Edmonton Restaurant Review: JOEY Restaurant Revamped Happy Hour (2019)

Tuna Poke Bowl

This weekend, Kirk and I ventured out to the JOEY Restaurant at Bell Tower. Located a couple of blocks from Rogers Place, it’s in the heart of the Ice District and it’s an ideal venue for pre-game gatherings.

While it’s incredibly dim inside, the design of the venue is beautiful. The two of us especially admired the indoor patio with it’s ball light fixtures, fireplace, rolling windows (closed during winter), and floor-to-ceiling wine cooler. Despite our love of that room, we ended up seated in the lounge alongside the brick wall, which has large hidden projector screens that are lowered when sports are on. The illumination emanating from those helpfully brightened my photos in the otherwise dark space.

Full disclosure before I continue, we were invited through my YEG Food Deals Instagram page to try JOEY’s revamped happy hour menu. It was launched right at the beginning of 2019, and it’s been heavily revised from their previous offerings in order to compete with the other two big players in the casual fine dining sphere, Earls Kitchen + Bar and Cactus Club Cafe. Both of those chains have been serving rather extensive happy hours for at least the better part of the past year, if not longer. JOEY Restaurant, on the other hand, had a very scant menu in comparison (a mere four or five drinks and maybe three food options).

Real Peach Bellini

On this occasion, JOEY Bell Tower took care of our first round of drinks. Everything else was ordered at our own discretion. As such, to start, Kirk ordered the JOEY Genuine Draft ($3.50) and I got the Real Peach Bellini ($4.50). The Bellini is a longtime staple, and a great cocktail that is cold, refreshing, sweet, and a touch tart. Kirk found the JOEY Genuine Draft to be a decent standard lager. To follow-up, Kirk tried the Parallel 49 Wobbly Pop Pale Ale ($4.50). Although the amber-coloured beer was hoppier, something that Kirk typically enjoys, it wasn’t for him as he found the flavour to be too soapy.

The majority of the items on the daily happy hour menu are discounted anywhere between $3 to $6 each from the regular prices, meaning the savings can be significant. If you’re okay to eat there during the hours of 3:00pm to 6:00pm or 9:00pm to close, then it’s well worth planning around those times. We considered this to be a fun night out for the week. Therefore, we decided to go to town with our meal.

We know no limits when it comes to happy hour.

Sharing is caring, so we split the Rosemary Garlic Fries ($4), Sliders Royal Duo ($8), Pesto Shrimp Flatbread ($10), California Chicken Club ($13) with fries substituted for a New Cobb Salad ($2), Seared Salmon Sushi ($13), and the Tuna Poke Bowl ($16). Technically, the last one was for me, but I offered some of the non-raw portion to Kirk (he declined).

This was a ton of food for a pair of people, so don’t order this much unless you genuinely want or need leftovers. In my case, I had half of a sandwich and two slices of flatbread for lunches this week. I also saved the majority of the rice, veggies, and wonton chips from the poke bowl to go with one of my at home dinners.

Rosemary Garlic Fries

I’ll begin reviewing based on our least favourite dishes to the ones we enjoyed most. Sadly, the Rosemary Garlic Fries were a miss for us. On the plus side, I found that the taste was amazing. The herb was heavily infused into the potato and the garlic wasn’t overpowering. The grainy mustard aioli provided for dipping was particularly delicious. What I didn’t like, and never really have at JOEY Restaurant, is the skinny cut fries. I’m not sure why they continue to insist on making these. They’re similar to McDonald’s fries, but, dare I say, worse. They always seem so dry, and they’re completely bland without the accompaniments.

The California Chicken Club is usually one of Kirk’s top picks at JOEY. However, it seemed as though the recipe had been changed slightly. The well-seasoned breast of chicken was still stacked with aged cheddar, smoky bacon, and spicy mayo. It contained some greens, too. We think it was spinach. Yet, the sandwich was missing the basil leaves that used to be included, which meant the pepperiness and hint of anise/mint was now gone. The aged cheddar wasn’t melted either. I would have preferred it to be heated and gooey rather than cold and speckled with condensation when it arrived at our table.

Side of New Cobb Salad

We replaced the side of fries to our club with the New Cobb Salad (actually, we had asked for Caesar salad, but this is what we received). I appreciated the combo of romaine and shredded kale and the Grana Padano dressing. I thought that the crispy bits inside the salad were croutons, but they may have been chunks of double smoked bacon (the taste wasn’t all that salty though…). There was also no egg, so that’s why I honestly assumed we were having a Caesar salad as requested until I saw our bill at the end of the evening.

