Edmonton Restaurant Review: Famoso (WEM)

Our spread of food at Famoso WEM.

I recently reviewed the Famoso Magrath location of my own accord, and, subsequently, I was invited, along with my fiancé, to the Famoso at West Edmonton Mall (WEM) for a VIP meal on the house. We decided to take them up on the offer, visiting the eatery at 5:00pm this past Monday.

With Famoso’s brick and mortar space situated next door to the popular Cactus Club Cafe, it would seem that diners could be enticed when shoppers are already so close. Yet, thinking about it, it’s really not the ideal spot. There is no direct door connecting the restaurant to the mall from inside, and there are no convenient entrances that allow patrons to sneak out of the mall for a quick jaunt over to the restaurant. The closest way to get to Cactus Club or Famoso used to be a shortcut through a set of Sears doors, but with the store closed, I’m assuming it’s always locked.

Now, customers either have to hightail it across a large parking lot to get to Famoso, or, like my fiancé and I, grab the car and drive it right to Famoso to park there. My guess is this small hurdle is a deterrent for a lot of people. After a long day of walking around the mall, many won’t go out of their way to get to Famoso, and once they’re in the car, they may just opt to go home instead of dining out. If potential visitors aren’t near the mall to begin with, I could see them skipping out on going to WEM all together to avoid the crowds.

Speaking with the manager on staff when we arrived, I was apparently correct in my assessment. Famoso WEM is not attracting the numbers that the other locations in Edmonton are, which is unfortunate news. Aside from it’s questionable proximity to our famous landmark, it’s actually a lovely space. It’s incredibly open, airy and bright compared to the rest of the Famoso establishments I’ve been to. The venue has high ceilings, a big kitchen, lots of lower tables that are roomy and comfortable, a fireplace that grounds the room, and they even have a waiting area at the front. It’s actually a sharp contrast to what I’m accustomed to seeing at Famoso, and I appreciated this.

When it came to the food, we were pleased, too. The quality is on par with what we’ve had at the rest. On this occasion we sampled more than a handful of their items: a glass of Raspberry Ginger Beer ($4.65), the skillet of Cauliflower Artichoke Dip ($12.35), a bowl of Mac + Cheese ($14.65), the Italian Pulled Beef Sandwich with Caesar Salad ($16.35), a Create Your Own 5-Topping 12″ Pizza ($18.35), and a jar of White Chocolate Panna Cotta ($6.65).

My glass of Raspberry Ginger Beer and a bottle of Peroni.

The Raspberry Ginger Beer is a non-alcoholic beverage that includes one refill, so the value isn’t too bad. It’s made with fresh lime, bitters, house-made ginger syrup, soda, and raspberry syrup. Initially, I found it to be subtler than I expected (not overly sweet). As it turns out, I should have mixed everything together because the last few sips were quite sugary. In terms of the flavour, my second glass was better balanced when I made sure to stir the ingredients regularly.

Both of us loved the piping hot — let it cool for a bit first — Cauliflower Artichoke Dip. It’s a new take on the ubiquitous spinach dip with the greens replaced by roasted seasoned cauliflower. The majority of the texture still comes from the artichokes. Oven-baked cream cheese, cheddar, and smoked mozzarella created that gooey yet smooth consistency. Even though I ate all of the tortilla chips, I will admit that they were not my favourite. I thought they’d be more crisp. Somehow, they weren’t. In any case, the garlic flatbread is where it’s at.

I was curious about the Mac + Cheese. Again, this wasn’t my top pick. It was passable though. My recommendation is to eat the whole dish when it’s made fresh. Don’t take it home as leftovers because it’s not as good when warmed a second time. They use a beer cheese sauce as the base and then it’s topped with cheddar, herbaceous gremolata, green onions, and prosciutto crisps. It’s garnished with crunchy bread crumbs as mac and cheese should be. The taste was there; however, it lacked enough sauce. The amount provided coated the pasta, but it didn’t leave much else.

