Edmonton Business Review: Escape City

Friends and escape rooms = fun!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Panini’s Italian Cucina

Pasta comes piping hot in foil pans.

I’ve never once set foot into the physical space of Panini’s Italian Cucina. However, I’ve now ordered their food through SkipTheDishes enough that I feel I can justify writing this review.

My co-workers were interested in having lunch delivered one day, so we started to peruse the options on the app. I decided to search based on current restaurant ratings and fees. Panini’s Italian Cucina came right to the very top of the list. Not only do they offer free delivery with purchases of $20 or more, they also had a Skip rating of 9.9 out of 10. It was either going to be them or the Italian Centre Shop. What really pushed Panini’s over the edge was the extent of their options.

That initial order included a Prosciutto Bocconcini Panini ($12) for me, and a Deluxe Calzone ($16), Ciambella Doughnut Balls ($6), and a Build Your Own Pasta ($4.75) for my friends.

Pastas are packaged in large round foil pans. The Build Your Own pasta is simply a base of either spaghetti, fettuccine or penne with their signature tomato sauce. There were no additional toppings or upgrades, hence the low cost. Supposedly, it’s meant to feed one person, yet the portions are quite sizeable. The Deluxe Calzone was also big, but still devoured by my co-worker in one sitting. Since she didn’t have room for dessert, she shared her doughnuts with me. At first, when I picked up a ball, I thought the outside was a bit too firm. Nevertheless, it gave way to a soft, springy center, and it was delicious when dipped into the container of Nutella that came on the side.

Prosciutto Bocconcini Panini

The original version of the sandwich I chose comes stacked with prosciutto, bocconcini, artichokes, spinach, and tomatoes. What I love about Panini’s is that there’s an opportunity to customize for free, so I opted to swap out the latter two toppings for arugula and sun-dried tomatoes. I even added roasted red peppers as up to four veggies can be selected. Condiments of pesto mayo and lemon garlic mayo were bonuses. All of this was pressed between a hearty whole wheat bread. The sandwiches are actually perfect to be split into two separate light lunches. I too finished off my panini, eating the whole thing in one go. They don’t skimp on the ingredients. Everything was fresh, and the bread was buttered and toasted to perfection, giving it a good bite.

Subsequent deliveries have yielded us more pastas and sandwiches: Spaghetti & Meatballs ($13.25), Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo ($11.50), Penne Alla Boscaiola ($12.75), and Montreal Smoked Beef Panini ($12).

Penne Alla Boscaiola

As my friend noted, the Spaghetti & Meatballs — signature tomato sauce with two large beef and pork balls — was able to provide her with sustenance for three days straight, making their dishes a fantastic value. Even my Chicken Fettuccine Alfredo was hefty and split into a few meals. The sauce was creamy and all of the pasta was well-coated. The grilled chicken had ample flavour. This only thing is this option is not the healthiest by any means. It’s not as noticeable if eaten immediately after it’s made, but, rewarmed, the paper plate I had put my pasta on was just drenched in an abundance of oil that soaked through. Yikes! The latest pasta I tried was the Penne Alla Boscaiola. It consists of a rosé sauce. Basically this is the best of both worlds since it marries a traditional tomato sauce with white cream sauce, and I found this to be lighter than the alfredo. Copious thin slices of spicy Italian sausage had been placed into the pasta with mushrooms and peas dotting the pan as well. Again, there was plenty to spread this out over a few lunches.

Montreal Smoked Beef Panini

As far as Montreal Smoked Beef sandwiches go, this one hits the spot. It’s not outrageously stuffed with meat like the ones sold at true Montreal delis, but there’s just the right amount of beef. This one is supposed to be served with mozzarella, arugula, pickled eggplant, spicy pepper mayo, and mustard. I pretty much keep it as is. The only things I add are artichoke hearts and sun-dried tomatoes. The smokiness of the meat plays off the acidity and bitterness of the veggies while the sauces bring in a savoury-sweet combo and a little spice.

