Calgary Restaurant Review: Bread & Circus

Art made for Bread & Circus

For my birthday weekend in Calgary, I had planned several meals based around available happy hour menus. One of the places that popped up during my search was Bread & Circus. It’s tucked away on 17 Avenue — a favourite area whenever Kirk and I visit the city — behind Una Takeaway on 6 Street.

The interior of Bread & Circus keeps your eyes moving.

I mean, anyone who walks into Una Takeaway will see the restaurant entrance right there, but it still kind of retains an in-the-know hideaway feeling when you show up for your reservation (booked through Resy). Prior to being seated, our winter coats were taken and hung up for us. We were then led to a table for two that was tucked into a small nook across from the chef’s bar.

As it turns out, only select items from the antipasti and pasta options were included as part of happy hour, but it was enough to satisfy us. NOTE: It seems that happy hour has changed since our visit as they now offer a daily $5 menu of house wine, specific cocktails and food items between 5:00pm to 6:00pm.

When we were at Bread & Circus, cocktails were on special for $6 each and certain marked plates were half off (costs listed here are regular price, unless otherwise indicated). That included their Garlic Bread ($7), Amatriciana ($19), Carbonara ($20), and Beef Carpaccio ($14).

The Pomme Pomme

The Pomme Pomme ($10) was a tall cocktail mix of Calvados, Gifford’s Ginger Liqueur, and lime juice, making for a refreshingly tart beverage with a hint of spice at the back of the throat. Very smooth and easy drinking.

The Beef Carpaccio was presented first, and it was superb. The paper thin, circular slices of bright red meat were generously covered with broccolini salsa verde, shaved mimolette cheese, and puffed farro. The salsa was creamy and cooling on the palate. The hard orange-hued cheese was nutty and slightly salty, pairing well with the florets of broccolini, and the puffed farro added a little bit of crunch. So many textures and distinct flavours came together to make one fantastic dish. Even Kirk, who does not like raw meat, ate his fair share of this one (citing the beef actually looked fresh and appetizing to him because of the colouring), and we ended up ordering a second plate.

Amatriciana pasta in the forefront with the Garlic Bread in the back.

Before we even got our first order of Garlic Bread, Kirk decided that we should get two, so again, another was requested. There’s a reason why this is charged at $7 each though. It’s because it’s a whole loaf of freshly baked, warm pull-apart bread. The outer crust was a tad dry in spots and sort of subtly flavoured throughout. That is, until you get to the portion where they stuffed it with the garlic butter. Then it turns into a potently garlic treat. I devoured almost my entire loaf, careful to eat all of the parts doused in that butter and leaving behind the drier bits.

Carbonara

The two of us split the Amatriciana and Carbonara pastas. Both were delicious. Yet, they were also kind of similar. The only difference was the type of sauce that each came with. Their Amatriciana is technically made with bigoli noodles — still a thick, round pasta that I couldn’t really tell apart from the spaghetti used in the Carbonara — tossed in a traditional tomato sauce, chilies, and pecorino romano. The Carbonara is prepared with a creamy white sauce made using a farm egg and cracked pepper before being topped with more pecorino romano. Each of the plates was elevated with the same protein of crispy pancetta. Either way, I’d order both again. Incredibly simple in execution, but perfectly al dente noodles and deep, rich flavours in the sauces.

Caramelized popcorn as a parting snack.

By the time we finished all of that food, we were so full. I would have loved to try dessert, but I just couldn’t fathom eating anything else. Thankfully, a tiny dish of caramelized popcorn was dropped off with our bill, so I got a little taste of sweetness to cap our meal.

From the fun, secretive nature of Bread & Circus and the eclectic decor to the friendly service and the wonderful food, I’d say that this is definitely a spot to visit if you live in Calgary or find yourself there for work or play. In a heartbeat, I’d recommend it, especially for that stellar beef carpaccio.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Panini’s Italian Cucina

Pasta comes piping hot in foil pans.

I’ve never once set foot into the physical space of Panini’s Italian Cucina. However, I’ve now ordered their food through SkipTheDishes enough that I feel I can justify writing this review.