We were surprised by the Italian Pulled Beef Sandwich (I believe this is a seasonal item). Sure, the house-roasted hand-pulled beef was a tad overcooked and dry as if it’d been reheated. Nevertheless, all of the other elements of the sandwich were superb. The crispy prosciutto, provolone cheese, caramelized onions, pepperoncini, lettuce, tomato, horseradish aioli, and the butter grilled brioche bun added layers of texture and flavour, so that every bite was slightly unique. The side of Caesar salad was alright. They utilize a very light house dressing that was barely noticeable on the romaine lettuce. What improved the salad was the spritz of lemon juice along with the exorbitant helping of Grana Padano flakes and prosciutto crisps.

In the past, whenever I went to Famoso, I would typically order one of their signature pizzas straight off of the menu. While it’s still tempting to do so as there are some fantastic choices, my fiancé and I now prefer to build our own 5-topping pizza. We started with a parmesan crema base and added sun-dried tomatoes, fresh feta, chicken, soppressata, and fresh prosciutto. Basil and olive oil were included at no charge as well. It leans on the salty side with the cheese and cured meats, but the chicken is so succulent and I love the sweet-tart flavour and chewy texture of the preserved tomatoes. My fiancé and I refer to this creation as “The KC” (our initials). If anyone is ever inclined to try this pizza, let me know what you think of it! Oh, and don’t forget to order tzatziki to dip the crusts.

White Chocolate Panna Cotta for two.

Dinner out is never complete without dessert. I chose to go with one of the lighter selections for the two of us to share. As White Chocolate Panna Cotta goes, this was decent. The sweet is house-made with the panna cotta set in a mason jar. Strawberry sauce and shaved dark chocolate are placed on top to finish it off. I would have liked to have seen extra strawberry sauce to pair with each bite of the white chocolate panna cotta. I also found the dark chocolate shavings to be harder than expected. This is probably because the dessert was prepared earlier and refrigerated, which solidified the dark chocolate. I think adding the chocolate shavings right before the dessert is served would improve it because the dark chocolate would more easily melt in the mouth.

It’s funny. When we sat down for our reservation at Famoso WEM, it was quiet in the restaurant. Only a few other tables were occupied. It matched what the manager told me about how slow business could be. Yet, when we left, it was a packed house with customers waiting at the front to be seated. The realization that it was spring break kicked in, and that time off for families certainly made a big difference. In fact, the majority of diners had young children in tow. Even though the restaurant wasn’t staffed appropriately for the rush they received, they didn’t seem to miss a beat. Every table with kids was greeted by the manager who asked how many dough balls he should bring for the kids to play with. Is this a new thing at Famoso? Or, do they just do this at WEM? Either way, it’s an ingenious way of preoccupying the children, so everyone can eat in peace.

Living in the southwest side of Edmonton, Famoso WEM is never going to be our location of choice for their Neapolitan-style pizzas. It’s too out of the way for us to go there regularly. Nonetheless, our experience was a good one this week. So, if we’re ever in the neighbourhood, this spot will definitely be on our list of options for a delicious meal and great daily specials.

Current daily specials are listed in the drink menu.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Famoso (Magrath)

Korean BBQ Chicken Pizza

Famoso‘s original Jasper Avenue location was one of the first handful of local restaurant reviews I wrote on this blog. I’ve been a loyal customer over the years, but with the introduction of delivery service through SkipTheDishes, I started having the food dropped off at my condo and I stopped going into any of the physical locations.

Fast forward to January. I had a Groupon on hand for the Magrath Heights Famoso at Rabbit Hill Road and 23 Avenue. My fiancé and I popped in for an early supper on a Sunday afternoon. When we arrived, the server indicated that we could sit wherever we liked. We ended up grabbing a cozy booth and she dropped the menus off.

