Edmonton Restaurant Review: iPho and Grill Vietnamese Cuisine

#91 Special Combination 5 Vermicelli Bowl

I was really waffling on what to eat and where to go for dinner last month. Ultimately, I picked iPho and Grill Vietnamese Cuisine located along Calgary Trail at 6104 104 Street. We showed up right around six o’clock on a Saturday night without a reservation, and we didn’t have any problems getting a table. It was busy when we arrived though. A number of the tables were already occupied, including one with a large group of about ten people. It meant service was a tad slow, but thankfully, we weren’t in a rush to go anywhere else after. Despite the wait to order, the booth was comfortable and the space was new, clean and modern.

To drink, I ordered a Fresh Fruit Mango Bubble Tea ($4.45). Contrary to the name, the beverage doesn’t include any tapioca pearls in it for the base price, so you do have to add them for an extra cost ($0.75). I actually found that the mango tasted more artificially flavoured than fresh, but the consistency was smooth and there was a decent ratio of pearls to smoothie, so I didn’t run out of either before the other.

Fresh Fruit Mango Bubble Tea & Spring Rolls

As his starter, Kirk opted to go with an order of the Spring Rolls ($5.95). These rice paper wraps were freshly fried to a crunchy, thin, golden-brown and filled with a mix of ground meat, veggies, and vermicelli noodles. I didn’t eat any of his, but a couple of pieces came with my own food, and I thought that they were delicious. For the appetizer, they served the spring rolls with a side of fish sauce for dipping. Kirk wasn’t a fan of using it, but I think that the funky sweet, salty, and fishy taste married well to create a nice balance of flavours, amping up the spring roll ingredients.

Kirk’s main dish was the Specialty Chicken Noodle Soup ($10.95). He requested that they make it spicy for a dollar more. It would have been nice to try the broth before it was altered, just to see what it tasted like in a more pure form. All I can say is that the spicy version was HOT. The soup was piping temperature-wise, but the heat on the palate from the spice was even difficult for Kirk to handle. I had two spoonfuls of the broth and, while I enjoyed the flavour profile at first, it definitely kicked you in the throat at the end and the spice really lingered. Otherwise, I believe that the bowl could have used a little more of the chicken as there wasn’t a whole lot of meat, and the same goes for the noodles.

So much food in the #91 Vermicelli Bowl!

Whenever I go for Vietnamese, I usually turn to the vermicelli bowls and their Special Combination 5 (#91 on the menu; $15.45) didn’t disappoint. It had a well-portioned combination of noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce, cucumber, and carrot to form the base of the meal. It was topped off with copious amounts of grilled beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, and spring rolls. A small dish of fish sauce was provided to coat everything (I used all of it). The veggies were crisp and juicy, the noodles had a nice bite to them, and the meats were all prepared nicely. Occasionally, I find that the beef at other restaurants have a lot of tendon running through the pieces, making them chewier, but I didn’t have that issue here. The beef also had a distinct lemongrass flavour. The three meats were tender, and I was especially happy with the shrimp, which were surprisingly plump and perfectly seasoned. I devoured the whole bowl and went home very happy.

Once we were fully satiated, we head over to the counter to take care of our bill. I’m unsure whether or not they will take payment at the table, but we noticed a number of other patrons walking up to the till, so we did the same  thing. Overall, iPho and Grill was pretty good; however, if you aren’t certain that you can handle something truly spicy, you’ve been forewarned about their soups.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Izakaya O-Tori

Izakaya & Ramen

Last year, Edmonton was abuzz with news of a new Korean-Japanese fusion restaurant called Jang located at 11212 Jasper Avenue. They were getting rave reviews from visitors, and I fully intended on trying it out. But, before I knew it, the eatery had been replaced by a spot called Izakaya O-Tori. Being a fan of Japanese ramen and sharing plates, I decided to drop by during a recent date night.

From what the server told us, it turns out that the business is still run by the same people who launched Jang. They simply opted to change their menu. Because of what is now served, they also chose to rebrand with a different name to better reflect the updated items. Now, Izakaya O-Tori holds more similarities to what you might find at their southside sister restaurant, Menjiro Ramen, just expanded.

Therefore, in addition to the ramen bowls — available with either beef (Gyukotsu; not typically the norm for ramen) or pork (Tonkotsu) broth — you can indulge in yakitori (meat skewers), a variety of waffle fries, a poke bowl, or pressed sushi. Kirk and I both went for some ramen; he ordered the Spicy Gyukotsu ($16) and I went with the Black Garlic Tonkotsu ($14). We also shared the Red Dragon Roll ($17).

