Edmonton Restaurant Review: Villa Bistro

Braised Short Rib

To my surprise, this summer, I was scrolling through my OpenTable app when I came across a new restaurant called Villa Bistro. It was the first I’d heard of it, so I decided to Google the business. As it turns out, the trusty Free Press Bistro on 100 Avenue and 104 Street had been sold and renamed. Villa Bistro’s goal is to serve high-end comfort food, which, in a city that seems to be in the throws of winter for half the year, seems appropriate.

I kept the new eatery in mind for the past few months, and I finally visited with a friend at the end of November after we completed a big Christmas shopping spree at City Centre. We happened to be hanging out downtown on an Oilers game night, so depending on where we parked, we could have ended up paying for it. However, we lucked out by driving an extra block further where we found a spot on 99 Avenue. The payment machine didn’t indicate that it cost anything after 6:00pm. Yet, just in case, we phoned 311 to double check and they confirmed that the zone we were in fell outside of the event area. Bonus! Otherwise, if money isn’t a concern, there is parking in front of the establishment as well as an Impark lot across the street, too.

When we entered Villa Bistro, it was fairly quiet. I’d say there were, at best, a handful of other tables and a couple of bar stools occupied. I noticed the space had been freshened up with brighter walls, new modern floral art (i.e. the ubiquitous succulent), as well as updated tables and chairs. It looked lovely. The host greeted us from behind the counter and told us we could take any available table. We opted for one tucked into a nook by the windows. Once we settled in, the server brought the menus over along with glasses of water.

Veggie Panini with Fries

The food selection has an Italian leaning with entrees that include panini sandwiches or pasta bowls and appetizers of meatballs, charcuterie, and caprese skewers. My friend ended up ordering the Veggie Panini ($15). I indulged by going with the Braised Short Rib ($24). The two of us also shared an order of the Baked Brie ($15).

As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our meal, it seemed to be getting cooler inside the restaurant. I assumed it was because we were next to a window and didn’t think too much of it at first. But, right before our dishes arrived, my friend stepped out into the building’s adjoining hallway to use the bathroom and, when she returned, she confirmed that the temperature had most definitely dropped. The server eventually let us know that what we were experiencing wasn’t the norm. Apparently, the whole building was hit with a heating problem and someone was being called in to fix it as soon as possible.

Despite the cold, we powered through our dinner like the true Canadians we are. My friend was really hoping that her Veggie Panini would be reminiscent of the vegetarian toasties she had when she visited Australia. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The sandwich, consisting of goat cheese, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and red peppers in a balsamic glaze was still tasty. Her one recommendation to Villa Bistro though? The ciabatta bread was barely toasted, if at all. Paninis are supposed to be heated and pressed and this one didn’t seem to fit that description. Coming with the sandwich was a large side of fries. They looked to be freshly made and lightly seasoned.

Baked Brie

We quite enjoyed the Baked Brie. Honestly, it’s kind of a hard appetizer to screw up. This one was presented with a whole mini round of brie that was topped with fruit compote (the menu said it was blueberry, but the colour and flavour made me think it was more akin to raspberry). There were six slices of focaccia crostini to go with it. When we cut into the cheese, it was warm and nicely melted with the center oozing a little. The sweet compote paired perfectly with the rich, creamy, nutty brie.

I will give myself a pat on the back for choosing the Braised Short Rib because I think it was worth every penny. The meat was braised in-house until it was tender enough to be pulled apart with just a fork. There was only a minuscule amount of fat throughout the cut, so I was able to eat every bite of the short rib. It was also marinated very well with the flavour completely saturating the meat. Since it was so savoury, the combination of the short rib with a large helping of sweet potato puree was kind of ingenious, providing that important balance. The addition of fried parmesan Brussels sprouts that were charred and crisp on the outside just made the whole thing even better (and provided me with some actual veggies).

Braised Short Rib

By the time we polished off our plates, Villa Bistro had become a literal ice box. Our server was tucked behind the bar with a heater while she wore her parka, and my friend had also pulled on her coat. Otherwise, there was a slight chance we would have hung out a bit longer and had dessert. In those circumstances, however, we couldn’t bring ourselves to stay. We grabbed our bills to pay and then head back out into the winter evening.