I took a look at the space and thought I’d make note of the table number, so I’d know what to tell them at the till during our order placement. As it turns out, the number was missing. I asked the server if the restaurant was now full-service and she confirmed what I thought. The manager mentioned that they switched to that template about a year and a half ago. This is actually preferable because it never really made sense to me to have customers get up from their seats. In the long run, they were still paying for staff to work the restaurant during the remainder of the meal and I don’t think it really saved anyone much time.

On this occasion, we opted to get two 12″ pizzas: the white Cavoletti ($17.35) and the seasonal Korean BBQ Beef ($18.35).

Cavoletti Pizza

The Cavoletti is my all-time favourite pie at Famoso and, ever since I introduced it to my fiancé, it has become his as well. The combination of the soft, chewy, slightly charred dough topped with prosciutto crisps, oven-roasted Brussels sprouts, Gorgonzola cheese, dates, walnuts, and honey is always satisfying with its balance of saltiness and sweetness. I call it a game changer.

Korean BBQ Pizza

Our second choice of the Korean BBQ Beef was actually surprisingly good. There was a generous amount of oven-roasted hand-pulled beef covered in house-made Korean BBQ and hoisin sauce. It was sweeter than expected. Yet, the duo of a mild fior di latte and a stronger cheddar cheese, along with chopped green onions, helped to tone that down.

This was a really enjoyable dinner that was speedily prepared (we were in and out within an hour) and provided leftovers for lunch the next day. We even received a couple of vouchers to come back for half off our bills during their Gratitude Week that ran from January 21 to 25, and we took them up on the offer twice.

As usual, the Cavoletti pizza was a staple. However, we also decided to try some different items: a New World Sweet BBQ Chicken pizza, a half order of the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls ($11.95) and the Pistachio Pesto Primavera pasta ($16.35) with added Chicken ($3.35).

Sweet BBQ Chicken Pizza

Admittedly, the Sweet BBQ Chicken pizza was disappointing. We did alter the recipe by asking them to omit the cilantro as neither of us likes the taste of the herb. That left roasted chicken with honey smoked BBQ sauce, fior di latte, smoked mozzarella, tomatoes, and onions. I don’t think there was enough of the sauce or that the mozzarella tasted like it was smoked at all. If it’s smoked properly, that scent comes off the plate immediately and the flavour packs a punch, but it was missing completely. Maybe in place of cilantro, some spinach would have been good to bring in a little bitterness. That, or a more intense cheese such as feta.

Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls

Regarding the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls, these were decent. Their Campania tomato sauce is so fresh and tasty. I love that they drown the mozza balls in the stuff. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to the garlic flatbread. Our only issue with the dish was that it wasn’t warm. While we could tell the cheese had melted as it was still soft in the middle, it wasn’t all that gooey and it had cooled considerably by the time it made it to us.

Pistachio Pesto Primavera Pasta

I was quite impressed with the Pistachio Pesto Primavera pasta. Although I would have liked to have seen more of the linguini pasta on the plate, they certainly did not skimp on the roasted zucchini and mushrooms, green peas, sun-dried tomatoes, and chicken. The house-made pistachio pesto cream sauce was lighter than what might be found at other places, but there was enough to ensure that everything was evenly coated. We didn’t think we’d manage to finish our bowl of pasta and whole pizza that night. Yet, both items were so good that we polished it all off.

It seems that the best time to visit is in the middle of the afternoon on weekends though. We never had a problem finding a table at those times and the service was always more attentive. On our last visit, we went after work on a Tuesday night and the location was packed with people, mostly families, out for a meal. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait as we managed to grab the only available table for two. Despite that, the service was still pretty quick and friendly.

The Famoso chain of restaurants is one that I’ll keep recommending to people because there’s a comfortable consistency. Plus, it’s a local success story and I think that patrons appreciate that aspect of the business.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nando’s (Brewery District)

The plate I put together for myself from everything we ordered with our Variety Platter.

Never one to pass up a good deal, I found it imperative to use a direct marketing coupon received for the new Nando’s location at the Brewery District. After all, thirty percent off of a meal doesn’t come up too often.

My boyfriend and I made our way to central Edmonton for dinner on a Saturday at around five o’clock. When we arrived, there were tables occupied; however, much of the eatery remained open for walk-in guests. I overheard one of the servers say to another set of diners that their busiest time usually occurs a couple of hours later in the evening at around 7:00pm.

The interior of the Nando’s Brewery District location.

We were seated at the far end of the restaurant, providing me with a full view of the interior, which was well-designed, modern, spacious, comfortable, clean, and efficiently organized. As we settled in, the staff member quickly gave us the rundown of how it worked at Nando’s. Ultimately, it’s similar to a number of fast-casual establishments that restaurant-goers are likely familiar with (i.e. Famoso or Via Cibo). First, spend a bit of time leisurely perusing the menu at the table. When ready, get up and head over to the till where someone will take the order and process payment. Before sitting back down, grab water, napkins, utensils, and extra sauces or dressings from the center station. Then, build up an appetite while waiting for a server to bring the dishes over.

I have to say that, prior to visiting, I had no clue what exactly PERi-PERi was. As it turns out, it’s a specific Portuguese marinade, baste, or sauce with origins that come out of Africa, specifically Mozambique. The base is the hot African Bird’s Eye Chilli (a.k.a. piri-piri). Mixed with lemon, garlic and salt, it becomes PERi-PERi. Nando’s has stuck by the belief that simple is best, keeping artificial colours or flavours and any preservatives out of their recipes. The company has also refused to outsource their supply of chillies, and instead, they work with small-scale farmers in Southern Africa to grow them specifically for their use. They’ve created a business that has not only gone global, but also made a wonderful impact on a more local level with initiatives such as these. That’s certainly worth a commendation on its own.

The Variety Platter: Half Chicken, 5 Wings & 2 Skewers

Our food didn’t take too long to arrive. The pair of us opted to share a Variety Platter ($32.95) intended for two to three people. It included a half chicken, five whole wings, two skewers, and two regular sides. On their menu is a scale called the PERi-ometer. It’s to be used to decide on the amount of heat appropriate for one’s taste buds. There were several choices, starting on the low end with Plain…ish to the high end of Xtra Hot. Although we’re quite comfortable with spice, I still wasn’t sure what to expect of Nando’s, so we opted for Medium on the half chicken and the wings. For the skewers, we chose Mango & Lime.

According to the Nando’s website, their chicken is marinated for at least twenty-four hours to allow the seasonings to soak in and to fully tenderize the meat before being cooked over a flame grill. While I cannot attest to that statement, I will say that my overall impression of the chicken and its preparation was that it was superb. Every single bite packed a wallop without burning the mouth. It wasn’t even necessary to utilize any of the additional sauces available (unless more heat was required). The meat was incredibly tender as well. Shreds of chicken pulled right off the bone without much effort. Yet, I think, out of all the options we tried that day, my favourite had to be the Mango & Lime skewers. They were just so flavourful with an intense natural mango taste.

For our sides, we went with the Garlic Mashed Potatoes and the Spiced Rice. The garlic mashed potatoes were warm, smooth and garlicky with skins and herbs still clearly visible. It seemed as though the mashed potatoes were freshly made. I really enjoyed the spiced rice, too. Bright yellow in colour, it had been seasoned with several herbs, spices and peppers. Both were excellent accompaniments to the chicken because they complimented the meat without overpowering it.

Their traditional Portuguese custard tart.

Before we left, I insisted on getting a Pasteis de Natas ($2.50). This is otherwise known as a traditional Portuguese custard tart. I love eating Chinese egg tarts at dim sum and these are somewhat similar. Flaky crusts provide the foundation to hold the filling, but the difference comes down to what’s in the middle. The Chinese version is made with more egg and less cream, so it finishes with a brighter, glassier and smoother consistency. The Portuguese tart is closer to a sugary crème brûlée with a caramelized top. I enjoy either iteration of this type of dessert. Regardless, I was rather disappointed with the one at Nando’s. While its aroma was intoxicating, the custard itself was slightly gummy as if it’d been sitting out too long and the top looked as though it was a tad over-burnt. Therefore, I don’t think I’d be very inclined to order that again.

I have yet to go back after this first visit. Nevertheless, I’m going to call myself a fan. I’ve often thought of their chicken since, and I find myself craving it at times. Even better, I just found out that their food is now available to be delivered through SkipTheDishes, and I will surely be taking advantage of that. Whatever Nando’s is doing, they’re doing it right!

This is one happily satisfied customer!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Via Cibo

Pizza and pasta are a couple of the options to be found on Via Cibo’s menu.

Okay, so Via Cibo is a little ways out of Edmonton, but it’s close enough considering that it’s located right on Baseline Road in Sherwood Park. My visit here was thanks to another deal snapped up through Groupon. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I knew that it was a franchise in the vein of Italian street food.

When my boyfriend and I arrived at the restaurant early on a Saturday night, it was fairly quiet. I noticed that the only other diners happened to be a celebratory wedding party. They were sitting at the long communal table in the center of the space and their stay was winding down. The staff attempted to busy themselves around the open kitchen. Yet, as soon as one of them saw us walk in, she greeted us and asked if we knew the process for ordering.

Being our first time to Via Cibo, I found out that the model is similar to Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria (our local success story). The idea is pretty much the same: check the menu, order and pay at the till and then the food will be brought out when it’s ready.

Via Cibo’s site says that the shops pride themselves on using local ingredients and making all items from scratch. Although I can’t actually speak to that information as a certainty, I could see that the kitchen was stocked with the small appliances needed for making things like fresh pasta. Therefore, I’m inclined to believe that at least one of those facts is true.

Since it wasn’t busy, we actually took the time to settle into our seats and peruse the menu. Ultimately, my boyfriend opted for the Carbonara Pasta ($13) with extra Grilled Chicken ($5) and I decided on the Via Casalinga Pizza ($15).

Preparation of the food was extremely quick as the plates were probably served to us within ten minutes of us placing our order.

Carbonara Pasta with Grilled Chicken

A bun came with the pasta even though the starch was unnecessary and the Carbonara dish itself consisted of pancetta, fresh egg, Grana Padano cheese, fresh parsley as well as plenty of added grilled chicken. What I didn’t like was that the sauce wasn’t all that creamy and the texture felt as though the sauce had curdled a bit due to overcooking of the egg; it was slightly chunky instead of being smooth. Otherwise, I thought that the flavours were there.

Via Casalinga Pizza

Of the items we tried, the pizza ended up being the better of the two. While I do think that the toppings could have been spread out across the dough more evenly, the Via Casalinga Pizza is a great value. With two types of meat ─ handmade Italian sausage and Casalinga salami ─ and fior di latte and ricotta cheeses, there’s no need to tamper with the recipe. It was savoury with a slight amount of heat and the crust was easy to fold and bite into. I only managed to eat half of the pizza and the rest was packed to go.

If Via Cibo was closer to my neighbourhood, it would probably be a good alternative to our usual eat-in or take-out options. The prices are pretty fair for the portions received. It’s just not a place that is practical for us to frequent more often though. But, it’s certainly somewhere to keep in mind should I ever find myself in need of a speedy fast-casual meal in and around Sherwood Park.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Burg (Closed)

Napkin Ratings: As their menu says, "it can't be good if you aren't wearing at least some of it".

Napkin Ratings: As their menu says, “it can’t be good if you aren’t wearing at least some of it”.

Burgers are one of the simplest meals someone can make – they can be dressed up or down and they can be made with almost any meat (or veggie) available – but they are also one of the easiest to screw up. Over the years I’ve eaten a few that literally blew my mind, many that were great and settled cravings and, some that were subpar, often because they were dry and bland. Being a fan of the build-your-own-burger (BYOB) idea, I’d tried Soda Jerks a few times and thought they did a decent job of fulfilling that niche. That is until The Burg (@TheBurg4St) opened on the 4th Street Promenade in downtown Edmonton. Situated in the old Ric’s Grill/Ric’s 104 St. Grill location inside the Historic Metals Limited Building at 102 Avenue, they’ve now been operating for about a year.

