Edmonton Restaurant Review: Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya

Our table was full of dishes and plates!

Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya is the newest Japanese option in downtown Edmonton, and, after eyeing Instagram posts for a while, I finally made it there after work on an early Friday evening.

I had made a reservation for two people using the OpenTable app. When we arrived at around 5 o’clock, it turned out we were the first joining them for dinner service; the restaurant did start to fill up a bit as we dined. It’s a nice space with lots of warm woods and pleather upholstered chairs. They even have a decently sized waiting area, so it’s not cramped should there ever be a delay for a table.

The interior of Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya.

The staff on hand was minimal that night. There was only one server and a couple of other staff behind the bar (not including whoever was in the closed off kitchen). Still, the service was pretty good. My only issue is that the server became less attentive after dessert and it was actually difficult to wave her down for the bill. Perhaps that’s because this place is an izakaya. The whole point of casual pubs like this is the slower pace and the extended meal where shared plates are ordered throughout the evening. She may have thought we intended to stick around longer and that’s why she didn’t disturb us or ask if the bill was wanted right away.

In any case, we lingered at Let’s Grill Sushi for almost three whole hours. In that time span, we sipped on drinks (I stuck with a simple ginger ale for $2.75 with free refills) and snacked on a handful of dishes, including a complimentary salad, skewers, two rolls, hot stone meat, and something sweet.

Complimentary Noodle Salad

A cold noodle salad was brought over and offered on the house. We were told it was a refreshing bite to help cool off on a hot day. The noodles were slightly transparent white, not quite glassy, but not opaque either. They were slippery and a tad chewy. Topped with kelp and thinly sliced cucumber, it was super simple with a hint of acidity.

As part of happy hour (Monday to Friday, 2pm to 5:30pm), Let’s Grill Sushi offers a few different skewer options. We opted to try a half-dozen of the Honey BBQ Pork, which are usually $8.50 per order, but only $5 on special. Wings and Sapporo pints are also the same price. I’m so glad we tried these. The skewers were prepared very well. Most of the fat had rendered from the meat, leaving a small amount of juicy crispness on the pork. The well-seasoned meat was slightly charred, adding to the overall flavour before they were finally garnished with green onion and nori.

We split two of the maki rolls: Crunchy Spicy Salmon ($14) and Yellowtail Fry ($13). The reason why we went with the former off of the Chef’s Specials of the Week menu is because, unlike the tuna version, the salmon roll replaced avocado with cucumber instead. My friend’s sensitivity to the healthy, fatty carb is avoided when possible, and, rather than asking for substitutions, it was easier to try the Crunchy Spicy Salmon. I actually didn’t find these to be all that spicy. Although, I did like the texture, and they were the lighter of the ones we sampled. The Yellowtail fry consisted of the fish, cream cheese, jalapeno and shiitake mushroom rolled in rice and nori. The roll was then battered, fried, and drenched in sweet truffle mayo. While I did enjoy them, there was almost too much to take in at once.

The eatery features a few hot stone meat options, too. I remember going to a Japanese grill in Kyoto where my friends and I tried this fantastically tender beef tongue. When I saw the Premium Beef Tongue ($16) on the Let’s Grill Sushi menu, I thought it’d be great to give it a shot. In Japan, the beef tongue was served like a filet of meat. Here, they had thinly sliced the tongue like carpaccio. It allowed the meat to cook super fast on the hot stone slab. Unfortunately, it had a chewier consistency than I hoped for. Regardless, I loved the three dips (salt, ponzu, sesame-type sauce) provided alongside the tongue. Next time, I may go for their duck though.

Matcha Creme Brulee

Prior to even eating anything else, I already had my mind made up on dessert. Whenever Matcha Creme Brulee ($7) is on the menu, there’s no question. This sweet ending is made in-house. The only thing I would have preferred is a thinner sugar seal. My spoon practically bounced off the caramelized top with my first attempt to break through. A second harder tap managed to crack it. I tend to enjoy a lighter caramelization that provides just a little crunch while being thin enough to melt in the mouth as opposed to worrying about the deterioration of my teeth as I bite onto thick sugar. Thankfully, on the plus side, the creamy custard base had a strong enough matcha flavour; it’s the worst when places serve halfhearted matcha desserts.

