Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Common

I remember when The Common (@TheCommonYEG) used to be on 124 Street in the tiny location that is now The Bothy. Even though I had heard good things about it, I never went. Then they moved to their current spot on 109 Street and 99 Avenue, building up a reputation as the hang out for Edmonton hipsters galore and I still never made a point of going there. That is until about a month ago. My friends and I had been discussing places where there would be the potential of meeting some decent single guys around our age and this gastro-lounge with a vintage yet modern vibe came up as a possibility.

The wall of vinyl records and vintage finds at The Common.

The wall of vinyl records and vintage finds at The Common.

In addition, The Common had made it onto The Tomato‘s annual list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton for two years back-to-back (No. 33 in 2013 and No. 41 in 2014), and as we are diligently making our way through said lists, it became clear that this would be the destination for our next outing. Known for their small, but eclectic menu with the stars being dishes such as the poutine, pork belly lettuce wraps, roasted mackerel, and the chicken and waffles, we knew our evening there had to include dinner as well as dancing.

Since my friend had been in the past, she suggested we meet there at 6:3o, so we could grab a table for the night. It seemed a little early considering we were planning on staying to dance, too, but I’m glad we arrived when we did. The bar area by the entrance wasn’t full by any means, but most of the seats in the other two rooms were already taken. We lucked out with a booth right by the dance floor and settled in for a long evening of food and drinks. While we waited for our third to show, the two of us ordered beverages. She had an Alley Kat Main Squeeze and, I, a Foundry Cider, both of which were nice and refreshing. I took in the surroundings. Comfortable, but also cool, the place uses a mixture of clean lines, geometric patterns and odd finds for the decor.

Our first round of drinks for the evening!

Our first round of drinks for the evening!

When our girlfriend joined us, we looked through the selection of seasonal dishes and each opted for something different, so we could sample several things. For those who require gluten-free options, they had quite a few items on the menu that fulfilled that criteria. What surprised me most was, despite there being just a few servers that I could see and it being a full house, the service was excellent. Our food was ready relatively quickly and our server came by to check on us and our drinks regularly, ensuring that we could get refills when we needed them.

The food came to our tables looking wonderfully presented – colorful and appetizing – and in portions that were just the right size. Not too much and not too little. I was also pleased with the prices for all the items. Considering the quality of the food, everything was nicely affordable.

Between the three of us, we ordered the Jackson Steak Salad, the Duck Confit, and the Short Rib and Risotto, all of which were delicious. I typically am not a huge fan of blue cheese, but as part of the Jackson Steak Salad, it paired very well with the perfectly cooked meat, artichokes and mustard dressing. The Duck Confit was interesting because rather than showing up on the plate as a full duck leg as per a traditional dish, the shredded duck meat was incorporated into a cylinder that consisted of baby potatoes, shitake mushrooms, edamame and spiny lettuce with sides of orange slices and green beans. The layered flavours and textures in that dish – salty meat and tangy fruit – made me wish I had ordered that for myself. Of course, that thought didn’t last for long. I’m a sucker for braised beef and the short ribs were nothing short of fantastic. The spinach risotto, pine nuts, chanterelle mushrooms and carrot puree came together very well. It was definitely the heaviest entrée we tried, but it was perfect for a full night out.

Once we finished our meals, we continued to imbibe a variety of beers until our friend was ready for round two of food. Having only ordered the salad, she was adamant that she wanted more to eat, and the chicken and waffles were calling her name (we also told her to order it because we’d seen so many people eating it that we were really curious about that entrée). It’s definitely a hearty dish with the fried chicken strips and the waffles, but I could certainly see why they were so popular. The tender chicken with the crunchy breading combined with the crispy on the outside and soft on the inside buttery bacon waffles, goat cheese and a sweet yet spicy blackberry and chile sauce was pretty incredible. Our friend had no issues polishing off her plate.

We were done dining just in time for the music to start. That night it was a mix of funkified sounds that brought in some old school Jackson 5 type songs to get people up and moving. While we would have been up on the dance floor much sooner, it took the staff a bit of time to clear away a couple of the tables that were in the space, and, as there’s little room until they’re moved, we happily talked with some of the other patrons while we waited. Everyone there was extremely personable, making for a fun time.

Me and my girls!

Me and my girls!

Verging on almost thirty years of age (at least for a couple of us), we called it a night at around 11pm. Perhaps if we started our evening a little later, we may have lasted longer into the wee hours of the morning, but, alas, we were all sleepy from the carb coma and also needed to make our way home before public transit became scarce. Prior to leaving though, we still made sure to bust a few nerdy moves, satisfying our goal of dinner and dancing after all.

