Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Needle Vinyl Tavern

The open bar and stage at The Needle Vinyl Tavern.

Since The Needle Vinyl Tavern opened about a year and a half ago, I’ve frequented the place a few times. It’s located right on Jasper Avenue and 105 Street. When the business was first announced, it was a welcome addition to the city as it wasn’t simply another bar, but a small live music venue as well. On the cusp of the loss of several others like it in the span of a year or two, Edmontonians were happy to know there was something coming in to fill that void.

The wall opens up to allow for an expanded patio space.

Although I haven’t gone to any of the shows (they do have some great artists coming through), I have been for food and drinks. The first time was last summer when my friends and I decided to walk a few blocks from the office for our lunch break. It was a beautifully sunny day and we managed to snag a table out on the extended sidewalk patio, one of the few spaces like it in the downtown core. Personally, I think it’s a great spot to catch some rays and grab a bite. The only thing is I prefer sitting a little further in from where the pedestrians are constantly passing by.

The original vinyl drink menu is no longer used, but was a great touch.

On that occasion, I was really impressed with the details that went into The Needle. The overall menu had a decent mix of options and the dishes were promising. What we ate tasted good and the service was prompt. I especially loved that, to go with the theme, they had their list of drinks printed on actual vinyl discs. It was a fun feature. However, over time, those intricacies have disappeared and been replaced with what I would say are watered down versions of their previous offerings.

The last time I visited, my friend and I popped in for lunch. Instead of sitting out on the patio, we ate at a booth inside. While I enjoyed getting to view the bar and the stage, I found the service to be extremely slow even though there were a lot of staff on hand (chatting to each other) and not many people dining in.

Eventually, a server came over to take our order. I opted to make a meal of two of the appetizers: Mac N’ Cheese Bites ($9) and Cauliflower 78 ($13). My friend chose the Taco Supremo House Pizza ($17).

Taco Supremo House Pizza

I have to say that the slice of taco pizza was the best thing out of the trio. Yet, I don’t think that’s saying much. Sure, the flavours were okay, but I felt that the crust was bland and lacked in texture. I also disliked the fact that it was difficult to see past all of the lettuce and tomato that topped the pizza. It was like the kitchen was trying to hide what was underneath. The red sauce was basic and there was not enough beef.

The Mac N’ Cheese Bites with Ketchup

Still, the pizza was better than both of my starters. The Mac N’ Cheese Bites were passable. The thing is, it seemed as though they literally took a box of Kraft Dinner and made the pasta into nugget shapes before breading and frying them. The ten greasy pieces were served with a side of ketchup for dipping. They may have added some extra cheese as the interior of the bites were creamier than I expected. Regardless, the execution was poor. If you’re going to serve something like this, take a page from the many other restaurants that serve similar items. Jazz it up with a ketchup that’s made in-house or incorporate some spice or seasoning.

Cauliflower 78 with Sweet & Spicy Dip

The worst of the bunch was definitely the Cauliflower 78. These tiny florets were over-breaded (somehow not that crispy) and the portion was way too small for the price. They came in a bowl the size of a cup of soup. The side of sweet chili dip was probably store bought as well. This was absolutely nothing special and such a disappointment.

My takeaway from the whole experience is that The Needle Vinyl Tavern is mainly there for the music and maybe the drinks (my co-worker said the selection of beer is lacking). I’ve been told the brunch menu is a winner, but I have yet to try it. In the meantime, I believe that food is no longer their forte. They have the potential to make it a strong suit because I saw it in the beginning. I just think that they’ve veered off of that path for the time being. Hopefully they can get back on track eventually.

The bar is a cool feature of the venue and it’s pretty spacious to fit a standing crowd during shows.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: District Café & Bakery

District Café doesn’t always immediately come to mind as a place to go for supper. When it was first opened, it was a tiny coffee shop with little room for patrons to stick around. Yet, since expanding into a full-service eatery, it has become a much more welcoming bright and airy space for guests to linger over an all-encompassing menu of food and drinks.

Prior to this past week, I’d only ever visited for drinks and snacks with friends. Therefore, I was eager to have a complete meal on this particular occasion. Although District Café is known for their tasty brunch, I’d argue that the latest dinner menu from chef Spencer Thompson (previously of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen) gives the day’s earlier items a run for their money.