 

Aside from the slow service that most of us aren’t used to, Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya definitely checked off a lot of boxes as a hang out to start the weekend. I do worry that maybe they’re attempting to do too many things on their menu, but we tried several items, and I found all of them to be satisfying to some degree. I was particularly happy with those skewers and the rolls. It’s also a huge plus that they offer happy hour and daily specials, so I’m excited to go back to take advantage of those deals again.

Edmonton Business Review: Board N Brew

The interior of Board N Brew.

There’s been an influx of board game cafes in Edmonton over the past few years. One of the newest ones is Board N Brew. Situated on 99 Avenue and 103 Street, it’s probably the most spacious and better designed spots of its kind in the city, and it’s only a hop, skip, and jump away from my office. It’s sort of easy to miss though. Unless it happens to be on your route to and from work, there’s a good chance you’d be unaware of its existence.

Alcohol is served here.

Now open for about 15 months, I gathered some friends for an evening of board games after work in the middle May. Since groups can reserve space before 8pm, I took the opportunity to book us a table just in case. The six of us trickled in between 4:15pm to 5:30pm on a Wednesday night. At first, the staff seemed to be attentive. Someone came over a few minutes after we arrived to take drink orders (a can of Stiegl Radler was $6.50), and another returned a short while later to put through any food we wanted.

The menu is quite succinct with a focus on snackable items. However, they do offer Battista’s calzones and a few entrées that seemed to require more than a microwave or panini press to cook (most of the other board game cafes tend to stick with sandwiches and wraps). One such item was the Chicken & Waffles ($15), which I opted to try.

Chicken & Waffles with Kettle Chips

Really, when it comes down to it, this is a fairly simple dish. It requires batter, a waffle maker, chicken, a fryer, and some maple syrup. I found the waffles to be good. They were crisp, but still a touch fluffy on the inside. The chicken was breaded and seasoned nicely. The meat was clearly solid white chicken breast and it was still juicy. Whatever herbs and spices they used had some heat to it, too, giving the meal some added flavour. A cup of maple syrup sat on the side, so I was able to apply it as I felt was necessary. Served with the waffles was a bowl of plain kettle chips. I’m not sure what brand they were. I doubt they make them in-house or anything. I would have preferred a dip to go with them. Thankfully, my friend gave me her leftovers from her Naan Sampler, so I could have something to jazz them up.

After our mains were had, that’s when the service went down hill. They kept forgetting to bring over things people had ordered (not unlike my previous experiences at places like The Gamers’ Lodge or even at Table Top Cafe on occasion), and they eventually stopped checking on us.

Board Game Legend

Staff aside, Board N Brew is awesome when it comes to their selection of games. At a rate of $5 per person to play as long as you want, it’s worth it. I love their game legend, which breaks down how they’ve sorted everything on the shelves. It makes it easy to find what one is looking for. Also, maybe it’s because the place is relatively new, but most of the cards and pieces in the games we chose to play — Cards Against Humanity, Taboo, Spank the Yeti, Rhino Hero, and Rhino Hero Super Battle — were clean and in excellent condition. I really appreciated that as I’m a bit of a germophobe and feel absolutely disgusted when I come into contact with sticky surfaces. So, score one for Board N Brew in this respect!

As I mentioned previously, the layout of the venue is great. Large booths that seat six people each line all of the windows. Other configurable tables are located in the center of the space. At the back, there are two private rooms. Both can be booked in advance, although they do require minimum spends. The lighting is also pretty good, especially during the day when sunlight comes streaming right in. Staffers are also supposed to be able to assist with game explanations, but it depends on whether or not they’ve played it before.

