Edmonton Restaurant Review: Riverbank Bistro (St. Albert)

Dessert in the form of Key Lime Pie!

After a day out at the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival in August, Kirk and I decided to treat ourselves to dinner out. Instead of sticking around the busy area of Old Strathcona, we made the trek over to Riverbank Bistro in St. Albert. I’d read recent praise about the restaurant, which opened up inside the Victorian-Style house situated on Mission Avenue last fall, and I wanted to try it.

We showed up for our OpenTable reservation early (at about a quarter to 5:00pm), so I snapped some photos of the building and the interior of the house before we went inside. Interesting to note is that Riverbank Bistro also has a lounge serving a very different bites menu; however, it’s completely cutoff from the restaurant. The lounge actually has a different door on the right hand side of the foyer, accessible when you enter the building. The door to the left takes you into the main dining room.

The dining room is through a door on the left.

Upon our arrival we were greeted immediately. Although we could have requested to sit outside on the patio that overlooks the Sturgeon River, we ended up seated at a table for two inside. Personally, I believe we made the right choice seeing as how a couple that had originally opted to dine outside ended up shifting indoors. It sounded like the bugs were invading.

Prior to our visit, I had perused the Riverbank Bistro menu online. The list of classic items had an elevated air to them, and I was excited to sink my teeth into their offerings. What I didn’t realize was that on Sundays, the only menu they have available is their Sunday Feature Menu. It’s a two-course dinner that includes a starter and an entrée for $28.95 per person. While I’m all for the price, I was a tad disappointed that it was our only option. The menu provides four appetizers and three mains to choose from. My singular hope was that the chef had selected the best from their menu to showcase every Sunday.

If anything, the lack of choice made our decisions that much faster. Kirk decided on the Caesar Salad (normally $14) and the Roast AAA Alberta Beef Prime Rib (not on the usual menu). I ordered the R.B.B. Soup Creation (regularly $8) and the Pan Seared Salmon Fillet ($27 on its own). I also began my meal with a Mission Ave Mule ($13).

Caesar Salad

For the Caesar Salad, the kitchen refrained from chopping the romaine hearts. Instead, they cut them lengthwise, laying them open and then piling on the dressing, focaccia croutons, shaved Asiago, crispy capers, and grape tomatoes. To finish things off, it was topped with a grilled lemon slice. The juices from that created a charred acidity. I appreciated that the appropriate amount of dressing was used. More often than not, salads either have too much or too little dressing. In the case of Riverbank Bistro it was just right for me. Plus, the ample cheese helped. What kind of gave the Caesar salad a twist was the addition of those grape tomatoes, bringing a pop of tang and sweet here and there.

Roast AAA Alberta Beef Prime Rib

The Roast AAA Alberta Beef Prime Rib was decent. The meat looked to be cooked to a proper medium or medium rare. Yet, I found it to be a bit dry in spots. The rosemary jus was flavourful though, and the smashed potatoes were buttery. I kind of wish there had been more potato. Although, I suppose with a side of Yorkshire pudding, there was already enough starch to go around. Speaking of the Yorkshire pudding, Kirk called it his dessert. Most days he prefers salt to sugar, and I have to agree that Riverbank Bistro’s version is good. It had a crisp outer shell and a fluffy interior with a slight chew, ideal for soaking up leftover gravy. The roasted carrots and turnips were prepared nicely as well.

R.B.B. Soup Creation

The R.B.B. Soup Creation changes all the time, but boy did I luck out that weekend! The chef had made a creamy potato Asiago soup with caramelized onion and bacon. In my opinion, when it comes to soups, I can take or leave a broth. I’m all about an amazing cream soup, and this one was luxurious, to say the least. It was surprisingly smooth. Whatever they did to puree the potatoes, they were undetectable in terms of texture. It was warm, thick and creamy all the way down to the last drop. The flavours of the cheese, onions and bacon melded together perfectly. I’d go back to Riverbank Bistro simply for this.