I’ll admit that the staff could have offered to compensate us for the inconvenience of eating in freezing conditions. Even though I know what happened wasn’t their fault, it’s still good business practice to acknowledge when something is wrong and to do whatever possible to rectify the situation. The host/server was super friendly and, despite the issue, she did her job pretty well. But, there wasn’t any discount on the bill or anything, which I think another restaurant would have considered. I believe the least they could have done was to offer each of us a hot beverage to keep us cozy as we ate.

Regardless, I hope that Villa Bistro’s building has since fixed the problem and that every visit hereafter will be much more comfortable. While the establishment is still coming into its own and there’s always room for improvement, they’re on the right track. With good service, a fantastic location and delicious food, they can expect to grow a wealth of regular customers.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Via Cibo

Pizza and pasta are a couple of the options to be found on Via Cibo’s menu.

Okay, so Via Cibo is a little ways out of Edmonton, but it’s close enough considering that it’s located right on Baseline Road in Sherwood Park. My visit here was thanks to another deal snapped up through Groupon. I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, but I knew that it was a franchise in the vein of Italian street food.

When my boyfriend and I arrived at the restaurant early on a Saturday night, it was fairly quiet. I noticed that the only other diners happened to be a celebratory wedding party. They were sitting at the long communal table in the center of the space and their stay was winding down. The staff attempted to busy themselves around the open kitchen. Yet, as soon as one of them saw us walk in, she greeted us and asked if we knew the process for ordering.

Being our first time to Via Cibo, I found out that the model is similar to Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria (our local success story). The idea is pretty much the same: check the menu, order and pay at the till and then the food will be brought out when it’s ready.

Via Cibo’s site says that the shops pride themselves on using local ingredients and making all items from scratch. Although I can’t actually speak to that information as a certainty, I could see that the kitchen was stocked with the small appliances needed for making things like fresh pasta. Therefore, I’m inclined to believe that at least one of those facts is true.

Since it wasn’t busy, we actually took the time to settle into our seats and peruse the menu. Ultimately, my boyfriend opted for the Carbonara Pasta ($13) with extra Grilled Chicken ($5) and I decided on the Via Casalinga Pizza ($15).

Preparation of the food was extremely quick as the plates were probably served to us within ten minutes of us placing our order.

Carbonara Pasta with Grilled Chicken

A bun came with the pasta even though the starch was unnecessary and the Carbonara dish itself consisted of pancetta, fresh egg, Grana Padano cheese, fresh parsley as well as plenty of added grilled chicken. What I didn’t like was that the sauce wasn’t all that creamy and the texture felt as though the sauce had curdled a bit due to overcooking of the egg; it was slightly chunky instead of being smooth. Otherwise, I thought that the flavours were there.

Via Casalinga Pizza

Of the items we tried, the pizza ended up being the better of the two. While I do think that the toppings could have been spread out across the dough more evenly, the Via Casalinga Pizza is a great value. With two types of meat ─ handmade Italian sausage and Casalinga salami ─ and fior di latte and ricotta cheeses, there’s no need to tamper with the recipe. It was savoury with a slight amount of heat and the crust was easy to fold and bite into. I only managed to eat half of the pizza and the rest was packed to go.

If Via Cibo was closer to my neighbourhood, it would probably be a good alternative to our usual eat-in or take-out options. The prices are pretty fair for the portions received. It’s just not a place that is practical for us to frequent more often though. But, it’s certainly somewhere to keep in mind should I ever find myself in need of a speedy fast-casual meal in and around Sherwood Park.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nuovo Bistro

Insalata Di Barbabietoli

As is often the case, I cannot pass up a good deal. Therefore, when I came across a Groupon for the new Nuovo Bistro on 124 Street, I had to snap it up. Sure, I’d seen some mixed reviews about the restaurant after their debut in the fall. Nevertheless, others since seemed to rave about it. I figured that the savings would give me ample reason to stop in and make my own conclusions.

After a couple of hours spent perusing the shops that dot the district, my boyfriend and I decided it was time for an early supper. When we stepped through the doors into the entryway, I made note of their reservation book. There was just one group coming in at around seven o’clock. We were there less than an hour after they’d opened for the evening. It was quiet and I could see that there was no one else dining. I tentatively walked into the dining room and called out a “hello” to the server who was diligently wrapping utensils in napkins. She quickly came over to greet us; happy to have some customers.