My friend and I walked over to the restaurant right after work on a Friday afternoon. The sign at the door indicated that we could seat ourselves, so we headed straight in. The majority of the tables were already occupied. Thankfully, there were a couple of spots available towards the far side of the venue.

A frosty bottle of Jamaican Ginger Beer.

As soon as we sat down, a server brought glasses of water and some menus over. He also answered our questions about the evening’s specials. In the end, we decided to stick with non-alcoholic beverages. While my companion quenched her thirst with a glass of lemonade ($3.50), I opted for a bottle of the Jamaican Ginger Beer ($3; spice that lingers in your throat!). We also selected the Roast Eggplant ($13) as an appetizer to share.

The Roast Eggplant is an ideal starter to split. It came with four slices of lightly toasted focaccia that had been brushed with olive oil. Rounds of salted eggplant, pieces of zucchini and halves of tomatoes lingered next to a dollop of house made ricotta. When I think about it, it’s really such a straightforward plate, but it’s done so well. All of the veggies were roasted to the perfect point. Combined with the creamy ricotta, my first assembled portion was to die for.

Hand Cut Pasta

Next up were the entrees. We’re big fans of fresh pasta, so it was a no-brainer for my friend. She went for the featured Hand Cut Pasta ($18) without any added meat. Large, broad, flat pappardelle noodles were evenly coated in a buttercream sauce and tossed with roasted walnuts, apple and arugula. I ate a mouthful of the pasta and it was unexpectedly refreshing and summery for what would typically be considered a denser dish. The merging of bitter arugula, sweet apple and nutty walnuts were a match made in heaven.

Flat Iron Steak

As a home cook (I doubt I should even call myself that), I often refrain from making dishes that have a meat component to them as I dislike handling the food. For that reason, when I indulge in a meal out, I tend to go for things I wouldn’t otherwise have on a regular basis. In this case, I chose the Flat Iron Steak ($20). Upon ordering, I indicated to the server that I would prefer the steak to be medium-rare. He let me know that the meat is prepared sous-vide, so they were unable to cook it exactly as requested. Nevertheless, he assured me that if I enjoy a medium-rare doneness, it would probably be to my satisfaction.

He certainly wasn’t wrong. In fact, the Flat Iron Steak came out just right. The meat was still pink in the middle and the pieces were succulent enough to cut through them with a butter knife. Generous helpings of steak were accompanied by a tomato arugula salad with roasted green beans, potatoes and radishes. Mint chimmichurri provided another element that helped to keep it seasonal to spring and summer.

Now, I’m sure we would have been okay leaving after those three satisfying dishes; however, I knew that I’d be kicking myself later if I didn’t have some dessert. Indeed, I had two. Okay, three, if you count the sampling I had of my friend’s cake.

Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread

The first was one of the bakery’s Lemon Poppy Seed Shortbread cookies ($0.50). I’m not sure I loved the texture. I like shortbread to have that melt-in-your-mouth sensation. This one wasn’t quite as buttery, but the strong taste of lemon made up for that.

A big slice of Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake.

As far as cakes go, the Salted Caramel Chocolate Cake ($7) that my friend ordered was truly decadent. The layers of cake were unbelievably moist yet fluffy. It was rich in flavour and the frosting was sweet, but not overly so. It’s one of the best chocolate cakes I’ve eaten in a long time.

Where I think District Café’s pastry chef really excelled was with the Orange Blossom Pavlova ($10). The foundation of the dessert was a giant meringue cookie. In the center, it was filled with a thick layer of custard that was dotted by vanilla bean. A mix of fresh fruit (blueberries and peach this time) and sliced almonds decorated the top. Then it was dusted with powdered sugar and served with caramel sauce on the side. The edges of the meringue dissolved on the tongue; the middle of the cookie remained a bit chewy. Not only was it beautiful, it was sublimely delicious.

District Café has kept things simple and succinct. The menu caters to many while staying focused. Personally, I believe it’s better to do a dozen things exceptionally well than to do many things halfway. Here, at District Café, with the current chefs and their offerings, I’d say that they’ve managed to achieve the former.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Have Mercy Southern Table & Bar

The exterior of Have Mercy as seen from the patio.