Overall, we had a wonderful time. Sure, the staff can use some additional training to bring the service level up. Otherwise, the food and drinks were satisfactory (for the majority of us; likely to each their own), the shop was orderly, and, best of all, it was an incredibly affordable outing.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cactus Club Cafe

A couple of my favourite things at Cactus Club.

For the past few years, I’ve been sharing my top 24 picks for the best eateries in Edmonton (check out the 2017 list here). Even though I have never reviewed it until now, Cactus Club Cafe has been a mainstay within the rankings. A favourite ever since 2009 when they entered the city’s food scene with their West Edmonton Mall location, it’s interesting to see how their brand has developed and been embraced.

Cactus Club’s Retro Logo; Photo courtesy of their Instagram page.

I don’t know if anyone else remembers, but I recall going down Jasper Avenue as a child and seeing this big sign with a drawing of a smoking cow on it. That was the original Cactus Club logo from when they first attempted to expand into Alberta in the 90s. Should my memory serve me correctly, the building that once housed that iteration of the restaurant is now the Rexall pharmacy on 118 Street. My family never went there, and it seems many others in the city avoided it because it closed soon after.

The dining room of the Jasper Avenue location.

It wasn’t until a decade or so later that Cactus Club decided to give this market another go. This time, it was the place to see and be seen. On its best nights, patrons would willingly wait hours just to get a table for their large group of friends. They didn’t want to go anywhere else. The chain had gone from a funky eatery to a sleek establishment that served consistently upscale food and drinks. It was so successful and busy (it literally took away business from nearby competitors like Joey and Earls) that I’m actually surprised it took another four years before the company launched a second eatery on Jasper Avenue. About six blocks east from the one that failed in the nineties, it’s become a popular spot for locals to hang out as well.

Having frequented Cactus Club for almost a third of my life, I’ve developed a love of specific dishes. Some, such as the BBQ Duck Clubhouse and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar, are signatures of Chef Rob Feenie who joined the business as a “Food Concept Architect” in 2008 just before their foray back into this province. Sadly, I don’t make it to the restaurant as much as I used to, and, when I do go out, I really appreciate good deals.

The recently updated happy hour menu.

They’ve long offered happy hour specials at Cactus Club (available from 2pm to 6pm and 9pm to close, Monday to Saturday). However, they recently revamped the menu, a la Earls, to cover a greater variety of their dishes and drinks at a few stellar price points (I’ll be listing the lower prices here, so check their online menus for the regular costs). Therefore, when my fiancé and I wanted to celebrate our second anniversary together, we chose to go here. We still ended up spending over $100 on our meal for two, but we certainly didn’t skimp on anything (we ordered a lot). It gave me a great excuse to reacquaint myself with plates that I hadn’t eaten in a while.

As far as my significant other goes, he’s quite content with a beer, so he alternated between the Udder Pale Ale and Longboard Lager ($3 per sleeve). Those are brewed specifically for Cactus Club and have been staples for quite some time. I started with a Whiskey Ginger Smash ($5) cocktail. I really didn’t taste a whole lot of ginger. I enjoy it when you get the spice from the root, but it didn’t come through so much as the rosemary. My second libation of the night was their classic Bellini ($4). It’s basically an adult version of a slushie that tastes like a fuzzy peach in liquid form.

The rest of our dinner was a free-for-all. We ordered two Mini Burgers and two Mini Crispy Chicken Sandwiches ($4 per slider), one for each of us. On the side, we shared a bowl of the Truffle Fries ($4). We split the Ravioli + Prawn Duo ($8), Pesto Chicken Quesadilla ($8), and the Blackened Creole Chicken ($20).

Honestly, of all the things we selected, we weren’t sure that the sliders were of great value. Sure, a few bucks are saved in comparison to the regular appetizers, but they’re pretty small on an individual basis. Despite the size and amount of meat, the flavour was there. I did remove the pickles and onions as I’m not a fan. Still, the chicken was clearly white breast meat, the sambal mayo gave it a little bit of a kick, and the mild, nutty Swiss cheese provided a balance. What made the mini burgers delicious was the red pepper relish and Dijon mayonnaise atop the perfectly charred Angus beef.

