Edmonton Restaurant Review: Montana’s BBQ & Bar

Plaid for lunch at Montana’s seemed appropriate.

I’ve never put much thought towards the Montana’s BBQ & Bar restaurant chain. There are four locations that dot the south side of the city and two relatively close to my home. Yet, for some reason, they never really appealed to me.

I’m going to chalk that up to the fact that I didn’t grow up going camping or lodging, so the very rustic cabin atmosphere didn’t seem to lend itself to the idea of a great meal out. However, my boyfriend had mentioned time and again to me that Montana’s makes some pretty good wings. Plus, I just happened to get a coupon in the mail.

We ended up going to the South Edmonton Common branch for lunch on the August holiday Monday. We arrived just as they opened and one of the servers greeted us before she walked us to a booth nearby a few other customers.

The interior of the South Edmonton Common Montana’s location.

My first impression was that the joint was just as I imagined it would be. High ceilings with wooden beams (essentially wood everywhere), a stone fireplace, mounted animal heads, classic truck facades and a full-size canoe were among the decor choices I noticed.

Crayons and kraft paper provide entertainment at the table.

All of those things truly set a tone. Although, I don’t know that they scream barbecue. Either way, I didn’t actually mind it. The casual setting is great for a family outing, especially if one has children. We don’t have kids, but the kraft paper placemat that covered the entire table and the cup of crayons provided are arguably entertaining for adults as well.

Going in, the only thing I knew we were ordering was a basket of the Double Dusted Chicken Wings ($13.79, but half price on Mondays). Otherwise, we had some decisions to make. Between the two of us, we finally settled on the lunchtime Reuben Sandwich ($15.99) and Mac ‘N Cheese ($11.99).

Double Dusted Chicken Wings

The wings didn’t take long to make their way out from the kitchen. The reason why my boyfriend enjoys them so much is because there’s a lot of meat. I have to say that he was right. The wings themselves were larger than what might be found elsewhere. The only thing is that these orders only have eight wings each. Other restaurants often serve wings by weight and instead of eight wings, there might be ten to twelve instead. It balances out. Also, even with half price wings when we went, they still work out to be almost $7. Compare that to Tuesday night at Original Joe’s where a whole plate of wings comes to $4.50, and I’d probably be more inclined to go to the latter. In any case, I tend to prefer wings that are cooked with dry rubs, so these were quite messy. But, the texture was okay (still slightly crispy despite all the sauce) and the medium flavour was savoury, a little zesty and had a small kick of heat at the end. Reach dip also helped to tone down any spiciness, if needed. On a side note, I will commend Montana’s on their excellent sourcing of wet wipes, which are supplied to diners. They’re some of the best I’ve ever used.

Reuben Sandwich with Chippers

Moving along to our mains, my boyfriend is the one who chose the Reuben Sandwich. Smoked pastrami isn’t my favorite kind of meat. Yet, I’ll admit that it was quite good. I think it comes down to it being made in-house versus anything I’d get at the grocery deli. The meat was plentiful and succulent. Combined with mustard, thousand island dressing, sauerkraut and cheese, it proved more complex than I expected. Our main suggestion for improvement would be to grill the buttery marble rye a little longer to give the bread more texture and flavour. For his side, my boyfriend chose the chippers, which are fresh made potato chips sprinkled with dried dill seasoning and served with a dill dip. These were surprisingly good on their own. The potato slices were big, crunchy and non-greasy with a hint of the herb. Personally, I found the dip to be too strong, so I refrained from eating much of it.

Both of our entrees actually showed up about half way through our devouring of the wings. The server even apologized that everything came out at the same time. It didn’t matter so much for the sandwich, but it would have been nice to get the Mac ‘N Cheese a while later. I wanted to finish the wings before they got cold, but it meant that I was delayed getting to my pasta.

Mac ‘N Cheese with Caesar Salad & Cornbread

Thankfully, the macaroni and cheese came plated in a hot iron skillet. By the time I got to working on the dish, it could still be considered warm. I liked that Montana’s utilized cavatappi (corkscrew) pasta. The shape picked up more of the cheesy bacon and white wine cream sauce, locking in all the flavor. The whole thing was then baked with additional cheese until melted and golden brown. I do wish that there had been more crispy bacon tossed on top, but overall, this was a passable mac and cheese. If anything, this lunch-size version is a great value; included with the pasta is a side of Caesar salad (an appropriate amount of dressing for me) and in-house baked cornbread (sweet, moist, not too crumbly). The cost won’t break the bank and all three components of the meal are definitely filling enough.

