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: Lazia (Downtown Closed – Visit North Location)

The Hula Hula Chicken & Firecracker Prawns

The Hula Hula Chicken & Firecracker Prawns

Over the past 15 years, the menu at Lazia has shifted, moving away from their origins as an Asian fusion restaurant. However, the new menu, introduced this summer, is a realignment to the type of cuisine they started with. There are still a few items meant to appease those who just want a straight up steak and potato dish, and there are about a handful that present a more Mediterranean leaning. Yet, the majority of the dishes have hints of Chinese, Thai and Malaysian influences (owner Richard Lim is Chinese by way of Malaysia) that are combined with flavours found across the globe.

Having had the opportunity to profile Richard’s other restaurant, Wildflower Grill, for The Local Good last year, I was pleasantly surprised to hear from his daughter, Tamara, who reached out to me through Twitter in August. Lazia’s menu had been updated for the fall season, and Richard wanted to invite me out for a one-on-one tasting session (myself and two guests). Being that I’m a fairly frequent patron of the restaurant since I work rather close by and I cannot pass up the offer of food, I wholeheartedly accepted the chance to gain more in-depth knowledge of their dishes and to meet Richard in-person.

Although I would recognize the bartender or the managers any day, funnily enough, I cannot recall ever seeing Richard prior to this past week. He told me that he’s always there, but he prefers to be in the background, making sure that things are running smoothly in the kitchen.

Things seemed to go very well on the quiet Wednesday evening that we dined. Richard and our server, Dave (who is usually a supervisor, but was attending to our every need this particular night), were incredible hosts. To start things off, they suggested a few beverages from their drink menu – a golden margarita, the grand phoenix martini and a lavender blueberry collins – of which we each sampled one. While we waited for our cocktails to be prepared, Richard took the time to go through the menu items that he thought we should sample. Then he left us to ponder. In the end, we decided to just go with the suggestions that were put forth. After all, Richard should know best.

Let me start by talking about those drinks.

The golden margarita was a more traditional blend of tequila, Grand Marnier, lime juice and agave nectar with the glass rimmed in salt. This is a cocktail that my friend would not typically order because of the tendency to be more sweet, but this one leaned towards a slightly bitter and tart flavour instead. It actually went down quite smoothly.

My mom also joined us, and she chose the grand phoenix because she liked the name. This one was a blend of vanilla vodka, pomegranate liqueur, orange juice and Grand Marnier. For an added dose of fun and decadence, the drink was lit on fire and then topped off with blood orange gel capsules (they used molecular gastronomy to prepare the natural acids from the juice in a certain way, creating these balls that, when popped, gave an extra shot of flavour), which floated in the liquid.

I had opted to go with the lavender blueberry collins. This one consisted of elderflower liqueur, gin, fresh lemon, lavender and blueberries. I missed the note in the menu about it being “in a fog,” so I was in awe to see that it arrived at the table in a capped bottle that once opened released a heavy dose of vapour like a potion in a witch’s cauldron. It was awesome! So great, in fact, that I simply watched that happen instead of pulling out my camera to capture it.

Now that we were happily imbibing, we had to start preparing ourselves for the meal at hand.

To begin, the kitchen created their daily amuse bouche. It’s a chance for the chefs to experiment with flavours and ingredients that they may not otherwise get to use. This is something that I notice Lazia has started to incorporate into their experience, borrowing from what you’d find at the arguably higher end Wildflower Grill.

Afterwards, Richard started us off with three small plates to share: Mediterranean pork belly, Moroccan lamb meatballs and Japanese barbecue pork.

The Moroccan lamb meatballs were skewered with a whole cherry tomato, avocado, jalapeno mousse and a thick slice of cucumber atop a bed of barbecue sauce. The 15 spices used within the meat really brought in a lot of flavour. This is a good choice if you want a starter that isn’t too heavy.

The Japanese barbecue pork really moves away from the traditional BBQ pork that you might find at a Chinese restaurant with the thick accompanying sauce. The pork is cooked with an orange, miso glaze and served in a ginger, sweet soy, Shaoxing wine vinaigrette. The tanginess and lightness of the sauce paired very well with the meat.

The Mediterranean pork belly was by far my favourite appetizer of the evening. Pork belly is becoming a rather common dish on menus across the city, but not everyone does it justice. Lazia’s dish was near perfection for me (don’t hold it against me if you go and you don’t agree). The pieces of pork belly were crisped so well on the outside, making that fatty layer disappear, all the while leaving the meat quite tender on the inside. I’m also so glad that Richard brought us an extra side of the duck fat cherry aioli for dipping because that sauce was so delicious with the pork belly or placed on the side of wonton chips dusted with black sesame powder that came with the dish.

