Edmonton Restaurant Review: Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

The open kitchen of Buco Windermere is surrounded by bar seating.

Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group expanded in mid-2015 with Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar in St. Albert. While I’ve never visited that location, a friend of mine is the executive chef at the newer Epcor Tower spot in downtown Edmonton. It’s just blocks away from Rogers Place. For me, the closest and most convenient is in Windermere.

My fiancé and I recently popped in to check it out. We spent an entire $65 OpenTable dining cheque on an indulgent Saturday afternoon lupper (lunch-dinner). The reason why we chose to go at that time is because they offer Social Hour specials daily from 2pm to 5pm and 9pm to close.

It’s nice and airy inside with an industrial feel.

Even in the middle of the day, there were a decent number of guests seated in both the industrial style lounge and dining room. However, there were just a few staff on hand, so service was a little slower than it should have been. It was worth it though, and it kind of forced us to sit there and enjoy our meal rather than quickly rushing through it all.

My Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail at the front and the featured Shock Top draft at the back.

To start, my significant other opted to go for their feature draft. At $5 for 12 oz. it was reasonable (regularly $7.50). That day’s option was Shock Top, so nothing too special. I chose to try their Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail ($5 for Social Hour, usually $9.50) — peach grappa, peach purée, white tea, and peach infused whipped cream. Our server said it took longer to make it because they had an issue with the whipped cream dispenser. That’s no big deal. I was more annoyed with the fact that it was so messy. The drink was filled so high that it was spilling down the sides of the glass and I got whipped cream all over my hands and the table. They never bothered to wipe that down or offered to bring extra napkins or anything. Other than that, I could have done without so much ice. The cocktail comes in a short glass, so the more cubes there are, the less drink there is, and I finished it really quickly.

For sustenance, we shared a Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 people ($12, typically $22), a Carne pizza, and a Fig Prosciutto pizza ($12 each, outside of Social Hour it’s $21). This was a ton of food and could easily have fed another couple.

Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 People

The cheese and charcuterie board was brought out as a starter, so we were able to snack on that first. This actually wowed us because we weren’t expecting the smaller size to be such an extensive spread. I think the only constructive feedback we have about this item is that it needs to come with more slices of bread. There were only two pieces per person. It meant the ratio of bread to cheese and meat was off, and it’d be nice to have more bread to balance everything out. Otherwise, the variety of cheese included a mix of both hard and soft textures and a range of mild to pungent flavours. The meats were also great. They stuck to the more familiar cured meats like prosciutto and salami, which ensures everything will be eaten when it comes to a chef’s choice type of situation.

For the pizzas, we were eventually asked if we were ready to have them fired up. We felt like we’d had enough of the board, so we said yes. It didn’t take too long for them to bake in their oven and they came out piping hot. The Carne is a pie layered with red sauce, meat, meat, and more meat. The toppings included short rib, Italian sausage, pepperoni, and bacon for the protein. Smoked caciocavallo and fior di latte filled the cheese quotient. This pizza was everything a meat lover could want as there was just so much of it and it was incredibly savoury. On the ligher side of scale, our Fig Prosciutto pizza is made without tomato sauce. It consisted of fontina cheese, fig jam, prosciutto, and balsamic drizzle. It has that salty-sweet combo that is appealing to a lot of palates. The crusts were easy to fold, crispy and slightly charred on the outside, and a little chewy in the middle.

Raspberry Ricotta Cake

Half of our meal was packed up to go as there was no way we could finish it all at once. But, we did save some room for dessert. In the end, we shared a slice of the beautifully presented Raspberry Ricotta Cake ($9). It was a bit more crumbly than I thought it should be despite the moistness of the ricotta and vanilla based cake. Still, the raspberry coulis, fresh berries, and fresh whipped cream did a good job of tying everything together.

We’ll definitely have to go back again soon to sample more items. Nevertheless, judging by what we’ve eaten there so far, overall, Buco Pizzeria’s menu is up to snuff. Where they can certainly use improvements is with the servers and management. They seemed kind of oblivious to the fact that they had guests. They were more preoccupied with setting up the restaurant for the evening and ignored current patrons unless they were blatantly waved at. It shouldn’t be a requirement to make full on eye contact with a staff member in order to get any service. They need to be trained to be more attentive. Hopefully, I’ll see changes with respect to that next time I’m there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Ampersand 27 (2018 Update)

The bar and dining room of Ampersand 27.

