Calgary Restaurant Review: Vin Room Mission

A petite serving of Hummus and flatbread.

On our recent road trip to Calgary, I opted to try out restaurants that offered Happy Hour menus. Our meals were planned around the mid- to late-afternoon hours or well into the evening to take advantage of the deals. During our first night there, we ended up at Vin Room Mission (2310 4 Street). We were seated on the main floor in a narrower space past the lounge and right near the kitchen. It was cute and cozy as Kirk and I sat side by side.

As we reviewed the options, I was quite tempted by a list of features that they had for the evening. But, we stuck to my plan, and ordered only from the Happy Hour items: Bartender’s Choice Beer Pour ($6), Hummus ($5), Weekly Tacos ($5 each), Spaghetti Pomodoro ($5), and Grilled Chicken Skewers ($2 each).

Bartender’s Choice Beer Pour

For the beer, we were hoping for something on tap and more local. It turned out to be a bottle of Steam Whistle, so nothing all that special and kind of expensive for the price. On the plus side, to start, they provided complimentary popcorn with the beer.

The Hummus was presented in a tiny dish with four triangles of grilled flatbread brushed with olive oil. It was nice that the flatbread was actually warm and still soft. The hummus was garlicky and flavourful. It was so small though. It took just a few minutes for us to crush that plate.

Weekly Tacos

Kirk is the one who chose to have two of the Weekly Tacos. I sampled a bite of it, and I wasn’t impressed. I already tend to dislike pico de gallo because of the frequent inclusion of cilantro, but, on top of that, the corn tortilla was super dry, tasting like thin cardboard. Otherwise, the Valentina hot sauce and chicken was fine.

Spaghetti Pomodoro

The Spaghetti Pomodoro comes meatless with a simple mix of tomato sauce, basil pesto, and shaved Grana Padano. The sauce was light, but tasty. I appreciated the amount of cheese, considering the ratio of the topping to the noodles. I was beginning to understand that Vin Room was able to have such a cheap happy hour by altering the portion sizes significantly. It’s a good thing we weren’t particularly hungry and these “snacks” were enough.

Grilled Chicken Skewers

Probably my favourite choice of the night were the Grilled Chicken Skewers. I’m pretty certain that the same chicken was used in the tacos (and I doubt they switch up the type of taco every week). Still, the pieces of chicken were plump and tender. I also enjoyed the honey-lemon glaze and fresh herbs. We even ate the petite green salad on the side.

Carrot Cake

We decided to indulge in dessert before we left. It was the Carrot Cake ($9) that caught our eyes. With a Wensleydale cheese frosting, carrot-pineapple jam, and vanilla creme anglaise, it was quite decadent. Our only complaint was that it was clearly prepared in advance and refrigerated as it was chilly on the tongue. It would have been more pleasing to, at least, have it served at room temperature. Regardless, it was a highlight of our meal at Vin Room.

I wouldn’t necessarily go back to Vin Room for happy hour alone. But, the service was attentive, so I’d be interested in checking them out again for their regular menu just to see what the quality is like in comparison to what you get for happy hour. There was certainly a bit of promise with a couple of the items and the place was busy, so it can’t be all that bad, right?

Calgary Restaurant Review: Calcutta Cricket Club

Calcutta Cricket Club

From the second you spot the mint-hued building, you know you’re in for a treat at Calcutta Cricket Club in Calgary. Located on 17 Avenue, this restaurant, designed by local artist Maya Gohill, is described by her as a “1960’s Indian social club meets The Golden Girls.”

Stepping into the space, I totally understand the latter idea. It’s got that sort of gaudy quality reminiscent of the crazy, colourful clothing the women on that show used to wear and there’s a very ’80s to ’90s vibe (à la Miami Vice). Sunny pinks and blues are offset by a large-scale checkered floor, wicker bar stools, and a prominent leaping jaguar behind the bar.

A reservation had been made in advance using OpenTable, and, upon arriving for brunch (available Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm), we were promptly seated by a friendly server at a table for two.

Mango Lassi

We took a few minutes to review the menu. It’s not extensive, but there are several options, including a Slow Brunch consisting of three courses for $25 per person. While it looked wonderful, both of us decided to select individual dishes. Kirk went with his usual standard-style English-ish Breakfast ($15) with a side of Bacon ($5). I chose the Tandoori Fried Chicken ($18), and, because I had to have it, I also ordered a Single Chai-Ovaltine Pancake ($6.50) as well as a Mango Lassi ($4.50) to drink.