I almost forgot to include the Truffle Fries. Thankfully, I remembered part way through our meal. These were so yummy. The potatoes were fried to a golden brown and then doused in truffle, herbs and grated Grana Padano cheese. A small saucer of garlic aioli accompanied the fries, taking them to another level.

Ravioli + Prawn Duo

Instead of a trio of ravioli, the happy hour deal offers a duo of the dish. Two large pockets of pasta hold butternut squash and mascarpone. It’s cooked in a decadent truffle butter sauce and then served with a sautéed jumbo prawn placed on each square. Pine nuts and fried sage leaves garnish this masterpiece. The shrimp was plump and juicy. The ravioli and sauce is rich. The sage and pine nuts give it an air of earthiness. This is one of their standards for a reason.

Pesto Chicken Quesadilla

It’s funny to find something as simple as a quesadilla on a menu where they seem to lean more towards high-end than casual. Yet, the one at Cactus Club works. Admittedly, I’ve never much appreciated the triangles and strips of tortilla chips that anchor the plate (I’d rather fries or a salad without the additional cost to upgrade). Nevertheless, the Pesto Chicken Quesadilla is on point. It comes down to the combination of ingredients. There’s the herbaceous zestiness from the basil pesto, sweetness from the sundried cranberries, melted cheesy goodness, smoky grilled chicken, and a slight sweet-sour flavour from the light honey lime dip. This is something that I used to emulate at home because it’s a recipe that was accessible, easy, and satisfying.

Blackened Creole Chicken

The final entrée we shared was the Blackened Creole Chicken. I’d never tried this one before, so it was new to me. Outside of happy hour, it’s usually over $25, so there was about a twenty per cent savings on this dish. I’m not sure it was worth the money though. It was a decent amount of food, for sure. However, a lot of it consisted of the buttered mashed potatoes. Also, while I could eat asparagus for days, the stalks we received were overgrown with the woody ends still there. Proper preparation calls for the bottoms to be snapped off, leaving only the tender portion of the greens behind. Other than that, the chicken (skin on) was well-seasoned and succulent.

Beef Carpaccio

We must have been done by now, right? For my fiancé, that would be a yes. For me, that was a hard no. Before leaving, I indulged in an order of their Beef Carpaccio. It’s been a favoured Cactus Club item of mine, and it’s one that I always return for. On this occasion, a few pieces of the crostini were a tad too toasted. Nonetheless, they tasted wonderful with baked-in garlic, drizzled in olive oil, and sprinkled with herbs and cheese. The super thinly sliced peppercorn-crusted beef tore apart at the sight of a fork. I carefully curated each bite with meat, Dijon aioli, a fried caper, pickled onion, arugula, and a cut of Grana Padano. This is truly the best.

When all is said and done, Cactus Club does a ton of things right. From a mix of atmospheres within the same restaurant (patio, lounge and dining room are all different) to the magic that happens in the kitchen to the well-trained front of house staff, it’s clear that this homegrown company is here for the long haul. They’ve learned from mistakes made early on and they’ve taken those lessons to grow this chain into a Canadian empire that appears to have the legs to go even further should they choose to. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Cactus Club name on an international scale. For now, I’m happy to have it in my backyard.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Bottega 104

Bottega 104 is all about Italian.

Situated on the 104 Street Promenade, between Jasper and 102 Avenues, sits Bottega 104. The Italian eatery is less than a year old. Nonetheless, it seems to have become a favourite in the downtown neighbourhood. When I arrived after work to meet a friend, patrons were starting to trickle in. By the time the two of us left, the venue was jam packed full of people.

My reservation, booked through the OpenTable app, yielded us a table towards the far back corner of the restaurant. It allowed me a bit of a view of the open kitchen as well as perfect sightlines of the long bar and the rest of the establishment. Honestly though, it’s a tight space.