Escape games and food are my jam. When my friends and I planned to try out the new Impulse Escape Rooms location on Whyte Avenue, we needed a nearby place that was certain to nourish our bellies and our brains. I’d been to El Cortez before; however, not to Have Mercy, their southern-style sister restaurant.

It was a quiet day for lunch at the eatery. When we walked into the kitschy venue, it was pretty empty. We were led to the deck found at the back door. That’s where a few other diners were already sitting. It’s not a large patio. Yet, it feels bigger because it overlooks the outdoor space occupied by El Cortez on street-level.

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Once we settled in, we carefully studied the menu while we snacked on complimentary pretzels and honey mustard. We also asked the server for some beverage suggestions. After taking the recommendations to heart, I opted for the Strathcona Sour ($12), a house libation. My friend decided to go with a non-alcoholic glass of their Sweet Tea ($4), and her husband went with a traditional Rattlesnake ($12) cocktail. The Sweet Tea was deliciously refreshing without being too sugary. Ultimately, we all ended up sharing another pitcher ($20), sans alcohol.

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For a cocktail, I enjoyed the Strathcona Sour. The bartender used a giant solid ice cube to ensure a slow melt and less dilution of the Buffalo Trace Bourbon, which gave the drink a kick. Clove syrup added a tinge of bitterness that was then offset by the acidity of fresh lemon juice and just a slight fruitiness from the blackberry punch. As good as the Strathcona Sour was, I think there’s a reason why the Rattlesnake is a classic. Using George Dickel Rye, fresh lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white and Herbsaint liquor, all of the ingredients melded so well. I especially like the use of egg white because it gives the drink a smoother consistency that helps it go down really easily.

Sweet Corn Hush Puppies

To get us started, when it came to the food, we chose to share an order of the Sweet Corn Hush Puppies ($9). A bowl of six puffy, golden brown fritters arrived to the table with two dipping sauces. They were hot, non-greasy and sprinkled with a bit of salt. I cut one open and saw that it was fluffy on the inside with a crisp exterior. What put this appetizer over the top was the buttermilk dill ranch sauce that’s made in-house. It provides a cooling sensation and a hint of dill that works with the sweet corn so well. Judging from the number of times the dip is listed as an accompaniment to the offerings on the menu, Have Mercy clearly knows they’ve got a good thing going.

Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs with Spicy Sugar Slaw and Braised Molasses Barbecue Beans

Turning to the main dishes, my boyfriend was talked into the full rack of Memphis Dry Rub Pork Ribs ($26). This was served with sides of spicy sugar slaw and braised molasses barbecue beans. Personally, I thought the beans were very flavourful; although, they were maybe a tad too soft. I prefer that beans have more bite. With barbecue, I like the beans to almost reach caramelization. I can’t say much about the spicy sugar slaw as I don’t think my boyfriend left any for me to taste. Nevertheless, he was generous enough to give me a rib. The meat was a little fatty, but tender. The dry rub kept the moisture inside the meat, so the pork pulled off the bone effortlessly and had a nice smoky infusion.

Clockwise from top: Chile Honey, Nashville Hot Rubbed and Crispy Salted Fried Chicken.

The rest of us all selected versions of the Fried Chicken and Donut: crispy salted, Chile honey and Nashville hot rubbed ($18 each). I was particularly disappointed with the slaw that took up a third of the plate; it just seemed like a mix of shredded cabbage and carrot. While it presents another layer of texture, the veggies lacked in flavour as there was no dressing applied. What this dish has going for it is the combination of crunchy fried chicken with a surprisingly airy donut in its most basic yeast-based honey glazed form. There’s just the right amount of glaze to give every bite of chicken a hit of sweetness. This is the more modern take on the ubiquitous chicken and waffle dish, and it’s now my way of quelling cravings for those Do-Rite Donuts & Chicken sandwiches that I ate in Chicago a year ago. As for the chicken itself, the crispy salted is like Have Mercy’s take on Kentucky Fried Chicken. It’s pretty good, but it screamed for something else to elevate it. I had the Chile honey, which was certainly an improvement over the standard salted chicken. Granted, thinking about it after the fact, pairing sweet and sweet with the chicken and the donut was unnecessary. My favourite ended up being the saucy Nashville hot rubbed chicken. There was the perfect amount of heat to balance out the saccharinity of the donut.

