Edmonton Restaurant Review: Soy & Pepper

Cheese Dongasu with Cabbage Salad

On a recent girls’ night out, my friends and I narrowed our choices down to several places near downtown Edmonton. After some back and forth, we eventually settled on Soy & Pepper, which touts itself as a modern Korean eatery. Located on 112 Street and Jasper Avenue, it actually took a group of us coming from the south side of the city longer to get there than we expected. Thankfully, one of my girlfriends arrived on time and was able to hold our reservation.

When we finally made our way there and found a parking spot (there is a free lot behind the building), I was surprised to see that the restaurant wasn’t that busy for a Saturday evening. There were just a few other occupied tables, and it didn’t change much as the night continued, so I do wonder how business is going for them.

I will say that the establishment is quite nice though. Everything is really clean, it’s roomy, and the furniture and decor are modern — sleek wooden tables, black Eiffel chairs, white stone accent walls. I estimate that the space can fit about forty patrons at a time. The single downfall was that it was slightly breezy inside. We were seated relatively close to the front door, and it’s possible that, despite the shelter built around the entrance to mitigate the issue, a draft was caused whenever it was opened. It wouldn’t be a problem during warmer months, but in the winter, it meant my friends bundling up in their scarves and jackets at one point or another.

Soy & Pepper’s food menu.

Once we all settled in, we inspected the menus. They have a minimal wine and beer list as well as several Korean wine or liquor options. For those who prefer non-alcoholic beverages, they have the usual sodas and tea or coffee. Unfortunately for me, they did not offer any cocktails, so I stuck with water.

Since we hadn’t gotten together in a long while, we weren’t in any rush. Therefore, we decided to go with some starters. I selected the Kimchi Potato Balls ($6), another ordered the Potstickers ($7.50), and a pair shared the Kimchi Pork Poutine ($16).

Potstickers

I did not sample the Potstickers myself, but judging by their appearance, they looked alright. There were four to a plate and they were very long with crispy shells. I’m hoping the dough to pork and veggie filling ratio was okay as I thought the skin seemed a tad thick. Otherwise, they were probably prepared with a quick fry in an oiled pan, then steamed with water, and then fried again to get the consistency I saw. That’s my favourite way to make them at home to ensure the middle is cooked through and the outside is golden brown.

Kimchi Pork Poutine

The Kimchi Pork Poutine was an interesting find. It’s that instance of fusion food that always finds a way onto the menus of local restaurants attempting to do authentic Asian cuisine. This item is available only during dinner at Soy & Pepper. In terms of portion size, it’s generously loaded with braised pork, onions, sautéed kimchi, house hot sauce, cheese, and cilantro. There’s a kick from the combination of hot sauce (mainly this) and kimchi, so if spicy is your thing, go for it. Best of all, the fries were delicious. They reminded me a lot of the ones sold at the Costco food court when I was younger; light, fluffy centers with bubbly outsides.

Kimchi Potato Balls

My Kimchi Potato Balls were served as a duo of mashed potatoes mixed with kimchi, cheese, and green beans, which were then breaded and fried until crisp. They were then placed on a bed of chipotle aioli sauce and then topped with dollops of sour cream and sprinkles of green onions. These had a hint of heat balanced out by the sour cream. I appreciated how smooth the potato was, too.

For our entrées, all four of my friends chose to go with the Bulgogi ($16). Two of them had Chili Pepper Seasoning ($1) added to the dish. A large bowl of House Kimchi ($5) was shared among the group. I went in another direction by picking the Cheese Dongasu ($20).

House Kimchi

I’ll start by discussing the House Kimchi. Admittedly, I thought I’d enjoy it more. However, out of all the kimchi I’ve ever tried, this was probably the most underwhelming. A staple of Korean cuisine, kimchi is a traditional side that is typically made with cabbage that has been salted and fermented. Personally, I think the pickled flavour wasn’t strong enough and the seasonings used didn’t produce enough spice. It was also a bit waterier than I prefer, but it was decent in plain rice.

