Edmonton Restaurant Review: BAR 94 at LUX Steakhouse

“94” lights up the back wall of the bar.

Earlier on in my career, I could often be found with my colleagues sitting at a table inside the lounge of LUX Steakhouse. We all liked each other enough to spend extra time together after work over a drink or two. Back then, my favourite was Martoonie Tuesday (maybe it was Thursday). For two dollars plus change, I could have a full cocktail. They weren’t all that strong, but they also didn’t break the bank. It was a way to unwind on the cheap. As the years passed by, more and more friends left for other opportunities, or the circumstances of their home lives had changed, and those gatherings eventually subsided.

Every so often, I’d still frequent the restaurant for lunch or dinner. It wasn’t the same though. Flash forward to last month when I decided to revisit with one of my girlfriends. I’m always keeping tabs on Edmonton food deals (check out the page on my blog), and having seen their happy hour offerings, I felt inclined to go. The lounge, renamed BAR 94 in honour of one of the city’s favourite hockey players and current shareholder, Ryan Smyth, still looks relatively the same. Yet, the menu has gone through some updates.

Sparkling cocktails for just $3 every Tuesday from 4pm to 7pm.

The bar does serve the same dishes as are available in the restaurant; however, they also have their own distinct menu consisting of casual eats that include about a dozen share plates (varying in price from $7 to $17 each) and five handhelds. Every Monday to Thursday from 4:00pm to 7:00pm, all of those appetizers — minus the Team Platter — are available for just $10 per item, and premium well highballs, select draught sleeves, and house red or white wine are only $5 per glass. On Fridays, everything is another dollar less. Best of all, on Tuesday nights, there’s even the option ordering a sparkling cocktail or a six ounce glass of Prosecco for three dollars. Honestly, these prices are difficult to ignore.

I booked a table for us using the OpenTable app. In my request I asked to have them save us a spot in the lounge even though the system is really only meant for the restaurant. While it’s usually first come, first serve for BAR 94, they seem to be able to accommodate reservations whenever possible. In this case, it didn’t seem to be a problem. When I arrived, I found my friend already seated at the far end of the space.

Both of us started with some bubbly. She got a stem of Prosecco. I selected a sparkling cocktail of Prosecco and Chambord. Then we ordered a few plates to split: Mini Steak Sandwiches ($15), BAR 94 Dip ($14), Power Play Perogies ($14), and Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese ($17).

Mini Steak Sandwiches

The Mini Steak Sandwiches came as five slices of baguettes with marinated AAA Alberta beef piled on top. These were garnished with plenty of crispy onions, roasted garlic aioli, and shaved Pecorino. When I first set eyes on them, I have to say that I didn’t find them incredibly appealing. They lacked pizazz, but one bite was all it took to change my mind. The meat was actually very succulent. The bread wasn’t overly toasted, so the edges didn’t scratch up my mouth. I found that the frizzled onions added some texture and paired well with the garlic aioli.

BAR 94 Dip

It’s hard to go wrong with dip and chips. The BAR 94 Dip was no exception. Theirs consisted of shaved brussels, roasted red pepper, cream cheese, and Parmesan in a skillet. The consistency was nice with a rich flavour, and it was easy to scoop up with the accompanying crispy tortillas. Although, I wouldn’t exactly call the chips crispy per say. They looked more like wonton chips as they had a puffy quality to them. Despite that, they lacked any crunch. I’m not complaining, however. I quite liked them that way. If I have them again, I’m not sure they’ll turn out the same. This could have been a one off situation for all I know.

Power Play Perogies

I was pleasantly surprised by the Power Play Perogies. I had pictured something more like what I could pick up at the grocery store with those thick shells and the pasty potato filling. These were a thousand times better. Think of pillowy pan-fried gnocchi pasta, except huge and filled with potato cheddar. They were then covered with sour cream, caramelized onions, and added bacon ($3). Super savoury and a great value for the money.

Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese

One of my go-to plates at LUX has always been the Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese. It’s one of their signature items and for good reason. They’ve elevated a comfort dish to a new level by combining the everyman’s pasta with Atlantic lobster, shaved truffle and plenty of Parmesan. Admittedly, I ordered this more for myself. My friend is allergic to lobster, so I knew I was going to be the only one eating it, and I intended to take the leftovers home for my boyfriend to enjoy. This appetizer is worth every penny in my books.

For dessert, my friend chose the Home Made Pie (blackberry). The price changes based on the market price of the filling used. It was good. Not overly sweet. Yet, I would liken it to a tart since it was much thinner than a typical pie. I went with the Carrot Cake. The huge slice of spiced cake sat in a pool of delicious Maker’s Mark bourbon caramel and was topped with cream cheese icing and candied pecans. This was delectable, but I was only able to have a small portion before going into a sugar coma. I’d recommend finding someone to split this one with.

