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: London Local

Appetizers are sizeable and perfect for sharing.

Chef Lindsay Porter, of El Cortez, Have Mercy, and Woodwork fame, branched out in the fall of last year with her very own restaurant. London Local takes inspiration from her British heritage. Located in the Ellerslie area, the space has a decidedly pub-like feel, but with a slightly cleaner, more modern design aesthetic.

My friend and I arrived for our reservation, made through OpenTable, at 5:30pm on a Thursday evening to find the place relatively quiet. It made me question whether or not the business is doing okay as things didn’t seem to pick up even by the time we left three hours later. Still, to our benefit, the lower noise-level made it easy for us to carry on a conversation, which is something I truly appreciate.

Bottled Beer and House Brewed Iced Tea

Also, on the plus side, we made it in time for happy hour. While I chose not to partake, my friend was able to get a bottle of beer for half price. Most of their selection ranges from $7 to $8, so it’s a steal from 3pm to 6pm every Tuesday to Friday. If wine is preferred, bottles and glasses are also half off. NOTE: For those who like deals, London Local presents a 3-Course Roast Menu on Sundays for only $30 per person.

I opted to go with a non-alcoholic House Brewed Iced Tea, sweetened ($3). Rather than the bar mixing in the simple syrup on my behalf, they brought out a mini pitcher, so I could do it myself. It was alright, but I probably wouldn’t order it again. The tea was still quite bitter, but, being conscious of how much syrup I was using, I wasn’t too keen on asking for extra. The iced tea also doesn’t come with any refills.

For our meals, my newly minted Maid of Honor, selected the Bangers & Mash ($23), and I went with a couple of the appetizers: Steak Tartare ($16) and Asparagus & Cauliflower ($14). I figured it’d be best to sample more to get a better picture of what London Local has to offer.

Bangers & Mash

Come to think of it though, I didn’t have a chance to try any of the Bangers & Mash. All I can do is talk about how good it looked. The sausage was large and plump, surrounded by a pool of dark onion gravy. To the side was a huge dollop of smoked champ — chopped scallions, butter, milk, and cheese — mashed potatoes. It was then garnished with a beet and courgette (zucchini or squash) slaw. It came across as traditional pub food with a twist.

Asparagus & Cauliflower

I requested that the Steak Tartare and the Asparagus & Cauliflower be brought out together. Both were sizeable in portion. The latter was layered with a base of minted truffle cheese. Charred spears of asparagus and florets of cauliflower sat on top with a honey thyme glaze. This was absolutely delicious as the smoky veggies in their sweetly herbaceous coating and the mild soft cheese played very well together.

Steak Tartare

The diced beef tenderloin for the steak tartare was formed into a giant patty that additionally consisted of pickled beet, capers, and fried onions. It had a great depth of flavour. Devoid of any form of egg yolk that is so often found in steak tartare, this turned out to be a less dense version of what I’m used to, especially since it wasn’t minced. Combined with the toasted buttered cape seed bread, this was a real treat. My one complaint of the two dishes was that they were identically embellished with potato sticks, pickled onions and pea shoots. I would have expected a bit more creativity to be placed into each plate rather than the slapdash sense that I got. Show off the food, don’t cover it up.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Despite an already full stomach, I didn’t want to leave without dessert. The Sticky Toffee Pudding ($11) that my friend ordered was similar to what I’ve had elsewhere. This was made of moist cake, toffee sauce, salted crumb, and vanilla whipped cream. It refrained from being overly sweet, and is one of those desserts that easily satisfies when nothing else can.

Banoffee Pie

As a fan of the movie Love Actually, I’ll probably never forget Keira Knightley’s character’s fondness for Banoffee Pie ($11). Therefore, when I saw it on the menu, I had to try it. This iteration of the dessert is not at all conventional as it foregoes the typical solid or crumbled buttery biscuit base and replaces it with rum cake doused in banana pudding and caramel sauce. Some whipped cream and toffee bits finished it off. I mean, it wasn’t really a pie. In fact, it was most likely the sticky toffee pudding in disguise. However, I do understand where this recipe is coming from and the flavours are spot on.

