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: Cibo Bistro

Mezzaluna pasta

Mezzaluna pasta

I think it was still summertime when my friend and I first attempted to visit Cibo Bistro (@cibobistroedm), only to find that they were closed on Mondays. Since we had to postpone our meal there, it took us quite a bit of time to circle back around to the idea. It wasn’t until mid-November when we finally made a point of going to the restaurant again.

Located on 104 Avenue in Oliver Village between Safeway and MacEwan Residences, it’s slightly tucked away from the hustle and bustle of one of downtown Edmonton’s main arteries. I had made a reservation through OpenTable about a week or two in advance, but, as my friend was running late at the office, I called to have our booking pushed back. The hostess that I spoke to said it wasn’t an issue as there weren’t any conflicting reservations within that time frame. The two of us eventually made it there at about 6:15pm, and I was surprised to see, as the server led us to our table, that the place was still empty, save for the semi-private room near the back (although, it was pretty much full by the time we left an hour and a half later). With maybe just over a dozen tables in the space, it’s not large by any means, but still likely seats more than the city’s other lauded Italian restaurant, Corso 32 (read my review). Unlike Corso, however, the dimly lit space of Cibo Bistro looks a little more traditional with earth tones, leather upholstered chairs, cobble-like tiled floors, stone tiled walls and paintings of Italy.

As we perused the menu, I couldn’t help but notice the similarity between its layout and the offerings of Corso 32. That means I was apt to do a comparison by sampling a few items, so I could truly see the difference. Both have made The Tomato‘s top 100 list for two years in a row. Corso has been No. 1 each time with Cibo trailing just a few spots behind (No. 6 in 2013 and No. 4 in 2014).

Arancini is one of my friend and I’s favourite Italian dishes. Since we had eaten that at Corso, it was a no-brainer to use that as a starting point for our showdown. That, along with the Salumi, served as our appetizers.

As far as arancini go, they are considered an indulgent antipasti because they can be quite heavy and filling. It’s essentially risotto that has been battered and fried until a crisp outer shell is formed. The filling at Cibo is mixed with roasted cauliflower and Fontina cheese and, once cooked, is generously sprinkled with freshly grated Pecorino Romano. I’m not exactly sure why, but I think that, even with all the rice and cheese, there was a lightness to these arancini that the ones I ate at Corso didn’t have. The bowl we received had 6 to 7 arancini, which we shared. The breading was perfectly fried whereas Corso’s were a little overdone, making the shell harder to break. The cauliflower added a little more texture to the risotto, so it wasn’t all just mush, and the cheese was nicely melted inside. I also believe that these ones were a lot less salty.

The salumi platter that evening was a steak tartar with shaved truffle served with a side of crostini. This was probably the best dish of the evening, no doubt about it. They say the meats are cured in-house, and the tartar was prepared so well that it literally melted in your mouth. Paired with the shaved truffle, this was a completely decadent starter. I would have gladly eaten that has my main meal. The board came with 6 pieces of crostini and there was enough tartar provided that we weren’t sparingly spreading it on the bread. In fact, I was piling the tartar on thick, so I have to say that this selection was worth it.

For our entrees, we had a harder time deciding. Our server was excellent and, to help, she described, in detail, each of the pasta dishes on the menu, including that evening’s special. We finally made our choices – I ordered the Mezzaluna and my friend chose the Pappardelle.

The food menu.

The food menu.

The Mezzaluna was ravioli stuffed with braised beef that is cooked until tender and then pureed, so it can be stuffed inside fresh, made from scratch pasta. The pasta shells were thin and prepared al dente. The sauce was a burro bianco (white butter) with Balsamico Vecchio (aged balsamic) and Crotonese Calabrese cheese, which was flavourful, but felt delicate. I particularly loved the used of the balsamic as a dressing, something that I hadn’t had in a long time. The sauce and the beef played off one another really well, so much so that I wanted more as soon as I polished off my plate.

The Pappardelle consists of fat ribbons of fresh pasta bathed in tomato sauce and served with braised lamb, mint and Pecorino Romano cheese. I had just one mouthful of the dish and the pasta had just the right amount of bite. The lamb was succulent and the sauce was subtle.

Pappardelle pasta

Pappardelle pasta

Unfortunately, we did not have room for dessert on this occasion. Plus, we were in a bit of a rush to make it to book club, but I will say that after our trip to Las Vegas and our meals at Giada in that city, had I been able to manage some sweets, I would have gone for the Zeppole (Limoncello and Mascarpone doughnuts dusted with powdered sugar). They’re certainly on my list for next time!

In the end, and I’ve given this a lot of thought over the last month, I’m inclined to say that, while Corso was excellent, I honestly think that my meal at Cibo was a tad better. And, I feel like that says a lot. The pair of restaurants has a lot going for them – fantastic food, fresh, housemade dishes, wonderfully knowledgeable staff – yet they’re also hindered (arguably by some) by small spaces that make them seem exclusive when, in fact, they’re not. They’re friendly, intimate atmospheres that are very welcoming, so perhaps it comes down to preference which one you would prefer. Based on my singular visits to Cibo and Corso, I found them both to be great hangouts. They’re equally quiet in terms of ambiance, making it easy to converse with your dining companions, which is a big pro nowadays in a world where dance music seems to be pumping everywhere else.

