Edmonton Restaurant Review: iPho and Grill Vietnamese Cuisine

#91 Special Combination 5 Vermicelli Bowl

I was really waffling on what to eat and where to go for dinner last month. Ultimately, I picked iPho and Grill Vietnamese Cuisine located along Calgary Trail at 6104 104 Street. We showed up right around six o’clock on a Saturday night without a reservation, and we didn’t have any problems getting a table. It was busy when we arrived though. A number of the tables were already occupied, including one with a large group of about ten people. It meant service was a tad slow, but thankfully, we weren’t in a rush to go anywhere else after. Despite the wait to order, the booth was comfortable and the space was new, clean and modern.

To drink, I ordered a Fresh Fruit Mango Bubble Tea ($4.45). Contrary to the name, the beverage doesn’t include any tapioca pearls in it for the base price, so you do have to add them for an extra cost ($0.75). I actually found that the mango tasted more artificially flavoured than fresh, but the consistency was smooth and there was a decent ratio of pearls to smoothie, so I didn’t run out of either before the other.

Fresh Fruit Mango Bubble Tea & Spring Rolls

As his starter, Kirk opted to go with an order of the Spring Rolls ($5.95). These rice paper wraps were freshly fried to a crunchy, thin, golden-brown and filled with a mix of ground meat, veggies, and vermicelli noodles. I didn’t eat any of his, but a couple of pieces came with my own food, and I thought that they were delicious. For the appetizer, they served the spring rolls with a side of fish sauce for dipping. Kirk wasn’t a fan of using it, but I think that the funky sweet, salty, and fishy taste married well to create a nice balance of flavours, amping up the spring roll ingredients.

Kirk’s main dish was the Specialty Chicken Noodle Soup ($10.95). He requested that they make it spicy for a dollar more. It would have been nice to try the broth before it was altered, just to see what it tasted like in a more pure form. All I can say is that the spicy version was HOT. The soup was piping temperature-wise, but the heat on the palate from the spice was even difficult for Kirk to handle. I had two spoonfuls of the broth and, while I enjoyed the flavour profile at first, it definitely kicked you in the throat at the end and the spice really lingered. Otherwise, I believe that the bowl could have used a little more of the chicken as there wasn’t a whole lot of meat, and the same goes for the noodles.

So much food in the #91 Vermicelli Bowl!

Whenever I go for Vietnamese, I usually turn to the vermicelli bowls and their Special Combination 5 (#91 on the menu; $15.45) didn’t disappoint. It had a well-portioned combination of noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce, cucumber, and carrot to form the base of the meal. It was topped off with copious amounts of grilled beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, and spring rolls. A small dish of fish sauce was provided to coat everything (I used all of it). The veggies were crisp and juicy, the noodles had a nice bite to them, and the meats were all prepared nicely. Occasionally, I find that the beef at other restaurants have a lot of tendon running through the pieces, making them chewier, but I didn’t have that issue here. The beef also had a distinct lemongrass flavour. The three meats were tender, and I was especially happy with the shrimp, which were surprisingly plump and perfectly seasoned. I devoured the whole bowl and went home very happy.

Once we were fully satiated, we head over to the counter to take care of our bill. I’m unsure whether or not they will take payment at the table, but we noticed a number of other patrons walking up to the till, so we did the same  thing. Overall, iPho and Grill was pretty good; however, if you aren’t certain that you can handle something truly spicy, you’ve been forewarned about their soups.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Seoul Fried Chicken

Seoul Fried Chicken box sets

Before his foray into finer dining at DOSC, owner/chef Jake Lee opened up the unassuming Seoul Fried Chicken a stone’s throw away from Old Strathcona. Situated in a strip mall on 104 Street between 79 Avenue and 80 Avenue, the Korean eatery, with its approximately 18 seats, is small and meant primarily for pickup orders.

