Edmonton Restaurant Review: State & Main

State & Main Windermere

Prior to State & Main Jasper Avenue opening, this restaurant was not a regular haunt for me. The Southgate Mall location was a place I visited only when I needed a relatively accessible spot to catch up with friends, and, being right along an LRT line, it fit the bill.

When State & Main was first introduced to the city, it was, for the most part, a duplicate of it’s older sibling, Original Joe’s. In fact, much of the menu was exactly the same. Many of the sandwiches could be found on either one, and it made me wonder what the point of having two chains under different names was. I suppose it could be argued that State & Main has a slightly trendier feel to it than the casual Original Joe’s, but it needed something more than that.

For me, that used to be the brunch. It’s been a while since I’ve taken the time to go to State & Main for that, but I definitely have a fondness for their Banana Bread French Toast ($13.50). I think it was the first place I’d ever come across that served a dish like it. Add a side of bacon and I got the best of both worlds when it came to satiating my early morning salty and sweet cravings.

At one point, I was even a huge fan of their veggie burger. Although, I’m by no means a connoisseur of vegetarian patties, I thought theirs had a great consistency with a beef-like texture, juiciness and a lot of flavour. It used to be topped with some sort of guacamole and halved grape tomatoes. Served with it would have been my choice of two of their extensive sides. However, more recently, I noticed that they changed the description of The Veggie ($15.50) on their menu. A friend of mine opted to go for a “healthier” lunch one day and gave it a go. She was severely disappointed. Visually, the burger didn’t look appetizing, so I can’t imagine it was much better eating it. I just don’t understand. They had a good recipe already, so why change a good thing?

Jalapeno Mac & Cheese with Bacon

Nowadays, State & Main downtown has become our scene for workplace gatherings (usually when another co-worker has abandoned the rest of us for something better). Within the past few months, we’ve probably been at least four or five times. My typical order is the Jalapeno Mac & Cheese ($11) with added Bacon ($2) off of their Start & Share listings. It’s affordable and it’s the perfect amount of food for the lunch hour. Sometimes it can get a little greasy, but overall, it’s got a nice creamy sauce. I enjoy the cavatappi noodles (spiral tubes) and the spice from the jalapenos is just right. It’s best when they put on a lot of panko bread crumb to get that baked crust on top, too. The bacon is usually good as I prefer it crispy. Aside from the last time, when I’m certain they forgot to put the bacon in (don’t worry, I got them to bring me a side of it), I always leave satisfied with this item.

I have tried to change things up every once in a while by selecting different dishes. Sometimes it has worked out (Spicy Tuna Poke Bowl), other times not so much (The Grilled Cheese Burger). Still, after frequenting State & Main so many times over the years, it’s a bit surprising that I hadn’t reviewed them before. Therefore, with a generous gift card in hand, Kirk and I decided to pop into the newest Windermere location for an early happy hour supper on a recent weekend.

Available from 3pm to 6pm every day and 9pm to close from Sunday to Thursday, I love taking advantage of happy hour deals. It can be an ideal way to have date night while getting to sample several things and save money. On this particular occasion, Kirk stuck to the Amber/Red SM Draught ($4). It tasted fine to me; fairly smooth and not overly hoppy. My preference is for cocktails, so I chose to go with the Saturday special of White Sangria ($7). Made with Absolut vodka, lemon juice, stone fruit syrup, white cranberry juice, Sauvignon blanc, raspberries, peaches and topped with State slush, it certainly made for easy drinking. Nothing too out there, and it was neither bitter or overly sweet. I could actually have done without the State slush though. It’s like a poor man’s version of a Slurpee with ice that is harshly crushed and quickly clumps up into a solid ball.

To eat, we shared a handful of items, including the State Slider ($3 each), Truffle Parm Crisps ($4), Lamb Tacos ($5 each or regularly $15.75 for two and a side), Short Ribs ($7), and Korean Fried Chicken ($7 or regularly $13.50). I have a theory that the restaurant takes longer to cook things up during happy hour, so patrons don’t have a chance to order a second round of food before 6pm. What other reason could there be for such a delay? It wasn’t even all that busy. For a competent kitchen to get an order out, it should never be a 40 minute wait.

