Calgary Restaurant Review: Vin Room Mission

A petite serving of Hummus and flatbread.

On our recent road trip to Calgary, I opted to try out restaurants that offered Happy Hour menus. Our meals were planned around the mid- to late-afternoon hours or well into the evening to take advantage of the deals. During our first night there, we ended up at Vin Room Mission (2310 4 Street). We were seated on the main floor in a narrower space past the lounge and right near the kitchen. It was cute and cozy as Kirk and I sat side by side.

As we reviewed the options, I was quite tempted by a list of features that they had for the evening. But, we stuck to my plan, and ordered only from the Happy Hour items: Bartender’s Choice Beer Pour ($6), Hummus ($5), Weekly Tacos ($5 each), Spaghetti Pomodoro ($5), and Grilled Chicken Skewers ($2 each).

Bartender’s Choice Beer Pour

For the beer, we were hoping for something on tap and more local. It turned out to be a bottle of Steam Whistle, so nothing all that special and kind of expensive for the price. On the plus side, to start, they provided complimentary popcorn with the beer.

The Hummus was presented in a tiny dish with four triangles of grilled flatbread brushed with olive oil. It was nice that the flatbread was actually warm and still soft. The hummus was garlicky and flavourful. It was so small though. It took just a few minutes for us to crush that plate.

Weekly Tacos

Kirk is the one who chose to have two of the Weekly Tacos. I sampled a bite of it, and I wasn’t impressed. I already tend to dislike pico de gallo because of the frequent inclusion of cilantro, but, on top of that, the corn tortilla was super dry, tasting like thin cardboard. Otherwise, the Valentina hot sauce and chicken was fine.

Spaghetti Pomodoro

The Spaghetti Pomodoro comes meatless with a simple mix of tomato sauce, basil pesto, and shaved Grana Padano. The sauce was light, but tasty. I appreciated the amount of cheese, considering the ratio of the topping to the noodles. I was beginning to understand that Vin Room was able to have such a cheap happy hour by altering the portion sizes significantly. It’s a good thing we weren’t particularly hungry and these “snacks” were enough.

Grilled Chicken Skewers

Probably my favourite choice of the night were the Grilled Chicken Skewers. I’m pretty certain that the same chicken was used in the tacos (and I doubt they switch up the type of taco every week). Still, the pieces of chicken were plump and tender. I also enjoyed the honey-lemon glaze and fresh herbs. We even ate the petite green salad on the side.

Carrot Cake

We decided to indulge in dessert before we left. It was the Carrot Cake ($9) that caught our eyes. With a Wensleydale cheese frosting, carrot-pineapple jam, and vanilla creme anglaise, it was quite decadent. Our only complaint was that it was clearly prepared in advance and refrigerated as it was chilly on the tongue. It would have been more pleasing to, at least, have it served at room temperature. Regardless, it was a highlight of our meal at Vin Room.

I wouldn’t necessarily go back to Vin Room for happy hour alone. But, the service was attentive, so I’d be interested in checking them out again for their regular menu just to see what the quality is like in comparison to what you get for happy hour. There was certainly a bit of promise with a couple of the items and the place was busy, so it can’t be all that bad, right?

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tokiwa Ramen

Goma Goma with Kaedama

I’ve been on a bit of a ramen kick lately. I’ve always enjoyed ramen, but it’s not something I regularly order at restaurants. Still, after a couple of visits to the newly opened Menjiro Ramen, I decided that I finally needed to try Tokiwa Ramen.

Well aware of the existence of Tokiwa Ramen since they were introduced to Edmonton, surprisingly, I’d never managed to eat there. The owners run the shop daily; however, they’re only open until the prepared broths are sold out. As such, any time I’ve been nearby the location situated in the Brewery District, I’ve been welcomed by a “No Soup” sign.

Determined, I told Kirk we’d be making the trek from South Terwillegar to Oliver early on a Sunday morning. Many people on social media had suggested arriving before the doors are unlocked at 11:00 am. Therefore, we showed up fifteen minutes ahead. We got a parking spot right in front of the restaurant, so we decided to stay in the car until a few other patrons started lining up.

Tokiwa Ramen seats about 30 people at a time.

