Edmonton Restaurant Review: Bottega 104

Bottega 104 is all about Italian.

Situated on the 104 Street Promenade, between Jasper and 102 Avenues, sits Bottega 104. The Italian eatery is less than a year old. Nonetheless, it seems to have become a favourite in the downtown neighbourhood. When I arrived after work to meet a friend, patrons were starting to trickle in. By the time the two of us left, the venue was jam packed full of people.

My reservation, booked through the OpenTable app, yielded us a table towards the far back corner of the restaurant. It allowed me a bit of a view of the open kitchen as well as perfect sightlines of the long bar and the rest of the establishment. Honestly though, it’s a tight space.

The bar has a lovely design.

Sure, the details of the design scheme and the lighting added to the ambience, but I didn’t find it to be particularly comfortable. It was really cramped. When I was taken to our seats, I was the first to get there, so I decided to sit on the booth side. I had to squeeze myself between the two tables, sucking in my chest, to fit through. Moreover, I narrowly avoided knocking down the wine glasses of the guests next to us. In a way, it kind of reminded me of the close quarters experienced in restaurants on trips to New York City. However, let’s face it. This is Edmonton. People aren’t used to it being like this, and I can’t imagine others love feeling as if they’re sitting on each others’ laps either.

Room aside, I narrowly missed Bottega’s Prohibition Hour specials on their cocktails. From 2pm to 5pm, $13 two-ounce cocktails are marked down to $7 each, which is a hefty savings. Once I had settled in, I may have been able to quickly select something. Yet, our server was gone as soon she dropped off the menus, and she didn’t bother to come back until my friend showed up fifteen minutes later. Ultimately, we both chose water over any other beverage.

Ready to share dishes, family style.

When we did get to place our order, we opted to share a couple of the items: Spaghetti Carbonara Pasta ($21) and Prosciutto Pear Pizza ($21). As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our food, the server came back with side plates and pasta tongs, so we could more easily divide the dishes family style. The food was decent. Although, personally, I found it to be either too salty (pasta) or too bland (pizza).

Spaghetti Carbonara

The Spaghetti Carbonara was made with a “delicate” cream sauce, smoked pancetta, and egg. It was true that the sauce was creamy; unlike other plates of carbonara I’ve eaten, the egg avoided curdling. There was great potential as seen with the extra crispy pieces of pancetta, too. Bottega also didn’t skimp on the amount of protein. The problem was that it became very repetitive on the palate with only the pork and sauce to turn to. They had essentially become one and the same in terms of flavour. I realize that carbonara is not anything fancy; nevertheless, something is needed to help cut through the dish to awaken the taste buds.

Prosciutto Pear Pizza

As for the pizza, I was expecting more. The dough was topped with prosciutto, mozza, gouda, cherry tomatoes, sliced pear, toasted walnuts, and balsamic glaze. It’s a combination that sounds like it’d be amazing. Each inch of the pizza was covered with one of those ingredients, but there was very little stacking. Therefore, each bite provided just a small glimpse of what it could have been. There wasn’t a whole lot of balance between the saltiness of the cured meat and cheeses, the sweetness of the pear, the nuttiness of the walnuts, or the acidity of the tomatoes and balsamic drizzle. Additionally, the pizza cooled off fast, taking away the gooiness that any of the melted cheese may have had.

Zeppoli

Our night concluded with us splitting the Zeppoli ($9) for dessert. Bottega lists it as Italian street food. Typically, they come in the form of fried dough balls covered in some sort of sauce or a dusting of sugar and spice. They’re kind of like the mini doughnuts available at all of our annual festivals. When they were presented to us, I was surprised at the portions (definitely enough for two to three diners) as well as the shape of the Zeppoli. Instead of puffy balls, they were sticks of dough in the vein of churros, yet chewier. Sprinkles of icing sugar decorated the zeppoli along with zigzags of Nutella ganache. Again, this was underwhelming. Had the menu not mentioned Nutella, I wouldn’t have guessed there was supposed to be any hazelnut taste to this. It came across as a basic chocolate sauce.