Bulgogi with Chili Pepper Seasoning

At first glance, the Bulgogi plates came across as small. Yet, once the accompanying rice was stirred in with the marinated and grilled Alberta AAA beef, onions, green onions, cabbage, and bean sprouts, there was plenty of food. The dish seemed to be well-seasoned and flavourful, especially the ones with the chili pepper seasoning. In fact, it may have been too much chili as my friend who loves spicy food reiterated a few times that it was very hot on her palate. I’d recommend ordering the Bulgogi and then sprinkling on the dry chili flakes provided at the table until it’s to one’s liking, and it won’t cost anything extra.

Cheese Dongasu with Cabbage Salad, Rice & Dongasu Sauce

I loved, loved, loved the Cheese Dongasu. This is basically a deep fried, breaded pork loin that is stuffed with cheese. On the side is a wonderful dongasu sauce — simplified versions are often made with Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, brown sugar, and Ketchup — for dipping, a bowl of white rice, and a cabbage salad in sesame dressing. I didn’t really need the rice that much, but it was good, not overcooked. I ended up packing that up (the remaining sesame dressing drizzled on top) with half of my humongous pork loin for leftovers. The cabbage salad was quite tasty as there was a good amount of dressing and the veggies were fresh and crunchy. The pork loin was the absolute star. There was so much cheese inside that when I pulled the pieces apart, the melted cheese just oozed out seductively.

Ho-ddeok

The majority of the group opted for dessert: a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($2.25), a slice of carrot cake ($7), and the Ho-ddeok ($8.50). I can’t say a whole lot about the vanilla ice cream as there isn’t much to elaborate on, but the slice of carrot cake, though it appeared to be appetizing with nuts, raisins and cream cheese icing, was definitely not made in-house. It was brought to the table with plastic film still stuck to it, like when you go to the store and buy an individual piece of cake at the bakery. What was worth every penny was the Ho-ddeok. That is a warm, chewy dough pancake stuffed with sugar, honey, butter, mixed nuts, maple syrup, and cinnamon. It’s served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. My friend described it as being similar to an elephant ear with filling. I think that potentially undersells it. However, I would go back for this in a heartbeat. Between this and the Cheese Dongasu, it’s a total toss up for my favourite bite of the night. Either way, try both, if you can swing it.

The service was attentive and friendly, the food hit the mark for the most part, the portions received for the price are more than reasonable, and the place is easily accessible. It also has the perfect ambience for those who want to spend the night catching up. The staff member was never pushy, so we felt comfortable taking our time and staying for a while. Plus, even though there was music playing, it wasn’t overly loud. We were able to hear each other talk without having to shout. Accounting for everything, Soy & Pepper turned out to be a fantastic spot for a get together. I’m already looking forward to my next visit because I really want to explore more of the menu with my fiancé.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Famoso (Magrath)

Korean BBQ Chicken Pizza

Famoso‘s original Jasper Avenue location was one of the first handful of local restaurant reviews I wrote on this blog. I’ve been a loyal customer over the years, but with the introduction of delivery service through SkipTheDishes, I started having the food dropped off at my condo and I stopped going into any of the physical locations.

Fast forward to January. I had a Groupon on hand for the Magrath Heights Famoso at Rabbit Hill Road and 23 Avenue. My fiancé and I popped in for an early supper on a Sunday afternoon. When we arrived, the server indicated that we could sit wherever we liked. We ended up grabbing a cozy booth and she dropped the menus off.

I took a look at the space and thought I’d make note of the table number, so I’d know what to tell them at the till during our order placement. As it turns out, the number was missing. I asked the server if the restaurant was now full-service and she confirmed what I thought. The manager mentioned that they switched to that template about a year and a half ago. This is actually preferable because it never really made sense to me to have customers get up from their seats. In the long run, they were still paying for staff to work the restaurant during the remainder of the meal and I don’t think it really saved anyone much time.

On this occasion, we opted to get two 12″ pizzas: the white Cavoletti ($17.35) and the seasonal Korean BBQ Beef ($18.35).

Cavoletti Pizza

The Cavoletti is my all-time favourite pie at Famoso and, ever since I introduced it to my fiancé, it has become his as well. The combination of the soft, chewy, slightly charred dough topped with prosciutto crisps, oven-roasted Brussels sprouts, Gorgonzola cheese, dates, walnuts, and honey is always satisfying with its balance of saltiness and sweetness. I call it a game changer.