Pan Seared Salmon Fillet

My main of Pan Seared Salmon Fillet was passable. I will give them props for the fish itself. The cut was large and it was pan seared so that none of the moisture was lost. The fish was succulent and flaky without falling apart too easily. I’m not entirely certain as to how it was seasoned. If I had to guess, I think it was simple salt and pepper with some maple syrup as it looked lightly caramelized on the top. What I wasn’t a huge fan of was the base of the dish, which consisted of an herbed spaetzle along with a bacon and corn succotash. I found the dill heavy handed and the overall taste saltier than I would like. While bites of the noodles seemed to help tone down the brininess, it was still a lot for my palate to take.

Mission Ave Mule

What really assisted with washing away the salt was my Mission Ave Mule. It’s a typical mule cocktail mix with vodka, lime, and ginger. Riverbank Bistro took it up a notch by adding in blueberry. I could clearly taste the fruit in the beverage with every sip, but they also decorate the top of the drink with frozen blueberries as an extra touch. My only wish is that for $13 it came in a bigger cup. I really had to savour that drink slowly.

Key Lime Pie

To cap off our dinner, we decided to share the Key Lime Pie ($10) for dessert. This was plated beautifully on a large white backdrop with colourful dollops of puree and pieces of fruit. It was creative and playful. The pie was delicious with a filling that leaned towards creamy instead of spongy. It was smooth and had a pleasant zestiness. The crust was also different from a basic pie since they incorporated coconut into it giving it a toasty flavour that married well with the key lime.

Despite the initial revelation that their regular menu was not available on Sunday, it turned out to be a pretty good meal. It gave the two of us an idea of the potential that lies in Riverbank Bistro. With the mains, maybe they just had more of an off night since I do believe that improvements are needed. But, wow, did they do a great job with things like their appetizers and dessert. I also think that the service was excellent (aside from one forgetful moment where we were brought our bill prior to our dessert coming out). We’re definitely willing to give Riverbank Bistro another shot as long as we visit on a Tuesday to Saturday instead.

Edmonton Business Review: Awake Coffee House

The cafe side of Awake Coffee House.

I’ve been on a bit of a coffeehouse kick lately. They’re just really great places to go for meetings, and, since I’ve had many a get together over the past month, it’s ideal to have multiple options. One that I visited recently is called Awake Coffee House. Located at 11029 9 Avenue, it’s easily accessible for those on the south side. If coming from the Henday, just exit on 111 Street heading north, and it’ll be the first turn on the right hand side.

When my fiancé and I drove up to the building on a Saturday afternoon, it was incredibly quiet. The parking lot only had a few cars in it. We also immediately noted that it was attached to Twin Brooks Medical Clinic. Upon walking into the actual coffee shop, I did take in the clean, modern space of the cafe, but I also thought that the pharmacy on the other side was a bit odd.

The spacious seating area separates the cafe from the pharmacy on the other side.

The medical clinic has a door that connects into Awake Coffee House, so that patients can easily come in and put through their prescriptions. While that’s convenient, I have to say I’m not super keen on hanging out in a cafe where there’s greater potential of people who have succumb to illness hanging out there. Yet, that is apparently a strategic business decision of the Song sisters who own both the cafe and the pharmacy. As registered pharmacists, they wanted a more welcoming spot for people to wait as their prescriptions were being prepared. While I see it from their side, it’s not exactly my cup of tea.

I really liked the touches of mint/teal throughout.

Luckily, it was pretty empty that day. We were able to sit almost anywhere we wanted to. Some of the tables were more communal. Others were smaller and could be grouped should that be required. They have a suitable selection of beverages. In my case, I ordered a Small Chai Latte ($5), which was presented in a larger than expected simple teal mug. I found that to be a nice touch since the colour matched the rest of the design scheme seen throughout Awake Coffee House — greys on the floor, natural woods on the tables and counter, whites on the seats and lights, and teal/mint on the stools and chair bottoms.

Small Chai Latte

I’ve read mixed reviews about the drinks served at Awake Coffee House with the majority of the negative coming from around the time they opened over a year ago. Most people cited watered down beverages. This was my first and only visit so far; however, based on my Chai Latte, I think they’ve made improvements because it was really good. Not only was the size decent for the price (most places charge a similar amount for this beverage), but it was incredibly flavourful. They certainly didn’t skimp when preparing the latte. It also had a pleasant amount of foam action on the top and they dusted it with an extra helping of spice before serving, adding to the overall taste once it was all stirred in.

