Edmonton Restaurant Review: Villa Bistro

Braised Short Rib

To my surprise, this summer, I was scrolling through my OpenTable app when I came across a new restaurant called Villa Bistro. It was the first I’d heard of it, so I decided to Google the business. As it turns out, the trusty Free Press Bistro on 100 Avenue and 104 Street had been sold and renamed. Villa Bistro’s goal is to serve high-end comfort food, which, in a city that seems to be in the throws of winter for half the year, seems appropriate.

I kept the new eatery in mind for the past few months, and I finally visited with a friend at the end of November after we completed a big Christmas shopping spree at City Centre. We happened to be hanging out downtown on an Oilers game night, so depending on where we parked, we could have ended up paying for it. However, we lucked out by driving an extra block further where we found a spot on 99 Avenue. The payment machine didn’t indicate that it cost anything after 6:00pm. Yet, just in case, we phoned 311 to double check and they confirmed that the zone we were in fell outside of the event area. Bonus! Otherwise, if money isn’t a concern, there is parking in front of the establishment as well as an Impark lot across the street, too.

When we entered Villa Bistro, it was fairly quiet. I’d say there were, at best, a handful of other tables and a couple of bar stools occupied. I noticed the space had been freshened up with brighter walls, new modern floral art (i.e. the ubiquitous succulent), as well as updated tables and chairs. It looked lovely. The host greeted us from behind the counter and told us we could take any available table. We opted for one tucked into a nook by the windows. Once we settled in, the server brought the menus over along with glasses of water.

Veggie Panini with Fries

The food selection has an Italian leaning with entrees that include panini sandwiches or pasta bowls and appetizers of meatballs, charcuterie, and caprese skewers. My friend ended up ordering the Veggie Panini ($15). I indulged by going with the Braised Short Rib ($24). The two of us also shared an order of the Baked Brie ($15).

As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our meal, it seemed to be getting cooler inside the restaurant. I assumed it was because we were next to a window and didn’t think too much of it at first. But, right before our dishes arrived, my friend stepped out into the building’s adjoining hallway to use the bathroom and, when she returned, she confirmed that the temperature had most definitely dropped. The server eventually let us know that what we were experiencing wasn’t the norm. Apparently, the whole building was hit with a heating problem and someone was being called in to fix it as soon as possible.

Despite the cold, we powered through our dinner like the true Canadians we are. My friend was really hoping that her Veggie Panini would be reminiscent of the vegetarian toasties she had when she visited Australia. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. The sandwich, consisting of goat cheese, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and red peppers in a balsamic glaze was still tasty. Her one recommendation to Villa Bistro though? The ciabatta bread was barely toasted, if at all. Paninis are supposed to be heated and pressed and this one didn’t seem to fit that description. Coming with the sandwich was a large side of fries. They looked to be freshly made and lightly seasoned.

Baked Brie

We quite enjoyed the Baked Brie. Honestly, it’s kind of a hard appetizer to screw up. This one was presented with a whole mini round of brie that was topped with fruit compote (the menu said it was blueberry, but the colour and flavour made me think it was more akin to raspberry). There were six slices of focaccia crostini to go with it. When we cut into the cheese, it was warm and nicely melted with the center oozing a little. The sweet compote paired perfectly with the rich, creamy, nutty brie.

I will give myself a pat on the back for choosing the Braised Short Rib because I think it was worth every penny. The meat was braised in-house until it was tender enough to be pulled apart with just a fork. There was only a minuscule amount of fat throughout the cut, so I was able to eat every bite of the short rib. It was also marinated very well with the flavour completely saturating the meat. Since it was so savoury, the combination of the short rib with a large helping of sweet potato puree was kind of ingenious, providing that important balance. The addition of fried parmesan Brussels sprouts that were charred and crisp on the outside just made the whole thing even better (and provided me with some actual veggies).

Braised Short Rib

By the time we polished off our plates, Villa Bistro had become a literal ice box. Our server was tucked behind the bar with a heater while she wore her parka, and my friend had also pulled on her coat. Otherwise, there was a slight chance we would have hung out a bit longer and had dessert. In those circumstances, however, we couldn’t bring ourselves to stay. We grabbed our bills to pay and then head back out into the winter evening.

I’ll admit that the staff could have offered to compensate us for the inconvenience of eating in freezing conditions. Even though I know what happened wasn’t their fault, it’s still good business practice to acknowledge when something is wrong and to do whatever possible to rectify the situation. The host/server was super friendly and, despite the issue, she did her job pretty well. But, there wasn’t any discount on the bill or anything, which I think another restaurant would have considered. I believe the least they could have done was to offer each of us a hot beverage to keep us cozy as we ate.

