Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Keg Steakhouse + Bar (South Common)

The interior of The Keg South Common.

After lackluster visits to The Keg when I was younger, I wasn’t too keen to go back. But, last year, spurred on by a couple of gift cards that my beau and I received, we ventured to the South Edmonton Common location for treat yo’ self dinners.

This particular venue has a massive dining room and lounge space, so there are tons of staff and tables. The noise certainly picks up when it’s busy, and, without a reservation, a wait is definitely in the cards during peak business hours. Thankfully, I come prepared by booking in advance through OpenTable (dining cheques are accepted, by the way), so it usually doesn’t take long for us to be seated.

On the past two occasions we’ve been lucky enough to be placed nearby the fireplace in the back room, which helps to add to the overall ambience. The styling of the establishment is classy with sleek wood paneled walls, a stone accented mantel, framed landscapes, dark wood tables, leather upholstered chairs, and dim lighting. The servers wear crisp white button downs and clean black aprons. Hosts are often dressed in business attire.

Rosemary Blackberry Limonata

Our most recent visit in March brought four of us together to celebrate my fiancé’s birthday. We started with drinks. All three of my companions went with beers or cider ($8.50 to $9.50 each). Oddly enough, The Keg really doesn’t have much of a beer selection in cans or on tap. Most of them are from large breweries with only a few craft options available in canned form. I, on the other hand, chose to go with a cocktail. The Rosemary Blackberry Limonata ($8) was comprised of Absolut vodka, house-made rosemary/blackberry syrup, fresh berries, and soda. It was served in a short glass with a sprig of rosemary for decoration. It’s a decent sipper as it’s not strong in terms of the alcohol. Although, I would have liked more syrup to taste.

The group was given one loaf of complimentary bread to start. This is such a treat. Their bread is warm, a bit crusty on the outside and so soft on the inside. The butter melts right into it, and it’s divine. Sometimes, when we think we have the room for it, we’ll ask for seconds.

Calamari

An appetizer of Calamari ($13) was ordered by our friends who graciously shared with us. Personally, I thought the calamari was a tad greasy. On the plus side, the batter was light. They also use a mix of rings and baby squid (those are my favourite) as well as red peppers and jalapenos to liven things up. A lemon wedge, ginger garlic sauce, and Greek feta sauce are presented on the side.

The Keg Burger

For the mains, both of our friends chose to go with the Keg Burger ($18). This is described on the menu as the “Keg’s own fresh blend of chuck, brisket and sirloin.” It was stacked high with lettuce, tomato, red onion, pickles, and applewood smoked bacon. The cheddar cheese oozed all over the meat and I can imagine the sweet-spicy flavour of the jalapeno maple aioli. Coleslaw and fries came with this item. Based on appearances, this looked like an excellent burger. I was also told that the patty definitely tasted and felt like it was freshly ground and shaped. Score one for The Keg.

Peppercorn New York

My fiancé went with his usual 12 ounce Peppercorn New York Steak ($37). Encrusted in a ton of black peppercorn with a pot of whisky sauce, it can be a bit fiery for someone who isn’t a huge fan of this spice. Regardless, it was cooked as requested, and it had a nice char that held the juices in. The plating of the veggies — roasted red peppers and green beans — and the garlic mashed potatoes was passable, too.

Sirloin Oscar

Contrary to everyone else’s dishes, mine looked like someone threw up all over it. There was also a pool of liquid underneath everything. As far as a Sirloin Oscar ($37 for 8 ounces) goes, this one just didn’t come across as visually appealing. The vegetables had slid underneath the steak, which was completely hidden by the coating of Béarnaise sauce. Scallops and shrimp were haphazardly tossed onto the plate and the blob of garlic mashed potatoes camouflaged right in. Thankfully, this isn’t the norm here. Plus, at the very least, the food still tasted good. Sure, a few bites of the steak were a tad chewy with tendons and the scallops could have been more tender and seared to a golden brown, but that sauce spritzed with lemon makes this meal sing on my palate. Maybe the kitchen should do what it does with the Peppercorn New York by providing the Béarnaise sauce in a mini pitcher to avoid the messiness.

Billy Miner Pie

We were so full after our steaks. Nevertheless, it’s nearly impossible to leave The Keg without something sweet, especially with regards to their no-questions-asked complimentary piece of Billy Miner Pie (regularly $6) for birthdays and other special celebrations. Chocolate crust topped with a thick slab of mocha ice cream and drizzled with hot fudge and caramel before being sprinkled with almond slivers is simplistic yet indulgent. It seems like too much for one, so it’s almost always shared among the group.

