Edmonton Restaurant Review: vivo Ristorante (Windermere)

Bruschetta & Ricotta

I’m always looking to try new eateries, so I was super excited to hear that vivo Ristorante was opening a Windermere location, which is in my neck of the woods. In late spring, they welcomed patrons into the space previously occupied by Chili’s (layout remains the same). At first, the reviews seemed somewhat dire, so I was apprehensive to go right away; we waited until this month before we ventured over.

Now, to be fair, this iteration of vivo Ristorante is not the same as their two other restaurants in west Edmonton or Sherwood Park. Although I’ve never been to either of those (yet), they have a reputation for serving upscale Italian food. While the menu still leans towards Italian-style dishes in Windermere, the atmosphere is a lot more casual and they’re catering towards a clientele that wants to have an enjoyable meal out without breaking the bank.

Their menu is reasonably priced with the most expensive pizza/pasta/burger coming in at $18 and the majority of the mains in the mid-twenties range. Plus, they offer a daily happy hour that includes drink specials or food items such as arancini, meatballs, and bruschetta from 2:00pm to 6:00pm and again from 10:00pm to close for a steal.

Beer & Cocktails are on special during happy hour!

When we dropped by during the August long weekend, we found out that on Mondays they have all day happy hour, so even though it was past their usual time frame, we were able to take advantage of the deals. Kirk got a Snake Lake draught ($6 after a $3 discount) and I got a High Tea signature cocktail ($11 after $3 off). I found the beer to be pretty good; it was cloudier than expected, but it was smooth and didn’t leave a lingering bitterness at the end. The High Tea cocktail had two ounces of alcohol in a small glass, so it was initially quite potent; however, after some food, the flavour seemed to mellow and it was pleasant to sip throughout our meal.

To eat, we shared a few happy hour plates (all up to fifty per cent off) including four Meatballs ($0.97 each), four Sliders ($2.50 each), and Bruschetta ($5). Additionally, I wanted to try their Brussels Sprouts ($9), and Gnudi ($16) for some variety. The food was prepared quickly and, before we knew it, dishes were being presented at our table.

Sliders

I’ll start with the Sliders because we did have an issue with them. The patties in the first batch that came out actually had raw centers. We made our server aware of the problem, and she was quick to take them away and offered to either have the dish taken off of the bill or to have them remade. We still wanted to eat the miniature burgers, so we asked that the kitchen just make a second order for us. They turned out much better. Fully cooked all the way through, the all-beef patties were juicy on the inside with a nice char on the outside. The sweet pepper relish, provolone cheese, and vivo sauce hit the spot with a mix of salt and sweet. When we got the bill, I saw that they actually comped both the original plate and the replacement for us, which I thought was excellent on the part of their management and staff.

Continuing with the meats, vivo’s Meatballs are made with all-beef as well. They’re covered in a rich marinara sauce with a decent sprinkling of asiago cheese and focaccia crumbs. The balls were pretty succulent and they fell apart easily with a fork. Since you can order as many as you want from the happy hour menu, I recommend getting them as a side to one of their meatless pasta dishes.

I was surprised by the portions of the Bruschetta, which not only came with the diced compilation of sweet bell pepper, jalapeno, and roma tomato, but also included a generous bowl of herbed ricotta cheese with grape tomatoes, basil, and mint oil. Five or six large slices of crostini completed the dish. It was light and refreshing, and, despite having jalapeno in it, it was not spicy.

The wonderfully fried Brussels Sprouts were a different take on the veggie in that they were served in a spicy honey. The requisite crispy pancetta was there for the savouriness, but the heat and the sugar was unique. Most other restaurants avoid the sweet route with Brussels sprouts whereas vivo jumped right in. It totally works, especially when the tiny cabbages are fried so beautifully and the honey plays off the smokiness of the charred leaves.

Gnudi

My pasta dish came out a little later as a main course, but I snacked on the Gnudi between helpings of everything else that we were still working on. It also arrived with a rolled slice of crispy pancetta that I broke apart and stirred into the sauce. The meat provided hits of salt that cut through the otherwise bright and citrusy in-house lemon cream sauce. Green peas and pine nuts brought in texture that balanced out the pillowy pieces of fresh-made toasted ricotta and spinach gnocchi. A thick slice of garlic toast came with the dish, too. I was worried it might be overly crunchy, but it was actually perfect and soft in the middle, making it the ideal vessel for sopping up any leftover sauce.

