Edmonton Business Review: Cafe Lavi

Cafe Lavi has a cute little outdoor patio.

It’s all too easy to frequent coffee shop conglomerates like Starbucks. They’re practically on every corner and, when you can’t think of anywhere else to go, it becomes the fallback choice. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to remember that there are many locally owned businesses that have similar offerings without giant corporations behind them. Those are the ones that we should be supporting.

This weekend, we knew we’d be downtown for an event, so it made sense to double up on the fun by making additional plans with a friend. It’d been a while since we’d had a chance to meet; a casual get together over caffeine seemed ideal. My relaxed go to spot for a latte is usually DOSC, but this time, I wanted to try somewhere new. When I did a search, I was reminded about Cafe Lavi.

Located at 103 Street and 100 Avenue, it’s actually ridiculously close to my office. Yet, I’d never been there before. Reviews were high on Google, so I deemed it the perfect pick. The cafe itself is housed in the lower level of an older brick facade building, which may make you think that it’d be dark and secluded; however, that’s far from the case. They’ve got a lovely little gated outdoor patio, and inside, the wall of windows actually brings in plenty of natural light. It’s a fairly large space, too, with seating for about 30 people, including a cozy nook with a couch and a couple of armchairs.

The drink menu is pretty succinct and they have a few pastries on offer.

When we arrived mid-afternoon, it was quiet. Only one other customer was hanging out at the coffee bar chatting with the staff member who greeted us as we walked up to the counter. Cafe Lavi sticks to a small menu with more basic drinks: espresso, macchiato, americano, cappucino, flat white, latte, mocha, and cold brew. For tea-based beverages, they offer chai latte, london fog, and matcha latte. Drinks start at $3.25 and go up to $6.50, although I should note that the listed prices already include tax. Almond, coconut, and soy milk substitutes are available for an extra charge of 50 cents. They also had a few baked goods that looked quite delicious, but I wasn’t a fan of the fact that they were left uncovered at all times.

Ultimately, I opted for a large Chai Latte ($5.25). It was served in a to go cup because their to stay mugs are all one size, closer to the small. The latte was fine, but it wasn’t anything special. Literally a tea bag steeped into water and milk. I really was hoping for something more homemade from a neighbourhood cafe.

On the other hand, Kirk decided to cool off with a large Cold Brew ($4.75). It was recommended by the barista over a regular iced coffee for the greater intensity of flavour. A little room was left in the to go cup for Kirk to add in milk. What I liked about this beverage was the option for water ice cubes or coffee ice cubes. I’ve never gone to a coffee shop and been asked that question, so it was a first and really genius. Coffee ice cubes will melt, adding to the overall coffee taste as opposed to the other, which would water the drink down. I definitely think more cafes should start doing this.

Sadly, our time at Cafe Lavi was cut short — we continued on at Board N Brew just a block away — as they closed an hour earlier than normal (Saturdays they are usually open until 5:00pm) to accommodate a private party (it’s honestly an adorable space for an event). Still, I’d happily go back here. While the drinks didn’t wow me as much as I would have liked, the space, ambiance, and friendly service make it worth the visit. And, next time, I’ll have to try a Matcha Latte instead. Who knows? That might be where they excel.

Edmonton Business Review: Square 1 Coffee

The ordering counter is situated at the back of the cafe.

Kirk and I randomly came across Square 1 Coffee in southwest Edmonton about year ago. It’s situated on 15 Fairway Drive just north of the Derrick Golf & Winter Club. We had ordered a pizza from Stone & Wheel next door, and we needed a place to kill time while we waited. As it turns out, both the pizzeria and the cafe share the same ownership. But, for whatever reason, the coffee shop is huge and the pizza place is not (strictly takeout).

As much as I loved the cinnamon knots at Square 1 Coffee and the spaciousness of the venue — a variety of seating including couches, tables, and even a small patio — I kind of forgot about it. That was until we happened across a second address inside the EIA outlet that opened in May. Tucked away towards the back end of a local business-oriented area of the mall, we found ourselves snacking on a sandwich and muffin to help energize us. By doing so, it helped to remind me of their original location.

A packed house and live music on a Thursday night.

Fast forward to this August when we had several meetings with photographers for our wedding next year, and Square 1 Coffee popped into mind as a great spot to meet. At least, it would have been perfect without live music going on. Their website is still not fully up and running, and none of their social media pages had indicated any events, so we showed up on a Thursday night to find a band playing. The place was packed with drop-in performers and friends of those artists there to support. It was actually really cool to see that community come together. However, it was not conducive to having a decent conversation. In that particular case, we ended up purchasing our drinks to go (a yummy chai latte for $5). All was not lost though. The three of us found a bench outside where we hung out and chatted for a couple of hours.