While I had intended to visit much earlier, I didn’t make a point of going until the beginning of June. Throughout the last twelve months I had heard mixed reviews about the food, so even though I was really gung-ho about visiting when the restaurant introduced itself, that feeling eventually waned. Leave it to Groupon to give me that much needed nudge. Having to use my voucher, I asked my friend to join me there for lunch.

The revamped restaurant interior - a lot more rustic than before.

The revamped restaurant interior – a lot more rustic than before.

Since I had dined at the previous establishments many times before, seeing the space’s new incarnation as The Burg was a little shocking. The structure was virtually untouched, but it had been made to look a lot more spacious by knocking down some of the partitions that previously provided added privacy for the business clientele that used to be catered to. This place is now about being inviting. Meant to be a casual and social setting, it’s all wood floors, metal, rustic beams and open bulb light fixtures. The design gives it a welcoming atmosphere, and the tables can be rearranged to meet the needs of different sized groups or parties. I’m not sure about dinner, but for lunch you can seat yourself as menus are already at the table (like at Famoso), and a server will come by to check on you and take your order.

I didn’t peruse the offerings prior to getting there, so I was surprised to see the selection of feature burgers in their seasonal menu. Those are in addition to the BYOB option and the Burger of the Month. Having read that the cost of a burger there was a bit exorbitant, especially when you take into account that the price doesn’t even include a side, I was happy to see that they at least give you the option of a Burger Combo lunch special that includes a basic burger and your choice of side for only $11. Our table neighbours went with that and it looked great.

Instead, my friend and I opted to share an order of the Mac ‘N’ Cheese Balls (or rather squares) to start. Cubes of elbow pasta covered in sharp cheddar, white cheddar and cream cheese sauce and then crusted with panko, fried and served with jalapeno queso dip, they were very good. I particularly liked the texture as the panko breading gave them a good amount of crunch that gave way to its cheesy center. These were actually quite similar to the version that I had back in May at The Phork. The Burg takes a less upscale approach by forgoing the truffle oil, and comparatively the spicy chili Ketchup at The Phork trumps the dip here because it packs a bigger punch with the taste. Still, I wouldn’t pass these up.

For her main, my friend ate the Southern Fried Chicken Burger. I didn’t sample it, but she said it was delicious. The burger consists of a corn flake crusted thyme and onion scented ground chicken patty that is deep fried and finished with white BBQ sauce, leaf lettuce and tomato sandwiched between a toasted potato scallion roll. My love of lamb won out, so I ordered the Lamb Provencal (not available on the current menu), which is a lean ground lamb patty scented with Herb de Provence and mint, topped with grilled zucchini, roast red peppers, roasted garlic aioli and arugula in a toasted ciabatta roll. All I can say is that it was a flavour explosion. The meat was really juicy and the veggies were cooked until tender. Both burgers were given a ‘4 Napkin’ rating (extremely handy, especially if you’re on a date!) on the menu, meaning they’re some of the messiest available at the restaurant, and I will attest that my friend and I had sauce dripping down our hands as we dug into our meals. Being that we had also devoured the appetizer, neither of us managed to finish our burgers, so we each packed up the last half for dinner that evening.

Unfortunately, I’m not able to argue with what others have said about The Burg in the past. Every person has their own unique experience and opinion. This was my first of two visits and, so far, from my observations of the service received – our server was really attentive and came back when she said she would (as opposed to 20 minutes later) as we weren’t able to make up our minds when we initially sat down – and the quality of the food we had the pleasure of consuming on this particular occasion, I can say that I’ve now forgotten about those dated reviews that I had come across. Based on my own knowledge of The Burg, I would definitely recommend this as a hangout to my friends if they’re looking for a centrally located and satisfying burger joint.