Edmonton Things To Do: Evoolution’s Taste the World of Olive Oil and Balsamic Vinegar

Main course for the tasting at Evoolution.

Personally, a good olive oil and balsamic vinegar brings me back to some of the best dinners I’ve had with friends. It seemed like such a fancy thing when I was younger to have a restaurant serve that mixture as a dip for fresh bread because it wasn’t something we ever did at home. It was such a simple thing, yet it was also a treat.

Nowadays, we’ve got a couple of great shops that specialize in these products. Oliv Tasting Room and Evoolution are on a mission to get high quality olive oils and balsamic vinegars into the hands of Edmontonians and Albertans. I’m a fan of both, having frequented each a number of times over the years. However, working downtown, Evoolution on 104 Street and 101 Avenue is the most convenient.

The Evoolution shop on 104 Street in Edmonton.

Often times, I’ve found myself hanging out there during lunch or after work eating cubes of bread doused in a variety of flavours. Bottles range in size and price depending on the the type of oil or vinegar. Nevertheless, there’s always something to please each palate, and they make wonderful gifts, especially for family members or friends who like to cook.

Recently, I was attempting to find an activity for my friend and I to do together. As per usual, I ended up on the Eventbrite app, and that’s where I came across several listings from Evoolution (104 Street & Enjoy Centre locations). Once or twice a month they hold events in the evening. After the store is closed, they prep the space to seat a large table of about ten people — more can be accommodated in St. Albert’s Enjoy Centre — who will be taken through an educational tasting and full 3-course meal that highlights how olive oils and balsamic vinegars can be used at home.

A booklet with lots of info on their products and the menu for the evening.

For $35 plus tax per person, we were taken through the proper way to taste olive oil using the strippaggio method (similar to how one might taste a fine wine). A dark blue tulip glass is cupped in the hands and warmed before taking a sip. With teeth clenched, you then have to suck air into the mouth until the oil hits the back of the throat. Doing so allows for the oil to be stripped and the flavour to be revealed. The difference between basic store bought extra virgin olive oil and the premium ones sold at Evoolution is staggering. Signs of an excellent olive oil come down to three things: smell, taste, and texture. Surprisingly, the colour and clarity doesn’t matter so much. What you are looking for is an earthy/grassy scent, a pepperiness on the tongue (high polyphenols, a.k.a. antioxidants, bring that out), and a smooth finish with no film or residue left in the mouth.

Better quality olive oils shouldn’t even list an expiry date. What needs to be indicated, though, is the crush date of the olives used to make the batch. It should last for 12 to 14 months after the bottle is opened without any issue. Still, it’s ideally consumed within 6 months since the freshness starts to break down as soon as it’s opened and continues to do so every time air comes into contact with the oil. Nonetheless, you’ll know if it has gone bad as olive oil does become rancid. We also learned that the best olive oils tend to have high smoke points because of their fatty acid content, making them fantastic for use at high heats of up to 450 degrees. That’s contrary to the myth that they are not to be used for cooking.

Complimentary mini bottles of olive oil and balsamic vinegar were given to each guest.

Next up on the agenda was an info session on balsamic vinegars. Honestly, it’d never crossed my mind to question what balsamic vinegar was made of. I was flabbergasted to find out that it’s made from grapes. White Trebbiano grapes to be exact. When crushed, the syrup from the grape juice is what is extracted, fermented and aged either in stainless steel or wooden barrels. The flavour, viscousness, and concentration of every balsamic vinegar is determined by the amount of time aged, evaporation of the liquid as it ages, and oxidization of the syrup when exposed to the barrel used. Lighter balsamic vinegars are usually processed in stainless steel or light wood barrels. Inkier ones are made using dark wood. Due to the fermentation of the product, they can easily last 3 years. I suspect, it’s also why balsamic vinegars have an effervescence when sipped on their own.

Don’t store either olive oil or balsamic vinegar in the fridge though. Condensation in the bottle can spoil them. Just keep them away from direct light and heat and they’ll be fine.