In the end, I didn’t have anything to worry about with vivo Ristorante. The service was attentive and caring; they went out of their way to make things right. Sure, they have some poor reviews online. Yet, I think most of them were from patrons of their other locations who expected the same sort of menu and upscale quality they were used to. They didn’t realize that the new vivo Ristorante Windermere was aiming to be more relaxed with a very unpretentious menu. It’s not five-star dining by any means, but the food is affordable and satisfying nonetheless.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Situation Brewing

The interior of Situation Brewing.

Often times, when we’re driving by Whyte Avenue, we pass Situation Brewing along Gateway Boulevard and see patrons enjoying drinks and food behind their big glass windows or on their sidewalk patio. I’d only been once before, but it was at least a couple of years ago, so it’s been on my list to revisit for a while.

 

On the weekend, Kirk and I decided to make it our stop for date night. We arrived at around 6:30pm on the Saturday and found it to be surprisingly empty. There were other customers, yet it was by no means full, although it did get busier later into the evening. Still, with the few groups near us, it was noisy. The surrounding glass, flat walls, and open ceiling created a lot of echo. If you’re loud or with people who can project their voices, it’s fine; however, for anyone else who might be hard of hearing or who prefers not to have to yell across the table, you may want to seek out an alternative.

It took a few minutes for our server to greet us, but once he did, he was quite attentive, checking on us regularly without being intrusive. Kirk was trying to be good before the wedding, so he skipped on the beer, but I ordered a pint of the Salty Señorita Kettle Sour ($9). I always find that Situation Brewing does sours really well. There is the tartness that hits the tongue, but it doesn’t linger. It subsides fairly fast to reveal the other flavours in the beer at the back of the throat. This one was no different.

For our food, we shared an order of the Brussels Sprouts & Cauliflower ($15). A mix of the veggies were sauteed in garlic butter and topped with shaved Parmesan. Personally, I thought that the level of garlic was perfect as it added the right amount of spice. The cheese brought in some extra salt and nuttiness. We would have liked for the sprouts and florets to have more char though; they weren’t exactly crispy enough, otherwise. I also found that the price was rather high considering the size of the dish. With only about five pieces of cauliflower and four whole sprouts, it didn’t feel worth the cost.

Our handheld entrees fared better with both Kirk’s The Big Stitch ($18) and my Lamb Burger ($17) satisfying our appetites. Both of us opted to stick with the house-cut fries as our accompanying side. Those were prepared to a beautiful golden yellow colour with a nice crunchy exterior giving way to a soft center. They were also lightly seasoned with spice that provided a hint of heat on the palate.

The Big Stitch is a burger that consists of a seven ounce patty of beef and boar topped with thick cut bacon, grainy dijon mustard, fig ketchup, lettuce, tomato, and cheddar between a brioche bun. The bun held together well until the last bite (it’s the worst when your bun falls apart). I had a couple mouthfuls of Kirk’s meal and it was tasty even though the patty was drier than both of us would have liked. Cooked until well done, the meat was more of a brown-grey than reddish brown in colour. The flavour from the char was good though and the fixings were appropriate. It’s also a hefty burger that fills you up.

I thought that my six ounce Lamb Burger could have used some extra feta cheese and the cucumber, mint, and pickled onion relish, but I really enjoyed the taste. It was refreshing and light, which is perfect for a summer meal. The bursts of juice from the cucumber gave the meat some succulence. The patty was also charred well and the combination of lamb and boar provided a decent ratio of lean to fat while also cutting the gaminess of the lamb that some people (excluding me) don’t like.

We were too full to grab dessert on this occasion, but we’ll certainly be back to try more at Situation Brewing, including happy hour. Next time, we’ll probably attempt to visit at a quieter time of day and also ask to be seated away from the larger tables, so it won’t be as noisy and we can converse more easily. Otherwise, Situation is an awesome pub with a satisfactory menu and a great selection of their own house brews.

Edmonton Mini Restaurant Review: Malt & Mortar

Malt & Mortar’s logo painted on their exposed brick wall.

My friends are moving to Vancouver this week (sadness). When they invited Kirk and me to join them for a going away gathering at Malt & Mortar earlier this month, we made sure to go. I’d never been to the Whyte Ave venue before, so I was excited to check it out.