My co-workers were interested in having lunch delivered one day, so we started to peruse the options on the app. I decided to search based on current restaurant ratings and fees. Panini’s Italian Cucina came right to the very top of the list. Not only do they offer free delivery with purchases of $20 or more, they also had a Skip rating of 9.9 out of 10. It was either going to be them or the Italian Centre Shop. What really pushed Panini’s over the edge was the extent of their options.

That initial order included a Prosciutto Bocconcini Panini ($12) for me, and a Deluxe Calzone ($16), Ciambella Doughnut Balls ($6), and a Build Your Own Pasta ($4.75) for my friends.

Pastas are packaged in large round foil pans. The Build Your Own pasta is simply a base of either spaghetti, fettuccine or penne with their signature tomato sauce. There were no additional toppings or upgrades, hence the low cost. Supposedly, it’s meant to feed one person, yet the portions are quite sizeable. The Deluxe Calzone was also big, but still devoured by my co-worker in one sitting. Since she didn’t have room for dessert, she shared her doughnuts with me. At first, when I picked up a ball, I thought the outside was a bit too firm. Nevertheless, it gave way to a soft, springy center, and it was delicious when dipped into the container of Nutella that came on the side.

Prosciutto Bocconcini Panini

The original version of the sandwich I chose comes stacked with prosciutto, bocconcini, artichokes, spinach, and tomatoes. What I love about Panini’s is that there’s an opportunity to customize for free, so I opted to swap out the latter two toppings for arugula and sun-dried tomatoes. I even added roasted red peppers as up to four veggies can be selected. Condiments of pesto mayo and lemon garlic mayo were bonuses. All of this was pressed between a hearty whole wheat bread. The sandwiches are actually perfect to be split into two separate light lunches. I too finished off my panini, eating the whole thing in one go. They don’t skimp on the ingredients. Everything was fresh, and the bread was buttered and toasted to perfection, giving it a good bite.

Subsequent deliveries have yielded us more pastas and sandwiches: Spaghetti & Meatballs ($13.25), Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo ($11.50), Penne Alla Boscaiola ($12.75), and Montreal Smoked Beef Panini ($12).

Penne Alla Boscaiola

As my friend noted, the Spaghetti & Meatballs — signature tomato sauce with two large beef and pork balls — was able to provide her with sustenance for three days straight, making their dishes a fantastic value. Even my Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo was hefty and split into a few meals. The sauce was creamy and all of the pasta was well-coated. The grilled chicken had ample flavour. This only thing is this option is not the healthiest by any means. It’s not as noticeable if eaten immediately after it’s made, but, rewarmed, the paper plate I had put my pasta on was just drenched in an abundance of oil that soaked through. Yikes! The latest pasta I tried was the Penne Alla Boscaiola. It consists of a rosé sauce. Basically this is the best of both worlds since it marries a traditional tomato sauce with white cream sauce, and I found this to be lighter than the alfredo. Copious thin slices of spicy Italian sausage had been placed into the pasta with mushrooms and peas dotting the pan as well. Again, there was plenty to spread this out over a few lunches.

Montreal Smoked Beef Panini

As far as Montreal Smoked Beef sandwiches go, this one hits the spot. It’s not outrageously stuffed with meat like the ones sold at true Montreal delis, but there’s just the right amount of beef. This one is supposed to be served with mozzarella, arugula, pickled eggplant, spicy pepper mayo, and mustard. I pretty much keep it as is. The only things I add are artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. The smokiness of the meat plays off the acidity and bitterness of the veggies while the sauces bring in a savoury-sweet combo and a little spice.

What I like most is that it never seems to take too long to get our food from Panini’s Italian Cucina. Despite the lunch rushes, we’ve received better service from them being fifteen blocks away on Jasper Avenue than from a restaurant that was literally a few blocks down the road. Everything I’ve had the chance to try from Panini’s has been better than expected, and I often find myself thinking about my next Panini’s lunch. When a single dish has the ability to cover multiple meals at such an affordable price, it’s a winner in my books.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

The open kitchen of Buco Windermere is surrounded by bar seating.

Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group expanded in mid-2015 with Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar in St. Albert. While I’ve never visited that location, a friend of mine is the executive chef at the newer Epcor Tower spot in downtown Edmonton. It’s just blocks away from Rogers Place. For me, the closest and most convenient is in Windermere.