The bar has a lovely design.

Sure, the details of the design scheme and the lighting added to the ambience, but I didn’t find it to be particularly comfortable. It was really cramped. When I was taken to our seats, I was the first to get there, so I decided to sit on the booth side. I had to squeeze myself between the two tables, sucking in my chest, to fit through. Moreover, I narrowly avoided knocking down the wine glasses of the guests next to us. In a way, it kind of reminded me of the close quarters experienced in restaurants on trips to New York City. However, let’s face it. This is Edmonton. People aren’t used to it being like this, and I can’t imagine others love feeling as if they’re sitting on each others’ laps either.

Room aside, I narrowly missed Bottega’s Prohibition Hour specials on their cocktails. From 2pm to 5pm, $13 two-ounce cocktails are marked down to $7 each, which is a hefty savings. Once I had settled in, I may have been able to quickly select something. Yet, our server was gone as soon she dropped off the menus, and she didn’t bother to come back until my friend showed up fifteen minutes later. Ultimately, we both chose water over any other beverage.

Ready to share dishes, family style.

When we did get to place our order, we opted to share a couple of the items: Spaghetti Carbonara Pasta ($21) and Prosciutto Pear Pizza ($21). As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our food, the server came back with side plates and pasta tongs, so we could more easily divide the dishes family style. The food was decent. Although, personally, I found it to be either too salty (pasta) or too bland (pizza).

Spaghetti Carbonara

The Spaghetti Carbonara was made with a “delicate” cream sauce, smoked pancetta, and egg. It was true that the sauce was creamy; unlike other plates of carbonara I’ve eaten, the egg avoided curdling. There was great potential as seen with the extra crispy pieces of pancetta, too. Bottega also didn’t skimp on the amount of protein. The problem was that it became very repetitive on the palate with only the pork and sauce to turn to. They had essentially become one and the same in terms of flavour. I realize that carbonara is not anything fancy; nevertheless, something is needed to help cut through the dish to awaken the taste buds.

Prosciutto Pear Pizza

As for the pizza, I was expecting more. The dough was topped with prosciutto, mozza, gouda, cherry tomatoes, sliced pear, toasted walnuts, and balsamic glaze. It’s a combination that sounds like it’d be amazing. Each inch of the pizza was covered with one of those ingredients, but there was very little stacking. Therefore, each bite provided just a small glimpse of what it could have been. There wasn’t a whole lot of balance between the saltiness of the cured meat and cheeses, the sweetness of the pear, the nuttiness of the walnuts, or the acidity of the tomatoes and balsamic drizzle. Additionally, the pizza cooled off fast, taking away the gooiness that any of the melted cheese may have had.

Zeppoli

Our night concluded with us splitting the Zeppoli ($9) for dessert. Bottega lists it as Italian street food. Typically, they come in the form of fried dough balls covered in some sort of sauce or a dusting of sugar and spice. They’re kind of like the mini doughnuts available at all of our annual festivals. When they were presented to us, I was surprised at the portions (definitely enough for two to three diners) as well as the shape of the Zeppoli. Instead of puffy balls, they were sticks of dough in the vein of churros, yet chewier. Sprinkles of icing sugar decorated the zeppoli along with zigzags of Nutella ganache. Again, this was underwhelming. Had the menu not mentioned Nutella, I wouldn’t have guessed there was supposed to be any hazelnut taste to this. It came across as a basic chocolate sauce.

In the end, this wasn’t what I was hoping for. The service, once both of us were there, was passable. The food was edible, but nothing to write home about. Mostly, it was too crowded and noisy. I mean, the din from everyone conversing makes it loud enough as it is. So, my recommendation is that they take out a table or two and lower the music a bit. I think visitors would appreciate it more than they know. Ultimately, the menu is their bread and butter though. If I’m to return and spend my hard earned money there, that’s where they need to see some major improvements.

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.