Lamb Tacos

Our patience paid off in the end. Everything was delivered to our table at once. I’ll begin with the worst item: lamb taco. I was kind of excited to try this one because I’d been eyeing it on the menu for a long time. Having been forewarned about the disastrous fish tacos at State & Main, I was hoping that the lamb tacos with no cilantro in sight would be the better option. Unfortunately, the lamb did not come across as fresh. It had a gamey flavour, but not in the way that I was used to. It was almost too prominent despite there being very little meat at all. The majority of the taco was comprised of the shredded lettuce and pickled pink turnip. A sad drizzle of tahini could be seen on top. Thankfully the side of harissa was there to amp up the taste a bit. Otherwise, this would have been awful.

State Slider

The State Slider was okay. It’s most likely a miniature version of The Main Burger, which stacks a small patty of Canadian beef with American cheese, ketchup, pickle and State sauce. They’re known for their dill dip and the State sauce is similar. Maybe a tad stronger on the palate. I had a single bite and left the rest for Kirk.

Truffle Parm Crisps

I’d definitely order the Truffle Parm Crisps again. As far as I can tell, they’re house-made potato chips garnished with grated and flaked Parmesan cheese. There were a few chips that had gotten soggy by the time we made our way down to the bottom of the bowl. Otherwise, they were thick and crunchy with plenty of cheesiness and a decent creamy dip to go with it.

Short Ribs with Tzatziki

Considering that the Short Ribs were fried, they refrained from being overly oily. The outside was crisped well and they were simply seasoned with salt and pepper. There tends to be more bone than meat with these ribs though, so that’s the one downside. Regardless, what does take them up a notch is the side of tzatziki sauce.

Korean Fried Chicken

Probably my favourite dish from our afternoon out was the Korean Fried Chicken. Turns out I’d had it before during a previous work lunch. It’s prepared with a mix of lightly battered pieces of chicken and cauliflower in a spiced gochujang glaze and sprinkled with sesame seeds and chopped green onions. These taste awesome. My only issue with the dish is that the cauliflower is definitely a way of masking how little chicken they actually give you. The majority of the plate was made up of the white florets in disguise. While I’m a fan of the veggie, I would have appreciated more meat, especially if I had paid full price.

All things taken into consideration, State & Main is alright. Mostly, it comes down to timing. It doesn’t matter the location, service has always a bit shoddy no matter which one. The food is also hit or miss. But, find something that is relatively pleasing and stick with it because, if anything, they’re at least consistent in their mediocrity.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: DOSC Restaurant

DOSC Bar

Sometimes a business comes along and it completely changes the game. After a handful of visits since they opened a month ago, I’d now safely say that DOSC Restaurant is one that falls in that category. Located on 104 Street and 102 Avenue in the downtown core of Edmonton, it resides in a seemingly “cursed” space (four other eateries have shut down in the past few years); however, I’m truly hoping that this ambitious cafe/bar/steakhouse defies the odds.

Previously, upon the launch of DOSC, I had written a preview post about my experience at one of their media dinners. It was a night that I’ll remember for a long time to come, not only because of the offerings and the people, but also for the showmanship. Today, I really want to delve into the menu, focusing on all of the food and drinks I’ve had the pleasure of trying thus far.

After the dinner Kirk and I attended before their official opening, I wasn’t too keen on putting an actual review of the food out there right away. While we got to sample an array of items that they would be serving at the restaurant, I didn’t know what the actual size of the dishes would be like and, of course, during a media event, it’s always going to be their best foot forward. So, it was hard to judge the place properly based off of the one night.

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Plates that we were presented with at the preview event included: Tostada, Pate, Sweetbreads & Tendons, Wagyu Tartare, Marrow Mash, Pickled Asparagus, Liver & Onions, Tongue, Brisket, Miyazaki Chuck Wagyu, Hickory Smoked Chocolate, and Pineapple Cake. Almost every one still resides on the current soft opening menu in some form or another. As they continue to receive feedback they are tweaking the dishes to find the best fit. Eventually, the tongue to tail menu will be expanded to fully encompass the whole animal as available options, at the moment, are limited to slightly more common offals.