Spicy Gyukotsu

I guess the first thing I’ll note is that the Spicy Gyukotsu is somewhat pricey considering the portion size. I don’t think that the bowls are quite as hefty as what you might get at local fave, Tokiwa Ramen, yet it’s more expensive. Kirk also wasn’t super keen on the roast beef that came with it and he thought the broth wasn’t hot enough. On the plus side, I sampled the soup and I found it to be incredibly creamy and rich in flavour with just the right amount of heat on the palate for me.

In comparison, the Black Garlic Tonkotsu broth was also smooth, but felt lighter overall. Packed with umami flavour, the springy noodles married very well with the soup and the huge slice of succulent pork belly. Joined by half of a seasoned egg, bean sprouts, green onion, fungus, and red onion, the bowl provided a landscape of textures that delighted and satisfied. I thought my broth was hot enough, too; however, I’ve never liked my food scalding, so to each their own in that respect.

Despite the tasty ramen, the star of the show really was the Red Dragon Roll, a large maki made with shrimp tempura, cucumber, spicy creamy cheese sauce, ahi tuna, and avocado. It was laid in front of us and then torched at the table until the tops of each piece had been delicately seared. Kirk is slowly coming around with more of the raw fish, so it helps when there’s even a slight bit of cooking applied to sushi. He absolutely loved this dish and told me that he would have been happy to eat the whole thing, if he didn’t have to save some for his better half. Admittedly, I felt the same way.

To finish off our meal, I selected the Matcha Crème Brûlée ($6). The sugar top was caramelized nicely and, once cracked, it gave way to a soft-set pudding-like custard. It was heavily flavoured with green tea, which was perfect. The worst thing is not having a strong enough taste, and thankfully, that wasn’t the case here.

The interior of Izakaya O-Tori

We enjoyed our meal at Izakaya O-Tori. It’s clean, the service is great, the decor is simple, and the food is comforting. The only thing we thought was odd was how empty it was for a Saturday night. Hopefully word gets out about this place. We can never have too many ramen shops in town!

Edmonton Business Review: Cafe Lavi

Cafe Lavi has a cute little outdoor patio.

It’s all too easy to frequent coffee shop conglomerates like Starbucks. They’re practically on every corner and, when you can’t think of anywhere else to go, it becomes the fallback choice. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to remember that there are many locally owned businesses that have similar offerings without giant corporations behind them. Those are the ones that we should be supporting.

This weekend, we knew we’d be downtown for an event, so it made sense to double up on the fun by making additional plans with a friend. It’d been a while since we’d had a chance to meet; a casual get together over caffeine seemed ideal. My relaxed go to spot for a latte is usually DOSC, but this time, I wanted to try somewhere new. When I did a search, I was reminded about Cafe Lavi.

Located at 103 Street and 100 Avenue, it’s actually ridiculously close to my office. Yet, I’d never been there before. Reviews were high on Google, so I deemed it the perfect pick. The cafe itself is housed in the lower level of an older brick facade building, which may make you think that it’d be dark and secluded; however, that’s far from the case. They’ve got a lovely little gated outdoor patio, and inside, the wall of windows actually brings in plenty of natural light. It’s a fairly large space, too, with seating for about 30 people, including a cozy nook with a couch and a couple of armchairs.

The drink menu is pretty succinct and they have a few pastries on offer.

When we arrived mid-afternoon, it was quiet. Only one other customer was hanging out at the coffee bar chatting with the staff member who greeted us as we walked up to the counter. Cafe Lavi sticks to a small menu with more basic drinks: espresso, macchiato, americano, cappucino, flat white, latte, mocha, and cold brew. For tea-based beverages, they offer chai latte, london fog, and matcha latte. Drinks start at $3.25 and go up to $6.50, although I should note that the listed prices already include tax. Almond, coconut, and soy milk substitutes are available for an extra charge of 50 cents. They also had a few baked goods that looked quite delicious, but I wasn’t a fan of the fact that they were left uncovered at all times.

Ultimately, I opted for a large Chai Latte ($5.25). It was served in a to go cup because their to stay mugs are all one size, closer to the small. The latte was fine, but it wasn’t anything special. Literally a tea bag steeped into water and milk. I really was hoping for something more homemade from a neighbourhood cafe.

On the other hand, Kirk decided to cool off with a large Cold Brew ($4.75). It was recommended by the barista over a regular iced coffee for the greater intensity of flavour. A little room was left in the to go cup for Kirk to add in milk. What I liked about this beverage was the option for water ice cubes or coffee ice cubes. I’ve never gone to a coffee shop and been asked that question, so it was a first and really genius. Coffee ice cubes will melt, adding to the overall coffee taste as opposed to the other, which would water the drink down. I definitely think more cafes should start doing this.