It’s sad for me to say that The Keg at South Common didn’t meet my expectations last month. For the money spent, I should have left feeling special. However, that wasn’t the case. When I reminisce about this outing, the memories of great conversations come first. Then, at the back of my mind, I recall the kitchen’s weak showing. It’s in sharp contrast to what we typically experience there, so I’ll chalk this up to an off day for the cooks. And, granted, even when the restaurant was full, the service continued to be top notch. I can praise them for that.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Share Restaurant at The Westin

The interior of Share Restaurant at The Westin.

Since I started working downtown over a decade ago, I’ve found myself dining at Share Restaurant about a handful of times. Usually, I visit during the annual Downtown Dining Week event in March as the savings make it well worth it. This year was no different.

Past the lounge of The Westin Edmonton, tucked away in the corner, is a stylish room coloured in sleek taupe, white, grey, and copper tones. With a mix of art, wood, granite, carpet and unique lighting, it feels welcoming yet modern. It’s never all that busy when I’m there, but I always book a reservation through OpenTable just in case. To be fair, I typically drop in early after work prior to the dinner rush. On this latest occurrence, business picked up right around 6:00pm when a number of guests showed up for supper before heading off to a concert or the theatre.

The $30 Downtown Dining Week menu at Share.

My fiancé and I, not in a rush to go anywhere, took the opportunity to really savour the experience. We opted to try their $30 three-course Downtown Dining Week menu. As I mentioned earlier, it’s a total steal as the price is about half the usual cost.

To start, we split the two available appetizers: Beef Tartare ($19) and Wild Salmon Salad ($15). These were both excellent. Technically, I only had a couple of bites from his salad, and he didn’t eat my beef tartare since he dislikes raw meat. Still, I’ll call it sharing.

Wild Salmon Salad

The salmon seemed to have been roasted, so it was cooked thoroughly. However, I thought the fish may have been a tad overdone. They refrained from using too much seasoning though and the natural flavour was great. The roasted pepper vinaigrette drizzled into the spring greens was light and brought the smoked almonds (not enough of these), baby beets, and goat cheese into a harmonious union.

Between the salad and the beef tartare, the latter was, hands down, the better of the pair for me. They minced AAA Alberta beef and formed it into a patty with a collection of herbs. It was then topped with crunchy boar bacon, cured egg yolk (not runny), and Parmesan crisps (these were amazingly good). Served with perfectly toasted crostini, this dish screamed umami, especially when all of the components were taken in a single mouthful.

While there were also two options for the entrée, neither of us decided to try the Roasted Chicken Supreme ($26). Instead, we both chose the AAA Alberta Beef Tenderloin ($36). Wow. First, I’ll quickly say that the accompanying market veggies of carrots, asparagus, and Brussels sprouts were okay texturally, but tasted rather bland. The herb-tossed fingerling potatoes were fine, too. They were at least buttery smooth. No, the absolute star of this dish is the steak, and it did not disappoint. The meat, flavoured with its own jus, was prepared to medium rare as requested. It was incredibly succulent, so much so that the knife went right through it without effort and every bite practically melted in my mouth. I’m not sure if the cuts of beef they get are always this wonderful, so I’m afraid that, going forward, I may be ruined.

To end the night, we again divvied up the two choices: NY Cheesecake (unlisted on the regular menu) and Espresso Dome ($9). These were generous in size, making them ideal for a duo.

NY Cheesecake

The NY Cheesecake had a dense, creamy consistency with that distinct cream cheese flavour base. I would have preferred extra berry coulis and chocolate drizzle as those brought added dimension to the dessert, as did the fresh berries on the side. Deprived of the sauce, the cheesecake started to become one note.

Broken Espresso Dome

On the other hand, I was pleasantly surprised by the Espresso Dome, which I wasn’t expecting to enjoy due to my aversion to the taste of coffee. The coffee mousse center was subtle, and the chocolate cake enrobed by a shell of dark chocolate made it decadently rich. It probably didn’t require the dollops of whiskey jelly on the plate though. Aside from an extra element, the gelatin lacked any pop, so it did nothing to really elevate the sweet.

A hotel restaurant is unlikely to be first place that pops to mind when I’m trying to come up with an impressive culinary destination in Edmonton. Nevertheless, Share at The Westin fits the bill. Rotating servers consistently fill water glasses, bring plates when ready and offer fresh pepper, but, otherwise, they’re rather unintrusive while you dine. The staff certainly attempt to uphold a classy atmosphere in terms of the ambience and the service. Oh, and I can’t forget about their complimentary bread. The carbs are a delicious sign of what’s to follow. So, if you find yourself downtown for whatever reason, don’t overlook this potential gem.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: MISO Japanese Cuisine

Bento Box

This is a sort of a late review. Yet, I think it’s one worth writing. Approximately two months ago, my boyfriend and I decided to make use of an OpenTable dining cheque that I had redeemed using my earned points from the restaurant reservation site. I had $65 in my possession that I was told could be used at any OpenTable eatery. Therefore, I went ahead and made a booking through the app for dinner at MISO Japanese Cuisine. In the reservation notes, I even made sure to mention that I planned to use the cheque as part of payment.

