Downtown Dining Week, Why Not YEG Restaurant Week?

The Downtown Business Association (DBA) is celebrating the end of, what I suspect was, another successful run of Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) in Edmonton, Alberta. For the eleventh year in a row, they have brought diners out to try menus from 30 different restaurants located in the city’s core. Over a period of ten days, people were able to sample a variety of menus that included $15 lunches as well as $25 or $50 dinners.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

Being that I work in the area, I took every chance I had to eat at as many places as I could over the 10-day period. It only amounted to five meals for me, but, personally, I couldn’t imagine having such rich meals for both lunch and supper every day in such a short amount of time anyway. I especially savoured the opportunity to visit restaurants that have a reputation for great food, but that I may not typically go to on a whim because of the prices, which meant I ventured over to the Hardware Grill, Madison’s Grill, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Sorrentino’s Downtown and Normand’s Bistro. All of them did an excellent job of helping us to watch our wallets while delivering top-notch food, even when the dish was as simple as a pulled pork sandwich.

Although, in my opinion, a few establishments should have worked a bit harder to entice people; they could have ventured away from their regular dishes to experiment with something new, or refrained from picking the least expensive plates from their usual selection of fare (if it costs the same to dine with them during DTDW as it does on any other night, it means it isn’t really “specialty-priced” as per the description on the DBA site) as part of the attraction of the event is that it provides deals where they aren’t typically found, making it a lot more affordable. Regardless, the majority of the DTDW menus had variety, giving you the choice of more than one item per course that ranged from salads and sandwiches to hearty pork and steak dishes or fish to pastas. Every lunch consisted of two courses and each dinner had at least three (appetizer, entrée and dessert).

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison's Grill, along with their regular menu.

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison’s Grill, along with their regular menu.

Now, my qualm with DTDW is that it continues to remain the same size. The food festival, if you will, hasn’t really expanded year after year. In fact, it may have even shrunk slightly in terms of the number of restaurants participating. Some of the same restaurants come back annually, others are replaced with new ones (the Confederation Lounge, Tavern 1903, Normand’s Bistro, The Burg, De Dutch (see previous review) and Fionn MacCool’s are the latest additions). I like that there are repeats because, if I didn’t have a chance to go to one the previous year, maybe I’ll be able to visit the next time. However, I would love it if the list of new places partaking got bigger every March.

To me, Edmonton is a city with a burgeoning food scene that deserves to be showcased. More and more chefs and entrepreneurs seem to be taking the leap and succeeding at making Alberta’s capital first-rate in terms of the availability and assortment of quality places to dine out. In my mind, DTDW should be growing, not just sustaining. I picture it being at least as large as Calgary’s The Big Taste, which is citywide and has more than 70 “Revolutioneateries” getting involved over ten days. Ideally, it would become similar to NYC Restaurant Week, lasting about three weeks (sometimes extended) and runs both in the winter and summer seasons.

Of course, this might be wishful thinking on my part. I can only speculate as to the difficulty of putting something like this together. I’m sure the DBA has attempted to increase the number of establishments taking part in DTDW. I asked my friend who works for the urban planning office with the City of Edmonton what streets constitute the downtown area and while she wasn’t able to answer me right away, I did Wikipedia it. According to the information logged on the wiki, downtown Edmonton is bounded by 109 Street, 105 Avenue, 97 Street and 97 Avenue. If that’s the case, the DBA has stuck within the appropriate grid. Yet, some consider surrounding communities like Oliver to the west to also be part of downtown. That would include everything from 109 Street up to 124 Street from Jasper Avenue to 105 Avenue. Can you visualize how amazing DTDW would be for all you foodies out there if that area were included?

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill - Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill – Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

Dishcrawl, an online community of culinary enthusiasts, with a branch in Edmonton has organized events focused around various parts of the city, 124th Street being one of them. I attended a crawl where we walked door-to-door between eight establishments tasting samples and drinks, but not full-out meals. I think that those restaurants, having participated in Dishcrawl’s Neighbourfood event, would be highly interested in adding their names to a dining week list (I could be wrong; I don’t know how it ultimately affects the costs and revenues for the restaurants, but the publicity that may lead to repeat business is a big positive for them, I would think).

Would that mean the DBA would still be the sole host of Dining Week in that type of incarnation? Maybe not. It would likely mean several separate dining weeks spread out throughout the year, or more hands in the pot with a joint event put on by the DBA and the 124 Street Business Association (really, any number of other groups that are willing to take part) to make this something that brings the Edmonton restaurant community and food lovers together.

It’s all about providing extra exposure to those that participate, no matter where they are located, and expanding the dining week (or month!) theme so that Edmontonians can truly appreciate the diversity of amazing food that exists in this city while, hopefully, finding some new favourites. That’s the goal I see!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria (Jasper Ave)

Appetizer - Prosciutto Wrapped Mozzarella Balls

Appetizer – Prosciutto Wrapped Mozzarella Balls

Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria, number 53 on The Tomato Food & Drink’s top 100 best things to eat or drink in Edmonton, Alberta, has been a mainstay in the city ever since it opened its first location at Jasper Avenue and 118 Street in 2005. Over the years, Famoso has expanded to 26 restaurants between three provinces with a 27th franchise opening in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan come this spring.