What I like most is that it never seems to take too long to get our food from Panini’s Italian Cucina. Despite the lunch rushes, we’ve received better service from them being fifteen blocks away on Jasper Avenue than from a restaurant that was literally a few blocks down the road. Everything I’ve had the chance to try from Panini’s has been better than expected, and I often find myself thinking about my next Panini’s lunch. When a single dish has the ability to cover multiple meals at such an affordable price, it’s a winner in my books.

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: Leva

Happy diners on the patio saying hello to me!

Happy diners on the patio saying hello to me!

To me, Leva (@cafeleva) was like this apparition that I would periodically spot whenever I was in Edmonton’s Garneau neighbourhood, never realizing it was an actual cafe until friends started mentioning it here and there. I’d pass by many more times before I finally made a point of trying it out at the end of May. Like a hidden gem, it’s slightly off the beaten path, tucked away among the residential enclave of the university area.

My friends and I met up for a late lunch on a Sunday afternoon. Two of us arrived together and, neither having visited previously, weren’t really aware of how their system worked. After we clarified with a staff member that we could seat ourselves and order at the counter when ready (they offer full service during dinner), we staked out a table that bridged both the interior of the cafe and the patio, so we could soak in some vitamin D without being blinded by the sunshine. The outdoor space is actually quite small, but they make good use of it and they even have outdoor heaters for those slightly chilly days or evenings. The interior is nice and bright with wood topped tables, white chairs, hints of yellow in the decor and big windows that let in lots of light.

The order counter and interior of Leva.

The order counter and interior of Leva.

Once our third party showed up, we headed over to the counter to take a look through the menu. One friend went with the Chicken Breast Panini, the other just ordered a chocolate gelato milkshake, and I got the 12″ Spicy Chicken Avocado thin crust Neapolitan Style pizza as well as a chai latte. Upon paying for our items at the till, we were given metal placards with numbers on them, which were to be placed on our table, so the servers would know who to bring the food to. In a way, it’s very similar to the set up at Famoso.

Drinks were ready within minutes. My chai latte was steaming hot. I almost mistook it for someone’s milkshake because it came in this very tall ceramic cup that looked like an old fashioned soda glass. I thought it was a cute touch. Unfortunately, I have to say that the brand of chai latte tea bags that Leva uses are only okay. I left it steeping the entire time we were there and the flavours never got that strong, remaining rather bland.

My chai latte. Cute cup, but not the most flavourful.

My chai latte. Cute cup, but not the most flavourful.

On the other hand, the food completely made up for the subpar beverage (I’ve heard the coffee is fantastic though, but I don’t drink it). My friend’s sandwich was filled with chicken breast, brie, sweet potato, rosemary, buckwheat honey and seasonal greens. She said it was really tasty, especially liking the use of sweet potato to add an extra flavour profile to an otherwise basic panini. My pizza was topped with mozzarella, spicy chicken, avocado and cherry tomatoes. I can’t say the chicken was all that spicy (I can definitely handle more), but I enjoyed the combination of the four items and the overall simplicity of the meal. Everything tasted so fresh and the crust was crispy on the outside yet soft enough to fold for easier eating. I devoured the entire thing in the one sitting.

The dessert case was awfully tempting, too. I was absolutely stuffed after eating my whole pizza, so I refrained from indulging further, but one of my friends did pick up a macaron that she said was very good.

Edmonton foodies knew much earlier than I did about Leva – voted by readers into the No. 47 spot on The Tomato‘s directory of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton for 2014 and No. 38 in 2013), so I have them to thank for nudging me towards the place. I also happened to catch a glimpse of who I’m sure was local celebrity, Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 32 and Bar Bricco, stopping by to pick up a drink. If that’s not enough to tell me that Leva should be on the radar after 10 years in business, I don’t know what is.

Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 31 and Bar Bricco (or his doppelganger) stopping by for a drink.

Chef Daniel Costa of Corso 31 and Bar Bricco (or his doppelganger) stopping by for a drink.

The food seems to be relatively healthy, keeping to the basics of the ingredients. That’s something that I think is important when eating out, so I’m excited to add this establishment to my ever-growing list of city restaurants to revisit. And, after having been twice in the last month, it’s now also one of my friend’s new favourite hangouts, so I’m sure I’ll be coming around more in the future.