Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2018

Potato Leek Soup from Aarde

Every year, for the past five, I’ve been sharing a list of my 24 favourite Edmonton eateries at the end of December. Does anyone really care what I have to say? Not necessarily. But, if you come across this post and you live in the city, I hope that it sparks a memory of a place you already love, reminds you of somewhere you want to go to, or encourages you to try something new.

These are my picks for 2018:

1. DOSC

This quickly became a favourite haunt for me and Kirk. The espresso cocoa dry rubbed skirt steak is to die for. They also make some of the best Brussels sprouts with crispy pancetta we’ve ever had. Their bar menu is excellent, and the café is a relaxing spot, too. Every single time we’re there, we feel taken care of.

Review of DOSC

2. Ampersand 27

We picked this venue for our wedding, not only because it’s already gorgeously designed, but because we knew they could deliver on the food. The chef has actually changed since we reserved the space, but they’ve kept our go to dishes, including the Pork Buns, House-Smoked Beef Brisket, and In-House Cured Meats for their build-your-own cheese and charcuterie boards.

Review of Ampersand 27

3. Aarde

Open for just under two months now, I’ve been twice, and, although there’s always room for improvement, Chef Guru Singh, has shown great promise with his European influenced menu. Try the Vandaag Soup, Mushroom and Artichoke Tartine, Chorizo Sausage, and Dutch Almond Cake.

4. Partake

Also new to the city’s food scene (it’s only about 4 months old), this is the latest from the minds behind Urban Diner and The Manor Bistro. It’s French-inspired with a very boozy cocktail menu. We’d highly recommend the Croque Mon’Soubise’ and their more modern take on Beef Tartare. Don’t skip out on the baked brie pastry for dessert either.

Review of Partake

5. Prairie Noodle Shop

I finally wrote an actual review of this restaurant in 2018! The Spicy Garlic Miso Ramen always satisfies. But, what I love best is that they feature handmade dumplings from Gourmai (a.k.a. MasterChef competitor Mai Nguyen) on their menu. Pretty soon, they’ll have a sister location next door that focuses on just that! We can’t wait.

Review of Prairie Noodle Shop

6. Red Star Pub

I’d never actually eaten food here until this year, and I’m so glad that I took the time to try it. The light and fruity Beef Carpaccio and the thick, juicy Mini Burgers with piled high bacon apple relish are a delight. It’s also a cozy space to hole up in on cold or wet days.

Review of Red Star Pub

7. Destination Doughnuts

I quickly jump on the latest sweet treat bandwagon, and when it comes to doughnuts, what’s not to love? We’ve been blessed in Edmonton over the last few years with more and more shops popping up. This location on 124 Street has made a fan of me and my co-workers. Personally, I find the doughnuts are large, fluffy, and flavourful without being overly sweet. I can usually eat a whole one and not fall into a sugar coma.

Review of Destination Doughnuts

8. Fumaca Brazilian Steakhouse

This was our first Brazilian Steakhouse experience. We opted to try out their weekend brunch as it offers seven cuts of meat (now including grilled pineapple), standard brunch items like French toast or pancakes, and a salad bar for $25.99. I can’t compare it to their competition; however, we were blown away by the signature beef rumpsteak, pork sausage, and the droolworthy crispy pork belly.

Review of Fumaca Brazilian Steakhouse

9. Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya

This is one of the latest Japanese restaurants to grace our city’s streets. Instead of being located in Old Strathcona, it can be found downtown on Jasper Ave. Their sushi rolls are well-presented and tasty and they have awesome Honey BBQ Pork skewers, which are on special every Monday to Friday during happy hour. For dessert, the Matcha Crème Brûlée may have too thick of a caramelized sugar top for my liking, but the custard is A-OK.

Review of Let’s Grill Sushi Izakaya

10. Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

First thing that we love about this place is that there’s actually a location in our neck of the woods (far southwest corner of the city). Second is that they make an enviable meat and cheese board at a super affordable price — $12 for 2 to 4 people and $20 for a group of 4 to 6 — during their social hour.

