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

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Chop Steakhouse Bar

My spread of food and drink at Chop.

Edmonton’s downtown Chop Steakhouse Bar, found connected to the Sutton Place Hotel, used to be a lunchtime spot for my co-workers and I to hang out. The place provided a spot for us to happily chat over cocktails and food as well as giving us a respite from the office.

Fast forward a few years later and the dynamic of my workplace has changed dramatically. Those friends have moved on to new things. With their departure, trips to Chop diminished, too.

The Chop lounge in downtown Edmonton.

When I saw that Chop was participating in Downtown Dining Week again this year, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to revisit. A reservation was booked through OpenTable. When we arrived after work that Friday, we were actually one of the first tables to be seated in the dining room. Located upstairs from the lounge, it’s a much dimmer space decorated with deep blues and greys. The lounge is the opposite. Washed in natural light with high ceilings, it’s much more open and bright (my personal preference).

Pina Colada

My friend began with a pint of beer. I opted for a Pina Colada ($8.75), which was beautifully garnished with a thin cut floral-shaped slice of pineapple and poured into a pretty vintage cocktail glass. What I didn’t love was how chunky the blended ice was. Yet, in terms of flavour, it was fine. There was a nice balance of white rum, fresh pineapple and coconut. As we waited for our dishes to come, we were also provided with fresh complimentary bread and butter to tide us over.

We each started with a different appetizer. She got the Feature Soup ($8.95), a creamy tomato bisque that had a pleasant consistency. It had been cooked down to create a depth to the sweet-tart taste, and it refrained from being too thin. I went with a standard Caesar Salad ($9.95). The lettuce was slightly limp, but well-coated with dressing and grated Grana Padano cheese. I enjoyed the house-baked focaccia croutons and the slice of lemon for spritzing. Although it didn’t come across as the freshest salad, all of the components I look for were there.

For our mains, we both chose to indulge in the half rack of the Smoked Baby Back Ribs ($25.95). This was served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. At the time, the veggies included roasted beets and broccolini, and they were prepared until they were tender with just a little bit of that needed bite left. The ribs were evenly painted with a rich barbecue sauce that had caramelized onto the succulent meat during the cooking process. A knife came in handy to cut the baby back ribs apart, but the meat pretty much pulled clean off the bone without much effort.

Supper finished with mini versions of two of Chop’s desserts: Crème Brûlée ($4) and Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake ($5.50). Neither will blow your socks off. However, between the two, the crème brûlée was definitely the smaller and arguably least adventurous. It was a standard custard dessert with a simple vanilla infusion and the sugar crackle. The soufflé cake is not what I expected. I pictured something along the lines of a lava cake. Instead, I received a slice of a chocolate cake crust filled with mascarpone mousse atop a pool of fresh vanilla anglaise. It was actually quite decadent, and I’d have that one again. I’m not sure how much larger the dessert is if the regular size is ordered, but I think for the price, this was the perfect amount of sweetness to cap off the night.

All of the food options that were available for this specially priced event are also on their regular menu. We just happened to save about $10 per person for our three-course meal versus if we had gone any other time. On this occasion, the service was friendly and attentive even when the dining room filled up. I’m not sure how often I’ll be back, but I think the quality of the food I tried was good enough to warrant a future drop-in, especially for happy hour.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wildflower Grill (2018 Update)

Braised Beef Short Rib

It’s been almost four years since I blogged about Wildflower Grill. Yet, several months ago, the eatery was sold to a new owner and is now under the direction of new Executive Chef J.P. Dublado. When Downtown Dining Week rolled around in March, I thought it’d be the perfect opportunity to revisit this fine establishment.

The interior of Wildflower Grill.

Early on a Monday night, my friend and I showed up to a largely empty restaurant located outside of the Matrix Hotel on 106 Street and 100 Avenue. My advance reservation on OpenTable seemed quite unnecessary. Still, it’s hard to predict when businesses will be busy, so I recommend booking ahead whenever possible. We were seated in a booth right next to the bar. I’m not sure if that’s considered their lounge space, or if it’s all part of the dining room. It felt kind of tucked away though, which was nice for conversation.

My friend opted to quench her thirst with the Strawberry Smash cocktail ($12). I decided on a sweetly refreshing non-alcoholic Homemade Blueberry Iced Tea ($5.50). For food, we already had our mind set on the $45 three-course executive dinner menu on offer for Downtown Dining Week. Since there were no options for each course, it made it easy for the kitchen to serve us, and we simply went along for the ride.

Albacore Tuna with Barley and Wild Rice

Dish number one was a beautiful Albacore Tuna with Barley and Wild Rice (a similar item on their menu is regularly $17). The fish was seared perfectly, leaving a raw center. It was served with greens and deep fried wild rice, creating a crunchy texture (think Rice Krispies) and earthy flavour. The addition of tomatoes and radishes brought in pops of colour. Best of all were the dollops of dressing sporadically dotted on the plate. We weren’t sure what it was made of, but it reminded me of a sweet aioli that I’ve had before.

Braised Beef Short Rib

Course two was our entrée of Braised Beef Short Rib. This doesn’t seem to be available regularly, but I’d estimate it to be about $37 based on other selections seen in their menu. It was supposed to be served with maple roasted carrots. However, those were absent. Instead, they were substituted with delicious Brussels sprouts. The leek and potato pavé provided the starch without coming across as heavy. I expected the short rib to pull apart more easily, so I was surprised to find that I required a knife. No matter though, it was delicious and the meat was quite tender. Topped with frizzled onions, this was a delight. Despite all appearances, the beef wasn’t the star of the show. Turns out, the few pieces of richly flavoured chèvre and parm agnolotti would be my favourite part of the dish. I think about that stuffed pasta fondly.

Chocolate Mousse

The closest dessert on their menu to what we had that evening is likely their Chocolate Bar ($10). Ours was a ball of Chocolate Mousse encased in ganache. A stroke of berry coulis sat underneath with candied peanuts and caramel ice cream on the side. Having been layered with a coating of glaze, the consistency of the mousse became thicker and felt very decadent. The sweet-salty-tart balance worked its magic and was an excellent ending to a wonderful meal.

I really hope that the restaurant is doing well and we were just visiting on an unusually quiet night. Even with the changes to this business, they haven’t missed a beat. The quality is most certainly still there. Our food was superb and the service we received was attentive and friendly. Personally, I look forward to going back again soon.