The colourful and beautifully plated Roasted Beet Salad.

The colourful and beautifully plated Roasted Beet Salad.

Next up was the roasted beet salad, which had been made on a more miniature scale for the evening, allowing us to see the true colours and composition of the dish. It’s a beautiful course and one that the entire table would highly recommend. The plate is first covered with a layer of the lemon, miso vinaigrette dressing and then each ingredient is carefully placed on top. A mix of organic carrots, carrot leaves, frisee, strawberries, orange, rainbow cauliflower, red and yellow beets, feta, sponge cake and chia seeds, this would make for a wonderfully healthy and tasty lunch or dinner.

Good thing I wore some forgiving clothes because what followed were three entrees that were shared between me and my guests. Laid out before us was the hula hula chicken & firecracker prawns, the pacific wild salmon and the teppanyaki New York steak.

The prawns were large and had a good amount of heat from the seasoning and the chicken breast was cooked until tender, not overdone at all. Paired with a cilantro gremolata, it was the herbs that took me by surprise. Most people who know me are aware that I am not a fan of cilantro. I have one of those palates that believes that cilantro tastes like soap. But, I didn’t even realize that’s what I was eating in this dish. My friend once said that, supposedly, if cilantro is crushed, the molecule that creates that unbecoming flavour is destroyed. Perhaps that’s the reason why I found it to be pleasant. Crispy polenta formed a base for the chicken and the prawns, along with a zucchini and carrot pave – thinly sliced and layered like scalloped potatoes – and a pineapple, Malibu rum sauce. The sauce tasted a bit too sweet on its own, but it was great to offset the spice from the prawns.

As explained by Richard, the BC sockeye salmon served with skin was seared on both sides and then poached in olive oil to create the crisp outer texture while keeping the juices in the center. A painterly swipe of carrot emulsion graced the plate, which was topped with sauteed broccolini, confit tomatoes and a lovely combination of chorizo and black lentils. The latter provided a smoky flavor, contrasting well with bites of the mandarin orange chutney topped fish.

I left the steak as the last to discuss because this one had an interesting back story. Had Richard not told us, I never would have guessed that this dish was a mix of Japanese (easy to see) and Mexican (not so evident at first) influences. The steak itself is prepared using a yakitori glaze; it is plated with pickled ginger and togarashi on top and a bed of chile hollandaise. A miso, sesame dressing sat on the side with flash fried cauliflower and fingerling potatoes. All the elements were done well, even that Mexican inspired chile hollandaise. As it turns out, Richard loves Mexican food, and one of his favourite restaurants is in Phoenix, AZ. There they can cook with hatch chile peppers, which have a fairly low spicy heat rating on the Scoville scale, but give off enough of a fresh, earthy pungency to make a manageable impact. Unfortunately, hatch chile peppers are not available in Alberta, so Richard worked with his chefs to find a mixture of peppers that can be purchased locally that, when combined, closely emulates the taste of the hatch chile.

If you don’t already feel full reading about all of the food we had eaten so far, you will be after learning that we also split two desserts: the raspberry white chocolate cheesecake and the dark chocolate raspberry bomb. Little works of art, the sweet endings were nicely plated. Both had a bit of weight to them, but the cheesecake came off as less dense, which was welcome. They’re actually great for sharing, especially after a large meal.

Overall, I would say that the menu, in its various incarnations, has had its ups and downs, but what we sampled last week was fantastic. The experimentation and playfulness that has been shown with the options that they’ve decided to put on their latest menu is a testament to the talent in their kitchen. Everything we tried was thoughtfully prepared, and I was impressed, not just with the taste and texture, but also the presentation. It was almost as if the Wildflower chefs had taken over. The level of craftsmanship from the bar to the kitchen was close to on par with Richard’s more upscale offering, but at a slightly better price point.

Based on what I had the pleasure of tasting, their effort to step back and reassess what they do best is working for them. Now, they just need you to remember that they’re an option when you’re in the downtown area. And, should you be worried about parking, don’t fret. While nearby construction is taking its toll, Lazia offers free secure, heated underground parking in the West Preferred Parkade by the Bay at City Centre Mall every weekday evening after 5:30pm and all day on weekends.

Lazia is definitely worth a visit, or a revisit if you haven’t been in quite some time.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Ampersand 27

A portion of the & 27 menu.