About seventh and eighth in the queue, we were easily within the first round of customers to be served of a long line that went eastward down the length of the strip mall. The minimalist space seats approximately 30 to 35 people. By our calculations, with most guests staying for an hour or so, and Tokiwa Ramen typically closing before dinner, we estimate that they sell up to 150 to 200 bowls a day (we are guessing though).

That number of bowls is no small feat when you account for just how big the portions are. Kirk and I ordered our food, and, as we waited, we watched other people’s orders coming from the kitchen. Our jaws dropped at the sheer size of each dish. They were at least a third larger, if not more, than what we had been served at Menjiro. Considering that the prices are the same, the value at Tokiwa is definitely a huge plus.

Kirk selected the Spicy Miso broth ($14.50) for his brunch ramen. This consists of a six hour chicken soup served with pork charshu (braised pork), noodles, half of a boiled egg, wood ear mushrooms, micro greens, bean sprouts, Shanghai bok choi, and a lotus root chip. The menu is explicit about the spice being moderate, and it’s true. I finished off Kirk’s soup, and I can attest to the fact that it’s not going to burn off your taste buds. The heat is very pleasant and manageable on the palate.

Initially, I was tempted by the curry ramen listed on their features board. Ultimately, I thought it’d be best to stick with their standards on my first visit. I opted to go with the Goma Goma ($14) found on their regular menu. While it comes with pretty much the same ingredients as the Spicy Miso, the differences are in the soup and the meat. Unlike the other, the base is a ten hour creamy sesame pork broth and the pork meat is chopped rather than braised and sliced. The soup was incredibly savoury (more so than the chicken broth) without being overly salty. I loved the variety of textures throughout the bowl, including the bite of the thick noodles, which held up well while soaking in the broth as I slowly ate. My only complaint, and it’s a minor one, is that the ground pork is harder to devour. The bits of meat fell to the bottom of the bowl and the style of spoon provided doesn’t make for easy scooping. Otherwise, this was fantastic.

Goma Goma with extra noodles!

Between the two of us, we also shared a side of Kaedama ($3.50), a noodle refill, thinking that we would require extra. In the end, we polished the bowl off, but, honestly, it probably wasn’t necessary. The regular bowls of ramen already provide plenty of food. Therefore, I recommend waiting to see if the regular portions will be enough for you before deciding to add noodles.

Those people outside waited in line for an hour.

Tokiwa Ramen is the real deal. I now completely understand why people are willing to line up for an hour to get a bowl of their soup. They don’t half ass anything. Instead, they have chosen to hone their skills on doing a few things amazingly well. The owners have stuck to their guns by refusing to compromise on the quality. Their passion for their product definitely shows. Once you try it, I guarantee that you’ll be hooked. If you could read my mind, you would find out that half of the time I’m literally thinking of when I might get my next bowl of Tokiwa Ramen.

Calgary Restaurant Review: Calcutta Cricket Club

Calcutta Cricket Club

From the second you spot the mint-hued building, you know you’re in for a treat at Calcutta Cricket Club in Calgary. Located on 17 Avenue, this restaurant, designed by local artist Maya Gohill, is described by her as a “1960’s Indian social club meets The Golden Girls.”

Stepping into the space, I totally understand the latter idea. It’s got that sort of gaudy quality reminiscent of the crazy, colourful clothing the women on that show used to wear and there’s a very ’80s to ’90s vibe (à la Miami Vice). Sunny pinks and blues are offset by a large-scale checkered floor, wicker bar stools, and a prominent leaping jaguar behind the bar.

A reservation had been made in advance using OpenTable, and, upon arriving for brunch (available Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 am to 3:00 pm), we were promptly seated by a friendly server at a table for two.

Mango Lassi

We took a few minutes to review the menu. It’s not extensive, but there are several options, including a Slow Brunch consisting of three courses for $25 per person. While it looked wonderful, both of us decided to select individual dishes. Kirk went with his usual standard-style English-ish Breakfast ($15) with a side of Bacon ($5). I chose the Tandoori Fried Chicken ($18), and, because I had to have it, I also ordered a Single Chai-Ovaltine Pancake ($6.50) as well as a Mango Lassi ($4.50) to drink.