As we wove our way through the crowded rooms towards the door, I could see that the lounge was packed to the brim, every seat filled with people having a great time. And, that’s The Common’s goal: elevating the way we think about and approach spending an evening with those we love – through good food (I must try some of the appetizers and desserts next time), drinks, conversation and music.

I can’t wait pay this place another visit tomorrow!

The new dinner menu - May 2014! Looking forward to trying something different!

The new dinner menu – May 2014! Looking forward to trying something different!

Downtown Dining Week, Why Not YEG Restaurant Week?

The Downtown Business Association (DBA) is celebrating the end of, what I suspect was, another successful run of Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) in Edmonton, Alberta. For the eleventh year in a row, they have brought diners out to try menus from 30 different restaurants located in the city’s core. Over a period of ten days, people were able to sample a variety of menus that included $15 lunches as well as $25 or $50 dinners.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

Being that I work in the area, I took every chance I had to eat at as many places as I could over the 10-day period. It only amounted to five meals for me, but, personally, I couldn’t imagine having such rich meals for both lunch and supper every day in such a short amount of time anyway. I especially savoured the opportunity to visit restaurants that have a reputation for great food, but that I may not typically go to on a whim because of the prices, which meant I ventured over to the Hardware Grill, Madison’s Grill, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Sorrentino’s Downtown and Normand’s Bistro. All of them did an excellent job of helping us to watch our wallets while delivering top-notch food, even when the dish was as simple as a pulled pork sandwich.

Although, in my opinion, a few establishments should have worked a bit harder to entice people; they could have ventured away from their regular dishes to experiment with something new, or refrained from picking the least expensive plates from their usual selection of fare (if it costs the same to dine with them during DTDW as it does on any other night, it means it isn’t really “specialty-priced” as per the description on the DBA site) as part of the attraction of the event is that it provides deals where they aren’t typically found, making it a lot more affordable. Regardless, the majority of the DTDW menus had variety, giving you the choice of more than one item per course that ranged from salads and sandwiches to hearty pork and steak dishes or fish to pastas. Every lunch consisted of two courses and each dinner had at least three (appetizer, entrée and dessert).

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison's Grill, along with their regular menu.

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison’s Grill, along with their regular menu.

Now, my qualm with DTDW is that it continues to remain the same size. The food festival, if you will, hasn’t really expanded year after year. In fact, it may have even shrunk slightly in terms of the number of restaurants participating. Some of the same restaurants come back annually, others are replaced with new ones (the Confederation Lounge, Tavern 1903, Normand’s Bistro, The Burg, De Dutch (see previous review) and Fionn MacCool’s are the latest additions). I like that there are repeats because, if I didn’t have a chance to go to one the previous year, maybe I’ll be able to visit the next time. However, I would love it if the list of new places partaking got bigger every March.

To me, Edmonton is a city with a burgeoning food scene that deserves to be showcased. More and more chefs and entrepreneurs seem to be taking the leap and succeeding at making Alberta’s capital first-rate in terms of the availability and assortment of quality places to dine out. In my mind, DTDW should be growing, not just sustaining. I picture it being at least as large as Calgary’s The Big Taste, which is citywide and has more than 70 “Revolutioneateries” getting involved over ten days. Ideally, it would become similar to NYC Restaurant Week, lasting about three weeks (sometimes extended) and runs both in the winter and summer seasons.

Of course, this might be wishful thinking on my part. I can only speculate as to the difficulty of putting something like this together. I’m sure the DBA has attempted to increase the number of establishments taking part in DTDW. I asked my friend who works for the urban planning office with the City of Edmonton what streets constitute the downtown area and while she wasn’t able to answer me right away, I did Wikipedia it. According to the information logged on the wiki, downtown Edmonton is bounded by 109 Street, 105 Avenue, 97 Street and 97 Avenue. If that’s the case, the DBA has stuck within the appropriate grid. Yet, some consider surrounding communities like Oliver to the west to also be part of downtown. That would include everything from 109 Street up to 124 Street from Jasper Avenue to 105 Avenue. Can you visualize how amazing DTDW would be for all you foodies out there if that area were included?

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill - Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill – Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

Dishcrawl, an online community of culinary enthusiasts, with a branch in Edmonton has organized events focused around various parts of the city, 124th Street being one of them. I attended a crawl where we walked door-to-door between eight establishments tasting samples and drinks, but not full-out meals. I think that those restaurants, having participated in Dishcrawl’s Neighbourfood event, would be highly interested in adding their names to a dining week list (I could be wrong; I don’t know how it ultimately affects the costs and revenues for the restaurants, but the publicity that may lead to repeat business is a big positive for them, I would think).

