Edmonton Restaurant Review: Bottega 104

Bottega 104 is all about Italian.

Situated on the 104 Street Promenade, between Jasper and 102 Avenues, sits Bottega 104. The Italian eatery is less than a year old. Nonetheless, it seems to have become a favourite in the downtown neighbourhood. When I arrived after work to meet a friend, patrons were starting to trickle in. By the time the two of us left, the venue was jam packed full of people.

My reservation, booked through the OpenTable app, yielded us a table towards the far back corner of the restaurant. It allowed me a bit of a view of the open kitchen as well as perfect sightlines of the long bar and the rest of the establishment. Honestly though, it’s a tight space.

The bar has a lovely design.

Sure, the details of the design scheme and the lighting added to the ambience, but I didn’t find it to be particularly comfortable. It was really cramped. When I was taken to our seats, I was the first to get there, so I decided to sit on the booth side. I had to squeeze myself between the two tables, sucking in my chest, to fit through. Moreover, I narrowly avoided knocking down the wine glasses of the guests next to us. In a way, it kind of reminded me of the close quarters experienced in restaurants on trips to New York City. However, let’s face it. This is Edmonton. People aren’t used to it being like this, and I can’t imagine others love feeling as if they’re sitting on each others’ laps either.

Room aside, I narrowly missed Bottega’s Prohibition Hour specials on their cocktails. From 2pm to 5pm, $13 two-ounce cocktails are marked down to $7 each, which is a hefty savings. Once I had settled in, I may have been able to quickly select something. Yet, our server was gone as soon she dropped off the menus, and she didn’t bother to come back until my friend showed up fifteen minutes later. Ultimately, we both chose water over any other beverage.

Ready to share dishes, family style.

When we did get to place our order, we opted to share a couple of the items: Spaghetti Carbonara Pasta ($21) and Prosciutto Pear Pizza ($21). As we waited for the kitchen to prepare our food, the server came back with side plates and pasta tongs, so we could more easily divide the dishes family style. The food was decent. Although, personally, I found it to be either too salty (pasta) or too bland (pizza).

Spaghetti Carbonara

The Spaghetti Carbonara was made with a “delicate” cream sauce, smoked pancetta, and egg. It was true that the sauce was creamy; unlike other plates of carbonara I’ve eaten, the egg avoided curdling. There was great potential as seen with the extra crispy pieces of pancetta, too. Bottega also didn’t skimp on the amount of protein. The problem was that it became very repetitive on the palate with only the pork and sauce to turn to. They had essentially become one and the same in terms of flavour. I realize that carbonara is not anything fancy; nevertheless, something is needed to help cut through the dish to awaken the taste buds.

Prosciutto Pear Pizza

As for the pizza, I was expecting more. The dough was topped with prosciutto, mozza, gouda, cherry tomatoes, sliced pear, toasted walnuts, and balsamic glaze. It’s a combination that sounds like it’d be amazing. Each inch of the pizza was covered with one of those ingredients, but there was very little stacking. Therefore, each bite provided just a small glimpse of what it could have been. There wasn’t a whole lot of balance between the saltiness of the cured meat and cheeses, the sweetness of the pear, the nuttiness of the walnuts, or the acidity of the tomatoes and balsamic drizzle. Additionally, the pizza cooled off fast, taking away the gooiness that any of the melted cheese may have had.

Zeppoli

Our night concluded with us splitting the Zeppoli ($9) for dessert. Bottega lists it as Italian street food. Typically, they come in the form of fried dough balls covered in some sort of sauce or a dusting of sugar and spice. They’re kind of like the mini doughnuts available at all of our annual festivals. When they were presented to us, I was surprised at the portions (definitely enough for two to three diners) as well as the shape of the Zeppoli. Instead of puffy balls, they were sticks of dough in the vein of churros, yet chewier. Sprinkles of icing sugar decorated the zeppoli along with zigzags of Nutella ganache. Again, this was underwhelming. Had the menu not mentioned Nutella, I wouldn’t have guessed there was supposed to be any hazelnut taste to this. It came across as a basic chocolate sauce.