As you may have gathered above, Kirk is not really into raw fish. While he did take a chance here and ate a whole piece of the Seared Salmon Sushi, he opted not to have anymore. I finished off the rest of the dish by myself. In Kirk’s opinion, it tasted too fishy as if the salmon wasn’t fresh enough. I begged to differ. From past experience, I know that different types of salmon have very distinct flavours. To me, this did have a stronger fishy flavour, but not in a way that tasted off and inedible. It was still good. The torched umami sauce on top gave the fish a creamier consistency, and the shaved slice of serrano pepper atop each piece of sushi added a touch of spice on the palate without being overwhelming.

Sliders Royale Duo

The Sliders Royale Duo is a super basic pair of miniature burgers. Other than a thinly sliced pickle, there were no other groceries. Admittedly, I took out the pickle when I realized it was there. I’d already bitten into it, so I can say that it wasn’t as strongly flavoured as others often used on burgers. I probably could have gotten away with eating this one and refrained from disgust. More often than not, I find pickles ruin the flavour of everything else because it’s the only thing you can taste after. With that removed, just a bit of American cheese and a dollop of secret sauce was left behind. The beef patty wasn’t that thick, but the meat was juicy and wonderfully seared. Simple and satisfying.

Tuna Poke Bowl

On my part, I thought that the Tuna Poke Bowl was great. It’d definitely be a filling dish should one choose to have this as their main. It’s created with a mix of brown rice, green papaya slaw, crispy wontons, edamame, tomatoes, radishes, cucumber, avocado, and diced sashimi grade ahi tuna. Drizzled with miso dressing, it’s potentially one of the “healthiest” items you’ll find at JOEY Restaurant.

Pesto Shrimp Flatbread

Both of us agreed that the Pesto Shrimp Flatbread was the best item we sampled. At first glance, I was worried that the dough had been overcooked as it looked past golden brown. Nevertheless, upon my initial bite, I was met with a pleasantly crisp exterior and fluffy middle. Laid with whole milk mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes, plump shrimp, chipotle aioli, and ribbons of basil, it was like a flavour explosion in every mouthful. For the price during happy hour, it’s perfect for a light late lunch or early supper.

I have to say that the service at this particular JOEY Restaurant is not ideal. We had multiple staff stop by to check on us, but it was hard to attract the attention of our own server when needed and it took three asks for water before we finally got some. Still, when it comes to the updated happy hour menu, it’s much improved from their earlier iteration. With an increased number of choices available (a dozen beverages and over 20 food items), there truly is something for everyone now.

Edmonton Business Review: The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery

It’s hard to miss The Colombian when driving west on Stony Plain Road.

Today, I thought I’d give a shout out to The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery. Those who know me well may be wondering why I’d be so bold as to write about a coffee shop when I don’t actually drink the beverage. Yet, this relatively new business is located in my old neighbourhood of Glenora and I thought I’d shine a light on it. Situated on 134 Street and Stony Plain Road, it sits right next to Vi’s for Pies, an area favourite.

When Kirk and I arrived at The Colombian on a Sunday afternoon, they were just a couple of hours away from closing up for the day. The place was packed with the majority of tables already taken. It’s a very long, narrow space, and they’ve done a pretty good job with it, so it doesn’t feel tight and claustrophobic. The high, open ceilings painted white definitely help. Otherwise, it’s pretty basic with minimal colours, simple wooden tables, chairs and benches, and industrial style pendant lighting.

The narrow space of The Colombian’s interior.

Once we ordered our drinks and my snack, we, at first, sat along a bench that faces their store shelves. T-shirts, cups, and bags of their house roasted coffee were up for grabs. It was sort of an awkward spot though. With tiny built-in tables, it kind of reminded me of the pop-up desks found in auditorium classrooms throughout university. Eyeing an empty back corner with a bench and a big tree stump table, we made a beeline for that instead.

Although there is a decent amount of seating in The Colombian, I don’t believe it’s necessarily meant to be comfortable. The solid benches are hard and most of the chairs are more like miniature stools without backs, offering little to no upper body support. Maybe that’s on purpose. Maybe it was just a cost saver. Regardless, I got the sense that the setting was more conducive to quick stays.