Tostada

Personally, I wasn’t a big fan of the Liver & Onions more due to the metallic taste than the texture. I also wouldn’t necessarily go out of my way to order the Sweetbreads & Tendons, which were cooked until very tender, but just not a mouthfeel that I’m too keen on. Everything else was excellent though. I especially liked the Tostada with its layers of chipotle crema, salsa verde, feta, Brussels sprouts, avocado mousse and quail egg. It was light and complex. Hints of Chef de Cuisine Israel Alvarez’s Mexican upbringing shone through and it was a standout. It used to be found on their breakfast menu, but is now listed on their dinner menu and served with beef tongue ($12).

Tongue

Speaking of the tongue, the only way to try this fantastic selection right now is with the Tostada. Their latest menu was recently updated, taking away the choice of ordering the tongue in three, six or nine ounce portions. Still, take a chance on it. Tongue is typically quite tough. Here, at DOSC, they cook it sous vide until it’s incredibly tender, like the best cut of steak.

Wagyu Tartare

I have a tendency to lean towards tartares. The Wagyu version ($18) here is exceptional. The meat melts in your mouth and it pairs well with the potato bread that they make in-house. Just be aware that the portion of meat is only about three ounces, so it’s not a lot. Wagyu is pricey as it is, let alone to be importing it to Edmonton, so it’s understandable that it’s not going to be the usual amount of beef tartare that may be seen at other local establishments.

Miyazaki Chuck Wagyu

If money’s no object, do order the Miyazaki Wagyu ($59 for six ounces or $88 for 9 ounces). I’d probably opt for the rib eye cut with the horseradish, volcanic salt and arugula butter. The meat has a beautiful flavour and a gorgeous texture.

Both of the sweets were fantastic. The Pineapple Cake ($9) is served upside down with a walnut honey ricotta, salted rum caramel and tarragon créme. It’s very decadent and quite sweet. Some think it’s sacrilegious to share dessert, but this one and their tart (to be discussed below) are perfect to be split. Their ice cream and sorbet, on the other hand, are recommended for one. The Hickory Smoked Chocolate Sorbet ($9) is to die for. Last I’d noticed, it’s still being served at the table in a bell jar filled with smoke. It’s kind of theatric and fun to order for that reason alone. The sorbet is made with Mayan 70 per cent dark chocolate, morita flake (chili) and smoked espresso salt. Creamier than expected, it’s got a distinct smokiness to it while retaining a little sweetness and a hint of spice at the end.

DOSC Bar Menu

We found ourselves downtown one weekend shortly after and decided to drop in for a night cap. This time, we sat in their cafe, which is towards the front of the space with windows overlooking 104 Street. It’s comfortable and cozy with such a pretty cafe counter. We started off with some alcoholic beverages. Those who lean towards beer will have a decent local selection (think Blindman Brewing, etc.) from their twelve rotating taps. In fact, one of my favourites that they seem to keep regularly is the WTF Raspberry Sour from Situation Brewing (around $8).

For those who prefer cocktails, they have a stellar team at the bar. The Rose + Leaf ($11) and Transom Sour ($11) are my drinks of choice. Both are great to sip through dinner, although the Rose + Leaf, with it’s underlying flavour of lychee and top note of watermelon, is more refreshing and ideal for those hot summer days. They even have a few mocktails on the menu for anyone who doesn’t or can’t imbibe.

Matcha Latte

In terms of the DOSC cafe, I find the cost of the drinks to be pretty much on par with any other specialty coffee shop in the city. The beans here come from Rogue Wave Coffee. Unfortunately, I don’t drink coffee, so I can’t really talk much about that. My beverage of late is definitely their Matcha Latte ($5). While most other places in Edmonton mix ones that are much sweeter, their baristas use pure matcha with milk. It results in a much stronger flavour. For some, it may be too bitter, but I love it.