In the end, this wasn’t what I was hoping for. The service, once both of us were there, was passable. The food was edible, but nothing to write home about. Mostly, it was too crowded and noisy. I mean, the din from everyone conversing makes it loud enough as it is. So, my recommendation is that they take out a table or two and lower the music a bit. I think visitors would appreciate it more than they know. Ultimately, the menu is their bread and butter though. If I’m to return and spend my hard earned money there, that’s where they need to see some major improvements.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Chop Steakhouse Bar

My spread of food and drink at Chop.

Edmonton’s downtown Chop Steakhouse Bar, found connected to the Sutton Place Hotel, used to be a lunchtime spot for my co-workers and I to hang out. The place provided a spot for us to happily chat over cocktails and food as well as giving us a respite from the office.

Fast forward a few years later and the dynamic of my workplace has changed dramatically. Those friends have moved on to new things. With their departure, trips to Chop diminished, too.

The Chop lounge in downtown Edmonton.

When I saw that Chop was participating in Downtown Dining Week again this year, I thought it’d be a great opportunity to revisit. A reservation was booked through OpenTable. When we arrived after work that Friday, we were actually one of the first tables to be seated in the dining room. Located upstairs from the lounge, it’s a much dimmer space decorated with deep blues and greys. The lounge is the opposite. Washed in natural light with high ceilings, it’s much more open and bright (my personal preference).

Pina Colada

My friend began with a pint of beer. I opted for a Pina Colada ($8.75), which was beautifully garnished with a thin cut floral-shaped slice of pineapple and poured into a pretty vintage cocktail glass. What I didn’t love was how chunky the blended ice was. Yet, in terms of flavour, it was fine. There was a nice balance of white rum, fresh pineapple and coconut. As we waited for our dishes to come, we were also provided with fresh complimentary bread and butter to tide us over.

We each started with a different appetizer. She got the Feature Soup ($8.95), a creamy tomato bisque that had a pleasant consistency. It had been cooked down to create a depth to the sweet-tart taste, and it refrained from being too thin. I went with a standard Caesar Salad ($9.95). The lettuce was slightly limp, but well-coated with dressing and grated Grana Padano cheese. I enjoyed the house-baked focaccia croutons and the slice of lemon for spritzing. Although it didn’t come across as the freshest salad, all of the components I look for were there.

For our mains, we both chose to indulge in the half rack of the Smoked Baby Back Ribs ($25.95). This was served with mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables. At the time, the veggies included roasted beets and broccolini, and they were prepared until they were tender with just a little bit of that needed bite left. The ribs were evenly painted with a rich barbecue sauce that had caramelized onto the succulent meat during the cooking process. A knife came in handy to cut the baby back ribs apart, but the meat pretty much pulled clean off the bone without much effort.

Supper finished with mini versions of two of Chop’s desserts: Crème Brûlée ($4) and Fallen Chocolate Soufflé Cake ($5.50). Neither will blow your socks off. However, between the two, the crème brûlée was definitely the smaller and arguably least adventurous. It was a standard custard dessert with a simple vanilla infusion and the sugar crackle. The soufflé cake is not what I expected. I pictured something along the lines of a lava cake. Instead, I received a slice of a chocolate cake crust filled with mascarpone mousse atop a pool of fresh vanilla anglaise. It was actually quite decadent, and I’d have that one again. I’m not sure how much larger the dessert is if the regular size is ordered, but I think for the price, this was the perfect amount of sweetness to cap off the night.

All of the food options that were available for this specially priced event are also on their regular menu. We just happened to save about $10 per person for our three-course meal versus if we had gone any other time. On this occasion, the service was friendly and attentive even when the dining room filled up. I’m not sure how often I’ll be back, but I think the quality of the food I tried was good enough to warrant a future drop-in, especially for happy hour.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Famoso (WEM)

Our spread of food at Famoso WEM.

