Edmonton Restaurant Review: Blowers & Grafton

Relaxing with a pint at Blowers & Grafton.

Driving down Whyte Avenue earlier this summer, I noticed the facade of a new establishment called Blowers & Grafton (10550 82 Avenue). Touting itself as a place for Halifax Street Food, I was immediately excited since Kirk is from New Brunswick and I had a hunch that he’d like it. Nonetheless, at the time, it was put on the back burner. Then, fast forward about a month when we decided to meet up with some friends for a bite to eat over the first weekend of the 37th Annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. This ended up being our pick of the day.

Blowers & Grafton has a casual space with a distinctly East Coast feel.

We arrived just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday. The place was about three-quarters full and we managed to get seated right away. It’s actually quite a nice space with tables spread out well, so customers aren’t draped over each other. There’s a distinctly vintage rustic industrial design with open ceilings, original beams, brick, lots of stained woods, Edison bulbs screwed into pipes, warehouse-style pendant lighting, and upholstered metal stools. The only shots of colour in the place come from the reddish faux brick walls and a faded denim shade as seen on the seats and towards the back of the pub. To decorate, they’ve hung historic photographs of Halifax throughout. As our friends mentioned, the Edmonton location is much better than the initial hole in the wall built in Calgary. Overall, it’s comfortable and it immediately feels like a decent hang out spot.

So, for those who aren’t aware, Blowers & Grafton is a famous intersection in Halifax otherwise known as Pizza Corner. It laid claim to the name due to the number of shops that populated each quarter of the crossing streets. I’ve only been there once before and, if I recall, it’s no longer overrun with pizza. Although, other snacks like poutine may give the pies a run for their money. Both of those items are definitely on offer here, along with donairs, fish n’ chips, clams, scallops, and mussels.

The elusive B&G bottles. They’re hoping to stock these here as well. These were just a treat from the owner.

They have made a concerted effort to stock East Coast beers for half of their taps; however four of the six are standards like Alexander Keith’s and Moosehead. The rest of the options are Canadian brews with two coming from Alberta. This includes a B&G Wheat ($6.50) created specifically for Blowers & Grafton, likely by Minhas Micro Brewery out of Calgary as that company also created their standard bottled lager, which is currently only served at the Calgary location. NOTE: Happy Hour drink specials happen Monday to Friday from 3pm to 6pm and Sunday to Thursday from 9pm to close. Check my YEG Food Deals page for details.

The Bluenoser Cocktail

They also have an adequate cocktail list from which I selected The Bluenoser (our lovely server suggested it). In a mason glass was mixed a vodka base with St-Germain liqueur to give it a hint of elderflower. Additionally, flavours of lemon, lavender, blueberry and mint made up the remainder of the recipe. Honestly, considering the short cup, it didn’t seem to consist of two ounces of alcohol; this beverage was incredibly drinkable. I absolutely recommend stirring it up before sipping on it though. It’ll ensure that all of the ingredients meld together to create a full profile. Otherwise, it can be rather bland at first.

Foodwise, Kirk had his heart set on the Garlic Fingers ($13.50) with Bacon Bits ($2). I chose the Mini Lobster Rolls ($22). Our friends went for the Garlic Fingers (a group with three Maritimers cannot share a single order peacefully), too, and they added a basket of Brothers Fried Pepperoni on the side ($13).

I’ll admit, whenever Kirk raves about the almighty garlic finger from back home, I wonder what the big deal is. Hasn’t he ever heard of the cheesy bread found on the majority of menus at pizza shops galore? But, I digress. Yes, the Garlic Fingers are delicious (especially when fresh out of the oven). They take their homemade pizza dough and smother it in garlic butter and mozzarella cheese. You really can’t go wrong with a dish like that. What I think differentiates East Coast garlic fingers from anything similar is probably the sweet donair sauce provided for dipping. Blowers & Grafton does a good job and I’ve been told that they’re Kirk approved.

