Edmonton Restaurant Review: Villa Bistro

Braised Short Rib

To my surprise, this summer, I was scrolling through my OpenTable app when I came across a new restaurant called Villa Bistro. It was the first I’d heard of it, so I decided to Google the business. As it turns out, the trusty Free Press Bistro on 100 Avenue and 104 Street had been sold and renamed. Villa Bistro’s goal is to serve high-end comfort food, which, in a city that seems to be in the throws of winter for half the year, seems appropriate.

I kept the new eatery in mind for the past few months, and I finally visited with a friend at the end of November after we completed a big Christmas shopping spree at City Centre. We happened to be hanging out downtown on an Oilers game night, so depending on where we parked, we could have ended up paying for it. However, we lucked out by driving an extra block further where we found a spot on 99 Avenue. The payment machine didn’t indicate that it cost anything after 6:00pm. Yet, just in case, we phoned 311 to double check and they confirmed that the zone we were in fell outside of the event area. Bonus! Otherwise, if money isn’t a concern, there is parking in front of the establishment as well as an Impark lot across the street, too.

When we entered Villa Bistro, it was fairly quiet. I’d say there were, at best, a handful of other tables and a couple of bar stools occupied. I noticed the space had been freshened up with brighter walls, new modern floral art (i.e. the ubiquitous succulent), as well as updated tables and chairs. It looked lovely. The host greeted us from behind the counter and told us we could take any available table. We opted for one tucked into a nook by the windows. Once we settled in, the server brought the menus over along with glasses of water.

Veggie Panini with Fries

The food selection has an Italian leaning with entrees that include panini sandwiches or pasta bowls and appetizers of meatballs, charcuterie, and caprese skewers. My friend ended up ordering the Veggie Panini ($15). I indulged by going with the Braised Short Rib ($24). The two of us also shared an order of the Baked Brie ($15).

As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our meal, it seemed to be getting cooler inside the restaurant. I assumed it was because we were next to a window and didn’t think too much of it at first. But, right before our dishes arrived, my friend stepped out into the building’s adjoining hallway to use the bathroom and, when she returned, she confirmed that the temperature had most definitely dropped. The server eventually let us know that what we were experiencing wasn’t the norm. Apparently, the whole building was hit with a heating problem and someone was being called in to fix it as soon as possible.

Despite the cold, we powered through our dinner like the true Canadians we are. My friend was really hoping that her Veggie Panini would be reminiscent of the vegetarian toasties she had when she visited Australia. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The sandwich, consisting of goat cheese, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and red peppers in a balsamic glaze was still tasty. Her one recommendation to Villa Bistro though? The ciabatta bread was barely toasted, if at all. Paninis are supposed to be heated and pressed and this one didn’t seem to fit that description. Coming with the sandwich was a large side of fries. They looked to be freshly made and lightly seasoned.

Baked Brie

We quite enjoyed the Baked Brie. Honestly, it’s kind of a hard appetizer to screw up. This one was presented with a whole mini round of brie that was topped with fruit compote (the menu said it was blueberry, but the colour and flavour made me think it was more akin to raspberry). There were six slices of focaccia crostini to go with it. When we cut into the cheese, it was warm and nicely melted with the center oozing a little. The sweet compote paired perfectly with the rich, creamy, nutty brie.

I will give myself a pat on the back for choosing the Braised Short Rib because I think it was worth every penny. The meat was braised in-house until it was tender enough to be pulled apart with just a fork. There was only a minuscule amount of fat throughout the cut, so I was able to eat every bite of the short rib. It was also marinated very well with the flavour completely saturating the meat. Since it was so savoury, the combination of the short rib with a large helping of sweet potato puree was kind of ingenious, providing that important balance. The addition of fried parmesan Brussels sprouts that were charred and crisp on the outside just made the whole thing even better (and provided me with some actual veggies).