Korean BBQ Pizza

Our second choice of the Korean BBQ Beef was actually surprisingly good. There was a generous amount of oven-roasted hand-pulled beef covered in house-made Korean BBQ and hoisin sauce. It was sweeter than expected. Yet, the duo of a mild fior di latte and a stronger cheddar cheese, along with chopped green onions, helped to tone that down.

This was a really enjoyable dinner that was speedily prepared (we were in and out within an hour) and provided leftovers for lunch the next day. We even received a couple of vouchers to come back for half off our bills during their Gratitude Week that ran from January 21 to 25, and we took them up on the offer twice.

As usual, the Cavoletti pizza was a staple. However, we also decided to try some different items: a New World Sweet BBQ Chicken pizza, a half order of the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls ($11.95) and the Pistachio Pesto Primavera pasta ($16.35) with added Chicken ($3.35).

Sweet BBQ Chicken Pizza

Admittedly, the Sweet BBQ Chicken pizza was disappointing. We did alter the recipe by asking them to omit the cilantro as neither of us likes the taste of the herb. That left roasted chicken with honey smoked BBQ sauce, fior di latte, smoked mozzarella, tomatoes, and onions. I don’t think there was enough of the sauce or that the mozzarella tasted like it was smoked at all. If it’s smoked properly, that scent comes off the plate immediately and the flavour packs a punch, but it was missing completely. Maybe in place of cilantro, some spinach would have been good to bring in a little bitterness. That, or a more intense cheese such as feta.

Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls

Regarding the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozza Balls, these were decent. Their Campania tomato sauce is so fresh and tasty. I love that they drown the mozza balls in the stuff. It’s a wonderful accompaniment to the garlic flatbread. Our only issue with the dish was that it wasn’t warm. While we could tell the cheese had melted as it was still soft in the middle, it wasn’t all that gooey and it had cooled considerably by the time it made it to us.

Pistachio Pesto Primavera Pasta

I was quite impressed with the Pistachio Pesto Primavera pasta. Although I would have liked to have seen more of the linguini pasta on the plate, they certainly did not skimp on the roasted zucchini and mushrooms, green peas, sun-dried tomatoes, and chicken. The house-made pistachio pesto cream sauce was lighter than what might be found at other places, but there was enough to ensure that everything was evenly coated. We didn’t think we’d manage to finish our bowl of pasta and whole pizza that night. Yet, both items were so good that we polished it all off.

It seems that the best time to visit is in the middle of the afternoon on weekends though. We never had a problem finding a table at those times and the service was always more attentive. On our last visit, we went after work on a Tuesday night and the location was packed with people, mostly families, out for a meal. Thankfully, we didn’t have to wait as we managed to grab the only available table for two. Despite that, the service was still pretty quick and friendly.

The Famoso chain of restaurants is one that I’ll keep recommending to people because there’s a comfortable consistency. Plus, it’s a local success story and I think that patrons appreciate that aspect of the business.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Revel Bistro & Bar

Roast Brussels Sprout Salad

From the purveyors of wine and tapas at Privada in St. Albert comes one of the latest additions to Edmonton’s restaurant scene, Revel Bistro & Bar. If a visit to the new establishment seems at all familiar, it’s likely because it resides in the refurbished Alberta Hotel building at 98 Street and Jasper Avenue. In recent years, the same location has been home to not one, but two other eateries: Tavern 1903 and Alberta Hotel Bar & Kitchen. Both had wonderful chefs at the helm, creating some truly delectable dishes, yet neither was able to last too long.

The historic and gorgeous lounge and bar.

One may even go so far as to say the spot is cursed. Superstitions aside, Revel Bistro & Bar has taken over the space with aplomb. Design-wise, they did very little to change the interior. The historic bar remains on the right side of the venue with a dining room on the left. The only difference that my friend and I could distinguish was the switch to bar top tables in the lounge. That, and a new coat closet. Otherwise, it looks almost identical to its last iteration as Alberta Hotel Kitchen & Bar (as depicted in the photo above).