The interior of Nuovo Bistro.

With the world as our oyster, we grabbed one of the tables by the large front windows, and I started to really observe everything. The Italian eatery had taken over the space vacated by previous tenant, Dovetail Deli, and it’s essentially unrecognizable inside. They must have removed some walls in the back because it looks much larger and elongated. The square footage is utilized a lot better with ample seating running in parallel rows. The kitchen, handled by two chefs, is clean and open. While the tables and chairs are somewhat rudimentary, the bright red booth and the cityscape/wood panelled accent walls lend the place a sense of whimsy.

Glasses of water were brought over along with the menus, and it was time for us to get down to business. We waffled between several choices before settling on our selections: Insalata Di Barbabietoli, Tagliatelle Florentine and Cannelloni.

The refreshing beet salad.

Extra side plates were brought out for us to share our Insalata Di Barbabietoli ($11.95), which translates in English to a beet salad. Nuovo Bistro’s iteration consisted of thick sliced roasted beets, whole spiced walnuts, dollops of creamy rosemary goat cheese and a white balsamic reduction. Fresh ground pepper was added on top to give it some kick. Overall, it’s an extremely refreshing starter. The beets were perfectly cooked and sweet. The root veggie’s pretty pink juice mixed harmoniously with the zestiness of the lemon balsamic reduction. The rosemary goat cheese helped to mellow out the acidity and the walnuts gave it an earthy flavour. It’s actually such a simple dish, but one that is worth trying. My only wish was that there were more of the latter two ingredients utilized.

Shortly after we polished off the salad, our two main courses arrived. My first impression was that the portion sizes were very generous for the price.

Cannelloni

Once I snapped my photos, my boyfriend dug right into his plate of Cannelloni ($15.95). The large rolls of pasta ─ dough made in-house according to the menu description ─ were stuffed with ground beef, spinach and mozzarella cheese. The three tubes were then topped with a tomato cream sauce, parmesan and chopped parsley for garnish. I had a few bites of the pasta and, surprisingly, it was lighter than I expected. I tend to find cannelloni fillings to be quite dense. Yet, this was the opposite. I also really enjoyed the tomato sauce as it sort of reminded me of one that was wine based in terms of the depth of flavour. It didn’t come across as a cream sauce as the menu listed and that’s okay. I think that’s what kept it from becoming too heavy.

Tagliatelle Florentine

My dish of Tagliatelle Florentine ($15.95) was piled high with long, flat ribbons of pasta. The cream sauce was similar to an alfredo with a rich, nutty flavour and a smooth consistency. Diced tomatoes and wilted spinach added an acidity and minerality. Most of all, I was impressed with the amount of chicken provided. I often find that restaurants skip out on the protein, but not here. Although I have to admit that the meat wasn’t as tender as I hoped it would be, it was plentiful and seasoned well with fresh herbs. As much as I wanted to keep eating, I knew I had to stop myself half way through and have the rest packed up.

When our bill came, I made note of the fact that our server took the time to jot down a message on our receipt. It felt personal and I appreciated that. In all honesty, it’s hard to judge a restaurant when it’s quiet. Of course the staff will be more attentive. What else is going to fill their shift? However, I do believe that regardless of whether or not its busy, Nuovo Bistro is a place where you’ll get great service and a friendly atmosphere. No, the food isn’t quite at the level of Edmonton’s finest Italian restaurants. But, what I sampled absolutely made me want to come back.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Vaticano Cucina

A slice of the St. Francis Montanara pizza.

Whenever I’m making plans for an outing with friends, one of the first places I check for restaurant possibilities is the OpenTable app. I love that the ability to make a reservation is just a few clicks away. Sometimes it’ll even bring up a total gem.

During a recent search, I happened upon an eatery called Vaticano Cucina. New to Edmonton’s south side, it took over the space vacated by Koutouki Taverna on Gateway Boulevard and 45 Avenue.