Not to be outdone by this meal, I ended up at BAR 94 for the second time in a month. This time I was there with a couple of my more currently beloved co-workers. It happened to be a Thursday (handcrafted two ounce cocktails for $8), so I chose what I believe was called a Hartley’s Lemonade. I didn’t love it. It came across as a bit acrid after each sip. Nevertheless, my second cocktail, the Tropical Sangria, completely made up for it.

That night, we opted for the ‘Bucket of Bones’ ($15) and two servings of the Steakhouse Nachos ($16). If we’re talking about bang for the buck, I’d argue that the ‘Bucket of Bones’ (a.k.a. crispy rib tips) is a best bet. They were well-breaded and tastily seasoned with maple, cider vinegar, and fresh thyme. Regardless, it was those Steakhouse nachos that we relished. The fresh cut russet potato chips were individually layered with shredded beef short rib, shaved aged cheddar, jalapenos, and house made salsa. Each piece had exactly the right amount of toppings, and the ranch dip was a perfect way to cool down any heat from the pepper. There just weren’t enough of them in a single order. Hence, the need to have a second helping. At regular price, it wouldn’t the most practical way to spend one’s hard-earned money. On the other hand, when shared during happy hour, it’s somewhat justifiable.

Needless to say, I’m on the BAR 94 bandwagon once again. With food that rarely disappoints and specials that are easy on the wallet, it’s going to remain one of my top picks for downtown happy hour.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tapavino

The interior of Tapavino including the impressive bar.

The interior of Tapavino including the impressive bar.

Previous plans to visit Tapavino had been thwarted, but I decided, when I found a deal on Groupon, that I would make more of an effort to try it out. After all, I’d already spent my money to buy the voucher, and with an expiry a year down the road, I had plenty of time to make sure I used it.

I usually procrastinate until the very end. However, I’m proud of myself. Just seven and a half months after purchasing the deal, I invited my friend to join me for dinner.

We were the first to arrive on a Tuesday evening earlier this fall. When we walked in, the solo server working the front of house checked my OpenTable reservation and allowed us to seat ourselves wherever we liked. It’s a pretty cozy, rustic looking eatery with about 25 seats or so (about a third of them at the bar). Since it was still sunny out, we decided to sit by the window in the corner booth.

The server was very attentive. As we got settled, he brought us some water and menus. Both of us opted to drink tea with dinner. When we asked what kind of tea was available, we were brought a whole box of a variety of tea bags to look through. Some may think that’s kind of casual. Yet, I think it was nice of our server to let us take our time and select something we really wanted.

A close-up of the Patatas Bravas.

A close-up of the Patatas Bravas.

Moving along to the food, it made sense at a tapas restaurant to share a handful of dishes. Being that my friend has allergies to shellfish, a number of the options were omitted off the bat. But, we were still able to select a good mix of dishes, which included: hot artichoke dip, patatas bravas, spinach pies, spicy chorizo sausage and Spanish meat balls.

Our server did his due diligence by asking if we wanted to add any pasta and garlic bread to our feast (according to their site it’s free on Tuesdays when you purchase an a la carte item; although, I don’t believe that particular daily special applies when you’re using a Groupon). It seemed like we were ordering a lot of food, so we asked if what we picked would be enough for the two of us. Because he quickly told us that it would be plenty, we skipped the extras.

The three “sharing” vegetarian plates came out to our table first, but the two meat dishes followed soon after. It was a large spread that made it a little bit difficult to maneuver around the table as a few things were just a tad out of reach for me without having to pass the dishes back and forth. Really, if you think about it, it’s a testament to the portion sizes provided. The eatery did not skimp on any of the items we went with. I also liked that everything was essentially served to us at the same time because it allowed for us to make our own combinations of meat and sides as we ate.

What was left of the Spinach Pies when I remembered to take a photo.

What was left of the Spinach Pies when I remembered to take a photo.

To start, the hot artichoke dip wasn’t necessarily anything special when compared to what you might eat at other restaurants. However, the dip was creamy, thick and it paired well with the crisp pita chips. It hit the spot considering I hadn’t had a dip like that in quite a while.

Patatas Bravas is a native Spanish dish. We’ll call it a fancier version of hash browns. This particular rendition consisted of pan fried potatoes cooked in a spicy tomato sauce and drizzled with garlic aioli. It did have a bit of a kick to it that worked with the meat balls and chorizo.

I loved the spinach pies. A decadent version of spanakopita, the pastries were warm and the crust was super flaky. The spinach filling was especially good with a heavier hit of lemon that was made even more delicious with the accompanying yogurt dip. I think the last bite I ate during the meal was of the spinach pie as I always like to finish off with my favourite thing.

The Spicy Chorizo Sausage and the Hot Artichoke Dip.

The Spicy Chorizo Sausage and the Hot Artichoke Dip.

For our “mains,” the spicy chorizo sausage was cooked in a red wine tomato sauce and served with a few large pieces of crostini. Overall, it was a thinner sauce. Personally, a thicker sauce would have been more preferable with the crostini bread. It did help, though, that the sausage was served with a variety of sautéed veggies, providing the dish with different textures that otherwise may have been lacking.