The Mimosa Cart

The Mango Lassi was served in a short glass, but, due to the thicker, creamy consistency, it was sufficient enough to go with my meal. Made with yogurt, mango, and cardamom, the slightly spicy and fruity mix was sweet without being cloying as the yogurt mitigated the natural sugars. It’s the perfect non-alcoholic beverage to pair with Indian cuisine. On a side note, I saw the mimosa cart go by a few times while we dined and it was super tempting. They use fresh squeezed juice — grapefruit, orange, or spiced pineapple — to make their cocktails ($8 each), which makes all the difference.

English-ish Breakfast

Kirk’s English-ish Breakfast came with Empire Provisions spiced sausage, sunny-side eggs, tomato, masala potatoes, and sourdough. Visually, at first glance, it was a little boring. However, digging in, the seasoned potatoes were delicious and the curry over the eggs added a new dimension. The additional bacon was generous and crispy. The star of the plate was certainly those spiced sausages though. They packed a ton of flavour and some heat on the palate. Not overwhelmingly spicy by any means, but enough to be warm, comforting, and a change from the norm.

When my Tandoori Fried Chicken was placed in front of me, I was shocked at the size of the dish. The two pieces of deep-fried yogurt marinated chicken were huge! I commented on that, and the server who had dropped our plates off stated that many guests even opt to add extra chicken. After taking an initial bite, I could see why. The meat was succulent and tasty — nutty, zesty, spicy, pungent — with a crisp breaded exterior and a balance of sugar from the coconut and honey. Laid beneath was a large slab of cornbread (maybe a tad dry) and a refreshing green salad. Since I still had “dessert” to work through, I ate only half the food, packing up the rest to go.

Single Chai-Ovaltine Pancake

I’m so glad that I didn’t miss out on the Chai-Ovaltine Pancake either. It was incredible. The single portion was perfect for me and it’s still prepared the same way as a full-size order, meaning it is presented with the daily fruit compote, saffron chantilly, and garam spiced granola. You get the best of everything without the possibility of overeating. I loved all of the textures from the thick, fluffy pancake to the crunchy granola and the floral-infused chantilly cream.

As our final meal during our short visit to Calgary, this was definitely a memorable one. It’s sad to think that Calcutta Cricket Club is hours away from home and it’ll be a while before I can go back. Then again, it just gives me something else to look forward to (like maybe happy hour next time) whenever I have a chance to return to Calgary.

Calgary Restaurant Review: Bread & Circus

Art made for Bread & Circus

For my birthday weekend in Calgary, I had planned several meals based around available happy hour menus. One of the places that popped up during my search was Bread & Circus. It’s tucked away on 17 Avenue — a favourite area whenever Kirk and I visit the city — behind Una Takeaway on 6 Street.

The interior of Bread & Circus keeps your eyes moving.

I mean, anyone who walks into Una Takeaway will see the restaurant entrance right there, but it still kind of retains an in-the-know hideaway feeling when you show up for your reservation (booked through Resy). Prior to being seated, our winter coats were taken and hung up for us. We were then led to a table for two that was tucked into a small nook across from the chef’s bar.

As it turns out, only select items from the antipasti and pasta options were included as part of happy hour, but it was enough to satisfy us. NOTE: It seems that happy hour has changed since our visit as they now offer a daily $5 menu of house wine, specific cocktails and food items between 5:00pm to 6:00pm.

When we were at Bread & Circus, cocktails were on special for $6 each and certain marked plates were half off (costs listed here are regular price, unless otherwise indicated). That included their Garlic Bread ($7), Amatriciana ($19), Carbonara ($20), and Beef Carpaccio ($14).

The Pomme Pomme

The Pomme Pomme ($10) was a tall cocktail mix of Calvados, Gifford’s Ginger Liqueur, and lime juice, making for a refreshingly tart beverage with a hint of spice at the back of the throat. Very smooth and easy drinking.