Would that mean the DBA would still be the sole host of Dining Week in that type of incarnation? Maybe not. It would likely mean several separate dining weeks spread out throughout the year, or more hands in the pot with a joint event put on by the DBA and the 124 Street Business Association (really, any number of other groups that are willing to take part) to make this something that brings the Edmonton restaurant community and food lovers together.

It’s all about providing extra exposure to those that participate, no matter where they are located, and expanding the dining week (or month!) theme so that Edmontonians can truly appreciate the diversity of amazing food that exists in this city while, hopefully, finding some new favourites. That’s the goal I see!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Harvest Room

My mother joined me downtown at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald for lunch last week. I was armed with an Opentable reservation and a Groupon (a fantastic opportunity to try restaurants that you may not have thought of before or might not usually be able to afford) for the Harvest Room.

Housed inside the almost 100-year-old hotel (it opened in July of 1915) since 1991, the restaurant continues the chateau-style look with dark woods, distinctly patterned carpets and armchairs, light walls, vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows. Perhaps it may be seen as a little dated, but, essentially, it fits with the overall ambiance of the establishment. The room exudes an air of class and elegance, making it seem a little fancier. Yet, it’s not so stuffy that one would feel uncomfortable. Like the history of the building, which was seen as the epitome of high-class back in its day, it should be thought of as a place that warrants you putting a bit of effort into your dress (not ball gown or cocktail dress fancy, but at least business casual).

The bright Harvest Room with a view of the open kitchen.

The bright Harvest Room with a view of the open kitchen.

What I love most about the space is the large windows that brighten the space up with sunshine during the lunch hour. Come summertime, I expect that the double doors will open up to invite patrons out onto the patio, which overlooks the river valley. I have been out on the adjoining patio while having lunch and drinks with friends at the Confederation Lounge and it’s wonderful to be able to soak up the rays with good company and fantastic views.

On this particular occasion, my voucher allowed both of us to dine on the executive lunch buffet for $14 per person (usually double the cost). This included the daily soup, three cold salads with various toppings and dressings, a variety of cold cuts, a choice of four different sandwiches and wraps, a hot dish, and dessert. While it’s not an extensive selection, it was certainly more than enough for our meal, and the choices were all meant to be healthy, which I can appreciate. They also at least attempt to have some vegetarian options available. And, from other reviews I’ve read, they are quite accommodating – a diner who was allergic to an ingredient in the hot dish provided was made pasta to order instead.

A plate with smoked salmon wraps, lamb osso bucco and salad.

A plate with smoked salmon wraps, lamb osso buco and salad.

I have had the opportunity to eat there a few times now, and I have to say that the service received is always excellent. The servers are polite, water is refilled diligently, emptied plates are cleared away quickly and we’re checked on periodically to make sure the meal is going well. This is likely one of the reasons why the Harvest Room has an 86% rating on Urbanspoon, besides the food.

Voted to No. 4 on The Tomato‘s 2013 list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton, Alberta – pushed off in 2014 by a hearty dose of newcomers to the city’s burgeoning food scene – because of their Dungeness crab cakes, I would say that, even with the simplicity of some of the buffet choices, the quality of the food is still there, and it is a good indication of what the food on their regular menu is like.

The chicken and rice soup was steaming hot (my mom loved it for that reason alone), the lettuce and greens provided for the salad were fresh, the Caesar dressing was house made, the smoked salmon wraps were delicious (sometimes instead of cold cut meats, they put out a plate of smoked salmon – amazing!), they did not skimp on the meat in the roast beef sandwiches, the veggie sandwiches were filled to the brim with roasted Portobello mushrooms, eggplant and red peppers, the hot dish – lamb osso buco – didn’t wow us, but the lamb was cooked very nicely, and the dessert of warm bread pudding – like a combination of banana bread and carrot cake (literally two of my go to sweets) with raspberries and caramel sauce – was my favourite.

Warm bread pudding with caramel sauce drizzled on top for dessert.

Warm bread pudding with caramel sauce drizzled on top for dessert.

Know that, should you go for the buffet, the items change on a daily basis, so, if you’re hoping to eat the same thing as you did on a previous visit, you may be out of luck. I’m not sure what will be in store for me the next time I make my way to the Harvest Room for lunch, but I am certain that it will be an enjoyable and fairly light meal.

As we walked out of the restaurant, I turned back to take a look at their regular menu. Throughout our lunch I couldn’t help but notice the “couple” across from us on what seemed like a first date. They each ordered an appetizer, entrée and dessert, and I wondered how much the guy had spent on their feast. After perusing the menu, I made note that an entrée alone was around $30 to $40, so I imagine he paid a hefty price to make a good impression (good luck to him!).