As it turns out, the business opened their doors at the beginning of May. Only in operation for a few weeks before we visited, I had kept it in the back of my mind until I was planning an escape room event. Just four minutes away by car from the game venue, Vaticano Cucina was the perfect spot for our get together.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we headed over to the restaurant where we found a couple of our friends circling the building. A lack of signage and multiple doors threw them off, so they were looking for the main entrance (it’s the one facing the Travelodge). Once inside, we were greeted and led to our table. It was situated on a raised platform to the side, but it didn’t feel enclosed at all. It actually provided great vantage points of the kitchen and the expansive interior while allowing us to talk without any distractions. We also noted the fresco-like ceilings. Inspired by the Sistine Chapel, Vaticano Cucina had large scale canvas prints of classic Italian paintings made and wallpapered to raised portions of the ceiling throughout. This was a neat detail in an otherwise neutral, but stylish room.

A cup of coffee.

The atmosphere lends itself well to the idea of brunch, and I think it’s important to note that only those items are served until 2pm during the weekend. Afterwards, the regular menu takes effect. I was unaware of that before we arrived, so I wasn’t expecting to find a pared down list. Nevertheless, there was no problem finding something I wanted to eat.

In the end, two people opted for the Chicken Parmesan Panini with Chips, one selected the Italian Prosciutto & Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto (or Cubano Pork Traditional; I may have them confused) Eggs Benedict and the last of us chose the Strozzapretti Funghi.

Eggs Benedict

Off the bat, I’ll make it known that I didn’t try any of the Eggs Benedict ($15), but it looked wonderful and hearty. Focaccia bread was laid with large slices of Cubano pork, two soft poached eggs and covered in a brown butter Hollandaise sauce. Their version of hash browns was served on the side and was different than anticipated as they were prepared more like smashed potatoes. My friend reluctantly shared a bit with his wife before devouring the whole thing himself.

Chicken Parmesan Panini

I did get to try some of the Chicken Parmesan Panini since my boyfriend generously cut off a corner of his sandwich for me. It was better than I imagined it would be, too. The chicken was breaded and fried until succulent on the inside and crunchy on the outside. It was then placed between the slices of bread with the perfect amount of tomato sauce and melted cheese. In addition, the bread was incredibly buttered and sprinkled with herbs before being grilled. It was simple, but also rich and indulgent. The side of chips was prepared in-house and came with a refreshingly creamy dill dip.

Strozzapretti Funghi

My dish was the Strozzapretti Funghi. I’ll quickly note that their pasta is handmade, but it’s not freshly created at the restaurant. The dry pasta is actually imported from Italy. Taking that into consideration, it’s still very good. The noodles were cooked until perfectly al dente and stirred with cream sauce, spinach, Fontina cheese and a trio of mushrooms. The dish was garnished with some arugula to round out the flavour profile. I also sprinkled on some grated Parmesan cheese and chili flakes. Surprisingly, the dish refrained from being too dense. I polished it off without any issues and still had room for a snack.

Joe, who co-owns Vaticano Cucina with his brother and both of their wives, chatted with us while we dined. He happily shared some of his family’s Italian history with us while also taking the time to describe what a Montanara pizza is – flash deep-fried dough that is then baked in their wood burning oven – before fully convincing us to try one.

The full St. Francis Montanara Bianca Pizza.

We figured that it wouldn’t be a problem for five people to eat a whole pizza and we were correct. The most difficult part was deciding which one to order. There are over a dozen choices, and each one is creatively named after various saints. Ultimately, we went with the first one Joe suggested, St. Francis. Quite honestly, I couldn’t really decipher a change from the regular Neapolitan pizza preparation as the consistency of the baked and charred dough was so similar. But, I’ve heard that the main difference actually comes down to the taste, which is deeper in flavour with the Montanara. Regardless, the crust had just the right amount of chew and crispness. The toppings of fig, chevre (goat cheese), arugula, onion jam and balsamic glaze made for a light yet punchy pizza.