There’s a wall of greeting cards near the door.

Awake Coffee House also makes bubble waffles on the weekend! I refrained from getting one this last time. Nevertheless, it’s on my list of things to try when we return. I have my eye on the dessert style Pina Colada Bubble Waffle that I saw on their Instagram page a while ago, so I hope they keep it on the menu. Although I probably won’t be back super often, when and if I do go, I’ll probably stick to weekend afternoons, especially Sundays when the clinic isn’t open. For a germaphobe like me, it’s just preferable. Otherwise, there’s no denying that Awake Coffee House is super cute, and the idea behind it is certainly commendable.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Blowers & Grafton

Relaxing with a pint at Blowers & Grafton.

Driving down Whyte Avenue earlier this summer, I noticed the facade of a new establishment called Blowers & Grafton (10550 82 Avenue). Touting itself as a place for Halifax Street Food, I was immediately excited since Kirk is from New Brunswick and I had a hunch that he’d like it. Nonetheless, at the time, it was put on the back burner. Then, fast forward about a month when we decided to meet up with some friends for a bite to eat over the first weekend of the 37th Annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. This ended up being our pick of the day.

Blowers & Grafton has a casual space with a distinctly East Coast feel.

We arrived just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday. The place was about three-quarters full and we managed to get seated right away. It’s actually quite a nice space with tables spread out well, so customers aren’t draped over each other. There’s a distinctly vintage rustic industrial design with open ceilings, original beams, brick, lots of stained woods, Edison bulbs screwed into pipes, warehouse-style pendant lighting, and upholstered metal stools. The only shots of colour in the place come from the reddish faux brick walls and a faded denim shade as seen on the seats and towards the back of the pub. To decorate, they’ve hung historic photographs of Halifax throughout. As our friends mentioned, the Edmonton location is much better than the initial hole in the wall built in Calgary. Overall, it’s comfortable and it immediately feels like a decent hang out spot.

So, for those who aren’t aware, Blowers & Grafton is a famous intersection in Halifax otherwise known as Pizza Corner. It laid claim to the name due to the number of shops that populated each quarter of the crossing streets. I’ve only been there once before and, if I recall, it’s no longer overrun with pizza. Although, other snacks like poutine may give the pies a run for their money. Both of those items are definitely on offer here, along with donairs, fish n’ chips, clams, scallops, and mussels.

The elusive B&G bottles. They’re hoping to stock these here as well. These were just a treat from the owner.

They have made a concerted effort to stock East Coast beers for half of their taps; however four of the six are standards like Alexander Keith’s and Moosehead. The rest of the options are Canadian brews with two coming from Alberta. This includes a B&G Wheat ($6.50) created specifically for Blowers & Grafton, likely by Minhas Micro Brewery out of Calgary as that company also created their standard bottled lager, which is currently only served at the Calgary location. NOTE: Happy Hour drink specials happen Monday to Friday from 3pm to 6pm and Sunday to Thursday from 9pm to close. Check my YEG Food Deals page for details.

The Bluenoser Cocktail

They also have an adequate cocktail list from which I selected The Bluenoser (our lovely server suggested it). In a mason glass was mixed a vodka base with St-Germain liqueur to give it a hint of elderflower. Additionally, flavours of lemon, lavender, blueberry and mint made up the remainder of the recipe. Honestly, considering the short cup, it didn’t seem to consist of two ounces of alcohol; this beverage was incredibly drinkable. I absolutely recommend stirring it up before sipping on it though. It’ll ensure that all of the ingredients meld together to create a full profile. Otherwise, it can be rather bland at first.

Foodwise, Kirk had his heart set on the Garlic Fingers ($13.50) with Bacon Bits ($2). I chose the Mini Lobster Rolls ($22). Our friends went for the Garlic Fingers (a group with three Maritimers cannot share a single order peacefully), too, and they added a basket of Brothers Fried Pepperoni on the side ($13).

I’ll admit, whenever Kirk raves about the almighty garlic finger from back home, I wonder what the big deal is. Hasn’t he ever heard of the cheesy bread found on the majority of menus at pizza shops galore? But, I digress. Yes, the Garlic Fingers are delicious (especially when fresh out of the oven). They take their homemade pizza dough and smother it in garlic butter and mozzarella cheese. You really can’t go wrong with a dish like that. What I think differentiates East Coast garlic fingers from anything similar is probably the sweet donair sauce provided for dipping. Blowers & Grafton does a good job and I’ve been told that they’re Kirk approved.

