Edmonton Restaurant Review: Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

The open kitchen of Buco Windermere is surrounded by bar seating.

Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group expanded in mid-2015 with Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar in St. Albert. While I’ve never visited that location, a friend of mine is the executive chef at the newer Epcor Tower spot in downtown Edmonton. It’s just blocks away from Rogers Place. For me, the closest and most convenient is in Windermere.

My fiancé and I recently popped in to check it out. We spent an entire $65 OpenTable dining cheque on an indulgent Saturday afternoon lupper (lunch-dinner). The reason why we chose to go at that time is because they offer Social Hour specials daily from 2pm to 5pm and 9pm to close.

It’s nice and airy inside with an industrial feel.

Even in the middle of the day, there were a decent number of guests seated in both the industrial style lounge and dining room. However, there were just a few staff on hand, so service was a little slower than it should have been. It was worth it though, and it kind of forced us to sit there and enjoy our meal rather than quickly rushing through it all.

My Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail at the front and the featured Shock Top draft at the back.

To start, my significant other opted to go for their feature draft. At $5 for 12 oz. it was reasonable (regularly $7.50). That day’s option was Shock Top, so nothing too special. I chose to try their Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail ($5 for Social Hour, usually $9.50) — peach grappa, peach purée, white tea, and peach infused whipped cream. Our server said it took longer to make it because they had an issue with the whipped cream dispenser. That’s no big deal. I was more annoyed with the fact that it was so messy. The drink was filled so high that it was spilling down the sides of the glass and I got whipped cream all over my hands and the table. They never bothered to wipe that down or offered to bring extra napkins or anything. Other than that, I could have done without so much ice. The cocktail comes in a short glass, so the more cubes there are, the less drink there is, and I finished it really quickly.

For sustenance, we shared a Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 people ($12, typically $22), a Carne pizza, and a Fig Prosciutto pizza ($12 each, outside of Social Hour it’s $21). This was a ton of food and could easily have fed another couple.

Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 People

The cheese and charcuterie board was brought out as a starter, so we were able to snack on that first. This actually wowed us because we weren’t expecting the smaller size to be such an extensive spread. I think the only constructive feedback we have about this item is that it needs to come with more slices of bread. There were only two pieces per person. It meant the ratio of bread to cheese and meat was off, and it’d be nice to have more bread to balance everything out. Otherwise, the variety of cheese included a mix of both hard and soft textures and a range of mild to pungent flavours. The meats were also great. They stuck to the more familiar cured meats like prosciutto and salami, which ensures everything will be eaten when it comes to a chef’s choice type of situation.

For the pizzas, we were eventually asked if we were ready to have them fired up. We felt like we’d had enough of the board, so we said yes. It didn’t take too long for them to bake in their oven and they came out piping hot. The Carne is a pie layered with red sauce, meat, meat, and more meat. The toppings included short rib, Italian sausage, pepperoni, and bacon for the protein. Smoked caciocavallo and fior di latte filled the cheese quotient. This pizza was everything a meat lover could want as there was just so much of it and it was incredibly savoury. On the ligher side of scale, our Fig Prosciutto pizza is made without tomato sauce. It consisted of fontina cheese, fig jam, prosciutto, and balsamic drizzle. It has that salty-sweet combo that is appealing to a lot of palates. The crusts were easy to fold, crispy and slightly charred on the outside, and a little chewy in the middle.

Raspberry Ricotta Cake

Half of our meal was packed up to go as there was no way we could finish it all at once. But, we did save some room for dessert. In the end, we shared a slice of the beautifully presented Raspberry Ricotta Cake ($9). It was a bit more crumbly than I thought it should be despite the moistness of the ricotta and vanilla based cake. Still, the raspberry coulis, fresh berries, and fresh whipped cream did a good job of tying everything together.