When we arrived at MISO (located at 14917 Stony Plain Road), the staff had our table ready to go. We went about ordering our food, which we enjoyed. However, at the end of the meal, I pulled out my OpenTable cheque to cover the bill and when our server saw it she said she knew we had one, but they would not be able to accept it due to issues they had depositing another received from a previous diner.

I have to say that I was very unimpressed with the fact that she didn’t bother to mention that to us earlier in the evening. Had she taken the time to explain the situation to us, we would have gladly stayed to eat there. I just know that I would have been more sensible with the amount of food I ordered. Instead, we ended up having to pay an almost $90 bill fully out of our pockets, something we hadn’t expected to happen. The cheque was a perk that we were using to treat ourselves to a nice supper, and we ended up walking out with much lighter wallets. I feel as if the restaurant didn’t want to lose out on a big order, so that’s why they didn’t say anything to us when they knew we had that $65 cheque on hand. It was such a disappointing way to leave MISO.

That story aside, I will say that the service during our dinner was decent. Although, I could have used less staring from the server while I was eating because each time I looked out of the corner of my eye, I’d see her watching me like a hawk. It was awkward. Otherwise, the food was quickly prepared and drinks were provided and filled.

My boyfriend had the Dynamite Roll (4 pieces for $6.45) and the Beef Yaki Soba ($13.95). The Dynamite Roll was quite good. Tightly packed with tempura shrimp, avocado, and tobiko wrapped in nori and rice with sesame seeds. They held up well when picked up with the chopsticks and the fried shrimp was still warm. The Chicken Yaki Soba was so-so. Buckwheat noodles, flavoured with something like an oyster sauce, had a nice consistency. The main issue was the lack of meat in the dish. Its only saving grace was that it showed up on a sizzling plate that, at the very least, kept the plate hot for longer.

That night, I went all out by ordering a Bento Box ($21.95), Toro Sushi (2 pieces for $4.95), the Rainbow Roll (8 pieces for $9.45) and the Spider Roll (8 pieces for $13.95). I knew it was way too much food to consume in one sitting. I just figured that I could take any leftovers home with me. Everything was presented at about the same time, so I switched between items as I ate.

The Bento Box included my choice of any three items from a given list. I opted for the sushi, sashimi and tempura. The box also comes with a bowl of miso soup, green salad and some rice. The sushi was an assortment of tuna, salmon, Hotate (sea scallop) and Hokki-gai (surf clam). I’m not a big fan of the latter as I don’t like the texture of surf clam, but the others tasted fresh and tender. The sushi was a mix of salmon, tuna and a couple of pieces of the California Roll. The tempura had a bit more batter than I’d prefer. It wasn’t overly greasy though, so they were okay. For the price, there’s a lot of bang for the buck with a Bento Box, and I’d say it’s fairly equivalent to what it would cost at any other average sushi joint in the city.

That’s a piece of the thick cut Toro Sashimi off it’s pedestal of rice.

Honestly, I thought the Toro Sushi (fatty tuna) would have been better. The portion size of each piece was wonderful as the fish was thick cut. My qualm was with the quality. It was tougher than it should have been. Even a regular piece of tuna melted in my mouth more than the belly I was given.

I thought I’d leave the rolls to discuss last. What can I say? The Rainbow Roll — crunchy tempura crumbs and tobiko in the middle with a mix of fish on top — is a classic at most sushi restaurants nowadays. These mouthfuls had the best rice to filling/topping ratio of all the sushi I tried at MISO. It was exactly what I was hoping for even though it didn’t exceed my expectations.

My favourite out of everything I ordered had to be the Spider Roll. These were huge. Filled with large pieces of perfectly fried soft-shell crab, avocado, and tobiko, they absolutely hit the mark with this dish. The crab was crisp, juicy, and flavourful. Despite the fact that it doesn’t truly fill the gap of the soft-shell crab I tried in Singapore a couple of years ago, it’ll still do the trick when I want some variation of that type of crustacean.

For the most part, MISO Japanese Cuisine was alright. I still believe that they should have handled the whole dining cheque fiasco more professionally, but now I know not to bother trying to pay with something like that if I ever go there again. Regardless, they do sushi well, their prices are reasonably affordable, and the space is pretty comfortable for a quiet meal out. I probably won’t be back any time soon; however, I’ll certainly consider the possibility of returning down the road.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Vaticano Cucina

A slice of the St. Francis Montanara pizza.

