Calgary Restaurant Review: Elbow Room Brittania

Happy Hour at Elbow Room Britannia

To celebrate my birthday this year, Kirk and I decided to take a page out of another local blogger’s book. Linda Hoang (a.k.a. Lindork) had gone on a road trip adventure to southern Alberta courtesy of Tourism Calgary. We followed suit, reserving a 2-night shopping package at Hotel Arts. For each evening we stayed, we received a voucher to be redeemed towards a $75 gift card at our choice of three malls — CrossIron Mills, CF Chinook Centre, or The CORE — meaning, for our mini holiday, we received $150 to spend (this deal is still on until February 28, 2019).

That turned out to be a really nice perk, and it was our major plan for our time in Calgary. We ended up going through the majority of our money within the first several hours of our extended weekend. Therefore, shopping was put on the back burner quite quickly . The rest of our time was broken out into memorable meals, including our initial stop at Elbow Room Brittania (802 49 Avenue SW).

There are so many fantastic restaurants in Calgary, but I really wanted to be able to keep within a decent budget. To help save or, at the very least, get the best bang for our buck, I made several reservations based on eateries that offered happy hour options. Elbow Room was one of those (2pm to 5pm, Tuesday to Friday; drinks and food starting at $5 each).

Elbow Room Britannia happy hour menu.

Located in Britannia Plaza, there are two stories available to patrons. The open kitchen seems to be situated on the lower-level, and the bar is upstairs. The mint green walls give the space a modern-vintage feel, and the big windows allow light to flow in. Kirk and I arrived mid-afternoon for a late lunch, and took full advantage of the discounted items by ordering Fries ($5), Brussels Sprouts ($6), Arancini ($8), Carpaccio ($8), Humboldt Squid ($8), Burrata Rossa Pizza ($12), and Tiger Prawns ($15). Had we been there outside of happy hour, we would have paid about $120 before tax and tip for the same items. The portion sizes seemed to be standard, not shrunken in order to alleviate the costs on their part, and, in total, it was about half the price for us.

Humboldt Squid

I’ll begin with the dish that was somewhat of a letdown. The Humboldt Squid was made from what came across as processed strips of the cephalopods. The lightly tempura battered pieces were pleasantly crisp, but the spongy texture of the squid wasn’t ideal. Although I do like other types of pickled vegetables, I have an aversion to typical cucumber-style pickles in the vein of dill or bread and butter flavours. The squid was covered in slices of pickle, which saturated the outer shell pretty quickly. Otherwise, the sweet and sour harissa (a Moroccan ketchup/chili paste) provided a different take on a cocktail sauce, and the lemon dill yogurt provided a cooling balance.

The perfectly prepared Fries were plentiful. Crunchy with a soft middle, these were elevated with three different dips: ketchup, gochujang mayo, and truffle mayo. I tried not to fill up too much on the cuts of potato, but it was hard not to snack on them when they were sitting in front of me the entire time.

Brussels Sprouts

Brussels Sprouts have fast become one of my top veggies. I love how the tightly packed heads can be flavoured with a variety of seasoning, cheeses, sauces, or oils. The outer leaves char up when fried, and they soften slightly while still retaining bite. The serrano pepper crema and sharp cheddar were excellent accompaniments, but what I think took these a notch further was the use of lemon, giving it a zest and acidity that I’d never seen utilized in Brussels sprouts in the past.

Burrata Rosa Pizza

As far as pizzas go, the Burrata Rossa was quite delicious. We were already nearing full by the time it was presented. Somehow, we still managed to eat half of it. The Neapolitan dough was thin and crisp, allowing for that helpful fold upon devouring. The San Marzano tomato sauce tasted light and fresh, and there was a decent amount of prosciutto. The only thing Kirk and I both thought was a little out of place were the ribbons of basil. In small quantities, the hints of mint and licorice can work. Here, there was just too much of the herb, which overpowered the rest of the ingredients. On the plus side, the huge dollop of burrata cheese in the middle added a sense of decadence with its warm and melty goodness.

The Arancini were orbs of delight. The rice had a wonderfully creamy consistency while still maintaining the grain’s texture. There was a bit of stringy cheese inside, too. The outside was crisp, and the red Thai coconut curry cream was divine. Just the right amount of heat on the palate.

