Edmonton Business Review: Table Top Cafe 2.0

Table Top Cafe 2.0 filled will customers on a Saturday evening.

Back in 2013, Table Top Cafe opened their initial board game cafe location at 57 Avenue and 75 Street. With its popularity, the owner expanded less than two and a half years later with second spot on 102 Avenue and 124 Street. The two are differentiated by the addition of a “1.0” or “2.0” to the end of its name.

I never did take the time to check out the original. However, I’ve been to the one that sits between the Oliver and Westmount neighbourhoods twice within the past eighteen months. My fiancé and I visited in the fall of 2016 because of a Groupon I had purchased. The deal covered both of our entrance fees and included about $15 to use towards food and drinks. On that occasion, we chose to grab a couple of the wraps (all are just under $10 each). I can’t say that the food was all that impressive and I wouldn’t make a point of going there to eat. Yet, they do serve some great beverages and beer.

Another couple met us that afternoon and we stayed for a few hours playing games until we were ready for dinner. What’s so awesome is that this form of diversion is so affordable. If one isn’t inclined to order snacks or drinks, the cost to play all day comes to only $5 per person. Several shelves house hundreds of available games that are sorted based on type and difficulty.

The business has made it really easy to get started, especially for those that aren’t too familiar with all of the choices out there. I mean, board games have moved well beyond the classics that I grew up with like Scrabble, Monopoly, or Life to include more risque ones such as Cards Against Humanity, strategic ones like Quantum, or puzzles such as Sagrada. There are so many to explore and likely not everyone can afford to buy them all, so spots like Table Top Cafe provide fantastic opportunities to test them out first. Staff are also more than willing to take the time to explain rules whenever anyone gets stuck. Should patrons find something they love, there’s a good chance that there’s an unopened copy in stock to purchase before leaving. Plus, sign up for a membership and a percentage of every game bought can be accumulated and used towards a future buy.

My most recent visit was at the end of January. After supper at The Manor Bistro, we made our way over to Table Top Cafe 2.0 to continue our double date. It was a busy Saturday night, and, luckily, we managed to snag the very last table out of maybe 17 to 20 in the space. When we arrived, we had to check in at the counter to start up our tabs. While we were standing there we placed our orders for drinks (hot beverages, cold refreshments and alcoholic choices are on the menu) and snacks (Magic Maize, a big bowl of popcorn, was $4).

Coaster Park was put back when we realized it was a bit more difficult to get started than we expected.

Then, we got busy looking for some games to try out. The guys started out with a round of chess, so my friend and I kept perusing the shelves. In the end, the two of us decided to bring a few games to the table: Unlock! The Nautilus’ Traps, Pass the Pandas, and Coaster Park. Ultimately, we set aside Coaster Park. Although the box stated that the playing time is between 30 to 60 minutes, when we opened the box, we realized it was more complicated than we expected. Everything else we worked our way through that night fell into the easier category and were essentially card based. They were all quick to learn and none took more than an hour or so from start to finish.

While the men were completing their chess game, us ladies learned Pass the Pandas. It’s a simple, speedy dice game with about four rules. The first to rid of their dice wins.

Unpacking the Unlock! box to play a card escape game.

Our toughest challenge was definitely the Unlock! game. It’s basically an escape room in card format. All four of us had tackled other games in the Unlock! series before. But, we had yet to play together, so we thought we could do that here. Even though the game is rated at a difficulty level of two out of three locks, it was tough and we didn’t technically survive by making it out of the “room” in the allotted hour. I’d chalk up our failure to it being too loud in the cafe to hear some of the recordings we needed to listen to within the accompanying app.

Rhino Hero was so fun! I couldn’t stop laughing as I was attempting to balance the Rhino on that stack of cards.

