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.

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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).

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Zinc

Dinner begins with our appetizers.

As quickly as it arrived, the Downtown Business Association’s Dining Week (DTDW) disappeared. The dust has settled and here are my thoughts on the second of my three outings (Tzin was the preceding review).

Zinc, attached to the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), is a place that I’ve dined at on only a couple of occasions previous to this. I’ve also had the pleasure of enjoying food catered by the restaurant during one or two events held at the AGA. Yet, I had never taken the opportunity to write about my experiences. This time seems as good as any to do that.

On a chilly early evening, my friend and I showed up to our reservation (booked through OpenTable) right on time. It took a few minutes, but one of the servers greeted us and promptly showed us to our table. Architecturally, the venue is beautiful. With tall floor to ceiling windows, a mix of modern décor and glossy washes of deep, bright royal blue, the space feels relaxing and tranquil even on a dreary day.

To keep things moving along, the manager took our drink orders. Both of us opted to stick with water for the night. He also put through our meal selections once we had decided between the choices available to us on the $45 DTDW executive dinner menu.

For my starter, I elected to try the fried oyster basket – cheese stuffed bologna or turkey pot pie were the other picks – which was presented in a relatively deconstructed and artistic way. The mini fry basket had been tossed on its side with the oysters scattered on the plate. Next to the basket was a skinny shot glass of sauce and closest to me were a few circular lemon slices. When it was set down before me, the server indicated that the accompanying sauce was of roasted red pepper. This was different from the description on the menu where I had read it was to come with a maple cocktail sauce. Honestly, I think the maple may have been a better flavour to go with the brininess of the oysters. That sense of sweetness and salt. The red pepper cocktail sauce was still good, but it was quite acidic and dilly. I could have done with a little less of the herb. On the other hand, basic lemon juice squeezed atop the non-greasy, crisp oysters was a treat on its own.

Braised Beef Cheeks with roasted root vegetables.

Rather than going with the duck cassoulet or the veal bolognaise, my entrée consisted of the braised beef cheeks. The meat, cooked in a red wine demi-glace, and the garlic smashed potatoes weren’t anything spectacular. They were just decent. I had actually expected the beef to be more succulent than it was. No, the absolute stars of the dish were the roasted root vegetables. A pile of sliced carrots and, my best guess is diced parsnips, sang in my mouth. Smoky from the slight charring and a little bit fragrant, I could have easily gone for another helping.

Butternut Squash Cheesecake

The final course was a butternut squash cheesecake. At first consideration, the squash appeared to be an odd component to a dessert, but that’s merely because it’s not the typical pumpkin. The butternut squash is subtly sweet and nutty compared to its relative. Most of the sugariness in this dish came from the white chocolate curls sprinkled over the cake as well as the peach and pear salsa and pieces of fruit that were there as complements. On the other hand, the minuscule grains of Tonka bean really stood out on my palate. Known to be fruity and spicy, these tiny shavings produced a bitterness that didn’t necessarily overwhelm my taste buds; however, the flavour couldn’t be ignored either. This was an enjoyable dessert, simply because every bite provided something surprising.

Zinc’s website is keen to point out that the menu puts a focus on fresh Alberta ingredients and food products with inspiration for seasonal changes being taken from the rotating featured art exhibits. I have no clue as to what is currently being showcased at the gallery. All I know is that the dishes we tried were delicious and, even though the plates weren’t necessarily inventive, it’s an interesting notion – one that I believe to be true – that food and art are really one in the same.