Located on 106 Street and Whyte Avenue, Ampersand 27 is right in the heart of Edmonton. Seeking out potential venues for our upcoming wedding, my fiancé and I popped in for a venue meeting with Restaurant Manager Laura Rudd and Executive Chef Fan Zhang. It’d actually been a little while since my last visit (read my previous review here), but my recollection of the place was spot on.

Those twinkling lights on the ceiling make for an excellent backdrop.

The space is just as beautiful as I remembered with twinkling lights on the ceiling, a statement fireplace against the back wall, modern teals and metallics mixed with natural woods and stone, and a funky amoeba-shaped bar. What I didn’t realize was its direct attachment to the Varscona Hotel right next door, which we consider to be a big plus as we’re going to have plenty of guests travelling from out of town. With accommodations nearby, room for a dinner, reception, dance, and hopefully a ceremony, this seems like an incredibly versatile spot with plenty of possibilities.

Their charcuterie menu is quite extensive with all meats made in-house.

Neither of us really had a solid idea of what we want for our celebration. However, during our discussion with Laura and Chef Fan, both of them had some excellent suggestions and seemed eager to bring our vision to life. They gave us a lot to think about, and, when we were done our tour and conversation, they actually invited us to stay for a drink and some charcuterie.

Look at this amazing cheese and charcuterie board!

In all honesty, they were super generous. When they offered to make us a plate, we expected that they’d provide just a small sampling of food to whet our appetites. Afterwards, if we were still hungry, we were more than willing to stick around and make a night of it on our own. But, wow! We received a humongous board chockablock full of house cured meats (my faves were the Bresoala, Truffled Mortadella, and Kielbasa), homemade pickles, preserves, and beer mustard (the best!), in-house baked sourdough bread, and a variety of cheeses (creamy Port Salut and Goat Gouda won the night). All in, I guessed the total value was around $100, including our beverages. They outright spoiled us!

Although we technically didn’t need anything else to eat, we opted to treat ourselves to an order of their 3 Pork Buns ($15) with an Extra Bun ($5) to make it even, as well as a side of the Brussels Sprouts ($5).

Brussels Sprouts in Garlic Butter

The latter was cooked until the greens were tender, but still had bite. The outer leaves were also charred and crispy, just the way I like it. The sprouts may have been a tad greasy, yet I suppose that’s a given considering they’re prepared in garlic butter.

As for the Pork Buns, they were mentioned by a couple of the staff, so we thought it made sense to try them. I’m glad we did because they absolutely did not disappoint. The thick cut pork belly was seared until crisp on the outside and the fats had rendered. Sriracha mayo, hoisin, thinly sliced pickled cucumbers along with baby leaves and chopped green onion finished them off. Pillowy soft steam buns held everything together.

Warm Brownie for dessert!

Before we left, we had to try a dessert. Our choice of the evening was the Warm Brownie ($11; it may not currently be available). It was sort of deconstructed and served with caramel sauce, sponge toffee bits, roasted peanuts, fresh whipped cream, and a mint leaf for garnish. This was absolutely decadent and sweet; it’s the perfect dish for sharing as the portion size is more than decent.

I can’t lie. Ampersand 27 completely won us over. Laura and Chef Fan showed such amazing hospitality. Additionally, their fantastic server Janell cannot go unmentioned. I previously knew her from another restaurant that she worked at simultaneously as she held a position here, and she’s wonderful. Janell has a way of putting the customer at ease and making them feel like a friend.

While nothing is set in stone at this time, Ampersand 27 is at the top of our list. Not only are the share plates such a delight, but the people who run the place can’t be beat. Even if it doesn’t end up being the venue for our nuptials next year, it’s still going to be one of our favourite Whyte Avenue businesses and restaurants for a long time to come.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Ampersand 27

A portion of the & 27 menu.

A portion of the & 27 menu.

Ampersand 27 (@ampersand27yeg), one of Whyte Avenue’s newest culinary adventures, opened at the end of 2014 under the watchful eye of Chef Nathin Bye. His work with restaurants such as Wildflower Grill already raised the bar for food in this city, so it was only natural that we come to expect even more from his own venture.