Prior to my recent visit, I’d only ever tried their food twice. Once when my co-worker generously shared some of her lunch when she had a box delivered to the office (they now have their own delivery app) and again when I attended the annual Avenue Magazine Best Restaurant event. Both of those instances gave me a hint of just how awesome their chicken was, so I knew I needed to try it in its full glory some day.

The interior of Seoul Fried Chicken

After a particularly long morning around Whyte Ave two weeks ago, I decided to treat Kirk and myself to a pair of their 5 piece Chicken Sets ($11.40 each). The boxes are stuffed with your choice of flavoured fried chicken, half salad, and fries or a corn fritter. Plus, a non-alcoholic beverage is included in the price. Considering the cost nowadays of a meal at other generic fast food joints, this didn’t seem so bad. It was also enough to feed both of us twice (albeit a more petite portion when it came to the leftovers), so the value was definitely there.

Once we’d paid at the till, we grabbed our sodas from the cooler and then perched ourselves on a couple of seats to wait for our order to be called. It didn’t take long at all. I think we were there for a maximum of 15 minutes from waiting in line to walking out the door.

When we got home, the boxes were still warm, although sauce had escaped from one of them and was getting everywhere. Thankfully a quick wipe of the box stymied the leakage. On first inspection, everything looked amazing. The pieces of chicken looked plump and the colours were bright.

My hefty plate of lunch from Seoul Fried Chicken.

Speaking of the colours, I was slightly taken aback by the shade of green for the selected side of Mac n’ Cheese Pesto. It reminded me of the colour of prepackaged coleslaw sold at the Safeway deli. It didn’t look particularly natural, but damn, it was rich and delicious. Served cold, the salad was covered in the nutty, savoury, and herbaceous creamy asiago sunflower pesto. Just give me a whole vat of the stuff please!

The other side we chose was the Sesame Potato Slaw. It’s supposedly made with shredded potato, cabbage and yam. But, the overall texture was like a plain old coleslaw. I’m assuming that the potato and yam are prepared raw to give it that extra crunch, but I don’t know, it’s not what I was expecting. It still tasted yummy with the black sesame dressing, if maybe a little too sweet.

G.P Cheese chicken with a Corn Fritter and Mac n’ Cheese Pesto

In one box, we got the fried buttermilk Corn Fritter. It wasn’t as fluffy as I hoped it’d be. It was definitely more dense and doughy than I would have liked; however, I did love the taste of the sweetened milk on top, which played off of the corn kernels beautifully. In the other set, we opted for the thick House Cut Fries. These were a tad soggy from the condensation generated in the box on the way home, but still decent. A little crisp on the outside and soft in the middle with just a touch of saltiness. I could have eaten them without any ketchup.

The Seoul Fried Chicken website mentions that all of their chickens are cut into 20 pieces to allow for faster cooking and a better breading to meat ratio. While I do commend their ability to fry the chicken to a perfectly non-greasy crunch, I was somewhat disappointed to find that a few of the pieces we got consisted mostly of bone, cartilage, or skin so fatty that it was impossible to chew. I think that the restaurant is aware of that issue though, so they do make an effort to fix that situation by tossing in an extra piece or two (we had six per box).

Golden Kari chicken with Sesame Potato Slaw and House Cut Fries

For the most part, the chicken was fantastic. The breading even held up later in the day; I didn’t have to reheat it in the oven to crisp it up again. Yet, in all honesty, what makes Seoul Fried Chicken addictive is their seasoning and sauces. We picked the G.P Cheese and Golden Kari. Both were great in their own way. The former is doused in a sauce made with grated Grana Padano cheese and a hint of zest and parsley. Let me tell you, you’ll want every millimetre of the meat covered in it. It’s messy and literally finger licking good.

As for the latter flavour, you may want to avoid eating it with your hands because the yellow Japanese curry powder that the chicken is battered in will most definitely colour your nails. Still, I really enjoyed the dry seasoning (don’t breathe it in, if you want to avoid a coughing fit) on that one. It’s flavourful, but not spicy hot.