Drip Coffee and a Chai Latte ready to go, if needed.

Still, I enjoyed our time there and would be very interested to see how their coffee is made (the back of the shop is cordoned off and that is where they roast). Kirk ordered a simple Drip Coffee ($3.75 for a large). It smelled lovely, but he admitted he overdid it on the milk and sugar, so the true flavour was masked. Therefore, I can’t even give a proper second hand account of the coffee. From what I’ve read of other reviews, they have plenty of fans, so I’d recommend trying them out for yourself, if there’s an opportunity to go.

I sampled their Chai Latte ($5.50 for a large). It’s somewhat pricey; however, it was brewed and mixed with the milk well. Served at the perfect temperature for me, I thought the spices they used were super flavourful. They even garnished the light foam with extra cinnamon to give it some added oomph. I appreciated that as a serious cinnamon lover.

For those who are just hanging out with friends and would prefer something stronger, they offer a few draughts on tap and house wine. The options are few, but at least they are there.

As for the food, I’ve heard that they make a mean avocado toast. Personally, I’m a a tad weary to order it because there’s cilantro in the recipe, and I don’t want to throw $7 down the drain if I end up disliking it. Yet, anyone who doesn’t mind cilantro should give it a shot and let me know what they think.

The Pain au Chocolat was delectable.

Alternatively, I opted for a Pain au Chocolat ($3.60). It was freaking delicious and I had to ask where they came from. The answer was that they are baked in-house daily, but the pastries themselves are made in France. The company that prepares them flash freezes the dough before shipping them out to their vendors. They tasted fresh as if I bought it at a bakery in Paris. The pastry was soft and just a bit flaky, so everything still held together with each bite. The dark chocolate was divine, too. I’m not sure if the rest of their pastries are made in this manner as well. Either way, eat them all because I’m fairly certain they’ll be just as wonderful.

Part way through our time there, a server brought over a couple glasses of water for us. I thought that was a nice touch as we didn’t ask for anything. When I looked around, I noticed that they had done the same with everyone else. Talk about service! Before we left, one of the owners even popped by to do refills.

The coffee bar inside The Colombian.

The Colombian is most definitely a fantastic addition to Glenora. This is a neighbourhood that is pretty devoid of local cafes. Short of going another ten blocks to the east on 124 Street or about nine blocks in the opposite direction to 143 Street, there isn’t anything else like it in the vicinity. If our brief visit was any indication, The Colombian will be a staple here. I lost count of the number of people who came in and out in the hour we were there, and that’s a really great sign.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Rebel Food and Drink

Our spread at Rebel Food and Drink.

For most of my life, I lived in the Edmonton neighbourhood of Glenora. Down the road, on 142 Street, sat a restaurant called Piccolino Bistro. It was a favourite among locals, but I never understood the hype after visiting a couple of times. Then, mired in health code violations, the restaurant shuttered temporarily in 2016 to resolve those issues. Yet, even after the fixes, the establishment didn’t stay open much longer.

Their fun accent wall.

Last year, in swooped Century Hospitality Group (CHG). Known for several popular eateries around the city, they worked with former Piccolino co-owner, Lino Rago, to relaunch the space into something more modern. By late-November or early-December, Rebel Food and Drink was born.

In May, I dropped by with my family on a weekday evening to catch their Anarchy Hour (Happy Hour) specials. Monday to Friday, from 3pm to 6pm, and, again, from 7pm to close, on Sunday, premium well drinks, Rebel Lager, and select house wines are just $5. Shares and pizzas are $10 per plate.

Warm beer in mason jars.

My companions were solely concerned with hockey and beer, so they both ordered the Rebel Lager. Oddly enough, the establishment didn’t pour the sleeves of alcohol into regular glasses. The first round arrived in mason jars and the liquid wasn’t even cold. It seemed counter intuitive to sip on a lukewarm beverage, especially on one of the hottest days we’d had of late.

Since no one else was interested in looking at the menu, I took the liberty of choosing a few of the $10 items: Breakfast Pizza, Sausage Me Pizza, Macho Nacho Perogies, and Prawns & Peaches.

Breakfast Pizza

As far as the pizzas go, they’re really similar to what you’d find at their sister restaurant, The Parlour Italian Kitchen & Bar. The crust is relatively thin with a crisp exterior and chewy interior. It’s foldable and well-topped. On the night of, it was unanimously decided that the Breakfast Pizza — marinara sauce, bacon, sausage, tater tots, sunny side up egg, and green onions — was the winner between the two we chose. Their version of bacon was really baked prosciutto, so it had a smokiness to it. The broken yolk from the egg gave it a richness, and the flavours of each of the ingredients married together brilliantly.