Whenever I’m making plans for an outing with friends, one of the first places I check for restaurant possibilities is the OpenTable app. I love that the ability to make a reservation is just a few clicks away. Sometimes it’ll even bring up a total gem.

During a recent search, I happened upon an eatery called Vaticano Cucina. New to Edmonton’s south side, it took over the space vacated by Koutouki Taverna on Gateway Boulevard and 45 Avenue.

As it turns out, the business opened their doors at the beginning of May. Only in operation for a few weeks before we visited, I had kept it in the back of my mind until I was planning an escape room event. Just four minutes away by car from the game venue, Vaticano Cucina was the perfect spot for our get together.

On a sunny Sunday afternoon, we headed over to the restaurant where we found a couple of our friends circling the building. A lack of signage and multiple doors threw them off, so they were looking for the main entrance (it’s the one facing the Travelodge). Once inside, we were greeted and led to our table. It was situated on a raised platform to the side, but it didn’t feel enclosed at all. It actually provided great vantage points of the kitchen and the expansive interior while allowing us to talk without any distractions. We also noted the fresco-like ceilings. Inspired by the Sistine Chapel, Vaticano Cucina had large scale canvas prints of classic Italian paintings made and wallpapered to raised portions of the ceiling throughout. This was a neat detail in an otherwise neutral, but stylish room.

A cup of coffee.

The atmosphere lends itself well to the idea of brunch, and I think it’s important to note that only those items are served until 2pm during the weekend. Afterwards, the regular menu takes effect. I was unaware of that before we arrived, so I wasn’t expecting to find a pared down list. Nevertheless, there was no problem finding something I wanted to eat.

In the end, two people opted for the Chicken Parmesan Panini with Chips, one selected the Italian Prosciutto & Sun-Dried Tomato Pesto (or Cubano Pork Traditional; I may have them confused) Eggs Benedict and the last of us chose the Strozzapretti Funghi.

Eggs Benedict

Off the bat, I’ll make it known that I didn’t try any of the Eggs Benedict ($15), but it looked wonderful and hearty. Focaccia bread was laid with large slices of Cubano pork, two soft poached eggs and covered in a brown butter Hollandaise sauce. Their version of hash browns was served on the side and was different than anticipated as they were prepared more like smashed potatoes. My friend reluctantly shared a bit with his wife before devouring the whole thing himself.

Chicken Parmesan Panini

I did get to try some of the Chicken Parmesan Panini since my boyfriend generously cut off a corner of his sandwich for me. It was better than I imagined it would be, too. The chicken was breaded and fried until succulent on the inside and crunchy on the outside. It was then placed between the slices of bread with the perfect amount of tomato sauce and melted cheese. In addition, the bread was incredibly buttered and sprinkled with herbs before being grilled. It was simple, but also rich and indulgent. The side of chips was prepared in-house and came with a refreshingly creamy dill dip.

Strozzapretti Funghi

My dish was the Strozzapretti Funghi. I’ll quickly note that their pasta is handmade, but it’s not freshly created at the restaurant. The dry pasta is actually imported from Italy. Taking that into consideration, it’s still very good. The noodles were cooked until perfectly al dente and stirred with cream sauce, spinach, Fontina cheese and a trio of mushrooms. The dish was garnished with some arugula to round out the flavour profile. I also sprinkled on some grated Parmesan cheese and chili flakes. Surprisingly, the dish refrained from being too dense. I polished it off without any issues and still had room for a snack.

Joe, who co-owns Vaticano Cucina with his brother and both of their wives, chatted with us while we dined. He happily shared some of his family’s Italian history with us while also taking the time to describe what a Montanara pizza is – flash deep-fried dough that is then baked in their wood burning oven – before fully convincing us to try one.

The full St. Francis Montanara Bianca Pizza.

We figured that it wouldn’t be a problem for five people to eat a whole pizza and we were correct. The most difficult part was deciding which one to order. There are over a dozen choices, and each one is creatively named after various saints. Ultimately, we went with the first one Joe suggested, St. Francis. Quite honestly, I couldn’t really decipher a change from the regular Neapolitan pizza preparation as the consistency of the baked and charred dough was so similar. But, I’ve heard that the main difference actually comes down to the taste, which is deeper in flavour with the Montanara. Regardless, the crust had just the right amount of chew and crispness. The toppings of fig, chevre (goat cheese), arugula, onion jam and balsamic glaze made for a light yet punchy pizza.

Thanks to the wonderful food, relaxed venue and friendly hospitality, we left Vaticano Cucina in a great mood and we felt more than ready to take on the day. We also unanimously agreed that each of us would be happy to go back. For such a newcomer to the Edmonton restaurant scene (especially in the south of the city), they’ve already proven themselves to be worthy of a second helping.

