Edmonton Restaurant Review: Town Square Brewing

The main floor of Town Square Brewing holds the bar and a larger group table.

Wanting to catch up, my friend and I recently made plans to meet. Both of us living on the south side of Edmonton, it isn’t always super easy to find local, independently owned restaurants to hang out at in our neck of the woods. But, I’d had my eye on Town Square Brewing for a while (located at 2919 Ellwood Drive), and that’s where we decided to go. Being a brewery, I brought Kirk along as well since I thought he’d enjoy the beer.

We showed up for lunch on a Sunday at noon. Turns out, we were the first customers for the day. It’s a bright and casual space. Very open concept with tall ceilings on the main floor and a staircase that takes guests up to a loft with several tables and a couple of cozy looking armchairs situated by a fireplace. Windows along the back wall look into the production area, so you can see the machinery at work.

A shared flight of beer with our selections from the current draughts on tap.

Told to seat ourselves wherever we liked, we chose a table that overlooked the entrance. A board on the wall indicated the current beers on tap. Kirk and I decided to share a flight ($10 for four 5 ounce glasses). I like some beers, but I’m not the connoisseur. The only one that I selected and drank was the Beets by Sinden Kettle Sour. I found it to be crisp, earthy, a little bit tart, smooth, and without any lingering bitterness. Perfect for me. It’s also the Alberta Beer Bronze Winner for 2018. At the time, they also had a Belgian-style beer on tap. That was Kirk’s favourite of the three he sampled. An additional pint was ordered to go with our food.

Town Square Brewing has a pretty compact menu with a focus on their pizzas. I should probably have listened to our server who mentioned that the pies are their most popular options. Instead, I went with the Parson’s Daughter Sandwich ($16) while Kirk chose their full-size Brewer’s Break pizza ($19).

Parson’s Daughter Sandwich with the Soup of the Day

The sandwich wasn’t the worst thing, but it also wasn’t the best. I just felt that they put very little effort into it. The house made spent grain bread was sliced to a thickness that would hold up when held, but it was really bland and pretty dry. The bread was literally cut from the loaf with absolutely no other preparation like toasting, pressing or buttering at all. Filled with chicken breast, pear, mozzarella, cranberry aioli, spinach, and basil, it sounded quite promising; however, the clearly pre-cooked chicken (it was cold) and not melted cheese was a downer. The only plus were the spotty bites with cranberry aioli, which upped the flavour quotient ever so slightly. For the side, I opted for a bowl of the daily soup. It happened to be a tomato bisque, so I was expecting something creamier. This one was mealy like the texture of a tomato that has been refrigerated. Not great. At the very least, it was somewhat warm, and I liked the touch of crumbled cheese on top.

Definitely go here for the pizza though. Town Square Brewing makes theirs with a thin crust. It has a different consistency than what you might find at Famoso, for example, as it’s less chewy in the middle. The outside is a little crispier, yet the dough is still soft enough to fold. The toppings were decent, too. With Genoa salami, Lazuli Farms pulled pork, and prosciutto, this hit the spot for us two carnivores. Arugula, onions, tomatoes, and BBQ sauce took things a step further, balancing out any saltiness from all that meat with bitterness, sweetness, and tartness. On a side note, I really like the trays that the pizzas are served on. There’s a hole in one corner that fits a single tasting glass just right. I thought that was a fun touch.

I was originally tempted to stay a little longer in order to have some dessert. In the end I refrained from it. I’ll save that for the next visit because their Soul Food pizza is calling to me. If they can work on their sandwich, I’d appreciate it. For the price, it certainly didn’t seem worth it at all. As always, every place has room for improvement, and I’m going to say that this is it for Town Square Brewing. Otherwise, everything else was fairly satisfying.

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: Station on Jasper

PB&J Firebread Sandwich

Closing amid allegations against one of the previous owners, the space once occupied by The Needle Vinyl Tavern (10524 Jasper Avenue) sat unused since November 2017. Then, on June 25, I received an email from Station on Jasper. They were a new business and they had inherited the Needle’s existing email list upon purchasing the restaurant/music venue. With the introduction came an offer for $12 off during dinner when dining in July.

I held onto the coupon and with one weekend left before it expired, I dragged my fiancé, Kirk, with me. I thought it’d be a good excuse to try it out. From what I could tell, the menu had been revamped since the Needle’s time. Back then, the food was pretty subpar. Now, the listings looked to be promising.