Sausage Me Pizza

On the other hand, the Sausage Me Pizza — marinara sauce, fennel sausage, baby kale, mozzarella, chilis — lacked meat; it was difficult to discern any sausage was there. An overabundance of kale led to a watered down texture, too. Surprisingly though, the leftover slice I ate the following day was really good. In fact, I liked it more than the final piece of breakfast pizza. Go figure.

Macho Nacho Perogies

When the Macho Nacho Perogies arrived, I wasn’t sure if I’d made the right decision. They proved me wrong as they turned out to be great. Puffy pan-fried potato dumplings were smothered in a smoked gouda cheese sauce (the pièce de résistance), and then covered with crumbled nacho chips, tomatoes and green onions. They were almost addictive, and the sauce was perfect for dipping leftover pizza crust.

Prawns & Peaches

By far the best selection of the evening was the Prawns & Peaches. Sadly, there were only five prawns to split between three people. Still, the single one I had was wonderful. Lightly battered and fried until crisp, the honey prawns were then served with spicy garlic aioli and grilled sweet peaches. I’m the only one that ate the peaches, and I’m glad I did because they almost stole the show. Executive chef Tony Le definitely outdid himself with this take on a classic Chinese restaurant dish.

The interior is beautifully designed.

On the whole, the food was certainly decent for the price, but the service could use a little work. It started out attentive. However, by the end of our meal, our server was hard to come by. She didn’t bother to offer us a dessert menu, and she stopped refilling our drinks. A few of the seats are a tad too close to one another as well. Otherwise, the tables themselves are a good size (unlike the tiny ones at Hart’s Table & Bar, also owned by CHG, that don’t fit anything). What we did appreciate is that the stylish eatery is nearby my parent’s house, making it an ideal walkable location. They also have a wall that opens wide to allow outside air to flow in, which was super important in what felt like an non-air conditioned space.

Being that Rebel Food and Drink is only about seven months old, I understand that there will be growing pains. Hopefully, they can work them all out soon as I want to see this place succeed in becoming an integrated part of the Parkview and Crestwood neighbourhoods. Areas like this deserve to have their own local joints, and this can easily become one of them.

The neighbourhood seems to have embraced Rebel.

UPDATE June 23

I wrote the above earlier and preset the post. Since then, I’ve actually been to Rebel Food and Drink at least a handful of times. My Dad loves it there. I’m sure it’s because of the deals, as well as the proximity to home. Whatever the reason, I’ve been enough times now to expand on what I already mentioned above.

With each visit, we’ve sampled a few more dishes from the menu, including: The Penelope pizza, Lamb Lollipops, Mussels, Rebel Chz Brgr, Stk + Egg Carpaccio, and How We Rock & Roll lobster rolls. All of these, minus the burger, are part of their happy hour specials.

The Penelope Pizza

Beginning with The Penelope pizza, I’d have to say that it’s not really my top pick. I do love smoked salmon, and this one comes from the local Sgambaros. Yet, I feel as though the toppings are a lot lighter when it comes to this pie versus the others we’ve tried so far. I also find that they heavily powder the bottom of their pizzas with flour to keep the dough from sticking, and that leaves hands severely caked while eating.

Lamb Lollipops

Lamb isn’t to everyone’s taste, but it’s to mine and my family. While I was excited to try the Lamb Lollipops, they weren’t ideally prepared. Thankfully, the meat was still succulent. My issue is more with the way it’s cooked. They crust the lamb in panko breading and fry the lamb chops until they’re supposed to be crispy. The problem is the lamb chops end up sitting in this garlic herb oil or juice and, by the time it gets to the table, it ends up softening the breading too much. Plus, the frying makes it greasier, and I’d much prefer it without that slick sensation.

In contrast, the PEI Mussels — both in White Wine or Marinara sauce — are delicious. The bowls come filled to the brim with open-shelled mollusks (very few stayed closed) drenched in sauce. Grilled lemon can be spritzed on top and two big slices of garlic baguettes are provided to help sop up what remains. It’s enough to be considered a full meal for one or to be shared among a group.