I do wish that I had room for dessert as both the Caramel Pecan Donut Pudding and Buttermilk Lime Pie called to me. I thought better of it though. I’ll simply have to leave that for the next visit.

Old Strathcona isn’t an area I frequent often; however, there are so many fantastic restaurants that dot the area and I seem to have them on a rotation for when I am around. That being said, Have Mercy is definitely a place that is deserving of a spot in my catalogue, especially when I’m hankering for some southern comfort food.

See you again soon!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Dorinku

Dorinku Appetizer Platter ($15.30)

Dorinku, an izakaya serving Tokyo street food, had been on my list of places to visit for at least the past year. So, when my friend was able to meet me for dinner a couple of weeks ago, we took the opportunity to stop by Whyte Avenue to check it out.

The block surrounding the restaurant has ample free parking, so it was easy to find a space nearby. When we arrived at around 6:30pm on the Tuesday evening, the establishment was fairly busy. A number of the tables were already occupied; however, there was no wait. We were immediately greeted and taken to our seats.

Homemade Fresh Ginger Ale ($4)

Our server was prompt to grab us our drinks (homemade fresh ginger ale at $4 each), yet he also gave us ample time to peruse the menu when we couldn’t quite make our decisions.

Ultimately, we started our meal off with the Dorinku Appetizer Platter ($15.30), which is apparently offered in limited quantities every day. Luckily, we managed to snag an order. On this particular night, our seven tasters consisted of Tuna Tataki, Tsukune Yakko, Tuna Avocado, Tako Wasabi, Chicken Karaage, Tomato Kimchi and Pickled Eggplant. Aside from the eggplant, all of the other samplers could be found within the menu. Therefore, this is a fantastic way to go about trying a number of their items.

Tomato Kimchi

We opted to work our way clockwise around the dish from opposite sides of the plate, so the first thing I sampled was the Tomato Kimchi. Surprisingly, the heat wasn’t as strong as I expected. I’ll chalk it up to the juiciness of the fruit as I believe it watered down the spice. Granted, I don’t necessarily mean that to be a criticism. I actually quite liked it and wished I could have had another piece.

Tako Wasabi

Next up was the Tako Wasabi and I wasn’t quite ready for it. The chopped octopus mixed with a wasabi dressing was, initially, overwhelming to my taste buds. It didn’t burn, but the wasabi was incredibly strong. As such, it takes away from the flavours of the tamago that topped the octopus and the sheets of nori wrap.

Tuna Tataki

One of my preferred was the Tuna Tataki with fresh fish that was nicely seared at the edges. A mix of sesame soy citrus sauce and homemade chili oil was drizzled over the tuna and then topped with green onion. Super tasty and just a tad spicy. There was also a little bit of crunch that possibly came from panko or tempura crumbs.

Chicken Karaage

If I’m correct, the Chicken Karaage was a bite size version of the available full order. The pieces of deep fried chicken were crisp and likely sprinkled with the green tea salt and covered in the chili mayonnaise mentioned on the menu. Everything worked well together and the batter refrained from being oily.

Tsukune Yakko

Tsukune Yakko is deep fried minced chicken patty and sliced white scallions served with fresh tofu, teriyaki sauce and chili oil. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure about this appetizer. It was decent though. It came across kind of lighter than I thought it would and it utilized a variety of textures.

Pickled Eggplant

Personally, I think Dorinku is doing a disservice to their customers by not putting the Pickled Eggplant on the menu as a regular item. Maybe it’s always made as part of this platter; nevertheless, I’d go for a bigger dish if it was an option. The eggplant was slightly acidic with a wonderful spongy consistency that soaked up all of the marinade.

Tuna Avocado

The last bite I had was the Tuna Avocado. Made with albacore tuna sashimi, avocado and a pureed Japanese citrus seaweed sauce, it was a refreshing mouthful. It was easily the simplest in terms of preparation, but the tuna melted in my mouth. Combined with the avocado, it created a buttery quality.

