Edmonton Restaurant Review: Urbano Pizza Co. (103 Street Closed – Visit 124 Street Location)

Portable pizza ovens that fast-fire pies in under 2 minutes!

The first time I tried Urbano Pizza Co. wasn’t at one of their storefronts. It was actually at last year’s Sturgeon County Bounty Culinary Cookout. As one of the participating partners at the event, Urbano was well prepared to serve the masses. They brought with them a couple of their portable pizza ovens (fast-fired in under two minutes) and were cooking up their meat (The Italian Stallion) and vegetarian pies as fast as they they could manage.

Urbano ended up being our favourite vendor of the night. Not only did they provide reasonable portions for the tickets redeemed, but their pizzas had a lovely thin crust and a mountain of toppings. In fact, my only complaint was that the toppings were so heavy that the crust couldn’t withstand the weight, making it tough to keep my slice together.

Fast forward a year later and I was contemplating where my co-workers and I could go for a quick lunch together. The light bulb in my head went off and I suggested Urbano Pizza Co.

The day we went, we arrived at the original downtown shop (at 102 Avenue and 103 Street) a little after 1 o’clock. It was quiet. There were a few staff members lingering behind the counter and one other customer perched on a stool in the seating area.

The menu displayed on a few screens.

We all took a few minutes to review the menu, which consisted of several Signature Pizzas and Pastas as well as the choice to build your own dish ($11.95 each; $7.95 without toppings). Although it was tempting to consider the latter option because I could pick whatever I wanted (similar to LOVEPIZZA and Blaze Pizza), I wasn’t in the mood to put a lot of thought into things. I ended up taking the lead by ordering The Vegetarian pizza.

I watched the staff as they put my pizza together from start to finish. When not in use, they always pull down the cover of the case to keep the toppings fresh. As they went along, I had the opportunity to let them know if I wanted anything excluded or switched out or added on. There are no extra charges for changes made, so it’s completely customizable.

A view of the prep counter from the seating area upstairs.

By the time I’d paid at the till, my pizza was already out of the oven and had been transferred to a wooden pizza board. I guess the staff members typically bring the food to the customer’s table, so the guy who had my pizza was a tad reluctant to hand it over to me at first. Yet, after checking with another person, he passed it over to me and I made my way up the stairs to grab a table.

The rest of my party followed and their pizzas showed up a few minutes later. I didn’t sample everyone else’s lunch. However, I was told throughout our meal that they all enjoyed what they had selected: The Piri Piri, To the Greek, and Pork & Pineapple.

The Vegetarian pizza with a bottle of Root Beer.

I loved my Vegetarian pizza. It’s a bit different from others as the base doesn’t consist of the usual tomato sauce. Instead, it’s replaced with a puree of eggplant curry. Then it’s topped with roasted cauliflower, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Flavourful and filling despite the lack of protein, I’d be inclined to get this one again.

In fact, the pizzas are quite large for the price. None of us were able to finish the whole thing. One of the employees passed by and came back carrying takeaway boxes without us even having to ask. The leftovers served as my lunch the next day.

Just this month, I went back to Urbano for dinner with a friend. We each ordered a pizza. I still didn’t opt to build my own, but I made sure to try something new. This time, I chose the Salmon. I opted to omit the red onions though. What remained of the toppings was Hollandaise sauce, white sauce, smoked salmon, capers and arugula. I will say that the salmon loses a bit of it’s appeal from an appearance standpoint since the fish turns more of a brown colour after being cooked in the oven. Nevertheless, it’s quite delicious. The smoked salmon still had a tenderness to it along with the salty flavour, and the creamy sauces worked well to balance out the slight bitterness from the greens. The one issue I did have, and maybe it’s due to the amount of sauce and the moisture from the salmon, is that over time, the crust can get a bit soggy as it sits. Still, I ate the whole thing.

My friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza on the right.

I also had a bite of my friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza. It’s not one that I’d usually go for, but it was decent. Made with tomato sauce, roasted pork loin, pineapple and Camembert cheese, it was certainly more traditional in flavour. Personally, I do think it was missing a little something; it needed an unexpected punch of flavour to add an element of surprise. Regardless, those who like Ham & Pineapple likely won’t be disappointed.