A portion of the & 27 menu.

Ampersand 27 (@ampersand27yeg), one of Whyte Avenue’s newest culinary adventures, opened at the end of 2014 under the watchful eye of Chef Nathin Bye. His work with restaurants such as Wildflower Grill already raised the bar for food in this city, so it was only natural that we come to expect even more from his own venture.

Taking over the spot previously occupied by Murrieta’s, the space has been transformed into something more open, inviting and adventurous. Filled with curved lines, warm colours and the bask of glow from hundreds of twinkling lights, the eatery looks beautifully modern and high class while maintaining a casual sense of atmosphere.

Having made a reservation through OpenTable, we were guided to our table right after we were greeted at the door. Seated in a quiet corner of the dining room I was able to observe the rest of the room. Two long tables sandwiched by bench seating (not really the most comfortable) were surrounded by numerous tables for four, which are perfect for reconfiguring for additional large groups. Next to our table there were doors, which I assume lead into a more private space for special occasions. I’m unsure as to why I felt this way, but there’s something that seems special about this place.

As I took it all in, I started to work my way through the menu. Drinks first, I noticed that they have a well-rounded list of cocktails, beers and wine. In fact, the number of beverages available likely surpasses the food choices. But, I’m okay with that. I often find that restaurants that have more focused menus tend to do a better job with their dishes.

The majority of the food items available for dinner are meant to be split with your dining companions. Broken down into share plates, build-your-own charcuterie boards, larger provisions and flatbreads, many of the options sound tasty. It comes across as a natural decision to divide the dishes amongst the group rather than hoard something to yourself because doing so means getting to sample a variety of things, which is what I often prefer to do since it allows for better and truer reviews.

On this particular evening, we chose three dishes: seared albacore tuna, maple butter pork belly and the forest floor flatbread.

Seared Albacore Tuna

Seared Albacore Tuna

I usually find it hard to pass up seared fresh tuna and I’m glad that we didn’t here. The fish was cooked perfectly with just the outer edges having been seared and the middle still a gorgeous pink colour. The dish was pleasantly light and healthy by plating the tuna with pickled hearts of palm, citrus, seaweed and cashew puree. The hearts of palm reminded me of artichoke with a bit more crunch, the citrus created a refreshing balance, the seaweed provided additional texture and salt, and the cashew puree gave it an subtly nutty quality. Essentially, this was the perfect start to our meal, one that would leave room for what was to come.

Maple Butter Pork Belly

Maple Butter Pork Belly

Personally, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with pork belly. The gummy mouthfeel of the thick layer of fat that so often accompanies this meat has always put me off, but I do enjoy a well made pork dish, so I was willing to chance it. Thankfully, the maple butter pork belly was excellent. Arriving at the table like a work of art, the maple glazed pork belly was just right. Sitting atop a bed of southwestern mesquite corn, baked beans, green peas and fritters like a crown, the fat from the meat acted like butter, simply melting away when eaten.

The Forest Floor Flatbread

The Forest Floor Flatbread

Our last selection for the base of our meal was the forest floor flatbread, which is essentially a thin crust pizza. While the dough was too crisp for my taste, the foraged mushrooms, house made ricotta, truffle and arugula combined to make a delightfully earthy dish that is vegetarian friendly. I particularly loved the cheese.

It appears that no dinner outing is complete without dessert and because they have their own pastry chef (Tim Androschuk), we each opted for our own (sampling the other, of course). My friend’s doughnut was decidedly smaller than expected, but it was quite dense and rich, so it seemed like enough to satisfy the dessert craving. A cocoa orange cake doughnut with Grand Marnier glaze topped with walnuts and served with a side jar of cranberry preserve, it had many layers of flavour. I went for the red velvet. Deconstructed and artfully plated to include pieces of red velvet sponge cake (much airier), strawberry textures (meringues, strawberry pieces, fruit leather), rhubarb rose puree and whipped cream cheese, this was like my idea of dessert heaven. There were so many different things happening, but I could see that it was one cohesive dish where everything was fantastic on its own, but also came together in a wonderful marriage.

Other than the stellar food, one of my favourite things about the restaurant was the professional and knowledgeable service. The staff all seemed to know their stuff when it came to the menu. They were attentive throughout the night, and often times the chef or management would do a round to make sure every guest had their needs met.