Mozzarella Minced Katsu ($9.80)

We continued our dinner with a plate of the Mozzarella Minced Katsu ($9.80). These were balls of minced beef and pork cutlet wrapped around mozzarella cheese filling, which were then breaded and deep fried. I squeezed some fresh lemon juice onto them before dipping them into the accompanying sesame soy sauce. These were pretty delicious. Although, I would suggest adding even more cheese into the center as the first one I ate lacked in that department and that’s what makes them worth eating.

Corn and Kale Kakiage ($7.80)

As we ate our food, we’d take into account what people around us were ordering and those seated next to us convinced us to try the Corn and Kale Kakiage ($7.80). If I had my way, kale would only ever be prepared in fried form.  The patties of tempura coated corn and kale were lightly breaded, allowing for just the right amount of crunch. Any bitterness from the kale was masked by the sweetness of the large, fresh corn kernels and the butter soy sauce.  Honestly, these tasted good, but they felt a tad too greasy.

Carbonara Udon ($13.80)

Not completely satiated, we finished off our meal with one more item. The whole time we were at Dorinku, the Carbonara Udon ($13.80) on the Days’ Special Menu called to us. This did not disappoint! The thick Japanese wheat flour noodle had the perfect chew and the carbonara sauce ─ creamy with bacon and a poached egg ─ was to die for. It also came to the table in a hot stone bowl, so the sauce stayed bubbling hot. As long as it’s still being offered, it would be my top pick next time I’m there. Our server agreed that it’s his favourite, too.

Overall, Dorinku has a laid back, casual atmosphere, making it a great place for a get together. Their diverse menu should satisfy most diners and the friendly service we experienced was top notch.

Frozen grapes, in place of candies, came with the bill.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Rocky Mountain Icehouse (2017 Update)

What’s an Icehouse?

Midway through March, I received a note from Rocky Mountain Icehouse. They had noticed that my previous review was a couple of years old and they decided to extend an invitation to me and a few friends. The meal — consisting of several plates from their revamped menu ─ would be complimentary. In turn, I’m now providing an update on my thoughts of their food.

The first thing I’d like to note is that I’m not certain of when the menu was redone. I was simply told that it was new. Yet, I’d been there almost a year ago for a friend’s going away party and, from what I can recall, the options are pretty similar. Some identical selections were even discussed within my initial blog post back in 2014. Perhaps they’ve kept the most preferred and replaced the others with fresh picks. Although I’m not entirely positive of that, what I do think may have drastically changed are the recipes for a couple of the dishes I’ve either had or seen previously.

Kelsey was the staff member who organized this tasting event for us and she also acted as our server that afternoon. Once everyone was settled in with their drinks, Kelsey began to bring the plates over to our table. All items were selected by the chef, so we were constantly being surprised throughout our time there.

Spinach & Garlic Dip with Housemade Potato Chips

Our first offering was a Spinach and Garlic Dip with their house-made potato chips. I found this to be an interesting choice because the chip and dip combo seemed to be missing from the menu completely. The potato chips alone, however, are provided as a side to any of the sandwiches and they’re large, crisp and not overly greasy. Against the lighter dip, they held up well. I’m just not convinced they’d stay whole with a dip of a thicker consistency.

Mac & Cheese Hushpuppies

Next up was the Mac & Cheese Hushpuppies, which turned out to be a favourite among the group. This starter consisted of six fritters made using a mix of pasta, corn and peppers. Deep fried and golden brown in colour, these were then drizzled with chipotle aioli. Cheesy with a bit of heat (both in temperature and taste), it meant that each of us jostled to get our fair share before they all disappeared.

Steak Bites

An order of the Steak Bites continued our foray into their appetizers. This dish was comprised of eight skewers of tenderloin tips wrapped in bacon. According to the description on the menu, these steak bites were to be served with a lemon tarragon dip. Even though I couldn’t quite distinguish those exact flavours, I did enjoy these immensely. The meat was cooked to a medium rare and was tender enough. We especially loved the bacon. Still crispy, we guessed that the bacon strips must have been cooked separately from the steak to ensure that both meats were prepared properly. Balsamic vinegar added a touch of acidity and sweetness.