My dining companion and I walked over after work, arriving early for our 5:00 pm reservation. However, there was no problem being seated in advance. The place was nearly empty at that point, and the host let us choose our own table, so we opted to sit by the windows.

We had actually studied the menu in advance on their website and we thought we had had our minds made up on the dishes we planned to order. As it turns out, the restaurant was in the midst of updating their offerings, so a few of the items we wanted were no longer available. The snack plate of charred lamb belly was gone and so was the chicken roulade.

On the plus side, the new options sounded fantastic. My friend chose to go with an Amaretto Bourbon Sour ($11) and the replacement Crispy Chicken Thighs ($25). I decided to start with the server recommended Roast Brussels Sprout Salad ($13) and continue with the main course of Manila Clams & Lamb Belly ($28).

The Amaretto Bourbon Sour was a simple, well-made cocktail that was smooth with just a bit of a kick at the back of the throat. While she sipped on that, I worked my way through the generous Roast Brussels Sprout Salad (pictured at the top of the page). It’s really similar to a salad currently found on the Privada menu, so I have a feeling they brought over one of their popular St. Albert dishes to share here. The plate consisted of brussels sprouts (slightly firm, crunchy, somewhat charred), quinoa, cranberry puree, pickled onion, sherry vinaigrette, and grated Parmesan. It was an excellent combination with small hints of bitterness from the greens, sourness from the vinaigrette, and sweetness from the pickled onion and cranberry puree. For a lighter meal that is still kind of hearty, this is a wonderful pick.

Crispy Chicken Thighs

I had originally wanted to try the chicken roulade for dinner and was disappointed to hear that they had removed it from the menu. The idea of the chicken thighs didn’t really appeal to me as much, so I skipped it. On the other hand, my friend was willing to give them a go. I’m really glad she did, too. I sampled all of the components of the plate and it was spectacular. The tender chicken had been fully deboned, and the skin was nicely crisped. The fleshy, marinated king oyster mushrooms added an earthy flavour that played well against the saltiness of the ricotta gnudi (gnocchi-like dumplings).

Manila Clams & Lamb Belly

Honestly, I felt like my Manila Clams & Lamb Belly could have been improved upon. Our server mentioned that it was the hit of the night at their New Year’s Eve event, so I thought it was a sure bet. There wasn’t anything overtly wrong with it, but it became pretty one-note about halfway through. The Alberta lamb belly was prepared with a black garlic glaze, making it really savoury. However, I don’t think enough of the fat had rendered off while the meat was cooked. It lacked the crispness that I like with perfectly made pork belly. I ended up cutting away some of the softer fats that I found to be unpleasant in the mouth. The clams were fine. They paired okay with the onion broth. The charred cabbage and fennel were decent accompaniments. What this item really needs though is some sort of starch or grain to ground the plate and make it more well-rounded.

Despite the filling food we’d polished off, we couldn’t leave without having dessert. I chose the Chocolate and Coconut ($12) while my friend went with the Cheesecake ($12). I’d say that both desserts had their pros and cons.

Chocolate and Coconut

The Chocolate and Coconut was made with a coconut bavarois as the base. Bavarois is a gelatin and whipped cream dessert that reminds me of a light flan. It was topped with hazelnut ice cream, chocolate soil, brown butter string, dehydrated chocolate mousse, Thai basil, and basil seeds. It sort of came across as an excessively complicated dish, and I believe that the strong chocolate elements overpowered any of the coconut flavour. Also, be careful not to breath in when taking a spoonful of the chocolate soil. It’s like a finely crushed cookie and I made the mistake of doing that, causing me a bit of throat irritation as I ate.

Cheesecake

I think that the Cheesecake was definitely the better of the two desserts. It was just balanced and didn’t seem to be overcompensating for anything. The cheesecake was incredibly fluffy and creamy. The tartness of the cheesecake mousse was a match made in heaven with the intense blood orange pumpkin ice cream. The sponge toffee added some needed texture. Although, I could have done with a little less of it as too much turns overly sugary and I wasn’t super keen on the stickiness of the confection on my teeth. My friend, a fan of toffee, absolutely loved it.