Wedding planning and matcha lattes go together well.

Another meeting that was planned in advance had us arrive to find it much quieter on a Tuesday evening, allowing us to sit at a table indoors while we enjoyed a scratch made pecan pie and a matcha latte ($5.50). The service was friendly and you could tell that this was clearly a place where regulars come in and out all the time (a la Friends).

Square 1 Coffee is certainly a cute cafe with decent beverages and food. I just think that they need to keep on top of their presence on social media or online. If they can finish revamping their website or post more regularly on Facebook and Instagram, patrons can make better informed decisions on whether or not the shop is the right place for them to be on any given day. If you do plan to go there for a study session or a meeting, I recommend phoning ahead to ask if they have any live events happening first. Otherwise, you may be in for a surprise.

Edmonton Business Review: Awake Coffee House

The cafe side of Awake Coffee House.

I’ve been on a bit of a coffeehouse kick lately. They’re just really great places to go for meetings, and, since I’ve had many a get together over the past month, it’s ideal to have multiple options. One that I visited recently is called Awake Coffee House. Located at 11029 9 Avenue, it’s easily accessible for those on the south side. If coming from the Henday, just exit on 111 Street heading north, and it’ll be the first turn on the right hand side.

When my fiancé and I drove up to the building on a Saturday afternoon, it was incredibly quiet. The parking lot only had a few cars in it. We also immediately noted that it was attached to Twin Brooks Medical Clinic. Upon walking into the actual coffee shop, I did take in the clean, modern space of the cafe, but I also thought that the pharmacy on the other side was a bit odd.

The spacious seating area separates the cafe from the pharmacy on the other side.

The medical clinic has a door that connects into Awake Coffee House, so that patients can easily come in and put through their prescriptions. While that’s convenient, I have to say I’m not super keen on hanging out in a cafe where there’s greater potential of people who have succumb to illness hanging out there. Yet, that is apparently a strategic business decision of the Song sisters who own both the cafe and the pharmacy. As registered pharmacists, they wanted a more welcoming spot for people to wait as their prescriptions were being prepared. While I see it from their side, it’s not exactly my cup of tea.

I really liked the touches of mint/teal throughout.

Luckily, it was pretty empty that day. We were able to sit almost anywhere we wanted to. Some of the tables were more communal. Others were smaller and could be grouped should that be required. They have a suitable selection of beverages. In my case, I ordered a Small Chai Latte ($5), which was presented in a larger than expected simple teal mug. I found that to be a nice touch since the colour matched the rest of the design scheme seen throughout Awake Coffee House — greys on the floor, natural woods on the tables and counter, whites on the seats and lights, and teal/mint on the stools and chair bottoms.

Small Chai Latte

I’ve read mixed reviews about the drinks served at Awake Coffee House with the majority of the negative coming from around the time they opened over a year ago. Most people cited watered down beverages. This was my first and only visit so far; however, based on my Chai Latte, I think they’ve made improvements because it was really good. Not only was the size decent for the price (most places charge a similar amount for this beverage), but it was incredibly flavourful. They certainly didn’t skimp when preparing the latte. It also had a pleasant amount of foam action on the top and they dusted it with an extra helping of spice before serving, adding to the overall taste once it was all stirred in.

There’s a wall of greeting cards near the door.

Awake Coffee House also makes bubble waffles on the weekend! I refrained from getting one this last time. Nevertheless, it’s on my list of things to try when we return. I have my eye on the dessert style Pina Colada Bubble Waffle that I saw on their Instagram page a while ago, so I hope they keep it on the menu. Although I probably won’t be back super often, when and if I do go, I’ll probably stick to weekend afternoons, especially Sundays when the clinic isn’t open. For a germaphobe like me, it’s just preferable. Otherwise, there’s no denying that Awake Coffee House is super cute, and the idea behind it is certainly commendable.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Narayanni’s

The pistachio chai is amazing! I used the roti in the background to dip.

The pistachio chai is amazing! I used the roti in the background to dip.

Earlier this year after brunch at Under the High Wheel (read my review), my friend and I decided to take a walk around the surrounding block, poking our heads into Blush Lane Organic Market, peeking into the windows of Cally’s Teas and spotting a place called Narayanni’s with its stark white front, big blue lettering and red double doors. The latter is the one that intrigued me the most. I had never heard of Narayanni’s before that day. As soon as I got home, I Googled the restaurant. Their website told me that their cuisine is gourmet South African Indian and that they only serve it buffet style Tuesday through Sunday evenings with Tuesday being vegan night. I decided that I would definitely make a point of going there before the year was over, and I made sure to sign up for their e-newsletter.

