Edmonton Restaurant Review: Izakaya O-Tori

Izakaya & Ramen

Last year, Edmonton was abuzz with news of a new Korean-Japanese fusion restaurant called Jang located at 11212 Jasper Avenue. They were getting rave reviews from visitors, and I fully intended on trying it out. But, before I knew it, the eatery had been replaced by a spot called Izakaya O-Tori. Being a fan of Japanese ramen and sharing plates, I decided to drop by during a recent date night.

From what the server told us, it turns out that the business is still run by the same people who launched Jang. They simply opted to change their menu. Because of what is now served, they also chose to rebrand with a different name to better reflect the updated items. Now, Izakaya O-Tori holds more similarities to what you might find at their southside sister restaurant, Menjiro Ramen, just expanded.

Therefore, in addition to the ramen bowls — available with either beef (Gyukotsu; not typically the norm for ramen) or pork (Tonkotsu) broth — you can indulge in yakitori (meat skewers), a variety of waffle fries, a poke bowl, or pressed sushi. Kirk and I both went for some ramen; he ordered the Spicy Gyukotsu ($16) and I went with the Black Garlic Tonkotsu ($14). We also shared the Red Dragon Roll ($17).

Spicy Gyukotsu

I guess the first thing I’ll note is that the Spicy Gyukotsu is somewhat pricey considering the portion size. I don’t think that the bowls are quite as hefty as what you might get at local fave, Tokiwa Ramen, yet it’s more expensive. Kirk also wasn’t super keen on the roast beef that came with it and he thought the broth wasn’t hot enough. On the plus side, I sampled the soup and I found it to be incredibly creamy and rich in flavour with just the right amount of heat on the palate for me.

In comparison, the Black Garlic Tonkotsu broth was also smooth, but felt lighter overall. Packed with umami flavour, the springy noodles married very well with the soup and the huge slice of succulent pork belly. Joined by half of a seasoned egg, bean sprouts, green onion, fungus, and red onion, the bowl provided a landscape of textures that delighted and satisfied. I thought my broth was hot enough, too; however, I’ve never liked my food scalding, so to each their own in that respect.

Despite the tasty ramen, the star of the show really was the Red Dragon Roll, a large maki made with shrimp tempura, cucumber, spicy creamy cheese sauce, ahi tuna, and avocado. It was laid in front of us and then torched at the table until the tops of each piece had been delicately seared. Kirk is slowly coming around with more of the raw fish, so it helps when there’s even a slight bit of cooking applied to sushi. He absolutely loved this dish and told me that he would have been happy to eat the whole thing, if he didn’t have to save some for his better half. Admittedly, I felt the same way.

To finish off our meal, I selected the Matcha Crème Brûlée ($6). The sugar top was caramelized nicely and, once cracked, it gave way to a soft-set pudding-like custard. It was heavily flavoured with green tea, which was perfect. The worst thing is not having a strong enough taste, and thankfully, that wasn’t the case here.

The interior of Izakaya O-Tori

We enjoyed our meal at Izakaya O-Tori. It’s clean, the service is great, the decor is simple, and the food is comforting. The only thing we thought was odd was how empty it was for a Saturday night. Hopefully word gets out about this place. We can never have too many ramen shops in town!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: vivo Ristorante (Windermere)

Bruschetta & Ricotta

I’m always looking to try new eateries, so I was super excited to hear that vivo Ristorante was opening a Windermere location, which is in my neck of the woods. In late spring, they welcomed patrons into the space previously occupied by Chili’s (layout remains the same). At first, the reviews seemed somewhat dire, so I was apprehensive to go right away; we waited until this month before we ventured over.

Now, to be fair, this iteration of vivo Ristorante is not the same as their two other restaurants in west Edmonton or Sherwood Park. Although I’ve never been to either of those (yet), they have a reputation for serving upscale Italian food. While the menu still leans towards Italian-style dishes in Windermere, the atmosphere is a lot more casual and they’re catering towards a clientele that wants to have an enjoyable meal out without breaking the bank.

Their menu is reasonably priced with the most expensive pizza/pasta/burger coming in at $18 and the majority of the mains in the mid-twenties range. Plus, they offer a daily happy hour that includes drink specials or food items such as arancini, meatballs, and bruschetta from 2:00pm to 6:00pm and again from 10:00pm to close for a steal.

Beer & Cocktails are on special during happy hour!

When we dropped by during the August long weekend, we found out that on Mondays they have all day happy hour, so even though it was past their usual time frame, we were able to take advantage of the deals. Kirk got a Snake Lake draught ($6 after a $3 discount) and I got a High Tea signature cocktail ($11 after $3 off). I found the beer to be pretty good; it was cloudier than expected, but it was smooth and didn’t leave a lingering bitterness at the end. The High Tea cocktail had two ounces of alcohol in a small glass, so it was initially quite potent; however, after some food, the flavour seemed to mellow and it was pleasant to sip throughout our meal.