Sadly, our time at Cafe Lavi was cut short — we continued on at Board N Brew just a block away — as they closed an hour earlier than normal (Saturdays they are usually open until 5:00pm) to accommodate a private party (it’s honestly an adorable space for an event). Still, I’d happily go back here. While the drinks didn’t wow me as much as I would have liked, the space, ambiance, and friendly service make it worth the visit. And, next time, I’ll have to try a Matcha Latte instead. Who knows? That might be where they excel.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cosmos Greek Kitchen

Calamari with Tzatziki

When I was planning a recent date night, I was looking to try someplace new. Cosmos Greek Kitchen popped up as a possibility. When I thought about it, Mediterranean cuisine seemed like just the thing to indulge in, so I made an OpenTable reservation for that evening and we head out to 124 Street between 108 and 109 Avenues for dinner.

Arriving at around 5:15pm on the Saturday, we noticed that the main door led to two separate sides. Cosmos Greek Kitchen was on the right with its sister lounge, Passport Restobar, on the left. Both share the same staff and kitchen (they were quite efficient), and they serve identical food items, but I believe the latter has more of a focus on cocktails.

The interior of Cosmos Greek Kitchen.

We went into Cosmos and found it to be rather quiet initially. However, we were early and, as we dined, the space filled up with more people, including a handful of families with small children. The host/server let us pick our own table while she went to grab menus. Once we settled in, it definitely felt like a comfortable spot for an enjoyable evening.

The two of us decided to go for the Super Combination Platter for two ($70) as it seemed to cover the gamut of menu favourites. Honestly, it did not disappoint in terms of the portions, selection and flavours.

Horiatiki (Greek Salad)

To start, we were served a bowl of Horiatiki (Greek Salad), which consisted of lettuce, tomatoes, cucumber, red onions, crumbled feta, and olives in extra virgin olive oil with dried oregano and maybe a little bit of red wine vinegar for added acidity. Traditionally, Greek salad is made without lettuce, adds green peppers and uses a large slice or chunks of feta cheese. I don’t recall seeing any pieces of pepper in ours and Kirk was hoping for more hefty pieces of feta rather than the crumble. Otherwise, it was still very tasty, light, and refreshing.

Calamari needs a squeeze of lemon juice!

At the same time as the salad was served, we were also presented with a large plate of Calamari. The deep-fried rings and pieces of baby squid were beautifully breaded to a nice crisp. The chef managed to keep the meat quite tender, avoiding the sometimes disastrous overcooked chewiness found at other establishments. A squeeze of lemon gave it a brightness on the palate and the house made tzatziki was the perfect accompaniment.

After indicating that we were ready to proceed with the rest of the platter, a huge silver tray was brought over with all of the remaining items for our meal. I will quickly mention that another portion of tzatziki is provided with the combo, but we both felt that it was unnecessary since we still had plenty left from the Calamari dish. Instead of a second helping of that, it would be really nice for them to swap that out with hummus. I didn’t think to ask if that was doable that night, but they might accommodate the request considering that the items are priced the same on the menu. It’s food for thought next time around. Also, it should be noted that pita bread isn’t part of the platter, so you may want to ask about adding that on as an extra.

Dolmathes in the round dish with Chicken & Lamb Souvlaki on the right.

It was difficult to decide where to start with the feast in front of us. I decided to sample the Dolmathes first. Those are vine leaves stuffed with rice and ground meat. They’re then covered in a lemony sauce. I vaguely remember going to a Greek restaurant (probably Koutouki) when I was a late teen and trying these. I think I attempted to unwrap the leaves because I didn’t think I was supposed to eat them. As a Chinese person, I was used to seeing sticky rice cooked in large leaves that weren’t meant to be edible. Knowing better now, I ate the whole thing and it was delicious. I actually didn’t expect it to have any meat inside, but it was a pleasant surprise to find that savouriness offset by the acidity of the creamy sauce on top.

Next up was the Keftedes, spicy Greek meatballs. These aren’t actually spicy in so much as having a kick of heat on the palate. They’re just seasoned with different herbs and spices to give it plenty of deep flavour. The finely ground meat was evenly textured for a nice mouthfeel. These are typically eaten with tzatziki, but that isn’t really needed. They’re good all by themselves.

Keftedes sort of hidden under all those diced tomatoes and red onions with the Spanakopita next to them and big pieces of yellow Greek lemon potatoes.