When we finished going over the finer points of each and had sampled half the store, that’s when dinner began. There was a platter of crusty bread to be eaten with our choice of oils and vinegars as well as four different tapenades. Evoolution’s famous truffle butter popcorn was served as well. I’m not a popcorn person, but I could eat a ton of that. Their butter olive oil is made with a plant extract, so it’s free of dairy. Yet, it tastes just like the real thing. Uncanny. To drink, we were given glasses of club soda mixed with their gravenstein apple balsamic vinegar. Turns out that balsamic vinegar is the perfect natural product to flavour water with. For anyone who uses drink crystals or those squeeze bottles to make their water taste “better,” you can stop doing that now.

Supper was more than filling. We were first presented with a spring salad with fresh mozzarella, basil pesto, and black currant balsamic vinegar. Our entrée consisted of an autumn wild rice pilaf — hearty winter veggies, dried cranberries, pumpkin seeds, olives, and butternut squash seed oil — likely made in their back room using a Crock-Pot and a hot plate (they don’t have a kitchen, so we were impressed). Dessert was an elaborate pumpkin pie cheesecake decorated with vermont maple balsamic candy.

As our host, Christine, pointed out, the menus are made on the fly. Usually they’re created on the day of the event, and the courses are determined by what kind of fresh ingredients are found at the grocery store. Having run these tasting sessions for quite some time, she was confident that within the last year they had yet to duplicate a menu or a single course. I declared that she may as well save me a spot every month because I’d be willing to spend the money on a meal like this regularly. Since they don’t prepare a menu in advance, it may be difficult for attendees to know if their dietary concerns can be accommodated. However, Christine assured us that once a ticket is bought, they can be contacted and informed of issues or allergies, so they can work within those parameters.

When we were finished eating, we were then able to shop the whole store at 15 per cent off. Considering Evoolution never really offers any sales, it’s certainly a plus to attend a tasting event just to get this bonus, particularly around the holiday season.

If you’re looking for something new to do in Edmonton and you like to eat, I highly encourage you to look into the next events at Evoolution. The cost of admission is well worth it. My friend and I learned so much about these kitchen staples while being “wined” and dined. It’s time that you experienced Evoolution like this, too.

Edmonton Wedding Venues

Ampersand 27’s lounge and dining room.

Right after Christmas this past year, I became engaged. I took it pretty easy at first, allowing the idea of marriage to fully sink in for a few months before starting on the journey of planning our nuptials. However, by the end of March, I thought it was time to start doing something. In my mind, it made the most sense to begin with a venue. Once we had that in place, we’d have a date, and everything else would fall in line.

My one real stipulation when choosing a location was that I wanted it to be different from any other that I’d previously been to for a wedding. Don’t get me wrong though. Every single one I’ve had the pleasure to witness has been beautiful and perfect for the couple I was there to celebrate. And, granted, I cannot guarantee that our selected venue will be new and unexpected for every single one of our guests. But, honestly, I just don’t want it to be a cookie cutter version of what my friends have already done and seen themselves. For me, that meant spots such as the Lodge at Snow Valley, the University of Alberta Faculty Club, and the Riverview Room at Shaw Conference Centre were out.

The following list is by no means comprehensive in terms of all of the places I actually reached out to. These are just the ones that Kirk and I decided to visit in person. They are discussed here in the order that we saw them.

Hansen Distillery

This option as a venue was a total fluke. We ended up here for a tour and tasting at the distillery earlier this year. When we were there I noticed how cute the lounge space is. It’s got tables, bar seats and even a stage in the corner that a band or DJ could use. They make fantastic drinks with their own spirits, too.

Rental fees at the time of inquiry were about $175 per hour. In addition, they had an expected spend of at least $2,000 on alcohol as well as an hourly cost of $20 for each bartender. At a minimum, before tacking on food catering and extra table or chair rentals, we’d be on the hook for $4,000 plus taxes and gratuities. In reality, that isn’t all that bad since beverages and the venue are already accounted for.

The only thing to keep in mind is that it’s a small space. Typically, the lounge only seats 30 people. But, more can be squeezed in. It just really limits the number of guests you can have. Yet, for those who intend to keep their wedding a more intimate affair, this could be a great location.

Enjoy Centre

Glasshouse Bistro. Photo courtesy of the Enjoy Centre.