On one occasion, my fiancé was craving a burger and opted to go for the Rebel Chz Brgr ($17) with added bacon ($1.50). Made with ground in-house chuck patties (double-stacked) and served with blanched fries, he couldn’t praise it enough. I think it’s within the list of best burgers he has ever had. I managed to get a couple of bites in, and I can agree that it hits the spot. It’s obvious the meat is fresh. They keep each patty thin, so that they cook through evenly and get a nice char on the grill. It reminded him of something from a mom and pop diner where there’s a nostalgia in terms of quality.

Stk + Egg Carpaccio

I’m a big fan of Carpaccio. Most eateries don’t serve it with any egg as that seems relegated more for tartare. But, the Stk + Egg Carpaccio at Rebel is pretty good. They thinly slice wagyu eye of round to create the base of the dish. It’s then brushed with pickled mustard seed and laid with a fried sunny side egg. An abundance of wild arugula and buttered toast points circled the dish. The meat wasn’t quite as tender as I hoped, coming across a little chewier than I’d like. Nevertheless, it was more than edible and the flavours and textures worked overall.

How We Rock & Roll Lobster Rolls

The How We Rock & Roll lobster rolls have been Maritimer approved by my fiancé, and it’s a big deal considering he’s very picky about his seafood. This is also probably one of my fave appetizers from Rebel. I enjoyed it so much that I ordered a plate of three all to myself during our last meal there. Mini sourdough loafs are buttered and grilled on the outside and then slit in the middle to be stuffed with a mix of rock lobster and garlic mayo. Green onions are used to garnish the miniature rolls. I’m not sure what else goes into the recipe, but we definitely noticed a kick of heat similar to Sriracha. Whatever it is, we recommend they keep doing it.

Having been to Rebel Food and Drink multiple times now, I will say that I was pleased to see that the service received on busy Sunday nights (even over a long weekend) was actually better than a quiet Monday evening. Maybe we were just there on a bad day the first time. All I know is that the staff were way more on the ball with a full house, which improved my perception a bit. The food also continues to impress. Fingers crossed it stays this way.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cactus Club Cafe

A couple of my favourite things at Cactus Club.

For the past few years, I’ve been sharing my top 24 picks for the best eateries in Edmonton (check out the 2017 list here). Even though I have never reviewed it until now, Cactus Club Cafe has been a mainstay within the rankings. A favourite ever since 2009 when they entered the city’s food scene with their West Edmonton Mall location, it’s interesting to see how their brand has developed and been embraced.

Cactus Club’s Retro Logo; Photo courtesy of their Instagram page.

I don’t know if anyone else remembers, but I recall going down Jasper Avenue as a child and seeing this big sign with a drawing of a smoking cow on it. That was the original Cactus Club logo from when they first attempted to expand into Alberta in the 90s. Should my memory serve me correctly, the building that once housed that iteration of the restaurant is now the Rexall pharmacy on 118 Street. My family never went there, and it seems many others in the city avoided it because it closed soon after.

The dining room of the Jasper Avenue location.

It wasn’t until a decade or so later that Cactus Club decided to give this market another go. This time, it was the place to see and be seen. On its best nights, patrons would willingly wait hours just to get a table for their large group of friends. They didn’t want to go anywhere else. The chain had gone from a funky eatery to a sleek establishment that served consistently upscale food and drinks. It was so successful and busy (it literally took away business from nearby competitors like Joey and Earls) that I’m actually surprised it took another four years before the company launched a second eatery on Jasper Avenue. About six blocks east from the one that failed in the nineties, it’s become a popular spot for locals to hang out as well.

Having frequented Cactus Club for almost a third of my life, I’ve developed a love of specific dishes. Some, such as the BBQ Duck Clubhouse and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar, are signatures of Chef Rob Feenie who joined the business as a “Food Concept Architect” in 2008 just before their foray back into this province. Sadly, I don’t make it to the restaurant as much as I used to, and, when I do go out, I really appreciate good deals.

The recently updated happy hour menu.

They’ve long offered happy hour specials at Cactus Club (available from 2pm to 6pm and 9pm to close, Monday to Saturday). However, they recently revamped the menu, a la Earls, to cover a greater variety of their dishes and drinks at a few stellar price points (I’ll be listing the lower prices here, so check their online menus for the regular costs). Therefore, when my fiancé and I wanted to celebrate our second anniversary together, we chose to go here. We still ended up spending over $100 on our meal for two, but we certainly didn’t skimp on anything (we ordered a lot). It gave me a great excuse to reacquaint myself with plates that I hadn’t eaten in a while.