Review of Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

11. OEB Breakfast

Expanding into Edmonton at the end of October, this Calgary-based business has built up its popularity in record time. When we stopped in, we arrived early and managed to snag a table a few minutes after walking in the door. Within an hour, the entrance was jam packed with patrons waiting for seats, making for a very crowded space. The question of comfort aside, the food is tasty and fresh. It’ll be better when they get their liquor license, so the $5 mimosas can flow. In the meantime, their famous breakfast poutines (those crispy bacon lardons!) will have to do.

12. Rebel Food and Drink

There might be some people who disagree with this choice because I’ve heard and read some awful reviews of this spot in the Parkview neighbourhood. Nevertheless, the experiences I’ve had have been pleasant. Particularly, Kirk vouches for their Rebel Chz Brgr. It’s a dirty diner-style burger, but in the best way possible. I always enjoy the mini lobster rolls and the mussels, which are even better when discounted for happy hour.

Review of Rebel Food and Drink

13. Sushi Shop

Another debatable choice? Maybe, maybe not. For a quick, decent, and affordable sushi meal, this is where Kirk and I go to get takeout. Considering that it’s a fast food restaurant, they have an extensive selection of maki and sushi. Plus, the staff still take the time to make the items look aesthetically pleasing. We’ve never had a bad meal from here, and it’ll continue to be our spot when we need something less expensive to quell those sushi cravings.

Review of Sushi Shop

14. Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria

This local success story has expanded across western Canada and into Ontario over the years, and it’s easy to see why it has done well. The quality of their pizzas is very consistent no matter the location. Only recently have Kirk and I opted to build our own pies there, and I’m not sure we’ll go back to the ones on their menu (not that there’s anything wrong with them). Our personal creation, The KC, with sun-dried tomatoes, Soppressata, chicken, fresh prosciutto, and fresh feta hits the spot every time. Their pastas are also delicious.

Review of Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria

15. New Dragon Palace

Over the years, the quality of the food here has fluctuated. Yet, it’s a family favourite, and it’s probably been around for almost as long as I’ve been alive. Of late, we’ve all noticed that the kitchen’s standards have gotten better again. The portions are very generous and the food is flavourful.

If you go, definitely pre-order the Peking duck. The skin is super crispy, and the meat is plump without a ton of fat. Placed in those steamed wraps with sauce, cucumber, green onion, and carrot, they’re pockets of delight. The broth made from the bones is addictive and the stir fry created from the rest of the meat is enough of a meal in and of itself.

Review of New Dragon Palace

16. The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery

This shop in the Glenora neighbourhood makes a robust chai latte. What’s better than that though? Their Pain au Chocolat pastry is amazing! The treats are flash frozen and shipped from France to be baked right here in Edmonton. Soft, flaky, and the perfect amount of dark chocolate.

Review of The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery

17. Joey Restaurants

I’ve come to realize that of all things, they do sandwiches and burgers really well. The California Chicken is often Kirk’s top choice there. The Ahi Tuna Club is forever going to be my favourite. Nonetheless, when corporate made the mistake of taking away the Ahi Tuna Club (thank goodness other customers complained and got it added back onto the menu), I found a replacement in the Butcher’s Sandwich. Sure, it’s a glorified beef dip, but damn is it good.

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

Review of Joey Restaurants

18. BAR94 & LUX Steakhouse

Between the bar and the restaurant, I’ve sampled a number of the items on the menu. I tend to go back to the sides and appetizers, which are great for sharing or as a sizeable dinner for one. I’d suggest the ‘Bucket of Bones,’ Truffle Perogies, and Truffled Lobster Mac & Cheese. Oh, and $3 glasses of Prosecco or sparkling cocktails on Tuesdays in the lounge can’t be beat.

