Edmonton Restaurant Review: Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya

Our table was full of dishes and plates!

Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya is the newest Japanese option in downtown Edmonton, and, after eyeing Instagram posts for a while, I finally made it there after work on an early Friday evening.

I had made a reservation for two people using the OpenTable app. When we arrived at around 5 o’clock, it turned out we were the first joining them for dinner service; the restaurant did start to fill up a bit as we dined. It’s a nice space with lots of warm woods and pleather upholstered chairs. They even have a decently sized waiting area, so it’s not cramped should there ever be a delay for a table.

The interior of Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya.

The staff on hand was minimal that night. There was only one server and a couple of other staff behind the bar (not including whoever was in the closed off kitchen). Still, the service was pretty good. My only issue is that the server became less attentive after dessert and it was actually difficult to wave her down for the bill. Perhaps that’s because this place is an izakaya. The whole point of casual pubs like this is the slower pace and the extended meal where shared plates are ordered throughout the evening. She may have thought we intended to stick around longer and that’s why she didn’t disturb us or ask if the bill was wanted right away.

In any case, we lingered at Let’s Grill Sushi for almost three whole hours. In that time span, we sipped on drinks (I stuck with a simple ginger ale for $2.75 with free refills) and snacked on a handful of dishes, including a complimentary salad, skewers, two rolls, hot stone meat, and something sweet.

Complimentary Noodle Salad

A cold noodle salad was brought over and offered on the house. We were told it was a refreshing bite to help cool off on a hot day. The noodles were slightly transparent white, not quite glassy, but not opaque either. They were slippery and a tad chewy. Topped with kelp and thinly sliced cucumber, it was super simple with a hint of acidity.

As part of happy hour (Monday to Friday, 2pm to 5:30pm), Let’s Grill Sushi offers a few different skewer options. We opted to try a half-dozen of the Honey BBQ Pork, which are usually $8.50 per order, but only $5 on special. Wings and Sapporo pints are also the same price. I’m so glad we tried these. The skewers were prepared very well. Most of the fat had rendered from the meat, leaving a small amount of juicy crispness on the pork. The well-seasoned meat was slightly charred, adding to the overall flavour before they were finally garnished with green onion and nori.

We split two of the maki rolls: Crunchy Spicy Salmon ($14) and Yellowtail Fry ($13). The reason why we went with the former off of the Chef’s Specials of the Week menu is because, unlike the tuna version, the salmon roll replaced avocado with cucumber instead. My friend’s sensitivity to the healthy, fatty carb is avoided when possible, and, rather than asking for substitutions, it was easier to try the Crunchy Spicy Salmon. I actually didn’t find these to be all that spicy. Although, I did like the texture, and they were the lighter of the ones we sampled. The Yellowtail fry consisted of the fish, cream cheese, jalapeno and shiitake mushroom rolled in rice and nori. The roll was then battered, fried, and drenched in sweet truffle mayo. While I did enjoy them, there was almost too much to take in at once.

The eatery features a few hot stone meat options, too. I remember going to a Japanese grill in Kyoto where my friends and I tried this fantastically tender beef tongue. When I saw the Premium Beef Tongue ($16) on the Let’s Grill Sushi menu, I thought it’d be great to give it a shot. In Japan, the beef tongue was served like a filet of meat. Here, they had thinly sliced the tongue like carpaccio. It allowed the meat to cook super fast on the hot stone slab. Unfortunately, it had a chewier consistency than I hoped for. Regardless, I loved the three dips (salt, ponzu, sesame-type sauce) provided alongside the tongue. Next time, I may go for their duck though.

Matcha Creme Brulee

Prior to even eating anything else, I already had my mind made up on dessert. Whenever Matcha Creme Brulee ($7) is on the menu, there’s no question. This sweet ending is made in-house. The only thing I would have preferred is a thinner sugar seal. My spoon practically bounced off the caramelized top with my first attempt to break through. A second harder tap managed to crack it. I tend to enjoy a lighter caramelization that provides just a little crunch while being thin enough to melt in the mouth as opposed to worrying about the deterioration of my teeth as I bite onto thick sugar. Thankfully, on the plus side, the creamy custard base had a strong enough matcha flavour; it’s the worst when places serve halfhearted matcha desserts.