Taking over the spot previously occupied by Murrieta’s, the space has been transformed into something more open, inviting and adventurous. Filled with curved lines, warm colours and the bask of glow from hundreds of twinkling lights, the eatery looks beautifully modern and high class while maintaining a casual sense of atmosphere.

Having made a reservation through OpenTable, we were guided to our table right after we were greeted at the door. Seated in a quiet corner of the dining room I was able to observe the rest of the room. Two long tables sandwiched by bench seating (not really the most comfortable) were surrounded by numerous tables for four, which are perfect for reconfiguring for additional large groups. Next to our table there were doors, which I assume lead into a more private space for special occasions. I’m unsure as to why I felt this way, but there’s something that seems special about this place.

As I took it all in, I started to work my way through the menu. Drinks first, I noticed that they have a well-rounded list of cocktails, beers and wine. In fact, the number of beverages available likely surpasses the food choices. But, I’m okay with that. I often find that restaurants that have more focused menus tend to do a better job with their dishes.

The majority of the food items available for dinner are meant to be split with your dining companions. Broken down into share plates, build-your-own charcuterie boards, larger provisions and flatbreads, many of the options sound tasty. It comes across as a natural decision to divide the dishes amongst the group rather than hoard something to yourself because doing so means getting to sample a variety of things, which is what I often prefer to do since it allows for better and truer reviews.

On this particular evening, we chose three dishes: seared albacore tuna, maple butter pork belly and the forest floor flatbread.

Seared Albacore Tuna

Seared Albacore Tuna

I usually find it hard to pass up seared fresh tuna and I’m glad that we didn’t here. The fish was cooked perfectly with just the outer edges having been seared and the middle still a gorgeous pink colour. The dish was pleasantly light and healthy by plating the tuna with pickled hearts of palm, citrus, seaweed and cashew puree. The hearts of palm reminded me of artichoke with a bit more crunch, the citrus created a refreshing balance, the seaweed provided additional texture and salt, and the cashew puree gave it an subtly nutty quality. Essentially, this was the perfect start to our meal, one that would leave room for what was to come.

Maple Butter Pork Belly

Maple Butter Pork Belly

Personally, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with pork belly. The gummy mouthfeel of the thick layer of fat that so often accompanies this meat has always put me off, but I do enjoy a well made pork dish, so I was willing to chance it. Thankfully, the maple butter pork belly was excellent. Arriving at the table like a work of art, the maple glazed pork belly was just right. Sitting atop a bed of southwestern mesquite corn, baked beans, green peas and fritters like a crown, the fat from the meat acted like butter, simply melting away when eaten.

The Forest Floor Flatbread

The Forest Floor Flatbread

Our last selection for the base of our meal was the forest floor flatbread, which is essentially a thin crust pizza. While the dough was too crisp for my taste, the foraged mushrooms, house made ricotta, truffle and arugula combined to make a delightfully earthy dish that is vegetarian friendly. I particularly loved the cheese.

It appears that no dinner outing is complete without dessert and because they have their own pastry chef (Tim Androschuk), we each opted for our own (sampling the other, of course). My friend’s doughnut was decidedly smaller than expected, but it was quite dense and rich, so it seemed like enough to satisfy the dessert craving. A cocoa orange cake doughnut with Grand Marnier glaze topped with walnuts and served with a side jar of cranberry preserve, it had many layers of flavour. I went for the red velvet. Deconstructed and artfully plated to include pieces of red velvet sponge cake (much airier), strawberry textures (meringues, strawberry pieces, fruit leather), rhubarb rose puree and whipped cream cheese, this was like my idea of dessert heaven. There were so many different things happening, but I could see that it was one cohesive dish where everything was fantastic on its own, but also came together in a wonderful marriage.

Other than the stellar food, one of my favourite things about the restaurant was the professional and knowledgeable service. The staff all seemed to know their stuff when it came to the menu. They were attentive throughout the night, and often times the chef or management would do a round to make sure every guest had their needs met.

It’s that attention to detail in all that they do that will continue to make Ampersand 27 feel like a special place to dine.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment’s involvement in the local community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of Ampersand 27.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Bothy Wine & Whisky Bar (Closed – Downtown Location)

The bar at the 124th Street location of The Bothy.

The bar at the 124th Street location of The Bothy.