Mini Lobster Rolls

In my mind, the Mini Lobster Rolls could use a bit of improvement. These were comprised of decently sized pieces of real Atlantic Lobster tossed with mayo, lemon and fresh dill. I thought the mayo was a little light handed and I wasn’t a huge fan of the bed of tasteless slaw that the lobster sat on. It also didn’t need lobster butter on top. What was done right was the searing of the mini buns in butter. As for the sides, there were only two choices that didn’t require an extra cost: fries or chips. I opted for the latter. They were crispy and delicious and served with a basic ketchup. All in all, these were alright. Yet, for the quality and amount of food I received I can’t really justify the high price. If they had wowed me, maybe. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Brothers Fried Pepperoni

Surprisingly, I think the Brothers Fried Pepperoni was the best thing I sampled from the Blowers & Grafton menu. The portion size was generous, the sausage was sliced thick, it wasn’t as greasy as I expected, and it came with a delicious honey mustard that was made in-house. While we went with the mild pepperoni, it’s available hot as well. Keep in mind though, the mild was still relatively spicy (nothing crazy, but there was a noticeable kick of heat).

Blueberry Grunt Donuts

Finally, it was time for a sweet finish. The only dessert they make is their Blueberry Grunt Donut ($1.50 each). A tad larger than a Timbit, it is relatively easy to fit in at least one at the end of a meal. The deep fried pastry dough was drizzled in blueberry grunt compote and maple syrup dulce de leche. It’s kind of rich because of the syrup, but with such a small dose, it’s manageable and worth it.

Before we left, we had a chat with a couple of the owners. They’re both extremely friendly and they were happy to discuss the expansion from Calgary to Edmonton. In fact, it’s going so well that they hope to make it even bigger down south. It never occurred to me before, but I suppose East Coast eats are a thing and there is a large enough customer base looking for this type of menu — a memory of home — in the Prairies. Being one of the first to bring Maritime street food here, Blowers & Grafton may just corner the market in the west.

Edmonton Business Review: Escape City

Friends and escape rooms = fun!

I’ve been hooked on escape rooms ever since they were initially introduced to Edmonton back around 2014. I lapped them up and I would go on gaming sprees, usually dragging along a newbie or two. When we left, they were addicted as well. For those who don’t yet know, an escape room is an immersive experience whereby a group is “locked” in a themed room and they have to work together to solve riddles, clues and puzzles in order to breakout. They typically range between 45 to 60 minutes in length and cost about $25 per person to play.

About a year after I delved into that world, more businesses in this vein finally started to pop up, including one of my all time faves, Escape City. Located on 59 Avenue and 104 Street (Calgary Trail), it’s tucked away in the corner of an old strip mall. Walking through the doors, there has always been someone sitting behind the counter to greet patrons. Otherwise, it’s a very minimalist space with white walls, a couple of long benches, and cabinets for lockers. A large bulletin board next to the till showcases the teams who have broken out of their rooms in record time (Note: the times listed are remaining minutes in the game, not total minutes played). On the opposite side of the room is an accent wall with “Escape City” scrawled in red, which is great for photo ops.

It’s ideal to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your allotted time to ensure everyone has a chance to pay and sign the waivers (if you’ve played here before, they do keep them on file, so you don’t have to sign it again). As with any other escape room place, you are not to bring in any of your belongings. Phones, especially, should be locked away as it’s all too easy to cheat or make the game easier with them on hand. Plus, it’s important that photos aren’t shared of the room and its puzzles because the whole point of playing is to be challenged. Where’s the fun in knowing in advance what’s going to happen?

When the team is ready to go, a staff member will lead the way. They’ll present the house rules: no lifting carpets, no pulling on things that are nailed down, no climbing, etc. Then, a video introduction is played before the countdown starts and the game begins.