I recently reviewed the Famoso Magrath location of my own accord, and, subsequently, I was invited, along with my fiancé, to the Famoso at West Edmonton Mall (WEM) for a VIP meal on the house. We decided to take them up on the offer, visiting the eatery at 5:00pm this past Monday.

With Famoso’s brick and mortar space situated next door to the popular Cactus Club Cafe, it would seem that diners could be enticed when shoppers are already so close. Yet, thinking about it, it’s really not the ideal spot. There is no direct door connecting the restaurant to the mall from inside, and there are no convenient entrances that allow patrons to sneak out of the mall for a quick jaunt over to the restaurant. The closest way to get to Cactus Club or Famoso used to be a shortcut through a set of Sears doors, but with the store closed, I’m assuming it’s always locked.

Now, customers either have to hightail it across a large parking lot to get to Famoso, or, like my fiancé and I, grab the car and drive it right to Famoso to park there. My guess is this small hurdle is a deterrent for a lot of people. After a long day of walking around the mall, many won’t go out of their way to get to Famoso, and once they’re in the car, they may just opt to go home instead of dining out. If potential visitors aren’t near the mall to begin with, I could see them skipping out on going to WEM all together to avoid the crowds.

Speaking with the manager on staff when we arrived, I was apparently correct in my assessment. Famoso WEM is not attracting the numbers that the other locations in Edmonton are, which is unfortunate news. Aside from it’s questionable proximity to our famous landmark, it’s actually a lovely space. It’s incredibly open, airy and bright compared to the rest of the Famoso establishments I’ve been to. The venue has high ceilings, a big kitchen, lots of lower tables that are roomy and comfortable, a fireplace that grounds the room, and they even have a waiting area at the front. It’s actually a sharp contrast to what I’m accustomed to seeing at Famoso, and I appreciated this.

When it came to the food, we were pleased, too. The quality is on par with what we’ve had at the rest. On this occasion we sampled more than a handful of their items: a glass of Raspberry Ginger Beer ($4.65), the skillet of Cauliflower Artichoke Dip ($12.35), a bowl of Mac + Cheese ($14.65), the Italian Pulled Beef Sandwich with Caesar Salad ($16.35), a Create Your Own 5-Topping 12″ Pizza ($18.35), and a jar of White Chocolate Panna Cotta ($6.65).

My glass of Raspberry Ginger Beer and a bottle of Peroni.

The Raspberry Ginger Beer is a non-alcoholic beverage that includes one refill, so the value isn’t too bad. It’s made with fresh lime, bitters, house-made ginger syrup, soda, and raspberry syrup. Initially, I found it to be subtler than I expected (not overly sweet). As it turns out, I should have mixed everything together because the last few sips were quite sugary. In terms of the flavour, my second glass was better balanced when I made sure to stir the ingredients regularly.

Both of us loved the piping hot — let it cool for a bit first — Cauliflower Artichoke Dip. It’s a new take on the ubiquitous spinach dip with the greens replaced by roasted seasoned cauliflower. The majority of the texture still comes from the artichokes. Oven-baked cream cheese, cheddar, and smoked mozzarella created that gooey yet smooth consistency. Even though I ate all of the tortilla chips, I will admit that they were not my favourite. I thought they’d be more crisp. Somehow, they weren’t. In any case, the garlic flatbread is where it’s at.

I was curious about the Mac + Cheese. Again, this wasn’t my top pick. It was passable though. My recommendation is to eat the whole dish when it’s made fresh. Don’t take it home as leftovers because it’s not as good when warmed a second time. They use a beer cheese sauce as the base and then it’s topped with cheddar, herbaceous gremolata, green onions, and prosciutto crisps. It’s garnished with crunchy bread crumbs as mac and cheese should be. The taste was there; however, it lacked enough sauce. The amount provided coated the pasta, but it didn’t leave much else.