London Local certainly has a decent vision of where they want to take their menu. It’s pub food elevated. What we had was great, and the service was, too. Nevertheless, there are improvements that can be made. Chef Lindsay is known for her flair in the kitchen where she turns classics on their head. I believe that tweaking dishes, like those appetizers, so that they each feel entirely different and special is what will take this establishment up another notch.

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: XIX Nineteen

Pepperoncini Calamari

Shortly after I moved into the South Terwillegar neighbourhood, a restaurant called XIX Nineteen opened their first location in a small strip mall situated along Rabbit Hill Road. Back then, it seemed kind of odd to have a fine dining restaurant in that spot. There was nothing of the sort nearby (there still isn’t). Probably the closest thing to it would have been the old Ric’s Grill just down the road at 23 Avenue.

It was nice to know that restaurateurs were willing to chance it on an unestablished area of the city. I’d also heard great things about chef Andrew Fung’s talent in the kitchen, so I was willing to give the place a try.

My friend and I tested it out shortly after it opened, and we were truly wowed at the quality and playfulness of the dishes we tried. It’s also quite a beautiful space that feels modern, fun (interesting art) and high class all at once.

The time since that visit has whisked by quickly. Before I realized, it’d been over four years and I hadn’t returned for seconds. Living less than five minutes away by car, it’s a bit of a shame that I didn’t make it a regular haunt. Granted, it’s not exactly affordable to do that. A main dish, on average, costs about $40.

Therefore, an early dinner consisting of appetizers and drinks from their current daily happy hour menu seemed like the perfect way to sample some plates without breaking the bank. Since they don’t accept reservations on the lounge side of the establishment (book through OpenTable for the dining room), my fiancé and I decided to drop by on a quiet Sunday afternoon.

XIX

I actually ended up sticking with a glass of water. But, my significant other chose to try a pint of their XIX Lager ($5), brewed by Big Rock. It seemed to be a crisp, refreshing beer that would please most.

Our table full of plates.

To eat, we opted to split a few of the $10 items, including the Pepperoncini Calamari, Ginger Beef, and Mini Tenderloin Sliders. From the looks of it, these are explicitly available in the bar, and it didn’t take a whole lot of time for our food to arrive. Next thing I knew it, our table was covered in plates.

Out of our three picks, the Ginger Beef was probably the least favourite of the bunch. As my fiancé noted, the batter tasted off as if the oil used for frying needed to be replaced. Otherwise, the execution was great. The coating was crisp and not too heavy. The ginger-soy glaze was deliciously savoury. In fact, I would have loved a little more sauce for dipping. Scallions helped to add an extra flavour profile, so as not to become one-note. I even appreciated the use of beef tenderloin, which was textured as though it had been braised first. The chunks of meat were also sizeable with a good ratio of meat to breading.

Mini Tenderloin Sliders

When it came to the Mini Tenderloin Sliders, the usual order is served with three sliders, but the deal is only presented with two of them. As such, I’m not entirely sure if any money is saved getting these during happy hour. However, these were so yummy. While the kennebec fries were simply so-so, the patties of meat tasted like they were fresh ground. Even though the portion makes them easy to overcook, that certainly wasn’t the case here. The beef was so juicy and paired excellently with the red pepper aioli.

Our final dish was the Pepperoncini Calamari. I thought it was going to be spicier, but it was milder than expected. The chefs were light-handed when battering the squid. It led to another well-made dish of crisp fried food. This one was garnished with pickled onions and banana peppers that brought some tartness that matched the zesty squeeze of lemon juice. Pepperoncini was a good addition for the sweetness. Any apparent heat was produced by the spicy marinara sauce that accompanied the calamari. I did not let that condiment go to waste at all.

Since it was a slow day, it’s hard to judge if the service is always as attentive. Still, we had a decent experience, finding it to be a relaxing, casual meal. Plus, the staff didn’t seem pressured to push more food or drinks onto us. They knew we were there for a quick visit, and they were okay with that. Additionally, they are one of the few restaurants on the OpenTable platform that has accepted my redeemed dining cheques. For that alone, I think we’ll definitely be back again soon.

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.