Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sugarbowl

The Sugarbowl (@sugarbowlcafe), serving Edmontonians in various forms since 1943, is a community favourite in an area peppered with popular independent restaurants. Known for their famous cinnamon buns (Seriously, who would have thought that a roll without cream cheese icing would be so good! Plus, one bun is essentially a meal on its own.), they have plenty of other items to please the palate.

Patrons enjoying their meals and conversations.

Patrons enjoying their meals and conversations.

My very first visit to the establishment was several years ago, likely when I was still finishing up my Bachelor’s degree. I ordered the lamb burger and was blown away by the flavour of the meat and the use of goat cheese, a combination I had not yet experienced at the time. I’ve never forgotten that burger or the restaurant. It was the place to be before it really mattered where you hung out. And, while I was a bit late to the game considering I was born and bred in the city, it has since become a top venue to chat with family over breakfast or meet up with friends for drinks.

My girlfriends and I did exactly that approximately a month and a half ago. We met up for brunch at about 11 AM on a Saturday morning knowing full well that, by arriving at that late hour on the weekend, we might possibly miss out on the coveted cinnamon buns (we were, in fact, too late to get one!). On the other hand, it was during that sweet spot between the early morning risers and the lunch crowd, so my friend managed to grab a table quickly before the rest of us got there.

The brunch menu is pretty succinct, so it wasn’t too hard to make our decisions that day. After finding out that the cinnamon bun was no longer an option, my friend chose to go with the french toast. My other friend ordered the huevos rancheros, which was one of the menu items that was mentioned on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton this year (overall, the restaurant came in at No. 5 in 2014 and No. 15 in 2013). I went with the chicken & waffle, a dish that seems to be a little more prevalent at food establishments lately.

The chicken and waffles from the breakfast menu.

The chicken and waffles from the breakfast menu.

I didn’t sample my friends’ orders, but I was told that the french toast – fried brioche pastry/bread covered in berry compote and whipped cream – was a worthy alternative to the cinnamon bun goodness that she didn’t get to eat. I’m certain that if you’re looking for a somewhat sugary breakfast, the french toast will certainly do the job. The huevos rancheros, touted by patrons as one of the top selections for breakfast, turned out to be a bit underwhelming. Consisting of 2 eggs, corn tortilla, spicy beans, three cheeses and salsa verde, my friend wanted me to say that she thought the addition of a starch would have been ideal – hash browns or toast perhaps?

Personally, I was really happy with my chicken & waffle. Plated with two perfectly cooked waffles and two pieces of lightly breaded buttermilk, spice marinated chicken breasts, I knew I was in for a filling and hearty meal. Served with a small side of greens and a little cup of maple butter, it presented the scrumptious combination of savoury and sweet flavours. The spices from the chicken were strong enough to break through the almost too sugary maple taste as well as the blueberry syrup that I had added to my waffles. All-in-all, the dish is very well-balanced and a good contender for those who can never decide between having something salty or sweet during brunch.

Sometime this summer, when the weather decides to stay steadily warm with just a light breeze, I would like to visit again for lunch or dinner on the patio. It’s been a while since I have had the opportunity to sample from those menus and I’d love to see if the lamb burger still lives up to my memory of it.

I also have to hand it to the servers here. They always have smiles on their faces, they are fun, friendly and they do a great job of checking in throughout your meal to remove empty dishes and refill drinks as needed without giving you the sense of being overbearing. There’s a real feeling of camaraderie between the staff that shines through, too.

When we were done our food, cappuccinos and orange juice, we cleared out to make room for others who were waiting patiently for tables. The only downside is that they don’t take reservations. But, I suppose that is part of the charm of the Sugarbowl. There’s something about being in line, anticipating your turn to sit down, watching everyone else have a great time, and knowing that you will soon join them.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Common

I remember when The Common (@TheCommonYEG) used to be on 124 Street in the tiny location that is now The Bothy. Even though I had heard good things about it, I never went. Then they moved to their current spot on 109 Street and 99 Avenue, building up a reputation as the hang out for Edmonton hipsters galore and I still never made a point of going there. That is until about a month ago. My friends and I had been discussing places where there would be the potential of meeting some decent single guys around our age and this gastro-lounge with a vintage yet modern vibe came up as a possibility.

