Edmonton Business Review: Escape City

Friends and escape rooms = fun!

I’ve been hooked on escape rooms ever since they were initially introduced to Edmonton back around 2014. I lapped them up and I would go on gaming sprees, usually dragging along a newbie or two. When we left, they were addicted as well. For those who don’t yet know, an escape room is an immersive experience whereby a group is “locked” in a themed room and they have to work together to solve riddles, clues and puzzles in order to breakout. They typically range between 45 to 60 minutes in length and cost about $25 per person to play.

About a year after I delved into that world, more businesses in this vein finally started to pop up, including one of my all time faves, Escape City. Located on 59 Avenue and 104 Street (Calgary Trail), it’s tucked away in the corner of an old strip mall. Walking through the doors, there has always been someone sitting behind the counter to greet patrons. Otherwise, it’s a very minimalist space with white walls, a couple of long benches, and cabinets for lockers. A large bulletin board next to the till showcases the teams who have broken out of their rooms in record time (Note: the times listed are remaining minutes in the game, not total minutes played). On the opposite side of the room is an accent wall with “Escape City” scrawled in red, which is great for photo ops.

It’s ideal to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your allotted time to ensure everyone has a chance to pay and sign the waivers (if you’ve played here before, they do keep them on file, so you don’t have to sign it again). As with any other escape room place, you are not to bring in any of your belongings. Phones, especially, should be locked away as it’s all too easy to cheat or make the game easier with them on hand. Plus, it’s important that photos aren’t shared of the room and its puzzles because the whole point of playing is to be challenged. Where’s the fun in knowing in advance what’s going to happen?

When the team is ready to go, a staff member will lead the way. They’ll present the house rules: no lifting carpets, no pulling on things that are nailed down, no climbing, etc. Then, a video introduction is played before the countdown starts and the game begins.

As an early subscriber to Escape City’s newsletter, I was invited to beta test for them. The very first room I got to experience was Keller’s Magic Emporium. At the time, I didn’t realize it was rated as their easiest room. Admittedly, I found it to be too quick to work through as we got out with probably 20 minutes to spare on an available 45 minutes (sometimes I don’t care about breaking a record; I just want to be entertained for as long as possible while still breaking out). What I did like was that they found a way to personalize the game a bit. Everything was quite linear, and the design was superb. They utilized some locks in the room, but there were a lot of other styles of puzzles, too. This one is best for beginners.

A taste of The Cabin. Photo courtesy of Escape City.

My second go at one of their rooms was with The Cabin. This was a well-though-out game and our group was literally a minute away from solving the whole thing. Alas, we failed, but it was very close. While it is considered to be one of the more difficult challenges at Escape City, I believe our ultimate downfall with this particular room was the size of the space and the number of players. Most of the time I struggle to get more than four or five people to come out. In this case, I recall having seven or eight in all. With limbs everywhere, visuals were blocked, hindering our ability to fully grasp everything we were supposed to see. My recommendation with the majority of places I’ve been is to have no more than six people.

Room number three at Escape City was The Inheritance. I’d only just started dating Kirk at the time. He was so enamoured with The Cabin that, on a whim as we were passing by one night, he decided we should zip into the front doors an hour before closing to ask if we could play an impromptu game. The staff was happy to oblige. I feel like we used a lot of hints (you can have up to two, if you want your time to count towards their rankings; otherwise, you can have as many as needed). But, what do you expect when you only have two brains trying to decipher stuff like this at 10 o’clock in the evening? We managed though. There were a couple of puzzles that we solved without doing it the way the room was planned (it happens on occasion). We also wouldn’t have gotten out within the actual 45 minutes. Thankfully, the employees working that night were nice enough to give us extra time. It’s been designated with a three out of five star difficulty rating and I think that’s a fair assessment.

Adventure four was The Great Discovery. It’s no longer running, but this one had a lab storyline and made sure to encourage the use of multiple senses in order to solve the puzzles. Our team worked well together as each person brought something to the table, and we felt really accomplished when we escaped this room.

The Hunt for Arms Magee (previously known as Quarterback Sneak) was the fifth room played at Escape City. It’s also classified as middle of the road in terms of the overall challenge. I have to say though, this was most likely my least favourite out of the handful of games we’d played here at this point. I didn’t think the quality of the room itself or the production value was as high as the others. Mainly in the first half (the second portion had a fun element), the premise felt silly and oversimplified in comparison. This room was a joint effort between Escape City and Explore Edmonton. It was originally meant to tie into the Grey Cup and pitted the idea of the Edmonton Eskimos against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I thought they just tried way too hard to tie in Edmonton elements. They’re best left to making rooms where the imaginations of the designers aren’t hindered by the tourism board’s vision.