Skillet Cookie

Now, we could certainly have skipped dessert that day, but the coupon I had on hand required a $40 purchase in order to receive a $10 discount, so we went for it. Montana’s provides several options in the sweets department. We ultimately decided on the classic Skillet Cookie ($6.99). First, I’ll say that it wasn’t quite what we were expecting. Our idea of a skillet dessert is that it’s made right in the pan itself. When the dish was delivered to our table, it looked like two already baked chocolate chip cookies had been sandwiched together with caramel in between and then placed into the skillet to be warmed. The dessert was then topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I did find it to be very sweet and I tapped out before it was finished. However, it wasn’t bad by any means. The cookies were soft and chewy with lots of melted chocolate. The semi-sweet chocolate chips probably even aided in balancing things out with a touch of bitterness.

So, is Montana’s BBQ & Bar going to be a place I visit regularly? Most likely not. Nevertheless, going forward, I won’t discount it either. Timing issues aside, the service we experienced was excellent at this particular spot, and the food, while not the best I’ve had, is of decent quality for the price.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: XO Bistro + Bar

Lunch time at XO Bistro + Bar.

XO Bistro + Bar opened in the Ice District late last year. Situated on the main floor of the new Ultima condo building on 103 Street and 102 Avenue, it’s not far from my downtown office.

Still in its infancy, I finally stopped by for lunch last month. When I showed up for my OpenTable reservation, my friend was already seated in one of the booths by the bar. The space isn’t all that big, but it’s modern in design and it looked like there were stairs by the doors that led up to a second level.

At one o’clock, it was pretty quiet. The lunch crowd must have already dissipated by that time of day. The server brought over some water and, after giving us a few minutes to check out the menu, she came back to take our orders.

The lunch menu is quite succinct with several appetizers and various iterations of Vietnamese pho, vermicelli and bowls as well as a handful of other options. The main difference between most simply came down to the toppings selected.

In our case, my friend chose the Combo 2 Rice Plate with Grilled Chicken and I decided on Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef and Grilled Chicken. Both dishes were served with a spring roll. The food was quickly prepared and we were able to eat without much delay.

Combo 2 with Rice, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

My friend’s plate looked nice with a dome-shaped portion of rice, two large pieces of grilled chicken and a side of julienned veggies. The server had dropped off a couple of sauce bottles along with our food, but neither was soy, so my dining companion had to track her down for that. Other than that minor hiccup, my friend enjoyed the meal.

I found my vermicelli to be very filling. There was actually a lot of food crammed into the bowl. I poured the entire amount of fish sauce provided into the noodles and attempted to mix everything together without losing anything over the sides of the dish. It was a bit difficult. However, I was happy with the overall portion size. Anything less and I may have been disappointed because it’s a bit pricier than other eateries that serve Vietnamese cuisine.

Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

Here, a bowl with one choice of protein and a spring roll cost about $17 after tax and tip. Whereas, places like Pho Hoan Pasteur and Delicious Pho are about $2 less and include a variety of toppings like grilled pork, chicken, beef, meatballs, shrimp and the spring roll, so there’s more value with the others. Regardless, the grilled beef and chicken at XO Bistro was flavoured well with lemongrass and had that lovely charred taste to it. It meat was thinly sliced, so it cooked quickly to the perfect texture and chew. The spring roll was also crisp on the outside and not too greasy.

Honestly, I’m not sure that the downtown lunch crowd is who they’re catering to. They seem to be more of a late night venue with a fun cocktail menu and bar bites, so I’d be inclined to come back to check that out another time.

Granted, that’s not to say it wouldn’t be worth trying XO Bistro + Bar on any other occasion. On the contrary. It was wonderful to be there when it was quieter and not too busy. Their service is decent. Plus, the food is tasty, albeit nothing that really differentiates it from other Vietnamese restaurants.

All-in-all, I think it comes down to convenience and preference. If I’m looking for somewhere stylish to eat this type of food in the downtown area, XO Bistro + Bar will probably be one of the first places to come to my mind. It’s also an ideal location for anyone popping by Rogers Place for any shows or games as it’s literally minutes away by foot.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: District Café & Bakery

District Café doesn’t always immediately come to mind as a place to go for supper. When it was first opened, it was a tiny coffee shop with little room for patrons to stick around. Yet, since expanding into a full-service eatery, it has become a much more welcoming bright and airy space for guests to linger over an all-encompassing menu of food and drinks.