The 2013 lunch menu pulled off of the Harvest Room website.

The 2013 lunch menu pulled off of the Harvest Room website.

Would I go back to the Harvest Room regularly? Probably not. But, I do like it every time I go, and will most definitely be back once more. As long as the Hotel Macdonald sticks around, I think the Harvest room will as well. The city deserves to maintain some of the historical significance of what our downtown used to be like and, conceivably, what it can be again in the future. Maybe not in the sense of the classical refinement, but, more along the lines of the caliber of excellence that the Fairmont has strived to bring to Edmonton in the last century.

The Harvest Room is open Monday to Friday for lunch. They are also open seven days a week (including statutory holidays) for breakfast and dinner. On Saturday and Sunday only, they serve Royal Tea and provide a tour of the hotel.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: De Dutch Pannekoek House

De Dutch hails from British Columbia and landed in Edmonton, Alberta back in November of 2012. The entrance to the restaurant was obscured for quite a while by the construction down Jasper Avenue, so I think it remained off the radar for most until earlier the following New Year. However, customers began to learn of its existence and, by March of 2013, it had made its way onto The Tomato’s first annual list of 100 best eats and drinks in the city, coming in at number 17.

Housed on the main floor of the Cambridge Building, I finally had a chance to try it out just last week when my soon-to-be ex-co-worker (and my good friend) decided to have her going away lunch there. A group of eight of us went together.

Walking up to the door, the place is a bit unassuming, but once you enter, it’s nice and bright with a modern look, colourful seating and accents, spotless tables, and hardwood floors. We had to wait a moment for the hostess to seat us, but, as we had made a reservation ahead of time, our table (inside a private room that can hold around 10 to 12 people comfortably – I loved this because we were able to converse without disturbing other diners) was already prepared.

The De Dutch menu - so many choices!

The De Dutch menu – so many choices! The Bitter Ballen in the bottom right side of this photo sounded good as well. Next time!

Since we were all ravenous, we immediately cracked open the large menus – likely around 6 to 8 pages, although I didn’t count – and were overwhelmed by the selection. The restaurant is only open for breakfast and lunch (7 days a week), so every item on the menu is available all day long until they close at three o’clock. Like the options at Cora or Tutti Frutti Breakfast and Lunch (not to be confused with Tutti Frutti Frozen Yogurt), it seems endless, so it took some of us much longer to make a decision than first suspected.

Ultimately, a few of us ended up ordering the chicken quesadilla, which was probably the most basic of the bunch. It came with your choice of side including kettle chips and dip, garden or Caesar salad, or soup as well as salsa and sour cream for dipping. It tasted good especially with all the condiments, but it wasn’t really anything super special.

One person tried a Frying Dutchman Burger, the Canadian in particular. Filled with two 1/3-pound patties, Edam cheese, DeBakon, dill pickle, mayo and house made De Dutch relish, our co-worker raved about the latter condiment throughout our meal.

Others went with the star of the menu, the pannekoeken. De Dutch says that the dish has a circumference of 37”, a diameter of 12” and can be cut into 113 square inch bites. Seeming more like a crepe, it is thin and looks airy, but is actually rich and built solidly with egg and buckwheat, so that my friends were able to dump all the toppings in The Hash (hash browns, mushroom, green pepper, onion and cheddar with your choice of ham, DeBakon, sausage, turkey bacon or veggies topped with hollandaise sauce) onto the pannekoeken and roll it up without it falling apart. The two people who indulged in that meal couldn’t stop saying how good it was and polished off their plates without a problem.

Another co-worker ordered the Abby Perogie pannekoeken. Made with hash browns, DeBakon and onion inside the pancake and topped with cheddar and sour cream, everyone who sampled a bit of her lunch said they would order that next time they ate there.

The chicken quesadilla - good, but maybe carry the pancake theme into this dish by using the pannekoeken as the shell instead.

The chicken quesadilla – good, but maybe carry the pancake theme into this dish by using the pannekoeken as the shell instead and adding some DeBakon and hash browns for extra flavour and texture.

Do I think that there are things that De Dutch can do a little bit better? Certainly! I would suggest that they make the quesadilla a bit different from the norm by adding DeBakon or hash browns into it, or substituting the usual salsa for their house made relish; there’s no reason why the pannekoeken can’t be turned into something more finger food friendly like a quesadilla to give that dish a Dutch twist. Everyone at the table was also a bit perturbed to hear that the establishment was charging my friend $1.50 for a cup of hot water with lemon. I certainly don’t think a simple cup of hot water on its own should warrant a cost as that’s basic. However, there is a debate as to whether or not the lemon should be complimentary or have a price associated with it. After all, it’s an extra that is an expense for the restaurant. Perhaps they should lower the charge a little, although it’s not my place to say. But, I will note that the friends I dined with were unhappy to hear it was that high.