The Mimosa Cart

The Mango Lassi was served in a short glass, but, due to the thicker, creamy consistency, it was sufficient enough to go with my meal. Made with yogurt, mango, and cardamom, the slightly spicy and fruity mix was sweet without being cloying as the yogurt mitigated the natural sugars. It’s the perfect non-alcoholic beverage to pair with Indian cuisine. On a side note, I saw the mimosa cart go by a few times while we dined and it was super tempting. They use fresh squeezed juice — grapefruit, orange, or spiced pineapple — to make their cocktails ($8 each), which makes all the difference.

English-ish Breakfast

Kirk’s English-ish Breakfast came with Empire Provisions spiced sausage, sunny-side eggs, tomato, masala potatoes, and sourdough. Visually, at first glance, it was a little boring. However, digging in, the seasoned potatoes were delicious and the curry over the eggs added a new dimension. The additional bacon was generous and crispy. The star of the plate was certainly those spiced sausages though. They packed a ton of flavour and some heat on the palate. Not overwhelmingly spicy by any means, but enough to be warm, comforting, and a change from the norm.

When my Tandoori Fried Chicken was placed in front of me, I was shocked at the size of the dish. The two pieces of deep-fried yogurt marinated chicken were huge! I commented on that, and the server who had dropped our plates off stated that many guests even opt to add extra chicken. After taking an initial bite, I could see why. The meat was succulent and tasty — nutty, zesty, spicy, pungent — with a crisp breaded exterior and a balance of sugar from the coconut and honey. Laid beneath was a large slab of cornbread (maybe a tad dry) and a refreshing green salad. Since I still had “dessert” to work through, I ate only half the food, packing up the rest to go.

Single Chai-Ovaltine Pancake

I’m so glad that I didn’t miss out on the Chai-Ovaltine Pancake either. It was incredible. The single portion was perfect for me and it’s still prepared the same way as a full-size order, meaning it is presented with the daily fruit compote, saffron chantilly, and garam spiced granola. You get the best of everything without the possibility of overeating. I loved all of the textures from the thick, fluffy pancake to the crunchy granola and the floral-infused chantilly cream.

As our final meal during our short visit to Calgary, this was definitely a memorable one. It’s sad to think that Calcutta Cricket Club is hours away from home and it’ll be a while before I can go back. Then again, it just gives me something else to look forward to (like maybe happy hour next time) whenever I have a chance to return to Calgary.

Calgary Restaurant Review: Bread & Circus

Art made for Bread & Circus

For my birthday weekend in Calgary, I had planned several meals based around available happy hour menus. One of the places that popped up during my search was Bread & Circus. It’s tucked away on 17 Avenue — a favourite area whenever Kirk and I visit the city — behind Una Takeaway on 6 Street.

The interior of Bread & Circus keeps your eyes moving.

I mean, anyone who walks into Una Takeaway will see the restaurant entrance right there, but it still kind of retains an in-the-know hideaway feeling when you show up for your reservation (booked through Resy). Prior to being seated, our winter coats were taken and hung up for us. We were then led to a table for two that was tucked into a small nook across from the chef’s bar.

As it turns out, only select items from the antipasti and pasta options were included as part of happy hour, but it was enough to satisfy us. NOTE: It seems that happy hour has changed since our visit as they now offer a daily $5 menu of house wine, specific cocktails and food items between 5:00pm to 6:00pm.

When we were at Bread & Circus, cocktails were on special for $6 each and certain marked plates were half off (costs listed here are regular price, unless otherwise indicated). That included their Garlic Bread ($7), Amatriciana ($19), Carbonara ($20), and Beef Carpaccio ($14).

The Pomme Pomme

The Pomme Pomme ($10) was a tall cocktail mix of Calvados, Gifford’s Ginger Liqueur, and lime juice, making for a refreshingly tart beverage with a hint of spice at the back of the throat. Very smooth and easy drinking.

The Beef Carpaccio was presented first, and it was superb. The paper thin, circular slices of bright red meat were generously covered with broccolini salsa verde, shaved mimolette cheese, and puffed farro. The salsa was creamy and cooling on the palate. The hard orange-hued cheese was nutty and slightly salty, pairing well with the florets of broccolini, and the puffed farro added a little bit of crunch. So many textures and distinct flavours came together to make one fantastic dish. Even Kirk, who does not like raw meat, ate his fair share of this one (citing the beef actually looked fresh and appetizing to him because of the colouring), and we ended up ordering a second plate.