Regardless, I hope that Villa Bistro’s building has since fixed the problem and that every visit hereafter will be much more comfortable. While the establishment is still coming into its own and there’s always room for improvement, they’re on the right track. With good service, a fantastic location and delicious food, they can expect to grow a wealth of regular customers.

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: XO Bistro + Bar

Lunch time at XO Bistro + Bar.

XO Bistro + Bar opened in the Ice District late last year. Situated on the main floor of the new Ultima condo building on 103 Street and 102 Avenue, it’s not far from my downtown office.

Still in its infancy, I finally stopped by for lunch last month. When I showed up for my OpenTable reservation, my friend was already seated in one of the booths by the bar. The space isn’t all that big, but it’s modern in design and it looked like there were stairs by the doors that led up to a second level.

At one o’clock, it was pretty quiet. The lunch crowd must have already dissipated by that time of day. The server brought over some water and, after giving us a few minutes to check out the menu, she came back to take our orders.

The lunch menu is quite succinct with several appetizers and various iterations of Vietnamese pho, vermicelli and bowls as well as a handful of other options. The main difference between most simply came down to the toppings selected.

In our case, my friend chose the Combo 2 Rice Plate with Grilled Chicken and I decided on Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef and Grilled Chicken. Both dishes were served with a spring roll. The food was quickly prepared and we were able to eat without much delay.

Combo 2 with Rice, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

My friend’s plate looked nice with a dome-shaped portion of rice, two large pieces of grilled chicken and a side of julienned veggies. The server had dropped off a couple of sauce bottles along with our food, but neither was soy, so my dining companion had to track her down for that. Other than that minor hiccup, my friend enjoyed the meal.

I found my vermicelli to be very filling. There was actually a lot of food crammed into the bowl. I poured the entire amount of fish sauce provided into the noodles and attempted to mix everything together without losing anything over the sides of the dish. It was a bit difficult. However, I was happy with the overall portion size. Anything less and I may have been disappointed because it’s a bit pricier than other eateries that serve Vietnamese cuisine.

Combo 3 with Vermicelli, Grilled Beef, Grilled Chicken & Spring Roll

Here, a bowl with one choice of protein and a spring roll cost about $17 after tax and tip. Whereas, places like Pho Hoan Pasteur and Delicious Pho are about $2 less and include a variety of toppings like grilled pork, chicken, beef, meatballs, shrimp and the spring roll, so there’s more value with the others. Regardless, the grilled beef and chicken at XO Bistro was flavoured well with lemongrass and had that lovely charred taste to it. It meat was thinly sliced, so it cooked quickly to the perfect texture and chew. The spring roll was also crisp on the outside and not too greasy.

Honestly, I’m not sure that the downtown lunch crowd is who they’re catering to. They seem to be more of a late night venue with a fun cocktail menu and bar bites, so I’d be inclined to come back to check that out another time.

Granted, that’s not to say it wouldn’t be worth trying XO Bistro + Bar on any other occasion. On the contrary. It was wonderful to be there when it was quieter and not too busy. Their service is decent. Plus, the food is tasty, albeit nothing that really differentiates it from other Vietnamese restaurants.

All-in-all, I think it comes down to convenience and preference. If I’m looking for somewhere stylish to eat this type of food in the downtown area, XO Bistro + Bar will probably be one of the first places to come to my mind. It’s also an ideal location for anyone popping by Rogers Place for any shows or games as it’s literally minutes away by foot.

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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Crash Hotel Lobby Bar

The classic styling of the Crash Lobby Bar.

My last two posts were about my experiences during Downtown Dining Week (DTDW). This review will complete the trilogy by covering my meal at Crash Hotel Lobby Bar.

The restaurant, located on the main floor of Crash (previously known as the rundown Grand Hotel), is an unexpected gem in a revamped and refurbished building that has been brought back to its glory days. With heavy woods throughout and a bar wine rack disguised as vintage cubbies — likely to be found at the front check-in desks of older hotels — it’s a nod to the history of one of Edmonton’s long standing structures.

My table was all set to go upon arrival!

It’s not a large space by any means. Nevertheless, although it filled up as my friend and I hung out for the evening, it didn’t seem like anyone coming in had any issues finding a spot to perch on. To be fair, there was no hockey game going on at the nearby Rogers Place arena that night. I’d assume that it’d be much busier if that were the case. That’s why I’m glad to see that Crash offers reservations through the OpenTable system. When I arrived, they had my table all set to go. A card with my name and the time of my booking was sitting there waiting for me.

Our martini cocktails, which we sipped on.