Signature Crab Cakes

The round of starters finished with their Signature Crab Cakes. These two generous patties of shredded Alaskan crab claws mixed with Boursin, feta and cream cheese came out batter and fried with a decent helping of garlic aioli on top. The menu made mention of a roasted tomato sauce that was to accompany the cakes; save for a few halved grape tomatoes, there seemed to be nothing of the sort. We ladies leaned towards this appetizer as we appreciated the quantity and the mix of cheese. It was particularly appetizing with a spritz of lemon. I also liked the texture as I could tell that real crab meat had been utilized. My boyfriend was on the fence. Granted, he’s from the east coast where seafood comes straight from the ocean and nothing in landlocked Edmonton can truly compare.

BBQ Pork Ribs

With barely any time to sit and digest, our first main dish showed up at the table. The BBQ Pork Ribs were a feast for the eyes and the belly. Just as described on the menu, this huge half rack of ribs was slow cooked until the meat fell right off the bone when touched. A knife wasn’t even necessary. The pork was succulent and the bourbon BBQ sauce was deliciously smoky and rich. Sides of garlic mashed potatoes, homemade baked beans and roasted seasonal vegetables ─ each delectable ─ were included as well. For less than $20, this was a superb value and something I’d definitely be sure to have on a return visit.

Half Size Jambalaya

Entree number two was the half size of the Jambalaya (only $12 and a huge portion for the price). This also came with a couple of the Mac & Cheese Hushpuppies. I’m not sure they were really necessary. Nevertheless, I suppose it’s a bonus as they are tasty. Otherwise, the jambalaya was a combination of rice, onions, peppers, chicken and spicy sausage sautéed in a southern sauce. My friend’s husband couldn’t get enough of it and managed to polish off what remained towards the end of the meal. Personally, I found it to be okay. While I was pleased with the consistency of the sausage and there was a good amount spice, which provided a bit of a kick, I couldn’t imagine eating the full plate as a main on my own. Because everything is cooked in the same sauce, I think it eventually becomes too much of a singular flavour. Sharing this dish helps to sidestep this issue by allowing for a smaller sampling among a handful of other offerings.

Blackened Bison Burger

The finale to our mains was the Blackened Bison Burger. I was actually astonished to bite into meat that was juicy and not dry as the latter is often found to be the case with bison. Despite the burger being made using a prefab patty, this was still pretty satisfying on my part. The combination of jalapeno jelly and jalapeno havarti cheese won me over. Additionally, as expressed by one of my dining companions, the bun also held its own; it was soft yet strong enough to keep the layers of the burger intact.

Southern Gumbo

The kitchen’s single misstep during our entire lunch was the Southern Gumbo. It can be ordered as an individual cup or bowl of soup or as an upgraded side for $3. The cup came with our burger and, disregarding my fullness, I felt an obligation to try it. Now, in my first review of Rocky Mountain Icehouse, I quickly referred to the gumbo since my friend had eaten it when we dined there together. From what I recall, it looked like a hearty broth with plenty of fillings. On this occasion, the soup was incredibly thick with a gravy-like mouthfeel and slices of Italian chorizo sausage that felt oddly dry and off-putting. Maybe it was meant to be that way. Maybe not. Regardless, it’s safe to say that it’s doubtful we’d to give that one another go.

Bailey’s Chocolate Ganache Pie

Last was the dessert. Kelsey let us choose between the two options available. Warm apple crumble called to me, but after Kelsey mentioned that it was the sweeter one, I changed my mind and we went with the Bailey’s Chocolate Ganache Pie. I expected this to be quite dense, yet it turned out to be slightly lighter, albeit a bit sticky. Overall, it was still sugary. What made it seem less so was the balance of bitterness from the chocolate and a tinge of tartness from the raspberries infused into the ganache.

All in, this meal would have cost us approximately $110 plus tax and tip (drinks extra). That much food between five people is a total steal. Everyone left happy and no one left hungry. In fact, we ate as if we were royalty. Out of nine items, there was merely one that we disliked and those are decent statistics. As a local gathering place, Rocky Mountain Icehouse presents patrons with a great atmosphere and a casual menu that was created to please.