Mini Lobster Rolls

In my mind, the Mini Lobster Rolls could use a bit of improvement. These were comprised of decently sized pieces of real Atlantic Lobster tossed with mayo, lemon and fresh dill. I thought the mayo was a little light handed and I wasn’t a huge fan of the bed of tasteless slaw that the lobster sat on. It also didn’t need lobster butter on top. What was done right was the searing of the mini buns in butter. As for the sides, there were only two choices that didn’t require an extra cost: fries or chips. I opted for the latter. They were crispy and delicious and served with a basic ketchup. All in all, these were alright. Yet, for the quality and amount of food I received I can’t really justify the high price. If they had wowed me, maybe. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Brothers Fried Pepperoni

Surprisingly, I think the Brothers Fried Pepperoni was the best thing I sampled from the Blowers & Grafton menu. The portion size was generous, the sausage was sliced thick, it wasn’t as greasy as I expected, and it came with a delicious honey mustard that was made in-house. While we went with the mild pepperoni, it’s available hot as well. Keep in mind though, the mild was still relatively spicy (nothing crazy, but there was a noticeable kick of heat).

Blueberry Grunt Donuts

Finally, it was time for a sweet finish. The only dessert they make is their Blueberry Grunt Donut ($1.50 each). A tad larger than a Timbit, it is relatively easy to fit in at least one at the end of a meal. The deep fried pastry dough was drizzled in blueberry grunt compote and maple syrup dulce de leche. It’s kind of rich because of the syrup, but with such a small dose, it’s manageable and worth it.

Before we left, we had a chat with a couple of the owners. They’re both extremely friendly and they were happy to discuss the expansion from Calgary to Edmonton. In fact, it’s going so well that they hope to make it even bigger down south. It never occurred to me before, but I suppose East Coast eats are a thing and there is a large enough customer base looking for this type of menu — a memory of home — in the Prairies. Being one of the first to bring Maritime street food here, Blowers & Grafton may just corner the market in the west.

Edmonton Wedding Venues

Ampersand 27’s lounge and dining room.

Right after Christmas this past year, I became engaged. I took it pretty easy at first, allowing the idea of marriage to fully sink in for a few months before starting on the journey of planning our nuptials. However, by the end of March, I thought it was time to start doing something. In my mind, it made the most sense to begin with a venue. Once we had that in place, we’d have a date, and everything else would fall in line.

My one real stipulation when choosing a location was that I wanted it to be different from any other that I’d previously been to for a wedding. Don’t get me wrong though. Every single one I’ve had the pleasure to witness has been beautiful and perfect for the couple I was there to celebrate. And, granted, I cannot guarantee that our selected venue will be new and unexpected for every single one of our guests. But, honestly, I just don’t want it to be a cookie cutter version of what my friends have already done and seen themselves. For me, that meant spots such as the Lodge at Snow Valley, the University of Alberta Faculty Club, and the Riverview Room at Shaw Conference Centre were out.

The following list is by no means comprehensive in terms of all of the places I actually reached out to. These are just the ones that Kirk and I decided to visit in person. They are discussed here in the order that we saw them.

Hansen Distillery

This option as a venue was a total fluke. We ended up here for a tour and tasting at the distillery earlier this year. When we were there I noticed how cute the lounge space is. It’s got tables, bar seats and even a stage in the corner that a band or DJ could use. They make fantastic drinks with their own spirits, too.

Rental fees at the time of inquiry were about $175 per hour. In addition, they had an expected spend of at least $2,000 on alcohol as well as an hourly cost of $20 for each bartender. At a minimum, before tacking on food catering and extra table or chair rentals, we’d be on the hook for $4,000 plus taxes and gratuities. In reality, that isn’t all that bad since beverages and the venue are already accounted for.

The only thing to keep in mind is that it’s a small space. Typically, the lounge only seats 30 people. But, more can be squeezed in. It just really limits the number of guests you can have. Yet, for those who intend to keep their wedding a more intimate affair, this could be a great location.