Regarding the Spanish meat balls, they were large and succulent. These would probably have been fabulous with some of that pasta and garlic bread (I’ll be keeping this in mind for another visit). The balsamic marinara sauce provided a nice acidity to the meat, creating a great balance of flavour.

Their delicious Spanish Meat Balls in a balsamic marinara sauce.

Their delicious Spanish Meat Balls in a balsamic marinara sauce.

As much as we would have liked to, we weren’t able to fit anything in for dessert. It just wasn’t possible after polishing off all five plates.

The Groupon we had was valued at $50, and, all in, the food we ordered came to $55 before taxes and tip. If we had been less indulgent, this meal could have easily fed a third (maybe even a fourth) person.

Tapavino certainly makes it possible to have a nice time out on the town without breaking the bank. I’m looking forward to going back to try some of those seafood dishes and, perhaps, a dessert in the near future.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sabor Restaurant

Smoked Duck Carpaccio

Smoked Duck Carpaccio

Known for a menu that weighs heavily towards seafood, Sabor Restaurant wasn’t necessarily ideal for my friend’s birthday dinner. With an allergy to most shellfish, it could have been a disaster waiting to happen. However, they do offer a number of small plates, vegetarian dishes and a variety of other meat oriented entrees.

After she previewed several menus from a narrowed selection of eateries, my friend decided that Sabor was the one where we’d celebrate. The available dishes outside of the seafood realm were enough to convince her. Not so secretly, I was ecstatic that she picked Sabor. It’d been more than a year since I’d eaten there. I knew that the restaurant had rebranded and rejigged their menu, so I was excited to finally go back.

Arriving for our reservation on a Thursday evening, we were seated promptly by the far wall at a table for two. My friend was able to have full view of the space, which does have a slightly rustic European vibe to it. The pianist was also within sight, and while we dined we were treated to the lovely sound of live music.

Our server was very personable and, upon hearing of my friend’s allergy, he thoughtfully suggested other items for us. He was also willing to answer any questions we had.

We took a few minutes to choose what would actually end up in our bellies. Carefully, we selected an assortment that would satisfy our appetite while covering our bases – fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy and grains. What we ended up with was the liver pate, smoked duck carpaccio, lamb gnocchi and grilled eggplant.

Liver Pate

Liver Pate

The liver pate was a last second add-on. It isn’t something I would usually order, but our server said it was good and I was intrigued because it was made from a blend of chicken and smoked duck. A pot of the pate arrived at our table with a few large pieces of crostini. The pate, served cold, was dense, smooth and full-flavoured. The portion size was decent, too, for a six dollar starter. Any remaining pate was spread on fresh slices of bread.

Smoked Duck Carpaccio with bread and butter

Smoked Duck Carpaccio with bread and butter

Carpaccio, as mentioned in my previous review of Normand’s Bistro, is one of my favourite dishes. Trying smoked duck prepared in the same fashion as beef or bison was something to check off. Surprisingly, no matter the type of red meat offered, carpaccio is served with truffle oil and arugula 99 per cent of the time. I have nothing against that though. It’s a classic combination for a reason. The smoked duck was thinly sliced, which helped up the tenderness of the meat even more. I didn’t even have a problem with the thick border of duck fat on each slice; it pretty much melted away. A mustard vinaigrette provided an extra flavour profile.

Once we polished off our appetizers, we nursed our drinks as we waited for our mains to come. I will say that the service became a lot slower at this point. More of the tables had been filled, and our server had his hands full. But, he really did grab our entrees as soon as the kitchen finished making them. It just took the chefs a while to get to them, I guess.

On a time crunch, as we had tickets to an event that evening, we ended up having to rush through our last two plates.

Grilled Eggplant

Grilled Eggplant

Making sure we got some servings of fruits and vegetables, we ordered the grilled eggplant. Long slices of the purple fruit were folded over like taco shells that held a mix of tomato, goat cheese and basil. Each one was then topped with pine nuts, and salad with balsamic was served on the side. The synthesis of textures was nice and the dish was light. The piquancy of the generous dollop of goat cheese was the highlight.

Lamb Gnocchi

Lamb Gnocchi

Dinner was completed by the hearty lamb gnocchi, cooked in a vegetable and tomato ragu. The balls of potato pasta were plump and the lamb was prepared well (I wish there was a bit more meat though). As for the ragu, it was generously seasoned and included plenty of veggies.

Had we more time, we would definitely have tried a dessert or two. Unfortunately, we had to quickly pay our bill and dash over to our next venue. I was more disappointed about that because it meant no birthday dessert for my friend. On the plus side, our lack of time for a sweet ending simply means we’ll have to revisit Sabor at a later date.

Despite the leisurely pace of service, the pleasant staff seemed to be educated on the menu, and willing to give recommendations. Every dish we sampled was delicious and expertly crafted, too. If I’m to be convinced to return, that’s one of the most important things for me. Therefore, I expect I’ll be back on an evening when I know I have nowhere else to be.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment, visit The Local Good to read my profile of Sabor Restaurant.

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.