Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Writer’s Room

The drink menu and interior of The Writer’s Room.

For a restaurant that pays homage to authors, it’s a bit ironic to see that, depending on where you look, the name of the establishment is written differently: Writers, Writer’s, and Writers’. Because I’ve found the second iteration used the most on the main page of their website, it shall be known as The Writer’s Room.

Always a pub of some sort over the years, this Garneau (11113 87 Avenue) eatery is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the University of Alberta. As such, upon my visit, I noticed that many of the patrons looked to be either students or professors. The menu, created by chef David George Husereau, takes that into account by elevating things like Kraft Dinner and Doritos into much finer fare. The prices are reasonable, too. Items range from $5 for snacks to $20 for a full main, making this place very accessible for the student crowd or those who just want an affordable night out.

The Grand Fizz Cocktail melted.

Additionally, The Writer’s Room offers daily happy hour from 3pm to 6pm and 9pm to close on a handful of beverages (they’ve also recently introduced nightly food specials). Although it wasn’t the best deal out of the bunch, I opted to try their Grand Fizz Cocktail (about $10.50). Honestly, it wasn’t what I was expecting. It came in a wine glass with icy slush that had clumped together into a larger chunk. I allowed it to melt, which meant the drink was rather watered down in the end. Perusing the drink menu further, there are definitely others that sounded better, but I selected this one on a whim.

Cup of Broccoli Cheddar Soup

To start, my friend and I both ordered the cup of Broccoli Cheddar Soup ($5). With a description of “natural ingredients” (what else would be used?) on the menu, it was decent. Not as creamy as I hoped it’d be, but relatively flavourful. It was topped with what appeared to be Melba toast and grated cheddar cheese like one might do at home.

Tater Tots

Everything else we selected, the two of us shared. First up were the Tater Tots ($7). Honestly, these were too expensive. They arrived in a cup the same size as the soup, so there weren’t a lot. These were covered in jalapeno nacho cheese sauce, chipotle sour cream, and green onions. I liked the sauce and sour cream; however, there wasn’t enough of it to coat all of the tater tots at the bottom of the dish. Without the toppings, they became rather bland.

Hoisin BBQ Chicken Tenders

Next were the Hoisin BBQ Chicken Tenders ($10). I pictured these being battered and crispy, but these were more like satay or kabobs with the chicken presented on skewers. It was uniquely plated though, I’ll give them that. The tray they came on had a reservoir for sauce in which ample spicy peanut sambal was provided for dipping along with sesame seeds and green onion. The meat was pretty tender and the sambal amped up the heat on the palate a tad.

The “Loco Moco” ($12) was fairly easy to split between two people as it came with two beef patties and two fried eggs atop nori and sticky rice with plenty of rich brown gravy. This is a contemporary Hawaiian dish, so it’s a bit of a surprise to find it on the menu. Aside from a poke bowl, there’s nothing else that screams Hawaiian sensibilities. Still, this simple recipe actually hit the spot. The fried eggs had beautifully runny yolks and the nori added an umami taste.

Crunchy Brussels Sprouts

Last, but not least, were the Crunchy Brussels Sprouts ($12). I get this veggie a lot when I go out. There’s just something about them that I can’t pass up. In the case of The Writer’s Room, I think they may have mastered the miniature cabbages. Cooked in brown butter and served with crisp pancetta, goat cheese, garlic, lemon, and mint, I was blown away by how good this was. A little bit of salt from the pork, slightly tart from the cheese, freshness from the mint, acidity from the lemon, and spice from the garlic married with the char from the sprouts themselves, these were to die for.

Shortbread

Dessert changes often. On this particular occasion, they had made Shortbread ($7). Layered in a jar, it felt more like a cheesecake with a shortbread crust to me. It didn’t have that buttery, melt-in-your-mouth cookie texture though. That was unexpected. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it. A pleasant finish to my meal without being overly sweet.

For the most part, The Writer’s Room is an excellent player in this area of the city. The ambiance was convivial while still allowing for easy conversation between tablemates. I found the service to be fantastic as well. The staff were friendly, checking on us regularly, but not too often as to constantly be interrupting. Sure, a few of the food items can use a bit of tweaking to really take things up a notch. Nevertheless, when you order the right dish here, you won’t be disappointed.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Farrow

The menu is written on the chalk board above the front counter.

The menu is written on the chalk board above the front counter.

Farrow has been around for a little over a year and a half, and, in that time, it has made The Tomato‘s list of top 100 eats in Edmonton twice. In fact, it was voted by readers to the number one spot in 2015.