We excelled at Neurological! Also, this is apparently my lucky shirt.

Approximately ten months later, I finally found an excuse to go back. This time, we were celebrating Escape City’s third birthday (August 2018). It’s crazy to think that they’ve graced us with their presence for this long and even weirder to realize I hadn’t played any escape rooms in over half a year. We tried our hand at Neurological, one of their hardest. I’ve been told by many people who tackled it before me to go with a large group (eight to ten). In the end, I managed to wrangle together a total of five people. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned that we didn’t have enough brain power. Turns out, that worry was unnecessary. We demolished this room! Unlike the others, you start with 60 minutes on the timer, and we completed it with 11 minutes left to go. This one splits the team up at the beginning and the goal is to come back together to alight all the senses. It required clear communication and a lot of teamwork to succeed. We were told at the end that only 14 per cent of of the people who play this one break out, so we felt like superstars.

For those that want to hang out a little longer, you can either get there early or stay for a bit at the end and commiserate over a drink because, surprisingly, Escape City does sell cans of beer and a few other non-alcoholic beverages. Basically, it’s a great option for parties of any kind. While I’m not likely to throw a shindig here myself, they sure do know how to reel me back in. Seeing as how I had pretty much tackled all of their rooms, I wasn’t expecting to be return again any time soon. But, lo and behold, for their anniversary, they’ve just launched a new one called Frank’s Revenge about an uncle looking to even the score. If I have my way, curse be damned. Our winning streak has to live on! I’ll be back with friends in tow!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

The open kitchen of Buco Windermere is surrounded by bar seating.

Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group expanded in mid-2015 with Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar in St. Albert. While I’ve never visited that location, a friend of mine is the executive chef at the newer Epcor Tower spot in downtown Edmonton. It’s just blocks away from Rogers Place. For me, the closest and most convenient is in Windermere.

My fiancé and I recently popped in to check it out. We spent an entire $65 OpenTable dining cheque on an indulgent Saturday afternoon lupper (lunch-dinner). The reason why we chose to go at that time is because they offer Social Hour specials daily from 2pm to 5pm and 9pm to close.

It’s nice and airy inside with an industrial feel.

Even in the middle of the day, there were a decent number of guests seated in both the industrial style lounge and dining room. However, there were just a few staff on hand, so service was a little slower than it should have been. It was worth it though, and it kind of forced us to sit there and enjoy our meal rather than quickly rushing through it all.

My Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail at the front and the featured Shock Top draft at the back.

To start, my significant other opted to go for their feature draft. At $5 for 12 oz. it was reasonable (regularly $7.50). That day’s option was Shock Top, so nothing too special. I chose to try their Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail ($5 for Social Hour, usually $9.50) — peach grappa, peach purée, white tea, and peach infused whipped cream. Our server said it took longer to make it because they had an issue with the whipped cream dispenser. That’s no big deal. I was more annoyed with the fact that it was so messy. The drink was filled so high that it was spilling down the sides of the glass and I got whipped cream all over my hands and the table. They never bothered to wipe that down or offered to bring extra napkins or anything. Other than that, I could have done without so much ice. The cocktail comes in a short glass, so the more cubes there are, the less drink there is, and I finished it really quickly.

For sustenance, we shared a Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 people ($12, typically $22), a Carne pizza, and a Fig Prosciutto pizza ($12 each, outside of Social Hour it’s $21). This was a ton of food and could easily have fed another couple.

Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 People

The cheese and charcuterie board was brought out as a starter, so we were able to snack on that first. This actually wowed us because we weren’t expecting the smaller size to be such an extensive spread. I think the only constructive feedback we have about this item is that it needs to come with more slices of bread. There were only two pieces per person. It meant the ratio of bread to cheese and meat was off, and it’d be nice to have more bread to balance everything out. Otherwise, the variety of cheese included a mix of both hard and soft textures and a range of mild to pungent flavours. The meats were also great. They stuck to the more familiar cured meats like prosciutto and salami, which ensures everything will be eaten when it comes to a chef’s choice type of situation.