Without a doubt, the Hole’s Enjoy Centre in St. Albert is stunning. Yet, as of this year, they only have two options for rentals, including the Moonflower Room and their Glasshouse Bistro. They used to have the Park Room on the lower level, which was better for smaller weddings like ours (we’re expecting around 85-100 guests max).

First off, I have to stipulate that, being a greenhouse, the building is warm. We met with their events planner at the end of March and it was already sweltering inside (I mean, we were literally walking around the perimeters checking for plug-ins in case we needed to bring in multiple fans). I seriously can’t fathom what it would feel like in late summer. By the same token, if you’re okay with warmer temperatures and you want it to feel like you’re getting married in a tropical destination, then this may be the one for you.

During our tour, we took a look at the Glasshouse Bistro. It’s their restaurant and it resides on the west side of the building (I believe because it seemed like the sun was setting on that side). Since the sun was shining through the windows, it made it even warmer. Otherwise, it’s a pretty venue that can be laid out with longer banquet-like tables for a sit-down dinner of up to 120 guests. The other side of the restaurant where there’s usually a cafe is then turned into a dance floor. I guess one of my problems with it is that you still have all of this retail space sort of right next to the party area, taking away from the ambiance a little bit.

My other qualm with the Glasshouse Bistro was that there were only two options for food. Either the reception is catered by their own kitchen — around $95 per person (the most expensive I came across) — or by Elizabethan Catering Services (the only outside vendor they will work with on the restaurant side).

Moonflower Room. Photo courtesy of the Enjoy Centre.

Still, the rental fee was way more reasonable than their Moonflower Room. Found on the opposite side of the floor and situated next to the greenhouse, this is where they have their seasonal market. The room is massive and can either be booked as a whole or split in half, so only the front portion is used. It’s sort of cavernous, but it’s open, inviting and versatile with a minimalist design to it. When we viewed it, a party was being set up, making it easy to picture what it’d look like. It’s also big enough that everything from the ceremony to the reception to the dance can happen in one location.

Unfortunately, with a minimum cost of $5,000 just to rent half the room, it was already digging way deeper into our pockets than we wanted. Adding on all of the other costs like a food caterer (they’re more flexible with the Moonflower Room as other vendors can be used as long as they’re approved by the Enjoy Centre), bartenders, alcohol, music, etc. meant our budget would rack up really fast.

Muttart Conservatory

Atrium of the Muttart Conservatory. Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton.

The very same day we went to see the Enjoy Centre, we also stopped in to the Muttart Conservatory. It’s one of the city’s most iconic landmarks with pyramids that can be used for intimate ceremonies of 25 to 50 people, depending on which one is selected. The atrium in between the four pyramids would then be rearranged for a wedding reception.

Being a City of Edmonton property, the rental fees are much more reasonable, and they pretty much give free reign over all of the spaces like the atrium, pyramids and the classrooms for the whole evening. What I didn’t like was how tight the schedule would be on the day of the wedding. Due to the fact that the Muttart Conservatory would be open for regular business on the day of and doesn’t close to the public until 5:00pm, any wedding setup wouldn’t be able to be done until after that time. Personally, I didn’t want to be stressing out over stuff at the last minute, so it kind of put this location at the bottom of my list.

Ampersand 27

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

This is a restaurant situated right on Whyte Avenue and 106 Street. It’s in Old Strathcona, but a block or two west of the most high traffic areas. It makes it a little bit quieter and laid back. It’s also connected directly to the Varscona Hotel (they now own the restaurant, too), which we found to be an extra convenience, especially for our many expected out of town guests.

From the get go, we were treated so well by their restaurant manager and chef. The two of them gave us a full tour of the facilities, including the banquet room in the hotel, their hospitality suite, private dining room, lounge and main dining room. They sat down with us for a whole hour afterwards to discuss what we were envisioning for our wedding day, and they were willing to work with us on our budget.

Ampersand 27 itself is gorgeous. I hadn’t been there in a while, but I vividly remembered the twinkling lights on the ceiling, the stone accent wall and fireplace. That hasn’t changed at all, and it’s absolutely the perfect backdrop for an elegant, modern wedding. The restaurant is broken up into distinct spaces, too, so it’ll be easy to configure it for a ceremony, reception, and dance.