The Bothy Wine & Whisky Bar (@BothyWineWhisky) expanded from the south side with a location on the ever-popular 124 Street. I’ve been to the new destination, which sits on the cusp of the Oliver neighbourhood, a couple times now. While it is never full to the brim with patrons, the dimly lit tavern presents itself as a nice venue to tuck into a good meal and an evening of engrossing conversation with friends.

As the full name of the establishment suggests, they are known for an extensive list of whiskies and scotches (over 175 varieties according to their newly revamped website) as well as wines. The food menu is decidedly less all-encompassing, pared down to cheese and charcuterie sharing plates (excellent for nibbling on with a drink in hand), a handful of appetizers, and some traditional Scottish entrees including haggis (this particular dish putting The Bothy onto The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton, coming in at No. 55 in 2013).

The dinner menu at The Bothy.

The dinner menu at The Bothy.

Although I wasn’t so adventurous with my own order upon dining there, I was sure to have a bowl of their famous Bacon Tomato Soup, which single-handedly drove the restaurant into the No. 23 spot on The Tomato‘s 2014 list. Coming as a side to the Maple Yam Spread sandwich, it’s a hearty bowl of pureed tomato and herbs that simmer with spice and large chunks of bacon. Slightly tangy, but offset by the saltiness of the bacon, it certainly warms you up on a cool evening. For a side of soup, you get quite a large portion, too, so you’ll definitely be full after finishing off your main.

As I mentioned earlier, I ordered the Maple Yam Spread sandwich. You’re probably wondering what exactly that entails. The first time I ate it, I really didn’t know what I was in for. I swear, but I have no proof, that in its original form the sandwich was filled with a steak of yam, goat cheese, roasted red peppers, smoked maple mayo, pesto and greens, so the yam was a solid. However, upon seeing what I got this last time at the end of April, the yam was processed into an actual spread. The good thing is that the form the contents of the sandwich came in didn’t take away from the overall flavour of it at all. The combination of the ingredients was wonderful. However, it made for a much more messy dinner.

IMG_20140427_202638

One of my dining companions ordered the Bothy Club, which had a chicken breast, smoked bacon, a sunny side up egg, tomato, cheddar cheese and smoked maple mayo. While I didn’t get a bite of it, it sure looked delicious and it was gone within minutes.

After looking through the menu that is currently showing on the website, it seems like they no longer serve the sandwiches, which is really too bad as they do a good job with them. But, I’m sure that the other items are sure to please as well.

What I liked most on both occasions is the service received. My initial encounter with the staff at The Bothy came during a friend’s birthday celebration. A table of about eight of us came in for drinks and food, most of us never having been before. They had our table ready to go, the server was able to answer questions and provide recommendations and they were prompt with our orders. The same courtesy and knowledge was also bestowed upon me and my friends the last time I went, making me all the more inclined to visit again.

If you decide to go, settle in with a drink that you can savour and some good company. They don’t actually list any set closing hours, so you know they are committed to staying open late for your pleasure. For a place that isn’t too far off the beaten path, but still provides a homey experience, The Bothy is one that you should keep in mind.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Cavern

On April 9, The Cavern celebrated its official one year anniversary and I happened to visit for the very first time that evening. There wasn’t much hoopla. Well, none at all. I was completely unaware that congratulations were in order, but I think that fits with the cafe/bar atmosphere that they are going for. Unassuming and inviting, but not pretentious, I had passed by the place last summer as I perused the City Market along 104 Street. I had heard of it before, and the people sitting outside at small tables along the sidewalk seemed to be enjoying themselves, likely basking in the sunshine, soaking up vitamin D while they had the chance.

Cheese and charcuterie board #1 - Le Noble and Comte cheeses with genoa salami and Proscuitto di Parma

Cheese and charcuterie board #1 – Le Noble and Comte cheeses with Genoa salami and prosciutto di parma

It took me another 8 months before I stepped foot into the underground space. A combination of things pushed me to finally go there. The first was that after almost a full year of business, they had just made their way onto the second annual list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton as named by readers of The Tomato, coming in at No. 12 as of March 2014. The next reason I decided to go there was because the friend I was meeting was hoping for something lighter than a full dinner and was opting for drinks. Plus, I love cheese. Thirdly, I wanted to go somewhere that was new to me and somewhere that was within walking distance after work. And, voila!  The Cavern fit all the necessary caveats for that night.