Considering that the Carpaccio is made with Brant Lake Wagyu beef, I was surprised to learn that this plate only costs $13.50 regularly. To get it for $8 during happy hour is a complete steal. I lost count eventually, but I think there were probably about 15 or more slices of beef on the plate. Topped with shallot, arugula, Grana Padano, and mosto cotto (a sweet sauce that I thought was aged balsamic vinegar), I was in heaven. The side of truffled yuzu aioli solidified the umami flavours.

Tiger Prawns

Our top choice during our entire meal was clearly the Tiger Prawns. These were the bomb. The square of crisp sushi rice laid the foundation. Atop that was a beautifully butterflied prawn with a fried, but not greasy, coating. Sesame, scallions, anise soy reduction, and gochujang ebi mayo emphasized the Asian inspired plate. I could have eaten a dozen of those, if I hadn’t stuffed myself with everything else.

What a way to start our food adventures in Calgary. Elbow Room Britannia was definitely a choice that I did not regret. I’d go back in a heartbeat. Not only were the dishes superb, the service was great, too. Hopefully, it’ll be there for a long time to come, as it’ll be a regular haunt for me on future trips to Calgary.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Partake

Croque Mon’Soubise’ was the star of the menu.

This past spring, the owners of Manor Bistro and Urban Diner, chef Cyrille Koppert and his business partner, Lisa Dungale, announced that they would be opening a third location called Partake. Situated next door to the diner at 12431 102 Avenue, it’d be the sister restaurant to the long standing brunch spot. Partake would also help to ease them into life without The Manor when it closes upon the expiry of their lease at the end of this year.

I kept my ear to the ground through the summer, and, come early fall, my friend and Partake’s bar manager, Clayton Kozak, informed me that opening day was happening. Sadly, I did not have a chance to make it there right away. In fact, I only managed my first visit towards the end of November, but, boy, was the wait worth it.

Check out those rounded built-in shelves!

From my understanding, the eatery does not accept reservations as the 30 seats are for walk-ins only. The place is made to look like a charming French bistro. A few small round tables reminiscent of what you might find outdoors at a Parisian cafe line the windows. The rest of the space is filled by three large booths and about a handful of bar stools. It’s casual and simply decorated, but you can tell it was created with love. I especially appreciate the rounded element of the doorways, mirror and built-in shelves. There’s also a version of their logo done in mosaic tiling embedded into the wooden floor. The pressed tin ceiling is gorgeous, too.

If only I could have admired all of the details in the daylight. However, now that winter had greeted us, even an early dinner at 5:00pm meant we were dining in dimness. I suppose it added to the ambiance though. It was cute and romantic in the candlelight. Plus, not knowing how busy it’d get on a Saturday evening, we opted to take one of the smaller tables for two, leaving the more spacious ones for others, and making it cozy and intimate as we dined.

Our server was helpful throughout the night. Since the items on the menu were created for sharing, we followed his suggestion and opted to split a number of dishes for supper. We selected five in total from the succinct list, which was more than enough (for two people, you actually can stick to three or four).

To start, I also ordered the Empyreal cocktail ($13 for 2.25 oz.) made using the gorgeous blueish-purple Empress Gin, Maraschino liqueur, Giffard Crème de Violette, and citric acid. Presented in a small fluted glass with a twisted lemon peel, it certainly packed a punch. It was a boozy and smooth drink that was great for sipping, and it paired well with all of our food. As a snack, we were also offered a petite bowl of popcorn (daily from 4:00pm to 6:00pm, complimentary snacks are provided with purchase of a beverage) to whet our appetite.

Soon after, plates started arriving from the kitchen. I was very concerned about where everything was going to fit at first. As I mentioned previously, the surface area we were working with was tiny. But, being professionals, they carefully timed each dish, so that only one or two were brought out at once. Sure, that meant, I diligently polished off all of the plates before they would be taken away and I probably overate (in the future, I should ask that they bring me to go boxes), yet I commend their staff for allowing us to savour and enjoy our meal at a leisurely pace.

Dish number one was the Beef Tartare ($16). Bright red minced beef topped by an egg yolk and beet-barley relish was mixed table side with capers, mustard, and chives. A garlic puree was supplied as additional garnish for the perfectly toasted crostini. Although it was a different take on beef tartare, I thought it was wonderful. Full of flavour in every aspect, the tender beef was a real treat.

Mushrooms on toast

Following that was the Mushrooms ($9), a combination of at least three, maybe even four, wild Albertan mushrooms laid on thick toast. Drizzled with truffle oil and accompanied by large shavings of Grana Padano cheese, it was an uncomplicated, but decadent option. My recommendation? Make sure to get all of the components in each bite. Separately, the taste lacks a little. Together, it’s complete harmony.