Thanks to the wonderful food, relaxed venue and friendly hospitality, we left Vaticano Cucina in a great mood and we felt more than ready to take on the day. We also unanimously agreed that each of us would be happy to go back. For such a newcomer to the Edmonton restaurant scene (especially in the south of the city), they’ve already proven themselves to be worthy of a second helping.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sabor Restaurant

Smoked Duck Carpaccio

Smoked Duck Carpaccio

Known for a menu that weighs heavily towards seafood, Sabor Restaurant wasn’t necessarily ideal for my friend’s birthday dinner. With an allergy to most shellfish, it could have been a disaster waiting to happen. However, they do offer a number of small plates, vegetarian dishes and a variety of other meat oriented entrees.

After she previewed several menus from a narrowed selection of eateries, my friend decided that Sabor was the one where we’d celebrate. The available dishes outside of the seafood realm were enough to convince her. Not so secretly, I was ecstatic that she picked Sabor. It’d been more than a year since I’d eaten there. I knew that the restaurant had rebranded and rejigged their menu, so I was excited to finally go back.

Arriving for our reservation on a Thursday evening, we were seated promptly by the far wall at a table for two. My friend was able to have full view of the space, which does have a slightly rustic European vibe to it. The pianist was also within sight, and while we dined we were treated to the lovely sound of live music.

Our server was very personable and, upon hearing of my friend’s allergy, he thoughtfully suggested other items for us. He was also willing to answer any questions we had.

We took a few minutes to choose what would actually end up in our bellies. Carefully, we selected an assortment that would satisfy our appetite while covering our bases – fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and grains. What we ended up with was the liver pate, smoked duck carpaccio, lamb gnocchi and grilled eggplant.

Liver Pate

Liver Pate

The liver pate was a last second add-on. It isn’t something I would usually order, but our server said it was good and I was intrigued because it was made from a blend of chicken and smoked duck. A pot of the pate arrived at our table with a few large pieces of crostini. The pate, served cold, was dense, smooth and full-flavoured. The portion size was decent, too, for a six dollar starter. Any remaining pate was spread on fresh slices of bread.

Smoked Duck Carpaccio with bread and butter

Smoked Duck Carpaccio with bread and butter

Carpaccio, as mentioned in my previous review of Normand’s Bistro, is one of my favourite dishes. Trying smoked duck prepared in the same fashion as beef or bison was something to check off. Surprisingly, no matter the type of red meat offered, carpaccio is served with truffle oil and arugula 99 per cent of the time. I have nothing against that though. It’s a classic combination for a reason. The smoked duck was thinly sliced, which helped up the tenderness of the meat even more. I didn’t even have a problem with the thick border of duck fat on each slice; it pretty much melted away. A mustard vinaigrette provided an extra flavour profile.

Once we polished off our appetizers, we nursed our drinks as we waited for our mains to come. I will say that the service became a lot slower at this point. More of the tables had been filled, and our server had his hands full. But, he really did grab our entrees as soon as the kitchen finished making them. It just took the chefs a while to get to them, I guess.

On a time crunch, as we had tickets to an event that evening, we ended up having to rush through our last two plates.

Grilled Eggplant

Grilled Eggplant

Making sure we got some servings of fruits and vegetables, we ordered the grilled eggplant. Long slices of the purple fruit were folded over like taco shells that held a mix of tomato, goat cheese and basil. Each one was then topped with pine nuts, and salad with balsamic was served on the side. The synthesis of textures was nice and the dish was light. The piquancy of the generous dollop of goat cheese was the highlight.

Lamb Gnocchi

Lamb Gnocchi

Dinner was completed by the hearty lamb gnocchi, cooked in a vegetable and tomato ragu. The balls of potato pasta were plump and the lamb was prepared well (I wish there was a bit more meat though). As for the ragu, it was generously seasoned and included plenty of veggies.

Had we more time, we would definitely have tried a dessert or two. Unfortunately, we had to quickly pay our bill and dash over to our next venue. I was more disappointed about that because it meant no birthday dessert for my friend. On the plus side, our lack of time for a sweet ending simply means we’ll have to revisit Sabor at a later date.

Despite the leisurely pace of service, the pleasant staff seemed to be educated on the menu, and willing to give recommendations. Every dish we sampled was delicious and expertly crafted, too. If I’m to be convinced to return, that’s one of the most important things for me. Therefore, I expect I’ll be back on an evening when I know I have nowhere else to be.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment, visit The Local Good to read my profile of Sabor Restaurant.