In the end, this wasn’t what I was hoping for. The service, once both of us were there, was passable. The food was edible, but nothing to write home about. Mostly, it was too crowded and noisy. I mean, the din from everyone conversing makes it loud enough as it is. So, my recommendation is that they take out a table or two and lower the music a bit. I think visitors would appreciate it more than they know. Ultimately, the menu is their bread and butter though. If I’m to return and spend my hard earned money there, that’s where they need to see some major improvements.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Chop Steakhouse Bar

My spread of food and drink at Chop.

Edmonton’s downtown Chop Steakhouse Bar, found connected to the Sutton Place Hotel, used to be a lunchtime spot for my co-workers and I to hang out. The place provided a spot for us to happily chat over cocktails and food as well as giving us a respite from the office.

Fast forward a few years later and the dynamic of my workplace has changed dramatically. Those friends have moved on to new things. With their departure, trips to Chop diminished, too.

The Chop lounge in downtown Edmonton.

When I saw that Chop was participating in Downtown Dining Week again this year, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to revisit. A reservation was booked through OpenTable. When we arrived after work that Friday, we were actually one of the first tables to be seated in the dining room. Located upstairs from the lounge, it’s a much dimmer space decorated with deep blues and greys. The lounge is the opposite. Washed in natural light with high ceilings, it’s much more open and bright (my personal preference).

Pina Colada

My friend began with a pint of beer. I opted for a Pina Colada ($8.75), which was beautifully garnished with a thin cut floral-shaped slice of pineapple and poured into a pretty vintage cocktail glass. What I didn’t love was how chunky the blended ice was. Yet, in terms of flavour, it was fine. There was a nice balance of white rum, fresh pineapple and coconut. As we waited for our dishes to come, we were also provided with fresh complimentary bread and butter to tide us over.

We each started with a different appetizer. She got the Feature Soup ($8.95), a creamy tomato bisque that had a pleasant consistency. It had been cooked down to create a depth to the sweet-tart taste, and it refrained from being too thin. I went with a standard Caesar Salad ($9.95). The lettuce was slightly limp, but well-coated with dressing and grated Grana Padano cheese. I enjoyed the house-baked focaccia croutons and the slice of lemon for spritzing. Although it didn’t come across as the freshest salad, all of the components I look for were there.

For our mains, we both chose to indulge in the half rack of the Smoked Baby Back Ribs ($25.95). This was served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. At the time, the veggies included roasted beets and broccolini, and they were prepared until they were tender with just a little bit of that needed bite left. The ribs were evenly painted with a rich barbecue sauce that had caramelized onto the succulent meat during the cooking process. A knife came in handy to cut the baby back ribs apart, but the meat pretty much pulled clean off the bone without much effort.

Supper finished with mini versions of two of Chop’s desserts: Crème Brûlée ($4) and Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake ($5.50). Neither will blow your socks off. However, between the two, the crème brûlée was definitely the smaller and arguably least adventurous. It was a standard custard dessert with a simple vanilla infusion and the sugar crackle. The soufflé cake is not what I expected. I pictured something along the lines of a lava cake. Instead, I received a slice of a chocolate cake crust filled with mascarpone mousse atop a pool of fresh vanilla anglaise. It was actually quite decadent, and I’d have that one again. I’m not sure how much larger the dessert is if the regular size is ordered, but I think for the price, this was the perfect amount of sweetness to cap off the night.

All of the food options that were available for this specially priced event are also on their regular menu. We just happened to save about $10 per person for our three-course meal versus if we had gone any other time. On this occasion, the service was friendly and attentive even when the dining room filled up. I’m not sure how often I’ll be back, but I think the quality of the food I tried was good enough to warrant a future drop-in, especially for happy hour.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Share Restaurant at The Westin

The interior of Share Restaurant at The Westin.

Since I started working downtown over a decade ago, I’ve found myself dining at Share Restaurant about a handful of times. Usually, I visit during the annual Downtown Dining Week event in March as the savings make it well worth it. This year was no different.

Past the lounge of The Westin Edmonton, tucked away in the corner, is a stylish room coloured in sleek taupe, white, grey, and copper tones. With a mix of art, wood, granite, carpet and unique lighting, it feels welcoming yet modern. It’s never all that busy when I’m there, but I always book a reservation through OpenTable just in case. To be fair, I typically drop in early after work prior to the dinner rush. On this latest occurrence, business picked up right around 6:00pm when a number of guests showed up for supper before heading off to a concert or the theatre.