Braised Short Rib

By the time we polished off our plates, Villa Bistro had become a literal ice box. Our server was tucked behind the bar with a heater while she wore her parka, and my friend had also pulled on her coat. Otherwise, there was a slight chance we would have hung out a bit longer and had dessert. In those circumstances, however, we couldn’t bring ourselves to stay. We grabbed our bills to pay and then head back out into the winter evening.

I’ll admit that the staff could have offered to compensate us for the inconvenience of eating in freezing conditions. Even though I know what happened wasn’t their fault, it’s still good business practice to acknowledge when something is wrong and to do whatever possible to rectify the situation. The host/server was super friendly and, despite the issue, she did her job pretty well. But, there wasn’t any discount on the bill or anything, which I think another restaurant would have considered. I believe the least they could have done was to offer each of us a hot beverage to keep us cozy as we ate.

Regardless, I hope that Villa Bistro’s building has since fixed the problem and that every visit hereafter will be much more comfortable. While the establishment is still coming into its own and there’s always room for improvement, they’re on the right track. With good service, a fantastic location and delicious food, they can expect to grow a wealth of regular customers.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Black Pearl

The interior of The Black Pearl.

A group of us played an evening of escape rooms at SideQuests Adventures Inc. on a Tuesday night. When we were finished, we parted ways, but a couple of us had planned to stay out and grab a bite afterwards. We didn’t have anything specific in mind. Yet, being on the 4th Street Promenade of downtown Edmonton, it made sense to explore the block to find a place to hang out.

We passed by a few popular spots before we decided to give The Black Pearl a try. Stepping through it’s doors was like walking through the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia. There’s a ton of woodwork throughout the space. At the back are a few fish tanks. Netting and ropes drape down from the ceilings and stairwell as a decorative measure. If it isn’t already apparent, this is an eatery that specializes in seafood.

Arriving a little over an hour before the establishment would be closing for the night, it was surprisingly still quite full. There were even a few people cozied up to the bar indulging in platters of oysters and crab legs. However, we managed to snag a table for two without issue.

Each of us ordered a cocktail to start. My friend went with the Light and Crisp ($7) and I grabbed a Rosemary Gin Fizz ($10). I can’t attest to how her beverage was, but I loved my choice. It was smooth, refreshing and ever so slightly tart. I thought it was a fantastic night cap as it quenched my thirst and hit the spot without coming across as too strong.

Fish Tacos

For our food, my friend opted for the Fish Tacos ($17) while I selected the Beef Tataki ($16). First off, I’ll just say that, looking over the menu, I found the prices to be higher than I would have liked. I do realize that the restaurant is trying to bring in the freshest ingredients by importing most of their seafood from the west and east coasts of the country, but I don’t think that a Seafood Mac & Cheese — made with lobster and baby shrimp — should cost $27 per plate. At least, not when I can go to Bar 94 at LUX Steakhouse and have Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese for $17 instead (only $9 to $10 during Happy Hour on weekdays, too).

Cost aside, the Fish Tacos were sizable. Considering that the dish only comes with two tacos, the pieces of fried haddock wrapped in the tortillas were relatively hefty. Served with in-house made coleslaw and chipotle mayo drizzled on top, these turned out to be very filling. The fish was also prepared well with the meat flaky and moist.

Beef Tataki with a glass of the Rosemary Gin Fizz

I wasn’t entirely sure that a restaurant with a focus on seafood was the place to be ordering Beef Tataki, but one forkful of the sliced beef and baby shrimp put my mind to rest. Honestly, I usually hate baby shrimp. They’re often overcooked and rubbery. In this case, they were actually succulent. Most likely the juices from the tataki marinade helped to keep them from becoming too dry, allowing me to enjoy them for once in my life. The star of the plate was, as it should be, the beef with edges nicely seared. The meat was thicker than I expected. But, it was incredibly tender and perfectly marbled.

Service also plays a big factor, and, here, at The Black Pearl, it was impeccable. Our server was warm, willing to answer questions, checked in on us at appropriate times, and reminded us about last call in case we wanted anything else before we left.