Our third visit was with friends over supper. We went to town that night. Kirk ended up ordering the 16 oz. T-Bone Steak ($30). This was pan seared and simply seasoned with salt and extra pepper. The flavour of the meat was allowed to come through rather than masking it with a heavy sauce. On the side, they put a dollop of their freshly grated purple horseradish that has been pickled with cabbage, sherry and corn nectar. It works really well with the beef. To go with the steak, Kirk also went for their Daily Bread ($4). Kirk thought it was delicious, but with just two slices of the bread and a square of cultured butter, it was a tad expensive. Had the slices been thicker, the bread may have been justifiable, but they were very thin pieces. He also chose the Russet Fries ($5), which were an amazing starch. Thick, hand cut potatoes are whole wheat crusted, infusing them with an intense flavour and creating a nice crisp outer shell.

I had enjoyed the tongue so much at the media dinner that I had to have it again as my protein on this evening. I selected the three ounce size for $6, and it actually seemed like a more generous portion than that. It was also prepared as well as I remembered. I combined that dish with their Brussels Sprouts ($8) and Brown Barley Fried Rice ($9). Between the two sides, the Brussels sprouts was, hands down, the better. Don’t get me wrong, I liked the rice with it’s leeks, funghi, crispy ginger egg, and pickled shallot, but it had almost too slick of a texture over the rice and the mushrooms were a little bland. The Brussels sprouts were awesome though! Big, round Brussels were cooked thoroughly. The outer leaves were charred and crisp. Tossed with large, perfectly cooked pancetta and using an egg white foam and cured yolk as a sauce, it’s like no other Brussels sprout dish I’ve ever had.

Citrus Tart

Finishing off our date night, Kirk and I shared the Citrus Tart ($9). Made with whisked egg yolks to create a sabayon custard, this dessert utilizes a handful of citruses: lemon, lime, orange, grapefruit, and yuzu. It holds their essence without becoming overly sour and the sugariness is light, too. On the palate, the pastry shell is more like a butter cookie and the custard is creamy.

My latest visit was with another friend of mine for an early dinner after work this week. We decided to share four items. Since we both have an affinity for Brussels sprouts, that was a repeat dish. Yet, I did make a point of trying some new to me things: Pappardelle ($9) and Skirt Steak ($13 for 6 ounces). We also got a bowl of the Marrow Mash ($5). Regarding the latter, this is just such a rich take on mashed potatoes. The use of marrow makes the Yukon potatoes taste butterier than butter itself. The herb oil is a nice touch, adding a bit of earthiness. Stir it up to get the best flavour profile. The green pappardelle is freshly made and tossed with garlic leek, roasted garlic oil, kampot red peppercorn, and lemon. The oil makes it a little slippery in texture, but the overall taste is great and it’s different from the typical saucy pasta.

Skirt Steak

The star of the evening was definitely the skirt steak. This cut is smoked with juniper and dry rubbed with espresso cocoa grounds from Rogue Wave Coffee. It’s delectable. My friend, who isn’t even a huge fan of steak, said it was her favourite dish of the night. Usually, skirt steak is not the best cut to order. It can often be overcooked and chewy. DOSC handles the meat with precision. Seared so the juices stay in the steak, it’s actually superbly succulent. No word of a lie, it’s probably one of the best things I’ve eaten in a while.

Earl Grey Ice Cream

Added to the dessert menu this week was an Earl Grey Ice Cream ($9). It was infused with orange and rosemary and topped with sponge toffee. I’m usually not one to order ice cream from a restaurant as it’s sort of costly for what you’re getting. But, it was the only dessert I hadn’t tried. I’m also weary of tea-flavoured desserts because it’s often the case that the flavour doesn’t come through enough. Surprisingly, DOSC managed to saturate the ice cream with the earl grey taste.

DOSC seems to have found early success. Patrons steadily come in and out whenever I’ve been there, and, on weekends, it’s clearly a bustling place until closing. From my perspective, DOSC is getting better and better. Each time I go, it’s evolving and improving. The service is impeccable and the team behind it is fantastic. Honestly, my hope is that it’s just too good to fail.

Edmonton Restaurant Preview: DOSC Restaurant

Welcomed to the freight elevator with sparkling wine by Tony Britton.