Before we left that day, the restaurant was incredibly generous, inviting us to have a drink and a snack. The hospitality they showed us was amazing, and it really helped to solidify them as a top contender for our wedding day. FYI, this is the one we’ve picked! We’re so excited to celebrate our big day here.

Revel Bistro and Bar

The historic and gorgeous lounge and bar.

Revel Bistro and Bar is located on Jasper Avenue. It’s right across the street from the Shaw Conference Centre. Previously, it housed Tavern 1903 and Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen. This latest restaurant is brought to us by the same owners as PRIVADA Wine & Tapas in St. Albert. With a minimum spend of about $7,000 plus taxes and gratuity for a weekend booking, it’s probably one of the more affordable buyouts you’ll find.

I’ve always loved this place for the history. When the building was restored, they kept the look of the old bar that used to be inside the original Alberta Hotel. It has a nostalgic style with a fancy wooden bar, detailed tiling, pretty moulding on the ceiling and light fixtures created by the same man who designed the Titanic (so they say). It’s neat and it’s pretty. But, that’s only on the lounge side of the venue. The other half is much more sleek and modern. As it turns out, the ceiling was paneled in such a way as to amplify sound since it was made to showcase live music (CKUA is next door and I guess it was thought that they could utilize the space sometimes).

Relegating the wedding to one side of the restaurant or the other would really limit the number of guests we could have as the dining room really seats about a maximum of 70 people. The lounge can maybe accommodate another 50 people, if I recall correctly. Trying to utilize both spaces for a sit-down dinner would be difficult, if things like speeches are to be made throughout the evening as the entrance to the restaurant kind of blocks off the two sides from one another.

Logistically, it just didn’t seem ideal for our particular plans. Plus, Revel Bistro and Bar is so new that, at the time of our meeting with their manager, they had yet to host a wedding there. While they had a few already booked for the summer, they really didn’t have any experience to go off of, which is something we weren’t entirely comfortable with.

Characters Fine Dining

Characters dining room. Photo courtesy of Characters Fine Dining.

In April, we set up a meeting to view Characters Fine Dining. I’d been there once before for dinner with a friend and it stuck with me as a unique place to hold a private event. It’s a large space with an open kitchen, lots of seating and a dual-sided fireplace. When we arrived for our meeting, we got to see the lay of the land.

It’s got a much more rustic industrial vibe than anything else we’d checked out. But, there’s a warmth to the place that makes it very cozy. Their manager explained that the backside of the main floor dining room could be configured with theatre-style seating for a ceremony in front of the fireplace. The other side of the restaurant, closest to the door, would be styled for the reception. If needed, we could also rent out one of the private dining rooms in the basement for cocktails in between. Or, the patio, weather permitting, could be used for that as well.

They probably had the most extensive set menu choices out of the few restaurants we looked into. The most popular options started at around $75 per person. The expected total spend to rent out the whole main floor was about $10,000. However, that supposedly would include all taxes and gratuities. Despite the cost, this did turn out to be one of our favourite choices because everything could be done under one roof.

Prince of Wales Armouries

This was the very last venue we decided to look at. After a month of tours and meetings, I was pretty much ready to pick somewhere. I was also getting antsy about places being booked up because I’d heard how far in advance couples tend to reserve things. The Prince of Wales Armouries at 108 Avenue and 104 Street is slightly off the beaten path and maybe not the easiest to find. It’s also not a location I was super familiar with since I tend not to go much further north than Jasper Avenue.

But, I was intrigued by photos I’d seen on the City of Edmonton website. Once more, as a city property, when compared to other privately owned businesses, it’s got quite an affordable rental fee. They also have two different rooms available for booking. Between them, I much preferred the Governor’s Room though. It’s much more historic with the 19th century look whereas the Jefferson Room is only a bit fancier than a standard hall.

When renting out the Governor’s Room, it also comes with the use of the West Terrace on the second floor, which is like an indoor patio. It’s perfect for the dance at the end of the night, and it’s quite unique since it showcases the Prince of Wales Armouries as a building within a building.