is mainly there for the music and maybe the drinks (my co-worker said the selection of beer is lacking). I’ve been told the brunch menu is a winner, but I have yet to try it. In the meantime, I believe that food is no longer their forte. They have the potential to make it a strong suit because I saw it in the beginning. I just think that they’ve veered off of that path for the time being. Hopefully they can get back on track eventually.

The bar is a cool feature of the venue and it’s pretty spacious to fit a standing crowd during shows.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: District Café & Bakery

District Café doesn’t always immediately come to mind as a place to go for supper. When it was first opened, it was a tiny coffee shop with little room for patrons to stick around. Yet, since expanding into a full-service eatery, it has become a much more welcoming bright and airy space for guests to linger over an all-encompassing menu of food and drinks.

Prior to this past week, I’d only ever visited for drinks and snacks with friends. Therefore, I was eager to have a complete meal on this particular occasion. Although District Café is known for their tasty brunch, I’d argue that the latest dinner menu from chef Spencer Thompson (previously of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen) gives the day’s earlier items a run for their money.

My friend and I walked over to the restaurant right after work on a Friday afternoon. The sign at the door indicated that we could seat ourselves, so we headed straight in. The majority of the tables were already occupied. Thankfully, there were a couple of spots available towards the far side of the venue.

A frosty bottle of Jamaican Ginger Beer.

As soon as we sat down, a server brought glasses of water and some menus over. He also answered our questions about the evening’s specials. In the end, we decided to stick with non-alcoholic beverages. While my companion quenched her thirst with a glass of lemonade ($3.50), I opted for a bottle of the Jamaican Ginger Beer ($3; spice that lingers in your throat!). We also selected the Roast Eggplant ($13) as an appetizer to share.

The Roast Eggplant is an ideal starter to split. It came with four slices of lightly toasted focaccia that had been brushed with olive oil. Rounds of salted eggplant, pieces of zucchini and halves of tomatoes lingered next to a dollop of house made ricotta. When I think about it, it’s really such a straightforward plate, but it’s done so well. All of the veggies were roasted to the perfect point. Combined with the creamy ricotta, my first assembled portion was to die for.

Hand Cut Pasta

Next up were the entrees. We’re big fans of fresh pasta, so it was a no-brainer for my friend. She went for the featured Hand Cut Pasta ($18) without any added meat. Large, broad, flat pappardelle noodles were evenly coated in a buttercream sauce and tossed with roasted walnuts, apple and arugula. I ate a mouthful of the pasta and it was unexpectedly refreshing and summery for what would typically be considered a denser dish. The merging of bitter arugula, sweet apple and nutty walnuts were a match made in heaven.

Flat Iron Steak

As a home cook (I doubt I should even call myself that), I often refrain from making dishes that have a meat component to them as I dislike handling the food. For that reason, when I indulge in a meal out, I tend to go for things I wouldn’t otherwise have on a regular basis. In this case, I chose the Flat Iron Steak ($20). Upon ordering, I indicated to the server that I would prefer the steak to be medium-rare. He let me know that the meat is prepared sous-vide, so they were unable to cook it exactly as requested. Nevertheless, he assured me that if I enjoy a medium-rare doneness, it would probably be to my satisfaction.

He certainly wasn’t wrong. In fact, the Flat Iron Steak came out just right. The meat was still pink in the middle and the pieces were succulent enough to cut through them with a butter knife. Generous helpings of steak were accompanied by a tomato arugula salad with roasted green beans, potatoes and radishes. Mint chimmichurri provided another element that helped to keep it seasonal to spring and summer.

Now, I’m sure we would have been okay leaving after those three satisfying dishes; however, I knew that I’d be kicking myself later if I didn’t have some dessert. Indeed, I had two. Okay, three, if you count the sampling I had of my friend’s cake.

Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread

The first was one of the bakery’s Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread cookies ($0.50). I’m not sure I loved the texture. I like shortbread to have that melt-in-your-mouth sensation. This one wasn’t quite as buttery, but the strong taste of lemon made up for that.

A big slice of Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake.

As far as cakes go, the Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake ($7) that my friend ordered was truly decadent. The layers of cake were unbelievably moist yet fluffy. It was rich in flavour and the frosting was sweet, but not overly so. It’s one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve eaten in a long time.

