Edmonton Restaurant Review: Ampersand 27 (2018 Update)

The bar and dining room of Ampersand 27.

Located on 106 Street and Whyte Avenue, Ampersand 27 is right in the heart of Edmonton. Seeking out potential venues for our upcoming wedding, my fiancé and I popped in for a venue meeting with Restaurant Manager Laura Rudd and Executive Chef Fan Zhang. It’d actually been a little while since my last visit (read my previous review here), but my recollection of the place was spot on.

Those twinkling lights on the ceiling make for an excellent backdrop.

The space is just as beautiful as I remembered with twinkling lights on the ceiling, a statement fireplace against the back wall, modern teals and metallics mixed with natural woods and stone, and a funky amoeba-shaped bar. What I didn’t realize was its direct attachment to the Varscona Hotel right next door, which we consider to be a big plus as we’re going to have plenty of guests travelling from out of town. With accommodations nearby, room for a dinner, reception, dance, and hopefully a ceremony, this seems like an incredibly versatile spot with plenty of possibilities.

Their charcuterie menu is quite extensive with all meats made in-house.

Neither of us really had a solid idea of what we want for our celebration. However, during our discussion with Laura and Chef Fan, both of them had some excellent suggestions and seemed eager to bring our vision to life. They gave us a lot to think about, and, when we were done our tour and conversation, they actually invited us to stay for a drink and some charcuterie.

Look at this amazing cheese and charcuterie board!

In all honesty, they were super generous. When they offered to make us a plate, we expected that they’d provide just a small sampling of food to whet our appetites. Afterwards, if we were still hungry, we were more than willing to stick around and make a night of it on our own. But, wow! We received a humongous board chockablock full of house cured meats (my faves were the Bresoala, Truffled Mortadella, and Kielbasa), homemade pickles, preserves, and beer mustard (the best!), in-house baked sourdough bread, and a variety of cheeses (creamy Port Salut and Goat Gouda won the night). All in, I guessed the total value was around $100, including our beverages. They outright spoiled us!

Although we technically didn’t need anything else to eat, we opted to treat ourselves to an order of their 3 Pork Buns ($15) with an Extra Bun ($5) to make it even, as well as a side of the Brussels Sprouts ($5).

Brussels Sprouts in Garlic Butter

The latter was cooked until the greens were tender, but still had bite. The outer leaves were also charred and crispy, just the way I like it. The sprouts may have been a tad greasy, yet I suppose that’s a given considering they’re prepared in garlic butter.

As for the Pork Buns, they were mentioned by a couple of the staff, so we thought it made sense to try them. I’m glad we did because they absolutely did not disappoint. The thick cut pork belly was seared until crisp on the outside and the fats had rendered. Sriracha mayo, hoisin, thinly sliced pickled cucumbers along with baby leaves and chopped green onion finished them off. Pillowy soft steam buns held everything together.

Warm Brownie for dessert!

Before we left, we had to try a dessert. Our choice of the evening was the Warm Brownie ($11; it may not currently be available). It was sort of deconstructed and served with caramel sauce, sponge toffee bits, roasted peanuts, fresh whipped cream, and a mint leaf for garnish. This was absolutely decadent and sweet; it’s the perfect dish for sharing as the portion size is more than decent.

I can’t lie. Ampersand 27 completely won us over. Laura and Chef Fan showed such amazing hospitality. Additionally, their fantastic server Janell cannot go unmentioned. I previously knew her from another restaurant that she worked at simultaneously as she held a position here, and she’s wonderful. Janell has a way of putting the customer at ease and making them feel like a friend.

While nothing is set in stone at this time, Ampersand 27 is at the top of our list. Not only are the share plates such a delight, but the people who run the place can’t be beat. Even if it doesn’t end up being the venue for our nuptials next year, it’s still going to be one of our favourite Whyte Avenue businesses and restaurants for a long time to come.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Pho Boy

The interior of Pho Boy.

Aiming to bring authentic pho and Vietnamese street food to Edmonton, locally owned and operated Pho Boy opened on Whyte Avenue and 100 Street in December of last year. They focused on a soft launch menu until the restaurant’s official grand opening in February, meaning the time was taken to hone their selection.

My friend and co-worker has been a fan since the beginning, and I would see her food posts from Pho Boy on social media frequently. Everything always looked so good. Therefore, when I happened across a Groupon deal, I jumped on it. Rather than use it immediately, I set the voucher aside until August. I knew I’d be hanging out around Old Strathcona during the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, so it’d be the perfect time to go. Plus, by then, I hoped that any and all growing pains would have worked themselves out of the establishment.

The entrance is tucked away past the somewhat hidden front patio space.