 

Aside from the slow service that most of us aren’t used to, Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya definitely checked off a lot of boxes as a hang out to start the weekend. I do worry that maybe they’re attempting to do too many things on their menu, but we tried several items, and I found all of them to be satisfying to some degree. I was particularly happy with those skewers and the rolls. It’s also a huge plus that they offer happy hour and daily specials, so I’m excited to go back to take advantage of those deals again.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cactus Club Cafe

A couple of my favourite things at Cactus Club.

For the past few years, I’ve been sharing my top 24 picks for the best eateries in Edmonton (check out the 2017 list here). Even though I have never reviewed it until now, Cactus Club Cafe has been a mainstay within the rankings. A favourite ever since 2009 when they entered the city’s food scene with their West Edmonton Mall location, it’s interesting to see how their brand has developed and been embraced.

Cactus Club’s Retro Logo; Photo courtesy of their Instagram page.

I don’t know if anyone else remembers, but I recall going down Jasper Avenue as a child and seeing this big sign with a drawing of a smoking cow on it. That was the original Cactus Club logo from when they first attempted to expand into Alberta in the 90s. Should my memory serve me correctly, the building that once housed that iteration of the restaurant is now the Rexall pharmacy on 118 Street. My family never went there, and it seems many others in the city avoided it because it closed soon after.

The dining room of the Jasper Avenue location.

It wasn’t until a decade or so later that Cactus Club decided to give this market another go. This time, it was the place to see and be seen. On its best nights, patrons would willingly wait hours just to get a table for their large group of friends. They didn’t want to go anywhere else. The chain had gone from a funky eatery to a sleek establishment that served consistently upscale food and drinks. It was so successful and busy (it literally took away business from nearby competitors like Joey and Earls) that I’m actually surprised it took another four years before the company launched a second eatery on Jasper Avenue. About six blocks east from the one that failed in the nineties, it’s become a popular spot for locals to hang out as well.

Having frequented Cactus Club for almost a third of my life, I’ve developed a love of specific dishes. Some, such as the BBQ Duck Clubhouse and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar, are signatures of Chef Rob Feenie who joined the business as a “Food Concept Architect” in 2008 just before their foray back into this province. Sadly, I don’t make it to the restaurant as much as I used to, and, when I do go out, I really appreciate good deals.

The recently updated happy hour menu.

They’ve long offered happy hour specials at Cactus Club (available from 2pm to 6pm and 9pm to close, Monday to Saturday). However, they recently revamped the menu, a la Earls, to cover a greater variety of their dishes and drinks at a few stellar price points (I’ll be listing the lower prices here, so check their online menus for the regular costs). Therefore, when my fiancé and I wanted to celebrate our second anniversary together, we chose to go here. We still ended up spending over $100 on our meal for two, but we certainly didn’t skimp on anything (we ordered a lot). It gave me a great excuse to reacquaint myself with plates that I hadn’t eaten in a while.

As far as my significant other goes, he’s quite content with a beer, so he alternated between the Udder Pale Ale and Longboard Lager ($3 per sleeve). Those are brewed specifically for Cactus Club and have been staples for quite some time. I started with a Whiskey Ginger Smash ($5) cocktail. I really didn’t taste a whole lot of ginger. I enjoy it when you get the spice from the root, but it didn’t come through so much as the rosemary. My second libation of the night was their classic Bellini ($4). It’s basically an adult version of a slushie that tastes like a fuzzy peach in liquid form.

The rest of our dinner was a free-for-all. We ordered two Mini Burgers and two Mini Crispy Chicken Sandwiches ($4 per slider), one for each of us. On the side, we shared a bowl of the Truffle Fries ($4). We split the Ravioli + Prawn Duo ($8), Pesto Chicken Quesadilla ($8), and the Blackened Creole Chicken ($20).

Honestly, of all the things we selected, we weren’t sure that the sliders were of great value. Sure, a few bucks are saved in comparison to the regular appetizers, but they’re pretty small on an individual basis. Despite the size and amount of meat, the flavour was there. I did remove the pickles and onions as I’m not a fan. Still, the chicken was clearly white breast meat, the sambal mayo gave it a little bit of a kick, and the mild, nutty Swiss cheese provided a balance. What made the mini burgers delicious was the red pepper relish and Dijon mayonnaise atop the perfectly charred Angus beef.