We’ll definitely have to go back again soon to sample more items. Nevertheless, judging by what we’ve eaten there so far, overall, Buco Pizzeria’s menu is up to snuff. Where they can certainly use improvements is with the servers and management. They seemed kind of oblivious to the fact that they had guests. They were more preoccupied with setting up the restaurant for the evening and ignored current patrons unless they were blatantly waved at. It shouldn’t be a requirement to make full on eye contact with a staff member in order to get any service. They need to be trained to be more attentive. Hopefully, I’ll see changes with respect to that next time I’m there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sushi Shop

I plated my order from Sushi Shop at home.

Living in the deep southwest corner of Edmonton, there weren’t a whole lot of dining or takeout options when I first moved into the area. Thankfully, things have improved. In late 2015, I found a flyer for Sushi Shop in my mailbox. It’s a quick service chain restaurant located in the Currents of Windermere development (also available in Kingsway Mall, City Centre and Southgate Centre). The first under the brand originally launched out of Quebec and is born out of the MTY Group, which has brought other recognizable names like Jugo Juice, Mucho Burrito and Thai Express to strip malls and food courts everywhere. Sushi Shop coupons are delivered to nearby neighbourhoods on a seasonal basis, so I usually order from them maybe a dozen times throughout the year.

Before putting my thoughts down for this review, I happened across a bunch of write-ups from other customers on Yelp and Google, and, to some degree, I completely understand where some of the bad ones come from. Many of the terrible notes were more to do with the service. I’ve had my share of incidents with this location. Sometimes staff don’t pick up the phone even after multiple calls, the wait can be long for the food, they don’t necessarily acknowledge patrons as soon as they walk in, etc. But, this is one of the closest and more affordable sushi options at hand.

For the most part, I’ve rarely been disappointed with what we’ve gotten. While I do wish they’d use real crab meat instead of imitation, the quality has, otherwise, almost always been more than decent. Although, admittedly, while upkeep of the store has gotten better, the rolls have, for some reason, been found looking less desirable lately. The fillings spill out, the rice isn’t wrapped tightly enough, and sometimes the rice is softer than I’d prefer; however, it still comes across as fresh and everything tastes good. After numerous visits, my fiancé and I have learned to stick with what we know is tried and true. Usually, we only sample something new when there’s a coupon offering a free item with purchase.

Surprisingly, a few of the giveaways, including the Black Mamba Maki ($9.95), Diablo Blossom ($8.95), Philly ($8.95) or Dragon Eye ($9.95) Crispy Rolls, Lion Sumomaki ($7.95), and Teriyaki Bomb Temari ($7.95 for 4) have actually been pretty great. Others like the Magik Blossom ($8.95) have not been up to par (this one tasted off; I’m not sure if it’s always like that or if an ingredient in the roll was past due).

Some have said that the prices aren’t much less than what you would pay at a more formal sushi restaurant. Therefore, they don’t see the value in spending their money here. But, I beg to differ. The majority of the rolls are between $7 to $10. Equivalents elsewhere probably range from $11 to $15 per roll. On top of that, gratuity is required. At Sushi Shop, if I want to, I can just pay the bill outright and be done with it. I carry my food to go and I get to eat in the comfort of my home. Usually, for about $25 to $30, both of us are fed to the point of bursting, and that’s just not possible at other sushi joints in the city (perhaps save for Tokyo Express).

My fiancé tends to go for the rolls with fully cooked fillings like the Ebi Maki ($5.95) and California Classic ($5.95). It’s hard to go wrong with those ones. I’m a little more adventurous, but also cheap, so my top picks for affordability are the Sweetheart Maki ($7.95; contains minced salmon and smoked salmon), Akanasu — sun-dried tomato pesto and light cream cheese — with Avocado ($4.95), and Inari Nigiri ($3.75).

Honestly, Sushi Shop is perfect for a quick fix whenever you have a craving. It’s definitely not going to be the best sushi anyone’s ever had. But, why are people expecting that from a fast food joint in the first place? Set your expectations based on what you’re buying into and it’ll be fine.

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: Seasons Hot Pot (Closed)

My hot pot spread at Seasons.