We were surprised by the Italian Pulled Beef Sandwich (I believe this is a seasonal item). Sure, the house-roasted hand-pulled beef was a tad overcooked and dry as if it’d been reheated. Nevertheless, all of the other elements of the sandwich were superb. The crispy prosciutto, provolone cheese, caramelized onions, pepperoncini, lettuce, tomato, horseradish aioli, and the butter grilled brioche bun added layers of texture and flavour, so that every bite was slightly unique. The side of Caesar salad was alright. They utilize a very light house dressing that was barely noticeable on the romaine lettuce. What improved the salad was the spritz of lemon juice along with the exorbitant helping of Grana Padano flakes and prosciutto crisps.

In the past, whenever I went to Famoso, I would typically order one of their signature pizzas straight off of the menu. While it’s still tempting to do so as there are some fantastic choices, my fiancé and I now prefer to build our own 5-topping pizza. We started with a parmesan crema base and added sun-dried tomatoes, fresh feta, chicken, soppressata, and fresh prosciutto. Basil and olive oil were included at no charge as well. It leans on the salty side with the cheese and cured meats, but the chicken is so succulent and I love the sweet-tart flavour and chewy texture of the preserved tomatoes. My fiancé and I refer to this creation as “The KC” (our initials). If anyone is ever inclined to try this pizza, let me know what you think of it! Oh, and don’t forget to order tzatziki to dip the crusts.

White Chocolate Panna Cotta for two.

Dinner out is never complete without dessert. I chose to go with one of the lighter selections for the two of us to share. As White Chocolate Panna Cotta goes, this was decent. The sweet is house-made with the panna cotta set in a mason jar. Strawberry sauce and shaved dark chocolate are placed on top to finish it off. I would have liked to have seen extra strawberry sauce to pair with each bite of the white chocolate panna cotta. I also found the dark chocolate shavings to be harder than expected. This is probably because the dessert was prepared earlier and refrigerated, which solidified the dark chocolate. I think adding the chocolate shavings right before the dessert is served would improve it because the dark chocolate would more easily melt in the mouth.

It’s funny. When we sat down for our reservation at Famoso WEM, it was quiet in the restaurant. Only a few other tables were occupied. It matched what the manager told me about how slow business could be. Yet, when we left, it was a packed house with customers waiting at the front to be seated. The realization that it was spring break kicked in, and that time off for families certainly made a big difference. In fact, the majority of diners had young children in tow. Even though the restaurant wasn’t staffed appropriately for the rush they received, they didn’t seem to miss a beat. Every table with kids was greeted by the manager who asked how many dough balls he should bring for the kids to play with. Is this a new thing at Famoso? Or, do they just do this at WEM? Either way, it’s an ingenious way of preoccupying the children, so everyone can eat in peace.

Living in the southwest side of Edmonton, Famoso WEM is never going to be our location of choice for their Neapolitan-style pizzas. It’s too out of the way for us to go there regularly. Nonetheless, our experience was a good one this week. So, if we’re ever in the neighbourhood, this spot will definitely be on our list of options for a delicious meal and great daily specials.

Current daily specials are listed in the drink menu.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Harvest Room (Full Breakfast Buffet)

My first run at the Full Buffet.

I’ve been to The Harvest Room at the Fairmont Hotel Macdonald several times over the past few years, but the last time I wrote about it was just over four years ago. A recent visit, prompted by the purchase of a Groupon, is giving me the chance to talk about this downtown Edmonton spot once more. This time, instead of coming in during lunch or stopping by for dinner, my family and I opted to meet up for breakfast bright and early on a Sunday morning.

Street parking on Sundays is free, so it’s possible to find spaces nearby without having to pay for the use of a lot or for the Fairmont’s valet services. The rest of the week, it will cost to park until at least 6:00pm. We had made reservations for 9:30am, and we arrived right on time. Before we were led into the dining room, the host hung up our coats in the closet, and he also requested our Groupon voucher. In this instance, the deal was a $100 value for $65 to be used on a Sunday to Thursday towards breakfast or dinner. However, I also managed to get an additional 25 per cent off with a promo code, which dropped the price down to $48.75. The original offer is still currently available.