Urbano Pizza Co. is the sister to the upscale Sabor Restaurant. Owners Christian Mena and Chef Lino Oliveira took a sharp left turn when they decided to go the fast-casual route. Yet, it’s a concept that works. With others like it popping up all over the city, it’s obvious that they were on the right track. Perhaps it’s because I’m often going there before or after the lunch and dinner rushes, but I’ve experienced nothing but friendly faces, quick service and tasty food each time I’ve visited Urbano. Plus, it’s fairly affordable for a relatively healthy meal with fresh ingredients, many of which are made in-house.

They’ve also got a great deal on their Pizza of the Day. Ask for details when visiting!

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: XO Bistro + Bar

Lunch time at XO Bistro + Bar.

XO Bistro + Bar opened in the Ice District late last year. Situated on the main floor of the new Ultima condo building on 103 Street and 102 Avenue, it’s not far from my downtown office.

Still in its infancy, I finally stopped by for lunch last month. When I showed up for my OpenTable reservation, my friend was already seated in one of the booths by the bar. The space isn’t all that big, but it’s modern in design and it looked like there were stairs by the doors that led up to a second level.

At one o’clock, it was pretty quiet. The lunch crowd must have already dissipated by that time of day. The server brought over some water and, after giving us a few minutes to check out the menu, she came back to take our orders.

The lunch menu is quite succinct with several appetizers and various iterations of Vietnamese pho, vermicelli and bowls as well as a handful of other options. The main difference between most simply came down to the toppings selected.

In our case, my friend chose the Combo 2 Rice Plate with Grilled Chicken and I decided on Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef and Grilled Chicken. Both dishes were served with a spring roll. The food was quickly prepared and we were able to eat without much delay.

Combo 2 with Rice, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

My friend’s plate looked nice with a dome-shaped portion of rice, two large pieces of grilled chicken and a side of julienned veggies. The server had dropped off a couple of sauce bottles along with our food, but neither was soy, so my dining companion had to track her down for that. Other than that minor hiccup, my friend enjoyed the meal.

I found my vermicelli to be very filling. There was actually a lot of food crammed into the bowl. I poured the entire amount of fish sauce provided into the noodles and attempted to mix everything together without losing anything over the sides of the dish. It was a bit difficult. However, I was happy with the overall portion size. Anything less and I may have been disappointed because it’s a bit pricier than other eateries that serve Vietnamese cuisine.

Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

Here, a bowl with one choice of protein and a spring roll cost about $17 after tax and tip. Whereas, places like Pho Hoan Pasteur and Delicious Pho are about $2 less and include a variety of toppings like grilled pork, chicken, beef, meatballs, shrimp and the spring roll, so there’s more value with the others. Regardless, the grilled beef and chicken at XO Bistro was flavoured well with lemongrass and had that lovely charred taste to it. It meat was thinly sliced, so it cooked quickly to the perfect texture and chew. The spring roll was also crisp on the outside and not too greasy.

Honestly, I’m not sure that the downtown lunch crowd is who they’re catering to. They seem to be more of a late night venue with a fun cocktail menu and bar bites, so I’d be inclined to come back to check that out another time.

Granted, that’s not to say it wouldn’t be worth trying XO Bistro + Bar on any other occasion. On the contrary. It was wonderful to be there when it was quieter and not too busy. Their service is decent. Plus, the food is tasty, albeit nothing that really differentiates it from other Vietnamese restaurants.

All-in-all, I think it comes down to convenience and preference. If I’m looking for somewhere stylish to eat this type of food in the downtown area, XO Bistro + Bar will probably be one of the first places to come to my mind. It’s also an ideal location for anyone popping by Rogers Place for any shows or games as it’s literally minutes away by foot.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Baijiu Bar

Baijiu’s table settings.

When I’d heard that the owners of North 53 had a new project in the works, I followed their social media feeds religiously to stay in the know. The final product was Baijiu Bar.

Opening in February inside the 110-year-old Mercer Building, the walk-in only restaurant (reservations may be accepted for larger groups) seemed to be a huge hit with visitors. Literally located across the street from the new Rogers Arena and well within the heart of Edmonton’s Ice District, this stylish iteration of a Chinese food joint joined the ranks of its more established neighbours, Rostizado and Mercer Tavern.