To eat, we shared a few happy hour plates (all up to fifty per cent off) including four Meatballs ($0.97 each), four Sliders ($2.50 each), and Bruschetta ($5). Additionally, I wanted to try their Brussels Sprouts ($9), and Gnudi ($16) for some variety. The food was prepared quickly and, before we knew it, dishes were being presented at our table.

Sliders

I’ll start with the Sliders because we did have an issue with them. The patties in the first batch that came out actually had raw centers. We made our server aware of the problem, and she was quick to take them away and offered to either have the dish taken off of the bill or to have them remade. We still wanted to eat the miniature burgers, so we asked that the kitchen just make a second order for us. They turned out much better. Fully cooked all the way through, the all-beef patties were juicy on the inside with a nice char on the outside. The sweet pepper relish, provolone cheese, and vivo sauce hit the spot with a mix of salt and sweet. When we got the bill, I saw that they actually comped both the original plate and the replacement for us, which I thought was excellent on the part of their management and staff.

Continuing with the meats, vivo’s Meatballs are made with all-beef as well. They’re covered in a rich marinara sauce with a decent sprinkling of asiago cheese and focaccia crumbs. The balls were pretty succulent and they fell apart easily with a fork. Since you can order as many as you want from the happy hour menu, I recommend getting them as a side to one of their meatless pasta dishes.

I was surprised by the portions of the Bruschetta, which not only came with the diced compilation of sweet bell pepper, jalapeno, and roma tomato, but also included a generous bowl of herbed ricotta cheese with grape tomatoes, basil, and mint oil. Five or six large slices of crostini completed the dish. It was light and refreshing, and, despite having jalapeno in it, it was not spicy.

The wonderfully fried Brussels Sprouts were a different take on the veggie in that they were served in a spicy honey. The requisite crispy pancetta was there for the savouriness, but the heat and the sugar was unique. Most other restaurants avoid the sweet route with Brussels sprouts whereas vivo jumped right in. It totally works, especially when the tiny cabbages are fried so beautifully and the honey plays off the smokiness of the charred leaves.

Gnudi

My pasta dish came out a little later as a main course, but I snacked on the Gnudi between helpings of everything else that we were still working on. It also arrived with a rolled slice of crispy pancetta that I broke apart and stirred into the sauce. The meat provided hits of salt that cut through the otherwise bright and citrusy in-house lemon cream sauce. Green peas and pine nuts brought in texture that balanced out the pillowy pieces of fresh-made toasted ricotta and spinach gnocchi. A thick slice of garlic toast came with the dish, too. I was worried it might be overly crunchy, but it was actually perfect and soft in the middle, making it the ideal vessel for sopping up any leftover sauce.

In the end, I didn’t have anything to worry about with vivo Ristorante. The service was attentive and caring; they went out of their way to make things right. Sure, they have some poor reviews online. Yet, I think most of them were from patrons of their other locations who expected the same sort of menu and upscale quality they were used to. They didn’t realize that the new vivo Ristorante Windermere was aiming to be more relaxed with a very unpretentious menu. It’s not five-star dining by any means, but the food is affordable and satisfying nonetheless.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Situation Brewing

The interior of Situation Brewing.

Often times, when we’re driving by Whyte Avenue, we pass Situation Brewing along Gateway Boulevard and see patrons enjoying drinks and food behind their big glass windows or on their sidewalk patio. I’d only been once before, but it was at least a couple of years ago, so it’s been on my list to revisit for a while.

 

On the weekend, Kirk and I decided to make it our stop for date night. We arrived at around 6:30pm on the Saturday and found it to be surprisingly empty. There were other customers, yet it was by no means full, although it did get busier later into the evening. Still, with the few groups near us, it was noisy. The surrounding glass, flat walls, and open ceiling created a lot of echo. If you’re loud or with people who can project their voices, it’s fine; however, for anyone else who might be hard of hearing or who prefers not to have to yell across the table, you may want to seek out an alternative.

It took a few minutes for our server to greet us, but once he did, he was quite attentive, checking on us regularly without being intrusive. Kirk was trying to be good before the wedding, so he skipped on the beer, but I ordered a pint of the Salty Señorita Kettle Sour ($9). I always find that Situation Brewing does sours really well. There is the tartness that hits the tongue, but it doesn’t linger. It subsides fairly fast to reveal the other flavours in the beer at the back of the throat. This one was no different.