The intimate atmosphere, the delicious cuisine, and the top notch hospitality certainly makes me want to revisit The Black Pearl. When I do, I’ll be keeping in mind their daily specials like the half price fish tacos on Wednesdays and the $10 tapas on Thursdays because as much as I enjoy going out for a meal, I always appreciate it more when it’s also friendly on the wallet.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Little India Cuisine

Our table covered with traditional Indian cuisine.

Groupon struck again with a lunch voucher for Little India Cuisine (9250 34 Avenue). Knowing that it was valid towards the buffet ($14.99), which is available daily, I couldn’t pass it up.

My boyfriend and I decided to do a walk-in on a Sunday afternoon. When we stepped through the doors, on the right hand side, I noticed the decor with draped fabrics, hand-carved wooden doors, lantern lights hanging from the ceiling and traditional paintings. It looked stylish and classy from afar; it was a little run-down on closer inspection. On the left hand side was the payment counter and their sweets shop.

We didn’t have to wait for a table as they were able to seat us immediately. However, I did not appreciate where we were placed. We were taken to the back room where the bar is situated. They had modified the tables in that area to accommodate a large party of people who basically took it over and didn’t seem to understand the concept of personal space. It felt like I was sitting in a cafeteria, not a relaxing restaurant. I do realize that probably isn’t the norm there, but it really dampened my experience on this occasion. Had we managed to get a table out front instead, I think it would have been much quieter and more comfortable.

That aside, we helped ourselves to the buffet and it was superb. There was a decent amount of variety, including a salad bar, soups, rices, appetizers, mains, and a few desserts. I only managed to consume one large plate of food (I can’t eat as much as I used to) that was comprised of Aloo Gobi, Mutter Paneer, Lamb Curry, Tandoori Chicken, Butter Chicken, and Saffron Rice.

Papri Chaat and my plate from the lunch buffet.

Everything was marinated well with the flavours saturating and soaking into the veggies and meats. The Tandoori Chicken was actually succulent compared to some I’ve had at other places where it often ends up dry, especially when it can be sitting out for a long period. I love that they serve lamb as part of their lunch buffet because a lot of other Indian restaurants tend to save it for the dinner lineup. I managed to scoop up a few tender pieces of the lamb. It was all meat with very little fat or tendon to be found (although, the bowl had a lot of bones left behind). My absolute favourite thing at any Indian eatery is butter chicken, mainly for the sauce. This was a creamy, slightly spicy and incredibly tasty rendition. In fact, a small pot of the sauce was the only thing I went back to get a second helping of. I dipped our fresh naan bread into that dish and it was worth each and every additional calorie.

I was also surprised to find a plate of Papri Chaat sitting at our table when we first returned from gathering our food at the buffet. I can’t ever recall eating it anywhere else, so it was new to me. The recipe consists of crispy chips, potatoes, chickpeas, and yogurt chutney. Before we were able to ask one of the servers what it was, I took a chance and had a few bites. It was delicious! There are a lot of different textures and I liked the cooling sensation of the yogurt on the palate. Personally, I like it way more than the Papadam that is often offered as a starter.

Mango Custard

Usually, I skip dessert at Indian buffets. After all, I’ve never been a fan of Gulabjuman (milk balls in hot sweet syrup) as they’re way too sugary. Yet, this time, they presented a mango custard and I had to give it a try. It was, admittedly, a slight disappointment. The only reason I say that is due to the number of pieces of custard skin that ended up in my bowl. Those had a sort of unpleasant mouthfeel, like crumbly gelatin. I picked my way around them and ate the smoother custard on its own, and that turned out to be pretty good. Honestly, it could almost pass as a replacement for those wonderful lassi drinks.