Spanakopita is one of my all-time favourite Greek snacks. Filo pastry stuffed with spinach and feta is simple, but delicious. This was a recipe I even took the time to make when I was young because I liked it so much. The filo pastry here was golden brown and incredibly flaky. My only issue with it was one end of the pie was all pastry with barely any filling. It was probably due to the folding of the filo to keep everything held inside the pocket. So, it was a big mouthful of thick pastry and none of the spinach or cheese. If they can find a way to make sure the filling is more evenly distributed into every bite, it would be even better.

Chicken and Lamb Souvlaki came with the platter. Often times most people don’t like lamb because of the wildness of the meat. It has a distinct gaminess to it, and when it came to the souvlaki, I found that it was relatively prominent. Nothing that bothered me too much since I often enjoy lamb. But, it was more pronounced and certainly not masked by the herbs used to season the meat. A couple of the pieces of lamb were a bit chewy as well as there was tendon running through. Otherwise, it was fine. In my opinion, the chicken was preferable. Well-seasoned and succulent, these felt like the lighter option when it came to protein.

The Souvlaki with slices of Lamb Souvla stacked underneath.

If you do want to try lamb at Cosmos Greek Kitchen, I highly recommend going with the Lamb Souvla over the souvlaki. A big portion of sliced roasted lamb laid beneath the skewers and it was wonderful. The wildness of the meat didn’t taste as strong and it was super juicy and tender with a fantastic zestiness coming from the marinade. A sprinkle of lemon and a dip of tzatziki made this a delectable treat.

Kirk and I loved the Moussaka, a layered casserole of potato, eggplant, and ground beef topped with béchamel sauce. It’s a really rich and filling dish, but it’s worth the calories. We especially appreciated the use of cinnamon (my go to spice) for the sweet-spicy combo that came through with flying colours. It elevates the dish into something special.

Moussaka

The final item on the platter was the Greek lemon potatoes. Kirk said he thought they were boiled and then roasted to get them as tender as they were. Either way, these were amazing. The potatoes were saturated all the way through with lemon and herbs. The flavour was in every single bite and I couldn’t get enough of them. It was literally the last thing I chose to eat from our main meal because I wanted to remember that taste.

“Coconut Cream Pie” dessert

Having sampled a little of everything in our combo, we finally called it and asked the staff to pack up what remained for leftovers (we had enough for another lunch and dinner for two). However, I wasn’t done. Since I was already there, I decided to go for dessert. Although my stomach had little room, I managed to pack away the majority of what I think is something like a Kadaif (I missed the name when the server was listing out the options). It was sold to me by being described as similar to coconut cream pie. Turns out that it was layered with a crust, finely shredded filo pastry, and whipped cream. A sweet syrup covered the plate. Not quite what I pictured, but it was still pretty good. I probably wouldn’t get it again as I wasn’t a fan of the overall texture. Yet, I’m glad that I opted to try something else other than the typical Baklava.

Super Combination Platter for Two

If you’re looking for a friendly Greek restaurant with, for the most part, authentic dishes, check out Cosmos Greek Kitchen. Don’t hesitate to order that super combo platter. The portions are worth the price and you’ll be basking in Mediterranean heaven for at least a couple of days, maybe more.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Gregg Mediterranean (Sherwood Park)

Lebanese Coffee with Baklava

While working on my YEG Food Deals project, I’ve made a number of connections with Edmonton and area businesses. One in particular caught my eye when they tagged my @yegfooddeals Instagram page in a post about their $10 lunch deals.

The share came from Gregg Mediterranean located in Sherwood Park (25 Sioux Road). I decided to reach out to them to discuss a possible collaboration. They replied, but I didn’t hear much after our initial conversation.

A week or two passed and I received a new message from the business asking us to come in and try their menu. Kirk and I welcomed the invitation, heading out one Sunday evening during that run of bitter cold weather caused by the polar vortex.

When we arrived, it was quiet; only one other table was occupied. The owner, Tamara, greeted and seated us right away. She gave us a few minutes to look over the menu and then came back to ask if we had any questions. Of course, I wanted to know what the most popular items were to help with my decision. To that, she replied, “would you like us to select the dishes for you?” Both Kirk and I are always up for an adventure, so we gave her an enthusiastic thumbs up.

Pickled Veggies

The first thing we received was a plate of pickled vegetables. These were likely complimentary because I do not recall seeing them as an option on the menu. Kirk seemed to enjoy them as he ate the majority. I sampled what I think was a radish, which I didn’t mind. It was very acidic and had an interesting texture from soaking in the brine. Definitely not crispy. The carrot was harder and didn’t take in the brine as much, so it still held some of it’s density and tasted less pickled overall. I guess, for me, they were a little too wet. I like drier pickled veggies like the carrots, daikon and cucumber on a Vietnamese sub or the diced pickled turnips we found on other dishes here.