Between shows on a Sunday afternoon, my boyfriend and I ambled towards the address. I had recalled driving by the building on a previous occasion and seeing their round, bright yellow sign hovering above the sidewalk, but as we proceeded east, it didn’t stand out. In fact, I almost passed right by. The entrance is kind of masked by a somewhat gated front patio space. It’s actually a cozy sort of outdoor dining area that’s a bit tucked away from the pedestrians and traffic. However, it wasn’t nice enough that day for us to sit there, so we headed inside. One of the servers saw us a minute after we arrived. She seated us along the booth bench. Being later in the day, no more than a few of the other tables were occupied.

Playing the Street Fighter II arcade game.

The space is fun and well thought out. A sunset mural of Vietnamese farmers covers the one wall, while the other is plastered with vintage looking posters and the “Pho Boy” scrawl. The furniture consists of heavy, dark woods that keep the focus on the rest of the art and the unique lighting. There’s even a Street Fighter II arcade game sitting in the corner with a large TV screen hanging above it for other diners to watch players beat the high score.

Design aside, I was there for the food. At first the menu confused me because the Legend Vermicelli was listed under two different pages, but after consulting with the server, she pointed out that one included the regular spring roll with pork and the second was a vegetarian version without any meat. Either way, I was somewhat dismayed at the shortage of beef, chicken, pork or shrimp options that one would typically see at a Vietnamese joint. The only way of getting anything like that was with the Hero’s Feast ($17; it includes lemongrass beef and a shrimp skewer), which I was warned about in terms of portion size.  Regardless, I went with the latter. My boyfriend opted for the regular size Pho Boy Phoenix Special ($10).

While we waited, two other plates were brought out. One had a couple of large shrimp chips on it. The other had the usual pho garnishes: basil leaves, bean sprouts and a wedge of lime. Each ingredient looked fresh.

Our dishes arrived shortly after. To my dismay, the Phoenix Special was covered in cilantro (it’s my nemesis). Although the herb isn’t my boyfriend’s favourite either, he said he didn’t mind it this time. He stated that the heat of the soup made the flavour less apparent, and it worked well with the shredded chicken. I also think that his generous dousing of Sriracha sauce into the chicken broth may have helped to mask it. When I first took a spoonful of the soup to try it, I thought to myself that it had quite a pleasant kick of spice to it. That is, until I put two and two together and realized he’d already mixed in the Sriracha, so to be honest, I have no clue what the true broth tastes like. It seemed pretty clean though. There weren’t any grease bubbles in the bowl; it was just an aromatic and savoury soup that was perfect for a somewhat chilly day.

When it came to my Hero’s Feast, I was bracing myself. I thought that there was no way I’d be able to finish it. From what I was told, it would be huge. But, it showed up and I knew it wouldn’t be much of an issue. To start, I will contend that they do not skimp on the rice noodles or the veggies. There was a mountain of bean sprouts and julienned cucumbers, carrots, cabbage, and lettuce sitting atop the vermicelli. Yet, I had my eye on the prize. After I poured every last drop of the fish sauce into the bowl and tossed the components together, I worked my way through the dish. Admittedly, the shrimp were lackluster. The texture of the crustaceans was rubbery. The kitchen fared much better with the lemongrass beef; well-marinated, a little bit charred, thinly sliced and still tender, the meat, along with the crispy Legend Rolls were the star of the show. Initially, I didn’t understand why the eatery would offer the Legend Vermicelli with nothing other than spring rolls. From all past experiences, the spring roll is sort of the after thought to a vermicelli meal. Here, they were pairing it with the noodle bowl as the single source of protein. After trying the Legend Rolls, I get it. They are succulent and they provide that umami flavour to the dish without having to go the distance that other Vietnamese restaurants so often do. On my next visit, I know that the spring rolls will be enough to satiate my hunger.

Did Pho Boy wow me? They excelled in some ways (the crunch of the Legend Roll was unlike any other spring roll I’ve had) and there’s certainly room for improvement. Overall, I’d say it was decent. The food was satisfying, the prices were fairly reasonable and the service was stellar. Like their menu, Pho Boy is just slightly off the beaten path, but it’s one that is worth taking at least once.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Have Mercy Southern Table & Bar

The exterior of Have Mercy as seen from the patio.

Escape games and food are my jam. When my friends and I planned to try out the new Impulse Escape Rooms location on Whyte Avenue, we needed a nearby place that was certain to nourish our bellies and our brains. I’d been to El Cortez before; however, not to Have Mercy, their southern-style sister restaurant.

It was a quiet day for lunch at the eatery. When we walked into the kitschy venue, it was pretty empty. We were led to the deck found at the back door. That’s where a few other diners were already sitting. It’s not a large patio. Yet, it feels bigger because it overlooks the outdoor space occupied by El Cortez on street-level.