Vegas Revisited

On the High Roller with a view of the Paris Eiffel Tower.

On the High Roller with a view of the Paris Eiffel Tower.

A week and a half ago, my friend and I returned from our latest trip to Las Vegas. Booked relatively last minute for the two of us – a little less than a month before our departure – we used WestJet Vacations to get a flight and hotel package (we later found the same package for less through WJ, so we put in a claim for their new Price Drop Guarantee and were approved to get the difference back in WJ Dollars). Vegas isn’t necessarily a relaxing trip. Not the way we planned ours, anyway. But, it’s a good city to go when you want a quick and much needed getaway from the everyday. So, despite the fact that we were there together a mere eight and a half months earlier, we decided it was the perfect vacation. This time it was going to be filled less with debauchery (even though it was overlapping with Halloween festivities) and be more like a traditional sight seeing trip. We would catch all the highlights, wander the outlet mall, go on a hike, and, of course, the holiday was booked to coincide with one of the handful of shows Britney Spears would be performing this month. Everything simply fell into place. Rather than give you a day-by-day telling of what we decided to do this time around, I’ve broken our trip down into the following sections: accommodations, shows, nightlife, food and fun stuff.

Hotel

The Cromwell, a new boutique hotel (less than 200 rooms) on the strip, was pretty amazing from before we even left Edmonton to the day we departed Las Vegas. Part of the Caesars chain of accommodations, our experience was top notch. Prior to our trip, the concierge emailed asking if there was anything they could do to make our stay better, so I requested extra toiletries as well as the possibility of champagne upon arrival as we missed the complimentary champagne and tasting that occurs every Friday and Saturday at around 6pm or so. Without skipping a beat, they had glasses of champagne brought out to us while we were checking in and they had a gift bag filled with lotion, shampoo, conditioner, body wash and soap ready at the desk. We were also told that we could have sangria sent up to our room on the house (yes, please!). The receptionist then escorted us to the room elevators, pointed out the free tea and coffee stations, showed us how to scan our keys to get to our floor and sent us on our way. The service was quite impeccable and I could already see that it was going to stand out from the rest of the giants in town.

The only issues I would point out, and these can easily be fixed, was: 1) when we were trying to find self-parking at The Cromwell on our first night there, one of the valet said to drive ahead; however, he didn’t let us know that valet was the only option for the property and that it was free. If we had known that, we wouldn’t have had to park at the Flamingo; 2) Housekeeping missed cleaning our room while we were out on the second day (we were gone for a good 12 hours or so). The good thing is that there’s usually staff on the floor, so we waved one of the housekeepers down and she promptly came to give us turndown service, including making the beds, changing our towels, replacing toiletries and dropping off bottled water and some macarons; 3) The walls are a little thin, so you can hear when people pass by through the hall, which wasn’t much of a problem late in the evening when we went to bed. It could be a bit noisy in the mornings when housekeeping started work though. The staff are all so great, so I hate to say that they should pipe down during early morning hours, but that would have helped. On the bright side, they totally ensured that we’d be up and out with plenty of time to do everything we wanted to each day. As a suggestion, maybe they can think about supplying earplugs with the free slippers they provide in-room.

Despite these few things, I have never felt more like a VIP than at this hotel. I would stay here again in a heartbeat.

Shows

Britney Spears: Piece of Me
She’s still not exactly giving the show her all, but I love Britney nonetheless. I grew up watching her and listening to her music, so to see how far she’s come after her breakdown several years ago makes me happy. I feel like she has pulled it together. Even if she’s not 100% at every concert, I’m still a huge fan. I’ve seen Piece of Me twice now, and almost all the costumes have been updated since I first saw her show in February. A couple of the dance sequences have changed as well. I love her shorter hair, too. I think the wigs were a little constricting  and another thing for her to worry during her previous performances. Fun fact: Comedian Kathy Griffin, who has been doing periodic shows in Vegas, was called up on stage to be Britney’s bitch during her Freakshow performance. I love Kathy, and while I wasn’t close enough to tell it was her when she was taken from the audience, I had a feeling that she was the sassy lady on stage, and I was right! My two favourite segments of the show are the sections that include “…Baby One More Time,” “Oops!…I Did It Again,” “Me Against the Music,” “Gimme More,” “Break the Ice” and “Piece of Me” because they’re the most dance heavy songs and she usually does a good job nailing all her moves. I was a little bit disappointed that I didn’t see many fans dressed up in costume, especially because it was Halloween Saturday, but that’s okay. At least people get dolled up for the shows in Vegas.

Me in my "...Baby One More Time" school girl Halloween costume.

Me in my “…Baby One More Time” school girl Halloween costume.