Enjoy Centre

Glasshouse Bistro. Photo courtesy of the Enjoy Centre.

Without a doubt, the Hole’s Enjoy Centre in St. Albert is stunning. Yet, as of this year, they only have two options for rentals, including the Moonflower Room and their Glasshouse Bistro. They used to have the Park Room on the lower level, which was better for smaller weddings like ours (we’re expecting around 85-100 guests max).

First off, I have to stipulate that, being a greenhouse, the building is warm. We met with their events planner at the end of March and it was already sweltering inside (I mean, we were literally walking around the perimeters checking for plug-ins in case we needed to bring in multiple fans). I seriously can’t fathom what it would feel like in late summer. By the same token, if you’re okay with warmer temperatures and you want it to feel like you’re getting married in a tropical destination, then this may be the one for you.

During our tour, we took a look at the Glasshouse Bistro. It’s their restaurant and it resides on the west side of the building (I believe because it seemed like the sun was setting on that side). Since the sun was shining through the windows, it made it even warmer. Otherwise, it’s a pretty venue that can be laid out with longer banquet-like tables for a sit-down dinner of up to 120 guests. The other side of the restaurant where there’s usually a cafe is then turned into a dance floor. I guess one of my problems with it is that you still have all of this retail space sort of right next to the party area, taking away from the ambiance a little bit.

My other qualm with the Glasshouse Bistro was that there were only two options for food. Either the reception is catered by their own kitchen — around $95 per person (the most expensive I came across) — or by Elizabethan Catering Services (the only outside vendor they will work with on the restaurant side).

Moonflower Room. Photo courtesy of the Enjoy Centre.

Still, the rental fee was way more reasonable than their Moonflower Room. Found on the opposite side of the floor and situated next to the greenhouse, this is where they have their seasonal market. The room is massive and can either be booked as a whole or split in half, so only the front portion is used. It’s sort of cavernous, but it’s open, inviting and versatile with a minimalist design to it. When we viewed it, a party was being set up, making it easy to picture what it’d look like. It’s also big enough that everything from the ceremony to the reception to the dance can happen in one location.

Unfortunately, with a minimum cost of $5,000 just to rent half the room, it was already digging way deeper into our pockets than we wanted. Adding on all of the other costs like a food caterer (they’re more flexible with the Moonflower Room as other vendors can be used as long as they’re approved by the Enjoy Centre), bartenders, alcohol, music, etc. meant our budget would rack up really fast.

Muttart Conservatory

Atrium of the Muttart Conservatory. Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton.

The very same day we went to see the Enjoy Centre, we also stopped in to the Muttart Conservatory. It’s one of the city’s most iconic landmarks with pyramids that can be used for intimate ceremonies of 25 to 50 people, depending on which one is selected. The atrium in between the four pyramids would then be rearranged for a wedding reception.

Being a City of Edmonton property, the rental fees are much more reasonable, and they pretty much give free reign over all of the spaces like the atrium, pyramids and the classrooms for the whole evening. What I didn’t like was how tight the schedule would be on the day of the wedding. Due to the fact that the Muttart Conservatory would be open for regular business on the day of and doesn’t close to the public until 5:00pm, any wedding setup wouldn’t be able to be done until after that time. Personally, I didn’t want to be stressing out over stuff at the last minute, so it kind of put this location at the bottom of my list.

Ampersand 27

Those twinkling lights on the ceiling make for an excellent backdrop.

This is a restaurant situated right on Whyte Avenue and 106 Street. It’s in Old Strathcona, but a block or two west of the most high traffic areas. It makes it a little bit quieter and laid back. It’s also connected directly to the Varscona Hotel (they now own the restaurant, too), which we found to be an extra convenience, especially for our many expected out of town guests.

From the get go, we were treated so well by their restaurant manager and chef. The two of them gave us a full tour of the facilities, including the banquet room in the hotel, their hospitality suite, private dining room, lounge and main dining room. They sat down with us for a whole hour afterwards to discuss what we were envisioning for our wedding day, and they were willing to work with us on our budget.

