Edmonton Restaurant Review: London Local

Appetizers are sizeable and perfect for sharing.

Chef Lindsay Porter, of El Cortez, Have Mercy, and Woodwork fame, branched out in the fall of last year with her very own restaurant. London Local takes inspiration from her British heritage. Located in the Ellerslie area, the space has a decidedly pub-like feel, but with a slightly cleaner, more modern design aesthetic.

My friend and I arrived for our reservation, made through OpenTable, at 5:30pm on a Thursday evening to find the place relatively quiet. It made me question whether or not the business is doing okay as things didn’t seem to pick up even by the time we left three hours later. Still, to our benefit, the lower noise-level made it easy for us to carry on a conversation, which is something I truly appreciate.

Bottled Beer and House Brewed Iced Tea

Also, on the plus side, we made it in time for happy hour. While I chose not to partake, my friend was able to get a bottle of beer for half price. Most of their selection ranges from $7 to $8, so it’s a steal from 3pm to 6pm every Tuesday to Friday. If wine is preferred, bottles and glasses are also half off. NOTE: For those who like deals, London Local presents a 3-Course Roast Menu on Sundays for only $30 per person.

I opted to go with a non-alcoholic House Brewed Iced Tea, sweetened ($3). Rather than the bar mixing in the simple syrup on my behalf, they brought out a mini pitcher, so I could do it myself. It was alright, but I probably wouldn’t order it again. The tea was still quite bitter, but, being conscious of how much syrup I was using, I wasn’t too keen on asking for extra. The iced tea also doesn’t come with any refills.

For our meals, my newly minted Maid of Honor, selected the Bangers & Mash ($23), and I went with a couple of the appetizers: Steak Tartare ($16) and Asparagus & Cauliflower ($14). I figured it’d be best to sample more to get a better picture of what London Local has to offer.

Bangers & Mash

Come to think of it though, I didn’t have a chance to try any of the Bangers & Mash. All I can do is talk about how good it looked. The sausage was large and plump, surrounded by a pool of dark onion gravy. To the side was a huge dollop of smoked champ — chopped scallions, butter, milk, and cheese — mashed potatoes. It was then garnished with a beet and courgette (zucchini or squash) slaw. It came across as traditional pub food with a twist.

Asparagus & Cauliflower

I requested that the Steak Tartare and the Asparagus & Cauliflower be brought out together. Both were sizeable in portion. The latter was layered with a base of minted truffle cheese. Charred spears of asparagus and florets of cauliflower sat on top with a honey thyme glaze. This was absolutely delicious as the smoky veggies in their sweetly herbaceous coating and the mild soft cheese played very well together.

Steak Tartare

The diced beef tenderloin for the steak tartare was formed into a giant patty that additionally consisted of pickled beet, capers, and fried onions. It had a great depth of flavour. Devoid of any form of egg yolk that is so often found in steak tartare, this turned out to be a less dense version of what I’m used to, especially since it wasn’t minced. Combined with the toasted buttered cape seed bread, this was a real treat. My one complaint of the two dishes was that they were identically embellished with potato sticks, pickled onions and pea shoots. I would have expected a bit more creativity to be placed into each plate rather than the slapdash sense that I got. Show off the food, don’t cover it up.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Despite an already full stomach, I didn’t want to leave without dessert. The Sticky Toffee Pudding ($11) that my friend ordered was similar to what I’ve had elsewhere. This was made of moist cake, toffee sauce, salted crumb, and vanilla whipped cream. It refrained from being overly sweet, and is one of those desserts that easily satisfies when nothing else can.

Banoffee Pie

As a fan of the movie Love Actually, I’ll probably never forget Keira Knightley’s character’s fondness for Banoffee Pie ($11). Therefore, when I saw it on the menu, I had to try it. This iteration of the dessert is not at all conventional as it foregoes the typical solid or crumbled buttery biscuit base and replaces it with rum cake doused in banana pudding and caramel sauce. Some whipped cream and toffee bits finished it off. I mean, it wasn’t really a pie. In fact, it was most likely the sticky toffee pudding in disguise. However, I do understand where this recipe is coming from and the flavours are spot on.