My fiancé and I recently popped in to check it out. We spent an entire $65 OpenTable dining cheque on an indulgent Saturday afternoon lupper (lunch-dinner). The reason why we chose to go at that time is because they offer Social Hour specials daily from 2pm to 5pm and 9pm to close.

It’s nice and airy inside with an industrial feel.

Even in the middle of the day, there were a decent number of guests seated in both the industrial style lounge and dining room. However, there were just a few staff on hand, so service was a little slower than it should have been. It was worth it though, and it kind of forced us to sit there and enjoy our meal rather than quickly rushing through it all.

My Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail at the front and the featured Shock Top draft at the back.

To start, my significant other opted to go for their feature draft. At $5 for 12 oz. it was reasonable (regularly $7.50). That day’s option was Shock Top, so nothing too special. I chose to try their Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail ($5 for Social Hour, usually $9.50) — peach grappa, peach purée, white tea, and peach infused whipped cream. Our server said it took longer to make it because they had an issue with the whipped cream dispenser. That’s no big deal. I was more annoyed with the fact that it was so messy. The drink was filled so high that it was spilling down the sides of the glass and I got whipped cream all over my hands and the table. They never bothered to wipe that down or offered to bring extra napkins or anything. Other than that, I could have done without so much ice. The cocktail comes in a short glass, so the more cubes there are, the less drink there is, and I finished it really quickly.

For sustenance, we shared a Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 people ($12, typically $22), a Carne pizza, and a Fig Prosciutto pizza ($12 each, outside of Social Hour it’s $21). This was a ton of food and could easily have fed another couple.

Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 People

The cheese and charcuterie board was brought out as a starter, so we were able to snack on that first. This actually wowed us because we weren’t expecting the smaller size to be such an extensive spread. I think the only constructive feedback we have about this item is that it needs to come with more slices of bread. There were only two pieces per person. It meant the ratio of bread to cheese and meat was off, and it’d be nice to have more bread to balance everything out. Otherwise, the variety of cheese included a mix of both hard and soft textures and a range of mild to pungent flavours. The meats were also great. They stuck to the more familiar cured meats like prosciutto and salami, which ensures everything will be eaten when it comes to a chef’s choice type of situation.

For the pizzas, we were eventually asked if we were ready to have them fired up. We felt like we’d had enough of the board, so we said yes. It didn’t take too long for them to bake in their oven and they came out piping hot. The Carne is a pie layered with red sauce, meat, meat, and more meat. The toppings included short rib, Italian sausage, pepperoni, and bacon for the protein. Smoked caciocavallo and fior di latte filled the cheese quotient. This pizza was everything a meat lover could want as there was just so much of it and it was incredibly savoury. On the ligher side of scale, our Fig Prosciutto pizza is made without tomato sauce. It consisted of fontina cheese, fig jam, prosciutto, and balsamic drizzle. It has that salty-sweet combo that is appealing to a lot of palates. The crusts were easy to fold, crispy and slightly charred on the outside, and a little chewy in the middle.

Raspberry Ricotta Cake

Half of our meal was packed up to go as there was no way we could finish it all at once. But, we did save some room for dessert. In the end, we shared a slice of the beautifully presented Raspberry Ricotta Cake ($9). It was a bit more crumbly than I thought it should be despite the moistness of the ricotta and vanilla based cake. Still, the raspberry coulis, fresh berries, and fresh whipped cream did a good job of tying everything together.

We’ll definitely have to go back again soon to sample more items. Nevertheless, judging by what we’ve eaten there so far, overall, Buco Pizzeria’s menu is up to snuff. Where they can certainly use improvements is with the servers and management. They seemed kind of oblivious to the fact that they had guests. They were more preoccupied with setting up the restaurant for the evening and ignored current patrons unless they were blatantly waved at. It shouldn’t be a requirement to make full on eye contact with a staff member in order to get any service. They need to be trained to be more attentive. Hopefully, I’ll see changes with respect to that next time I’m there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Rebel Food and Drink

Our spread at Rebel Food and Drink.