Dipping the Croque Mon’Soubise’ in sauce.

Continuing with dinner, we then had the Croque Mon’Soubise’ ($18). This sandwich was layered with about an inch and a half of thinly sliced Meuwly’s ham, melted Gruyère cheese, and served with a creamy soubise sauce (butter and onion) for dipping. This was, far and away, the best of the night. Kirk and I agreed that Partake hit it out of the park with this item. That stringy, crisp cheese and soft toasted bread with incredibly well-seasoned ham and rich soubise sauce was so satisfying. Honestly, I’ve been thinking about it ever since that night.

Sausage with braised cabbage and mostarda.

The house-made Sausage ($9) was our fourth dish. A hearty meat, this was paired with braised cabbage flavoured with cinnamon spice and mostarda. Again, it was straightforward and tasty. It was also piping hot. When it came out we could see the steam rising from the plate.

To finish off our main meal, we had the Aligot ($12), also known as Potato Fondue. This had a down-home quality of mashed potatoes and garlic blended with a significant amount of Gruyère and Emmental. The cheese pull was beautiful and the side of bread created an excellent base of starch on starch (endless starch throughout the night, really).

Rounding out the evening was dessert. Despite being insanely full, it didn’t take a much for our server to twist my rubber arm. I caved and went for the Piss-a-la Dessert ($12). The origin of the Southern France-inspired dish (pissaladière), from what I could find online, is really more of a savoury-style pizza. But, here, the base was a deliciously flaky pastry crust covered in fig jam, melted cuts of brie, crunchy roasted nuts, and drizzles of caramel sauce. It had a salty-sweet balance that was at once warm, comforting, and divine.

Ultimately, Partake gave us one of the greatest and most memorable meals I’ve had in the city this year. Superb service was had throughout the night, the portions were large, and the prices were reasonable. More than anything, the chef has pared the menu down to about a dozen and a half items that truly showcase the simplicity and simultaneous complexity of French cuisine. That’s not exactly an easy thing to do. Nevertheless, Partake has succeeded. For Cyrille’s and Lisa’s latest endeavour, here’s to another 25 years in business.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Jack’s Drive-In (Spruce Grove)

Welcome to Jack’s Drive-In

For over 55 years, Jack’s Drive-In has been a staple along First Avenue in Spruce Grove. The v-shaped roof has become an iconic landmark that has stood the test of time. Since 1961, the restaurant has called that very same spot its home.

As far as I could remember though, I’d never been to Jack’s Drive-In. I’d always just heard people talk about it. In my opinion, it was too far out of the way to visit. That changed, however, when I spotted a deal on Groupon. I ended up purchasing a voucher redeemable towards a meal for two. Valued at up to $30 (we paid $17), the coupon included two burgers, two sides, and two drinks.

When we decided to use it, we drove there on a whim. An event we attended turned out to be less than exciting and there wasn’t as much food as we expected, so we hopped in the car, and headed towards Spruce Grove to quell our hunger. Arriving at the parking lot of Jack’s Drive-In, we could see that there was a drive-thru, which only a couple of cars were utilizing. Inside, it was fairly quiet, too; a single family was hunkered down for supper.

I soaked in the ambience as I walked in. It’s so quaint with its 50s mom and pop diner style. The right wall is painted with more than life size images of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe. The booths and the stools are upholstered with bright, shimmering red vinyl, and the tables all have a vintage feel. An old juke box is even situated to one side and a wood framed TV anchored in a corner rotates through old photos of Jack’s Drive-In. The kitchen is cordoned off with an open window where customers can place their orders.

Their extensive menu is clearly laid out above the order window.

Service was really friendly. The young woman working at the front was extremely helpful in explaining their menu and suggesting the more popular items. It was also super clean. Ultimately, Kirk opted for the Jack’s Special burger with a half order of poutine and a bottle of water. I selected the Mushroom burger with a side of perogies and a cup of root beer.