I almost forgot to include the Truffle Fries. Thankfully, I remembered part way through our meal. These were so yummy. The potatoes were fried to a golden brown and then doused in truffle, herbs and grated Grana Padano cheese. A small saucer of garlic aioli accompanied the fries, taking them to another level.

Ravioli + Prawn Duo

Instead of a trio of ravioli, the happy hour deal offers a duo of the dish. Two large pockets of pasta hold butternut squash and mascarpone. It’s cooked in a decadent truffle butter sauce and then served with a sautéed jumbo prawn placed on each square. Pine nuts and fried sage leaves garnish this masterpiece. The shrimp was plump and juicy. The ravioli and sauce is rich. The sage and pine nuts give it an air of earthiness. This is one of their standards for a reason.

Pesto Chicken Quesadilla

It’s funny to find something as simple as a quesadilla on a menu where they seem to lean more towards high-end than casual. Yet, the one at Cactus Club works. Admittedly, I’ve never much appreciated the triangles and strips of tortilla chips that anchor the plate (I’d rather fries or a salad without the additional cost to upgrade). Nevertheless, the Pesto Chicken Quesadilla is on point. It comes down to the combination of ingredients. There’s the herbaceous zestiness from the basil pesto, sweetness from the sundried cranberries, melted cheesy goodness, smoky grilled chicken, and a slight sweet-sour flavour from the light honey lime dip. This is something that I used to emulate at home because it’s a recipe that was accessible, easy, and satisfying.

Blackened Creole Chicken

The final entrée we shared was the Blackened Creole Chicken. I’d never tried this one before, so it was new to me. Outside of happy hour, it’s usually over $25, so there was about a twenty per cent savings on this dish. I’m not sure it was worth the money though. It was a decent amount of food, for sure. However, a lot of it consisted of the buttered mashed potatoes. Also, while I could eat asparagus for days, the stalks we received were overgrown with the woody ends still there. Proper preparation calls for the bottoms to be snapped off, leaving only the tender portion of the greens behind. Other than that, the chicken (skin on) was well-seasoned and succulent.

Beef Carpaccio

We must have been done by now, right? For my fiancé, that would be a yes. For me, that was a hard no. Before leaving, I indulged in an order of their Beef Carpaccio. It’s been a favoured Cactus Club item of mine, and it’s one that I always return for. On this occasion, a few pieces of the crostini were a tad too toasted. Nonetheless, they tasted wonderful with baked-in garlic, drizzled in olive oil, and sprinkled with herbs and cheese. The super thinly sliced peppercorn-crusted beef tore apart at the sight of a fork. I carefully curated each bite with meat, Dijon aioli, a fried caper, pickled onion, arugula, and a cut of Grana Padano. This is truly the best.

When all is said and done, Cactus Club does a ton of things right. From a mix of atmospheres within the same restaurant (patio, lounge and dining room are all different) to the magic that happens in the kitchen to the well-trained front of house staff, it’s clear that this homegrown company is here for the long haul. They’ve learned from mistakes made early on and they’ve taken those lessons to grow this chain into a Canadian empire that appears to have the legs to go even further should they choose to. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Cactus Club name on an international scale. For now, I’m happy to have it in my backyard.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Ampersand 27 (2018 Update)

The bar and dining room of Ampersand 27.

Located on 106 Street and Whyte Avenue, Ampersand 27 is right in the heart of Edmonton. Seeking out potential venues for our upcoming wedding, my fiancé and I popped in for a venue meeting with Restaurant Manager Laura Rudd and Executive Chef Fan Zhang. It’d actually been a little while since my last visit (read my previous review here), but my recollection of the place was spot on.

Those twinkling lights on the ceiling make for an excellent backdrop.

The space is just as beautiful as I remembered with twinkling lights on the ceiling, a statement fireplace against the back wall, modern teals and metallics mixed with natural woods and stone, and a funky amoeba-shaped bar. What I didn’t realize was its direct attachment to the Varscona Hotel right next door, which we consider to be a big plus as we’re going to have plenty of guests travelling from out of town. With accommodations nearby, room for a dinner, reception, dance, and hopefully a ceremony, this seems like an incredibly versatile spot with plenty of possibilities.