Intrigue and mystery laid the groundwork for our night at DOSC Restaurant (their original moniker and subsequent change to appease the AGLC further lends itself to the story of how they came to be; ask anyone working there for details suggested by their logo). Instructed to enter from the rear door, a select few of us were led into an old freight elevator and then dropped off in a narrow hallway that would be the scene of our theatrical meal for much of the evening (hosted by operating partner Shangeeta Prasad).

The friendly servers were asked to remain stoic while taking away and dropping off our dishes throughout. But, meeting a number of them once dinner ended, it was obvious they found it difficult to keep straight faces. Several of them broke character and let their personalities shine through (hello to the guy who shimmied his way out at one point!). I don’t actually think DOSC is going to go that route once the business officially opens tomorrow. However, it certainly reminded me of what I might call an experiential restaurant found in the likes of New York City or similar. It’s definitely something one would never forget. Although it’s unlikely DOSC will plan this style of pop-up presentation again, there’s a chance they can be convinced to do it for private events.

It was intimate with a very strong focus on the food. Introductions from the chefs for each dish prepped us for what we were about to ingest. And, let’s just say that the menu isn’t exactly for the faint of heart. The meal took us from the nose to the tail of the animal, meaning we tried everything from tongue to sweetbread to liver. While some of the menu items may not be to everyone’s taste, the kitchen certainly works their magic with a couple of the plates by turning often roughly textured meats (i.e. tongue) into the tenderest, most luxurious bites. Adventurous diners may be greatly rewarded for branching out.

Miyazaki Chuck Wagyu

With Alberta being known for producing high quality beef, it’s interesting to note that Edmonton doesn’t really have any local restaurants that truly specialize in cooking this specific protein. Any that you can think of tend to be chain restaurants. That’s why owner and chef Jake Lee of Seoul Fried Chicken wanted to introduce themselves as a steakhouse despite the many hats DOSC will be wearing. They have an open kitchen with an in-house butchery and a dry aging cooler to cure their own meats. An extensive list of 22 cuts will be available with just two types of beef being imported from outside of Canada (ex. $100 per pound melt-in-your-mouth Wagyu beef).

Along with chef de cuisine Israel Alvarez, their first seasonal menu attempts to bring recognizable dishes that are borderline creative to the table. The twelve courses we tried had mainly Canadian and Mexican influences with a very subtle hint of Asian flavour in the Wagyu Tartare. According to Jake, depending on what’s available during the year and their inspiration (such as special guest chefs), watch for the menus to change every so often. Don’t ever expect to see a regular old burger served here though. With so many places in Edmonton doing that already, they want to do other things better. Led by bar manager Tony Britton, drink pairings are of high importance at DOSC, too. Phenomenal wine like the Rioja Tempranillo and beer like Situation Brewing‘s WTF Raspberry Ginger Sour were excellent additions to our supper.

Ox and Cat

DOSC resides on the corner of 104 Street and 102 Avenue in the historic Metals Building, which used to be home to Ric’s Grill (eventually rebranded to Ric’s on 104), The Burg and, lastly, Stage 104. People say the location is cursed, but maybe the spot just needs the right people behind it. Plus, with the Ice District/Rogers Place now just down the street, the foot traffic and potential clientele is much higher than ever before.

The DOSC team is ambitious. The amount of overhead to run the place is sort of unfathomable. Thinking of this media black out event we attended, there were at least 20 servers, several staff in the kitchen, bartenders, baristas and managers on hand. Every single one of those people gave it their all to create a spectacular show for ten very lucky people.

After much anticipation, with one last course to go (Pineapple Upside-Down Cake for dessert), we were, again, led into the elevator, out the back entrance and around the building for the big reveal. Initially, curtains blocked our view of the restaurant interior and exterior windows were covered, so it was like something out of HGTV. When it appeared before us, we were greeted by a gorgeous, large room broken out into four distinct spaces — cafe, lounge, bar and dining room — to match unique menus and courses offered throughout the long days. They’ll be open as early as 7am for breakfast and before work coffee (supplied by local roastery Rogue Wave) and closing as late as 2am on weekends to accommodate their patrons and the neighbourhood.

Bricks made in the North Saskatchewan River have been left in place.