As far as my significant other goes, he’s quite content with a beer, so he alternated between the Udder Pale Ale and Longboard Lager ($3 per sleeve). Those are brewed specifically for Cactus Club and have been staples for quite some time. I started with a Whiskey Ginger Smash ($5) cocktail. I really didn’t taste a whole lot of ginger. I enjoy it when you get the spice from the root, but it didn’t come through so much as the rosemary. My second libation of the night was their classic Bellini ($4). It’s basically an adult version of a slushie that tastes like a fuzzy peach in liquid form.

The rest of our dinner was a free-for-all. We ordered two Mini Burgers and two Mini Crispy Chicken Sandwiches ($4 per slider), one for each of us. On the side, we shared a bowl of the Truffle Fries ($4). We split the Ravioli + Prawn Duo ($8), Pesto Chicken Quesadilla ($8), and the Blackened Creole Chicken ($20).

Honestly, of all the things we selected, we weren’t sure that the sliders were of great value. Sure, a few bucks are saved in comparison to the regular appetizers, but they’re pretty small on an individual basis. Despite the size and amount of meat, the flavour was there. I did remove the pickles and onions as I’m not a fan. Still, the chicken was clearly white breast meat, the sambal mayo gave it a little bit of a kick, and the mild, nutty Swiss cheese provided a balance. What made the mini burgers delicious was the red pepper relish and Dijon mayonnaise atop the perfectly charred Angus beef.

I almost forgot to include the Truffle Fries. Thankfully, I remembered part way through our meal. These were so yummy. The potatoes were fried to a golden brown and then doused in truffle, herbs and grated Grana Padano cheese. A small saucer of garlic aioli accompanied the fries, taking them to another level.

Ravioli + Prawn Duo

Instead of a trio of ravioli, the happy hour deal offers a duo of the dish. Two large pockets of pasta hold butternut squash and mascarpone. It’s cooked in a decadent truffle butter sauce and then served with a sautéed jumbo prawn placed on each square. Pine nuts and fried sage leaves garnish this masterpiece. The shrimp was plump and juicy. The ravioli and sauce is rich. The sage and pine nuts give it an air of earthiness. This is one of their standards for a reason.

Pesto Chicken Quesadilla

It’s funny to find something as simple as a quesadilla on a menu where they seem to lean more towards high-end than casual. Yet, the one at Cactus Club works. Admittedly, I’ve never much appreciated the triangles and strips of tortilla chips that anchor the plate (I’d rather fries or a salad without the additional cost to upgrade). Nevertheless, the Pesto Chicken Quesadilla is on point. It comes down to the combination of ingredients. There’s the herbaceous zestiness from the basil pesto, sweetness from the sundried cranberries, melted cheesy goodness, smoky grilled chicken, and a slight sweet-sour flavour from the light honey lime dip. This is something that I used to emulate at home because it’s a recipe that was accessible, easy, and satisfying.

Blackened Creole Chicken

The final entrée we shared was the Blackened Creole Chicken. I’d never tried this one before, so it was new to me. Outside of happy hour, it’s usually over $25, so there was about a twenty per cent savings on this dish. I’m not sure it was worth the money though. It was a decent amount of food, for sure. However, a lot of it consisted of the buttered mashed potatoes. Also, while I could eat asparagus for days, the stalks we received were overgrown with the woody ends still there. Proper preparation calls for the bottoms to be snapped off, leaving only the tender portion of the greens behind. Other than that, the chicken (skin on) was well-seasoned and succulent.

Beef Carpaccio

We must have been done by now, right? For my fiancé, that would be a yes. For me, that was a hard no. Before leaving, I indulged in an order of their Beef Carpaccio. It’s been a favoured Cactus Club item of mine, and it’s one that I always return for. On this occasion, a few pieces of the crostini were a tad too toasted. Nonetheless, they tasted wonderful with baked-in garlic, drizzled in olive oil, and sprinkled with herbs and cheese. The super thinly sliced peppercorn-crusted beef tore apart at the sight of a fork. I carefully curated each bite with meat, Dijon aioli, a fried caper, pickled onion, arugula, and a cut of Grana Padano. This is truly the best.