Once we had muddled our way through that game, we moved on to Rhino Hero. Admittedly, we kind of mixed up the rules a bit, putting each of us at a disadvantage at some point. It’s in the vein of Jenga and the object is to stack the houses higher and higher without knocking the tower over. The downside was that all the roof cards had been folded (we’re guessing this was a mistake by a previous group), which increased the difficulty slightly. No matter though. This was still super fun with a straightforward concept. My girlfriend thought it’d be a perfect game for her kids, so she bought a copy to take home with her.

Check out my monsters towards the end of our game of Bears vs. Babies!

Finally, before we had to head out for the evening, we played a full game of Bears vs. Babies. I’m bad at following rules and directions, so I’m sure I can do better next time, but the gist of the game is to build super strong monsters that can fight off baby armies which periodically attack when someone at the table provokes them. This was designed by the creators of Exploding Kittens, so you can expect things to get a little weird. The whole group enjoyed this one and often chuckled when we saw the combinations we were coming up with for our monsters.

All in, we were there for about four hours and I’d say each person spent, on average, approximately $10. Not too shabby for a full night of entertainment. I have no comparison to any of the other local board game cafes (I would like to stop by all of them down the road). Yet, my experiences specifically at Table Top Cafe have been wonderful. I’d highly recommend that Edmonton residents who want to get into the board game resurgence, or who are already board game enthusiasts, support this local gem.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nosh Cafe

The interior of Nosh Cafe's new 124 Street location.

The interior of Nosh Cafe’s new 124 Street location.

In its first incarnation on 156 Street and 100 Avenue, Nosh Cafe was not on my radar. In fact, I didn’t know of the restaurant’s existence until my co-worker told me that she had tried their food after purchasing a Groupon. The place quickly became a favourite of her and her fiancé’s when it came to Indian cuisine. She told me that the dishes were excellent and the portions were large.

I never ended up visiting that location, but I have become a frequent patron of their new space on 124 Street and 102 Avenue, which opened towards the end of 2014. It’s a spot that’s more central for me, so it feels like less of a trek.

The eatery serves a mix of Indian and Canadian (really Lebanese) cuisines; the latter apparently remnants of the former Dahlia’s Bistro that used to be housed there. The Lebanese plates only make up approximately a handful of the choices available. I’ve yet to try those items, although I’m sure they’d be alright. Perhaps the owners hoped that leaving those selections on the menu would entice Dahlia’s old regulars to come back. Either way, I’ve stuck with what they’re originally known for.

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Since the spring, I’ve dined at Nosh Cafe about five or six times with various people. Through all of those meals, I’ve drunk, eaten or sampled the mango lassi, Kashmiri chai, veggie samosas, palak paneer (fresh spinach and cottage cheese), butter paneer (creamy tomato sauce and cottage cheese), veggie korma (cooked in creamy sauce), lamb burger and coconut shrimp pasta.

Personally, I’ve found that everything I’ve had from their kitchen has been great. The palak paneer is my favourite out of the bunch though. I ordered that dish two outings in a row and the server politely suggested that next time I should branch out and try something new. I didn’t disagree with him, but honestly, the palak paneer is so flavourful and satisfying that I had absolutely no regrets on those occasions.

The butter paneer is excellent as well, replacing the spinach with the same sauce as a butter chicken. It’s delicious and you’ll definitely use your rice to sop up all of the sauce. All of the entrées come with rice, but, for an extra $2, you can substitute in some naan bread.

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Less than a block away, you’ll find a similar menu at the ever-popular Remedy Cafe, a place that always seems to be bustling, no matter the location in the city. Unfortunately, the opposite can be said of Nosh Cafe. The competition likely isn’t helping Nosh, and almost every time I’ve dined there, it’s been next to empty. However, I’ve done my part by either telling people about Nosh or taking friends and family there whenever I can, so it makes me a little bit sad that, after almost a year, it isn’t doing better.

Nosh Cafe has offset the lack of people at their tables with a takeaway option as well as delivery service through SkipTheDishes, JUST EAT and Dial and Dine. However, my hope is that things will pick up for them as people either realize they’ve moved to this area or they give the restaurant a chance. On a positive note, during my last visit, I noticed that more seats were filled and there was a steadier stream of customers coming in and out for both dine-in and takeout. The owner confirmed with me that business was starting to improve. That’s a good sign.