As per usual, I didn’t make it there immediately. Even though my office is only about a 10 to 15 minute stroll from Baijiu, it wasn’t until early April that I found myself dining there with a great friend that I hadn’t seen in a long while.

On an early evening after work, I headed straight over to the Mercer Building. As I approached the brick facade, I looked up to see the establishment’s name lit up in neon through the second storey window. I went through the main entrance, but I must have been a bit too early because the door to Baijiu’s unit was still locked when I got there.

The restaurant’s interior.

After a short wait, the host appeared and let me in. Being the first patron for the night allowed me to really absorb my surroundings. The space is long and fairly narrow with tables to one side and bar seating on the other. High windows provide minimal natural lighting that put the focus on the large floral mural on the parallel wall. Bottles that lined the bar were backlit, so that they gave off a minor glow. All of the tables were set with traditional Chinese wares that felt vintage when placed in contrast to framed black and white images of hip hop artists. Old world versus new school was the vibe.

In the few minutes prior to my friend’s arrival, I decided to order the Baijiu Milk Punch. This 2 ounce cocktail (some go up to 3 ounces) consisted of a mix of Black Seal rum, Cremovo, Chinese soy milk, cream, cinnamon & vanilla syrup and pistachio. It packed enough of a punch to provide a reminder that there was alcohol in it, but it was still a smooth drink with a pleasantly nutty and spicy flavour. My friend opted for one of their Mocktails. In this instance, they created some sort of grapefruit agave concoction that was sweet with a hint of tartness and, overall, it was refreshing.

Red Braised Beef Bao

For our meal, we decided to split a few dishes between us. The quickest out of the kitchen was the Red Braised Beef Bao. The plump taco-like buns were folded to hold the slow cooked Pine Haven pork, pickled shallots, cabbage and shaved Brussels sprouts. On top of that was a thick stripe of soy mayo and sprinkles of black sesame seed. With plenty of succulent meat and a variety of texture, these were delicious, if somewhat messy. I should also note that a standard order comes with only three bao. We added a fourth for $5, to make it easier to split the dish.

Lion’s Head Dumplings

Item number two was the Lion’s Head Dumplings. These were filled with Pine Haven pork, white shrimp, soy, garlic and cabbage. They were served drizzled with a ginger-soy sauce and white sesame seeds scattered atop. I thought the filling was juicy and the sauce had a good balance between the salt and spice. My only qualm was that I thought the dough wrapper was a tad too thick. Thinning that out would help to better define the taste of the pork and shrimp.

Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage

Our trio of share plates was finished with the Spicy Stir-Fried Cabbage (it was a toss-up between this and the Korean Brussels Sprouts). This did not disappoint. The combination of confit onion, ginger, egg, soy, chimichurri, dry chili, crunchy shredded cabbage and garlic chips was to die for. I especially loved the heat from the flakes of chili pepper and the crispy garlic chips that truly enhanced what could otherwise have been a pretty blasé dish. What kept it interesting was the fact that there were layers upon layers of flavour with each and every bite.

Instead of calling it a night once those items were polished off, my friend suggested we complete dinner with an order of the Fried Bao Ice Cream Sandwich for dessert. The selection changes, so we asked what was available. The choices that evening were the Cinnamon Toast Crunch or the Cap’n Crunch. Unsure of the one to pick, I asked our server to recommend. Cinnamon Toast Crunch it was.

Fried Bao Ice Cream Sandwich

The ice cream sandwich is a decent size; it’s perfect to split between two people. Remember the bao mentioned previously? Instead of steaming the dough, it is fried until it puffs up like a hamburger bun. Soft on the inside and a deep golden colour with a slightly brittle texture on the outside, the bao is then halved horizontally. Between the two layers was placed a thick slab of cinnamon ice cream with pieces of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal added in for good measure. Sort of like ice cream stuffed into a doughnut, this was a heavenly and indulgent end to the meal.

Surprisingly, Baijiu stayed pretty quiet throughout our time there. Sure, other people showed up by 7pm, but it was by no means full. My worry about it being difficult to get in on any given day without reservations was quashed and I realized that, depending on my schedule, it’ll be easy to pop in whenever I feel the need.