When I opened the door to the cavern, housed in the basement of the Phillips Building, which was built in 1912 and sits alongside other landmarks in the historical warehouse district, I was taken aback by the relatively small size of the cafe. To the left of the doors are a few bar stools, but the bar holds various free magazines (including copies of The Tomato’s latest issue). Venturing down the steps, there are about four tables along the wall that seat three to four people each and to the right are some additional counter stools. There is also a spot for one right by the till. A big portion of the space is take up by the kitchen, cheese case and shop that presented a pleasant surprise to me. I wasn’t expecting to see that this was basically half a store and half a restaurant. In my mind, the name of the cafe evoked an atmosphere that was dimly lit with dark corners and nooks. Instead, it is rather brightly lit with clean lines, but a somewhat rustic feel.

My glass of Riesling next to the wine list

My glass of Riesling next to the wine list

I was greeted quickly and seated at an empty table. As I waited for my friend to join me, I perused the menus and ordered myself a 3-ounce glass of Riesling to help me pass the time. I noticed that the bottles of wine were stored in a state-of-the-art Enomatic wine system that dispenses wine directly from the bottle and preserves the flavours and characteristics of the wine for more than three weeks. When my glass arrived at the table, it was cold, crisp, fruity and light. I actually wish I had ordered a 6-ounce glass, but the prices were a little steeper than I had expected. Regardless, I was thoroughly satisfied.

My friend showed up shortly after, requesting sparkling water, which was dispensed from a Vivreau water system. For $1.50 per person and as many refills as we wanted, it was worth getting that over something like a single bottle of Perrier. Having gone through the list of options for food, we decided to go with a cheese and charcuterie board for two. Ringing in at just under $30, we got to select two cheeses and two meats. While the menu was very clear in differentiating the types of cheese and included detailed descriptions of the flavours and textures, I still asked our server for her recommendations, and she was more than happy to suggest some of her favourites.

The Cavern's cheese and charcuterie menu

The Cavern’s cheese and charcuterie menu

In the end, we opted for Le Noble, a bloomy rind cheese from Quebec that is similar to brie with a mushroom aroma and a buttery and creamy texture, and Comte, an eastern French semi-hard cheese that is aged for 8 to 12 months and has a strong yet slightly sweet taste. To pair, we went with the prosciutto and salami. The board was topped off with a fresh loaf of crusty bread, both a sweet and a spicy compote, sliced apples and a mixture of walnuts and dried fruits including figs, apricots and cranberries. The two cheeses that we opted for were amazing – incredibly fresh and exactly as advertised. Combined with the other accompaniments on the board, this visit turned out to be a home run. Actually, my friend enjoyed our selections so much that she ended up buying some to go as well.

For a quiet evening, they had about four staff on hand, which maybe seemed a bit much, but every person we came in contact with was extremely friendly and willing to impart their knowledge on us. The Cavern is definitely a nice little addition to our city’s core and I will be sure to stop by more often from now on.

In fact, I visited again this past Monday. This time, I had a chance to try a wonderfully dense and smooth goat cheese along with slices of bresaola (a cured meat similar to beef jerky, but much more tender and lean). I also indulged in a cheese cake parfait dessert that layered almond cookies, JACEK white chocolate liquid cheese cake and raspberries. Every time I get home after I have been to Cavern, I’m astonished that I am not hungry for more food. It does not seem like you are eating that much when you are there. However, looks are deceiving and you are getting more than you expect.

I think it’s still a place that is not known to very many people in Edmonton, but word is getting out and I’m glad. I hope they’ll be around for a long time to come. The fact that you can pop in and pick up some key ingredients for your own homemade cheese board (more than 75 different international cheeses to choose from on any given day) is also a great reason to hope that they become a fixture.

If you plan to go, they are open early until 9pm or 11pm Monday to Saturday, depending on the day. Aside from the boards, they also serve coffee, breakfast and lunch, so there’s something for everyone.

For a quick check of their hours and their latest news, see what they have to say on Twitter: @CavernYEG. The pictures they post are sure to make any cheese and charcuterie lovers drool, especially me.

For a more in-depth look at the establishment’s involvement in the community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of The Cavern.