I will say that, yes, they can likely work on the overall service they provide. Often times, when it’s slower, staff can’t necessarily be found out front as soon as you walk through the door. But, the staff (the two I’ve seen) are quite friendly and accommodating. They’ve always been happy to take our order at the table even though the concept of the restaurant is similar to eateries like Remedy where you’re supposed to order at the till first and then find a table.

Overall, I’ve really enjoyed Nosh Cafe. The meals are relatively affordable and filling, the service is decent and it’s the perfect place to go when you need or want a quiet place to have a conversation over tasty food.

I’m already imagining my next meal there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Urban Diner

Weekly specials advertised in the restaurant.

Weekly specials advertised in the restaurant.

Urban Diner (@UrbanDinerYEG) has been a staple of Edmonton’s High Street area for as long as I can recall. But, it wasn’t until I was probably finishing high school or working on my undergrad that it became one of my hang outs. For several years now, it has been the brunch location of choice for my elementary school friend and I. The prices are decent, the food is simple, yet tasty, and it’s good for a casual gathering. There’s nothing pretentious about this place.

I have heard a few people gripe that the offerings have gone down hill recently, and that the consistency of the dishes between the original 124 Street location and the one on 109 Street just south of the High Level Bridge is questionable. However, the long line up of patrons waiting for tables – seen each Saturday and Sunday morning – tells me another story. It’s obvious that the diner is still a favourite when it comes to breakfast food and home style meals. Regardless of the weather or traffic caused by the closure and construction of the Groat Road Bridge, people will patiently bide their time until a spot frees up.

My last visit was no different. Months since I’d been there, I arrived a little late, but a bit earlier than my friend. Already, there were a few pairs and groups ahead of me. Everyone was trying to crowd inside the door way, some to no avail. All the tables and the counter seats were full, but I could see some people finishing up, so I knew it wouldn’t be too long. As I waved and smiled at a baby being cradled in his mom’s arms, I watched as the servers hustled around the eatery wiping down surfaces, clearing plates and dropping off food. Some of the servers I remember seeing on previous occasions. Many of them have likely worked there throughout my entire history as a customer. Personally, I think that speaks to the business itself. The fact that their staff has stuck with them for such an extended period of time, hints that they must be doing something right.

The Urban Diner brunch menu.

The Urban Diner brunch menu.

Shortly before my companion showed up, I was led to a table by the window. I still had a view of the door, and the line certainly wasn’t letting up soon. Our server grabbed me a water as a text came in; my friend was just about there. I perused the menu and glanced at the daily deals (FYI, mac and cheese Mondays are no more. That has moved to Thursday, while meatloaf now starts the week off.). Regardless of whether my heart is set on something or not, I make a point of studying the choices. Maybe they’ve swapped some items off the menu, or another selection will strike my fancy. You never know.

The frittata with multigrain toast.

The frittata with multigrain toast.

Not this time, though. Both of us stuck to the tried and true – frittatas! I used to go for the vegetarian frittata (sans the chicken apple sausage), but nowadays, I’ve been selecting the meat option. I suppose, it just feels heartier that way. A skillet of eggs, bacon (not in the veggie version), spinach, portabellinis, artichokes, tomatoes, peppers, leeks, hash browns, swiss and mozzarella, whatever option you choose, they’re both extremely satisfying and filling. It’s a dish with ample flavour and a good ratio of meat to veggies to cheese to starch. The plate also comes with your choice of toast and a pot of berry preserves, which is likely unnecessary, yet provides some sweetness to an otherwise savoury offering.

More weekly specials, including Throwback Thursday Mac & Cheese!

More weekly specials, including Throwback Thursday Mac & Cheese!