London Local certainly has a decent vision of where they want to take their menu. It’s pub food elevated. What we had was great, and the service was, too. Nevertheless, there are improvements that can be made. Chef Lindsay is known for her flair in the kitchen where she turns classics on their head. I believe that tweaking dishes, like those appetizers, so that they each feel entirely different and special is what will take this establishment up another notch.

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 Things To Do: 4Cats Arts Studio

Me with my finished piece.

Recently, my friend and I wanted to get together to do something crafty. But, we didn’t know what. A number of events we’d found — everything from cross stitching to terrarium building — were just a bit too pricey. So, I did some digging. Eventually, I came across 4Cats Arts Studios.

The company, founded in Victoria, British Columbia, has been around since 2005. Within six years, they had franchised out their name and business structure to locations across Canada, the United States, and Australia. In the Edmonton area, there are now three studios. One is in St. Albert, the second is in the north of the city, and the third sits in the southeastern neighbourhood of Summerside (this is the one we went to).

They hold a variety of workshops for kids and adults where patrons can paint canvases, decorate mugs or bowls, create clay planters, or mould figurines. Prices are $25 per participant, but they offer two spots for $35 when registering together. Currently, it looks like a variety of sessions are available through to the end of June. Then, in the summer months of July to August, 4Cats will strictly be running summer camps.

The two of us ended up enrolling in a painting workshop called ‘I Dream In Gold.’ It took place on a Friday evening at 6:30pm. We bused it there from Century Park, which was quite convenient as transport stops right on the block of the storefront. Arriving a little early, we used the time to snap photos of the studio space. It’s bright and colourful, likely drawing the attention of the kids who come in for classes. There were rolled and stretched canvases tucked everywhere, too, probably awaiting pick up. 4Cats even has a number of branded products for sale, including tempera paints (regular and glitter), gold foil sheets, note books, figurine kits, etc.

Check out this fun room!

As the start time drew closer, we were taken to the back room. The three open walls (artfully splattered in paint) had been stapled with about a dozen square-shaped black canvas sheets. There were no chairs. This was standing only. If one isn’t too keen on putting their personal belongings out of sight in the adjoining area, I suggest wearing pants with pockets to hold phones and cards/cash (keep it light) as there isn’t really space to keep things nearby. Tucking items underneath the benches may be possible, but I didn’t try that. I decided to turn my jacket inside out and wrap it around my purse, letting those items sit on the bench below my canvas. It kind of worked for me. Still, there’s a chance of getting stuff dirty that way, so make a judgement call.

Other participants working on their pieces. They all turned out so differently!

Similar to Paint Nite, there is a host/instructor who will take everyone through the process of completing the piece step-by-step. She worked through faster and, when needed, she asked the participants to pause as she showed the next stage. This allowed us to go at our own pace while still seeing what was ahead. They actually had a number of  paint jars opened with a bunch of different colours available for use. Also, rather than brushes at 4Cats, for this workshop, we mostly used sponges to apply the colours. As a result, our hands were a total mess afterwards. To clean up, they had a washing station that consisted of a bucket of soapy water and a communal hand towel. I opted to use the sink in their washroom instead.

Once we were satisfied with our paint application, we grabbed some brushes, glue, and gold foil to decorate our canvases. I only used one metallic sheet, but several people opted to add more. The foil itself is super delicate, tending to break apart very easily as it’s manipulated. If there’s anything sticky on one’s hands, the gold will also stay there rather than adhering to the canvas. I do love how it brings dimension to the art though, and I’d be happy to try this medium again.

I think the whole workshop took a total of an hour and a half from beginning to end. Since the paints dry quickly, the art can be taken home on the same night. However, the canvas won’t be mounted or framed. Having it stretched on a wooden frame costs an additional $25 when the service is purchased the day of or $35 should one choose to return later. Leaving it behind for stretching means another trip back when it’s ready (my friend was told it could be about two to three weeks). I, on the other hand, chose to carry my canvas as is. I’ll figure out what to do with it on my own.

Considering the cost per person, 4Cats Arts Studio is quite affordable for a creative night out with friends or with the kiddos, especially if extra services aren’t required of 4Cats after the fact. It’s not really going to break the bank compared to many other crafty options in Edmonton, and it’ll get the artistic juices flowing all the same.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Café Linnea

Brunch at Café Linnea.