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Once we settled in, we carefully studied the menu while we snacked on complimentary pretzels and honey mustard. We also asked the server for some beverage suggestions. After taking the recommendations to heart, I opted for the Strathcona Sour ($12), a house libation. My friend decided to go with a non-alcoholic glass of their Sweet Tea ($4), and her husband went with a traditional Rattlesnake ($12) cocktail. The Sweet Tea was deliciously refreshing without being too sugary. Ultimately, we all ended up sharing another pitcher ($20), sans alcohol.

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For a cocktail, I enjoyed the Strathcona Sour. The bartender used a giant solid ice cube to ensure a slow melt and less dilution of the Buffalo Trace Bourbon, which gave the drink a kick. Clove syrup added a tinge of bitterness that was then offset by the acidity of fresh lemon juice and just a slight fruitiness from the blackberry punch. As good as the Strathcona Sour was, I think there’s a reason why the Rattlesnake is a classic. Using George Dickel Rye, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white and Herbsaint liquor, all of the ingredients melded so well. I especially like the use of egg white because it gives the drink a smoother consistency that helps it go down really easily.

Sweet Corn Hush Puppies

To get us started, when it came to the food, we chose to share an order of the Sweet Corn Hush Puppies ($9). A bowl of six puffy, golden brown fritters arrived to the table with two dipping sauces. They were hot, non-greasy and sprinkled with a bit of salt. I cut one open and saw that it was fluffy on the inside with a crisp exterior. What put this appetizer over the top was the buttermilk dill ranch sauce that’s made in-house. It provides a cooling sensation and a hint of dill that works with the sweet corn so well. Judging from the number of times the dip is listed as an accompaniment to the offerings on the menu, Have Mercy clearly knows they’ve got a good thing going.

Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs with Spicy Sugar Slaw and Braised Molasses Barbecue Beans

Turning to the main dishes, my boyfriend was talked into the full rack of Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs ($26). This was served with sides of spicy sugar slaw and braised molasses barbecue beans. Personally, I thought the beans were very flavourful; although, they were maybe a tad too soft. I prefer that beans have more bite. With barbecue, I like the beans to almost reach caramelization. I can’t say much about the spicy sugar slaw as I don’t think my boyfriend left any for me to taste. Nevertheless, he was generous enough to give me a rib. The meat was a little fatty, but tender. The dry rub kept the moisture inside the meat, so the pork pulled off the bone effortlessly and had a nice smoky infusion.

Clockwise from top: Chile Honey, Nashville Hot Rubbed and Crispy Salted Fried Chicken.

The rest of us all selected versions of the Fried Chicken and Donut: crispy salted, Chile honey and Nashville hot rubbed ($18 each). I was particularly disappointed with the slaw that took up a third of the plate; it just seemed like a mix of shredded cabbage and carrot. While it presents another layer of texture, the veggies lacked in flavour as there was no dressing applied. What this dish has going for it is the combination of crunchy fried chicken with a surprisingly airy donut in its most basic yeast-based honey glazed form. There’s just the right amount of glaze to give every bite of chicken a hit of sweetness. This is the more modern take on the ubiquitous chicken and waffle dish, and it’s now my way of quelling cravings for those Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken sandwiches that I ate in Chicago a year ago. As for the chicken itself, the crispy salted is like Have Mercy’s take on Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s pretty good, but it screamed for something else to elevate it. I had the Chile honey, which was certainly an improvement over the standard salted chicken. Granted, thinking about it after the fact, pairing sweet and sweet with the chicken and the donut was unnecessary. My favourite ended up being the saucy Nashville hot rubbed chicken. There was the perfect amount of heat to balance out the saccharinity of the donut.

I do wish that I had room for dessert as both the Caramel Pecan Donut Pudding and Buttermilk Lime Pie called to me. I thought better of it though. I’ll simply have to leave that for the next visit.

Old Strathcona isn’t an area I frequent often; however, there are so many fantastic restaurants that dot the area and I seem to have them on a rotation for when I am around. That being said, Have Mercy is definitely a place that is deserving of a spot in my catalogue, especially when I’m hankering for some southern comfort food.

See you again soon!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Dorinku

Dorinku Appetizer Platter ($15.30)

Dorinku, an izakaya serving Tokyo street food, had been on my list of places to visit for at least the past year. So, when my friend was able to meet me for dinner a couple of weeks ago, we took the opportunity to stop by Whyte Avenue to check it out.

The block surrounding the restaurant has ample free parking, so it was easy to find a space nearby. When we arrived at around 6:30pm on the Tuesday evening, the establishment was fairly busy. A number of the tables were already occupied; however, there was no wait. We were immediately greeted and taken to our seats.