Ampersand 27 itself is gorgeous. I hadn’t been there in a while, but I vividly remembered the twinkling lights on the ceiling, the stone accent wall and fireplace. That hasn’t changed at all, and it’s absolutely the perfect backdrop for an elegant, modern wedding. The restaurant is broken up into distinct spaces, too, so it’ll be easy to configure it for a ceremony, reception, and dance.

Before we left that day, the restaurant was incredibly generous, inviting us to have a drink and a snack. The hospitality they showed us was amazing, and it really helped to solidify them as a top contender for our wedding day. FYI, this is the one we’ve picked! We’re so excited to celebrate our big day here.

Revel Bistro and Bar

The historic and gorgeous lounge and bar.

Revel Bistro and Bar is located on Jasper Avenue. It’s right across the street from the Shaw Conference Centre. Previously, it housed Tavern 1903 and Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen. This latest restaurant is brought to us by the same owners as PRIVADA Wine & Tapas in St. Albert. With a minimum spend of about $7,000 plus taxes and gratuity for a weekend booking, it’s probably one of the more affordable buyouts you’ll find.

I’ve always loved this place for the history. When the building was restored, they kept the look of the old bar that used to be inside the original Alberta Hotel. It has a nostalgic style with a fancy wooden bar, detailed tiling, pretty moulding on the ceiling and light fixtures created by the same man who designed the Titanic (so they say). It’s neat and it’s pretty. But, that’s only on the lounge side of the venue. The other half is much more sleek and modern. As it turns out, the ceiling was paneled in such a way as to amplify sound since it was made to showcase live music (CKUA is next door and I guess it was thought that they could utilize the space sometimes).

Relegating the wedding to one side of the restaurant or the other would really limit the number of guests we could have as the dining room really seats about a maximum of 70 people. The lounge can maybe accommodate another 50 people, if I recall correctly. Trying to utilize both spaces for a sit-down dinner would be difficult, if things like speeches are to be made throughout the evening as the entrance to the restaurant kind of blocks off the two sides from one another.

Logistically, it just didn’t seem ideal for our particular plans. Plus, Revel Bistro and Bar is so new that, at the time of our meeting with their manager, they had yet to host a wedding there. While they had a few already booked for the summer, they really didn’t have any experience to go off of, which is something we weren’t entirely comfortable with.

Characters Fine Dining

Characters dining room. Photo courtesy of Characters Fine Dining.

In April, we set up a meeting to view Characters Fine Dining. I’d been there once before for dinner with a friend and it stuck with me as a unique place to hold a private event. It’s a large space with an open kitchen, lots of seating and a dual-sided fireplace. When we arrived for our meeting, we got to see the lay of the land.

It’s got a much more rustic industrial vibe than anything else we’d checked out. But, there’s a warmth to the place that makes it very cozy. Their manager explained that the backside of the main floor dining room could be configured with theatre-style seating for a ceremony in front of the fireplace. The other side of the restaurant, closest to the door, would be styled for the reception. If needed, we could also rent out one of the private dining rooms in the basement for cocktails in between. Or, the patio, weather permitting, could be used for that as well.

They probably had the most extensive set menu choices out of the few restaurants we looked into. The most popular options started at around $75 per person. The expected total spend to rent out the whole main floor was about $10,000. However, that supposedly would include all taxes and gratuities. Despite the cost, this did turn out to be one of our favourite choices because everything could be done under one roof.

Prince of Wales Armouries

This was the very last venue we decided to look at. After a month of tours and meetings, I was pretty much ready to pick somewhere. I was also getting antsy about places being booked up because I’d heard how far in advance couples tend to reserve things. The Prince of Wales Armouries at 108 Avenue and 104 Street is slightly off the beaten path and maybe not the easiest to find. It’s also not a location I was super familiar with since I tend not to go much further north than Jasper Avenue.