For most of my life, I lived in the Edmonton neighbourhood of Glenora. Down the road, on 142 Street, sat a restaurant called Piccolino Bistro. It was a favourite among locals, but I never understood the hype after visiting a couple of times. Then, mired in health code violations, the restaurant shuttered temporarily in 2016 to resolve those issues. Yet, even after the fixes, the establishment didn’t stay open much longer.

Their fun accent wall.

Last year, in swooped Century Hospitality Group (CHG). Known for several popular eateries around the city, they worked with former Piccolino co-owner, Lino Rago, to relaunch the space into something more modern. By late-November or early-December, Rebel Food and Drink was born.

In May, I dropped by with my family on a weekday evening to catch their Anarchy Hour (Happy Hour) specials. Monday to Friday, from 3pm to 6pm, and, again, from 7pm to close, on Sunday, premium well drinks, Rebel Lager, and select house wines are just $5. Shares and pizzas are $10 per plate.

Warm beer in mason jars.

My companions were solely concerned with hockey and beer, so they both ordered the Rebel Lager. Oddly enough, the establishment didn’t pour the sleeves of alcohol into regular glasses. The first round arrived in mason jars and the liquid wasn’t even cold. It seemed counter intuitive to sip on a lukewarm beverage, especially on one of the hottest days we’d had of late.

Since no one else was interested in looking at the menu, I took the liberty of choosing a few of the $10 items: Breakfast Pizza, Sausage Me Pizza, Macho Nacho Perogies, and Prawns & Peaches.

Breakfast Pizza

As far as the pizzas go, they’re really similar to what you’d find at their sister restaurant, The Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar. The crust is relatively thin with a crisp exterior and chewy interior. It’s foldable and well-topped. On the night of, it was unanimously decided that the Breakfast Pizza — marinara sauce, bacon, sausage, tater tots, sunny side up egg, and green onions — was the winner between the two we chose. Their version of bacon was really baked prosciutto, so it had a smokiness to it. The broken yolk from the egg gave it a richness, and the flavours of each of the ingredients married together brilliantly.

Sausage Me Pizza

On the other hand, the Sausage Me Pizza — marinara sauce, fennel sausage, baby kale, mozzarella, chilis — lacked meat; it was difficult to discern any sausage was there. An overabundance of kale led to a watered down texture, too. Surprisingly though, the leftover slice I ate the following day was really good. In fact, I liked it more than the final piece of breakfast pizza. Go figure.

Macho Nacho Perogies

When the Macho Nacho Perogies arrived, I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision. They proved me wrong as they turned out to be great. Puffy pan-fried potato dumplings were smothered in a smoked gouda cheese sauce (the pièce de résistance), and then covered with crumbled nacho chips, tomatoes and green onions. They were almost addictive, and the sauce was perfect for dipping leftover pizza crust.

Prawns & Peaches

By far the best selection of the evening was the Prawns & Peaches. Sadly, there were only five prawns to split between three people. Still, the single one I had was wonderful. Lightly battered and fried until crisp, the honey prawns were then served with spicy garlic aioli and grilled sweet peaches. I’m the only one that ate the peaches, and I’m glad I did because they almost stole the show. Executive chef Tony Le definitely outdid himself with this take on a classic Chinese restaurant dish.

The interior is beautifully designed.

On the whole, the food was certainly decent for the price, but the service could use a little work. It started out attentive. However, by the end of our meal, our server was hard to come by. She didn’t bother to offer us a dessert menu, and she stopped refilling our drinks. A few of the seats are a tad too close to one another as well. Otherwise, the tables themselves are a good size (unlike the tiny ones at Hart’s Table & Bar, also owned by CHG, that don’t fit anything). What we did appreciate is that the stylish eatery is nearby my parent’s house, making it an ideal walkable location. They also have a wall that opens wide to allow outside air to flow in, which was super important in what felt like an non-air conditioned space.

Being that Rebel Food and Drink is only about seven months old, I understand that there will be growing pains. Hopefully, they can work them all out soon as I want to see this place succeed in becoming an integrated part of the Parkview and Crestwood neighbourhoods. Areas like this deserve to have their own local joints, and this can easily become one of them.

The neighbourhood seems to have embraced Rebel.