Michael Jackson ONE by Cirque du Soleil
I’ll be honest and say that I’m not a huge fan of the circus. Clowns especially scare me, so some of the more traditional Cirque shows are not exactly my cup of tea. I know all the showmanship is amazing no matter what, but I still have a hard time getting past some of the crazy makeup, costumes and contortions at times. This is why Michael Jackson ONE was perfect for me. I also grew up listening to MJ as a kid. I had his music on cassette and then on CD, so the music is not only upbeat, it’s familiar to me. While the show did have some fantastic acrobatics and trampolining, it also had fantastic dance sequences, which satisfies me immensely because I’m one of those people who loves competitions like So You Think You Can Dance and dance movies like Step Up. Right up my alley!

Nightlife

Drai’s Nightclub at The Cromwell

The two of us had initially planned on going out dancing more than we did during our trip, but the one night we did was at the new Drai’s Nightclub located on the top floor of our hotel. As guests, we had free access to the venue, which upon walking in was pretty packed. We were there late on Halloween Saturday, which likely contributed to how busy it was. Although, it is Las Vegas, and if there’s ever a place to party any night of the week, it’s there. From what I could tell, it was one of the few clubs on the strip celebrating Halloween all weekend long, and handing out big prizes for those dressed in costume. Most of the other hotels/clubs seemed to only have festivities on the Friday night before we arrived in the city. Full of raised platforms for Drai’s dancers, it’s a circular room where the middle is party central. Fog machines and laser lights were working overdrive and the music was pumped up to keep the ambiance going. Overall, I liked the space. If you needed some breathing room, moving towards the outer edges was a good idea. The club opens up to the hotel pool/beach club, which is cordoned off at night, but still provides a lovely view of crystal clear water and palm trees as well as some fresh air.

Brooklyn Bowl

This bowling alley/restaurant/bar/concert venue is new to Vegas. Located on the LINQ promenade, we decided to pop in and have a look. It’s a fairly large, open space with two stories of bowling lanes and a mid-size stage and dance floor. The band, New Age Tribe, that was playing was great, and had everyone there up on their feet dancing. It’s really dimly lit in the building, so it sets a mood, but I like the low key, laid back vibe of the place. They also didn’t charge cover that night…perhaps because it was a Monday evening?

Food

Sushi Roku

I don’t recall how I happened upon this restaurant. But, I do know that OpenTable reservations are available, including 1000 point reservations on certain dates and times. However, they can only be made for the dining room and space cannot be reserved at the bar for Happy Hour. The Japanese eatery is located inside the Caesars Palace Forum Shops, so it was super close to our hotel. Dinner prices in the main dining room are quite a bit higher, so we opted to try out their Happy Hour menu, which was available from 4 to 7pm on the Sunday we ate there. For less than $30 I got two orders of maki cut rolls and two appetizers. While I’m sure the portions are a bit larger when ordering from the main menu, I doubt that doubling or tripling the price of each dish means getting two to three times the amount of food, so I think sitting at the bar was the way to go. Every item we ordered was fresh and delicious. The maki was especially good. I’d go back anytime!

Feast Buffet

If you don’t have a car available, this will be hard to get to. Located at Red Rock Casino, which is about 20 minutes away from the strip, we rushed here after a hike in Red Rock Canyon. My friend had redeemed a voucher for two free buffet lunches through the myVEGAS Slots app. We managed to get in about 10 minutes before lunch was technically over and we piled our plates with various cuisines and salads. They were really good about letting people eat past the 3pm lunch cutoff though, so both of us didn’t have to vacuum down our food like we did. I’d say for the usual price of the buffet ($8.99 for an adult at lunch with a casino card), they put out a great spread. There was a decent variety and everything tasted great.

Giada

What can I say about Giada? This new restaurant is the anchor of The Cromwell hotel. The very first eatery from Food Network star Giada De Laurentiis, I would say it’s modern Italian at its finest. My friend and I ended up there on two occasions.

Our initial visit there was a surprise because we hadn’t planned to go out. This was on the second evening of our trip when we unexpectedly had to vacate our room, so housekeeping could clean what they had missed for us. Since the establishment was right there, we thought we’d go for dessert to kill time. We wandered up to the second floor where the hostesses asked if we had a reservation. As we did not, we had to wait for a little bit. However, the minutes passed quickly as we occupied them by taking advantage of the Giada photo booth. When our table was ready, we were led inside where you get an immediate view of the chefs in the appetizer prep area as well as the bar. The restaurant is quite beautiful – a lot of white, light woods, clean lines, neutral accents, a mish mash of seating (leather upholstery, booths, rattan chairs, colourful pillows), original art showcasing Giada, custom made lights with a Giada quote, “I eat a little bit of everything, and not a lot of anything” for added whimsy, and big windows, some of which can be opened up to let in fresh air, that frame the Bellagio fountains.