Our table of four was seated next to one of the big windows, allowing us a great view of the entire restaurant and the patio. The space isn’t all that big and it’s not as regal as I’d assume a Fairmont dining room would be. It is classically styled though, and the servers are all dressed more formally. There’s even a window into the kitchen, so you can watch the staff as they work. It starts to feel like a fancier place when it’s apparent that they will bring brand new cutlery every time you begin eating off of a new plate.

French toast, bread pudding and a pastry.

The breakfast menu ranges from $12 for a Super Green Smoothie to $26 for a House-Cured Hot Smoked Salmon Benedict. It’s certainly not cheap. Especially when any additional drinks, including coffee, tea, and juice, are $5 each. Although, they do offer the value option of a coffee or tea with juice for $8. Taking all of that into account, it just made sense for our group to go with their Full Buffet option ($31.50 each). For about the same price as a single dish with a drink, we’d get unlimited fresh fruit, smoked salmon, domestic cheeses, yogurts, assorted cereals, bagels, toast, pastries, eggs benedict, french toast, bread pudding, crispy bacon, sausage, scrambled eggs, omelettes, breakfast potatoes, and the daily smoothie. Plus, coffee or tea, and juice — I questioned whether or not the orange juice was actually fresh as indicated on the menu — comes with it as well.

From the Continental Buffet, the best item you’ll find for the value is the smoked salmon.

Personally, I wasn’t super impressed with the Continental Buffet ($21.50) selection as I found the bagels to be kind of hard like they weren’t made fresh and there wasn’t much in the way of cheeses. The fruits were alright. I particularly enjoyed the pineapple and watermelon. Both were juicy and sweet. I also will commend the pastry chef because the mini danishes that I ate were delicately flaky and soft. Otherwise, it’s only worth the money if you’re a fan of smoked salmon and yogurt-based smoothies. Eat as much of the house-cured fish as you can and drink a couple of glasses of the daily smoothie to completely justify the cost. But, really, for an extra $10, it seems like a no-brainer to just go with the Full Buffet. While I didn’t try the eggs benedict or the scrambled eggs (I’m not a fan of eggs that have been sitting for periods of time), I made an effort to sample everything else.

Prairie Omelette made fresh to order.

First off, I’ll say that I appreciate the fact that, even though it is a buffet, they’ll take omelette orders at the table, so the dish is freshly cooked and comes hot from the kitchen. I chose the Prairie Omelette, which is usually $23 on its own, served with potatoes and tomatoes. Filled with boar bacon lardons, charred peppers, tomatoes, green onion, smoked apple wood, and smoked cheddar cheese, it was okay. I definitely could have used more cheese, and I would have preferred a fluffier egg.

The bread pudding at the 12 o’clock position was so good, as were the mini danish pastries.

Again, items that sit out at the buffet in warmers are never going to be the best unless there’s high turnover. That’s why I wasn’t too keen on the french toast. The slices seemed kind of stale and the berries that were tossed into the pan looked as though they’d been heated a bit too long. On the other hand, the bread pudding was fantastic. When I lined up to get some of that, I was at first disappointed to see that the tray was missing. But, that turned to happiness when I saw that a new bowl of bread pudding was being brought out just as I reached the buffet. The sweet bread was subtly flavoured with cinnamon and a dusting of icing sugar. I paired it with a few strawberries I pulled from the tray. It’s simple, but tasty.

The breakfast potatoes were savoury and tossed with roasted tomatoes. They were the perfect accompaniment to the plump sausages and the copious amounts of crisp bacon strips that I had. Those were all perfectly prepared.

My pot of tea was included in the price of the Full Buffet.

All in, my family paid about $100 after tax and tip out of pocket. At $25 per person, the value was there. However, when it comes down to the regular price, this is more than I would typically spend on breakfast (I’ll take the $8 happy hour special at Earls over this any day). Yet, if it’s not too out of the way, you’ve got a big appetite, and you’re looking to treat yourself to something nice, the Full Buffet at The Harvest Room should be a contender. Go for the drinks, fish and meats, and fill out the rest of your meal with other sides such as the delicious pastries. Just keep in mind that the value lies in certain items and stick with those.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Nello’s Cucina Italiana (St. Albert)

The giant plate of Carbonara pasta.