There’s a reason why Seoul Fried Chicken has maintained its popularity and become a favourite in Edmonton. They’re doing Korean fast food super well. Sure, there is still a little bit of room for improvement (there always is), but with quick service, value, and flavours that can’t be beat, it’s absolutely worth a repeat visit.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Melting Pot

Our spread of food for our main dishes.

A visit to The Melting Pot (2920 Calgary Trail) has been a long time coming. Like the French version of Asian hot pot, I was bound to like it. So, for my anniversary with Kirk, I made a date night reservation (through OpenTable; they also accept dining cheques) to mark our three years and counting together.

Our own private nook for two.

Our table was booked for 6:30pm. Yet, when we arrived, we still had to wait for at least 15 minutes after checking in before we were taken into the restaurant. I found that to be somewhat frustrating. While we stood by, I looked around at the lounge area. It has an open concept like most other restaurants. But, the middle of the tables held built-in hot plates to heat the food. Much to my surprise, when we were finally seated, we were taken past the wall of wine to the more private dining area. We went through what felt like a maze of little nooks until we were directed into a very intimate booth for two. Once we settled in, it felt very cozy. No one else was in sight and it was quiet.

Sassy Senorita Cocktail

We went through the drink menu. They didn’t seem to have a whole lot of beer options, so Kirk went for a couple pints of Big Rock Grasshopper ale ($8 each). I always tend to go the cocktail route, so I tried the Sassy Senorita ($11.50). It was light and refreshing with a berry finish.

The knowledgeable server gave us the details on how their menu works. You can order a la carte, or purchase an entrée that comes with a cheese fondue, salad, and dessert alongside the price of the main for a full four-course experience. We opted for the latter.

 

Although the Spinach Artichoke cheese fondue is their most popular, I was hoping for something where the cheese would be more prominent. We ended up going for the Quattro Formaggio. We watched as our server created the fondue right before our eyes (I never knew that wine was used as the base). He mixed and melted the ingredients all together until it was silky smooth. Flavoured with traditional pesto and sun dried tomato pesto, it was decadent. The cheese paired well with the apple, veggies, and bread provided, and, upon dipping, the cheese held on well to everything. We didn’t have to be concerned about any dripping off onto the table or our plates.

The salads that came after — Caesar for Kirk and Chevre Citrus for me — were rather petite. Considering the size, I felt like there was way too much of the dressing on mine. I did like the goat cheese and the dried berries though. Kirk’s Caesar salad was actually quite good with it’s use of pine nuts for texture.

Onto the main courses. Kirk selected the Alberta ($49.25), which consisted of Mushroom Ravioli, Memphis-Style Dry Rub Pork, Teriyaki-Marinated Sirloin, and Herb-Crusted Chicken. I chose the Steak Lovers ($59.25) entrée as it was all meat: Premium Filet Mignon, Teriyaki-Marinated Sirloin, and Garlic Pepper Sirloin. Taking into account that mine was a whole ten dollars more than Kirk’s, I think that I got my value out of it as the portion of beef was relatively generous. On the side was an extra helping of veggies (mushrooms, broccoli, and potatoes) for us to share.

The Court Bouillon broth being brought to the table.

With our emptied bowl of cheese now replaced with a pot of their standard Court Bouillon (seasoned vegetable broth), we got down to cooking. We were told to let the meats cook for around two minutes per piece; however, I know I let mine sit in the broth for longer at times. No food poisoning happening on my watch! Still, everything came out decently with the beef staying pretty tender. I also wasn’t sure how the rubs and marinades would fare in the broth, but the flavours remained prominent. For added variety, there were six different sauces provided. My fave were the sesame and curry. The goddess (with a cream cheese base) was great for stuffing the mushroom caps, too.