When all is said and done, Cactus Club does a ton of things right. From a mix of atmospheres within the same restaurant (patio, lounge and dining room are all different) to the magic that happens in the kitchen to the well-trained front of house staff, it’s clear that this homegrown company is here for the long haul. They’ve learned from mistakes made early on and they’ve taken those lessons to grow this chain into a Canadian empire that appears to have the legs to go even further should they choose to. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Cactus Club name on an international scale. For now, I’m happy to have it in my backyard.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: New Dragon Palace

Peking Duck

For as long as I can remember, my parents and I have been frequenting New Dragon Palace Seafood Restaurant (17743 98 Avenue). I suppose it’s just one of those places that becomes a standard, so much so that my fiancé had to ask me why we go there so often. But, it’s family-run and, the owners know who we are, which offers that feeling of familiarity. Plus, as with most Chinese eateries, they’re always open, even when every other business is closed.

Our most recent occasion to visit was over the Chinese New Year weekend. We went in on the Family Day holiday Monday. Walking into the establishment is like stepping back in time to the late eighties or early nineties with washes of muted pinks and greens. Still, they’ve kept it up okay and the space is quite tidy and clean. Although, I do find that their utensils and dishes can feel kind of filmy from washing, I just give them a quick swipe with a napkin and let it go.

We never veer far from our usual menu items: deep fried chicken, sizzling beef, sweet & sour pork, and Chinese broccoli when we want to incorporate some veggies. When we really want to celebrate, we get Peking duck. This time, we made sure to pre-order the latter dish to ensure that we wouldn’t miss out.

It didn’t take long for our food to start making its way out of the kitchen. The fixings for the duck — hoisin sauce, julienned carrots and cucumber, and shreds of scallions — were laid out first while the bird was being prepared. When the wraps and sliced duck came out, I was ready to pounce. While everything looked and tasted great, I was somewhat disappointed because there wasn’t actually a whole lot of meat on the skins. In fact, there was a lot more fat than anything else, turning the wraps into grease pockets. I had to scrape a lot of the fat off to make them more edible. It was a far cry from our last Peking duck at New Dragon Palace, which was perfectly cooked and meaty with a minimal layer of fat and super crisp skin. Of course, I don’t completely blame the restaurant as it’s hard for them to know how the duck will turn out until they actually prep it and take it apart.

What I do love about Peking duck is that the whole bird is used. Along with the wraps, the kitchen also makes a wonderful duck soup using the bones. The cream-coloured broth is savoury and smooth, improved even further with wilted greens and chunks of tofu. I will usually have at least a few bowls during my meal. Additionally, the remaining meat of the duck is sauteed with bean sprouts and carrots into an earthy stir fry that goes so well with a bowl of white rice.

A half order of the deep fried chicken.

The deep fried chicken is always a delight because they get the skin so crispy, yet the meat is still tender inside. The dark garlicky soy-like sauce is a must to drench chicken and rice in. My only wish is that there were more pieces of white meat in each order as, lately, I have found the pieces of half chicken to be rather bony.

We all enjoy the sizzling beef as it comes to the table so hot. Aside from a slice or two that were too chewy to eat, the meat was, otherwise, thick, succulent and well-marinated with plenty of sauce.

The sweet and sour boneless pork.

Last, but never least is the sweet and sour boneless pork. The meat is battered and fried until crisp and then it’s mixed into a sweet and sour sauce with peppers, onions and pineapple. The balance of flavours and the retention of the crisp outer shell of the pork is why we keep going back to it.

To finish off the meal, a complimentary tong sui (sweet, warm soup) is provided. It typically ranges from red bean to tapioca, neither of which are my favourites, at least the way they prepare it. For the new year, I was in for a treat though. We got bowls of almond soup with black sesame dumplings (filled glutinous rice balls), often served during special occasions. These were a real treat. When my fiancé opted not to eat his, I happily helped myself to seconds.

I was so excited to eat at New Dragon Palace again for Chinese New Year. The kitchen had hit it out of the park on our previous visit. However, comparatively, I wasn’t as impressed in February. Each dish seemed smaller in size, more sloppily made, and less fresh than before. It’s possible that someone else was running the show, which could account for the difference in quality. Consistency is probably one of the restaurant’s main issues. The problem is, customers can’t tell ahead of time what they’re going to get on any given day. They basically have to hope for the best.

What is great about the eatery is the value. Five of us ate that day for about $110 after tax and tip was included. Not only did everyone leave with their bellies full, we also left with a handful of containers to take home, too. If the cost justifies the caliber, then I think things are on par here.