Where I think District Café’s pastry chef really excelled was with the Orange Blossom Pavlova ($10). The foundation of the dessert was a giant meringue cookie. In the center, it was filled with a thick layer of custard that was dotted by vanilla bean. A mix of fresh fruit (blueberries and peach this time) and sliced almonds decorated the top. Then it was dusted with powdered sugar and served with caramel sauce on the side. The edges of the meringue dissolved on the tongue; the middle of the cookie remained a bit chewy. Not only was it beautiful, it was sublimely delicious.

District Café has kept things simple and succinct. The menu caters to many while staying focused. Personally, I believe it’s better to do a dozen things exceptionally well than to do many things halfway. Here, at District Café, with the current chefs and their offerings, I’d say that they’ve managed to achieve the former.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Vaticano Cucina

A slice of the St. Francis Montanara pizza.

Whenever I’m making plans for an outing with friends, one of the first places I check for restaurant possibilities is the OpenTable app. I love that the ability to make a reservation is just a few clicks away. Sometimes it’ll even bring up a total gem.

During a recent search, I happened upon an eatery called Vaticano Cucina. New to Edmonton’s south side, it took over the space vacated by Koutouki Taverna on Gateway Boulevard and 45 Avenue.

As it turns out, the business opened their doors at the beginning of May. Only in operation for a few weeks before we visited, I had kept it in the back of my mind until I was planning an escape room event. Just four minutes away by car from the game venue, Vaticano Cucina was the perfect spot for our get together.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we headed over to the restaurant where we found a couple of our friends circling the building. A lack of signage and multiple doors threw them off, so they were looking for the main entrance (it’s the one facing the Travelodge). Once inside, we were greeted and led to our table. It was situated on a raised platform to the side, but it didn’t feel enclosed at all. It actually provided great vantage points of the kitchen and the expansive interior while allowing us to talk without any distractions. We also noted the fresco-like ceilings. Inspired by the Sistine Chapel, Vaticano Cucina had large scale canvas prints of classic Italian paintings made and wallpapered to raised portions of the ceiling throughout. This was a neat detail in an otherwise neutral, but stylish room.

A cup of coffee.

The atmosphere lends itself well to the idea of brunch, and I think it’s important to note that only those items are served until 2pm during the weekend. Afterwards, the regular menu takes effect. I was unaware of that before we arrived, so I wasn’t expecting to find a pared down list. Nevertheless, there was no problem finding something I wanted to eat.

In the end, two people opted for the Chicken Parmesan Panini with Chips, one selected the Italian Prosciutto & Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto (or Cubano Pork Traditional; I may have them confused) Eggs Benedict and the last of us chose the Strozzapretti Funghi.

Eggs Benedict

Off the bat, I’ll make it known that I didn’t try any of the Eggs Benedict ($15), but it looked wonderful and hearty. Focaccia bread was laid with large slices of Cubano pork, two soft poached eggs and covered in a brown butter Hollandaise sauce. Their version of hash browns was served on the side and was different than anticipated as they were prepared more like smashed potatoes. My friend reluctantly shared a bit with his wife before devouring the whole thing himself.

Chicken Parmesan Panini

I did get to try some of the Chicken Parmesan Panini since my boyfriend generously cut off a corner of his sandwich for me. It was better than I imagined it would be, too. The chicken was breaded and fried until succulent on the inside and crunchy on the outside. It was then placed between the slices of bread with the perfect amount of tomato sauce and melted cheese. In addition, the bread was incredibly buttered and sprinkled with herbs before being grilled. It was simple, but also rich and indulgent. The side of chips was prepared in-house and came with a refreshingly creamy dill dip.

Strozzapretti Funghi

My dish was the Strozzapretti Funghi. I’ll quickly note that their pasta is handmade, but it’s not freshly created at the restaurant. The dry pasta is actually imported from Italy. Taking that into consideration, it’s still very good. The noodles were cooked until perfectly al dente and stirred with cream sauce, spinach, Fontina cheese and a trio of mushrooms. The dish was garnished with some arugula to round out the flavour profile. I also sprinkled on some grated Parmesan cheese and chili flakes. Surprisingly, the dish refrained from being too dense. I polished it off without any issues and still had room for a snack.

Joe, who co-owns Vaticano Cucina with his brother and both of their wives, chatted with us while we dined. He happily shared some of his family’s Italian history with us while also taking the time to describe what a Montanara pizza is – flash deep-fried dough that is then baked in their wood burning oven – before fully convincing us to try one.

The full St. Francis Montanara Bianca Pizza.