Amatriciana pasta in the forefront with the Garlic Bread in the back.

Before we even got our first order of Garlic Bread, Kirk decided that we should get two, so again, another was requested. There’s a reason why this is charged at $7 each though. It’s because it’s a whole loaf of freshly baked, warm pull-apart bread. The outer crust was a tad dry in spots and sort of subtly flavoured throughout. That is, until you get to the portion where they stuffed it with the garlic butter. Then it turns into a potently garlic treat. I devoured almost my entire loaf, careful to eat all of the parts doused in that butter and leaving behind the drier bits.

Carbonara

The two of us split the Amatriciana and Carbonara pastas. Both were delicious. Yet, they were also kind of similar. The only difference was the type of sauce that each came with. Their Amatriciana is technically made with bigoli noodles — still a thick, round pasta that I couldn’t really tell apart from the spaghetti used in the Carbonara — tossed in a traditional tomato sauce, chilies, and pecorino romano. The Carbonara is prepared with a creamy white sauce made using a farm egg and cracked pepper before being topped with more pecorino romano. Each of the plates was elevated with the same protein of crispy pancetta. Either way, I’d order both again. Incredibly simple in execution, but perfectly al dente noodles and deep, rich flavours in the sauces.

Caramelized popcorn as a parting snack.

By the time we finished all of that food, we were so full. I would have loved to try dessert, but I just couldn’t fathom eating anything else. Thankfully, a tiny dish of caramelized popcorn was dropped off with our bill, so I got a little taste of sweetness to cap our meal.

From the fun, secretive nature of Bread & Circus and the eclectic decor to the friendly service and the wonderful food, I’d say that this is definitely a spot to visit if you live in Calgary or find yourself there for work or play. In a heartbeat, I’d recommend it, especially for that stellar beef carpaccio.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: OEB Breakfast

The entrance to OEB Breakfast.

Maybe I’m a little bit sheltered. After all, I’m not in Southern Alberta all that often, and, until a location opened here around the end of October, OEB Breakfast wasn’t on my radar in the least. But, supposedly, this Calgary-born restaurant is quite celebrated in and out of it’s hometown. OEB, which stands for Over Easy Breakfast (kind of redundant with the second “Breakfast,” no?), decided to expand north.

The owners insist that the business open only until 2:45pm daily to emphasize the importance of the first meal in the day. It’s often one that I skip (I know…). Nevertheless, I’m a sucker for things like bacon and poached eggs when I do partake. Since the breakfast/brunch joint was introduced to Edmonton, my social media feeds have been littered with droolworthy images of their food on a regular basis.

From what I gathered, OEB Breakfast was apt to get busy quickly on weekends. So, I was prepared when making the trek there myself. With an 8:00am start on Saturday and Sunday, I insisted that Kirk and I arrive early. If needed, I’d join the Yelp Waitlist on the way there. The service is a tool that the eatery utilizes to mitigate a giant crowd at their doors. Ultimately, it wasn’t necessary for us, but it’s good to know that it’s available.

The interior is definitely egg themed.

We made it to OEB Breakfast just before 9:30am and, thankfully, there was no line up. A table had just cleared and after a cleaning, we were seated to the left side of the entrance towards the far end. A large mirror hanging on the opposite wall allowed me a view of the rest of the space. Bright white throughout with shots of orange and sunny colours as well as egg themed light fixtures and giant rooster/chicken sculptures. The kitchen was completely open to the elements.

As we eyed the menu, I observed how many early risers there were. Pretty much every seat was occupied and they had gotten there well before us. I don’t often drag myself out of the house before ten o’clock on a weekend for anything. It seems that OEB Breakfast was an exception.

Mimosas!