I will have to go back at some point for the Throwback Thursday all day mac and cheese special, which is only $7 (add $3 for a Nathan’s hot dog). I have a feeling they stopped serving the smoked salmon and curry versions of the mac and cheese that used to be part of their Monday menu after 5pm. Of course, I can’t say that for sure until I actually try it, but that’s my best guess based on the cost and their suggestion of topping it off, old school style, with hot dog pieces. Their retro dessert case always looks full of great after dinner treats, too. One day, maybe I’ll leave enough room to fit that in.

All I know for sure, is that if Urban Diner decides to stay, people will continue to flock to it. They have a great reputation that has been ingrained into the city’s dwellers and its surrounding neighbourhoods. And, as far as I can see, they’re still serving up the same food that my friend and I have come to love, if not for the food itself, for the memories that the dishes bring back. It’s our spot, and hopefully, it’ll always be there when we need to catch up.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Manor Bistro

My mom's salmon sandwich.

My mom’s salmon sandwich.

Serving patrons since 1993 – 22 years and counting – The Manor Bistro (@manorbistroYEG) has been a mainstay in the High Street area of Edmonton. I was only seven when it first opened, so I can see why it has become a neighbourhood institution over time. After all, I lived within a five minutes’ drive until I decided to move out and purchase my own condo in the south side of the city.

The new corner I call home is still in constant development and it’s only just beginning to gain some character and choice in the food department. Unfortunately, it really does take a long time to build the kind of community that is seen in Glenora and Oliver. The majority of choices in Terwillegar and Windermere are chains or franchises, so I now realize – more than ever – how lucky we were to have places like The Manor nearby when I was growing up.

It had been ages since I had dined there. However, my good friend’s bachelorette party was held at the establishment last August, and my mom was given a gift card for Chinese New Year this February, which she decided to use to treat my dad and I to lunch.

We happened to be there on a Saturday, Valentine’s Day no less, so it was fairly busy. A parking spot was found just to the side of the building, and of course, we had called ahead to make a reservation (or book through OpenTable, if you prefer), so we didn’t have any problems getting a table. The server/hostess was friendly as she greeted and seated us.

Looking at the restaurant menu, I’d call the current selection a cultural mix of comfort cuisine because there’s everything from nasi goreng (clocking in at No. 61 on the The Tomato‘s top 100 list for 2015; they also came in at No. 26 & No. 28 for their cocktails in 2013) to beef bourguignon to schnitzel. It’s actually quite a succinct list of items, but it does span the globe a bit in terms of flavours and techniques.

On this particular occasion, I waffled between a few items, yet ultimately, I decided to go with the king of comfort food: mac and cheese with added braised beef short rib. My dad ordered the schnitzel sandwich with a side of roast pepper chorizo soup, and my mom chose the salmon sandwich with fresh cut fries.

While we waited for our food to be prepared, we were treated to a basket of warm bread with herbed butter, which I really didn’t need to eat, but enjoyed nonetheless (sue me…I love my carbs). Our mains followed shortly after; we were actually surprised at how quickly everything was prepared.

The mac and cheese was served in an iron skillet, which kept the plate hot and the cheesy sauce creamy. It was a rich dish, so I wasn’t disappointed that this was portioned smaller. At $13 without the meat or $17 with, it really isn’t badly priced. The braised beef was wonderfully marinated and tender, the meat shredding easily with just a fork. An extra side of bread was included, and despite having eaten a couple of slices already, I proceeded to top the accompanying mini loaf with cheese and beef. It was excellent and my leftovers were just as good when reheated for dinner later that evening.

My dad's pork schnitzel sandwich.

My dad’s pork schnitzel sandwich.

I sampled my dad’s schnitzel sandwich, which consisted of breaded pork tenderloin, Dijon, tomato, lettuce and Swiss cheese. The schnitzel was evenly cooked and lightly breaded, so it wasn’t heavy, and the simple toppings made for a delectable, if not subtle winner. After half a sandwich and the bowl of soup, my dad packed up the remaining portion for later. The succulent salmon in my mom’s sandwich was fabulous. One of the worst atrocities in the kitchen is overcooking your meat or fish, but this was perfect. Topped with pickled onion, lettuce, tomato and beet-barley relish, it was a tasty combination of earthy and tangy flavours. The portion size of the salmon was generous as well. Again, leftovers were to be had.