They’ve also done their best to retain as much of the 100+ year history (constructed in 1914) as possible by showcasing the walls built from bricks made in the North Saskatchewan River and keeping the original wooden pillars. The rest of space has been completely customized and revamped with elegant, hip, and modern touches meant to bring personality to the venue while still feeling comfortable.

So much careful thought went into the execution of DOSC. For the staff, it’s about the journey and process that gets them to the final result, and, from what we can tell, they’re well on their way to making a positive first impression. The whole team elevated our entire experience last night, so much so that we’re planning on being there for their first real dinner service tomorrow evening (Sunday, July 22). Those interested in checking out DOSC for themselves are encouraged to either make a reservation through OpenTable or walk right in starting at 9am.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya

Our table was full of dishes and plates!

Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya is the newest Japanese option in downtown Edmonton, and, after eyeing Instagram posts for a while, I finally made it there after work on an early Friday evening.

I had made a reservation for two people using the OpenTable app. When we arrived at around 5 o’clock, it turned out we were the first joining them for dinner service; the restaurant did start to fill up a bit as we dined. It’s a nice space with lots of warm woods and pleather upholstered chairs. They even have a decently sized waiting area, so it’s not cramped should there ever be a delay for a table.

The interior of Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya.

The staff on hand was minimal that night. There was only one server and a couple of other staff behind the bar (not including whoever was in the closed off kitchen). Still, the service was pretty good. My only issue is that the server became less attentive after dessert and it was actually difficult to wave her down for the bill. Perhaps that’s because this place is an izakaya. The whole point of casual pubs like this is the slower pace and the extended meal where shared plates are ordered throughout the evening. She may have thought we intended to stick around longer and that’s why she didn’t disturb us or ask if the bill was wanted right away.

In any case, we lingered at Let’s Grill Sushi for almost three whole hours. In that time span, we sipped on drinks (I stuck with a simple ginger ale for $2.75 with free refills) and snacked on a handful of dishes, including a complimentary salad, skewers, two rolls, hot stone meat, and something sweet.

Complimentary Noodle Salad

A cold noodle salad was brought over and offered on the house. We were told it was a refreshing bite to help cool off on a hot day. The noodles were slightly transparent white, not quite glassy, but not opaque either. They were slippery and a tad chewy. Topped with kelp and thinly sliced cucumber, it was super simple with a hint of acidity.

As part of happy hour (Monday to Friday, 2pm to 5:30pm), Let’s Grill Sushi offers a few different skewer options. We opted to try a half-dozen of the Honey BBQ Pork, which are usually $8.50 per order, but only $5 on special. Wings and Sapporo pints are also the same price. I’m so glad we tried these. The skewers were prepared very well. Most of the fat had rendered from the meat, leaving a small amount of juicy crispness on the pork. The well-seasoned meat was slightly charred, adding to the overall flavour before they were finally garnished with green onion and nori.

We split two of the maki rolls: Crunchy Spicy Salmon ($14) and Yellowtail Fry ($13). The reason why we went with the former off of the Chef’s Specials of the Week menu is because, unlike the tuna version, the salmon roll replaced avocado with cucumber instead. My friend’s sensitivity to the healthy, fatty carb is avoided when possible, and, rather than asking for substitutions, it was easier to try the Crunchy Spicy Salmon. I actually didn’t find these to be all that spicy. Although, I did like the texture, and they were the lighter of the ones we sampled. The Yellowtail fry consisted of the fish, cream cheese, jalapeno and shiitake mushroom rolled in rice and nori. The roll was then battered, fried, and drenched in sweet truffle mayo. While I did enjoy them, there was almost too much to take in at once.

The eatery features a few hot stone meat options, too. I remember going to a Japanese grill in Kyoto where my friends and I tried this fantastically tender beef tongue. When I saw the Premium Beef Tongue ($16) on the Let’s Grill Sushi menu, I thought it’d be great to give it a shot. In Japan, the beef tongue was served like a filet of meat. Here, they had thinly sliced the tongue like carpaccio. It allowed the meat to cook super fast on the hot stone slab. Unfortunately, it had a chewier consistency than I hoped for. Regardless, I loved the three dips (salt, ponzu, sesame-type sauce) provided alongside the tongue. Next time, I may go for their duck though.