The wait for someone to come by with our menus was longer than I expected, but once they did pop over to drop them off and explain some of the available items, service was top notch. In the end, we opted to skip getting dessert and decided to go for a couple of the cocktails (all named after films her grandfather, Dino, produced) and crostini appetizers. The drinks were tasty. My friend ordered the La Strada and, I, the Hannibal. Both were excellent drinks with 2 oz. of alcohol, which for $15 a pop should be the case. For the crostini, we went with the Vitello Tonnata – veal loin, seared tuna, caper aioli – and the Tomato & Strawberry Jam – paired with thick slices of feta cheese and a mint leaf. Both were wonderful, but I think the Tomato & Strawberry jam was my favourite. The simplicity of it, along with the salty/sweet palate made me want more. I also love feta cheese, but sometimes I find it can be overwhelming. The feta used here was a little more subtle and incredibly smooth. Oh, and I cannot forget the bread platter that was provided as a start to the meal. A combination of bread sticks, flat bread and a warm loaf, they were all superb on their own, but add some of the butter, pesto, chili flakes, sea salt and capers that accompanied the bread, and those flavours just stepped everything up.

Our second meal there was something we had been planning on. An OpenTable reservation had been made for our last lunch in Vegas before we departed. Our server was fantastic, letting us know that the breakfast menu was still available all day long and giving us suggestions for a shared appetizer. Originally we had intended to go with something from the lunch menu, but the breakfast options completely swayed us. I selected the carbonara pizza, while my friend chose the polenta. My pizza was not overly large, but it really is quite rich. With nice fluffy crust, baked in cheese, crispy pancetta and a sunny side up egg, my belly was filling up fast, and I wanted to sample some desserts, so I left a bit of the crust behind. My friend raved about the polenta dish as well.

To finish off lunch, we ordered two desserts to share – the cookie platter and the zeppoles. The cookie platter had an assortment that included chocolate chip, chocolate with blueberry filling and lemon ricotta. They were all toothsome, but the best, hands down, was the cake-like lemon ricotta, which were soft and moist “cookies” covered in a zesty icing that gave it a great tangy taste. The zeppoles, which were also citrus infused, are like doughnut holes, but airier. Served with a side of hazelnut spread, it was heaven on a plate.

If Vegas didn’t have so many other amazing restaurants to try, I’d say that Giada would, otherwise, make my list each and every time I visit.

This is a cupcake and ice cream shop chain. The Las Vegas location is, again, found on the LINQ promenade. For quick pick ups, you can try out their awesome Cupcake ATM machine, which will distribute your selection, boxed, after you swipe your credit card. Once delivered, it plays a stupidly catchy Sprinkles branded song. We watched as someone purchased their snack from the ATM, and then we danced to the music with them, but my friend and I ultimately opted to walk into the store to buy ours. I sampled a full-size triple cinnamon cupcake because I cannot pass up anything with cinnamon. It was surprisingly fresh considering how late we were there. The cake was so soft. The icing was pretty sweet, maybe a little more than I like nowadays, but they don’t slather on too much. In fact, I think the cupcakes there have the perfect amount of frosting as the layer is just thick enough, so that you don’t see the cake beneath. As we were sitting there devouring our cake, I noticed the ice cream on the other side of the shop. The feature flavour was pumpkin – cinnamon ice cream with pumpkin cake and frosting mixed in. Being that I was on holiday, I decided to indulge further and went ahead and bought myself a scoop. It was awesome. My friend ate the red velvet cupcake that evening, which looked scrumptious, too. The next day, our last in the city, we headed back because my friend wanted a salty caramel (available through November) one before she left.

Fun Stuff

North Premium Outlets
This place is chock full of stuff from big name brands and designers. The sales weren’t really that great though, and it’s likely because Black Friday hasn’t rolled around yet. However, some stores offered additional markdowns, but most of them were minor. Despite the lack of slashed prices, I still walked away with a few choice items from Ann Taylor and Max Studio at some excellent prices. I also got in a lot of cardio because I walked over 16,000 steps that day, mostly at this mall.

Red Rock Canyon

With a rented car, it made it easy for us to venture anywhere we wanted this time, so we planned to take a drive to Red Rock Canyon. Only 20 to 25 minutes from the Las Vegas strip, we reached the National Conservation Area where we paid $7 for access to the scenic drive and a number of hiking trails. Like a mini Grand Canyon, the mountains are washed in colours of red, orange and yellow, making the route through the park quite the site. We pulled off at the Willow Springs stop and headed out for a hike. I think we ended up on the Lost Creek Children’s Discovery Trail, which joins up with the Willow Springs Loop because it turned into an uphill course that led to a spot where I think there is a seasonal waterfall. The water wasn’t really flowing for us, but it was a really nice trek in an area that, although there was little sunshine, shielded us from the high winds that day. This particular hike was also one of the shorter ones, which was perfect for us because we needed to make it to Red Rock Casino before the lunch buffet ended and we were kind of tight on time. Both of us really enjoyed the canyon and would love to go back next time to try another hiking trail.