Our server was quite attentive. She provided a couple of suggestions for drinks based on our palate preferences. I took one of her recommendations and tried the namesake martini, which was a mix of muddled ginger with marmalade, grapefruit vodka and lemon. It satisfied my penchant for slightly sweet yet sour cocktails. My companion went with the other, known as The Donald. A combination of vodka, lychee and grapefruit juice, this came off a little bit sweeter, but was still pleasing, especially with that kick of lychee fruit.

My friend’s old fashioned cocktail.

Unlike some of the other DTDW participants that create special dishes for the week, Crash opted to showcase their standard menu by allowing diners to choose any item for both the starter as well as the entree of their $28 three-course dinner. My friend and I decided we’d each go for the DTDW dinner and we’d split four dishes, which would allow us to sample more of the offerings.

I was actually very excited to visit Crash as I had heard that chef Nathin Bye had created the menu. Bye brought Ampersand 27 to life, so I could only imagine where he’d take these pub style plates. What I hadn’t realized was that Bye had completely left Ampersand 27 behind. Crash is his new full-time position and that’s interesting. A hotel restaurant doesn’t usually come to mind as the cool, hip place to hang out, and working in an environment where the goal is to gratify the masses can often be limiting. On the other hand, it’s not unfathomable that Bye would choose to take on the challenge of attempting to change that notion.

We selected the Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt salad, Alberta Beef Short Rib, Brussels ‘n Bacon and the Crash Burger. The majority of the dishes are made to be shared among the group, tapas style. The latter is most ideal for an individual meal, but it’s easy enough to divide that into halves (I’m not sure it’s the best if it needs to be allocated between more than two people). It’s important to note that plates are brought out as they’re ready. That means nothing is sitting for too long in the kitchen; it certainly makes for a compelling argument to share the food, ensuring no one at the table feels left out while others may already be eating.

Brussels ‘n Bacon

The Brussels ‘n Bacon were presented to us first. My initial thought was that the size was generous and that it could serve as a whole meal. Regularly just $9 for an order, it’s a great value, too. Prepared with Moroccan spices and sweet chili, the balance of flavours was excellent. The bacon was crisp and smoky; the taste melding with the rest of the spices. Fried chickpeas completed the dish. They were an unexpected accompaniment that provided an extra layer of texture and raised the Brussels ‘n Bacon to star status. It became my favourite dish of the night.

Alberta Beef Short Rib

A plate of the Alberta Beef Short Rib showed up next. There were two pieces of beef, each about four ounces in size, along with hickory sticks and broccoli. The menu indicated that there were supposed to be pickled mushrooms. I don’t recollect eating any of those. Nonetheless, I was happy with the dish as the meat was succulent. I still used a knife to cut it, but it was quite tender. Aside from what looked to be a bed of broccoli puree, the meat was cooked in an Asian inspired sauce, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and topped with hickory sticks (house made versions of the snack chip), which added dimension and made me forget about the lackluster broccoli florets, which were cooked fine, just nothing special.

Crash Burger

Our third dish was the Crash Burger. Admittedly, this was a bit disappointing. The brioche kaiser bun was, in my opinion, over toasted. The ingredients listed on the menu include braised short rib. I couldn’t tell if there was any in the burger. There was also supposed to be an onion ring, but I don’t recall that either. If it was there, it wasn’t memorable. The patty was decent though; it was well-seasoned and the meat was fresh. There was also plenty of aged cheddar and I enjoyed the fried egg. This burger comes with a side of fries (salad is an alternative) and a deep fried pickle. I’m not usually a fan of the second, but I had a bite of the pickle and it was good. The fries were fine. No dips were served with them though, and I could have used some ketchup or aioli.

Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt

Of all the dishes, we would have thought that the cold salad would have been the quickest to prepare, but it turned out to be the last to show up. Was this on purpose à la the mindset of the French and Italians where it’s believed that salad at the end of a meal helps to improve digestion? We don’t really know, but it’s a thought. I will say that the Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt salad was quite a refreshing way to finish off our mains. I would have liked to see more beets and the Greek yogurt was a deceiving replacement for the typical goat cheese. Greens, squash and burnt Mediterranean honey ensured we got our fix of vegetables in a delightfully tasty way.

Cookies & Cream Cheesecake

Dessert was our third and final course. This consisted of a thin slice of tall Cookies & Cream Cheesecake served with a liberal dollop of raspberry jelly or puree. The cake was smooth and silky with layers of chocolate cookie crumble and what tasted like a caramel center. It wasn’t overly dense and, since the slice wasn’t thick, it came across as the perfect portion.

After getting this opportunity to taste a handful of Bye’s creations, I think he made the right move. It’s a chance for Bye to broaden his foodie fan base by showing us how well pub food can be done. The location is accessible and the menu is affordable. Every single dish has an element of surprise – from fried chickpeas to hickory sticks — that elevates each one from something ordinary to something superb (or nearing that, anyway).