Matcha Creme Brulee

Prior to even eating anything else, I already had my mind made up on dessert. Whenever Matcha Creme Brulee ($7) is on the menu, there’s no question. This sweet ending is made in-house. The only thing I would have preferred is a thinner sugar seal. My spoon practically bounced off the caramelized top with my first attempt to break through. A second harder tap managed to crack it. I tend to enjoy a lighter caramelization that provides just a little crunch while being thin enough to melt in the mouth as opposed to worrying about the deterioration of my teeth as I bite onto thick sugar. Thankfully, on the plus side, the creamy custard base had a strong enough matcha flavour; it’s the worst when places serve halfhearted matcha desserts.

 

Aside from the slow service that most of us aren’t used to, Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya definitely checked off a lot of boxes as a hang out to start the weekend. I do worry that maybe they’re attempting to do too many things on their menu, but we tried several items, and I found all of them to be satisfying to some degree. I was particularly happy with those skewers and the rolls. It’s also a huge plus that they offer happy hour and daily specials, so I’m excited to go back to take advantage of those deals again.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cactus Club Cafe

A couple of my favourite things at Cactus Club.

For the past few years, I’ve been sharing my top 24 picks for the best eateries in Edmonton (check out the 2017 list here). Even though I have never reviewed it until now, Cactus Club Cafe has been a mainstay within the rankings. A favourite ever since 2009 when they entered the city’s food scene with their West Edmonton Mall location, it’s interesting to see how their brand has developed and been embraced.

Cactus Club’s Retro Logo; Photo courtesy of their Instagram page.

I don’t know if anyone else remembers, but I recall going down Jasper Avenue as a child and seeing this big sign with a drawing of a smoking cow on it. That was the original Cactus Club logo from when they first attempted to expand into Alberta in the 90s. Should my memory serve me correctly, the building that once housed that iteration of the restaurant is now the Rexall pharmacy on 118 Street. My family never went there, and it seems many others in the city avoided it because it closed soon after.

The dining room of the Jasper Avenue location.

It wasn’t until a decade or so later that Cactus Club decided to give this market another go. This time, it was the place to see and be seen. On its best nights, patrons would willingly wait hours just to get a table for their large group of friends. They didn’t want to go anywhere else. The chain had gone from a funky eatery to a sleek establishment that served consistently upscale food and drinks. It was so successful and busy (it literally took away business from nearby competitors like Joey and Earls) that I’m actually surprised it took another four years before the company launched a second eatery on Jasper Avenue. About six blocks east from the one that failed in the nineties, it’s become a popular spot for locals to hang out as well.

Having frequented Cactus Club for almost a third of my life, I’ve developed a love of specific dishes. Some, such as the BBQ Duck Clubhouse and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar, are signatures of Chef Rob Feenie who joined the business as a “Food Concept Architect” in 2008 just before their foray back into this province. Sadly, I don’t make it to the restaurant as much as I used to, and, when I do go out, I really appreciate good deals.

The recently updated happy hour menu.

They’ve long offered happy hour specials at Cactus Club (available from 2pm to 6pm and 9pm to close, Monday to Saturday). However, they recently revamped the menu, a la Earls, to cover a greater variety of their dishes and drinks at a few stellar price points (I’ll be listing the lower prices here, so check their online menus for the regular costs). Therefore, when my fiancé and I wanted to celebrate our second anniversary together, we chose to go here. We still ended up spending over $100 on our meal for two, but we certainly didn’t skimp on anything (we ordered a lot). It gave me a great excuse to reacquaint myself with plates that I hadn’t eaten in a while.

As far as my significant other goes, he’s quite content with a beer, so he alternated between the Udder Pale Ale and Longboard Lager ($3 per sleeve). Those are brewed specifically for Cactus Club and have been staples for quite some time. I started with a Whiskey Ginger Smash ($5) cocktail. I really didn’t taste a whole lot of ginger. I enjoy it when you get the spice from the root, but it didn’t come through so much as the rosemary. My second libation of the night was their classic Bellini ($4). It’s basically an adult version of a slushie that tastes like a fuzzy peach in liquid form.