When we were finished, we went up to the till to pay our bill. It took forever for the woman to assist us. She seemed more preoccupied with answering the phone than anything. But, her main issue was that she didn’t know where we were sitting and she was apparently trying to get the attention of the servers to ask them before she finally just inquired with us. The staff definitely came across as a bit disorganized. Otherwise, the service was alright while we were dining.

This visit left me with mixed feelings about Little India Cuisine. To go out for a meal is a treat (even if it’s something I do more than the average person). As a customer, I’m spending my hard-earned money by choosing to eat at your establishment. Therefore, it’s not just about filling my body with food. I want to be able to have an enjoyable lunch with my significant other without having some child run into our table, knocking over our stuff. I want to be able to pay my bill in a timely manner. I just want it to be a nice escape from my typical day. In this case, the ambience didn’t do the kitchen’s work any justice, and I couldn’t wait to leave.

Still, the meal was affordable and executed well enough that I’d be willing to give Little India Cuisine another shot. Hopefully what we went through that day was a one off and it’ll be better next time.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: BAR 94 at LUX Steakhouse

“94” lights up the back wall of the bar.

Earlier on in my career, I could often be found with my colleagues sitting at a table inside the lounge of LUX Steakhouse. We all liked each other enough to spend extra time together after work over a drink or two. Back then, my favourite was Martoonie Tuesday (maybe it was Thursday). For two dollars plus change, I could have a full cocktail. They weren’t all that strong, but they also didn’t break the bank. It was a way to unwind on the cheap. As the years passed by, more and more friends left for other opportunities, or the circumstances of their home lives had changed, and those gatherings eventually subsided.

Every so often, I’d still frequent the restaurant for lunch or dinner. It wasn’t the same though. Flash forward to last month when I decided to revisit with one of my girlfriends. I’m always keeping tabs on Edmonton food deals (check out the page on my blog), and having seen their happy hour offerings, I felt inclined to go. The lounge, renamed BAR 94 in honour of one of the city’s favourite hockey players and current shareholder, Ryan Smyth, still looks relatively the same. Yet, the menu has gone through some updates.

Sparkling cocktails for just $3 every Tuesday from 4pm to 7pm.

The bar does serve the same dishes as are available in the restaurant; however, they also have their own distinct menu consisting of casual eats that include about a dozen share plates (varying in price from $7 to $17 each) and five handhelds. Every Monday to Thursday from 4:00pm to 7:00pm, all of those appetizers — minus the Team Platter — are available for just $10 per item, and premium well highballs, select draught sleeves, and house red or white wine are only $5 per glass. On Fridays, everything is another dollar less. Best of all, on Tuesday nights, there’s even the option ordering a sparkling cocktail or a six ounce glass of Prosecco for three dollars. Honestly, these prices are difficult to ignore.

I booked a table for us using the OpenTable app. In my request I asked to have them save us a spot in the lounge even though the system is really only meant for the restaurant. While it’s usually first come, first serve for BAR 94, they seem to be able to accommodate reservations whenever possible. In this case, it didn’t seem to be a problem. When I arrived, I found my friend already seated at the far end of the space.

Both of us started with some bubbly. She got a stem of Prosecco. I selected a sparkling cocktail of Prosecco and Chambord. Then we ordered a few plates to split: Mini Steak Sandwiches ($15), BAR 94 Dip ($14), Power Play Perogies ($14), and Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese ($17).

Mini Steak Sandwiches

The Mini Steak Sandwiches came as five slices of baguettes with marinated AAA Alberta beef piled on top. These were garnished with plenty of crispy onions, roasted garlic aioli, and shaved Pecorino. When I first set eyes on them, I have to say that I didn’t find them incredibly appealing. They lacked pizazz, but one bite was all it took to change my mind. The meat was actually very succulent. The bread wasn’t overly toasted, so the edges didn’t scratch up my mouth. I found that the frizzled onions added some texture and paired well with the garlic aioli.