Pizza isn’t something that I go out for regularly, but, when I do, it should come out of the oven hot, flavourful and it shouldn’t be too heavy in the stomach. Famoso’s pies certainly fit the bill.

Out of all the times I have been, I have not once tried the margherita pizza, which was mentioned in the Tomato’s list. However, I have tried a number of the others, including the Sweet BBQ Chicken and Spicy Thai, and very much enjoyed them.

My latest visit to the original downtown location was a chance for me to use my soon-to-expire Groupon. The voucher included an appetizer, a regular pizza and a seasonal pizza, allowing for a nice variety during our meal.

Immediately upon entering the establishment, I noticed that it looked refreshed. I’m not sure when it happened, but I think the space had a new coat of paint and the booths had been reupholstered fairly recently. We grabbed a table and immediately started perusing the menu. One improvement I noted was that they now include a note pad at the table, so you can jot down everything you want without having to work from memory when you head over to the till to place your order (maybe they always had them, but I had never seen that before and I thought it was great addition). The only thing they should also provide is a pen or pencil as well.

The front counter

The front counter

As a further comment, I always found it strange that a sit-down restaurant with servers that bring your food over to you and will take subsequent requests for drinks and desserts at the table later requires you to take your initial order to the counter. But, after thinking further about it while dining this time, I can see a couple of benefits. The first is that you can take your time going through the menu and picking out the items you want without the server stopping by every few minutes to ask if you’re ready. The second is that when you are ready, you can make sure you’re not waiting for someone to come by before you can get your order in, meaning you can delight in your meal at your own pace. Service is usually attentive as they make sure they are well staffed to handle and attend to the tables.

Regarding the food, I feel that it has always been tasty, but the menu has diversified and incorporated many more elements that bring in new flavours from different cultures and I love it. This particular dinner, my mother and I shared a small order of the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozzarella Balls as well as the Cavoletti and Moo Shu BBQ Duck pizzas.

As an appetizer, the Prosciutto Wrapped Mozzarella Balls are a great starter. The small size comes with three of the mozzarella balls smothered in a light tomato sauce with a side of fresh flatbread. I have never really been a fan of the tomato paste type sauces put on most pizzas, so it’s nice to know that this dish incorporates a simple, quick-cook sauce that isn’t overpowering and still lets the flavours of the prosciutto and gooey mozzarella shine through.

The Cavoletti pizza bianca

The Cavoletti pizza bianca – one of my favourites!

The Cavoletti falls under the white pizza category (no sauce) and is topped with Brussels sprouts, prosciutto crisps, gorgonzola cheese, dates, walnuts and a bit of honey. I will say that the first time I ate this pizza, I was a little skeptical, but it has become a favourite and is now ordered almost every time I go to Famoso. I’m a sucker for the combination of nutty, salty and sweet flavours that come out in recipes like this. The textures of this pizza are fantastic as there is a nice crunch from the oven-roasted Brussels sprouts, prosciutto crisps and walnuts. On another occasion I added duck as a topping and it paired well, reminding me a little bit of the BBQ Duck Clubhouse sandwich made at Cactus Club Café with its Peking duck, roasted chicken, San Daniele prosciutto and pecan fruit bread.

Our second pizza, the Moo Shu BBQ Duck is seasonal for fall/winter 2014 and falls under the new world pizzas list on the menu. This one has toppings that include house-made hoisin sauce, fior-di-latte (mozzarella), pulled duck, green onions and chopped cilantro (not a flavour that suits my palate, so I typically ask to have it omitted if I can). This was reminiscent of the many Peking duck dinners that I have eaten at New Dragon Palace where you build wraps filled with crispy duck skin, duck meat, hoisin sauce and julienned carrots and green onions. The barbecue taste provided extra bite and heat, which I appreciated as someone who likes spice.

The Moo Shu BBQ Duck new world pizza

The Moo Shu BBQ Duck new world pizza

Best of all, the food showed up at our table piping hot – not always the case in the past – and I was glad as my mom needs her food to be almost scalding, otherwise, to her, the meal becomes “just okay” or subpar, so big props to the kitchen this time around.

It was also extremely busy at the Jasper Avenue location this particular Saturday. I’m not sure if some people were coming in to use up their Groupon as I was, but having arrived for an early supper at four o’clock that afternoon, we saw the place fill up promptly afterwards, and the stream of people coming into the place did not let up at all.

As a whole, if you love authentic Italian cuisine (all owners and managers of each new franchise go through an intensive training program in Naples, Italy), Famoso will not disappoint.

For a more in-depth look at the establishment’s involvement in the Edmonton community and its efforts towards sustainability visit The Local Good to read my profile of Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria.