Edmonton Restaurant Review: XIX Nineteen

Pepperoncini Calamari

Shortly after I moved into the South Terwillegar neighbourhood, a restaurant called XIX Nineteen opened their first location in a small strip mall situated along Rabbit Hill Road. Back then, it seemed kind of odd to have a fine dining restaurant in that spot. There was nothing of the sort nearby (there still isn’t). Probably the closest thing to it would have been the old Ric’s Grill just down the road at 23 Avenue.

It was nice to know that restaurateurs were willing to chance it on an unestablished area of the city. I’d also heard great things about chef Andrew Fung’s talent in the kitchen, so I was willing to give the place a try.

My friend and I tested it out shortly after it opened, and we were truly wowed at the quality and playfulness of the dishes we tried. It’s also quite a beautiful space that feels modern, fun (interesting art) and high class all at once.

The time since that visit has whisked by quickly. Before I realized, it’d been over four years and I hadn’t returned for seconds. Living less than five minutes away by car, it’s a bit of a shame that I didn’t make it a regular haunt. Granted, it’s not exactly affordable to do that. A main dish, on average, costs about $40.

Therefore, an early dinner consisting of appetizers and drinks from their current daily happy hour menu seemed like the perfect way to sample some plates without breaking the bank. Since they don’t accept reservations on the lounge side of the establishment (book through OpenTable for the dining room), my fiancé and I decided to drop by on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

XIX

I actually ended up sticking with a glass of water. But, my significant other chose to try a pint of their XIX Lager ($5), brewed by Big Rock. It seemed to be a crisp, refreshing beer that would please most.

Our table full of plates.

To eat, we opted to split a few of the $10 items, including the Pepperoncini Calamari, Ginger Beef, and Mini Tenderloin Sliders. From the looks of it, these are explicitly available in the bar, and it didn’t take a whole lot of time for our food to arrive. Next thing I knew it, our table was covered in plates.

Out of our three picks, the Ginger Beef was probably the least favourite of the bunch. As my fiancé noted, the batter tasted off as if the oil used for frying needed to be replaced. Otherwise, the execution was great. The coating was crisp and not too heavy. The ginger-soy glaze was deliciously savoury. In fact, I would have loved a little more sauce for dipping. Scallions helped to add an extra flavour profile, so as not to become one-note. I even appreciated the use of beef tenderloin, which was textured as though it had been braised first. The chunks of meat were also sizeable with a good ratio of meat to breading.

Mini Tenderloin Sliders

When it came to the Mini Tenderloin Sliders, the usual order is served with three sliders, but the deal is only presented with two of them. As such, I’m not entirely sure if any money is saved getting these during happy hour. However, these were so yummy. While the kennebec fries were simply so-so, the patties of meat tasted like they were fresh ground. Even though the portion makes them easy to overcook, that certainly wasn’t the case here. The beef was so juicy and paired excellently with the red pepper aioli.

Our final dish was the Pepperoncini Calamari. I thought it was going to be spicier, but it was milder than expected. The chefs were light-handed when battering the squid. It led to another well-made dish of crisp fried food. This one was garnished with pickled onions and banana peppers that brought some tartness that matched the zesty squeeze of lemon juice. Pepperoncini was a good addition for the sweetness. Any apparent heat was produced by the spicy marinara sauce that accompanied the calamari. I did not let that condiment go to waste at all.

Since it was a slow day, it’s hard to judge if the service is always as attentive. Still, we had a decent experience, finding it to be a relaxing, casual meal. Plus, the staff didn’t seem pressured to push more food or drinks onto us. They knew we were there for a quick visit, and they were okay with that. Additionally, they are one of the few restaurants on the OpenTable platform that has accepted my redeemed dining cheques. For that alone, I think we’ll definitely be back again soon.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Keg Steakhouse + Bar (South Common)

The interior of The Keg South Common.

After lackluster visits to The Keg when I was younger, I wasn’t too keen to go back. But, last year, spurred on by a couple of gift cards that my beau and I received, we ventured to the South Edmonton Common location for treat yo’ self dinners.

This particular venue has a massive dining room and lounge space, so there are tons of staff and tables. The noise certainly picks up when it’s busy, and, without a reservation, a wait is definitely in the cards during peak business hours. Thankfully, I come prepared by booking in advance through OpenTable (dining cheques are accepted, by the way), so it usually doesn’t take long for us to be seated.

On the past two occasions we’ve been lucky enough to be placed nearby the fireplace in the back room, which helps to add to the overall ambience. The styling of the establishment is classy with sleek wood paneled walls, a stone accented mantel, framed landscapes, dark wood tables, leather upholstered chairs, and dim lighting. The servers wear crisp white button downs and clean black aprons. Hosts are often dressed in business attire.

Rosemary Blackberry Limonata

Our most recent visit in March brought four of us together to celebrate my fiancé’s birthday. We started with drinks. All three of my companions went with beers or cider ($8.50 to $9.50 each). Oddly enough, The Keg really doesn’t have much of a beer selection in cans or on tap. Most of them are from large breweries with only a few craft options available in canned form. I, on the other hand, chose to go with a cocktail. The Rosemary Blackberry Limonata ($8) was comprised of Absolut vodka, house-made rosemary/blackberry syrup, fresh berries, and soda. It was served in a short glass with a sprig of rosemary for decoration. It’s a decent sipper as it’s not strong in terms of the alcohol. Although, I would have liked more syrup to taste.

The group was given one loaf of complimentary bread to start. This is such a treat. Their bread is warm, a bit crusty on the outside and so soft on the inside. The butter melts right into it, and it’s divine. Sometimes, when we think we have the room for it, we’ll ask for seconds.

Calamari

An appetizer of Calamari ($13) was ordered by our friends who graciously shared with us. Personally, I thought the calamari was a tad greasy. On the plus side, the batter was light. They also use a mix of rings and baby squid (those are my favourite) as well as red peppers and jalapenos to liven things up. A lemon wedge, ginger garlic sauce, and Greek feta sauce are presented on the side.

The Keg Burger

For the mains, both of our friends chose to go with the Keg Burger ($18). This is described on the menu as the “Keg’s own fresh blend of chuck, brisket and sirloin.” It was stacked high with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles, and applewood smoked bacon. The cheddar cheese oozed all over the meat and I can imagine the sweet-spicy flavour of the jalapeno maple aioli. Coleslaw and fries came with this item. Based on appearances, this looked like an excellent burger. I was also told that the patty definitely tasted and felt like it was freshly ground and shaped. Score one for The Keg.

Peppercorn New York

My fiancé went with his usual 12 ounce Peppercorn New York Steak ($37). Encrusted in a ton of black peppercorn with a pot of whisky sauce, it can be a bit fiery for someone who isn’t a huge fan of this spice. Regardless, it was cooked as requested, and it had a nice char that held the juices in. The plating of the veggies — roasted red peppers and green beans — and the garlic mashed potatoes was passable, too.

Sirloin Oscar

Contrary to everyone else’s dishes, mine looked like someone threw up all over it. There was also a pool of liquid underneath everything. As far as a Sirloin Oscar ($37 for 8 ounces) goes, this one just didn’t come across as visually appealing. The vegetables had slid underneath the steak, which was completely hidden by the coating of Béarnaise sauce. Scallops and shrimp were haphazardly tossed onto the plate and the blob of garlic mashed potatoes camouflaged right in. Thankfully, this isn’t the norm here. Plus, at the very least, the food still tasted good. Sure, a few bites of the steak were a tad chewy with tendons and the scallops could have been more tender and seared to a golden brown, but that sauce spritzed with lemon makes this meal sing on my palate. Maybe the kitchen should do what it does with the Peppercorn New York by providing the Béarnaise sauce in a mini pitcher to avoid the messiness.

Billy Miner Pie

We were so full after our steaks. Nevertheless, it’s nearly impossible to leave The Keg without something sweet, especially with regards to their no-questions-asked complimentary piece of Billy Miner Pie (regularly $6) for birthdays and other special celebrations. Chocolate crust topped with a thick slab of mocha ice cream and drizzled with hot fudge and caramel before being sprinkled with almond slivers is simplistic yet indulgent. It seems like too much for one, so it’s almost always shared among the group.

It’s sad for me to say that The Keg at South Common didn’t meet my expectations last month. For the money spent, I should have left feeling special. However, that wasn’t the case. When I reminisce about this outing, the memories of great conversations come first. Then, at the back of my mind, I recall the kitchen’s weak showing. It’s in sharp contrast to what we typically experience there, so I’ll chalk this up to an off day for the cooks. And, granted, even when the restaurant was full, the service continued to be top notch. I can praise them for that.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Share Restaurant at The Westin

The interior of Share Restaurant at The Westin.

Since I started working downtown over a decade ago, I’ve found myself dining at Share Restaurant about a handful of times. Usually, I visit during the annual Downtown Dining Week event in March as the savings make it well worth it. This year was no different.

Past the lounge of The Westin Edmonton, tucked away in the corner, is a stylish room coloured in sleek taupe, white, grey, and copper tones. With a mix of art, wood, granite, carpet and unique lighting, it feels welcoming yet modern. It’s never all that busy when I’m there, but I always book a reservation through OpenTable just in case. To be fair, I typically drop in early after work prior to the dinner rush. On this latest occurrence, business picked up right around 6:00pm when a number of guests showed up for supper before heading off to a concert or the theatre.

The $30 Downtown Dining Week menu at Share.

My fiancé and I, not in a rush to go anywhere, took the opportunity to really savour the experience. We opted to try their $30 three-course Downtown Dining Week menu. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a total steal as the price is about half the usual cost.

To start, we split the two available appetizers: Beef Tartare ($19) and Wild Salmon Salad ($15). These were both excellent. Technically, I only had a couple of bites from his salad, and he didn’t eat my beef tartare since he dislikes raw meat. Still, I’ll call it sharing.

Wild Salmon Salad

The salmon seemed to have been roasted, so it was cooked thoroughly. However, I thought the fish may have been a tad overdone. They refrained from using too much seasoning though and the natural flavour was great. The roasted pepper vinaigrette drizzled into the spring greens was light and brought the smoked almonds (not enough of these), baby beets, and goat cheese into a harmonious union.

Between the salad and the beef tartare, the latter was, hands down, the better of the pair for me. They minced AAA Alberta beef and formed it into a patty with a collection of herbs. It was then topped with crunchy boar bacon, cured egg yolk (not runny), and Parmesan crisps (these were amazingly good). Served with perfectly toasted crostini, this dish screamed umami, especially when all of the components were taken in a single mouthful.

While there were also two options for the entrée, neither of us decided to try the Roasted Chicken Supreme ($26). Instead, we both chose the AAA Alberta Beef Tenderloin ($36). Wow. First, I’ll quickly say that the accompanying market veggies of carrots, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts were okay texturally, but tasted rather bland. The herb-tossed fingerling potatoes were fine, too. They were at least buttery smooth. No, the absolute star of this dish is the steak, and it did not disappoint. The meat, flavoured with its own jus, was prepared to medium rare as requested. It was incredibly succulent, so much so that the knife went right through it without effort and every bite practically melted in my mouth. I’m not sure if the cuts of beef they get are always this wonderful, so I’m afraid that, going forward, I may be ruined.

To end the night, we again divvied up the two choices: NY Cheesecake (unlisted on the regular menu) and Espresso Dome ($9). These were generous in size, making them ideal for a duo.

NY Cheesecake

The NY Cheesecake had a dense, creamy consistency with that distinct cream cheese flavour base. I would have preferred extra berry coulis and chocolate drizzle as those brought added dimension to the dessert, as did the fresh berries on the side. Deprived of the sauce, the cheesecake started to become one note.

Broken Espresso Dome

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the Espresso Dome, which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy due to my aversion to the taste of coffee. The coffee mousse center was subtle, and the chocolate cake enrobed by a shell of dark chocolate made it decadently rich. It probably didn’t require the dollops of whiskey jelly on the plate though. Aside from an extra element, the gelatin lacked any pop, so it did nothing to really elevate the sweet.

A hotel restaurant is unlikely to be first place that pops to mind when I’m trying to come up with an impressive culinary destination in Edmonton. Nevertheless, Share at The Westin fits the bill. Rotating servers consistently fill water glasses, bring plates when ready and offer fresh pepper, but, otherwise, they’re rather unintrusive while you dine. The staff certainly attempt to uphold a classy atmosphere in terms of the ambience and the service. Oh, and I can’t forget about their complimentary bread. The carbs are a delicious sign of what’s to follow. So, if you find yourself downtown for whatever reason, don’t overlook this potential gem.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Harvest Room (Full Breakfast Buffet)

My first run at the Full Buffet.

I’ve been to The Harvest Room at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald several times over the past few years, but the last time I wrote about it was just over four years ago. A recent visit, prompted by the purchase of a Groupon, is giving me the chance to talk about this downtown Edmonton spot once more. This time, instead of coming in during lunch or stopping by for dinner, my family and I opted to meet up for breakfast bright and early on a Sunday morning.

Street parking on Sundays is free, so it’s possible to find spaces nearby without having to pay for the use of a lot or for the Fairmont’s valet services. The rest of the week, it will cost to park until at least 6:00pm. We had made reservations for 9:30am, and we arrived right on time. Before we were led into the dining room, the host hung up our coats in the closet, and he also requested our Groupon voucher. In this instance, the deal was a $100 value for $65 to be used on a Sunday to Thursday towards breakfast or dinner. However, I also managed to get an additional 25 per cent off with a promo code, which dropped the price down to $48.75. The original offer is still currently available.

Our table of four was seated next to one of the big windows, allowing us a great view of the entire restaurant and the patio. The space isn’t all that big and it’s not as regal as I’d assume a Fairmont dining room would be. It is classically styled though, and the servers are all dressed more formally. There’s even a window into the kitchen, so you can watch the staff as they work. It starts to feel like a fancier place when it’s apparent that they will bring brand new cutlery every time you begin eating off of a new plate.

French toast, bread pudding and a pastry.

The breakfast menu ranges from $12 for a Super Green Smoothie to $26 for a House-Cured Hot Smoked Salmon Benedict. It’s certainly not cheap. Especially when any additional drinks, including coffee, tea, and juice, are $5 each. Although, they do offer the value option of a coffee or tea with juice for $8. Taking all of that into account, it just made sense for our group to go with their Full Buffet option ($31.50 each). For about the same price as a single dish with a drink, we’d get unlimited fresh fruit, smoked salmon, domestic cheeses, yogurts, assorted cereals, bagels, toast, pastries, eggs benedict, french toast, bread pudding, crispy bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, omelettes, breakfast potatoes, and the daily smoothie. Plus, coffee or tea, and juice — I questioned whether or not the orange juice was actually fresh as indicated on the menu — comes with it as well.

From the Continental Buffet, the best item you’ll find for the value is the smoked salmon.

Personally, I wasn’t super impressed with the Continental Buffet ($21.50) selection as I found the bagels to be kind of hard like they weren’t made fresh and there wasn’t much in the way of cheeses. The fruits were alright. I particularly enjoyed the pineapple and watermelon. Both were juicy and sweet. I also will commend the pastry chef because the mini danishes that I ate were delicately flaky and soft. Otherwise, it’s only worth the money if you’re a fan of smoked salmon and yogurt-based smoothies. Eat as much of the house-cured fish as you can and drink a couple of glasses of the daily smoothie to completely justify the cost. But, really, for an extra $10, it seems like a no-brainer to just go with the Full Buffet. While I didn’t try the eggs benedict or the scrambled eggs (I’m not a fan of eggs that have been sitting for periods of time), I made an effort to sample everything else.

Prairie Omelette made fresh to order.

First off, I’ll say that I appreciate the fact that, even though it is a buffet, they’ll take omelette orders at the table, so the dish is freshly cooked and comes hot from the kitchen. I chose the Prairie Omelette, which is usually $23 on its own, served with potatoes and tomatoes. Filled with boar bacon lardons, charred peppers, tomatoes, green onion, smoked apple wood, and smoked cheddar cheese, it was okay. I definitely could have used more cheese, and I would have preferred a fluffier egg.

The bread pudding at the 12 o’clock position was so good, as were the mini danish pastries.

Again, items that sit out at the buffet in warmers are never going to be the best unless there’s high turnover. That’s why I wasn’t too keen on the french toast. The slices seemed kind of stale and the berries that were tossed into the pan looked as though they’d been heated a bit too long. On the other hand, the bread pudding was fantastic. When I lined up to get some of that, I was at first disappointed to see that the tray was missing. But, that turned to happiness when I saw that a new bowl of bread pudding was being brought out just as I reached the buffet. The sweet bread was subtly flavoured with cinnamon and a dusting of icing sugar. I paired it with a few strawberries I pulled from the tray. It’s simple, but tasty.

The breakfast potatoes were savoury and tossed with roasted tomatoes. They were the perfect accompaniment to the plump sausages and the copious amounts of crisp bacon strips that I had. Those were all perfectly prepared.

My pot of tea was included in the price of the Full Buffet.

All in, my family paid about $100 after tax and tip out of pocket. At $25 per person, the value was there. However, when it comes down to the regular price, this is more than I would typically spend on breakfast (I’ll take the $8 happy hour special at Earls over this any day). Yet, if it’s not too out of the way, you’ve got a big appetite, and you’re looking to treat yourself to something nice, the Full Buffet at The Harvest Room should be a contender. Go for the drinks, fish and meats, and fill out the rest of your meal with other sides such as the delicious pastries. Just keep in mind that the value lies in certain items and stick with those.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nello’s Cucina Italiana (St. Albert)

The giant plate of Carbonara pasta.

Always looking for a deal and to try somewhere new, my fiancé and I recently ended up at Nello’s Cucina Italiana in St. Albert. We stopped in to use our dinner Groupon on a Sunday night at 6:00pm. We had reserved a table in advance to ensure a spot; however, it wasn’t actually all that busy during that hour.

It’s a cute, inviting restaurant with a bit of a European flair: warm lighting and wall colours, tiled floors, and paintings of Italian landscapes. Nothing fancy, just relaxed and casual. As we were left to make our decisions, I took a look around. There was a table of two about to leave with a huge bag of leftovers. Then, a few minutes later, the guests seated next to us received their dishes. The portions were massive. This was not going to disappoint.

In the end, my fiancé opted for the Pollo Parmigiano ($23.50) and I selected the Carbonara Pasta ($22). We both stuck with water for the evening, and complimentary bread with butter was provided to start.

Considering that the Pollo Parmigiano really doesn’t come with a whole lot other than a flattened breaded chicken breast topped with tomato sauce, parmigiano, and mozzarella cheese that is then baked in the oven, this was still quite filling. To go with the chicken, there is a choice between the Di Casa (house) or Caesar salad. He went with the latter of which they certainly gave a generous amount, especially when taking into account the size of the plates used to serve all their meals. I found the greens in the salad to be quite fresh. There was plenty of dressing to coat everything. The croutons were crunchy and buttery and I enjoyed the bacon bits for that added saltiness. Along with the salad, the chicken had been sprinkled with extra Parmesan for good measure. Dried chili flakes finished it off. Personally, I think the ratio of tomato sauce to melted cheese was perfect. It created a seal that kept the heat in the meat, and added that unmistakable heartiness to a very comforting dish.

Getting ready to take a bite of carbonara pasta.

Arguably though, the pasta options are where patrons will find the best value for their dollar. Sure, pasta is pretty inexpensive to cook at home. Yet, when it comes to restaurant quality pasta, Nello’s most definitely does not skimp. I swear that the pile of Carbonara that was placed in front of me was almost the size of my head (the pictures don’t do it justice). It was a giant plate of spaghetti sautéed with chopped bacon, mushrooms, fresh herbs, parmigiano, and eggs. As expected, it was relatively salty. Nevertheless, the sauce was pretty creamy, and every single bite was enhanced by the bacon and/or mushrooms. As my fiancé noted, by the time he finished eating, it appeared as if I had still barely made a dent in my supper. At least half of it was packed up to go (and reheated as dinner for two the next night).

A slice of the tiramisu for dessert.

Had I kept on devouring my food, we wouldn’t have had room for dessert. It seems that their usual offerings include either a Crème Brûlée ($9) or Tiramisu ($10). We chose to share an order of the classic Italian sweet. Seeing as how I dislike coffee and anything flavoured that way, it really was atypical for me to go with the tiramisu. But, my fiancé favoured it, and I was willing to give it a try. For the most part, it was alright. I would have preferred more ladyfingers. The thin layer of cookies used didn’t soak up enough of the liquid, leaving behind a small pool underneath that made the dessert somewhat soggy. Otherwise, it was surprisingly light enough on the coffee that I didn’t mind the taste much.

Overall, our time at Nello’s was wonderful. The service we experienced was kind and attentive, and the kitchen must have a great rhythm as we were in and out in just over an hour. However, I expect that if the intention of one’s visit is to hang out for the whole evening, the establishment wouldn’t have any issue with that. It comes across as a place where family and friends can feel free to catch up with each other over food and drinks. It’s also hard to beat some of their daily specials, such as Bring Your Own Bottle Mondays (no corkage on wine), All You Can Eat Pasta on Tuesdays (this one had me intrigued), and Kids Eat Free Sundays. This is a spot that my fiancé and I can now add to our favourites.

Their list of daily specials.