For our food, we shared an order of the Brussels Sprouts & Cauliflower ($15). A mix of the veggies were sauteed in garlic butter and topped with shaved Parmesan. Personally, I thought that the level of garlic was perfect as it added the right amount of spice. The cheese brought in some extra salt and nuttiness. We would have liked for the sprouts and florets to have more char though; they weren’t exactly crispy enough, otherwise. I also found that the price was rather high considering the size of the dish. With only about five pieces of cauliflower and four whole sprouts, it didn’t feel worth the cost.

Our handheld entrees fared better with both Kirk’s The Big Stitch ($18) and my Lamb Burger ($17) satisfying our appetites. Both of us opted to stick with the house-cut fries as our accompanying side. Those were prepared to a beautiful golden yellow colour with a nice crunchy exterior giving way to a soft center. They were also lightly seasoned with spice that provided a hint of heat on the palate.

The Big Stitch is a burger that consists of a seven ounce patty of beef and boar topped with thick cut bacon, grainy dijon mustard, fig ketchup, lettuce, tomato, and cheddar between a brioche bun. The bun held together well until the last bite (it’s the worst when your bun falls apart). I had a couple mouthfuls of Kirk’s meal and it was tasty even though the patty was drier than both of us would have liked. Cooked until well done, the meat was more of a brown-grey than reddish brown in colour. The flavour from the char was good though and the fixings were appropriate. It’s also a hefty burger that fills you up.

I thought that my six ounce Lamb Burger could have used some extra feta cheese and the cucumber, mint, and pickled onion relish, but I really enjoyed the taste. It was refreshing and light, which is perfect for a summer meal. The bursts of juice from the cucumber gave the meat some succulence. The patty was also charred well and the combination of lamb and boar provided a decent ratio of lean to fat while also cutting the gaminess of the lamb that some people (excluding me) don’t like.

We were too full to grab dessert on this occasion, but we’ll certainly be back to try more at Situation Brewing, including happy hour. Next time, we’ll probably attempt to visit at a quieter time of day and also ask to be seated away from the larger tables, so it won’t be as noisy and we can converse more easily. Otherwise, Situation is an awesome pub with a satisfactory menu and a great selection of their own house brews.

Edmonton Business Review: Made by Marcus

The queue during opening weekend was pretty long.

I’ve been following Made by Marcus on Instagram for at least a couple of years now. Originally based out of Calgary, this beloved local ice cream shop has now made its way north with a back alley store on Whyte Avenue and 104 Street. With infrequent visits south, I never had the opportunity to try Made by Marcus before, so I was happy to learn that the Edmonton location had finally rolled out the welcome mat at the end of June.

The lines were long during their first weekend in business, so I decided to wait a bit before going. Kirk and I actually bought tickets for a Secret Streetcar Show around mid-July, so it made perfect sense to go for a late night ice cream run after the concert. As we turned to enter the alley at 10:00pm in the evening, the bright pink shop at the end of the lane was like a beacon. Although there was a door to the side, no one really used it since the front of the shop was completely open. Surprisingly, it was still busy. The queue didn’t run down the whole alley, but it still snaked through the space and most of the indoor seating was occupied. A few benches were also placed outside to accommodate overflow.

The Made by Marcus menu.

Thankfully, it didn’t take too long before we made it to the counter. With three staff on hand to scoop and another to process payment, there seemed to be a decent rhythm. A kids scoop is $3, a “single” scoop of ice cream is $5 and can be split into two flavours, a “double” scoop is $7 and you can probably choose three flavours, and a flight is four scoops for $9. Waffle cones are an extra dollar each.

Waffle cone makers!

Kirk and I decided to share a flight without any added waffle cones. It took a while for us to pick four out of the dozen plus flavours (I think they usually have even more to choose from), but we eventually got it down to the Lemon Curd Blueberry, Tahini Cookie Dough (Vegan), Moonshine Brown Butter Pecan, and Bananas Foster & Rum Caramel.

The first thing I will say about Made by Marcus ice cream is that the quality is top notch. The flavours are strong and the small batches are extremely creamy and smooth, making for a very rich and decadent dessert. It felt like silk as there was not an ice crystal to be found.

Our ice cream flight includes four flavours for $9.

To be completely honest though, not all of the flavours we chose lived up to my expectations. I was really excited for the Lemon Curd Blueberry, which is a signature flavour. I thought it’d be citrusy, sweet, and refreshing. And, it was a first. The tongue was initially hit with a pop of zest from the lemon curd and sweetness from the cream and blueberry; however, what lingered at the end was an incredibly bitter aftertaste. I truly thought that the Lemon Curd Blueberry would be my favourite, but it ended up dead last.

The Tahini Cookie Dough is a vegan option, so it’s also lactose-intolerant friendly. If you don’t already know what it is, tahini is a spread made from toasted ground sesame seeds. It has a really nutty flavour to it, but it’s not as pronounced as a black sesame ice cream, for example. This was probably one of the more subtle tastes out of the four scoops we got. I didn’t mind the flavour, but I was hoping for more chunks of cookie dough throughout.