From this one visit, I see great potential with Revel Bistro & Bar. They have a focused menu that is at once familiar, but also adventurous. The service we received was impeccable and the atmosphere is upscale without the pomp and circumstance. Most of all, I just hope that they last. This venue has seen many talents in the kitchen and none have stuck so far. Maybe this will be the one to break the spell.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Needle Vinyl Tavern (Closed)

The open bar and stage at The Needle Vinyl Tavern.

Since The Needle Vinyl Tavern opened about a year and a half ago, I’ve frequented the place a few times. It’s located right on Jasper Avenue and 105 Street. When the business was first announced, it was a welcome addition to the city as it wasn’t simply another bar, but a small live music venue as well. On the cusp of the loss of several others like it in the span of a year or two, Edmontonians were happy to know there was something coming in to fill that void.

The wall opens up to allow for an expanded patio space.

Although I haven’t gone to any of the shows (they do have some great artists coming through), I have been for food and drinks. The first time was last summer when my friends and I decided to walk a few blocks from the office for our lunch break. It was a beautifully sunny day and we managed to snag a table out on the extended sidewalk patio, one of the few spaces like it in the downtown core. Personally, I think it’s a great spot to catch some rays and grab a bite. The only thing is I prefer sitting a little further in from where the pedestrians are constantly passing by.

The original vinyl drink menu is no longer used, but was a great touch.

On that occasion, I was really impressed with the details that went into The Needle. The overall menu had a decent mix of options and the dishes were promising. What we ate tasted good and the service was prompt. I especially loved that, to go with the theme, they had their list of drinks printed on actual vinyl discs. It was a fun feature. However, over time, those intricacies have disappeared and been replaced with what I would say are watered down versions of their previous offerings.

The last time I visited, my friend and I popped in for lunch. Instead of sitting out on the patio, we ate at a booth inside. While I enjoyed getting to view the bar and the stage, I found the service to be extremely slow even though there were a lot of staff on hand (chatting to each other) and not many people dining in.

Eventually, a server came over to take our order. I opted to make a meal of two of the appetizers: Mac N’ Cheese Bites ($9) and Cauliflower 78 ($13). My friend chose the Taco Supremo House Pizza ($17).

Taco Supremo House Pizza

I have to say that the slice of taco pizza was the best thing out of the trio. Yet, I don’t think that’s saying much. Sure, the flavours were okay, but I felt that the crust was bland and lacked in texture. I also disliked the fact that it was difficult to see past all of the lettuce and tomato that topped the pizza. It was like the kitchen was trying to hide what was underneath. The red sauce was basic and there was not enough beef.

The Mac N’ Cheese Bites with Ketchup

Still, the pizza was better than both of my starters. The Mac N’ Cheese Bites were passable. The thing is, it seemed as though they literally took a box of Kraft Dinner and made the pasta into nugget shapes before breading and frying them. The ten greasy pieces were served with a side of ketchup for dipping. They may have added some extra cheese as the interior of the bites were creamier than I expected. Regardless, the execution was poor. If you’re going to serve something like this, take a page from the many other restaurants that serve similar items. Jazz it up with a ketchup that’s made in-house or incorporate some spice or seasoning.

Cauliflower 78 with Sweet & Spicy Dip

The worst of the bunch was definitely the Cauliflower 78. These tiny florets were over-breaded (somehow not that crispy) and the portion was way too small for the price. They came in a bowl the size of a cup of soup. The side of sweet chili dip was probably store bought as well. This was absolutely nothing special and such a disappointment.

My takeaway from the whole experience is that The Needle Vinyl Tavern is mainly there for the music and maybe the drinks (my co-worker said the selection of beer is lacking). I’ve been told the brunch menu is a winner, but I have yet to try it. In the meantime, I believe that food is no longer their forte. They have the potential to make it a strong suit because I saw it in the beginning. I just think that they’ve veered off of that path for the time being. Hopefully they can get back on track eventually.

The bar is a cool feature of the venue and it’s pretty spacious to fit a standing crowd during shows.