The wall of vinyl records and vintage finds at The Common.

The wall of vinyl records and vintage finds at The Common.

In addition, The Common had made it onto The Tomato‘s annual list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton for two years back-to-back (No. 33 in 2013 and No. 41 in 2014), and as we are diligently making our way through said lists, it became clear that this would be the destination for our next outing. Known for their small, but eclectic menu with the stars being dishes such as the poutine, pork belly lettuce wraps, roasted mackerel, and the chicken and waffles, we knew our evening there had to include dinner as well as dancing.

Since my friend had been in the past, she suggested we meet there at 6:3o, so we could grab a table for the night. It seemed a little early considering we were planning on staying to dance, too, but I’m glad we arrived when we did. The bar area by the entrance wasn’t full by any means, but most of the seats in the other two rooms were already taken. We lucked out with a booth right by the dance floor and settled in for a long evening of food and drinks. While we waited for our third to show, the two of us ordered beverages. She had an Alley Kat Main Squeeze and, I, a Foundry Cider, both of which were nice and refreshing. I took in the surroundings. Comfortable, but also cool, the place uses a mixture of clean lines, geometric patterns and odd finds for the decor.

Our first round of drinks for the evening!

Our first round of drinks for the evening!

When our girlfriend joined us, we looked through the selection of seasonal dishes and each opted for something different, so we could sample several things. For those who require gluten-free options, they had quite a few items on the menu that fulfilled that criteria. What surprised me most was, despite there being just a few servers that I could see and it being a full house, the service was excellent. Our food was ready relatively quickly and our server came by to check on us and our drinks regularly, ensuring that we could get refills when we needed them.

The food came to our tables looking wonderfully presented – colorful and appetizing – and in portions that were just the right size. Not too much and not too little. I was also pleased with the prices for all the items. Considering the quality of the food, everything was nicely affordable.

Between the three of us, we ordered the Jackson Steak Salad, the Duck Confit, and the Short Rib and Risotto, all of which were delicious. I typically am not a huge fan of blue cheese, but as part of the Jackson Steak Salad, it paired very well with the perfectly cooked meat, artichokes and mustard dressing. The Duck Confit was interesting because rather than showing up on the plate as a full duck leg as per a traditional dish, the shredded duck meat was incorporated into a cylinder that consisted of baby potatoes, shitake mushrooms, edamame and spiny lettuce with sides of orange slices and green beans. The layered flavours and textures in that dish – salty meat and tangy fruit – made me wish I had ordered that for myself. Of course, that thought didn’t last for long. I’m a sucker for braised beef and the short ribs were nothing short of fantastic. The spinach risotto, pine nuts, chanterelle mushrooms and carrot puree came together very well. It was definitely the heaviest entrée we tried, but it was perfect for a full night out.

Once we finished our meals, we continued to imbibe a variety of beers until our friend was ready for round two of food. Having only ordered the salad, she was adamant that she wanted more to eat, and the chicken and waffles were calling her name (we also told her to order it because we’d seen so many people eating it that we were really curious about that entrée). It’s definitely a hearty dish with the fried chicken strips and the waffles, but I could certainly see why they were so popular. The tender chicken with the crunchy breading combined with the crispy on the outside and soft on the inside buttery bacon waffles, goat cheese and a sweet yet spicy blackberry and chile sauce was pretty incredible. Our friend had no issues polishing off her plate.

We were done dining just in time for the music to start. That night it was a mix of funkified sounds that brought in some old school Jackson 5 type songs to get people up and moving. While we would have been up on the dance floor much sooner, it took the staff a bit of time to clear away a couple of the tables that were in the space, and, as there’s little room until they’re moved, we happily talked with some of the other patrons while we waited. Everyone there was extremely personable, making for a fun time.

Me and my girls!

Me and my girls!