Clockwise from the top left: Tahini Cookie Dough, Lemon Curd Blueberry, Bananas Foster & Rum Caramel, and Moonshine Brown Butter Pecan.

Since Made by Marcus is known for their experimental flavours and collaborations with other local businesses, I’m going to assume that the Moonshine Brown Butter Pecan makes use of a moonshine alcohol in some way. If it was supposed to be there, I didn’t find that the flavour of the liquor came through much, but the brown butter did add to the nuttiness and amplified the taste of the pecan pieces.

Our top pick was most definitely the Bananas Foster & Rum Caramel. The flavour was spot on with the banana tasting natural and not artificial. There was a hint of the rum, but nothing overpowering, and the caramel brought in the perfect amount of sweetness. Kirk and I practically fought over this scoop because he kept eating it and touching nothing else.

A late night visit to Made by Marcus.

After trying Made by Marcus for the first time, I certainly understand the hype more than I used to. The standard of their ice cream is ridiculously high and they put a lot of effort into creating the unique flavours that they’ve come to be known for. Not every flavour is going to be a hit for everyone (Dill Pickle & Peanut Butter is an acquired taste, right?), but with the number of choices available, there’s bound to be something you’ll like amongst the signature, seasonal, and vegan options. While Edmontonians are warriors who will eat ice cream even in the dead of winter, make the most of your nice summer and pop into Made by Marcus for a cone or two!

Edmonton Business Review: Cafe Lavi

Cafe Lavi has a cute little outdoor patio.

It’s all too easy to frequent coffee shop conglomerates like Starbucks. They’re practically on every corner and, when you can’t think of anywhere else to go, it becomes the fallback choice. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s important to remember that there are many locally owned businesses that have similar offerings without giant corporations behind them. Those are the ones that we should be supporting.

This weekend, we knew we’d be downtown for an event, so it made sense to double up on the fun by making additional plans with a friend. It’d been a while since we’d had a chance to meet; a casual get together over caffeine seemed ideal. My relaxed go to spot for a latte is usually DOSC, but this time, I wanted to try somewhere new. When I did a search, I was reminded about Cafe Lavi.

Located at 103 Street and 100 Avenue, it’s actually ridiculously close to my office. Yet, I’d never been there before. Reviews were high on Google, so I deemed it the perfect pick. The cafe itself is housed in the lower level of an older brick facade building, which may make you think that it’d be dark and secluded; however, that’s far from the case. They’ve got a lovely little gated outdoor patio, and inside, the wall of windows actually brings in plenty of natural light. It’s a fairly large space, too, with seating for about 30 people, including a cozy nook with a couch and a couple of armchairs.

The drink menu is pretty succinct and they have a few pastries on offer.

When we arrived mid-afternoon, it was quiet. Only one other customer was hanging out at the coffee bar chatting with the staff member who greeted us as we walked up to the counter. Cafe Lavi sticks to a small menu with more basic drinks: espresso, macchiato, americano, cappucino, flat white, latte, mocha, and cold brew. For tea-based beverages, they offer chai latte, london fog, and matcha latte. Drinks start at $3.25 and go up to $6.50, although I should note that the listed prices already include tax. Almond, coconut, and soy milk substitutes are available for an extra charge of 50 cents. They also had a few baked goods that looked quite delicious, but I wasn’t a fan of the fact that they were left uncovered at all times.

Ultimately, I opted for a large Chai Latte ($5.25). It was served in a to go cup because their to stay mugs are all one size, closer to the small. The latte was fine, but it wasn’t anything special. Literally a tea bag steeped into water and milk. I really was hoping for something more homemade from a neighbourhood cafe.

On the other hand, Kirk decided to cool off with a large Cold Brew ($4.75). It was recommended by the barista over a regular iced coffee for the greater intensity of flavour. A little room was left in the to go cup for Kirk to add in milk. What I liked about this beverage was the option for water ice cubes or coffee ice cubes. I’ve never gone to a coffee shop and been asked that question, so it was a first and really genius. Coffee ice cubes will melt, adding to the overall coffee taste as opposed to the other, which would water the drink down. I definitely think more cafes should start doing this.

Sadly, our time at Cafe Lavi was cut short — we continued on at Board N Brew just a block away — as they closed an hour earlier than normal (Saturdays they are usually open until 5:00pm) to accommodate a private party (it’s honestly an adorable space for an event). Still, I’d happily go back here. While the drinks didn’t wow me as much as I would have liked, the space, ambiance, and friendly service make it worth the visit. And, next time, I’ll have to try a Matcha Latte instead. Who knows? That might be where they excel.