Homemade Fresh Ginger Ale ($4)

Our server was prompt to grab us our drinks (homemade fresh ginger ale at $4 each), yet he also gave us ample time to peruse the menu when we couldn’t quite make our decisions.

Ultimately, we started our meal off with the Dorinku Appetizer Platter ($15.30), which is apparently offered in limited quantities every day. Luckily, we managed to snag an order. On this particular night, our seven tasters consisted of Tuna Tataki, Tsukune Yakko, Tuna Avocado, Tako Wasabi, Chicken Karaage, Tomato Kimchi and Pickled Eggplant. Aside from the eggplant, all of the other samplers could be found within the menu. Therefore, this is a fantastic way to go about trying a number of their items.

Tomato Kimchi

We opted to work our way clockwise around the dish from opposite sides of the plate, so the first thing I sampled was the Tomato Kimchi. Surprisingly, the heat wasn’t as strong as I expected. I’ll chalk it up to the juiciness of the fruit as I believe it watered down the spice. Granted, I don’t necessarily mean that to be a criticism. I actually quite liked it and wished I could have had another piece.

Tako Wasabi

Next up was the Tako Wasabi and I wasn’t quite ready for it. The chopped octopus mixed with a wasabi dressing was, initially, overwhelming to my taste buds. It didn’t burn, but the wasabi was incredibly strong. As such, it takes away from the flavours of the tamago that topped the octopus and the sheets of nori wrap.

Tuna Tataki

One of my preferred was the Tuna Tataki with fresh fish that was nicely seared at the edges. A mix of sesame soy citrus sauce and homemade chili oil was drizzled over the tuna and then topped with green onion. Super tasty and just a tad spicy. There was also a little bit of crunch that possibly came from panko or tempura crumbs.

Chicken Karaage

If I’m correct, the Chicken Karaage was a bite size version of the available full order. The pieces of deep fried chicken were crisp and likely sprinkled with the green tea salt and covered in the chili mayonnaise mentioned on the menu. Everything worked well together and the batter refrained from being oily.

Tsukune Yakko

Tsukune Yakko is deep fried minced chicken patty and sliced white scallions served with fresh tofu, teriyaki sauce and chili oil. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure about this appetizer. It was decent though. It came across kind of lighter than I thought it would and it utilized a variety of textures.

Pickled Eggplant

Personally, I think Dorinku is doing a disservice to their customers by not putting the Pickled Eggplant on the menu as a regular item. Maybe it’s always made as part of this platter; nevertheless, I’d go for a bigger dish if it was an option. The eggplant was slightly acidic with a wonderful spongy consistency that soaked up all of the marinade.

Tuna Avocado

The last bite I had was the Tuna Avocado. Made with albacore tuna sashimi, avocado and a pureed Japanese citrus seaweed sauce, it was a refreshing mouthful. It was easily the simplest in terms of preparation, but the tuna melted in my mouth. Combined with the avocado, it created a buttery quality.

Mozzarella Minced Katsu ($9.80)

We continued our dinner with a plate of the Mozzarella Minced Katsu ($9.80). These were balls of minced beef and pork cutlet wrapped around mozzarella cheese filling, which were then breaded and deep fried. I squeezed some fresh lemon juice onto them before dipping them into the accompanying sesame soy sauce. These were pretty delicious. Although, I would suggest adding even more cheese into the center as the first one I ate lacked in that department and that’s what makes them worth eating.

Corn and Kale Kakiage ($7.80)

As we ate our food, we’d take into account what people around us were ordering and those seated next to us convinced us to try the Corn and Kale Kakiage ($7.80). If I had my way, kale would only ever be prepared in fried form.  The patties of tempura coated corn and kale were lightly breaded, allowing for just the right amount of crunch. Any bitterness from the kale was masked by the sweetness of the large, fresh corn kernels and the butter soy sauce.  Honestly, these tasted good, but they felt a tad too greasy.

Carbonara Udon ($13.80)

Not completely satiated, we finished off our meal with one more item. The whole time we were at Dorinku, the Carbonara Udon ($13.80) on the Days’ Special Menu called to us. This did not disappoint! The thick Japanese wheat flour noodle had the perfect chew and the carbonara sauce ─ creamy with bacon and a poached egg ─ was to die for. It also came to the table in a hot stone bowl, so the sauce stayed bubbling hot. As long as it’s still being offered, it would be my top pick next time I’m there. Our server agreed that it’s his favourite, too.

Overall, Dorinku has a laid back, casual atmosphere, making it a great place for a get together. Their diverse menu should satisfy most diners and the friendly service we experienced was top notch.

Frozen grapes, in place of candies, came with the bill.