Well into its second year of business, Café Linnea has already accomplished a lot as far as new endeavours go. Being the brainchild of the owners behind Duchess Bake Shop, it’s no wonder that what started off as a local brunch destination (now also open for dinner) has become a favourite within Edmonton as well as on a national level. In 2017, Air Canada named it the sixth best new restaurant in the country. The accolades have been steady, and, with that, so has the hype.

During a busy day scouting out venues across the city, I decided to drag my fiancé here for sustenance. We arrived at around 10:45am on a Saturday morning. From what I understand, Café Linnea works on a first come, first serve basis. Reservations are only taken for large groups and, even then, they set aside a the majority of tables for walk-ins. Still, we had good timing because there was no one ahead of us and we were seated within minutes.

Once I settled in, I examined the room. It kind of has this outdoors brought indoors look with greenery inside a low concrete planter wall, skylights, big windows, retro chairs, bright white walls with splashes of colour, and natural wood tables and shelves. I totally think of minimalist Scandinavian design when I view it, and I suppose it’s meant to match the Scandinavian inspired dishes.

We perused the menu. While my significant other opted to stick with water, I decided to splurge on a glass of their feature juice ($6.50). On this particular day, it was a lovely deep pink that tasted like grapefruit and raspberry. If I remember correctly, I believe there was also lychee in there as well. However, I couldn’t taste it. Overall though, it was refreshing. I just wish the glass was bigger for something that costs so much.

Turning our attention to the food, my fiancé chose the Chicken Pot Pie ($22) and I went with the Fig & Cheese Galette ($17) with added House Bacon ($5). Both of these selections are considered mains, so they are meant to be filling.

I have to say, the Fig & Cheese Galette isn’t quite what I was hoping for. The menu description is detailed: “A buckwheat crêpe with fresh honey roasted fig, fig compote, today’s selection of soft, French cheese, smoked hazelnuts, finished with a drizzle of honey.” What I thought would be a mix of savoury and sweet, fell towards the latter.

 

There was way too much of the fig compote. I’d hazard a guess that they simply emptied out a whole jar of the compote with giant dollops placed right onto the slightly flavourless grainy crêpe. The extra honey simply took the sugariness to another level. The smoked hazelnuts and the cheese helped to a point, but, in the end, they failed to provide enough of a balance. The best part in an otherwise mess was definitely the honey roasted fig, which I loved for the natural flavour and texture. Thankfully, I listened to the server’s suggestion about the bacon. Without it, I would have been severely disappointed in this dish. The house bacon brought a necessary saltiness that offset all of that sweetness and saved my meal.

On the other hand, the Chicken Pot Pie was a winner. As described by my future husband, it was “like the equivalent of a peaty scotch — complex, subtle, and smoky.” This was absolutely delicious. Although I could have done without a couple of full-on bites of pure fat from the meat used (not a fan of that type of mouthfeel), everything else about it was fantastic.

 

The poached egg atop the flaky pie crust broke open to reveal a gorgeous runny yolk that seeped right into the bowl of béchamel sauce that lay hidden beneath the pie top. The sauce itself came across like a delicious creamy soup and the veggies that resided there were cooked until perfectly tender. The accompanying green salad had an earthy flavour and a light vinaigrette, but it was so tiny. Unless there’s enough salad to truly help one get their greens in, it may as well have been omitted. The Chicken Pot Pie is definitely for diet cheat days, not for those wanting a healthy brunch.

Before we made it to Café Linnea, I had fully intended on ordering a starter or a dessert to build a complete picture. Yet, by the time we finished our plates, there was no way I could squeeze in anything more. So, at this point, what I ate has me sitting on the fence between all of the good publicity they’ve received versus the reality of our experience. Regardless, Café Linnea does have a great atmosphere and pretty decent service even if the food is somewhat hit or miss. I’ll probably have to give it another go down the road (I’ve got my eye on their Tuesday Prix-Fixe dinners). In the meantime, I stand by what I’ve said here. If one plans to visit, you’ve been forewarned about the Fig & Cheese Galette.

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.