The $30 Downtown Dining Week menu at Share.

My fiancé and I, not in a rush to go anywhere, took the opportunity to really savour the experience. We opted to try their $30 three-course Downtown Dining Week menu. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a total steal as the price is about half the usual cost.

To start, we split the two available appetizers: Beef Tartare ($19) and Wild Salmon Salad ($15). These were both excellent. Technically, I only had a couple of bites from his salad, and he didn’t eat my beef tartare since he dislikes raw meat. Still, I’ll call it sharing.

Wild Salmon Salad

The salmon seemed to have been roasted, so it was cooked thoroughly. However, I thought the fish may have been a tad overdone. They refrained from using too much seasoning though and the natural flavour was great. The roasted pepper vinaigrette drizzled into the spring greens was light and brought the smoked almonds (not enough of these), baby beets, and goat cheese into a harmonious union.

Between the salad and the beef tartare, the latter was, hands down, the better of the pair for me. They minced AAA Alberta beef and formed it into a patty with a collection of herbs. It was then topped with crunchy boar bacon, cured egg yolk (not runny), and Parmesan crisps (these were amazingly good). Served with perfectly toasted crostini, this dish screamed umami, especially when all of the components were taken in a single mouthful.

While there were also two options for the entrée, neither of us decided to try the Roasted Chicken Supreme ($26). Instead, we both chose the AAA Alberta Beef Tenderloin ($36). Wow. First, I’ll quickly say that the accompanying market veggies of carrots, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts were okay texturally, but tasted rather bland. The herb-tossed fingerling potatoes were fine, too. They were at least buttery smooth. No, the absolute star of this dish is the steak, and it did not disappoint. The meat, flavoured with its own jus, was prepared to medium rare as requested. It was incredibly succulent, so much so that the knife went right through it without effort and every bite practically melted in my mouth. I’m not sure if the cuts of beef they get are always this wonderful, so I’m afraid that, going forward, I may be ruined.

To end the night, we again divvied up the two choices: NY Cheesecake (unlisted on the regular menu) and Espresso Dome ($9). These were generous in size, making them ideal for a duo.

NY Cheesecake

The NY Cheesecake had a dense, creamy consistency with that distinct cream cheese flavour base. I would have preferred extra berry coulis and chocolate drizzle as those brought added dimension to the dessert, as did the fresh berries on the side. Deprived of the sauce, the cheesecake started to become one note.

Broken Espresso Dome

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the Espresso Dome, which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy due to my aversion to the taste of coffee. The coffee mousse center was subtle, and the chocolate cake enrobed by a shell of dark chocolate made it decadently rich. It probably didn’t require the dollops of whiskey jelly on the plate though. Aside from an extra element, the gelatin lacked any pop, so it did nothing to really elevate the sweet.

A hotel restaurant is unlikely to be first place that pops to mind when I’m trying to come up with an impressive culinary destination in Edmonton. Nevertheless, Share at The Westin fits the bill. Rotating servers consistently fill water glasses, bring plates when ready and offer fresh pepper, but, otherwise, they’re rather unintrusive while you dine. The staff certainly attempt to uphold a classy atmosphere in terms of the ambience and the service. Oh, and I can’t forget about their complimentary bread. The carbs are a delicious sign of what’s to follow. So, if you find yourself downtown for whatever reason, don’t overlook this potential gem.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Characters Fine Dining

A shot with the kitchen in the background.

My friend and I both love food and, every so often, we’ll gratify ourselves with a tasting menu. For the past several months, I’ve been talking about visiting Characters Fine Dining for that reason. After over 18 years in business, chef Shonn Oborowsky, who opened the restaurant when he was just 26 years of age, has truly refined his offerings. The listing of dishes found online sounded too good to pass up, and at $95 before tax and tip for seven full courses, it’s actually quite fairly priced.