Their charcuterie menu is quite extensive with all meats made in-house.

Neither of us really had a solid idea of what we want for our celebration. However, during our discussion with Laura and Chef Fan, both of them had some excellent suggestions and seemed eager to bring our vision to life. They gave us a lot to think about, and, when we were done our tour and conversation, they actually invited us to stay for a drink and some charcuterie.

Look at this amazing cheese and charcuterie board!

In all honesty, they were super generous. When they offered to make us a plate, we expected that they’d provide just a small sampling of food to whet our appetites. Afterwards, if we were still hungry, we were more than willing to stick around and make a night of it on our own. But, wow! We received a humongous board chockablock full of house cured meats (my faves were the Bresoala, Truffled Mortadella, and Kielbasa), homemade pickles, preserves, and beer mustard (the best!), in-house baked sourdough bread, and a variety of cheeses (creamy Port Salut and Goat Gouda won the night). All in, I guessed the total value was around $100, including our beverages. They outright spoiled us!

Although we technically didn’t need anything else to eat, we opted to treat ourselves to an order of their 3 Pork Buns ($15) with an Extra Bun ($5) to make it even, as well as a side of the Brussels Sprouts ($5).

Brussels Sprouts in Garlic Butter

The latter was cooked until the greens were tender, but still had bite. The outer leaves were also charred and crispy, just the way I like it. The sprouts may have been a tad greasy, yet I suppose that’s a given considering they’re prepared in garlic butter.

As for the Pork Buns, they were mentioned by a couple of the staff, so we thought it made sense to try them. I’m glad we did because they absolutely did not disappoint. The thick cut pork belly was seared until crisp on the outside and the fats had rendered. Sriracha mayo, hoisin, thinly sliced pickled cucumbers along with baby leaves and chopped green onion finished them off. Pillowy soft steam buns held everything together.

Warm Brownie for dessert!

Before we left, we had to try a dessert. Our choice of the evening was the Warm Brownie ($11; it may not currently be available). It was sort of deconstructed and served with caramel sauce, sponge toffee bits, roasted peanuts, fresh whipped cream, and a mint leaf for garnish. This was absolutely decadent and sweet; it’s the perfect dish for sharing as the portion size is more than decent.

I can’t lie. Ampersand 27 completely won us over. Laura and Chef Fan showed such amazing hospitality. Additionally, their fantastic server Janell cannot go unmentioned. I previously knew her from another restaurant that she worked at simultaneously as she held a position here, and she’s wonderful. Janell has a way of putting the customer at ease and making them feel like a friend.

While nothing is set in stone at this time, Ampersand 27 is at the top of our list. Not only are the share plates such a delight, but the people who run the place can’t be beat. Even if it doesn’t end up being the venue for our nuptials next year, it’s still going to be one of our favourite Whyte Avenue businesses and restaurants for a long time to come.

Edmonton Happenings: Streetcar Shows Edmonton

Singer Ken Stead performs for us atop the High Level Bridge.

Streetcar Shows Edmonton has been chugging along since 2013. Founded by Tad Hargrave and Zizi Lievers with Peter Seal hosting and photographing events, it’s probably one of the city’s true gems. These are intimate concert experiences taking place on electric streetcars run by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. I’ve been registered to their mailing list — currently closed on their site, so check their Twitter page or join their Facebook group for updates — for two or three years now, but I always found it difficult to get my hands on tickets. By the time I’d read the newsletter and linked over to Eventbrite, the 32 spots would already be sold out.

The streetcar being prepped for our trip across the High Level Bridge.

This year, I happened to sign into my webmail account at just the right moment and I snagged two tickets for the inaugural show of the 2018 season. I was ecstatic to finally be going to a Streetcar concert. Taking place last Thursday, May 17, we arrived at the train platform located behind the ATB Financial Arts Barn in Old Strathcona about 15 minutes prior to embarking. Peter checked our names off of his list and we waited until we were told to climb on. NOTE: There are no washrooms on board. If needed, make sure to use the one in the barn beforehand.

Ernie, one of the drivers of the streetcar, gave us a history lesson.