The Jack’s Special burger comes with two thin patties of beef layered with pickle, cheese, ham, lettuce, and sauce. I can’t say that was my cup of tea. The ham was sort of an odd choice to me, especially after seeing that it was of the processed variety. The cheese was also American, giving it that plasticized texture. I’m not sure I fared much better with the Mushroom burger. It had the same type of cheese, the sauce was rather runny (making it incredibly messy), and the mushrooms didn’t taste fresh. In fact, the meat didn’t seem to be either. Clearly they were prefab patties that were probably previously frozen. They also lacked that charring from the grill. Considering that this is a diner that prides itself on this menu that has never changed, both of us agreed that the burgers needed some work.

On the other hand, the sides were more promising. Sadly, the poutine did not come with real cheese curds. However, the gravy was rich and not overly salted. It was hot enough to melt the cheese, and the fries were held up pretty well. The six perogies were plump, soft and a little bit crisp on the outside. I asked for bacon bits as my topping (perhaps I should have added sour cream for good measure), and, as a whole, these were delicious. I only managed to eat one as I was quite full from my burger and the poutine Kirk couldn’t finish, so the rest were taken home as leftovers.

My burger with our two sides and my root beer.

I will have to go back at some point to try their milkshakes and maybe to grab some of the other sides available on the menu, but the burgers are kind of mediocre. More than anything, it’s a cute place with a great Albertan story, and, personally, I think the place remains mostly due to the nostalgia factor. It seems that a lot of people have many wonderful memories associated with the eatery. As long as that continues to hold true, I’m guessing that there will always be someone willing to keep Jack’s Drive-In alive for many more years to come.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Town Square Brewing

The main floor of Town Square Brewing holds the bar and a larger group table.

Wanting to catch up, my friend and I recently made plans to meet. Both of us living on the south side of Edmonton, it isn’t always super easy to find local, independently owned restaurants to hang out at in our neck of the woods. But, I’d had my eye on Town Square Brewing for a while (located at 2919 Ellwood Drive), and that’s where we decided to go. Being a brewery, I brought Kirk along as well since I thought he’d enjoy the beer.

We showed up for lunch on a Sunday at noon. Turns out, we were the first customers for the day. It’s a bright and casual space. Very open concept with tall ceilings on the main floor and a staircase that takes guests up to a loft with several tables and a couple of cozy looking armchairs situated by a fireplace. Windows along the back wall look into the production area, so you can see the machinery at work.

A shared flight of beer with our selections from the current draughts on tap.

Told to seat ourselves wherever we liked, we chose a table that overlooked the entrance. A board on the wall indicated the current beers on tap. Kirk and I decided to share a flight ($10 for four 5 ounce glasses). I like some beers, but I’m not the connoisseur. The only one that I selected and drank was the Beets by Sinden Kettle Sour. I found it to be crisp, earthy, a little bit tart, smooth, and without any lingering bitterness. Perfect for me. It’s also the Alberta Beer Bronze Winner for 2018. At the time, they also had a Belgian-style beer on tap. That was Kirk’s favourite of the three he sampled. An additional pint was ordered to go with our food.

Town Square Brewing has a pretty compact menu with a focus on their pizzas. I should probably have listened to our server who mentioned that the pies are their most popular options. Instead, I went with the Parson’s Daughter Sandwich ($16) while Kirk chose their full-size Brewer’s Break pizza ($19).

Parson’s Daughter Sandwich with the Soup of the Day

The sandwich wasn’t the worst thing, but it also wasn’t the best. I just felt that they put very little effort into it. The house made spent grain bread was sliced to a thickness that would hold up when held, but it was really bland and pretty dry. The bread was literally cut from the loaf with absolutely no other preparation like toasting, pressing or buttering at all. Filled with chicken breast, pear, mozzarella, cranberry aioli, spinach, and basil, it sounded quite promising; however, the clearly pre-cooked chicken (it was cold) and not melted cheese was a downer. The only plus were the spotty bites with cranberry aioli, which upped the flavour quotient ever so slightly. For the side, I opted for a bowl of the daily soup. It happened to be a tomato bisque, so I was expecting something creamier. This one was mealy like the texture of a tomato that has been refrigerated. Not great. At the very least, it was somewhat warm, and I liked the touch of crumbled cheese on top.

Definitely go here for the pizza though. Town Square Brewing makes theirs with a thin crust. It has a different consistency than what you might find at Famoso, for example, as it’s less chewy in the middle. The outside is a little crispier, yet the dough is still soft enough to fold. The toppings were decent, too. With Genoa salami, Lazuli Farms pulled pork, and prosciutto, this hit the spot for us two carnivores. Arugula, onions, tomatoes, and BBQ sauce took things a step further, balancing out any saltiness from all that meat with bitterness, sweetness, and tartness. On a side note, I really like the trays that the pizzas are served on. There’s a hole in one corner that fits a single tasting glass just right. I thought that was a fun touch.