Being close to the Garneau and Old Strathcona, it’s a bit out of my way, so it wasn’t until this past summer’s Taste of Edmonton, which takes place near my office, that I was able to sample their offerings. Their menu changes all the time, but during our annual food festival, they presented two choices: roast beef and pulled pork.

I tried the roast beef when I was there. It was a small little slider served with chips, but I could tell all of the ingredients were extremely fresh. The arugula was crispy and the roast beef was thinly sliced. Most of the flavour came from the horseradish mayo and the pickled onions. It was decent, but not totally memorable. When my friend finished her roast beef sandwich, she stated their pulled pork slider was the better of the options they brought to Taste.

Flash forward a few weeks to August and the both of us were hanging out at the Fringe Theatre Festival. Since we were spending a full day trekking all over the Old Scona area from show to show with ample time in between, we decided that this was our opportunity to drop by the actual shop on 109 Street.

We perused the succinct menu and, in the end, we both chose to go with the Grick Middle, which is the sandwich that has been heavily lauded by the media and fans of the eatery. It’s the only one that remains a staple at Farrow. By and large, this is basically a glorified breakfast sandwich. Filled with a Four Whistle Farm fried egg, Sangudo bacon, smoked cheddar, rosemary aioli and arugula, the idea of the “unprocessed” comes to mind.

One of the staff packing up my sandwich.

One of the staff packing up my sandwich.

As they were preparing our orders, I watched the staff in the open kitchen fry up the eggs and put everything together. They wrapped up the sandwich lovingly in thick deli packing paper and sealed it with their logo. The location itself is tiny. There are about three bar stools that look out the window and another four to six seats at the picnic table that sits outside the shop’s steps right next to the sidewalk. It’s not the most comfortable, so we took our parcels and walked over to the park between Garneau Theatre and Upper Crust.

I unwrapped my package and, after examining the sandwich and how to approach it, I took a few bites. So far, it was okay. Eventually, I hit the egg yolk and, not only was the bread now soaked, but so were my hands. It’s a messy one. Once the egg yolk breaks, it coats the sandwich and it gives it a different mouthfeel. A fried egg on anything just improves it, and I think this sandwich needs that.

You can tell that everything is made fresh and from scratch, which is great, but I wasn’t blown away by the combination or the flavours, and I sort of think that it was lacking in terms of portion size. The sandwich looks big, but it mostly consisted of bread, egg and arugula. There wasn’t enough bacon for me to really discern that taste in every bite I had. Maybe for $7.50, my expectations were too high, but considering that is over $2 more than a breakfast sandwich at Starbucks and it didn’t truly satisfy me, I probably won’t be spending that much on the Grick Middle again.

My wrapped Grick Middle sandwich from Farrow.

My wrapped Grick Middle sandwich from Farrow.

It’s not to say that Farrow isn’t what everyone says it is. To each their own, really. I can see why people like the place. They’ve brought the popularity of the sandwich back. This isn’t what your mom packed for you during your school days. These are grown up versions, and I love a sandwich that is piled high with ingredients that play off each other and make you crave having it over and over.

This one didn’t do it for me, but it’s not to say another of Farrow’s sandwiches won’t be the one that wins me over. For now, Farrow is good, but, personally, it’s not great. It might get there someday though.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Culina Mill Creek (Closed – visit Culina Muttart)

bibo-culina

The exterior of Bibo and Culina. Photo credit: Unknown.

Culina Mill Creek has been around for a dozen years and in all that time I had never visited. So, call me surprised when I found out that the restaurant, along with its sister location, Bibo Wine Bar, would be closing this fall. The news lit a fire under me, and earlier this summer, my friend and I decided to try the food before it was too late.

First off, I would like to say that we arrived at Culina for our reservation right on time. It was still relatively quiet in the eatery, so they had our window-side table ready to go. Kyle, our server, was excellent throughout the night. He provided some great recommendations, was attentive and really friendly.

We started off with some peach iced teas, which were perfect to quench our thirst on a warm evening. Our drinks were accompanied by two shared starters. The lamb meatballs were flavourful and succulent with a bit of heat that was cooled by a yogurt, tzatziki-like dip. The second appetizer was a plate of pão de queijo, if I remember correctly. Those were Culina’s take on Brazilian cheese fritters. Big and fluffy with lots of melted cheese inside, these were rich and filling. The house-made tomato chutney was a must to top every piece of fritter, too.

My friend’s dish (unfortunately, I cannot remember what exactly it was called) was prepared with fresh pasta noodles and was filled with chunks of roasted tomatoes and leaves of arugula, which created a nice balance with the beef and sauce. For my entrée, I went with the half order of the sockeye salmon. It was the perfect portion, especially after our starters. The salmon was cooked so well and the skin was deliciously crispy. If I could have, I would have licked my plate clean just to get every last drop of the creamy sauce that served as the base of the dish.

Brigadeiro Cheesecake

Brigadeiro Cheesecake

Since this was likely going to be my one and only chance to eat at the Mill Creek location, I figured I needed to go all out and try one of the desserts. Kyle said we couldn’t pass up the Brigadeiro Cheesecake. This was a decadent finish to an already satisfying meal. The mascarpone goat cheese cake with a crust of Oreo crumbs that was all topped off with a classic Brazilian sweetened milk-cocoa truffle sauce was wonderful. It was also a large enough slice for two to three people to share.

Sadly, October 23’s brunch will be the last service provided at Culina Mill Creek, and October 22 will be Bibo’s final night (chef/owner Brad Lazarenko does hope to reopen Bibo somewhere downtown once he finds a suitable location). If you find yourself looking for a cute independent restaurant to go to within the next month, consider dropping by one or both. The food is fantastic and worth the visit.

However, don’t fret if you miss out on either because Culina Muttart will still be available for lunch and brunch daily and for dinner every Thursday evening. As well, Brad’s culinary offerings can also be found at the Dogwood Cafe located in the Victoria, Rundle and Riverside golf courses.

It’s going to be a new adventure for this local chef and his team, so let’s give Culina Mill Creek a great send off.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Urban Diner

Weekly specials advertised in the restaurant.

Weekly specials advertised in the restaurant.

Urban Diner (@UrbanDinerYEG) has been a staple of Edmonton’s High Street area for as long as I can recall. But, it wasn’t until I was probably finishing high school or working on my undergrad that it became one of my hang outs. For several years now, it has been the brunch location of choice for my elementary school friend and I. The prices are decent, the food is simple, yet tasty, and it’s good for a casual gathering. There’s nothing pretentious about this place.

I have heard a few people gripe that the offerings have gone down hill recently, and that the consistency of the dishes between the original 124 Street location and the one on 109 Street just south of the High Level Bridge is questionable. However, the long line up of patrons waiting for tables – seen each Saturday and Sunday morning – tells me another story. It’s obvious that the diner is still a favourite when it comes to breakfast food and home style meals. Regardless of the weather or traffic caused by the closure and construction of the Groat Road Bridge, people will patiently bide their time until a spot frees up.

My last visit was no different. Months since I’d been there, I arrived a little late, but a bit earlier than my friend. Already, there were a few pairs and groups ahead of me. Everyone was trying to crowd inside the door way, some to no avail. All the tables and the counter seats were full, but I could see some people finishing up, so I knew it wouldn’t be too long. As I waved and smiled at a baby being cradled in his mom’s arms, I watched as the servers hustled around the eatery wiping down surfaces, clearing plates and dropping off food. Some of the servers I remember seeing on previous occasions. Many of them have likely worked there throughout my entire history as a customer. Personally, I think that speaks to the business itself. The fact that their staff has stuck with them for such an extended period of time, hints that they must be doing something right.

The Urban Diner brunch menu.

The Urban Diner brunch menu.

Shortly before my companion showed up, I was led to a table by the window. I still had a view of the door, and the line certainly wasn’t letting up soon. Our server grabbed me a water as a text came in; my friend was just about there. I perused the menu and glanced at the daily deals (FYI, mac and cheese Mondays are no more. That has moved to Thursday, while meatloaf now starts the week off.). Regardless of whether my heart is set on something or not, I make a point of studying the choices. Maybe they’ve swapped some items off the menu, or another selection will strike my fancy. You never know.

The frittata with multigrain toast.

The frittata with multigrain toast.

Not this time, though. Both of us stuck to the tried and true – frittatas! I used to go for the vegetarian frittata (sans the chicken apple sausage), but nowadays, I’ve been selecting the meat option. I suppose, it just feels heartier that way. A skillet of eggs, bacon (not in the veggie version), spinach, portabellinis, artichokes, tomatoes, peppers, leeks, hash browns, swiss and mozzarella, whatever option you choose, they’re both extremely satisfying and filling. It’s a dish with ample flavour and a good ratio of meat to veggies to cheese to starch. The plate also comes with your choice of toast and a pot of berry preserves, which is likely unnecessary, yet provides some sweetness to an otherwise savoury offering.

More weekly specials, including Throwback Thursday Mac & Cheese!

More weekly specials, including Throwback Thursday Mac & Cheese!

I will have to go back at some point for the Throwback Thursday all day mac and cheese special, which is only $7 (add $3 for a Nathan’s hot dog). I have a feeling they stopped serving the smoked salmon and curry versions of the mac and cheese that used to be part of their Monday menu after 5pm. Of course, I can’t say that for sure until I actually try it, but that’s my best guess based on the cost and their suggestion of topping it off, old school style, with hot dog pieces. Their retro dessert case always looks full of great after dinner treats, too. One day, maybe I’ll leave enough room to fit that in.

All I know for sure, is that if Urban Diner decides to stay, people will continue to flock to it. They have a great reputation that has been ingrained into the city’s dwellers and its surrounding neighbourhoods. And, as far as I can see, they’re still serving up the same food that my friend and I have come to love, if not for the food itself, for the memories that the dishes bring back. It’s our spot, and hopefully, it’ll always be there when we need to catch up.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Leva

Happy diners on the patio saying hello to me!

Happy diners on the patio saying hello to me!

To me, Leva (@cafeleva) was like this apparition that I would periodically spot whenever I was in Edmonton’s Garneau neighbourhood, never realizing it was an actual cafe until friends started mentioning it here and there. I’d pass by many more times before I finally made a point of trying it out at the end of May. Like a hidden gem, it’s slightly off the beaten path, tucked away among the residential enclave of the university area.

My friends and I met up for a late lunch on a Sunday afternoon. Two of us arrived together and, neither having visited previously, weren’t really aware of how their system worked. After we clarified with a staff member that we could seat ourselves and order at the counter when ready (they offer full service during dinner), we staked out a table that bridged both the interior of the cafe and the patio, so we could soak in some vitamin D without being blinded by the sunshine. The outdoor space is actually quite small, but they make good use of it and they even have outdoor heaters for those slightly chilly days or evenings. The interior is nice and bright with wood topped tables, white chairs, hints of yellow in the decor and big windows that let in lots of light.

The order counter and interior of Leva.

The order counter and interior of Leva.

Once our third party showed up, we headed over to the counter to take a look through the menu. One friend went with the Chicken Breast Panini, the other just ordered a chocolate gelato milkshake, and I got the 12″ Spicy Chicken Avocado thin crust Neapolitan Style pizza as well as a chai latte. Upon paying for our items at the till, we were given metal placards with numbers on them, which were to be placed on our table, so the servers would know who to bring the food to. In a way, it’s very similar to the set up at Famoso.

Drinks were ready within minutes. My chai latte was steaming hot. I almost mistook it for someone’s milkshake because it came in this very tall ceramic cup that looked like an old fashioned soda glass. I thought it was a cute touch. Unfortunately, I have to say that the brand of chai latte tea bags that Leva uses are only okay. I left it steeping the entire time we were there and the flavours never got that strong, remaining rather bland.

My chai latte. Cute cup, but not the most flavourful.

My chai latte. Cute cup, but not the most flavourful.

On the other hand, the food completely made up for the subpar beverage (I’ve heard the coffee is fantastic though, but I don’t drink it). My friend’s sandwich was filled with chicken breast, brie, sweet potato, rosemary, buckwheat honey and seasonal greens. She said it was really tasty, especially liking the use of sweet potato to add an extra flavour profile to an otherwise basic panini. My pizza was topped with mozzarella, spicy chicken, avocado and cherry tomatoes. I can’t say the chicken was all that spicy (I can definitely handle more), but I enjoyed the combination of the four items and the overall simplicity of the meal. Everything tasted so fresh and the crust was crispy on the outside yet soft enough to fold for easier eating. I devoured the entire thing in the one sitting.

The dessert case was awfully tempting, too. I was absolutely stuffed after eating my whole pizza, so I refrained from indulging further, but one of my friends did pick up a macaron that she said was very good.

Edmonton foodies knew much earlier than I did about Leva – voted by readers into the No. 47 spot on The Tomato‘s directory of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton for 2014 and No. 38 in 2013), so I have them to thank for nudging me towards the place. I also happened to catch a glimpse of who I’m sure was local celebrity, Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 32 and Bar Bricco, stopping by to pick up a drink. If that’s not enough to tell me that Leva should be on the radar after 10 years in business, I don’t know what is.

Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 31 and Bar Bricco (or his doppelganger) stopping by for a drink.

Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 31 and Bar Bricco (or his doppelganger) stopping by for a drink.

The food seems to be relatively healthy, keeping to the basics of the ingredients. That’s something that I think is important when eating out, so I’m excited to add this establishment to my ever-growing list of city restaurants to revisit. And, after having been twice in the last month, it’s now also one of my friend’s new favourite hangouts, so I’m sure I’ll be coming around more in the future.