Stuffed to the brim, we had no room for dessert. Although I will say that the tray being shown to the adjacent table was very tempting. We’ll just have to go back to The Manor another time to indulge.

This restaurant has obviously stood the test of time. It has evolved with the seasons, the times and its customers to remain a constant in an area that has seen plenty of change over the years. What I like about the eatery’s atmosphere is that it is at once classy, but also laid back. It’s not stuffy, and neither is the food.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Delicious Pho

The vermicelli bowl with the works!

The vermicelli bowl with the works!

It was late last year when, with great dismay, I found out The Makk had closed. Located at 124 Street and 104 Avenue, the restaurant had taken a bit of time to find its ground, and, while it eventually did, it was too late. The last couple of times I had eaten there, it was pretty much vacant save for my companions and I, so it wasn’t really a huge surprise to see it go, but it was sad nonetheless. Fast forward a few months and signs advertising a new restaurant were strung up outside of the same space. A Vietnamese eatery was to take The Makk’s place.

Delicious Pho (@delicious_pho), a new franchise, opened up around mid-February. The quick changeover to the new establishment is likely due to the fact that few renovations needed to be made. At fast glance, almost everything in the room is the same as the previous tenant, including the colours, furniture and overall style. The only noticeable differences come from the addition of some potted plants, which give it a slightly more Asian feel, and new artwork.

The interior of the restaurant on 124 Street. Photo courtesy of Delicious Pho.

The interior of the restaurant on 124 Street. Photo courtesy of Delicious Pho.

I didn’t actually make it over to Delicious Pho until November. On a slightly chilly evening, my companion and I found free parking on a side street about a block away from the eatery. Walking in a couple of hours before I had a meeting nearby, I saw that, besides a few claimed tables, it was quiet that night. There was one person on staff at the front of the house, but she made sure to get us seated immediately and she was very attentive, even making sure that any dietary concerns we had were met.

The menu is fairly extensive with a mix of appetizers, specialty rolls, Vietnamese subs, vermicelli bowls, pho noodle soup, specialty items and rice plates. They also serve Vietnamese coffee and bubble tea smoothies.

One page from their menu - the vermicelli bowls.

One page from their menu – the vermicelli bowls.

Both of us decided on the No. 42, which is the vermicelli bowl with grilled pork, grilled meatball, grilled shrimp, grilled chicken, grilled beef, a spring roll and a side of fish sauce. The bowls came to the table relatively quickly, and they were filled to the brim with meat. Other Vietnamese restaurants I’ve been to sometimes skimp on the toppings, but not here! I would say they provide an ample amount of meat, carrots and cucumber, making the bowl worth the $12.95 price. If I were to criticize anything, I would say maybe they could include just a little more vermicelli to help balance it out a bit. Most importantly, all the meats were tender – I didn’t find any of it to be at all chewy – and the flavours were strong yet refrained from being overly salty.

Usually, by the time I come to the end of my bowl, I’m not super full and I find myself picking at every morsel in my dish because I want to make sure I get everything. On this particular occasion, I was absolutely stuffed before I even reached the bottom. Forcing myself to, at least, finish the meat that remained, so as not to waste the best part of the meal, I couldn’t take another bite afterwards and ended up leaving behind a small portion of noodles and veggies.

The two of us even had a coupon for a free entree with the purchase of a first and two beverages, so, while we had full bellies, we left Delicious Pho with our wallets only a tad lighter than before.

If you want a healthy meal that doesn’t cheap out on the quality of the ingredients, but also ensures quantity, as well as a clean and stylish atmosphere at a decent cost, I would suggest that you check out Delicious Pho. It definitely helped to satisfy my vermicelli craving that evening, and it was a nice, low key place to converse.