BAR 94 Dip

It’s hard to go wrong with dip and chips. The BAR 94 Dip was no exception. Theirs consisted of shaved brussels, roasted red pepper, cream cheese, and Parmesan in a skillet. The consistency was nice with a rich flavour, and it was easy to scoop up with the accompanying crispy tortillas. Although, I wouldn’t exactly call the chips crispy per say. They looked more like wonton chips as they had a puffy quality to them. Despite that, they lacked any crunch. I’m not complaining, however. I quite liked them that way. If I have them again, I’m not sure they’ll turn out the same. This could have been a one off situation for all I know.

Power Play Perogies

I was pleasantly surprised by the Power Play Perogies. I had pictured something more like what I could pick up at the grocery store with those thick shells and the pasty potato filling. These were a thousand times better. Think of pillowy pan-fried gnocchi pasta, except huge and filled with potato cheddar. They were then covered with sour cream, caramelized onions, and added bacon ($3). Super savoury and a great value for the money.

Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese

One of my go-to plates at LUX has always been the Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese. It’s one of their signature items and for good reason. They’ve elevated a comfort dish to a new level by combining the everyman’s pasta with Atlantic lobster, shaved truffle and plenty of Parmesan. Admittedly, I ordered this more for myself. My friend is allergic to lobster, so I knew I was going to be the only one eating it, and I intended to take the leftovers home for my boyfriend to enjoy. This appetizer is worth every penny in my books.

For dessert, my friend chose the Home Made Pie (blackberry). The price changes based on the market price of the filling used. It was good. Not overly sweet. Yet, I would liken it to a tart since it was much thinner than a typical pie. I went with the Carrot Cake. The huge slice of spiced cake sat in a pool of delicious Maker’s Mark bourbon caramel and was topped with cream cheese icing and candied pecans. This was delectable, but I was only able to have a small portion before going into a sugar coma. I’d recommend finding someone to split this one with.

Not to be outdone by this meal, I ended up at BAR 94 for the second time in a month. This time I was there with a couple of my more currently beloved co-workers. It happened to be a Thursday (handcrafted two ounce cocktails for $8), so I chose what I believe was called a Hartley’s Lemonade. I didn’t love it. It came across as a bit acrid after each sip. Nevertheless, my second cocktail, the Tropical Sangria, completely made up for it.

That night, we opted for the ‘Bucket of Bones’ ($15) and two servings of the Steakhouse Nachos ($16). If we’re talking about bang for the buck, I’d argue that the ‘Bucket of Bones’ (a.k.a. crispy rib tips) is a best bet. They were well-breaded and tastily seasoned with maple, cider vinegar, and fresh thyme. Regardless, it was those Steakhouse nachos that we relished. The fresh cut russet potato chips were individually layered with shredded beef short rib, shaved aged cheddar, jalapenos, and house made salsa. Each piece had exactly the right amount of toppings, and the ranch dip was a perfect way to cool down any heat from the pepper. There just weren’t enough of them in a single order. Hence, the need to have a second helping. At regular price, it wouldn’t the most practical way to spend one’s hard-earned money. On the other hand, when shared during happy hour, it’s somewhat justifiable.

Needless to say, I’m on the BAR 94 bandwagon once again. With food that rarely disappoints and specials that are easy on the wallet, it’s going to remain one of my top picks for downtown happy hour.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Milestones

Milestones Original Bellinis

I can’t exactly recall when Milestones first entered the restaurant scene in Edmonton. It has likely been at least a decade or close to. What I do remember is that my favourite dishes were once the signature Portobello Mushroom Chicken and the White Chocolate Cheesecake (that sauce!), both of which still hold a place on the menu today.

Despite all the love I had for the chain back then, I have to admit that the quality of the food has become a bit lackluster. It’s just not quite the same as it used to be, and, overall, much better, more consistently made food can be found at other casual dining establishments such as Cactus Club, Earls Kitchen + Bar, or Joey Restaurant. Regardless, I continue to visit from time to time.

Monday Girls’ Night Out Menu

The best reason for going can be summed up in four words: Monday Girls’ Night Out. The gist of the package is that four people can dine for forty dollars. It consists of one Milestones Original Bellini per person ($7.50 each) as well as four appetizers to be shared among the group. I believe the special is available from 4:00pm until close. There’s a list of seven starters to choose from. Some are relatively inexpensive on the regular menu, so I always opt for the ones that provide the best value. Of late, that includes the Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip ($13.95), Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter ($13.25), Coconut Calamari ($13.95), and Asian Chicken Bites ($13.95). Essentially, everything can be had for more than half off the usual price, making it a total steal. Also, as far as I know, for the guys, there is a male version of the deal that comes with a pitcher of beer instead of the Bellinis, although it might be best to ask ahead.

My boyfriend and I went on our own a few months ago to take advantage of this offering and the staff could have rolled us out the door by the end of our meal. The amount of food is kind of deceiving, but don’t be fooled. There’s definitely enough to feed two pairs of people without ordering anything extra.

When we were there in September (and again this month), our Bellinis were brought out without delay. One thing I always enjoy are the animal-shaped drink toppers. Typically, it’s a mix of different figures. In November, they placed little reindeer atop the mountain of Bellini slush. I found that to be quite festive.

Asian Chicken Bites

Our food arrived shortly after. Visually, they all looked appealing; however, I’ll begin with the Asian Chicken Bites. These were pretty ubiquitous at one point in time. Almost all of the casual eateries were serving some iteration of this plate. Milestones has stuck with it though. Why mess with a decent thing, right? The bites of chicken are well-breaded, the crisp wonton chips add extra crunch, and the cucumber is refreshing in the midst of all the sweet chili sauce. It’s pretty satisfying and at least it provides some protein as part of this dinner.

Hot Spinach & Artichoke Dip

The majority of chain restaurants also tend to serve some form of dip. Milestones does a Hot Spinach & Artichoke version. I find theirs to be a bit runnier than others. Yet, it still holds up okay, and the artichokes aren’t pulverized too much; there are still some sizable chunks of the veggie, which is how I like it. With the dip, they serve red and white tortilla chips. Those are always crispy, if a tad too salty.

Coconut Calamari

Moving along to the calamari, this is actually a very tasty dish. What is disappointing about it is the fact that the squid is clearly processed. I understand the reasoning behind using a meat that is prepared in this way. After all, one of the main complaints diners often have about calamari is that it’s overcooked and rubbery. Well, rest assured because at Milestones, this won’t be a problem. The calamari strips are all super tender with a sponge-like mouthfeel. It’s just not the same as fresh octopus. Nevertheless, the way the kitchen marinates it in coconut and fries it to a golden brown makes it more than edible. The bed of crisp rice noodles and mango chili dipping sauce add dimension in terms of texture and flavour.

Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter

Out of the four appetizers, the best is definitely the Mediterranean Goat Cheese Platter. It comes with slices of toasted focaccia bread (soft in the center), a mound of warm goat cheese topped with red pepper relish, a side of roasted garlic cloves, a pot of fig jam, and a pile of arugula. I like this starter since it’s possible to customize each slice of bread to one’s preferences. I’m an all in type of gal, so I start with a thick layer of the goat cheese and red pepper relish. Then I crush the roasted garlic and spread that on with some fig jam, and, at the end, I lay down some leaves of arugula. For it’s simplicity, it’s actually really decadent. The variety of flavours, along with the richness of the cheese and bread, is to die for.

With that said, I give Milestones a passing grade. I’ve been a customer for about ten years now. While I can’t say whether or not the south Edmonton location has improved as I haven’t been in some time, I will state that the one on 171 Street and 100 Avenue is more comfortable and the service is usually quite good (it’s never busy when I’m there). If anything, Milestones can be a relatively affordable place to catch up with friends. It’s truly hard to find another venue where approximately twelve dollars will buy a drink and food, tax and tip included. For that alone, Milestones can’t be beat on a Monday night.