The semi-private room at the back. A great place for a small group to have fantastic conversation.

The semi-private room at the back. A great place for a small group to have fantastic conversation.

After a few weeks of contemplation, my companion critic for that night and I agreed. Until I have a chance to revisit each, I cannot say with absolute certainty which will come out on top a year or two from now. Only time will tell. One of my friends who had dinner with me at Corso said that our meal there was one of the best she’s ever had. I’d be curious to see her thoughts of Cibo and her comparisons to Corso.

Nonetheless, examining my own experience of the food, which, of course, is the foundation of a stellar restaurant, I believe that Cibo has won my heart and my stomach. That is not to say I won’t be eating at Corso again, because I will, but contrary to what every other review or person has told me, Cibo is going to be my personal number one for now.

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 Cibo Bistro.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Rosso Pizzeria

Their specials board!

Their specials board!

Pizza places are abound in Edmonton nowadays. Add to the growing list Rosso Pizzeria (@RossoYeg), which opened in the Garneau area a little over a year ago. Taking over the old Da Capo location along 109 Street, you’ll spot it to your right as you exit on the south side of the Highlevel Bridge. Seeing as how my visits to the University/Whyte Avenue area are sporadic at best, I had no idea that it was there. It was only after I happened upon a deal from Travelzoo that I learned of its whereabouts, and then I came across their standing as the No. 70 best place to eat and drink in Edmonton as voted by readers of The Tomato in 2014.

The voucher I had purchased was valid for two people, including your choice of an appetizer or salad to share and two small pizzas. Since it could only be used on a Monday to Friday during their lunch hours of 11am to 3pm, I took the opportunity to visit with my mother during my staycation in June. The restaurant being slightly out of the way, I wasn’t realistically able to get there during a usual work day, so this panned out well for me.

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High tables to the right of the entrance.

Seeming like a quiet Wednesday, we were the first table to arrive. There were three servers on hand, one of which indicated that we could seat ourselves wherever we wanted. Personally, I like how the space is broken up. To the right of the entrance is a raised nook that gives you a view of the kitchen including the giant red bell oven. The large bar in the center takes up a huge portion of the square footage, but as you walk in it showcases all of the boutique beers as well as the baked goods, desserts and gelato that they have to offer, and the one side provides additional bar seating. The other half of the restaurant consisted mostly of regular height tables that can be rearranged for different group configurations and a tall raised bar, too. For those sunny, warm days and nights, you also have the option of sitting out on the patio at the front (watching a large truck backing out of a parking spot in the lot next to the patio, coming just inches from the barrier, made me think twice about that though).

We tucked ourselves into a booth as the server brought over menus and explained how our voucher worked. The menu is fairly extensive with several starters, salads, pizza rossas (red) and pizza biancas (white) to pick from, so it took us a while to make a decision. As we eyed the options before us, we sipped on filtered water from their Q Water system (they don’t charge extra for that here, it’s just par for the course). Ultimately, we ordered the Piatto di Formaggi Misto for our first course and the Rucola E Bresaola and the Pesto E Pollo pies for our mains. Truthfully, it didn’t matter if the dishes came together or not because we alternated between the three plates throughout our lunch.

The assorted cheese board.

The assorted cheese board.

The Piatto di Formaggi Misto is the Italian fancy name for an assorted cheese board, something that I have an increasing fondness for as of late. This arrived on a wooden board decked out with what I’m pretty sure were four semi-firm or firm varieties. The differences in texture and taste between each of the cheeses was subtle, but I could distinguish between them. I probably would have preferred if they had changed it up and included a goat cheese or a brie for a greater mixture. However, I was still very happy with this appetizer that came with slices of crostini, a combination of dried fruit (cranberries, apricots and figs), housemade marmalade and a pot of honey. As a side note, I will say that you certainly get your money’s worth with this dish as the portions given are generous.

Moving onto the pizzas, the Pesto E Pollo is a white pizza that uses almond pesto as the base and is then topped with roasted tomatoes, buffalo mozzarella and marinated local organic chicken. The crust was crisp on the outside with the soft, chewy texture that is to be expected of traditional Neapolitan pizza. The flavours were a little more subtle than I expected, so it came across as a lighter selection. The Rucola E Bresaola, another pizza bianca, was packed with layers to savour. A combination of beef bresaola, organic baby arugula, mozzarella fior di latte, parmigiano scallions and amorosa tomatoes, I think that the saltiness of the extremely tender, thinly sliced cured beef (dare I say better than what I ate at The Cavern) with the sweetness of the tomatoes and the bitterness of the arugula was such an excellent blend.

Way too full to even think about dessert that afternoon, I did go back to try some in-house made pistachio gelato on another visit just shortly after. The gelato was wonderfully creamy and the medium size that I opted for was perfect to satisfy my sweet tooth.

Personally, I really like the unique touches such as the table tops that were made out of recycled wood from old wine casks. The food was great, the service friendly (maybe a little slow at times, but much better the second time around) and the atmosphere laid back. Perfect for gatherings with family and/or friends, they’re now on my list of go to local restaurants. If you plan to go, they are open daily, and it’s well worth a try. I almost guarantee you’ll want to go back again!

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 Rosso Pizzeria.

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.