We arrived at around 7:00pm on a Saturday night. It was empty inside, although their patio was definitely being utilized. We seated ourselves indoors just shy of the patio to get the fresh air without the crazy heat. Our server came over with menus and started talking about happy hour before realizing that it was actually too late for us to order any specials. Still, I asked her what they usually offer during that time, so I could make note of it for my YEG Food Deals pages. She admitted that they didn’t actually have anything solid in place yet.

The interior of Station on Jasper has a kind of indoor-outdoor feel with the lights.

It turns out that when the business transferred over to the new owners, they literally hired all staff within a two week period, set a date and opened their doors. As I soaked in my surroundings, I could see that the design of the bar and restaurant was largely unchanged. The exact same tables, chairs and setup as before were being used. As I mentioned, the menu was visibly different, but the drink selection was fairly scant with them sticking only to classic cocktails.

Personally, I found the pricing for the dinner mains to be a bit high. Instead, I focused on the rest of the comfort food by way of the south menu created by executive chef Michael Darby. With a variety of sandwiches and pizzas at relatively affordable prices, they were the more reasonable option. Kirk got a local beer on tap ($6.19) and the Station Burger ($14). I opted for the PB&J Firebread Sandwich ($12).

Station Burger

Johnny Lee, one of their bar managers, spoke with us and he said that the Station Burger was probably the most simple thing on the menu and suggested Kirk order the Po’ Boy next time. Johnny wasn’t wrong. The burger had been changed from being topped with candied bacon, caramelized onion, smoked Gruyere and Station Sauce to cheese, mixed greens, sauce and a few grape tomato halves. There was still a decent flavour to the meat. Nevertheless, it wasn’t what we had hoped for. Having stated that the patty is made of hand-formed Alberta beef, we thought it’d be freshly pressed. While it wasn’t necessarily a mass produced frozen burger, it clearly didn’t meet our expectations and could have used more charring. On the side, the blanched fries were decent. These are supposedly hand-cut and that seemed to be the case.

PB&J Firebread Sandwich

Their PB&J Firebread Sandwich fared better overall. The long toasted bun was laid with arugula, seven spice blend pork belly, a sunny side up egg, grilled peaches and some sort of aioli. I tend to shy away from toasty bread because I often scrape my mouth with the sharper edges. This was alright though. It held the components of the sandwich together well. To avoid a huge mess with the egg, I broke the yolk first and then cut the whole thing in half, spreading it out across the length of the bread. Then, I clamped it shut. This item has a lot of potential. Sure, I felt the pork belly was a tad too fatty in spots, but it was seared nicely and the saltiness was balanced out by the bitter greens and sweet peaches. My one big criticism to the kitchen was that the grilled peaches were too chunky. They fell out when I took bites, so I suggested that they create a peach chutney instead. It’d allow for the flavour to come through in every bite rather than sporadically.

After we finished our meal, Johnny came back to chat about the dishes and their quick opening. He then took the time to show us the music stages, including the main venue tucked in a side room towards the back. It’s a neat tiered space. Between that area and the back of the main dining room, they can apparently accommodate up to 400 guests per show. Johnny also excitedly told us about their plans for a hidden speakeasy, which I’m interested to visit when it gets up and running.

When it was announced Station on Jasper would be opening at the end of June, there was speculation that the previous owners were still involved with the new business . However, that has since been refuted. Mark Chisholm, their other bar manager, also introduced himself while we were there. Both Johnny and Mark are a hundred per cent invested in seeing Station on Jasper succeed. They especially want everyone who works there and who comes through their doors to feel protected. All of their staff have to go through regular mandatory training through their partnership with the Sexual Assault Centre of Edmonton (SACE), so staff are not just aware of their own actions, but are also knowledgeable enough to spot situations that may arise with patrons. It was great to hear that they’re taking the steps to ensure that their business remains a safe place for everyone.

Station on Jasper was also able to sign on a number of big name Canadian artists like Serena Ryder and Lights for their launch, and they have a roster of other performers coming through the venue later this year. If they were in any way connected to the tarred reputation of the Needle, I’m pretty certain that information would have come out by now and they wouldn’t have been able to successfully book the shows that they have.

Walking out that night, Kirk and I felt that Station on Jasper was on the right track. They’re beginning to solidify their space in the community by booking as much local talent as possible. They’re working with neighbouring businesses to help highlight musicians in any way they can. Most of all, they want to be there to nourish Edmontonians through their stomachs and their musical souls. We wish them the best of luck!

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: 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.