UPDATE June 23

I wrote the above earlier and preset the post. Since then, I’ve actually been to Rebel Food and Drink at least a handful of times. My Dad loves it there. I’m sure it’s because of the deals, as well as the proximity to home. Whatever the reason, I’ve been enough times now to expand on what I already mentioned above.

With each visit, we’ve sampled a few more dishes from the menu, including: The Penelope pizza, Lamb Lollipops, Mussels, Rebel Chz Brgr, Stk + Egg Carpaccio, and How We Rock & Roll lobster rolls. All of these, minus the burger, are part of their happy hour specials.

The Penelope Pizza

Beginning with The Penelope pizza, I’d have to say that it’s not really my top pick. I do love smoked salmon, and this one comes from the local Sgambaros. Yet, I feel as though the toppings are a lot lighter when it comes to this pie versus the others we’ve tried so far. I also find that they heavily powder the bottom of their pizzas with flour to keep the dough from sticking, and that leaves hands severely caked while eating.

Lamb Lollipops

Lamb isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it’s to mine and my family. While I was excited to try the Lamb Lollipops, they weren’t ideally prepared. Thankfully, the meat was still succulent. My issue is more with the way it’s cooked. They crust the lamb in panko breading and fry the lamb chops until they’re supposed to be crispy. The problem is the lamb chops end up sitting in this garlic herb oil or juice and, by the time it gets to the table, it ends up softening the breading too much. Plus, the frying makes it greasier, and I’d much prefer it without that slick sensation.

In contrast, the PEI Mussels — both in White Wine or Marinara sauce — are delicious. The bowls come filled to the brim with open-shelled mollusks (very few stayed closed) drenched in sauce. Grilled lemon can be spritzed on top and two big slices of garlic baguettes are provided to help sop up what remains. It’s enough to be considered a full meal for one or to be shared among a group.

On one occasion, my fiancé was craving a burger and opted to go for the Rebel Chz Brgr ($17) with added bacon ($1.50). Made with ground in-house chuck patties (double-stacked) and served with blanched fries, he couldn’t praise it enough. I think it’s within the list of best burgers he has ever had. I managed to get a couple of bites in, and I can agree that it hits the spot. It’s obvious the meat is fresh. They keep each patty thin, so that they cook through evenly and get a nice char on the grill. It reminded him of something from a mom and pop diner where there’s a nostalgia in terms of quality.

Stk + Egg Carpaccio

I’m a big fan of Carpaccio. Most eateries don’t serve it with any egg as that seems relegated more for tartare. But, the Stk + Egg Carpaccio at Rebel is pretty good. They thinly slice wagyu eye of round to create the base of the dish. It’s then brushed with pickled mustard seed and laid with a fried sunny side egg. An abundance of wild arugula and buttered toast points circled the dish. The meat wasn’t quite as tender as I hoped, coming across a little chewier than I’d like. Nevertheless, it was more than edible and the flavours and textures worked overall.

How We Rock & Roll Lobster Rolls

The How We Rock & Roll lobster rolls have been Maritimer approved by my fiancé, and it’s a big deal considering he’s very picky about his seafood. This is also probably one of my fave appetizers from Rebel. I enjoyed it so much that I ordered a plate of three all to myself during our last meal there. Mini sourdough loafs are buttered and grilled on the outside and then slit in the middle to be stuffed with a mix of rock lobster and garlic mayo. Green onions are used to garnish the miniature rolls. I’m not sure what else goes into the recipe, but we definitely noticed a kick of heat similar to Sriracha. Whatever it is, we recommend they keep doing it.

Having been to Rebel Food and Drink multiple times now, I will say that I was pleased to see that the service received on busy Sunday nights (even over a long weekend) was actually better than a quiet Monday evening. Maybe we were just there on a bad day the first time. All I know is that the staff were way more on the ball with a full house, which improved my perception a bit. The food also continues to impress. Fingers crossed it stays this way.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Bottega 104

Bottega 104 is all about Italian.

Situated on the 104 Street Promenade, between Jasper and 102 Avenues, sits Bottega 104. The Italian eatery is less than a year old. Nonetheless, it seems to have become a favourite in the downtown neighbourhood. When I arrived after work to meet a friend, patrons were starting to trickle in. By the time the two of us left, the venue was jam packed full of people.