The rest of our dinner was a free-for-all. We ordered two Mini Burgers and two Mini Crispy Chicken Sandwiches ($4 per slider), one for each of us. On the side, we shared a bowl of the Truffle Fries ($4). We split the Ravioli + Prawn Duo ($8), Pesto Chicken Quesadilla ($8), and the Blackened Creole Chicken ($20).

Honestly, of all the things we selected, we weren’t sure that the sliders were of great value. Sure, a few bucks are saved in comparison to the regular appetizers, but they’re pretty small on an individual basis. Despite the size and amount of meat, the flavour was there. I did remove the pickles and onions as I’m not a fan. Still, the chicken was clearly white breast meat, the sambal mayo gave it a little bit of a kick, and the mild, nutty Swiss cheese provided a balance. What made the mini burgers delicious was the red pepper relish and Dijon mayonnaise atop the perfectly charred Angus beef.

I almost forgot to include the Truffle Fries. Thankfully, I remembered part way through our meal. These were so yummy. The potatoes were fried to a golden brown and then doused in truffle, herbs and grated Grana Padano cheese. A small saucer of garlic aioli accompanied the fries, taking them to another level.

Ravioli + Prawn Duo

Instead of a trio of ravioli, the happy hour deal offers a duo of the dish. Two large pockets of pasta hold butternut squash and mascarpone. It’s cooked in a decadent truffle butter sauce and then served with a sautéed jumbo prawn placed on each square. Pine nuts and fried sage leaves garnish this masterpiece. The shrimp was plump and juicy. The ravioli and sauce is rich. The sage and pine nuts give it an air of earthiness. This is one of their standards for a reason.

Pesto Chicken Quesadilla

It’s funny to find something as simple as a quesadilla on a menu where they seem to lean more towards high-end than casual. Yet, the one at Cactus Club works. Admittedly, I’ve never much appreciated the triangles and strips of tortilla chips that anchor the plate (I’d rather fries or a salad without the additional cost to upgrade). Nevertheless, the Pesto Chicken Quesadilla is on point. It comes down to the combination of ingredients. There’s the herbaceous zestiness from the basil pesto, sweetness from the sundried cranberries, melted cheesy goodness, smoky grilled chicken, and a slight sweet-sour flavour from the light honey lime dip. This is something that I used to emulate at home because it’s a recipe that was accessible, easy, and satisfying.

Blackened Creole Chicken

The final entrée we shared was the Blackened Creole Chicken. I’d never tried this one before, so it was new to me. Outside of happy hour, it’s usually over $25, so there was about a twenty per cent savings on this dish. I’m not sure it was worth the money though. It was a decent amount of food, for sure. However, a lot of it consisted of the buttered mashed potatoes. Also, while I could eat asparagus for days, the stalks we received were overgrown with the woody ends still there. Proper preparation calls for the bottoms to be snapped off, leaving only the tender portion of the greens behind. Other than that, the chicken (skin on) was well-seasoned and succulent.

Beef Carpaccio

We must have been done by now, right? For my fiancé, that would be a yes. For me, that was a hard no. Before leaving, I indulged in an order of their Beef Carpaccio. It’s been a favoured Cactus Club item of mine, and it’s one that I always return for. On this occasion, a few pieces of the crostini were a tad too toasted. Nonetheless, they tasted wonderful with baked-in garlic, drizzled in olive oil, and sprinkled with herbs and cheese. The super thinly sliced peppercorn-crusted beef tore apart at the sight of a fork. I carefully curated each bite with meat, Dijon aioli, a fried caper, pickled onion, arugula, and a cut of Grana Padano. This is truly the best.

When all is said and done, Cactus Club does a ton of things right. From a mix of atmospheres within the same restaurant (patio, lounge and dining room are all different) to the magic that happens in the kitchen to the well-trained front of house staff, it’s clear that this homegrown company is here for the long haul. They’ve learned from mistakes made early on and they’ve taken those lessons to grow this chain into a Canadian empire that appears to have the legs to go even further should they choose to. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Cactus Club name on an international scale. For now, I’m happy to have it in my backyard.