For the pizzas, we were eventually asked if we were ready to have them fired up. We felt like we’d had enough of the board, so we said yes. It didn’t take too long for them to bake in their oven and they came out piping hot. The Carne is a pie layered with red sauce, meat, meat, and more meat. The toppings included short rib, Italian sausage, pepperoni, and bacon for the protein. Smoked caciocavallo and fior di latte filled the cheese quotient. This pizza was everything a meat lover could want as there was just so much of it and it was incredibly savoury. On the ligher side of scale, our Fig Prosciutto pizza is made without tomato sauce. It consisted of fontina cheese, fig jam, prosciutto, and balsamic drizzle. It has that salty-sweet combo that is appealing to a lot of palates. The crusts were easy to fold, crispy and slightly charred on the outside, and a little chewy in the middle.

Raspberry Ricotta Cake

Half of our meal was packed up to go as there was no way we could finish it all at once. But, we did save some room for dessert. In the end, we shared a slice of the beautifully presented Raspberry Ricotta Cake ($9). It was a bit more crumbly than I thought it should be despite the moistness of the ricotta and vanilla based cake. Still, the raspberry coulis, fresh berries, and fresh whipped cream did a good job of tying everything together.

We’ll definitely have to go back again soon to sample more items. Nevertheless, judging by what we’ve eaten there so far, overall, Buco Pizzeria’s menu is up to snuff. Where they can certainly use improvements is with the servers and management. They seemed kind of oblivious to the fact that they had guests. They were more preoccupied with setting up the restaurant for the evening and ignored current patrons unless they were blatantly waved at. It shouldn’t be a requirement to make full on eye contact with a staff member in order to get any service. They need to be trained to be more attentive. Hopefully, I’ll see changes with respect to that next time I’m there.

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: Bottega 104

Bottega 104 is all about Italian.

Situated on the 104 Street Promenade, between Jasper and 102 Avenues, sits Bottega 104. The Italian eatery is less than a year old. Nonetheless, it seems to have become a favourite in the downtown neighbourhood. When I arrived after work to meet a friend, patrons were starting to trickle in. By the time the two of us left, the venue was jam packed full of people.

My reservation, booked through the OpenTable app, yielded us a table towards the far back corner of the restaurant. It allowed me a bit of a view of the open kitchen as well as perfect sightlines of the long bar and the rest of the establishment. Honestly though, it’s a tight space.

The bar has a lovely design.

Sure, the details of the design scheme and the lighting added to the ambience, but I didn’t find it to be particularly comfortable. It was really cramped. When I was taken to our seats, I was the first to get there, so I decided to sit on the booth side. I had to squeeze myself between the two tables, sucking in my chest, to fit through. Moreover, I narrowly avoided knocking down the wine glasses of the guests next to us. In a way, it kind of reminded me of the close quarters experienced in restaurants on trips to New York City. However, let’s face it. This is Edmonton. People aren’t used to it being like this, and I can’t imagine others love feeling as if they’re sitting on each others’ laps either.

Room aside, I narrowly missed Bottega’s Prohibition Hour specials on their cocktails. From 2pm to 5pm, $13 two-ounce cocktails are marked down to $7 each, which is a hefty savings. Once I had settled in, I may have been able to quickly select something. Yet, our server was gone as soon she dropped off the menus, and she didn’t bother to come back until my friend showed up fifteen minutes later. Ultimately, we both chose water over any other beverage.

Ready to share dishes, family style.

When we did get to place our order, we opted to share a couple of the items: Spaghetti Carbonara Pasta ($21) and Prosciutto Pear Pizza ($21). As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our food, the server came back with side plates and pasta tongs, so we could more easily divide the dishes family style. The food was decent. Although, personally, I found it to be either too salty (pasta) or too bland (pizza).

Spaghetti Carbonara

The Spaghetti Carbonara was made with a “delicate” cream sauce, smoked pancetta, and egg. It was true that the sauce was creamy; unlike other plates of carbonara I’ve eaten, the egg avoided curdling. There was great potential as seen with the extra crispy pieces of pancetta, too. Bottega also didn’t skimp on the amount of protein. The problem was that it became very repetitive on the palate with only the pork and sauce to turn to. They had essentially become one and the same in terms of flavour. I realize that carbonara is not anything fancy; nevertheless, something is needed to help cut through the dish to awaken the taste buds.

Prosciutto Pear Pizza

As for the pizza, I was expecting more. The dough was topped with prosciutto, mozza, gouda, cherry tomatoes, sliced pear, toasted walnuts, and balsamic glaze. It’s a combination that sounds like it’d be amazing. Each inch of the pizza was covered with one of those ingredients, but there was very little stacking. Therefore, each bite provided just a small glimpse of what it could have been. There wasn’t a whole lot of balance between the saltiness of the cured meat and cheeses, the sweetness of the pear, the nuttiness of the walnuts, or the acidity of the tomatoes and balsamic drizzle. Additionally, the pizza cooled off fast, taking away the gooiness that any of the melted cheese may have had.