Verging on almost thirty years of age (at least for a couple of us), we called it a night at around 11pm. Perhaps if we started our evening a little later, we may have lasted longer into the wee hours of the morning, but, alas, we were all sleepy from the carb coma and also needed to make our way home before public transit became scarce. Prior to leaving though, we still made sure to bust a few nerdy moves, satisfying our goal of dinner and dancing after all.

As we wove our way through the crowded rooms towards the door, I could see that the lounge was packed to the brim, every seat filled with people having a great time. And, that’s The Common’s goal: elevating the way we think about and approach spending an evening with those we love – through good food (I must try some of the appetizers and desserts next time), drinks, conversation and music.

I can’t wait pay this place another visit tomorrow!

The new dinner menu - May 2014! Looking forward to trying something different!

The new dinner menu – May 2014! Looking forward to trying something different!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Madison’s Grill

The dining room of Madison's Grill

The dining room of Madison’s Grill

I have always loved the idea of the Union Bank Inn. A little boutique hotel that sits nestled between towering office buildings in Edmonton’s downtown core, it holds a historical designation for its past as actual banks with a wonderful modern renaissance look. That continuation of history persists in its new incarnation as an inn for the weary traveler, and the structure’s external appeal threads its way through the interior as well.

An excellent example of the wonderful architecture, Madison’s Grill, the restaurant which takes up the whole front of the house on the main floor, combines classical styling in the ionic pilasters with the clean lines and bold patterns of the furniture. The old meets new quality is also apparent in the food they serve where traditional dishes make way for contemporary takes.

Over the last several years, working just a couple blocks away, the opportunity for me to dine at this establishment has arisen many times. I have eaten there on a whim, been invited by my manager as part of team meetings, and usually made a point of stopping by during the annual Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) that has been presented by the Downtown Business Association for eleven years now.

This March was no different. A reservation was booked early on for lunch that at $15 for two courses was a steal. Although, unlike some of the other participating restaurants, the menu for 2014 didn’t allow for any choice (only one appetizer and one entrée was available). Previous menus that Madison’s Grill had come up with gave patrons at least a couple of options, so that was a slight let down, but regardless, it was still a great deal.

The first course consisted of a steaming hot bowl of Fire Roasted Tomato Bisque that was topped with pesto sour cream. It was pleasantly thick with a creamy texture that came from the addition of the fresh sour cream. The soup had a nice, deep, concentrated flavour that was more savoury than tangy, which I loved. Our second plate was a Pulled Chicken Creamy Herb Primavera that used farfalle pasta and incorporated grilled vegetables. The white sauce wasn’t overwhelming and the dish itself was quite light, which, for a plate of pasta, can be hard to pull off. I, personally, would have liked a slightly larger portion and, perhaps, just a bit of extra kick with the taste – a more fragrant cheese or added spice to bring it up a notch. However, the grilled vegetables, including red and yellow peppers and asparagus were cooked to the perfect tenderness.

With the money saved on our meals and the available room in our tummies, we splurged on dessert. An order of the Hazelnut Bernard Callebaut Brownies showed up in front of us looking as decadent as ever – three layers served with mixed berries on the side. For me, this was the star of the lunch hour and I’m so glad we shared it. It was a rich and dense dessert that satisfied the sweet tooth in me without being too sugary.

The Hazelnut Bernard Callebaut Brownie - scrumptious!

The Hazelnut Bernard Callebaut Brownie – scrumptious!

Service there is always up to par. The hostess for that afternoon greeted us quickly and offered to hang up our coats (we decided to keep ours as we were still warming up from the cold), we were brought over to a nice table by the window that overlooked the park by ATB Place (formerly TELUS Plaza), and our server was keen to answer any questions we had and he periodically checked on us to ensure we were doing okay.

Overall, I don’t believe that this visit necessarily represented the establishment at its prime with respect to the main course, but taken with all the other experiences I have had there (amazing pork loin during a previous DTDW event and fantastically hearty yet healthy breakfasts), I still count Madison’s Grill to be an outstanding restaurant that focuses on local. The Tomato‘s readers agree, placing it at No. 23 on the list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton in 2013 and No. 43 in 2014. I look forward to seeing what they have to offer on their spring menu, whenever the season decides to grace us with its presence for good!