We arrived a little late that Saturday night, and we found them hovering by the large center bar. The reservation made for a dozen people still wasn’t ready. Thankfully, it didn’t take too much longer before they had things set. We were led towards the back of the restaurant where there was a long raised table that could accommodate our group.

Malt & Mortar has a cool vibe. Slightly vintage with its exposed brick walls, wood plank ceiling and painted logo, while keeping things modern with more industrial black piping, venting, beams and lighting. The space was larger than I had realized as well. A variety of leather upholstered booths were available to fit parties of any size.

It was very loud though, making it difficult to hear past the few tablemates who surrounded me. I noticed that a handful of speakers were hanging directly above us and pretty much along the whole perimeter of the place. With numerous glass windows and hard brick, sound couldn’t be absorbed, so it just echoed all over. If you plan to go there and are hoping for a quieter visit, I’d suggest a weekday or later in the evenings. That, or try to get one of the smaller round booths along the back of the eatery. They kind of have a pergola over them and there are no speakers right nearby, so I suspect that it won’t be as noisy in those spots.

My other recommendation to Malt & Mortar is that they don’t have enough screens listing their beers on tap (I believe there are about 16 in rotation at one time). There was only one on our side of the restaurant and it was right over my head. I had to turn my body around and crane my neck just to read it, so I was surprised that they didn’t have another set up on the facing wall considering that there is plenty of space to put it.

Lastly, I understand putting bathrooms (really clean, by the way) in the basement, but I don’t quite believe that establishments where a lot of alcohol is consumed are the ideal businesses for bathrooms where stairs are involved. I thought the same thing of Craft Beer Market and I think the same thing here. There were many patrons later in the night who seemed like they wouldn’t make it down the stairs without falling. Otherwise, the design of the venue is pretty good.

Kirk had a few pints of beer and the Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich.

On to the drinks and food though! Similar to Beer Revolution, they update their rotating draughts on the TV screens with soon to be tapped kegs listed at the bottom. The selection was decent with a heavy emphasis on local breweries; most pints are priced at around $8.50 each. My personal preference for beer tends to be light, crisp, and fruity. Kirk leans more towards IPAs with hoppiness. That evening, I took a liking to the current sour from Situation Brewing. I also tried the Malt & Mortar Saturday special, a two-ounce Back Porch Tea ($10) made with gin, peach sweet tea, and house-made sour. Admittedly, it was a strong cocktail, but after a big squeeze of lemon juice, it settled and was relatively refreshing.

To eat, Kirk went for the Korean Fried Chicken Sandwich ($17), which was praised by one of our friends. Stacked with coleslaw, pickles, and two pieces of battered and fried chicken breast covered in a Gochujang glaze, it was juicy, savoury, a little bit sweet, and slightly spicy. The whole thing was a huge mess though. The bun fell apart less than half way through and Kirk finished it off using his utensils. For his side, he stuck to the standard fries, lightly seasoned with salt and pepper.

I tried out the Back Porch Tea and the West Coast Power Bowl with added Tuna Poke.

I decided to go a “healthier” route by ordering the West Coast Power Bowl ($17) with added Tuna Poke ($7). Honestly, the cost once you tack on a protein is kind of high, but the bowl was huge. It felt like I was barely making a dent in the dish, and at the end, I was sort of struggling to finish it. I didn’t have enough left to pack it home, yet it wasn’t a small enough portion to toss it out. I hate to waste food, so I persisted. Still, it was tasty minus the cilantro used in the poke. It’s not an ingredient listed anywhere on the menu when describing the tuna, so I didn’t bother asking if there would be any cilantro. Had I known, I would probably have asked them to mix the poke without the herb or selected a different meat. I’m not sure why cilantro is used in everything nowadays when it’s common knowledge that there are many people who don’t have the taste buds to appreciate it, so all I ask is that they give a warning about it in advance.

In any case, I sucked it up, picking out the cilantro where possible and just eating it when I couldn’t. On a positive note, the flavour was somewhat masked by the rest of the ingredients in the West Coast Power Bowl. The base was an organic quinoa tossed in a citrus vinaigrette and then combined with corn, black beans, avocado, cucumber, pea shoots, and pickled carrots. There was tons of texture going on and a jolt of heat on the palate from the delicious avocado wasabi crema. Not mentioned on the menu was the use of aburaage, which are thin slices of deep-fried tofu, usually used to make inari sushi. Those were cut into smaller pieces and added to the dish for sweetness. I really enjoyed having that in the mix.

After a few hours hanging out, we called it a night. Considering the size of our group and the staff working that Saturday evening, I thought the service was alright. We all managed to get our beverages and food without much issue (we did get one wrong order of beer, but we also got an extra beer on the house), and we really liked the space, especially when it died down later so we could hear again. Overall, the food was well-made (corn dogs don’t smell better when they’re plated pretty though) and filling, just maybe a tad too pricey regarding the entrées. Other than that, we’ll definitely be back. It’s a fun spot with a casual, convivial atmosphere.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Writer’s Room

The drink menu and interior of The Writer’s Room.

For a restaurant that pays homage to authors, it’s a bit ironic to see that, depending on where you look, the name of the establishment is written differently: Writers, Writer’s, and Writers’. Because I’ve found the second iteration used the most on the main page of their website, it shall be known as The Writer’s Room.

Always a pub of some sort over the years, this Garneau (11113 87 Avenue) eatery is just a hop, skip, and a jump away from the University of Alberta. As such, upon my visit, I noticed that many of the patrons looked to be either students or professors. The menu, created by chef David George Husereau, takes that into account by elevating things like Kraft Dinner and Doritos into much finer fare. The prices are reasonable, too. Items range from $5 for snacks to $20 for a full main, making this place very accessible for the student crowd or those who just want an affordable night out.

The Grand Fizz Cocktail melted.

Additionally, The Writer’s Room offers daily happy hour from 3pm to 6pm and 9pm to close on a handful of beverages (they’ve also recently introduced nightly food specials). Although it wasn’t the best deal out of the bunch, I opted to try their Grand Fizz Cocktail (about $10.50). Honestly, it wasn’t what I was expecting. It came in a wine glass with icy slush that had clumped together into a larger chunk. I allowed it to melt, which meant the drink was rather watered down in the end. Perusing the drink menu further, there are definitely others that sounded better, but I selected this one on a whim.

Cup of Broccoli Cheddar Soup

To start, my friend and I both ordered the cup of Broccoli Cheddar Soup ($5). With a description of “natural ingredients” (what else would be used?) on the menu, it was decent. Not as creamy as I hoped it’d be, but relatively flavourful. It was topped with what appeared to be Melba toast and grated cheddar cheese like one might do at home.

Tater Tots

Everything else we selected, the two of us shared. First up were the Tater Tots ($7). Honestly, these were too expensive. They arrived in a cup the same size as the soup, so there weren’t a lot. These were covered in jalapeno nacho cheese sauce, chipotle sour cream, and green onions. I liked the sauce and sour cream; however, there wasn’t enough of it to coat all of the tater tots at the bottom of the dish. Without the toppings, they became rather bland.

Hoisin BBQ Chicken Tenders

Next were the Hoisin BBQ Chicken Tenders ($10). I pictured these being battered and crispy, but these were more like satay or kabobs with the chicken presented on skewers. It was uniquely plated though, I’ll give them that. The tray they came on had a reservoir for sauce in which ample spicy peanut sambal was provided for dipping along with sesame seeds and green onion. The meat was pretty tender and the sambal amped up the heat on the palate a tad.

The “Loco Moco” ($12) was fairly easy to split between two people as it came with two beef patties and two fried eggs atop nori and sticky rice with plenty of rich brown gravy. This is a contemporary Hawaiian dish, so it’s a bit of a surprise to find it on the menu. Aside from a poke bowl, there’s nothing else that screams Hawaiian sensibilities. Still, this simple recipe actually hit the spot. The fried eggs had beautifully runny yolks and the nori added an umami taste.

Crunchy Brussels Sprouts

Last, but not least, were the Crunchy Brussels Sprouts ($12). I get this veggie a lot when I go out. There’s just something about them that I can’t pass up. In the case of The Writer’s Room, I think they may have mastered the miniature cabbages. Cooked in brown butter and served with crisp pancetta, goat cheese, garlic, lemon, and mint, I was blown away by how good this was. A little bit of salt from the pork, slightly tart from the cheese, freshness from the mint, acidity from the lemon, and spice from the garlic married with the char from the sprouts themselves, these were to die for.

Shortbread

Dessert changes often. On this particular occasion, they had made Shortbread ($7). Layered in a jar, it felt more like a cheesecake with a shortbread crust to me. It didn’t have that buttery, melt-in-your-mouth cookie texture though. That was unexpected. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it. A pleasant finish to my meal without being overly sweet.

For the most part, The Writer’s Room is an excellent player in this area of the city. The ambiance was convivial while still allowing for easy conversation between tablemates. I found the service to be fantastic as well. The staff were friendly, checking on us regularly, but not too often as to constantly be interrupting. Sure, a few of the food items can use a bit of tweaking to really take things up a notch. Nevertheless, when you order the right dish here, you won’t be disappointed.

Edmonton Restaurant & Event Review: Beercade & Speed Puzzle Challenge

Beercade’s interror is made up of long tables for groups, a huge bar, and arcade games.

I’ve always loved doing jigsaw puzzles. There’s a joy in finding the piece that fits just right. They’re also incredibly engrossing in a way that’s so much more relaxing than staring at whatever I find on my phone. Consider them part of the slow living movement. The last time I could really remember putting one together, until recently, was at least several years ago. My co-worker would lend me puzzles that she’d already completed to feed my obsession. Sadly, my free time slowly waned to the point where I wasn’t really able to concentrate on them much.

Nowadays, as I often do, I found myself on Eventbrite scrolling through endless local happenings when I came across a listing from Beercade about their Speed Puzzle Challenge ($5 per person and the team gets to keep the puzzle). I wasn’t able to attend the next date; however, I always reminded myself to check back in the future. It was a while before I saw another. Yet, Table Top Cafe started running something similar about every two weeks earlier this year (alternating between both locations). My friends and I went to a single event there and I was hooked. I really enjoyed the competitive aspect of it, but, more than anything, I remembered just how fun puzzles can be. I’m currently working my way through nearly twenty that I’ve purchased over the past few months.

Welcome, Puzzle Players!

When the chance came up to check out Beercade’s version, I gathered a small team of four people (up to six are allowed) to attend. From what I understood, the organizers had previously gone with puzzles that had as few as 200 pieces and they had been incrementally increasing the difficulty ever since to find the sweet spot of something enjoyable yet challenging. On this occasion they decided to test out 450 piece puzzles instead. They also had someone from each group draw a number, which determined the puzzle received. Honestly, I thought that having different puzzles put certain teams at a disadvantage because some are definitely more difficult than others. Based on the groups who won the three prizes for finishing first, it was obvious that their specific Peanuts themed puzzle was a benefit.

Still, the four of us had a blast. I’d also never worked on a family-style jigsaw before. I probably wouldn’t choose to do those as an adult putting a puzzle together on my own. Nevertheless, the mix of large and small pieces for parents and children to work on as a family bonding experience is pretty great.

 

When we finished our jigsaw at Beercade, the staff dropped off ten tokens at our table, so we could play some of their arcade games. I’m terrible at those shooting ones, but I can appreciate a lit up pinball machine or the best air hockey table I’ve ever seen (Pac Man!).

Aside from the event and venue (decent atmosphere, lots of space, kind of dim), we also opted to eat dinner there. Being a Wednesday night, I had to try a burger because it’s hard to pass up a half price discount. Surprisingly, the Bacon Cheeseburger (regularly $9.75) was good. I wasn’t sure what to expect with the cost, but their kitchen makes a legit hand smashed patty topped with crispy bacon and they include all of the fixings. Sides are an extra cost though, so that’s where they can recoup some of their costs. At $4 for a basket of yam fries with dip, I thought that was a little expensive. On the other hand, they do give a big portion, so you’ll definitely leave full.

Full meal with a burger, yam fries, and a sleeve of Fruli.

To keep me hydrated, I ordered a glass of Früli, completely forgetting to tell the server (by the way, service is not prompt here) what size I wanted. I’m assuming I received a sleeve, not a pint. I also expected to pay at least $6.75 for that beverage. All in though, my bill was $15 after tax and tip. When I looked it over again at home, I realized that my beer was also on special, having only been charged a whopping $3.81. Stellar deal!

I’ve heard that Beercade is usually a chill spot to hang out until about nine o’clock. After that, it can turn into a bit of a zoo (assuming this applies more from Thursday to Saturday). If you want to avoid rambunctious crowds, I recommend visiting earlier in the evening. From this first experience of mine at Beercade, I’m absolutely feeling inclined to return, especially for another Speed Puzzle Challenge and a burger.