The Beef Carpaccio was presented first, and it was superb. The paper thin, circular slices of bright red meat were generously covered with broccolini salsa verde, shaved mimolette cheese, and puffed farro. The salsa was creamy and cooling on the palate. The hard orange-hued cheese was nutty and slightly salty, pairing well with the florets of broccolini, and the puffed farro added a little bit of crunch. So many textures and distinct flavours came together to make one fantastic dish. Even Kirk, who does not like raw meat, ate his fair share of this one (citing the beef actually looked fresh and appetizing to him because of the colouring), and we ended up ordering a second plate.

Amatriciana pasta in the forefront with the Garlic Bread in the back.

Before we even got our first order of Garlic Bread, Kirk decided that we should get two, so again, another was requested. There’s a reason why this is charged at $7 each though. It’s because it’s a whole loaf of freshly baked, warm pull-apart bread. The outer crust was a tad dry in spots and sort of subtly flavoured throughout. That is, until you get to the portion where they stuffed it with the garlic butter. Then it turns into a potently garlic treat. I devoured almost my entire loaf, careful to eat all of the parts doused in that butter and leaving behind the drier bits.

Carbonara

The two of us split the Amatriciana and Carbonara pastas. Both were delicious. Yet, they were also kind of similar. The only difference was the type of sauce that each came with. Their Amatriciana is technically made with bigoli noodles — still a thick, round pasta that I couldn’t really tell apart from the spaghetti used in the Carbonara — tossed in a traditional tomato sauce, chilies, and pecorino romano. The Carbonara is prepared with a creamy white sauce made using a farm egg and cracked pepper before being topped with more pecorino romano. Each of the plates was elevated with the same protein of crispy pancetta. Either way, I’d order both again. Incredibly simple in execution, but perfectly al dente noodles and deep, rich flavours in the sauces.

Caramelized popcorn as a parting snack.

By the time we finished all of that food, we were so full. I would have loved to try dessert, but I just couldn’t fathom eating anything else. Thankfully, a tiny dish of caramelized popcorn was dropped off with our bill, so I got a little taste of sweetness to cap our meal.

From the fun, secretive nature of Bread & Circus and the eclectic decor to the friendly service and the wonderful food, I’d say that this is definitely a spot to visit if you live in Calgary or find yourself there for work or play. In a heartbeat, I’d recommend it, especially for that stellar beef carpaccio.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Pip

The interior of Pip.

A little over a year after Pip graced Edmonton with its presence, Kirk and I finally visited this sister restaurant to MEAT and The Next Act. Housed on the corner of the same block as the other eateries, Pip is tiny in comparison; the Old Strathcona business has approximately 30 seats among the standard tables and bar tops.

We made a booking in advance through their website to ensure a spot. Arriving right on time, our table was literally being cleared and cleaned for us. Although the notes on the reservation page indicate that parties of two are only given an hour and a half for their meal, our dinner took about two hours and we never felt rushed.

Hugo Spritz cocktail

I decided to try one of their cocktails. The Hugo Spritz ($10), a 3 ounce concoction, is a mix of elderflower liqueur, soda, prosecco, and fresh mint. Kind of like a mojito, but with more of a floral flavour, it was light and refreshing. It’s also one of the more affordable drinks since approximately half of the cocktail menu is $13.

To eat, we split a few of Pip’s dishes between the two of us. The kitchen, similar to our recent stop at Partake, was careful to space out the plates for us. Therefore, we were able to focus on each item at time.

Starting with the Seared Manchego Cheese ($14), this was a slightly different take on the more typical baked brie that might be found elsewhere. Manchego, a firm yet buttery cheese made of sheep’s milk, doesn’t get that same creamy consistency when heated. It’s much more dense, sort of like halloumi, which has a high melting point, meaning the cheese is easily pan fried for a crispy exterior. It was good though. Kirk liked it so much that I thought he might devour it all. Served with toasted fresh bread, fig jam, and arugula, this dish had a great balance of salty-sweet-bitter to it.

Gnocchi

Next to be presented at our table was the Gnocchi ($18). Tossed with roasted tomatoes and coated in garlic cream and pesto, it was then topped with crispy leaves of basil and grated Parmesan. The potato pasta was actually quite light and fluffy in texture and the sauce was amazing. The only thing that would have made it better was lobster. It reminded me a lot of a couple of other lobster mac and cheeses I’ve eaten before, so I can imagine how fantastic this gnocchi would be with the crustacean added.