My reservation, booked through the OpenTable app, yielded us a table towards the far back corner of the restaurant. It allowed me a bit of a view of the open kitchen as well as perfect sightlines of the long bar and the rest of the establishment. Honestly though, it’s a tight space.

The bar has a lovely design.

Sure, the details of the design scheme and the lighting added to the ambience, but I didn’t find it to be particularly comfortable. It was really cramped. When I was taken to our seats, I was the first to get there, so I decided to sit on the booth side. I had to squeeze myself between the two tables, sucking in my chest, to fit through. Moreover, I narrowly avoided knocking down the wine glasses of the guests next to us. In a way, it kind of reminded me of the close quarters experienced in restaurants on trips to New York City. However, let’s face it. This is Edmonton. People aren’t used to it being like this, and I can’t imagine others love feeling as if they’re sitting on each others’ laps either.

Room aside, I narrowly missed Bottega’s Prohibition Hour specials on their cocktails. From 2pm to 5pm, $13 two-ounce cocktails are marked down to $7 each, which is a hefty savings. Once I had settled in, I may have been able to quickly select something. Yet, our server was gone as soon she dropped off the menus, and she didn’t bother to come back until my friend showed up fifteen minutes later. Ultimately, we both chose water over any other beverage.

Ready to share dishes, family style.

When we did get to place our order, we opted to share a couple of the items: Spaghetti Carbonara Pasta ($21) and Prosciutto Pear Pizza ($21). As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our food, the server came back with side plates and pasta tongs, so we could more easily divide the dishes family style. The food was decent. Although, personally, I found it to be either too salty (pasta) or too bland (pizza).

Spaghetti Carbonara

The Spaghetti Carbonara was made with a “delicate” cream sauce, smoked pancetta, and egg. It was true that the sauce was creamy; unlike other plates of carbonara I’ve eaten, the egg avoided curdling. There was great potential as seen with the extra crispy pieces of pancetta, too. Bottega also didn’t skimp on the amount of protein. The problem was that it became very repetitive on the palate with only the pork and sauce to turn to. They had essentially become one and the same in terms of flavour. I realize that carbonara is not anything fancy; nevertheless, something is needed to help cut through the dish to awaken the taste buds.

Prosciutto Pear Pizza

As for the pizza, I was expecting more. The dough was topped with prosciutto, mozza, gouda, cherry tomatoes, sliced pear, toasted walnuts, and balsamic glaze. It’s a combination that sounds like it’d be amazing. Each inch of the pizza was covered with one of those ingredients, but there was very little stacking. Therefore, each bite provided just a small glimpse of what it could have been. There wasn’t a whole lot of balance between the saltiness of the cured meat and cheeses, the sweetness of the pear, the nuttiness of the walnuts, or the acidity of the tomatoes and balsamic drizzle. Additionally, the pizza cooled off fast, taking away the gooiness that any of the melted cheese may have had.

Zeppoli

Our night concluded with us splitting the Zeppoli ($9) for dessert. Bottega lists it as Italian street food. Typically, they come in the form of fried dough balls covered in some sort of sauce or a dusting of sugar and spice. They’re kind of like the mini doughnuts available at all of our annual festivals. When they were presented to us, I was surprised at the portions (definitely enough for two to three diners) as well as the shape of the Zeppoli. Instead of puffy balls, they were sticks of dough in the vein of churros, yet chewier. Sprinkles of icing sugar decorated the zeppoli along with zigzags of Nutella ganache. Again, this was underwhelming. Had the menu not mentioned Nutella, I wouldn’t have guessed there was supposed to be any hazelnut taste to this. It came across as a basic chocolate sauce.

In the end, this wasn’t what I was hoping for. The service, once both of us were there, was passable. The food was edible, but nothing to write home about. Mostly, it was too crowded and noisy. I mean, the din from everyone conversing makes it loud enough as it is. So, my recommendation is that they take out a table or two and lower the music a bit. I think visitors would appreciate it more than they know. Ultimately, the menu is their bread and butter though. If I’m to return and spend my hard earned money there, that’s where they need to see some major improvements.