I was originally tempted to stay a little longer in order to have some dessert. In the end I refrained from it. I’ll save that for the next visit because their Soul Food pizza is calling to me. If they can work on their sandwich, I’d appreciate it. For the price, it certainly didn’t seem worth it at all. As always, every place has room for improvement, and I’m going to say that this is it for Town Square Brewing. Otherwise, everything else was fairly satisfying.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Prairie Noodle Shop

Prairie Noodle Shop’s custom interior

About three years ago, I had the pleasure of attending a Get Cooking event where Prairie Noodle Shop‘s upcoming business was showcased. I was really excited to get a legit ramen restaurant with an Albertan twist. Their dishes were going to incorporate freshly made noodles while utilizing local meats and produce to infuse flavours familiar to our region. From the beginning, they’ve largely stuck to that formula, and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Sadly, I don’t make it to the eatery on 103 Avenue and 124 Street as often as I used to. But, I really wanted Kirk to try it for once. So, we stopped by approximately a month ago to give the menu a once over during lunch. To start, we chose to sample the Baowich (2 for $10) and Dumplings (6 for $12). Each of us also got a bowl of the Spicy Garlic Miso Pork Ramen in Broth ($17).

The Baowich were interesting since I’m so used to other places serving their bao with a single steamed bun being topped with filling and then folded for consumption. Here, they sandwich the ingredients between two steamed buns. Thankfully, the amount of filling inside the sandwich provided a decent ratio to the bun. If there was too much bun and not enough of the selected pork belly, I would have been disappointed. The pork belly was covered with their house sauce (no idea what this is made out of), pickled and fried onions, and shredded lettuce. This made for a good combination of textures and it had that umami flavour. My only wish was that the pork belly would have been cut a tad thicker and cooked until a little bit more crisp.

Featured dumplings by Gourmai.

I’ve previously posted about a Dumpling Pop-Up by Gourmai. The chef is better known as Mai Nguyen. She supplies all of the featured dumplings on offer at Prairie Noodle Shop. The day we were there, the dumplings weren’t the most adventurous. Still, we decided to try the half dozen chicken and veggie selection. They were quite voluptuous and juicy with beautifully seared skins from being pan fried. The dipping sauce gave them an extra shot of flavour without over-salting the dumplings. If you are ever at Prairie Noodle Shop, ask about the day’s feature. Mai makes every single dumpling by hand, and they’re delicious.

Now to the best part, the ramen! Their Spicy Garlic Miso Pork Ramen is my absolute favourite bowl to get at Prairie Noodle Shop. The roasted pork belly is essentially the same as what we had in our Baowich; however, when submerged in soup, it doesn’t matter so much about how crispy the meat is. It also comes with smoked and pulled pork, sweet corn, sesame seeds and their umeboshi egg. The soup itself is pork-based and full-bodied; the flavour profile is amplified with miso, garlic, and a house made chili oil that adds a kick of heat at the back of the throat without becoming overwhelming. Their noodles have a nice bite to them (never overcooked), and that seasoned umeboshi egg is to die for.

Fire & Ice and Black Sesame Ice Creams

We finished off our lunch with their Fire & Ice and Black Sesame ice creams ($4 each). The Fire & Ice was a combo of two different flavours: one sweet and one that was sort of peppery. I was intrigued by the idea of the duo and I was the one who decided to order this, but it wasn’t our cup of tea. Partly it was to do with the texture. It reminded me of when I leave a tub of ice cream in the freezer for too long and the cream starts to separate and rise to the top. It gets thick and goopy. That’s what this felt like. I even asked the server if that was normal. It sort of seemed as though she wasn’t sure what to say. In the end, she told us it might be that any fruit puree in the ice cream that wasn’t mixed in well enough might have frozen into clumps and produced that texture. I can’t verify it, so I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt there. The Black Sesame was much better. The flavour wasn’t as saturated as other black sesame ice creams I’ve had in the past though, so it could use some improvement as well.

After serving the city for the past few years, I can safely say that the petite Prairie Noodle Shop continues to hold their own where it matters. The ramen is just as tasty as I remember it to be when they first opened and the service is commendable, too. I hope that they will always strive for that same consistency with their broth, noodles, and personability for many more years to come.