Despite those couple of shortcomings, it was a very enjoyable meal with a great group of people. The service was wonderful as the two servers, who watched over us for the hour, checked in to make sure our food was good, refilled our water (even brought us a jug) and drinks, and doted on our friend’s baby (if you have children, I’d recommend going here as they at least have high chairs and don’t mind you bringing in a stroller). As the restaurant is located downtown, it’s a fantastic location for lunch during the work week.

I do hope to make it back there soon, so I can try something new!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tres Carnales

Aspiring to bring the traditional, authentic recipes of the various regions of Mexico to life in a fresh and bold way, Tres Carnales burst onto the Edmonton food scene back in 2011 and hasn’t looked back. Number 25 on The Tomato‘s top 100 eats and drinks in the city, it certainly has left a footprint in the downtown core. The restaurant is dedicated to the close food movement, farm to table, sustainability and community, which is felt as soon as you walk in the door and sit down for a bit to eat. You also get a glimpse of their support of local artists with the mural painted by @CurlyBlackBeret (Trevor Peters) on the south wall and the paintings by Justina Smith on the opposite side of the room.

The mural by @CurlyBlackBeret

The mural by @CurlyBlackBeret

Chris Sills and Dani Braun, owners who watch over the place with a passion and sometimes man the tills, love to walk around the restaurant to say hi to diners and ask their opinion on the food. They create a friendly atmosphere with their personable attitudes, making it a joyous place to be. The servers are the same and seem genuinely happy to be working there. They aim to please. And, in my experience, if you Tweet them enough (@TresCarnales), they might go out of their way to make sure your cravings are satisfied (the duck tacos were to die for).

I’ve been there many a time and I can say, without a doubt, that my favourite dishes are as follows: Pato Tacos (duck), Al Pastor Tacos or Quesadillas (slow roasted, marinated pork), Pescado Tacos (lightly battered and fried fresh Pacific red snapper), and the Guacamole Y Totopos (housemade guac and chips). Unfortunately, the cost to bring in fresh duck meat has relegated the Pato Tacos to an occasional featured menu item, but, should you ever have a chance to try them, do not pass them up. My friend did, and, to this day, she still regrets it. To quench your thirst, I recommend you give one of their agua frescas (“fresh waters”) a shot. I especially like the Agua de Jamaica, which is made using hibiscus flowers. On occasion I’ll go for the Agua de Horchata, which Chris once told me was like Christmas in a glass. I think it takes a little getting used to, but I quite like it and it’s refreshing.

Al Pastor Quesadillas and a view of the restaurant's large shared table and @CurlyBlackBeret's previous mural.

Al Pastor Quesadillas and a view of the restaurant’s large shared table and @CurlyBlackBeret’s previous mural.

Ultimately, I would say the food is absolutely addictive. When I take a break and don’t go for a while, I’m okay, and I can show some restraint, but, as soon as I eat there once, it’s dangerous and I’ll probably be back several times within a short span because it’s hard to get the flavours off your mind once you’ve had a taste.

A single order is a good portion size for one person. You’ll feel full, but not overly stuffed. Want to try a few things? The plates are great for sharing with your companions. It’s also a fantastic lunch place for those who work downtown because the service is always quick and you’ll usually have no problem getting in and out within an hour-long break.

If you have yet to dine there, here are some additional things to know: it works as first come, first serve with the tables, it’s similar to restaurants like Famoso (see my previous review) where you order at the counter and then they bring your food to you, you typically order at the till before you grab a table (they will sometimes let you sit first and start a tab), sometimes you may need to share a table with strangers, the tarot card they give you once you’ve placed your order is how they know who to bring the food to, gluten-free items are available, they have two tills – one for those eating in and one for those getting take out – to help speed up the ordering process, and they are closed Sundays and holidays.

Come summertime, I hope that their patio will be open again as it increases the number of available seats and allows patrons to enjoy the few months of warmth we get in Edmonton.

Mexican souvenirs

Mexican souvenirs decorating the east wall

This is my top pick for Mexican street food in the city. I always look forward to going there with friends and co-workers and, every so often, on my own because it’s a place where I feel we are always welcome. Tres Carnales represents the young, entrepreneurial spirit that is so present in Edmonton nowadays and I expect that they will be here for the long haul.

For a more in-depth look at the establishment’s involvement in the community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of Tres Carnales.