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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Soy & Pepper

Cheese Dongasu with Cabbage Salad

On a recent girls’ night out, my friends and I narrowed our choices down to several places near downtown Edmonton. After some back and forth, we eventually settled on Soy & Pepper, which touts itself as a modern Korean eatery. Located on 112 Street and Jasper Avenue, it actually took a group of us coming from the south side of the city longer to get there than we expected. Thankfully, one of my girlfriends arrived on time and was able to hold our reservation.

When we finally made our way there and found a parking spot (there is a free lot behind the building), I was surprised to see that the restaurant wasn’t that busy for a Saturday evening. There were just a few other occupied tables, and it didn’t change much as the night continued, so I do wonder how business is going for them.

I will say that the establishment is quite nice though. Everything is really clean, it’s roomy, and the furniture and decor are modern — sleek wooden tables, black Eiffel chairs, white stone accent walls. I estimate that the space can fit about forty patrons at a time. The single downfall was that it was slightly breezy inside. We were seated relatively close to the front door, and it’s possible that, despite the shelter built around the entrance to mitigate the issue, a draft was caused whenever it was opened. It wouldn’t be a problem during warmer months, but in the winter, it meant my friends bundling up in their scarves and jackets at one point or another.

Soy & Pepper’s food menu.

Once we all settled in, we inspected the menus. They have a minimal wine and beer list as well as several Korean wine or liquor options. For those who prefer non-alcoholic beverages, they have the usual sodas and tea or coffee. Unfortunately for me, they did not offer any cocktails, so I stuck with water.

Since we hadn’t gotten together in a long while, we weren’t in any rush. Therefore, we decided to go with some starters. I selected the Kimchi Potato Balls ($6), another ordered the Potstickers ($7.50), and a pair shared the Kimchi Pork Poutine ($16).

Potstickers

I did not sample the Potstickers myself, but judging by their appearance, they looked alright. There were four to a plate and they were very long with crispy shells. I’m hoping the dough to pork and veggie filling ratio was okay as I thought the skin seemed a tad thick. Otherwise, they were probably prepared with a quick fry in an oiled pan, then steamed with water, and then fried again to get the consistency I saw. That’s my favourite way to make them at home to ensure the middle is cooked through and the outside is golden brown.

Kimchi Pork Poutine

The Kimchi Pork Poutine was an interesting find. It’s that instance of fusion food that always finds a way onto the menus of local restaurants attempting to do authentic Asian cuisine. This item is available only during dinner at Soy & Pepper. In terms of portion size, it’s generously loaded with braised pork, onions, sautéed kimchi, house hot sauce, cheese, and cilantro. There’s a kick from the combination of hot sauce (mainly this) and kimchi, so if spicy is your thing, go for it. Best of all, the fries were delicious. They reminded me a lot of the ones sold at the Costco food court when I was younger; light, fluffy centers with bubbly outsides.

Kimchi Potato Balls

My Kimchi Potato Balls were served as a duo of mashed potatoes mixed with kimchi, cheese, and green beans, which were then breaded and fried until crisp. They were then placed on a bed of chipotle aioli sauce and then topped with dollops of sour cream and sprinkles of green onions. These had a hint of heat balanced out by the sour cream. I appreciated how smooth the potato was, too.

For our entrées, all four of my friends chose to go with the Bulgogi ($16). Two of them had Chili Pepper Seasoning ($1) added to the dish. A large bowl of House Kimchi ($5) was shared among the group. I went in another direction by picking the Cheese Dongasu ($20).

House Kimchi

I’ll start by discussing the House Kimchi. Admittedly, I thought I’d enjoy it more. However, out of all the kimchi I’ve ever tried, this was probably the most underwhelming. A staple of Korean cuisine, kimchi is a traditional side that is typically made with cabbage that has been salted and fermented. Personally, I think the pickled flavour wasn’t strong enough and the seasonings used didn’t produce enough spice. It was also a bit waterier than I prefer, but it was decent in plain rice.

Bulgogi with Chili Pepper Seasoning

At first glance, the Bulgogi plates came across as small. Yet, once the accompanying rice was stirred in with the marinated and grilled Alberta AAA beef, onions, green onions, cabbage, and bean sprouts, there was plenty of food. The dish seemed to be well-seasoned and flavourful, especially the ones with the chili pepper seasoning. In fact, it may have been too much chili as my friend who loves spicy food reiterated a few times that it was very hot on her palate. I’d recommend ordering the Bulgogi and then sprinkling on the dry chili flakes provided at the table until it’s to one’s liking, and it won’t cost anything extra.