As our main entree, we shared the Braised Beef ($28). I loved how lean the meat was while still remaining fall apart tender and succulent. The roasted market carrots were ever so slightly crunchy and sweet. The green peppercorn sauce was a nice accompaniment to the beef. What really elevated the plate, in my opinion, was the Parmesan risotto. The creamed rice was divine and should be more largely portioned as I was having a hard time ensuring there was enough to go with every bite of my meat.

Deep Dish Apple Pie

Being our first outing to Pip, I felt that it was important to get acquainted with all aspects of the menu. As such, I ordered a serving of the Deep Dish Apple Pie ($10) for dessert. I hadn’t looked at the description of the item again before selecting it, so I had forgotten exactly what it came with. As Kirk ate, he insisted there was alcohol used in it. Turns out, he was right. Bourbon caramel was pooled on his side of the bowl. When I finally got a bite of that, it turned a very capable apple pie into something extra decadent. The caramel and the shortbread cookie crust are what really differentiated it from any other apple pie I’ve ever had, giving it a twist from the visually old school presentation of the pie with the single scoop of vanilla ice cream. Delicious!

While I do wish that the portions were a little bit bigger at times, it cost just under $100 for both of us, which isn’t too bad. Would I spend like that regularly? No. This was definitely a treat. Our night at Pip was truly wonderful though. From the intimate ambiance to the attentive service and the excellent food, we certainly enjoyed ourselves. It’s easy to see from our experience why Pip has become a fast favourite in Edmonton.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Aarde

Our table of food on our first visit.

Around for less than two months, Aarde, headed by Chef Guru Singh, is located near the Ice District at 10184 104 Street right in the heart of downtown Edmonton. The menu is inspired by his travels across Europe with regionally influenced cuisine being presented using locally sourced ingredients.

My first visit to the restaurant was a spur-of-the-moment decision. After my friend and I were done perusing the pieces at an art show, we were hungry, so we opted to check out Aarde. It had opened about ten days prior. Even without a reservation, it didn’t seem to be a problem to get a table. Granted, it wasn’t the ideal table. With seats situated immediately to the right of the entrance, we were greeted by a breeze every single time someone went through the door. Our food quickly cooled because of that.

Still, we enjoyed our meal. Although they look to have a great cocktail program (based on images I’ve seen on Instagram), I chose to go with water that evening. Instead, I focused on the food. As suggested by the server, we shared a few dishes, including the Crispy Cauliflower ($11), Mushroom and Artichoke Tartine ($11), Duck and Cornbread Skillet ($15), and Chorizo Sausage ($13).

Crispy Cauliflower

As far as Crispy Cauliflower goes, I’ve had similar before. I felt the deep fried batter may have been a tad heavy-handed, and I’m not sure why cauliflower dust (I’m assuming this is dehydrated veggie) is necessary. Perhaps it brings out the essence of the flavour better? What it has going for it is the maple and mustard glaze for that sweet and savoury balance. The chili flakes provided a little bit of heat as well.

Mushroom and Artichoke Tartine

I could have had several slices of the Mushroom and Artichoke Tartine. This was arguably the best dish of the evening. The wild mushroom fricassee was wonderfully creamy and rich, marrying well with the wine poached artichokes, and creamed spinach. The house baked grilled sourdough bread was perfectly dense enough to hold all of the toppings and keep its texture while being soft enough to eat without scraping the roof of my mouth.

On paper, the Duck and Cornbread Skillet sounded super appealing. Shredded confit duck leg? Check. Coffee jus? Check. Apple mostarda (candied fruit and mustard-flavoured syrup)? Check. Meuwly’s mustard? Check. Fresh cornbread? Check. I love duck and I love cornbread. It tasted fine. I just thought the amount of meat was lacking for an item listed under the meat section of the menu. I also found the cornbread to be kind of heavier in consistency than expected. It was like the middle held too much moisture and wasn’t able to rise enough.

Chorizo Sausage

I really appreciate eateries that make everything from scratch. With that being said, Aarde did not disappoint when it came to their Chorizo Sausage. Lightly grilled with perfect seared lines, the sausage was laid whole across a bed of kale and potato mash. Served to the side was bright pickled red cabbage. Herb oil finished it off. When cut apart, the meat held together well. It wasn’t too tightly packed, making for even cooking and heat distribution. Not overly salty, well-seasoned, and a great mix of textures on the palate.