Always looking for a deal and to try somewhere new, my fiancé and I recently ended up at Nello’s Cucina Italiana in St. Albert. We stopped in to use our dinner Groupon on a Sunday night at 6:00pm. We had reserved a table in advance to ensure a spot; however, it wasn’t actually all that busy during that hour.

It’s a cute, inviting restaurant with a bit of a European flair: warm lighting and wall colours, tiled floors, and paintings of Italian landscapes. Nothing fancy, just relaxed and casual. As we were left to make our decisions, I took a look around. There was a table of two about to leave with a huge bag of leftovers. Then, a few minutes later, the guests seated next to us received their dishes. The portions were massive. This was not going to disappoint.

In the end, my fiancé opted for the Pollo Parmigiano ($23.50) and I selected the Carbonara Pasta ($22). We both stuck with water for the evening, and complimentary bread with butter was provided to start.

Considering that the Pollo Parmigiano really doesn’t come with a whole lot other than a flattened breaded chicken breast topped with tomato sauce, parmigiano, and mozzarella cheese that is then baked in the oven, this was still quite filling. To go with the chicken, there is a choice between the Di Casa (house) or Caesar salad. He went with the latter of which they certainly gave a generous amount, especially when taking into account the size of the plates used to serve all their meals. I found the greens in the salad to be quite fresh. There was plenty of dressing to coat everything. The croutons were crunchy and buttery and I enjoyed the bacon bits for that added saltiness. Along with the salad, the chicken had been sprinkled with extra Parmesan for good measure. Dried chili flakes finished it off. Personally, I think the ratio of tomato sauce to melted cheese was perfect. It created a seal that kept the heat in the meat, and added that unmistakable heartiness to a very comforting dish.

Getting ready to take a bite of carbonara pasta.

Arguably though, the pasta options are where patrons will find the best value for their dollar. Sure, pasta is pretty inexpensive to cook at home. Yet, when it comes to restaurant quality pasta, Nello’s most definitely does not skimp. I swear that the pile of Carbonara that was placed in front of me was almost the size of my head (the pictures don’t do it justice). It was a giant plate of spaghetti sautéed with chopped bacon, mushrooms, fresh herbs, parmigiano, and eggs. As expected, it was relatively salty. Nevertheless, the sauce was pretty creamy, and every single bite was enhanced by the bacon and/or mushrooms. As my fiancé noted, by the time he finished eating, it appeared as if I had still barely made a dent in my supper. At least half of it was packed up to go (and reheated as dinner for two the next night).

A slice of the tiramisu for dessert.

Had I kept on devouring my food, we wouldn’t have had room for dessert. It seems that their usual offerings include either a Crème Brûlée ($9) or Tiramisu ($10). We chose to share an order of the classic Italian sweet. Seeing as how I dislike coffee and anything flavoured that way, it really was atypical for me to go with the tiramisu. But, my fiancé favoured it, and I was willing to give it a try. For the most part, it was alright. I would have preferred more ladyfingers. The thin layer of cookies used didn’t soak up enough of the liquid, leaving behind a small pool underneath that made the dessert somewhat soggy. Otherwise, it was surprisingly light enough on the coffee that I didn’t mind the taste much.

Overall, our time at Nello’s was wonderful. The service we experienced was kind and attentive, and the kitchen must have a great rhythm as we were in and out in just over an hour. However, I expect that if the intention of one’s visit is to hang out for the whole evening, the establishment wouldn’t have any issue with that. It comes across as a place where family and friends can feel free to catch up with each other over food and drinks. It’s also hard to beat some of their daily specials, such as Bring Your Own Bottle Mondays (no corkage on wine), All You Can Eat Pasta on Tuesdays (this one had me intrigued), and Kids Eat Free Sundays. This is a spot that my fiancé and I can now add to our favourites.

Their list of daily specials.