Cheese Dongasu with Cabbage Salad, Rice & Dongasu Sauce

I loved, loved, loved the Cheese Dongasu. This is basically a deep fried, breaded pork loin that is stuffed with cheese. On the side is a wonderful dongasu sauce — simplified versions are often made with Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, brown sugar, and Ketchup — for dipping, a bowl of white rice, and a cabbage salad in sesame dressing. I didn’t really need the rice that much, but it was good, not overcooked. I ended up packing that up (the remaining sesame dressing drizzled on top) with half of my humongous pork loin for leftovers. The cabbage salad was quite tasty as there was a good amount of dressing and the veggies were fresh and crunchy. The pork loin was the absolute star. There was so much cheese inside that when I pulled the pieces apart, the melted cheese just oozed out seductively.

Ho-ddeok

The majority of the group opted for dessert: a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($2.25), a slice of carrot cake ($7), and the Ho-ddeok ($8.50). I can’t say a whole lot about the vanilla ice cream as there isn’t much to elaborate on, but the slice of carrot cake, though it appeared to be appetizing with nuts, raisins and cream cheese icing, was definitely not made in-house. It was brought to the table with plastic film still stuck to it, like when you go to the store and buy an individual piece of cake at the bakery. What was worth every penny was the Ho-ddeok. That is a warm, chewy dough pancake stuffed with sugar, honey, butter, mixed nuts, maple syrup, and cinnamon. It’s served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. My friend described it as being similar to an elephant ear with filling. I think that potentially undersells it. However, I would go back for this in a heartbeat. Between this and the Cheese Dongasu, it’s a total toss up for my favourite bite of the night. Either way, try both, if you can swing it.

The service was attentive and friendly, the food hit the mark for the most part, the portions received for the price are more than reasonable, and the place is easily accessible. It also has the perfect ambience for those who want to spend the night catching up. The staff member was never pushy, so we felt comfortable taking our time and staying for a while. Plus, even though there was music playing, it wasn’t overly loud. We were able to hear each other talk without having to shout. Accounting for everything, Soy & Pepper turned out to be a fantastic spot for a get together. I’m already looking forward to my next visit because I really want to explore more of the menu with my fiancé.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nando’s (Brewery District)

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

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

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

The interior of the Nando’s Brewery District location.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Their traditional Portuguese custard tart.

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

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

This is one happily satisfied customer!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Blaze Pizza (Brewery District)

Worked my way through my White Top pizza.

On a whim, my boyfriend and I decided to pop over to the Brewery District last month. We were both hungry, so we opted to try Blaze Pizza for lunch. Similar to Edmonton’s own Urbano Pizza Co. or LOVEPIZZA, this Californian chain of franchises started infiltrating the city with their version of the build your own pizza process back in the spring of 2016 on the north side. Just a little over a year later, two more have risen. This location in the west end and another at South Common.

I’m going to assume that the three shops are relatively the same in terms of quality. From what I gathered on the Blaze Pizza website, franchisees are expected to sign on to develop a market area, so it’s very likely that all of the current spots in the city actually share the same ownership. Plus, with standardization across a chain, it should be expected that dining at one is equivalent to eating at another. In that case, I have to say that, going forward, my expectations will be relatively high.

When we arrived at Blaze Pizza, it wasn’t too busy (the line picked up five minutes later), so the first staff member we encountered was able to explain the whole process to us. Instead of creating our pies from scratch, we both chose to go with their signature pizzas ($11.65 each) — BBQ Chicken for him and White Top for me — supplementing our very own unlimited customizations as we saw fit.

I enjoyed watching them prep the balls of dough with a pressing machine that flattened them into a thin base. The dough was then transferred onto a wooden board that made its way down the assembly line. It begins with the sauces, then moves to the cheeses, followed by the meats, and then the final toppings. At that point, the board is handed over to the “pizzasmith” who slides the pie into the oven. The three minutes it takes to cook is when payment is processed. After that, either find a table and come back to grab the pizza, or wait by the prep area next to the oven for it to be done.

There seemed to be somewhat of a bottleneck during the baking of our pizzas because it took longer than 180 seconds for them to come out. When they’re fetched from the oven, they are placed onto a pan, sliced and then finished off with any last sauces or toppings. I had to ask for the pesto drizzle and I also had to remind the employee to put my arugula on before he handed it to me (I was informed earlier that those greens were placed on at the end to avoid wilting from the heat). My boyfriend’s pizza took another few minutes.

Initial impressions for me: 1) thin, foldable crust; 2) a tad too crispy on the bottom and edges, but still had a nice chew in the middle; 3) flavourful; and 4) plenty of different toppings. I never did sample the BBQ Chicken pizza, but the White Top was made with white cream sauce, mozzarella cheese, applewood bacon, chopped garlic, oregano, and arugula. Personally, on its own, I don’t think the toppings would have sufficed. The staff were kind of skimpy with those ingredients. Thankfully, I had garlic pesto sauce, grilled chicken, artichokes, zucchini, and goat cheese added to the mix, which helped to fill it out.

For the most part, our experience at Blaze Pizza turned out to be a good one. I’m not yet sure if it’s the best pie joint in the build your own pizza realm, but it’s certainly decent enough for the price.