So, the two of us made it our mission to visit on a miserably cold and snowy Friday night at the beginning of February. We arrived at the building on 102 Avenue and 105 Street right ahead of our 5:00 pm reservation. The host greeted us immediately as we walked through the doors and offered to take our coats. We were then seated at a table for two next to the central fireplace and in direct view of the open kitchen. Our chairs felt quite regal with their deep, high backs. As I eyed the space, I noticed how classical and rustic it looked with lots of tuscan colours, brick walls, and wooden beams. By the same token, it also had a slightly industrial feel with exposed piping and ventilation, along with metal accents.

Throughout the almost four hours we were there, only a few people dropped in for drinks and maybe a handful of other groups came in later for dinner. We were the first table dining that evening though, so the service we received was attentive. Our server allowed us a few minutes to go through the menu and available beverages. I opted to stick with water while my friend went with a Broken Negroni ($14). As we had our minds set on the tasting menu we let her know at the same time.

Characters drink menu with a glass of their Broken Negroni.

The Broken Negroni was prepared quickly and my friend was pleased with it. This cocktail was made with sweet vermouth, Campari, orange bitters and prosecco. I had a sip and found the citrus to be enjoyable and it helped to cut through the bitterness of the alcohol.

We were then given our amuse-bouche. This is a bite that is additional to the expected courses, often setting the tone for the meal. Now, this is the only thing I really had a problem with during our entire experience at Characters. When we had placed our order for supper, my friend checked with the server to ensure that her shellfish allergy wouldn’t be an issue. The server said she would let the kitchen know. Typically, the amuse-bouche served is their baby octopus. As it turns out, it is made using shellfish, so the kitchen decided to come up with something different. However, they didn’t alter the menu only for my friend, they changed it for both of us. I do understand that it simplifies things for the chefs to make the same dish for both people and that it reduces the risk of cross contamination to avoid cooking the octopus for me, but I suppose I would have appreciated them asking what I would have preferred since I didn’t have the same food restrictions.

Our alternative amuse-bouche.

In any case, the octopus was exchanged for a wooden slab topped with a large slice of cured ibérico ham, pickled cucumber and artichoke, cantaloupe, and pine nuts. Unlike the typical one-bite amuse-bouche, this one required several bites to finish and was somewhat awkward to cut on the high perch as the nuts kept falling off onto the table. I also found it funny that with a single table to cook for, the kitchen made a mistake by forgetting to plate my artichoke. I noticed it wasn’t there as the difference between my friend’s block and mine was glaring, but I wasn’t planning to bring it up. In the end, the chefs realized on their own and the server brought out the missing ingredient right before I was about to eat. Still, the combination of flavours was excellent. The salty, fatty meat paired with the sweet melon perfectly and the tartness of the pickled veggies added an extra element of surprise.

Our first course of Grilled & Smoked Sardine had the best presentation of all the dishes we ate that night. The fish was plated under a bell jar filled with smoke that slowly dissipated once lifted. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of sardine. I do like the stronger taste of the marinated fish, and the meat is often quite supple, but I do not handle bones well. It was easy enough to pull out the larger backbone; yet, the tiny, thinner bones were much more difficult to deal with. Although they are edible, I find it unpleasant to eat them, especially when and if one pricks my throat. Therefore, this was a slow course to get through as both my friend and I were careful to pick out as many bones as possible and to set them aside. Otherwise, this was pretty delectable with the smoked paprika lemon mayo, charred tomato, arugula, and the recurring artichoke.

Following the sardine, we continued with a seafood theme. This second course consisted of a slate slab laid with a small salad of baby beets, a streak of butter, a crab claw-shaped pretzel, and two rolls of horseradish crusted Beet Cured Salmon. Because of the beets, the salmon had this incredibly deep, translucent red colour and a sweetness that lingered with the smokiness. Fresh beets on the side really anchored the plate and alleviated any dry mouth due to the saltiness and starchiness of the pretzel.

Course three was another item from their appetizer menu. The Carrot Risotto was made with a carrot beurre blanc. It ended up with a super creamy texture where the carrot wasn’t really discernible until bites of the peeled or roasted carrot were had.