Months later, with my birthday coming up, I received an email from Narayanni’s offering me $10 off my meal to celebrate getting another year older. The fine print allowed me a full month to use the voucher, so I called up my friend and told her that was where I wanted to go for dinner. On the Friday after the giant snowfall we received at the end of November, the two of us met and drove over to Old Strathcona, parking about a block away from the restaurant to avoid any high snow banks. The chilly winter air made the warmth of the restaurant that much better.

When we stepped through those huge wooden doors, we saw that, what was once a blacksmith shop and then a machine shop, was now a large yet cozy restaurant with a unique high ceiling, numerous tables – including some booths that can comfortably seat about six people – a fireplace near the back, welcoming yellow walls, and a buffet that sits at the center.

Since we arrived quite early at about 5:30pm, we were able to grab one of the booths. After we stripped off our bags and all of our cold weather gear, we perused the drink menu and each ordered a pistachio latte. While our drinks were being prepared, we ambled up to the buffet and started filling our plates. Their full menu is extensive with all of their recipes having to be spread out over the week, so extra visits are likely necessary if you plan to try everything that is listed on their website. If I remember correctly, I believe there were about a dozen different hot items on offer that evening including a few vegetarian dishes such as butternut squash and braised kale and cabbage, Halal certified lamb curry, fish curry and grilled masala chicken to name a few. Appetizers of potato samosas, fried eggplant and papadum were also available along with a vegetarian soup. There were also three different cold salads – Greek, Tabouli and mixed greens.

The buffet is situated in the center of the space.

The buffet is situated in the center of the space.

I always try to sample a little bit of everything that is available, so I scooped up a small portion of each selection and placed it on my plate. Once I made it around the bar, my dish was piled high. There wasn’t even room for any of the cold salads, so I grabbed a small plate and spooned a bit of the Greek and Tabouli salads onto it. By the time I made my way back to our table, our lattes were sitting there. I attempted to take a sip right away, but the drink was piping hot, so I let it cool for a while.

In the meantime, we started digging through our food. Right off the bat, you can see and taste the difference between Narayanni’s South African Indian cuisine and Punjabi cuisine. While both kinds are flavourful and delicious, the food at Narayanni’s comes off as being a bit healthier because they adhere to non-cream based sauces. In addition, they are adamant about cooking without MSGs, preservatives and artificial flavourings or colourings. There is an emphasis on natural spices and they do not refrain from serving up food with heat as a number of the dishes were spicier than the milder counterparts I’ve had at other traditional Indian restaurants.

The Greek and Tabouli salads.

The Greek and Tabouli salads.

Everything I sampled was fantastic. Of the two salads, the Greek won me over because they chopped all the veggies and cheese into large enough chunks and they did not skimp on the feta, which was fresh and not overly salty. The potato samosas were a good size with the right ratio of pastry to filling and a perfectly crispy outer shell. The grilled masala chicken was juicy and tender. The butternut squash was cooked until just slightly soft and was refreshing on the palate, while the braised kale and cabbage added a layer of texture to my plate. Those were my favourites that evening. As much as I wanted to go back for seconds, I could barely budge out of my seat after clearing off what I thought was my first round.

My plate filled with all of that evenings offerings.

My plate filled with all of that evenings offerings.

There were a handful of desserts on that Friday evening: bumble berry bread pudding, homemade custard, cinnamon infused rice pudding, coconut macaroons and pecan butter tarts. Full as we both were, my friend and I did manage to share a small bowl of the bread pudding with a dollop of the homemade custard placed on top. It was absolutely wonderful, so I’m glad we didn’t skip out. The berries gave the bread pudding a slightly tangy flavour that helped to balance off any sweetness, and the cake pretty much soaked up the custard, which had a really nice, smooth consistency.

Hands down the best thing of the evening? That pistachio latte. I’m pretty sure it uses a chai latte base, and, by far, it is the best chai latte I have ever had in my life. I even dipped pieces of roti into the latte, creating my own dessert. I could not stop raving about this beverage. In fact, I still think about it regularly, and I find myself tempted to drop into Narayanni’s just for drinks, if they’d have me.

Daya and Selva Naidoo have a history of opening successful Edmonton eateries, their first being Block 1912, located just a short distance away from Narayanni’s. Although I did not speak with Daya and Selva, I had the pleasure of meeting one of their daughters that night. She actually sells some of her own jewelry at the front of the restaurant as well as pieces made by a friend of hers, so after we paid, she took us up to the display case to show us the designs. With a variety of prices and some fun and pretty options, it’s not a bad idea to keep the restaurant in mind for last minute gifts. On occasion, the establishment even plays host to jewelry sales.

What I really love about Narayanni’s is the family’s friendly nature, combined with their scrumptious food and a great atmosphere. These are the things that will bring me back in due time.

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.