 

After polishing off our mains, all that was left was dessert. A pot of chocolate was dropped off at our table with a dish of fruit and sweets. We just started going for it without thinking. Turns out that our Flaming Turtle chocolate fondue wasn’t even complete. Our server returned to do the flambé and add in the caramel and nuts (supposed to be candied pecans, but they were out, so we took walnuts instead). I wasn’t a huge fan of the marshmallows or rice krispies. Nevertheless, the pound cake and fruit — bananas, strawberries, and pineapple — were delicious with the oozy chocolate. We also asked for seconds (free refills on the accompaniments are included) of the blondies.

Since it was our anniversary, the staff helped us to commemorate the occasion by offering us complimentary glasses of sparkling wine, which we had with our dessert. It certainly made for a memorable evening out to be wined and dined in this fashion. For a few hours we really got to focus on each other without any other distractions. While this isn’t necessarily a place to drop in for a quick, casual bite, The Melting Pot should definitely be in the running when there’s cause for celebration.

The Melting Pot offers a Crave Combo Menu for $29.95 before 5pm and after 9pm.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Cave Paleo Beastro

The interior of The Cave Paleo Beastro.

Having been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, my friend has had to transform her diet over the last few years. For the most part, she’s stuck with eating gluten free and paleo. Therefore, when it came time to celebrate her birthday this year, she selected The Cave Paleo Beastro (6104 104 Street) for a group dinner.

It’s a relatively new restaurant that just opened mid-summer late-fall 2018, so at the time of our visit, it’d been in business for a little over eight months. We had a large party of about twelve people and our reservation had been shifted from a later dining time to an earlier meal at around 5:30 PM.

Kirk and I were the first to arrive and made mention of the booking. The staff pointed out a long table that was set up in the middle of the space, so the two of us seated ourselves. However, after a few minutes, we were asked if we were too early for our seven o’clock dinner. Turns out they had misplaced an email confirming that our reservation had been altered. The good thing is that the restaurant wasn’t busy, so it’s not like they double booked another group in.

We were honestly hanging out at The Cave for probably close to an hour (waiting for one or two latecomers) before we finally ordered our food. Drinks among the table included a lot of raw and biodynamic wines, both by the glass ($9 to $12 each) and bottled ($50 to $82).

Vegetable Tempura

The only appetizer we tried was the Vegetable Tempura ($14) because our guest of honour was nice enough to share her order. It was one of the only things actually served warm the entire night. The mix of veggies included lightly battered and crisp broccolini, carrots, mushrooms, and yam. On the side was a gingery ponzu sauce for dipping. Overall, it was a pretty satisfying snack and all of us that sampled it seemed to enjoy it.

Yet, when it came to the main dishes, the wait was really long (I don’t think we ate until 7:30 PM). The Cave kitchen is open, so we could see that there were only one or two people working. I guarantee that they waited until pretty much everything was ready — one friend was served well after the rest — before bringing our meals out. That meant our food was probably sitting (in a fairly chilly venue) and that’s why, at best, each plate was lukewarm. Additionally, a few of my dining companions complained of small portion sizes, overcooked beef and duck (I still believe that my friends should have said something while we were there; the staff can’t fix things, if they don’t know about the issue), as well as a flavourless Scallop Crudo ($18).

Strip Loin

When it came to presentation though, I thought that the chefs did a nice job. The veggies were always used to provide a pop or contrast of colour. The fondant potato wedges on one of the Strip Loin ($42) plates alone was beautifully arranged in the shape of a flower. Despite those types of details, everyone I ate with couldn’t look past the shortcomings listed above.

I, on the other hand, thought it was a bit better compared to the group consensus (I rated the place a 6.5 out of 10). I only got a couple bites of Kirk’s Beef Rib ($32). While it wasn’t hot and more meat would have been nice, I found the beef to be succulent, well-seasoned, and tastily charred. Out of the whole dozen people at our table, I was the only person who ordered the Lamb ($29). I think I got the most bang for my buck because I was served three thick rounds of perfectly prepared roasted lamb atop rutabaga and seasonal veggies (squash and carrots). The lamb had zatar spice rubbed on the exterior, which slightly saturated the meat while still allowing the natural flavours to come through. Perhaps Kirk and I just lucked out with what we ordered at The Cave versus everyone else, but I thought the meal was decent other than the temperature of the dishes.