I’m not one to have hot pot that often. For some reason, it’s just never at the top of my list when it comes to food. Yet, I’d been craving it for a while. Whenever I had the chance, I’d snap up Groupon deals. Unfortunately, before I had the opportunity to use it, the first one I bought for Chili Hot Pot fell through as it was cancelled by the business. So, when I saw that Seasons Hot Pot was offering a deal, I couldn’t pass it up.

Seasons Hot Pot is located at 109 Street and 23 Avenue just to the east of Century Park transit station. We dropped in on a Saturday afternoon for a family lunch. I had phoned the day before to make a reservation, but I had a feeling they didn’t actually make a note of it because the woman I spoke with forgot to even ask for my name. I had to offer it to her myself. My parents arrived ahead of us and let them know I had booked a table. It seems that my suspicions were correct because my mom said they were caught off guard. Still, it wasn’t crazy busy at 1:00 pm (the place filled up as we dined), and they got a spot right away.

Aside from the forgotten reservation, the service was pretty decent. While we were making our choices, both of the servers came by to see if we had any questions. They were more than willing to explain anything. Plus, when I inquired about the sweet potato noodles to make sure I was ordering what I thought I was, the one staff member even went to the kitchen to grab a strand to show me. I appreciated that.

At Seasons Hot Pot, their menu has two options: combos or create your own. Prices for the combos vary ($16 to $26) depending on the amount and type of meat selected. However, the cost includes the soup, which happens to be free during lunch hours, an assorted platter, and a bowl of noodles. The create your own menu stipulates a minimum spend of $15.95 with individual items ranging from $2 to $5 each.

My parents both decided to go with the Beef & Lamb combos, one with the plain chicken broth and the other going with the satay broth. My fiancé and I, on the other hand, chose to personalize our meals. He took on the heat with the spicy broth. I hoped to jazz things up with the curry soup. The two of us each ordered three plates of meat and three additional sides as well as some noodles.

Some of the sauces and condiments available.

First off, I will quickly say that the all of the soups, except for the spicy broth, were pretty bland. There was a hint of flavour to them, but nothing that was really able to saturate any of the ingredients. I think that’s why they offer so many different sauces and condiments. We also had to wave someone down to have extra soup added to our pots when they got low, and I also question whether or not it was actually soup that they poured in or if it was just plain water.

In any case, the important part was that I had a boiling pot of liquid to cook my food in, and there was a ton of food! If we’re talking about value for the money, I’d definitely recommend that visitors create their own hot pot meal. The combos were alright because there was a good mix of stuff, but for the price, there really wasn’t that much meat. The beef and lamb combos that my mom and dad ate had a total of about a dozen slices of meat per plate. Whereas I ordered the sliced beef, sliced lamb and sirloin beef. All in, I was looking at around double the portion of meat for approximately the same cost. In fact, after consuming my tofu puffs, pork dumplings, enoki mushrooms and my sweet potato noodles, I had to start sharing some of my lamb and beef with everyone else.

I think every kind of sauce or condiment one would want is here.

Since we had never been to Seasons Hot Pot before, I count this visit as a learning experience. If we go back, I know to: stay away from the marinated chicken (it’s tender, but in a too smooth way), avoid broccoli when having spicy broth because all of the tiny chili peppers get stuck in the florets, choose sirloin beef over sliced beef, mix sauces — satay, peanut and sesame — for amazing combinations, and order only what I truly like so nothing is wasted.

Was this the best hot pot I’ve had in Edmonton? No. It’s not. Some may also argue that they don’t have an all-you-can-eat menu like other hot pot places. Yet, how much can one really consume anyway? For about $20 per person, including tax and tip, all four of us left with full bellies. Neither my fiancé nor I ate dinner that evening. We didn’t have room for it. Therefore, for an affordable and more than passable lunchtime meal, check out Seasons Hot Pot. For those who live in the far southwest side of the city, it’s probably the closest restaurant of its kind to you, too.