Prior to this past week, I’d only ever visited for drinks and snacks with friends. Therefore, I was eager to have a complete meal on this particular occasion. Although District Café is known for their tasty brunch, I’d argue that the latest dinner menu from chef Spencer Thompson (previously of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen) gives the day’s earlier items a run for their money.

My friend and I walked over to the restaurant right after work on a Friday afternoon. The sign at the door indicated that we could seat ourselves, so we headed straight in. The majority of the tables were already occupied. Thankfully, there were a couple of spots available towards the far side of the venue.

A frosty bottle of Jamaican Ginger Beer.

As soon as we sat down, a server brought glasses of water and some menus over. He also answered our questions about the evening’s specials. In the end, we decided to stick with non-alcoholic beverages. While my companion quenched her thirst with a glass of lemonade ($3.50), I opted for a bottle of the Jamaican Ginger Beer ($3; spice that lingers in your throat!). We also selected the Roast Eggplant ($13) as an appetizer to share.

The Roast Eggplant is an ideal starter to split. It came with four slices of lightly toasted focaccia that had been brushed with olive oil. Rounds of salted eggplant, pieces of zucchini and halves of tomatoes lingered next to a dollop of house made ricotta. When I think about it, it’s really such a straightforward plate, but it’s done so well. All of the veggies were roasted to the perfect point. Combined with the creamy ricotta, my first assembled portion was to die for.

Hand Cut Pasta

Next up were the entrees. We’re big fans of fresh pasta, so it was a no-brainer for my friend. She went for the featured Hand Cut Pasta ($18) without any added meat. Large, broad, flat pappardelle noodles were evenly coated in a buttercream sauce and tossed with roasted walnuts, apple and arugula. I ate a mouthful of the pasta and it was unexpectedly refreshing and summery for what would typically be considered a denser dish. The merging of bitter arugula, sweet apple and nutty walnuts were a match made in heaven.

Flat Iron Steak

As a home cook (I doubt I should even call myself that), I often refrain from making dishes that have a meat component to them as I dislike handling the food. For that reason, when I indulge in a meal out, I tend to go for things I wouldn’t otherwise have on a regular basis. In this case, I chose the Flat Iron Steak ($20). Upon ordering, I indicated to the server that I would prefer the steak to be medium-rare. He let me know that the meat is prepared sous-vide, so they were unable to cook it exactly as requested. Nevertheless, he assured me that if I enjoy a medium-rare doneness, it would probably be to my satisfaction.

He certainly wasn’t wrong. In fact, the Flat Iron Steak came out just right. The meat was still pink in the middle and the pieces were succulent enough to cut through them with a butter knife. Generous helpings of steak were accompanied by a tomato arugula salad with roasted green beans, potatoes and radishes. Mint chimmichurri provided another element that helped to keep it seasonal to spring and summer.

Now, I’m sure we would have been okay leaving after those three satisfying dishes; however, I knew that I’d be kicking myself later if I didn’t have some dessert. Indeed, I had two. Okay, three, if you count the sampling I had of my friend’s cake.

Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread

The first was one of the bakery’s Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread cookies ($0.50). I’m not sure I loved the texture. I like shortbread to have that melt-in-your-mouth sensation. This one wasn’t quite as buttery, but the strong taste of lemon made up for that.

A big slice of Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake.

As far as cakes go, the Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake ($7) that my friend ordered was truly decadent. The layers of cake were unbelievably moist yet fluffy. It was rich in flavour and the frosting was sweet, but not overly so. It’s one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve eaten in a long time.

Where I think District Café’s pastry chef really excelled was with the Orange Blossom Pavlova ($10). The foundation of the dessert was a giant meringue cookie. In the center, it was filled with a thick layer of custard that was dotted by vanilla bean. A mix of fresh fruit (blueberries and peach this time) and sliced almonds decorated the top. Then it was dusted with powdered sugar and served with caramel sauce on the side. The edges of the meringue dissolved on the tongue; the middle of the cookie remained a bit chewy. Not only was it beautiful, it was sublimely delicious.

District Café has kept things simple and succinct. The menu caters to many while staying focused. Personally, I believe it’s better to do a dozen things exceptionally well than to do many things halfway. Here, at District Café, with the current chefs and their offerings, I’d say that they’ve managed to achieve the former.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Have Mercy Southern Table & Bar

The exterior of Have Mercy as seen from the patio.

Escape games and food are my jam. When my friends and I planned to try out the new Impulse Escape Rooms location on Whyte Avenue, we needed a nearby place that was certain to nourish our bellies and our brains. I’d been to El Cortez before; however, not to Have Mercy, their southern-style sister restaurant.

It was a quiet day for lunch at the eatery. When we walked into the kitschy venue, it was pretty empty. We were led to the deck found at the back door. That’s where a few other diners were already sitting. It’s not a large patio. Yet, it feels bigger because it overlooks the outdoor space occupied by El Cortez on street-level.

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Once we settled in, we carefully studied the menu while we snacked on complimentary pretzels and honey mustard. We also asked the server for some beverage suggestions. After taking the recommendations to heart, I opted for the Strathcona Sour ($12), a house libation. My friend decided to go with a non-alcoholic glass of their Sweet Tea ($4), and her husband went with a traditional Rattlesnake ($12) cocktail. The Sweet Tea was deliciously refreshing without being too sugary. Ultimately, we all ended up sharing another pitcher ($20), sans alcohol.

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For a cocktail, I enjoyed the Strathcona Sour. The bartender used a giant solid ice cube to ensure a slow melt and less dilution of the Buffalo Trace Bourbon, which gave the drink a kick. Clove syrup added a tinge of bitterness that was then offset by the acidity of fresh lemon juice and just a slight fruitiness from the blackberry punch. As good as the Strathcona Sour was, I think there’s a reason why the Rattlesnake is a classic. Using George Dickel Rye, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white and Herbsaint liquor, all of the ingredients melded so well. I especially like the use of egg white because it gives the drink a smoother consistency that helps it go down really easily.

Sweet Corn Hush Puppies

To get us started, when it came to the food, we chose to share an order of the Sweet Corn Hush Puppies ($9). A bowl of six puffy, golden brown fritters arrived to the table with two dipping sauces. They were hot, non-greasy and sprinkled with a bit of salt. I cut one open and saw that it was fluffy on the inside with a crisp exterior. What put this appetizer over the top was the buttermilk dill ranch sauce that’s made in-house. It provides a cooling sensation and a hint of dill that works with the sweet corn so well. Judging from the number of times the dip is listed as an accompaniment to the offerings on the menu, Have Mercy clearly knows they’ve got a good thing going.

Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs with Spicy Sugar Slaw and Braised Molasses Barbecue Beans

Turning to the main dishes, my boyfriend was talked into the full rack of Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs ($26). This was served with sides of spicy sugar slaw and braised molasses barbecue beans. Personally, I thought the beans were very flavourful; although, they were maybe a tad too soft. I prefer that beans have more bite. With barbecue, I like the beans to almost reach caramelization. I can’t say much about the spicy sugar slaw as I don’t think my boyfriend left any for me to taste. Nevertheless, he was generous enough to give me a rib. The meat was a little fatty, but tender. The dry rub kept the moisture inside the meat, so the pork pulled off the bone effortlessly and had a nice smoky infusion.

Clockwise from top: Chile Honey, Nashville Hot Rubbed and Crispy Salted Fried Chicken.

The rest of us all selected versions of the Fried Chicken and Donut: crispy salted, Chile honey and Nashville hot rubbed ($18 each). I was particularly disappointed with the slaw that took up a third of the plate; it just seemed like a mix of shredded cabbage and carrot. While it presents another layer of texture, the veggies lacked in flavour as there was no dressing applied. What this dish has going for it is the combination of crunchy fried chicken with a surprisingly airy donut in its most basic yeast-based honey glazed form. There’s just the right amount of glaze to give every bite of chicken a hit of sweetness. This is the more modern take on the ubiquitous chicken and waffle dish, and it’s now my way of quelling cravings for those Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken sandwiches that I ate in Chicago a year ago. As for the chicken itself, the crispy salted is like Have Mercy’s take on Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s pretty good, but it screamed for something else to elevate it. I had the Chile honey, which was certainly an improvement over the standard salted chicken. Granted, thinking about it after the fact, pairing sweet and sweet with the chicken and the donut was unnecessary. My favourite ended up being the saucy Nashville hot rubbed chicken. There was the perfect amount of heat to balance out the saccharinity of the donut.

I do wish that I had room for dessert as both the Caramel Pecan Donut Pudding and Buttermilk Lime Pie called to me. I thought better of it though. I’ll simply have to leave that for the next visit.

Old Strathcona isn’t an area I frequent often; however, there are so many fantastic restaurants that dot the area and I seem to have them on a rotation for when I am around. That being said, Have Mercy is definitely a place that is deserving of a spot in my catalogue, especially when I’m hankering for some southern comfort food.

See you again soon!