Dessert also seemed to be hit or miss at the table. The Lemon Betty ($10) was comprised of lemon curd, almond crumble and meringue layered in a jar. It was described as very tart and fishy as if those Omega-3 eggs had been used. Others who tasted the dessert didn’t seem to be able to pick out that particular flavour, but my friend was adamant that it was there. I’ll chalk it up to her really sensitive taste buds and the fact that she knows that Omega-3 eggs taste that way (I’ve never had them before).

Chocolate Brownie

Regardless, I can say with confidence that the restaurant makes a great Chocolate Brownie ($10), which actually came out sort of hot! It’s a shareable size, good for a couple, with that slightly chewy edge and soft middle. A light caramel sauce decorated the plate and a scoop of refreshing lemon gelato accompanied the rich chocolate to create a nice balance.

I’m not completely writing off The Cave Paleo Beastro based on this single experience. For all I know, returning for dinner as a duo might change things entirely. From what I could tell, on a Saturday night, this south Edmonton eatery wasn’t busy, and that’s probably part of their problem. The kitchen and the staff likely aren’t used to catering to larger groups during regular service. If they want to stick around and make a better impression in the future, that’s something they’ll have to improve upon.

I’d like for The Cave to be a place people want to hang their hat.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nomiya

Nomiya’s place setting.

I’d eaten sushi and ramen at Nomiya in the past, but I’ll admit that it’d been a long time since my last visit. The Ellerslie location just celebrated their fifth anniversary though, and that prompted me to go back.

I certainly don’t like how tiny this place is as it feels very cramped (their other shop on Calgary Trail is a lot more spacious), and I also thought that much of the serving staff was rather slow with everything (except for one who was working her butt off and should have been running the show).

At the very least, once our order was placed, all of the food was quickly prepared. It was especially fast sitting at the bar since the chefs could just hand the dishes right to us and we didn’t have to wait for someone to bring everything over.

Nomiya has a pretty extensive list of options that range from appetizers to noodles to sushi. Yet, Kirk and I stuck mostly with classic sushi menu items as those are the best to gauge the quality in comparison to similar restaurants.

Salmon Sashimi

I started with Salmon Sashimi (5 pieces for about $12…honestly, I can’t really recall the exact price). These looked and tasted fresh. They were thickly cut with a slightly fatty texture, and there was little to no tendon to be found either. The sashimi totally hit the spot for me and helped to quell my sushi craving a bit.

Next up was the California Roll ($9.45). Kirk always gets these. They seemed to be decent. Yet, I noticed that they stuck with imitation crab meat rather than real crab. The avocado was also small towards the ends of the rolls, so the kitchen isn’t super consistent when making maki. Kirk’s other pick was the Dynamite Roll ($12.95). These were actually delicious. What took them up a notch was the use of made-to-order shrimp tempura, meaning these were warm. The shrimp itself was still juicy, too.

Chop Chop Rolls ($11.95) are one of my go to dishes. With a good ratio of rice to filling, these ones didn’t disappoint. The avocado was prominent and I liked that the scallops were mixed with tobiko in Japanese mayo to give added texture. To change things up, for my second choice, I went with the more modern Spicy Phili Roll ($12.95). This one came wrapped in coloured rice paper and filled with cream cheese, avocado, cucumber, spicy sauce, and salmon. While I appreciated the contrast of flavours on the palate, I wasn’t too happy with the abundance of rice as there was away more of that than any other ingredient.

Daily Drink Specials

Nomiya managed to provide a passable sushi meal with hints of greatness on a very busy night. Nevertheless, for about $80 including tax and tip, I think that there are probably better choices out there. Granted, I’m not one to pass up happy hour deals, and they do seem to have an okay selection for that, so I’ll return to try items from that menu sooner than later.