Blue Hawaiian Cocktail

As we snacked on the veggies, we also sipped on our drinks. Tamara had suggested a Lebanese beer called Almaza ($6 to $7) for Kirk. It’s a basic pilsner that is light, ever so slightly bitter at the end, but otherwise smooth and easy to drink. I chose the Blue Hawaiian cocktail ($9). Presented in a tall glass, this blue drink was deceivingly strong. Granted, I drank it pretty fast at first, but the pineapple juice masks a lot of the alcohol, so don’t go too crazy on these.

Shish Combo with Rice and Garlic Sauce

Not long after, we were given our first main plate. This was the Shish Combo ($24) — a skewer each of the chicken, beef, and kafta — served on a pita with a parsley tomato mix and a side of rice. It’s a sizable amount of food that’s perfect for sharing, especially when you want to try a few different meats. The beef skewer wasn’t the most tender; however, it was nicely seasoned. My favourites were the chicken (charred and juicy) and the kafta. I wasn’t sure what to expect of the kafta, but the seasoned, minced beef was incredibly flavourful on its own. I tossed some of the homemade garlic sauce into the rice and I was in heaven. Some garlic sauces I’ve had in the past have been potent. Gregg Mediterranean has found a good balance with theirs. It’s creamy and tasty without being overwhelming. As far as I know, my body didn’t smell like garlic the next day.

As we were working on the skewers, Tamara came back with a Half Mezza platter ($24) that included four appetizers of Sujuk over Hummus, Falafel, Grilled Halloume Cheese, and Chicken Wings. I’m not sure if Chicken Wings are a regular Mediterranean dish. Either way, these were delicious. The zesty glaze was slightly sticky, but not heavy. The sauce kept the meat succulent and, even though there was cilantro on it, I didn’t even notice that the herb was there. I’ve seen halloume cheese more and more, but I’ve never really eaten it. It reminded me of the texture of Indian paneer, just grilled. I should have eaten it when it was warm. Although it was still good cold, I think it lost any elasticity it may have had as it sat out. Regardless, I sandwiched the cheese in between pieces of pita and smeared some hummus on it. The satisfying hummus was super smooth and creamy with a hint of spice from the beef sausage tossed on top. Falafel was not exactly Kirk’s cup of tea, but I quite liked the balls of chickpeas, fava beans, parsley, cilantro, and onion. They remind me of fritters, perfect for dipping in more hummus or garlic sauce.

Fattoush Salad

To accompany everything else, we also received a bowl of their Fattoush Salad ($10). A combination of fresh lettuce, cucumber, tomato, peppers, parsley, onion, and red cabbage tossed in a vinaigrette dressing and topped with pita bread chips, this was simple yet tasty. In particular, I was a fan of the crunch from the salt and pepper seasoned chips as they added extra texture and flavour.

Our meal was completed with a Lebanese Coffee ($3) for Kirk and two styles of Baklava ($5) for us to split. I don’t drink coffee, so I can’t say much about it. It smelled concentrated and was served in a small cup like an espresso. Kirk found it quite strong and didn’t need much of it. The desserts came as Asabeh, a finger-like pastry, and a more traditional Baklawa that’s layered. In the latter, the sheets of filo were wonderfully flaky before hitting a base of chopped nuts soaked in sugar syrup or honey. I tend to find this particular kind of baklava to be too sweet. I loved the Asabeh though. Here, the filo is stuffed with the chopped nuts and a bit of the syrup or honey and then rolled into a tube. There’s a lot less liquid and more of the pastry, so it’s well-balanced and less saccharine.

When we finished eating, Tamara sat with us and we chatted. Gregg Mediterranean has been in business for over four years. Sunday nights are slower for them, but that’s supplemented by deliveries through SkipTheDishes. Additionally, on weekends, they do a lot of catering. The whole thing is family-run with Tamara handling the front of house and her husband, Rakan, taking care of everything in the kitchen (he’s keen to keep the family recipes to himself for now). Their young daughter spends her time in the restaurant, too, giggling and having fun behind the counter.

As more and more chains come into Sherwood Park, they’re noticing an effect on the smaller local eateries, which is unfortunate to hear. Kirk and I honestly cannot wait to go back to Gregg Mediterranean. The hospitality that Tamara and Rakan showed to us is rarely matched elsewhere. For the value and quality of the food, Gregg Mediterranean far surpasses anything you’ll find at a big box business. I count myself fortunate to have learned about this restaurant and I will recommend them to anyone.