“Baijiu,” in Chinese, actually has a couple of meanings. The exact translation is “white alcohol,” which is quite fitting for a bar. It took me landing on their webpage and reading that Baijiu is pronounced as “Bye Joe” before I clued in to the second connotation of “celebration.” It never occurred to me that the name of the restaurant was this Chinese word I’ve known for so long and that I’ve always associated with the latter definition.

Having dined there now, I can certainly picture Baijiu as a place of gathering and merriment. The food hints at the traditional in terms of presentation, but the flavours are amped up and honed, if that makes any sense. The atmosphere is laid back and, with the venue being so open, it makes it feel very communal. I’d also say that the service we experienced was top notch; the server was incredibly attentive and knowledgeable. On the whole, the owners have done a fantastic job of bringing their vision to life and, as an Edmontonian, I’m more than happy to welcome Baijiu to the city’s burgeoning restaurant scene.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Crash Hotel Lobby Bar

The classic styling of the Crash Lobby Bar.

My last two posts were about my experiences during Downtown Dining Week (DTDW). This review will complete the trilogy by covering my meal at Crash Hotel Lobby Bar.

The restaurant, located on the main floor of Crash (previously known as the rundown Grand Hotel), is an unexpected gem in a revamped and refurbished building that has been brought back to its glory days. With heavy woods throughout and a bar wine rack disguised as vintage cubbies — likely to be found at the front check-in desks of older hotels — it’s a nod to the history of one of Edmonton’s long standing structures.

My table was all set to go upon arrival!

It’s not a large space by any means. Nevertheless, although it filled up as my friend and I hung out for the evening, it didn’t seem like anyone coming in had any issues finding a spot to perch on. To be fair, there was no hockey game going on at the nearby Rogers Place arena that night. I’d assume that it’d be much busier if that were the case. That’s why I’m glad to see that Crash offers reservations through the OpenTable system. When I arrived, they had my table all set to go. A card with my name and the time of my booking was sitting there waiting for me.

Our martini cocktails, which we sipped on.

Our server was quite attentive. She provided a couple of suggestions for drinks based on our palate preferences. I took one of her recommendations and tried the namesake martini, which was a mix of muddled ginger with marmalade, grapefruit vodka and lemon. It satisfied my penchant for slightly sweet yet sour cocktails. My companion went with the other, known as The Donald. A combination of vodka, lychee and grapefruit juice, this came off a little bit sweeter, but was still pleasing, especially with that kick of lychee fruit.

My friend’s old fashioned cocktail.

Unlike some of the other DTDW participants that create special dishes for the week, Crash opted to showcase their standard menu by allowing diners to choose any item for both the starter as well as the entree of their $28 three-course dinner. My friend and I decided we’d each go for the DTDW dinner and we’d split four dishes, which would allow us to sample more of the offerings.

I was actually very excited to visit Crash as I had heard that chef Nathin Bye had created the menu. Bye brought Ampersand 27 to life, so I could only imagine where he’d take these pub style plates. What I hadn’t realized was that Bye had completely left Ampersand 27 behind. Crash is his new full-time position and that’s interesting. A hotel restaurant doesn’t usually come to mind as the cool, hip place to hang out, and working in an environment where the goal is to gratify the masses can often be limiting. On the other hand, it’s not unfathomable that Bye would choose to take on the challenge of attempting to change that notion.

We selected the Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt salad, Alberta Beef Short Rib, Brussels ‘n Bacon and the Crash Burger. The majority of the dishes are made to be shared among the group, tapas style. The latter is most ideal for an individual meal, but it’s easy enough to divide that into halves (I’m not sure it’s the best if it needs to be allocated between more than two people). It’s important to note that plates are brought out as they’re ready. That means nothing is sitting for too long in the kitchen; it certainly makes for a compelling argument to share the food, ensuring no one at the table feels left out while others may already be eating.

Brussels ‘n Bacon

The Brussels ‘n Bacon were presented to us first. My initial thought was that the size was generous and that it could serve as a whole meal. Regularly just $9 for an order, it’s a great value, too. Prepared with Moroccan spices and sweet chili, the balance of flavours was excellent. The bacon was crisp and smoky; the taste melding with the rest of the spices. Fried chickpeas completed the dish. They were an unexpected accompaniment that provided an extra layer of texture and raised the Brussels ‘n Bacon to star status. It became my favourite dish of the night.