It’s that attention to detail in all that they do that will continue to make Ampersand 27 feel like a special place to dine.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment’s involvement in the local community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of Ampersand 27.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Three Boars Eatery

Pork belly with poached egg

Pork belly with poached egg

We might be a little late to the game, but my friend and I recently came across The Tomato Food & Drink‘s list of the top 100 best things to eat or drink in Edmonton. Naturally, the two of us decided that we would use 2014 to make our way through, at least, each and every restaurant, market or merchant mentioned. I say “at least” because some of the places are cited more than once as the list consists of not just, for example, the venue as a whole, but, rather, specific dishes or beverages.

The first establishment we chose to visit was Three Boars Eatery (@ThreeBoars). I’m not sure how long the restaurant has been around, but I only recently realized that it has been tucked along 109th Street and 84th Avenue. We dined on a chilly Thursday evening, arriving a little early for our reservation. Walking up to the door, it was unassuming. Stepping into the place, we were practically standing at the bar, which had a couple of patrons already dining. The space on the main floor is mostly taken up by the kitchen, and the seats that are available consist of stools in front of the bar and along the window that looks out to the street.

As soon as we entered, the bartender acknowledged us and the host came down to greet us. Since we had made a reservation, our table was ready despite our premature appearance. The dining room on the second floor is quite tiny – only eight tables that seat a total of 26 people in various configurations. However, it didn’t feel cramped or like we were in the midst of someone else’s conversation. Sparsely lit upstairs, it certainly set a mood – intimate, yet cool with its rustic wood and lack of extraneous decor.

Our server explained how the menu works – all plates are meant to be shared tapas-style and, for two people, she recommended ordering four to five dishes. The two of us mulled over the menu for a few minutes and opted to choose two each. I chose a caramelized onion and oka tart along with the pork belly. My friend chose a roasted carrot and beet salad plus the lamb neck croquette. We both ordered a drink as well.

A sample menu from Three Boars Eatery's website. It changes regularly.

A sample menu from Three Boars Eatery’s website. It changes regularly.

Upon ordering, we inquired if the four dishes would be enough and the server reassured us that it was. Our drinks were brought over promptly and the food made its way to our table at regular intervals shortly after.

The first plate we had was the lamb neck croquette, which was essentially shredded lamb shaped into a cylinder and breaded on the outside, so it had a crisp outer shell and warm meaty center. The two croquettes (perfect for sharing) sat atop what I believe was a vinaigrette with lentils and was garnished with some sort of slaw (I really should have paid more attention to what it said on the menu). I really enjoyed this dish. The bite to the meat with the consistency of the breading married well with the crunch of the slaw, and all of that soaked up the delicious sauce.

IMG_2564

Lamb neck croquette

Plate number two consisted of the roasted carrot and beet salad, which also contained pickled egg, mixed greens and smooth goat cheese. I’ve never been much of a fan of carrots, beets or pickled anything, but I’m willing to give almost everything a try and I have to say this was a fantastic salad. The beets were tender, the carrots weren’t too hard, the egg was nice and soft and they did not skimp on the goat cheese (the best part!).

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Roasted carrot and beet salad

The remaining two dishes arrived as we were just finishing our salad. We began with the tart. To be honest, I could not remember what oka was when I ordered the dish, but I’m a bit of a sucker for a good pastry crust and it just sounded tasty. I wasn’t wrong. It is a simple dish, but one that I think has wide appeal. The sweetness of the caramelized onions layered with the copious amount of warm, melted oka cheese and the slight bitterness from the arugula that topped the tart made it delectable. To finish off, the two of us split the pork belly dish. The belly is quite fatty – something I tend to forget – but it was cooked in a way so that the outside was browned and the meat had a springiness to it. To the side was, I’m guessing, steel cut oats (based off of the sample menu I pulled off their site and posted above) with a poached egg. All of that was sitting in a pool of broth. We split open the egg and the yolk ran out and mixed with the broth and oats. The result was a slightly salty meat with a side of what reminded me of a creamy custard in terms of texture and taste.

Caramelized onion and oka tart with arugula

Caramelized onion and oka tart with arugula

While we were too full to indulge in dessert, we weren’t rushed and were able to chat over what was left of our drinks. All in, the bill came out to just under $40 per person, not including tip.

Stiegl Radler

Stiegl Radler

I really enjoyed the evening and the food was memorable. In fact, with their menu changing so frequently, I would certainly consider returning to try some different items. Although that likely won’t be anytime soon, I would say that the service and the thoughtful preparation to the dishes will keep this place firmly planted in my mind for the future. And, since the cost can be a little high depending on the plates ordered, it may be a special occasion that finds me there next.