We figured that it wouldn’t be a problem for five people to eat a whole pizza and we were correct. The most difficult part was deciding which one to order. There are over a dozen choices, and each one is creatively named after various saints. Ultimately, we went with the first one Joe suggested, St. Francis. Quite honestly, I couldn’t really decipher a change from the regular Neapolitan pizza preparation as the consistency of the baked and charred dough was so similar. But, I’ve heard that the main difference actually comes down to the taste, which is deeper in flavour with the Montanara. Regardless, the crust had just the right amount of chew and crispness. The toppings of fig, chevre (goat cheese), arugula, onion jam and balsamic glaze made for a light yet punchy pizza.

Thanks to the wonderful food, relaxed venue and friendly hospitality, we left Vaticano Cucina in a great mood and we felt more than ready to take on the day. We also unanimously agreed that each of us would be happy to go back. For such a newcomer to the Edmonton restaurant scene (especially in the south of the city), they’ve already proven themselves to be worthy of a second helping.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Zinc

Dinner begins with our appetizers.

As quickly as it arrived, the Downtown Business Association’s Dining Week (DTDW) disappeared. The dust has settled and here are my thoughts on the second of my three outings (Tzin was the preceding review).

Zinc, attached to the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), is a place that I’ve dined at on only a couple of occasions previous to this. I’ve also had the pleasure of enjoying food catered by the restaurant during one or two events held at the AGA. Yet, I had never taken the opportunity to write about my experiences. This time seems as good as any to do that.

On a chilly early evening, my friend and I showed up to our reservation (booked through OpenTable) right on time. It took a few minutes, but one of the servers greeted us and promptly showed us to our table. Architecturally, the venue is beautiful. With tall floor to ceiling windows, a mix of modern décor and glossy washes of deep, bright royal blue, the space feels relaxing and tranquil even on a dreary day.

To keep things moving along, the manager took our drink orders. Both of us opted to stick with water for the night. He also put through our meal selections once we had decided between the choices available to us on the $45 DTDW executive dinner menu.

For my starter, I elected to try the fried oyster basket – cheese stuffed bologna or turkey pot pie were the other picks – which was presented in a relatively deconstructed and artistic way. The mini fry basket had been tossed on its side with the oysters scattered on the plate. Next to the basket was a skinny shot glass of sauce and closest to me were a few circular lemon slices. When it was set down before me, the server indicated that the accompanying sauce was of roasted red pepper. This was different from the description on the menu where I had read it was to come with a maple cocktail sauce. Honestly, I think the maple may have been a better flavour to go with the brininess of the oysters. That sense of sweetness and salt. The red pepper cocktail sauce was still good, but it was quite acidic and dilly. I could have done with a little less of the herb. On the other hand, basic lemon juice squeezed atop the non-greasy, crisp oysters was a treat on its own.

Braised Beef Cheeks with roasted root vegetables.

Rather than going with the duck cassoulet or the veal bolognaise, my entrée consisted of the braised beef cheeks. The meat, cooked in a red wine demi-glace, and the garlic smashed potatoes weren’t anything spectacular. They were just decent. I had actually expected the beef to be more succulent than it was. No, the absolute stars of the dish were the roasted root vegetables. A pile of sliced carrots and, my best guess is diced parsnips, sang in my mouth. Smoky from the slight charring and a little bit fragrant, I could have easily gone for another helping.

Butternut Squash Cheesecake

The final course was a butternut squash cheesecake. At first consideration, the squash appeared to be an odd component to a dessert, but that’s merely because it’s not the typical pumpkin. The butternut squash is subtly sweet and nutty compared to its relative. Most of the sugariness in this dish came from the white chocolate curls sprinkled over the cake as well as the peach and pear salsa and pieces of fruit that were there as complements. On the other hand, the minuscule grains of Tonka bean really stood out on my palate. Known to be fruity and spicy, these tiny shavings produced a bitterness that didn’t necessarily overwhelm my taste buds; however, the flavour couldn’t be ignored either. This was an enjoyable dessert, simply because every bite provided something surprising.

Zinc’s website is keen to point out that the menu puts a focus on fresh Alberta ingredients and food products with inspiration for seasonal changes being taken from the rotating featured art exhibits. I have no clue as to what is currently being showcased at the gallery. All I know is that the dishes we tried were delicious and, even though the plates weren’t necessarily inventive, it’s an interesting notion – one that I believe to be true – that food and art are really one in the same.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Almanac

Drinks to start the night off right.

Drinks to start the night off right.

If I have a chance to, I like to give new eateries a try. The Almanac is one I had heard of because it was being touted as a much needed music venue following the loss of a handful of established locations within the last year or two.