Alberta Beef Short Rib

A plate of the Alberta Beef Short Rib showed up next. There were two pieces of beef, each about four ounces in size, along with hickory sticks and broccoli. The menu indicated that there were supposed to be pickled mushrooms. I don’t recollect eating any of those. Nonetheless, I was happy with the dish as the meat was succulent. I still used a knife to cut it, but it was quite tender. Aside from what looked to be a bed of broccoli puree, the meat was cooked in an Asian inspired sauce, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and topped with hickory sticks (house made versions of the snack chip), which added dimension and made me forget about the lackluster broccoli florets, which were cooked fine, just nothing special.

Crash Burger

Our third dish was the Crash Burger. Admittedly, this was a bit disappointing. The brioche kaiser bun was, in my opinion, over toasted. The ingredients listed on the menu include braised short rib. I couldn’t tell if there was any in the burger. There was also supposed to be an onion ring, but I don’t recall that either. If it was there, it wasn’t memorable. The patty was decent though; it was well-seasoned and the meat was fresh. There was also plenty of aged cheddar and I enjoyed the fried egg. This burger comes with a side of fries (salad is an alternative) and a deep fried pickle. I’m not usually a fan of the second, but I had a bite of the pickle and it was good. The fries were fine. No dips were served with them though, and I could have used some ketchup or aioli.

Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt

Of all the dishes, we would have thought that the cold salad would have been the quickest to prepare, but it turned out to be the last to show up. Was this on purpose à la the mindset of the French and Italians where it’s believed that salad at the end of a meal helps to improve digestion? We don’t really know, but it’s a thought. I will say that the Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt salad was quite a refreshing way to finish off our mains. I would have liked to see more beets and the Greek yogurt was a deceiving replacement for the typical goat cheese. Greens, squash and burnt Mediterranean honey ensured we got our fix of vegetables in a delightfully tasty way.

Cookies & Cream Cheesecake

Dessert was our third and final course. This consisted of a thin slice of tall Cookies & Cream Cheesecake served with a liberal dollop of raspberry jelly or puree. The cake was smooth and silky with layers of chocolate cookie crumble and what tasted like a caramel center. It wasn’t overly dense and, since the slice wasn’t thick, it came across as the perfect portion.

After getting this opportunity to taste a handful of Bye’s creations, I think he made the right move. It’s a chance for Bye to broaden his foodie fan base by showing us how well pub food can be done. The location is accessible and the menu is affordable. Every single dish has an element of surprise – from fried chickpeas to hickory sticks — that elevates each one from something ordinary to something superb (or nearing that, anyway).

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Bündok

The interior of Bündok, including the focal bar.

The interior of Bündok, including the focal bar.

I’ve now had a couple of weeks to think about the dinner that my friend and I had at one of Edmonton’s newest restaurants, Bündok. The two of us met up after work on a Thursday evening in February and walked towards 104 Street and 102 Avenue.

Lacking any signage outside of the entrance, we easily passed it by and ended up having to back track by heading north of Japanese Village, which happens to be just a door or two down the block from the Fox Tower business.

The décor of the eatery is simple. There’s an open kitchen (run by chef Ryan Hotchkiss of Jack’s Grill, Bar Bricco and Red Star), exposed ventilation systems as well as classic dark wood chairs and tables. The focal point is a deep blue-coloured bar and shelving that almost reaches the top of the high ceiling.

We had a 5:00pm reservation (booked through OpenTable), so we were the earliest diners that night. Our table was tucked in next to the front window right behind the glass entranceway. It was a cozy spot that allowed us a view of Oilers fans passing by on their way to the hockey game, and, despite being near the door, it was still warm.

Our server Joe was friendly and provided some recommendations for drinks. He told us that he made the in-house craft root beer that day and, initially, I didn’t believe him. But, by the sounds of it, he was quite hands on with the restaurant even prior to its opening.

Our drinks: a glass of house made root beer and the amaretto sour.

Our drinks: a glass of house made root beer and the amaretto sour.