Review of BAR94 & LUX Steakhouse

19. The Art of Cake Café & Bakery

I’ve been a long time supporter of this bakery turned café. I used to walk over from work to their shop in City Centre Mall for a midday pick-me-up. I was so sad to see them move out of that space. However, I’ve since patronaged their new location in the Oliver area, and it’s wonderful to see how they’ve expanded to serve beverages (including wine, beer, and liquor), breakfast, and lunch alongside their usual baked goods. They still make some of the best scones, cakes, and cookies. It’s arguably a plus that they’re no longer so close by. Otherwise, I’d most likely be much heavier.

Review of The Art of Cake

20. Characters Fine Dining

My friend and I decided to treat ourselves to a multi-course tasting menu here at the beginning of 2018. The setting is beautiful, but not too stuffy despite the fine dining stigma. All of the dishes were impeccable, and they were able to cater to the dietary needs of my friend. The items change seasonally, but, if you ever have a chance to try the Cured Salmon, Beef Tartar, or Venison Wellington, do not pass it up.

Review of Characters Fine Dining

21. Dorinku

It’s a shame that I don’t make it here more often. Still, the Appetizer Platter and the Carbonara Udon continue to be some of my preferred items when they’re available. The pressed sushi is also tops.

Review of Dorinku

22. Villa Bistro

This business is never busy when I’m there, so I’m hoping it’s not a sign of things to come considering that the food is actually delicious when ordered properly. I mean, the pastas are decent, but the Braised Boneless Short Rib and/or the Loaded Villa Burger are where it’s at.

Review of Villa Bistro

23. Accent European Lounge

I’m not sure if you’ve figured this out yet, but I loooove beef tartare. For a really traditional take on the dish, this is the place to go. From the fried toast to the garlic cloves and the massive patty of raw meat, I’m in beef tartare heaven whenever I’m there.

The excellent and rich steak tartar with garlic and fried bread.

Review of Accent European Lounge

24. Biera

Full disclosure: I have not eaten at Biera yet. But, I did attend Avenue Magazine’s Best Restaurants 2018 event in March where Chef Christine Sandford was showcasing their Grass-Fed Beef Tartare. The sample was out of this world. I went back for seconds and thirds. It’s remains as one of the eateries on my list to visit, and I plan to be there sometime in 2019. It’ll give me something to look forward to.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Blowers & Grafton

Relaxing with a pint at Blowers & Grafton.

Driving down Whyte Avenue earlier this summer, I noticed the facade of a new establishment called Blowers & Grafton (10550 82 Avenue). Touting itself as a place for Halifax Street Food, I was immediately excited since Kirk is from New Brunswick and I had a hunch that he’d like it. Nonetheless, at the time, it was put on the back burner. Then, fast forward about a month when we decided to meet up with some friends for a bite to eat over the first weekend of the 37th Annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. This ended up being our pick of the day.

Blowers & Grafton has a casual space with a distinctly East Coast feel.

We arrived just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday. The place was about three-quarters full and we managed to get seated right away. It’s actually quite a nice space with tables spread out well, so customers aren’t draped over each other. There’s a distinctly vintage rustic industrial design with open ceilings, original beams, brick, lots of stained woods, Edison bulbs screwed into pipes, warehouse-style pendant lighting, and upholstered metal stools. The only shots of colour in the place come from the reddish faux brick walls and a faded denim shade as seen on the seats and towards the back of the pub. To decorate, they’ve hung historic photographs of Halifax throughout. As our friends mentioned, the Edmonton location is much better than the initial hole in the wall built in Calgary. Overall, it’s comfortable and it immediately feels like a decent hang out spot.

So, for those who aren’t aware, Blowers & Grafton is a famous intersection in Halifax otherwise known as Pizza Corner. It laid claim to the name due to the number of shops that populated each quarter of the crossing streets. I’ve only been there once before and, if I recall, it’s no longer overrun with pizza. Although, other snacks like poutine may give the pies a run for their money. Both of those items are definitely on offer here, along with donairs, fish n’ chips, clams, scallops, and mussels.

The elusive B&G bottles. They’re hoping to stock these here as well. These were just a treat from the owner.