Beef Tartar is one of my favourite things, so our fourth course did not disappoint. I also liked that this was, again, presented differently. A handmade wooden bowl housed the round of beef tartar that was topped with an egg yolk, balsamic onions and arugula. Inside the bowl was also a long copper spoon for scooping. On the side, we were given a wooden board of grilled black bread. The bread was a warm, buttery and soft base for dollops of the melt-in-your-mouth tartar. I would have gladly had another portion.

At this point, it was sinking in that there were still three more courses to go. I felt fine and I knew I could power through, but my friend was starting to wane. She did make it through the next course of Cider Glazed Pork Belly though. Underneath the meat was braised red cabbage. On top was a helping of julienned carrots and green apple. The slab of pork belly was sizeable and so delicious as the meat was juicy on the inside yet the cider glaze and the fatty layers had rendered while cooking into this gloriously crisp and caramelized outside. This is a star and absolutely a steal at $15 for the solo appetizer on their regular menu.

The entrée came from the restaurant’s list of main courses. Regularly, the Venison Wellington costs just under $50, so the value of their tasting option becomes very apparent here. Plated with asparagus and raspberries as well as a generous amount of sauce and Miataké mushrooms, this pastry crusted venison was a rich dish. Arguably, it was worth every calorie. Even if I was full, I wouldn’t have stopped myself (my friend only managed one mouthful and then had the rest packed to go). The meat was the focus and it was ridiculously succulent. In fact, it was so tender that I’m certain the steak knives provided weren’t needed. A butter knife would have sufficed.

Dessert was our seventh and final course of the evening. Named The Honey Pot, this was a duo of a ceramic cup filled with a crème brûlée-like custard decorated with a piece of honeycomb imprinted bee pollen meringue and a square of Georgian honey cake with a piece of sponge toffee atop it. I couldn’t decide which component was my favourite — the meringue with the chocolate nibs, the bubbly sponge toffee, the dense cake with fig purée, or the thick yet smooth custard — so I alternated bites between them all while dipping my spoon into the bee-shaped sprinkling of icing sugar for added sweetness.

Considering that Characters is about to close in on twenty years of business in Edmonton and that the eatery serves impeccable dishes in a wonderful atmosphere, my friend and I were astonished to see that it was so quiet there on a Friday night. It’s a shame that it wasn’t busier. As this was my first time there, I’m hoping that this is not usual for them. The setting is too beautiful and the food is too good for this place to sit so empty. I mean, the restaurant essentially takes up the entire main floor (and basement?) of the building, so they have plenty of room and tables for many to enjoy.

Sure, the price point is a tad higher than other nearby venues, so it won’t become the norm to pop in every week or every month. Nevertheless, consider a visit to Characters Fine Dining to be an event or a treat. Once I took into account the amount of food we received and the number of hours we were there, it all made sense. Do yourself a favour and give in to the indulgence of a meal there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Revel Bistro & Bar

Roast Brussels Sprout Salad

From the purveyors of wine and tapas at Privada in St. Albert comes one of the latest additions to Edmonton’s restaurant scene, Revel Bistro & Bar. If a visit to the new establishment seems at all familiar, it’s likely because it resides in the refurbished Alberta Hotel building at 98 Street and Jasper Avenue. In recent years, the same location has been home to not one, but two other eateries: Tavern 1903 and Alberta Hotel Bar & Kitchen. Both had wonderful chefs at the helm, creating some truly delectable dishes, yet neither was able to last too long.

The historic and gorgeous lounge and bar.

One may even go so far as to say the spot is cursed. Superstitions aside, Revel Bistro & Bar has taken over the space with aplomb. Design-wise, they did very little to change the interior. The historic bar remains on the right side of the venue with a dining room on the left. The only difference that my friend and I could distinguish was the switch to bar top tables in the lounge. That, and a new coat closet. Otherwise, it looks almost identical to its last iteration as Alberta Hotel Kitchen & Bar (as depicted in the photo above).

My dining companion and I walked over after work, arriving early for our 5:00 pm reservation. However, there was no problem being seated in advance. The place was nearly empty at that point, and the host let us choose our own table, so we opted to sit by the windows.