But, I was intrigued by photos I’d seen on the City of Edmonton website. Once more, as a city property, when compared to other privately owned businesses, it’s got quite an affordable rental fee. They also have two different rooms available for booking. Between them, I much preferred the Governor’s Room though. It’s much more historic with the 19th century look whereas the Jefferson Room is only a bit fancier than a standard hall.

When renting out the Governor’s Room, it also comes with the use of the West Terrace on the second floor, which is like an indoor patio. It’s perfect for the dance at the end of the night, and it’s quite unique since it showcases the Prince of Wales Armouries as a building within a building.

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 Happenings: Streetcar Shows Edmonton

Singer Ken Stead performs for us atop the High Level Bridge.

Streetcar Shows Edmonton has been chugging along since 2013. Founded by Tad Hargrave and Zizi Lievers with Peter Seal hosting and photographing events, it’s probably one of the city’s true gems. These are intimate concert experiences taking place on electric streetcars run by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. I’ve been registered to their mailing list — currently closed on their site, so check their Twitter page or join their Facebook group for updates — for two or three years now, but I always found it difficult to get my hands on tickets. By the time I’d read the newsletter and linked over to Eventbrite, the 32 spots would already be sold out.

The streetcar being prepped for our trip across the High Level Bridge.

This year, I happened to sign into my webmail account at just the right moment and I snagged two tickets for the inaugural show of the 2018 season. I was ecstatic to finally be going to a Streetcar concert. Taking place last Thursday, May 17, we arrived at the train platform located behind the ATB Financial Arts Barn in Old Strathcona about 15 minutes prior to embarking. Peter checked our names off of his list and we waited until we were told to climb on. NOTE: There are no washrooms on board. If needed, make sure to use the one in the barn beforehand.

Ernie, one of the drivers of the streetcar, gave us a history lesson.

The restored streetcar had two drivers for the night, but Ernie was our guide. He gave us a little bit of a history lesson as the vehicle made it’s way down the tracks towards the middle of the High Level Bridge. Moving along, Edmonton’s downtown skyline eventually game into view. Once we’d come to a full stop, Peter introduced our performer of the evening, Ken Stead. While he sang (and joked), the river and traffic flowed quietly beneath us as we basked in the slowly setting sun.

 

Ken Stead, born and raised in Edmonton, and now residing in Calgary, has a soulful voice. Despite living in Canada, his Irish-Scottish background seems to come out, in the form of a slight lilt, when he speaks. He flipped between his own original songs and covers that ranged from Foy Vance to Bill Withers, fully encompassing the persona of a down-to-earth folk-rock artist.

 

Lasting about 45 minutes, the first half of the show went by quickly. The streetcar then trundled northward towards the other side of the High Level Bridge. We were supposed to take a break at the stop directly across the street from the Legislature Building, but the driver overshot it, and we ended up going all the way to the Grandin Station terminal. There, we were able to get off and stretch our legs while the musical equipment was shifted to the other end of the streetcar. The backrests of all the seats were flipped to face the opposite direction, allowing passengers to be seated again in the direction of travel. It also gave all of the riders an opportunity to be closer to the show as those who previously sat at the front were now at the rear of the train.

Out on the bridge once more, we were treated to another 45 minute set. Being above the water, it started to get chilly as the darkness fell, but the close quarters and the music helped to warm me to my soul. As we returned south, we came to a surprise standstill in a heavily graffitied tunnel for one final (sing-along) song. It sounds like this is something they do at every show, but I won’t give every single detail away. All I can say is that it makes for a special moment.

Inside the tunnel at the end of the night.

Two hours after our departure, we found ourselves back where we started our musical journey. It’s definitely a night that neither my fiancé or I will ever forget. It was so much fun, and I’m already itching to go to second Streetcar Show as soon as possible. Haven’t been yet? I urge everyone to follow their pages. You may luck out and catch a post about tickets in the nick of time.