As we finished up our meal, the chef approached the table next to ours and seemed to dote on them. They ate a single dessert between them, and, for whatever reason, the restaurant was keen to know what they thought and provided them with complimentary beverages. I’m not one to ever ask for special treatment as I’ve always gone in anonymously to try restaurants to be as honest as possible. But, for a new business, I thought it was odd that they weren’t taking the time to ask for feedback from all of their patrons. Aside from that, service seemed to lack as soon as we finished our food. Our server didn’t really ask if we wanted dessert or anything else, and it took forever to flag her down again to get our bill when we were ready to leave.

Despite the end to our night at Aarde, I chalked it all up to growing pains. Therefore, in December, I suggested it as a spot for dinner. A good friend of mine was back in town for Christmas and I wanted her to sample something new.

This time, I made a reservation in advance. I actually used their online form, which is powered by Wix Restaurants. I received an email shortly after submitting saying my request was being processed and that I would get an email or text message to confirm. That never showed up, so I ended up phoning on December 26 to ask. Turns out they had it listed in their books, but obviously hadn’t followed up on processing it through the system. I’m going to assume that this was missed because I input my reservation request on Christmas Eve. Hopefully it’s more reliable the rest of the year.

For this particular visit, because of my previous experience, I requested a table away from the door thinking it’d be better and warmer. That was not the case. I’m not sure if they just don’t believe in indoor heating or what, but it was freezing in there again even though we were tucked away behind a wall in a nook. Oh well. I tried.

To eat, Kirk and I split four items between us: Vandaag Soep ($7), Roasted Butternut Squash ($9), as well as two of the larger plates, Duck Breast ($20) and Beef Ribs ($24). Kirk additionally ordered one of the rotational draught beers (20 oz. for $9) to quench his thirst.

Potato Leek Soup from Aarde

Dishes were spaced out decently, so everything wasn’t delivered all at the same time. The first to arrive from the kitchen was the Vandaag Soep (a.k.a. daily artisan soup). On this day, it was a luscious potato leek dressed with twirls and drops of flavoured oils. Incredibly smooth with a slightly peppery finish, it was truly delicious and comforting on a chilly day.

The Roasted Butternut Squash was surprisingly one of my favourites. Thick pieces of the gourd were prepared with pistachios, beet souffle, gremolata (an herb condiment typically made using lemon zest, garlic, and parsley), crispy leeks, lemon garlic leek oil, and pickled onions. It looked simple, but I think that it was probably more deceiving that I thought. There were a number of components and each required careful preparation. Extremely flavourful and satisfying without being overwhelming.

Beef Ribs

Between the two mains, I’d definitely say that the Duck Breast was better. While the Beef Ribs were fall-off-the-bone tender, I thought that the meat had more chunks of gloppy fat and grizzle than I’d prefer. I wasn’t a huge fan of the celery root puree either, which I thought watered down the overall taste of the food. I did like the charred cabbage more than I thought I would though.

On the other hand, the Duck Breast was fantastic. The seared duck breast was ever so slightly pink and really succulent. Sure, there was some fat between the meat and the skin, but it wasn’t to the point of taking away from the rest of the dish. A mushroom fricassee similar to that of the Mushroom and Artichoke Tartine and a handful of lentil fritters accompanied the meat. Very on point. We’d both recommend this duck to others.

London Fog Crème Brûlée on the right

Being the holidays, we also indulged in dessert. The sizeable London Fog Crème Brûlée ($10) was made with organic earl grey tea infused into the custard. On the side were a couple of biscotti cookies. I only had a small bite of the custard and sugar crackle. It was strongly flavoured, which I find to be of importance when it comes to sweets. It doesn’t have to be saccharine, but you should be able to taste what it strives to emulate.

Dutch Almond Cake

Kirk and I divided the Dutch Almond Cake ($10). It was scrumptious! Somewhat dense and a tad chewy, it was still moist and delicate in flavour. The outer edges and top were crusty, and the sliced nuts added minor bitterness. The scoop of avocado gelato was oddly gelatinous while being crumbly. It actually did have a creamy mouthfeel though, and it was refreshing, but otherwise didn’t act like a typical relative of ice cream.

Aarde has some kinks to iron out in terms of the atmosphere, hospitality, and certain dishes. However, there’s a lot of promise, too. If the team works to hone their craft, this could be one of the next success stories in the Edmonton restaurant scene.