As an early subscriber to Escape City’s newsletter, I was invited to beta test for them. The very first room I got to experience was Keller’s Magic Emporium. At the time, I didn’t realize it was rated as their easiest room. Admittedly, I found it to be too quick to work through as we got out with probably 20 minutes to spare on an available 45 minutes (sometimes I don’t care about breaking a record; I just want to be entertained for as long as possible while still breaking out). What I did like was that they found a way to personalize the game a bit. Everything was quite linear, and the design was superb. They utilized some locks in the room, but there were a lot of other styles of puzzles, too. This one is best for beginners.

A taste of The Cabin. Photo courtesy of Escape City.

My second go at one of their rooms was with The Cabin. This was a well-though-out game and our group was literally a minute away from solving the whole thing. Alas, we failed, but it was very close. While it is considered to be one of the more difficult challenges at Escape City, I believe our ultimate downfall with this particular room was the size of the space and the number of players. Most of the time I struggle to get more than four or five people to come out. In this case, I recall having seven or eight in all. With limbs everywhere, visuals were blocked, hindering our ability to fully grasp everything we were supposed to see. My recommendation with the majority of places I’ve been is to have no more than six people.

Room number three at Escape City was The Inheritance. I’d only just started dating Kirk at the time. He was so enamoured with The Cabin that, on a whim as we were passing by one night, he decided we should zip into the front doors an hour before closing to ask if we could play an impromptu game. The staff was happy to oblige. I feel like we used a lot of hints (you can have up to two, if you want your time to count towards their rankings; otherwise, you can have as many as needed). But, what do you expect when you only have two brains trying to decipher stuff like this at 10 o’clock in the evening? We managed though. There were a couple of puzzles that we solved without doing it the way the room was planned (it happens on occasion). We also wouldn’t have gotten out within the actual 45 minutes. Thankfully, the employees working that night were nice enough to give us extra time. It’s been designated with a three out of five star difficulty rating and I think that’s a fair assessment.

Adventure four was The Great Discovery. It’s no longer running, but this one had a lab storyline and made sure to encourage the use of multiple senses in order to solve the puzzles. Our team worked well together as each person brought something to the table, and we felt really accomplished when we escaped this room.

The Hunt for Arms Magee (previously known as Quarterback Sneak) was the fifth room played at Escape City. It’s also classified as middle of the road in terms of the overall challenge. I have to say though, this was most likely my least favourite out of the handful of games we’d played here at this point. I didn’t think the quality of the room itself or the production value was as high as the others. Mainly in the first half (the second portion had a fun element), the premise felt silly and oversimplified in comparison. This room was a joint effort between Escape City and Explore Edmonton. It was originally meant to tie into the Grey Cup and pitted the idea of the Edmonton Eskimos against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I thought they just tried way too hard to tie in Edmonton elements. They’re best left to making rooms where the imaginations of the designers aren’t hindered by the tourism board’s vision.

We excelled at Neurological! Also, this is apparently my lucky shirt.

Approximately ten months later, I finally found an excuse to go back. This time, we were celebrating Escape City’s third birthday (August 2018). It’s crazy to think that they’ve graced us with their presence for this long and even weirder to realize I hadn’t played any escape rooms in over half a year. We tried our hand at Neurological, one of their hardest. I’ve been told by many people who tackled it before me to go with a large group (eight to ten). In the end, I managed to wrangle together a total of five people. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned that we didn’t have enough brain power. Turns out, that worry was unnecessary. We demolished this room! Unlike the others, you start with 60 minutes on the timer, and we completed it with 11 minutes left to go. This one splits the team up at the beginning and the goal is to come back together to alight all the senses. It required clear communication and a lot of teamwork to succeed. We were told at the end that only 14 per cent of of the people who play this one break out, so we felt like superstars.

For those that want to hang out a little longer, you can either get there early or stay for a bit at the end and commiserate over a drink because, surprisingly, Escape City does sell cans of beer and a few other non-alcoholic beverages. Basically, it’s a great option for parties of any kind. While I’m not likely to throw a shindig here myself, they sure do know how to reel me back in. Seeing as how I had pretty much tackled all of their rooms, I wasn’t expecting to be return again any time soon. But, lo and behold, for their anniversary, they’ve just launched a new one called Frank’s Revenge about an uncle looking to even the score. If I have my way, curse be damned. Our winning streak has to live on! I’ll be back with friends in tow!