Our server came over to take our drink order. I had my heart set on a mimosa. Coming with either orange, pineapple, grapefruit, or mango juice, they were a steal when priced at $5 a glass. Sadly, I was told that they didn’t yet have their liquor license, so they weren’t able to serve their listed alcoholic beverages. I do hope that this is no longer the case, considering it has now been two months since our meal. Anyway, with that realization having sunk in, I then proceeded to ask them about their juices because sometimes a glass of fresh squeezed juice is ideal. But, at $5.50 for an order, it better truly be fresh. To that, I was told that the juice is fresh; however, it’s not prepared there. They get it delivered from another company. That was kind of weird to me. If you don’t squeeze it yourself, how do you know it’s actually fresh? Learning that, I just opted out of drinks entirely and we both sat there with cups of water.

The selection of food is fairly extensive, ranging from standards to a number of breakfast dishes with twists. Broken out into categories like Farm Fresh, Blue Plate Specials, Breakfast Poutines, Benny’s, Omelettes, Sandwiches, Sweets, and Sides, there’s something for everyone. Kirk tends to go for more traditional options. This time though, he surprisingly got something other than a classic breakfast by ordering the Pulled Chicken Frittata ($19). I’d heard that OEB Breakfast was famous for their poutines. Therefore, I chose the Gold Digga ($20) and I added the Chicken Blueberry Bangers ($4).

Pulled Chicken Frittata

Starting with the Pulled Chicken Frittata, this was not served open-faced like it should have been. It was still folded like an omelette. The smoked chicken was more plentiful than I thought, but it tasted rather bland and there was definitely not enough fresh mozzarella. Severely under-seasoned, if you ask me. The best part was the semi dried tomatoes because they provided a shot of concentrated flavour. It came with a slice of toast, hash browns, and prettily presented fruit. In my opinion, this frittata isn’t worth ordering again.

Chicken Blueberry Bangers

My Chicken Blueberry Bangers, sourced from Spondin, Alberta, were lean and subtle in taste. I guess a plus was that they weren’t salty. My main issue was that they cooled incredibly fast. I stopped to take a couple of photos of the food and the sausage had lost all heat by the time I cut them open a few minutes later.

The Gold Digga Breakfast Poutine was the best thing I had, and I now understand why those bowls are so popular. They’re probably the best bang for your buck at OEB Breakfast. With huge portions and quality, premium ingredients, they are delicious to a point. In particular, the Gold Digga comes with poached eggs (soft is the only way to go), herb potatoes, Quebec cheese curds, bacon lardons (the online menu now lists Berkshire roast pork…not sure if that’s a recent change), black truffle, and hollandaise. I have to say that, upon reaching the bottom of the dish, I found the flavours sort of tiresome. At the beginning of my bowl, I was impressed by the rich truffle, creamy hollandaise, and perfectly fried bacon lardons. It eventually just got to be too much of the same. Regardless, if I return to OEB Breakfast, the Hog & Scallops poutine is the next on my list to try.

When our meal was over, only an hour had passed. Yet, due to the cold weather, the doorway was jam packed full of people who took up every nook and cranny they could find. There was no allotted waiting area taken into account when building the restaurant, leading to an incredibly crowded zone that would probably be considered a fire hazard. Guests, looking to stay warm inside while waiting, encroached on the personal space of diners seated around the front. I’m so glad that we hadn’t been given a table in that section.

It was a challenge to pay the bill, too. Servers do not bring machines to your table to take payment. You have to take your bill to a counter, inconveniently set up to the right side of the eatery entrance. That day, there was no way to get to it by going past the kitchen (too busy with staff), so we squeezed past all of those people at the door. In all honesty, it crossed my mind that it’d be so easy to dash and dine there. Of course, we would never, but seeing as how we literally had to pass by the exit to get over to the counter, and there were all of those other people blocking us from view, it would have been a piece of cake.

We did it though. We made it to the other side and someone showed up right away to put our charges through. The staff member thanked us for visiting, and we then happily squeezed back through the onslaught of patrons to breath some crisp, “fresh” downtown air.

I definitely found OEB Breakfast to be a hit and miss on this occasion. Based on this single experience, I can’t say I’m as in love with the place like so many others seem to be. Nonetheless, I’m not going to completely write it off. Perhaps a weekday visit is in order. It’s only a couple of blocks from my office and they actually take reservations during the week. Should a Saturday or Sunday drop-in be required, it’ll be planned for the early morning to avoid the wait and the throng of other people.