The restored streetcar had two drivers for the night, but Ernie was our guide. He gave us a little bit of a history lesson as the vehicle made it’s way down the tracks towards the middle of the High Level Bridge. Moving along, Edmonton’s downtown skyline eventually game into view. Once we’d come to a full stop, Peter introduced our performer of the evening, Ken Stead. While he sang (and joked), the river and traffic flowed quietly beneath us as we basked in the slowly setting sun.

 

Ken Stead, born and raised in Edmonton, and now residing in Calgary, has a soulful voice. Despite living in Canada, his Irish-Scottish background seems to come out, in the form of a slight lilt, when he speaks. He flipped between his own original songs and covers that ranged from Foy Vance to Bill Withers, fully encompassing the persona of a down-to-earth folk-rock artist.

 

Lasting about 45 minutes, the first half of the show went by quickly. The streetcar then trundled northward towards the other side of the High Level Bridge. We were supposed to take a break at the stop directly across the street from the Legislature Building, but the driver overshot it, and we ended up going all the way to the Grandin Station terminal. There, we were able to get off and stretch our legs while the musical equipment was shifted to the other end of the streetcar. The backrests of all the seats were flipped to face the opposite direction, allowing passengers to be seated again in the direction of travel. It also gave all of the riders an opportunity to be closer to the show as those who previously sat at the front were now at the rear of the train.

Out on the bridge once more, we were treated to another 45 minute set. Being above the water, it started to get chilly as the darkness fell, but the close quarters and the music helped to warm me to my soul. As we returned south, we came to a surprise standstill in a heavily graffitied tunnel for one final (sing-along) song. It sounds like this is something they do at every show, but I won’t give every single detail away. All I can say is that it makes for a special moment.

Inside the tunnel at the end of the night.

Two hours after our departure, we found ourselves back where we started our musical journey. It’s definitely a night that neither my fiancé or I will ever forget. It was so much fun, and I’m already itching to go to second Streetcar Show as soon as possible. Haven’t been yet? I urge everyone to follow their pages. You may luck out and catch a post about tickets in the nick of time.

Edmonton Happenings: MINBID MINBattle 2018 Launch Party & Art Battle

Co-founder of MINBID, Michel Côté, was one of the artists drawn to participate.

From what I know, MINBID (short for Minimum Bid) has existed for at least 5 years in the underground art scene of Edmonton. The collective began as a gathering of local creators; it gave them an outlet to share work with their peers and the public. The showings doubled as auction events, too, providing a way for artists to gauge the value of their pieces based on the highest bid received.

The banner ad for their 2018 MINBattle.

One of the things that MINBID has become known for is their annual MINBattle. Friday, May 11 marked the launch of the 2018 series and my initial visit to one of their functions. Kicking off at Vacancy Hall (103 Avenue and 104 Street), sixteen artists registered, but only eight had the opportunity to compete through a lottery draw. There were two rounds of four contestants. Each person had an hour to complete a 24 inch x 24 inch canvas.

Audience members voted with tickets stubs dropped into each artist’s bucket. Bids for the finished pieces could also be placed on the cards.

A group of three to four judges circled the room as they all painted. Audience members even got to partake in the judging process with ticket stubs to be deposited as a vote towards their favourite in both rounds. Plus, all of the pieces were up for auction with bidding starting at $50 and going up in increments of $10. The selling price would count in the final tally of each artist’s score as well. Whoever prevailed in each round (we didn’t stay for the announcement of the winners) will move on to the final MINBattle later this summer.

Co-founder Darren Bolz DJ’d throughout the evening.

Speaking to Darren Bolz, one of the co-founders of MINBID and the evening’s DJ, we found out that this is the first time they’ve used this particular format. Usually they’ve only had two artists battle head-to-head on any given night. This year, they thought they’d change things up, bringing in multiple artists at a time with the top two at each battle duking it out in a huge showdown later this year.

For the launch event, the ticket price was $25 plus fees in advance through their website or Eventbrite. At the door, the cost was $30. Although notes on the Eventbrite page said the cost covers gallery membership, it’s not like buyers receive a card or anything. Ultimately, the money simply covers entrance and the open bar.

Bartender for the night was Christopher Hughes.