Trader Joe’s and Nordstrom Rack

Before we left the Red Rock area, we stopped at Trader Joe’s, which was just a few minutes away from the casino there. I’d never been to this grocery store before, but it sort of has a cult following in Canada. Their branded products were actually more affordable than I expected, and for a smaller store, they carry quite a variety of items. I was especially impressed with the relatively inexpensive yet huge pieces of Ahi tuna steaks that could be found in the fish aisle. I would have packed some home if I could have. The outdoor shopping area also had a Nordstrom Rack, which is similar to TJ Maxx and Marshalls or Winners, if you’re Canadian. I wasn’t super impressed with the clothing department, but they had a ton of shoes in my size, which ranges from a 7-8, and I ended up walking away with two pairs of shoes for less than $100.
Tantalizing packs of Ahi tuna steaks at Trader Joe's.

Tantalizing packs of Ahi tuna steaks at Trader Joe’s.

Neon Museum

This was probably the number one thing we did on this trip. We pre-booked tickets for a nighttime guided tour of the Neon Museum Boneyard where old neon signs have found a second life. Many of them are past the point of ever being used again, but some have been restored, and all of them seem to have a fascinating history. Our tour guide, Paul, was full of interesting facts about how the signs were made, who designed them, where they came from and why they were of importance. I walked away from the museum feeling ever more knowledgeable. For any photographers out there, this place is wonderful to hone your skills of night shoots and working with the bright neon lights. If you’re getting married in Vegas, think about coming here because the signs provide a really cool backdrop, including the chopped up marquee of the defunct Moulin Rouge Hotel whose letters now spell out “in love.”

High Roller

The new High Roller, a giant ferris wheel, now surpasses the Singapore Flyer as the world’s tallest observation wheel by a mere 9 feet. Having missed the opportunity to ride the London Eye last year, I really wanted to see what it was like, so I was pretty excited to see that Groupon had a deal. The voucher we bought allowed for two different passes, but we went with the Happy Half Hour selection. Our tickets gave us access to a car with a bar and bartender and as many drinks as we could fit in during the 30 minute ride. The views were pretty spectacular and since it moves relatively slowly, you had ample time to take it all in. Should you choose to do the Happy Half Hour, I would suggest that you refrain from pre-drinking because if you imbibe too much, you may have trouble making it off the car when your ride is over. The cars never dock – it is in continuous motion – so if you’re at all drunk, you could find yourself lying in the net that has been strung up below the wheel.

The LINQ Outdoor Promenade

This area of the strip is very new. It’s situated in between the recently renovated The LINQ Hotel & Casino and the Flamingo. Filled with various restaurants, bars and shops, it’s pedestrian and family friendly. When we walked through after our ride on the High Roller, it is where we found the Brooklyn Bowl and Sprinkles. On our last day we also dropped into the Polaroid Fotobar, where you can use the computers to upload photos from your phone or social media and have Polaroid sized prints made. The store also houses a Polaroid Museum that happened to be closed for a private function when we were there. The promenade was also being set up for Britney Day festivities, which were taking place on November 5 when Britney Spears was getting the key to Las Vegas.

A view of the High Roller from near the entrance to the LINQ promenade.

A view of the High Roller from near the entrance to the LINQ promenade.

Siegfried & Roy’s Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat

My friend and I both redeemed loyalty points through the myVEGAS Slots app for full passes to the Secret Garden and Dolphin Habitat at the Mirage. I was particularly excited to see the three white lion cubs that had been born just six months earlier. It really isn’t very big, but we spent probably an hour to an hour and half in there. The pass allows you access all day, so you can come and go if you choose. They had lions, white tigers and leopards in the garden. Truthfully, I was a little bit sad to see them all caged up behind fences, but they did seem very well cared for. The cubs looked like they were having a great time with the trainer that was playing with them in their space. In between viewings of the giant cats, we stopped to watch a dolphin training session where a lady had paid for a VIP dolphin experience. Her dolphin was adorable as it used squirt bottles to paint her a picture. As we wandered around I couldn’t help feeling like I had deja vu. When I got home from my trip, I asked my mom if I had been there before when we’d done family trips to Vegas and, sure enough, I had. That’s where my beloved white tiger stuffed toy had come from.

Well, this was quite the rundown of my holiday. If you’ve been to Vegas a number of times like I have, I hope that this post gives you some new ideas for your next trip. It seems like there is always something new, unique and interesting to do in that city. Why not try them all?