Zeppoli

Our night concluded with us splitting the Zeppoli ($9) for dessert. Bottega lists it as Italian street food. Typically, they come in the form of fried dough balls covered in some sort of sauce or a dusting of sugar and spice. They’re kind of like the mini doughnuts available at all of our annual festivals. When they were presented to us, I was surprised at the portions (definitely enough for two to three diners) as well as the shape of the Zeppoli. Instead of puffy balls, they were sticks of dough in the vein of churros, yet chewier. Sprinkles of icing sugar decorated the zeppoli along with zigzags of Nutella ganache. Again, this was underwhelming. Had the menu not mentioned Nutella, I wouldn’t have guessed there was supposed to be any hazelnut taste to this. It came across as a basic chocolate sauce.

In the end, this wasn’t what I was hoping for. The service, once both of us were there, was passable. The food was edible, but nothing to write home about. Mostly, it was too crowded and noisy. I mean, the din from everyone conversing makes it loud enough as it is. So, my recommendation is that they take out a table or two and lower the music a bit. I think visitors would appreciate it more than they know. Ultimately, the menu is their bread and butter though. If I’m to return and spend my hard earned money there, that’s where they need to see some major improvements.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Chop Steakhouse Bar

My spread of food and drink at Chop.

Edmonton’s downtown Chop Steakhouse Bar, found connected to the Sutton Place Hotel, used to be a lunchtime spot for my co-workers and I to hang out. The place provided a spot for us to happily chat over cocktails and food as well as giving us a respite from the office.

Fast forward a few years later and the dynamic of my workplace has changed dramatically. Those friends have moved on to new things. With their departure, trips to Chop diminished, too.

The Chop lounge in downtown Edmonton.

When I saw that Chop was participating in Downtown Dining Week again this year, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to revisit. A reservation was booked through OpenTable. When we arrived after work that Friday, we were actually one of the first tables to be seated in the dining room. Located upstairs from the lounge, it’s a much dimmer space decorated with deep blues and greys. The lounge is the opposite. Washed in natural light with high ceilings, it’s much more open and bright (my personal preference).

Pina Colada

My friend began with a pint of beer. I opted for a Pina Colada ($8.75), which was beautifully garnished with a thin cut floral-shaped slice of pineapple and poured into a pretty vintage cocktail glass. What I didn’t love was how chunky the blended ice was. Yet, in terms of flavour, it was fine. There was a nice balance of white rum, fresh pineapple and coconut. As we waited for our dishes to come, we were also provided with fresh complimentary bread and butter to tide us over.

We each started with a different appetizer. She got the Feature Soup ($8.95), a creamy tomato bisque that had a pleasant consistency. It had been cooked down to create a depth to the sweet-tart taste, and it refrained from being too thin. I went with a standard Caesar Salad ($9.95). The lettuce was slightly limp, but well-coated with dressing and grated Grana Padano cheese. I enjoyed the house-baked focaccia croutons and the slice of lemon for spritzing. Although it didn’t come across as the freshest salad, all of the components I look for were there.

For our mains, we both chose to indulge in the half rack of the Smoked Baby Back Ribs ($25.95). This was served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. At the time, the veggies included roasted beets and broccolini, and they were prepared until they were tender with just a little bit of that needed bite left. The ribs were evenly painted with a rich barbecue sauce that had caramelized onto the succulent meat during the cooking process. A knife came in handy to cut the baby back ribs apart, but the meat pretty much pulled clean off the bone without much effort.

Supper finished with mini versions of two of Chop’s desserts: Crème Brûlée ($4) and Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake ($5.50). Neither will blow your socks off. However, between the two, the crème brûlée was definitely the smaller and arguably least adventurous. It was a standard custard dessert with a simple vanilla infusion and the sugar crackle. The soufflé cake is not what I expected. I pictured something along the lines of a lava cake. Instead, I received a slice of a chocolate cake crust filled with mascarpone mousse atop a pool of fresh vanilla anglaise. It was actually quite decadent, and I’d have that one again. I’m not sure how much larger the dessert is if the regular size is ordered, but I think for the price, this was the perfect amount of sweetness to cap off the night.

All of the food options that were available for this specially priced event are also on their regular menu. We just happened to save about $10 per person for our three-course meal versus if we had gone any other time. On this occasion, the service was friendly and attentive even when the dining room filled up. I’m not sure how often I’ll be back, but I think the quality of the food I tried was good enough to warrant a future drop-in, especially for happy hour.