Speaking of the bar, it could have been a little more diverse. There were only four drinks available, which I realize is essential to keeping things easy for the organizers, especially in a space that isn’t equipped for bar service. However, the options were so-so, and there was only one non-alcoholic choice. It was a PC brand watermelon soda that was sweet. I think offering just a simple cup or bottle of water would have been appreciated. Not everyone wants something carbonated and sugary to drink. Water would have been a nice alternative to help cool off in the warm space.

The lighting in the space is dim to create a non-intimidating vibe for the artists, allowing them to work without feeling too exposed.

They also struggled a bit with lighting in the basement of the Mercer Warehouse. In order to keep the vibe, the lighting has to be relatively dim. Nevertheless, it’s equally as important to allow enough brightness for the artists, which means there’s a balancing act that’s required. Being that this is a nighttime event, the place emptied out quite a bit by the second round. Yes, it’s unfortunate that people didn’t stick around to watch it all unfold. But, if I’m being honest, I was happy for the extra breathing room.

The participating artists were allowed to paint whatever they wanted within the allotted time, leaving it open ended. Still, if they haven’t already done this in the past, I think it could be very interesting to see them paint to a specified theme. It’d add another dimension to the competition. Additionally, for those not already in the Edmonton art industry and who didn’t know the competitors personally, it would have been beneficial for the emcee to announce the names of the artists before they started each battle

There was only one person, Peter Gegolick, who blatantly advertised himself and had a sort of “I don’t give a shit” attitude as he painted while wearing sunglasses. He actually had a finished piece of art already hanging on the gallery wall with an asking minimum bid of $700 (his battle piece could have been purchased for less than $100). The rest of them were pretty low key. While their first names were listed on the bidding cards, their last names weren’t always there, so it was otherwise hard to follow-up on some of the artists after the fact.

Another piece from Michel Côté was hanging in the MINBID gallery for sale.

I understand that one of the goals of these parties is to assist artists in determining how their work should be priced. It’s a bit of a catch-22 to do that though. I mean, it’s entirely reliant upon the audience that shows up. If there are people with the income and they happen to like the work they see, there’s a chance that a piece will go for much more. But, based on this particular event, I’d say it was mostly a youthful crowd that didn’t necessarily have the money to burn. Most didn’t seem willing to shell out the extra cash after what they spent on the actual event ticket.

The 2016 MIN Royale breakdown.

Maybe I’m wrong and it was an anomaly, or maybe they simply didn’t like what they saw. Either way, this aspect kept the number of bids to a minimum and kept the overall price of the bids low with most going for under $100. For comparison, I looked at how much battle auction pieces went for back in 2016. Of the 30 creations born out of MINBattle events, a dozen sold for over $150. That included one from my favourite artist of the 2018 launch night, Reece Schulte, that went for a cool $450.

I loved his dynamic Edmonton skyline piece so much that I put a couple of bids on it to the tune of $90 (this was a total steal). I left my name and number on the bidding card and walked away. Since the art is still wet on the evening of the event, they just phone or text the winning bidder to make arrangements for pickup and payment (either cash or credit is accepted) over the following week. Sadly, I didn’t end up hearing from MINBID by the end of the weekend, so I assumed someone else swooped in at the last second to snag it. Then, to my surprise, I received a message on Monday afternoon. It turns out that the person who outbid me couldn’t be reached, so it went to the next highest bidder! I’m super excited to add Reece’s work to my modest art collection.

Aside from the late start (listed as 9:00pm, yet didn’t truly begin until 10:30pm) and the crowdedness of the venue during the first round of the evening, my fiancé and I left with an awesome appreciation of what MINBID and MINBattle had to offer. Sure, I initially felt a little out of place. The majority of the other attendees came across as younger and artsier than me.

Nonetheless, MINBattle certainly made for a different kind of date night where we got to experience something new to us. We had some drinks, danced to music, mingled with the artists, and watched canvases come to life. What I like best is that it’s an excellent way to potentially find and buy art for an affordable price.

The next MINBattle event date is still to be determined. Make sure to sign up for their newsletter through the MINBID website to be kept in the loop. In the meantime, think about attending their Udell X & MINBID Collaboration (buy tickets here). Two parties will take place at the Udell Xhibitions Gallery (103 Avenue and 124 Street) on June 22 and 23. Any art aficionado won’t be disappointed. I know that we’re definitely looking forward to our second outing.

UX MB Art Xhibition + Auction