I enjoyed the root beer. The flavour was akin to a strong organic ginger ale as opposed to what I think of as root beer (i.e. A&W). It also wasn’t as carbonated. The sip of my friend’s Amaretto Sour cocktail was fantastic as it was both zesty and tart with just a slight hint of alcohol on the palate. This was a drink that went down effortlessly.

When it came to ordering for our meal, we were told that the dishes are made to be shared. Neither of us had an issue splitting the food as it meant we would both have a chance to try several items on the menu. Between the two of us, we selected four dishes. Joe seemed skeptical that there would be enough sustenance. I had already intended to add a bowl of the soup, and once I did, he relented.

Chicken Skin

Chicken Skin

A platter of the Chicken Skin was offered to us first as it was the quickest to prepare. With just three pieces on the wooden board, it seemed a bit costly (the price may have been lowered since as the site now lists it at $7 instead of $8). It was deliciously addictive though. The skin was crispy without being greasy and the honey mustard was a nice touch that faintly reminded me of the taste of wasabi.

Beef Tartare

Beef Tartare

Two dishes showed up next, including the Beef Tartare and the Sea Bream Crudo. My foremost impression of the tartare was that it lacked any robust flavour. Yet, when I took my second helping of the beef and placed it onto the crostini, I was pleasantly surprised with how the spice from the pickled mustard seeds and bitterness of the chopped arugula came through. The egg yolk also made the consistency very smooth.

Sea Bream Crudo

Sea Bream Crudo

“Crudo” means raw in Italian, so the slices of sea bream (a white fish) were prepared similar to a Japanese tataki whereby the meat is dressed with oil, citrus juice and seasonings. In the case of this dish, the fish was accompanied by apple, citrus and chili. Personally, I found a couple of the pieces to be chewier than preferred; however, in terms of taste, it was refreshing to the palate.

Parmagiano Soup

Parmagiano Soup

Next up was my bowl of Parmagiano Soup. I had seen a photo of this posted on Bündok’s Facebook feed and I was convinced I needed to have it. I wasn’t wrong. A bowl was placed in front of me that contained layers of melted leeks (how do you melt leeks?), bacon and breadcrumbs to which the soup was then added before my eyes. I stirred everything together and took a spoonful. It was incredibly rich as if they literally melted cheese into cream. Because the soup was added after the fact, the bacon and breadcrumbs remained crisp. I wanted to lick this bowl clean. My friend thought it was equally amazing.

Gnocchi

Gnocchi

If awards had been handed out for the night, the gnocchi would have been given the gold medal. The potato pasta was made Parisienne style using pâte à choux – dough typically made for profiteroles, cream puffs and eclairs – leading to a much more pillowy texture. My friend and I are practically gnocchi connoisseurs and we both agreed that these were the fluffiest and lightest we’d ever eaten. They almost melted away in our mouths. Combined with the roasted brussels sprouts, squash and brown butter, this dish was a real treat with varying textures in every bite.

Grilled Apple Tartine

Grilled Apple Tartine

For dessert, it was suggested that the Grilled Apple Tartine offered on the dinner menu was a good alternative option to the actual desserts. My friend opted for that. It can become a sticky mess due to the use of clover honey, but it’s forgivable. The pink lady apples provide a bit of acidity while the oka cheese gave it an earthy, mushroom-like taste.

Citrus Posset

Citrus Posset

I completed my meal with the Citrus Posset, which was presented in a shallow bowl that, at first glance, looked as if it was filled only with a strip of diced apples, fennel and mint. On closer inspection, I could see that those sat atop a base of citrus cream. This was a wonderful dessert with a silky smooth foundation sitting somewhere between a pudding and custard. It was somehow airy yet also juicy and thirst quenching.

Having only been open for three weeks at the time we visited, I found myself thoroughly impressed. Word-of-mouth advertising seems to be working for Bündok. As we ate, the other tables filled up. Although there were really only one or two people working the front of house, the service was attentive and the recommendations were excellent.

It is intended that the menu rotate regularly, meaning the offerings may be different next time I go, but I think that’s part of the fun. One never knows what might be in store, and I can’t wait to see where chef Ryan Hotchkiss takes things.