Edmonton Business Review: The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery

It’s hard to miss The Colombian when driving west on Stony Plain Road.

Today, I thought I’d give a shout out to The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery. Those who know me well may be wondering why I’d be so bold as to write about a coffee shop when I don’t actually drink the beverage. Yet, this relatively new business is located in my old neighbourhood of Glenora and I thought I’d shine a light on it. Situated on 134 Street and Stony Plain Road, it sits right next to Vi’s for Pies, an area favourite.

When Kirk and I arrived at The Colombian on a Sunday afternoon, they were just a couple of hours away from closing up for the day. The place was packed with the majority of tables already taken. It’s a very long, narrow space, and they’ve done a pretty good job with it, so it doesn’t feel tight and claustrophobic. The high, open ceilings painted white definitely help. Otherwise, it’s pretty basic with minimal colours, simple wooden tables, chairs and benches, and industrial style pendant lighting.

The narrow space of The Colombian’s interior.

Once we ordered our drinks and my snack, we, at first, sat along a bench that faces their store shelves. T-shirts, cups, and bags of their house roasted coffee were up for grabs. It was sort of an awkward spot though. With tiny built-in tables, it kind of reminded me of the pop-up desks found in auditorium classrooms throughout university. Eyeing an empty back corner with a bench and a big tree stump table, we made a beeline for that instead.

Although there is a decent amount of seating in The Colombian, I don’t believe it’s necessarily meant to be comfortable. The solid benches are hard and most of the chairs are more like miniature stools without backs, offering little to no upper body support. Maybe that’s on purpose. Maybe it was just a cost saver. Regardless, I got the sense that the setting was more conducive to quick stays.

Drip Coffee and a Chai Latte ready to go, if needed.

Still, I enjoyed our time there and would be very interested to see how their coffee is made (the back of the shop is cordoned off and that is where they roast). Kirk ordered a simple Drip Coffee ($3.75 for a large). It smelled lovely, but he admitted he overdid it on the milk and sugar, so the true flavour was masked. Therefore, I can’t even give a proper second hand account of the coffee. From what I’ve read of other reviews, they have plenty of fans, so I’d recommend trying them out for yourself, if there’s an opportunity to go.

I sampled their Chai Latte ($5.50 for a large). It’s somewhat pricey; however, it was brewed and mixed with the milk well. Served at the perfect temperature for me, I thought the spices they used were super flavourful. They even garnished the light foam with extra cinnamon to give it some added oomph. I appreciated that as a serious cinnamon lover.

For those who are just hanging out with friends and would prefer something stronger, they offer a few draughts on tap and house wine. The options are few, but at least they are there.

As for the food, I’ve heard that they make a mean avocado toast. Personally, I’m a a tad weary to order it because there’s cilantro in the recipe, and I don’t want to throw $7 down the drain if I end up disliking it. Yet, anyone who doesn’t mind cilantro should give it a shot and let me know what they think.

The Pain au Chocolat was delectable.

Alternatively, I opted for a Pain au Chocolat ($3.60). It was freaking delicious and I had to ask where they came from. The answer was that they are baked in-house daily, but the pastries themselves are made in France. The company that prepares them flash freezes the dough before shipping them out to their vendors. They tasted fresh as if I bought it at a bakery in Paris. The pastry was soft and just a bit flaky, so everything still held together with each bite. The dark chocolate was divine, too. I’m not sure if the rest of their pastries are made in this manner as well. Either way, eat them all because I’m fairly certain they’ll be just as wonderful.

Part way through our time there, a server brought over a couple glasses of water for us. I thought that was a nice touch as we didn’t ask for anything. When I looked around, I noticed that they had done the same with everyone else. Talk about service! Before we left, one of the owners even popped by to do refills.

The coffee bar inside The Colombian.

The Colombian is most definitely a fantastic addition to Glenora. This is a neighbourhood that is pretty devoid of local cafes. Short of going another ten blocks to the east on 124 Street or about nine blocks in the opposite direction to 143 Street, there isn’t anything else like it in the vicinity. If our brief visit was any indication, The Colombian will be a staple here. I lost count of the number of people who came in and out in the hour we were there, and that’s a really great sign.