We had actually studied the menu in advance on their website and we thought we had had our minds made up on the dishes we planned to order. As it turns out, the restaurant was in the midst of updating their offerings, so a few of the items we wanted were no longer available. The snack plate of charred lamb belly was gone and so was the chicken roulade.

On the plus side, the new options sounded fantastic. My friend chose to go with an Amaretto Bourbon Sour ($11) and the replacement Crispy Chicken Thighs ($25). I decided to start with the server recommended Roast Brussels Sprout Salad ($13) and continue with the main course of Manila Clams & Lamb Belly ($28).

The Amaretto Bourbon Sour was a simple, well-made cocktail that was smooth with just a bit of a kick at the back of the throat. While she sipped on that, I worked my way through the generous Roast Brussels Sprout Salad (pictured at the top of the page). It’s really similar to a salad currently found on the Privada menu, so I have a feeling they brought over one of their popular St. Albert dishes to share here. The plate consisted of brussels sprouts (slightly firm, crunchy, somewhat charred), quinoa, cranberry puree, pickled onion, sherry vinaigrette, and grated Parmesan. It was an excellent combination with small hints of bitterness from the greens, sourness from the vinaigrette, and sweetness from the pickled onion and cranberry puree. For a lighter meal that is still kind of hearty, this is a wonderful pick.

Crispy Chicken Thighs

I had originally wanted to try the chicken roulade for dinner and was disappointed to hear that they had removed it from the menu. The idea of the chicken thighs didn’t really appeal to me as much, so I skipped it. On the other hand, my friend was willing to give them a go. I’m really glad she did, too. I sampled all of the components of the plate and it was spectacular. The tender chicken had been fully deboned, and the skin was nicely crisped. The fleshy, marinated king oyster mushrooms added an earthy flavour that played well against the saltiness of the ricotta gnudi (gnocchi-like dumplings).

Manila Clams & Lamb Belly

Honestly, I felt like my Manila Clams & Lamb Belly could have been improved upon. Our server mentioned that it was the hit of the night at their New Year’s Eve event, so I thought it was a sure bet. There wasn’t anything overtly wrong with it, but it became pretty one-note about halfway through. The Alberta lamb belly was prepared with a black garlic glaze, making it really savoury. However, I don’t think enough of the fat had rendered off while the meat was cooked. It lacked the crispness that I like with perfectly made pork belly. I ended up cutting away some of the softer fats that I found to be unpleasant in the mouth. The clams were fine. They paired okay with the onion broth. The charred cabbage and fennel were decent accompaniments. What this item really needs though is some sort of starch or grain to ground the plate and make it more well-rounded.

Despite the filling food we’d polished off, we couldn’t leave without having dessert. I chose the Chocolate and Coconut ($12) while my friend went with the Cheesecake ($12). I’d say that both desserts had their pros and cons.

Chocolate and Coconut

The Chocolate and Coconut was made with a coconut bavarois as the base. Bavarois is a gelatin and whipped cream dessert that reminds me of a light flan. It was topped with hazelnut ice cream, chocolate soil, brown butter string, dehydrated chocolate mousse, Thai basil, and basil seeds. It sort of came across as an excessively complicated dish, and I believe that the strong chocolate elements overpowered any of the coconut flavour. Also, be careful not to breath in when taking a spoonful of the chocolate soil. It’s like a finely crushed cookie and I made the mistake of doing that, causing me a bit of throat irritation as I ate.

Cheesecake

I think that the Cheesecake was definitely the better of the two desserts. It was just balanced and didn’t seem to be overcompensating for anything. The cheesecake was incredibly fluffy and creamy. The tartness of the cheesecake mousse was a match made in heaven with the intense blood orange pumpkin ice cream. The sponge toffee added some needed texture. Although, I could have done with a little less of it as too much turns overly sugary and I wasn’t super keen on the stickiness of the confection on my teeth. My friend, a fan of toffee, absolutely loved it.

From this one visit, I see great potential with Revel Bistro & Bar. They have a focused menu that is at once familiar, but also adventurous. The service we received was impeccable and the atmosphere is upscale without the pomp and circumstance. Most of all, I just hope that they last. This venue has seen many talents in the kitchen and none have stuck so far. Maybe this will be the one to break the spell.