Located in the heart of Old Strathcona, it opened in December, otherwise known as the dead of winter. I had all but forgotten about it until I came across a Groupon deal. For me, those are sometimes the best excuse to try a different place. My friend and I decided to go in early February (I know, this is quite delayed).

The restaurant has large Whyte Avenue facing windows, which are great for people watching should you manage to snag one of the long booths at the front of the house. We did have an OpenTable reservation, but we would have had no trouble the night we went, and were told we could choose any available table. Although there aren’t a whole lot of seats to fill, it was still relatively empty for a Thursday evening. I assume the restaurant’s infancy had something to do with it.

Once we sat down, the server very promptly came over with the menus. She let us know of the specials and then gave us a few minutes to look through all of the French-inspired options.

We started off with a couple of beverages: a pint of beer for my friend and the raspberry cocktail for me. The latter’s magenta hued liquid was nicely poured into a classic glass and garnished with a curl of lemon rind. Just a bit of sweetness came through as I sipped, but it was a smooth drink with a pleasant flavour and finish.

Caramelized Onion & Gruyere Tart

Caramelized Onion & Gruyere Tart

For dinner, the two of us opted to share the Caramelized Onion and Gruyere Tart for our appetizer. The pastry was flaky and the filling tasted good. Arugula and perhaps some sprouts made up the mixed green salad on top of the tart, providing a bit of bitterness to counter the sweetness of the onion and the savoury notes from the cheese. My one disappointment is that it seemed like the tart was made well in advance, so the Gruyere didn’t have that melted gooiness it would have if it was properly warmed. That was a bit of a stumble.

Mushroom Ragu with Truffle Gnocchi and Seasonal Vegetables

Mushroom Ragu with Truffle Gnocchi and Seasonal Vegetables

I had some trouble making a decision about my entrée, but my friend chose the Mushroom Ragu, which looked like a filling vegetarian dish. The kitchen certainly seemed to be generous with the mushrooms. I thought, as a whole, this selection was seasoned well. The truffled gnocchi that accompanied the ragu were plump and lightly browned, and the white beets (the seasonal vegetable at the time) were a lovely surprise.

The Almanac Burger with Soup

The Almanac Burger with Soup

In the end, I selected the Almanac Burger. I tend to cook very little meat at home, so when I go out, I often pick things I’m unlikely to make myself. The thick burger patty was a good size – I’d guesstimate that it was close to five ounces. It’s definitely not the largest burger and there was a tad too much bun, but I really enjoyed the bourbon caramelized onion, honey goat cheese (so much cheese!), tomato and arugula that were layered with the beef.

The burger also came with a side, so I went with the Chef’s daily soup. I was given a salad by accident when my plate first arrived, but a bowl of soup quickly replaced it. I swear the server had said that it was a chicken gnocchi soup. Yet, I was met with a chicken broth that had ample vegetable stock. There was no gnocchi in sight. It was slightly bland. Thankfully, it came with quite a bit of chicken, so no skimping there. Also, on the plus side, the soup was heated well.

I fully realize that dessert is not a requirement of every meal, but since I was at The Almanac and I wasn’t sure when I might be back, it made complete sense to sample something from nearly every part of the eatery’s menu.

The White Chocolate Pot de Crème with Fall Fruit Compote that my friend ordered was pretty decadent. The custard was actually quite light while maintaining a creamy texture. There was a lot of fruit to the side and atop the custard, too.

Dessert: Banana Cream Pie and White Chocolate Creme de Pot

Dessert: Banana Cream Pie and White Chocolate Pot de Crème

A new addition to the menu was the Banana Cream Pie with Chocolate Drizzle. It’s a small menu, and I knew I’d get a bite of my friend’s food, so, for variety, Banana Cream Pie it was. Definitely a dish for sharing, I would recommend it for two hungry people or even four people who want to finish the night with a small portion of dessert. The plate looked like it was attacked by Jackson Pollack – a bit messy, but still pleasing (because of the chocolate). I would have preferred something flakier for the crust, which was closer in texture to a firm shortbread cookie. However, the thinly sliced banana scorched with caramelized sugar was prepared well.

Being that The Almanac is fresh to Edmonton’s burgeoning food scene, it was a decent all-round experience. I wasn’t wowed though, and I wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to revisit the place. We were also in and out within a couple of hours and, when we left, it wasn’t particularly late, so there wasn’t any entertainment going either (if that’s something that even happens on weekday evenings). If there’s ever a live show there that I’m interested in seeing or I’m free on a Sunday when they have board game day, I might pop by again sooner than later.