They have made a concerted effort to stock East Coast beers for half of their taps; however four of the six are standards like Alexander Keith’s and Moosehead. The rest of the options are Canadian brews with two coming from Alberta. This includes a B&G Wheat ($6.50) created specifically for Blowers & Grafton, likely by Minhas Micro Brewery out of Calgary as that company also created their standard bottled lager, which is currently only served at the Calgary location. NOTE: Happy Hour drink specials happen Monday to Friday from 3pm to 6pm and Sunday to Thursday from 9pm to close. Check my YEG Food Deals page for details.

The Bluenoser Cocktail

They also have an adequate cocktail list from which I selected The Bluenoser (our lovely server suggested it). In a mason glass was mixed a vodka base with St-Germain liqueur to give it a hint of elderflower. Additionally, flavours of lemon, lavender, blueberry and mint made up the remainder of the recipe. Honestly, considering the short cup, it didn’t seem to consist of two ounces of alcohol; this beverage was incredibly drinkable. I absolutely recommend stirring it up before sipping on it though. It’ll ensure that all of the ingredients meld together to create a full profile. Otherwise, it can be rather bland at first.

Foodwise, Kirk had his heart set on the Garlic Fingers ($13.50) with Bacon Bits ($2). I chose the Mini Lobster Rolls ($22). Our friends went for the Garlic Fingers (a group with three Maritimers cannot share a single order peacefully), too, and they added a basket of Brothers Fried Pepperoni on the side ($13).

I’ll admit, whenever Kirk raves about the almighty garlic finger from back home, I wonder what the big deal is. Hasn’t he ever heard of the cheesy bread found on the majority of menus at pizza shops galore? But, I digress. Yes, the Garlic Fingers are delicious (especially when fresh out of the oven). They take their homemade pizza dough and smother it in garlic butter and mozzarella cheese. You really can’t go wrong with a dish like that. What I think differentiates East Coast garlic fingers from anything similar is probably the sweet donair sauce provided for dipping. Blowers & Grafton does a good job and I’ve been told that they’re Kirk approved.

Mini Lobster Rolls

In my mind, the Mini Lobster Rolls could use a bit of improvement. These were comprised of decently sized pieces of real Atlantic Lobster tossed with mayo, lemon and fresh dill. I thought the mayo was a little light handed and I wasn’t a huge fan of the bed of tasteless slaw that the lobster sat on. It also didn’t need lobster butter on top. What was done right was the searing of the mini buns in butter. As for the sides, there were only two choices that didn’t require an extra cost: fries or chips. I opted for the latter. They were crispy and delicious and served with a basic ketchup. All in all, these were alright. Yet, for the quality and amount of food I received I can’t really justify the high price. If they had wowed me, maybe. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Brothers Fried Pepperoni

Surprisingly, I think the Brothers Fried Pepperoni was the best thing I sampled from the Blowers & Grafton menu. The portion size was generous, the sausage was sliced thick, it wasn’t as greasy as I expected, and it came with a delicious honey mustard that was made in-house. While we went with the mild pepperoni, it’s available hot as well. Keep in mind though, the mild was still relatively spicy (nothing crazy, but there was a noticeable kick of heat).

Blueberry Grunt Donuts

Finally, it was time for a sweet finish. The only dessert they make is their Blueberry Grunt Donut ($1.50 each). A tad larger than a Timbit, it is relatively easy to fit in at least one at the end of a meal. The deep fried pastry dough was drizzled in blueberry grunt compote and maple syrup dulce de leche. It’s kind of rich because of the syrup, but with such a small dose, it’s manageable and worth it.

Before we left, we had a chat with a couple of the owners. They’re both extremely friendly and they were happy to discuss the expansion from Calgary to Edmonton. In fact, it’s going so well that they hope to make it even bigger down south. It never occurred to me before, but I suppose East Coast eats are a thing and there is a large enough customer base looking for this type of menu — a memory of home — in the Prairies. Being one of the first to bring Maritime street food here, Blowers & Grafton may just corner the market in the west.

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.