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.


Edmonton Restaurant Review: Soy & Pepper

Cheese Dongasu with Cabbage Salad

On a recent girls’ night out, my friends and I narrowed our choices down to several places near downtown Edmonton. After some back and forth, we eventually settled on Soy & Pepper, which touts itself as a modern Korean eatery. Located on 112 Street and Jasper Avenue, it actually took a group of us coming from the south side of the city longer to get there than we expected. Thankfully, one of my girlfriends arrived on time and was able to hold our reservation.

When we finally made our way there and found a parking spot (there is a free lot behind the building), I was surprised to see that the restaurant wasn’t that busy for a Saturday evening. There were just a few other occupied tables, and it didn’t change much as the night continued, so I do wonder how business is going for them.

I will say that the establishment is quite nice though. Everything is really clean, it’s roomy, and the furniture and decor are modern — sleek wooden tables, black Eiffel chairs, white stone accent walls. I estimate that the space can fit about forty patrons at a time. The single downfall was that it was slightly breezy inside. We were seated relatively close to the front door, and it’s possible that, despite the shelter built around the entrance to mitigate the issue, a draft was caused whenever it was opened. It wouldn’t be a problem during warmer months, but in the winter, it meant my friends bundling up in their scarves and jackets at one point or another.

Soy & Pepper’s food menu.

Once we all settled in, we inspected the menus. They have a minimal wine and beer list as well as several Korean wine or liquor options. For those who prefer non-alcoholic beverages, they have the usual sodas and tea or coffee. Unfortunately for me, they did not offer any cocktails, so I stuck with water.

Since we hadn’t gotten together in a long while, we weren’t in any rush. Therefore, we decided to go with some starters. I selected the Kimchi Potato Balls ($6), another ordered the Potstickers ($7.50), and a pair shared the Kimchi Pork Poutine ($16).


I did not sample the Potstickers myself, but judging by their appearance, they looked alright. There were four to a plate and they were very long with crispy shells. I’m hoping the dough to pork and veggie filling ratio was okay as I thought the skin seemed a tad thick. Otherwise, they were probably prepared with a quick fry in an oiled pan, then steamed with water, and then fried again to get the consistency I saw. That’s my favourite way to make them at home to ensure the middle is cooked through and the outside is golden brown.

Kimchi Pork Poutine

The Kimchi Pork Poutine was an interesting find. It’s that instance of fusion food that always finds a way onto the menus of local restaurants attempting to do authentic Asian cuisine. This item is available only during dinner at Soy & Pepper. In terms of portion size, it’s generously loaded with braised pork, onions, sautéed kimchi, house hot sauce, cheese, and cilantro. There’s a kick from the combination of hot sauce (mainly this) and kimchi, so if spicy is your thing, go for it. Best of all, the fries were delicious. They reminded me a lot of the ones sold at the Costco food court when I was younger; light, fluffy centers with bubbly outsides.

Kimchi Potato Balls

My Kimchi Potato Balls were served as a duo of mashed potatoes mixed with kimchi, cheese, and green beans, which were then breaded and fried until crisp. They were then placed on a bed of chipotle aioli sauce and then topped with dollops of sour cream and sprinkles of green onions. These had a hint of heat balanced out by the sour cream. I appreciated how smooth the potato was, too.

For our entrées, all four of my friends chose to go with the Bulgogi ($16). Two of them had Chili Pepper Seasoning ($1) added to the dish. A large bowl of House Kimchi ($5) was shared among the group. I went in another direction by picking the Cheese Dongasu ($20).

House Kimchi

I’ll start by discussing the House Kimchi. Admittedly, I thought I’d enjoy it more. However, out of all the kimchi I’ve ever tried, this was probably the most underwhelming. A staple of Korean cuisine, kimchi is a traditional side that is typically made with cabbage that has been salted and fermented. Personally, I think the pickled flavour wasn’t strong enough and the seasonings used didn’t produce enough spice. It was also a bit waterier than I prefer, but it was decent in plain rice.

Bulgogi with Chili Pepper Seasoning

At first glance, the Bulgogi plates came across as small. Yet, once the accompanying rice was stirred in with the marinated and grilled Alberta AAA beef, onions, green onions, cabbage, and bean sprouts, there was plenty of food. The dish seemed to be well-seasoned and flavourful, especially the ones with the chili pepper seasoning. In fact, it may have been too much chili as my friend who loves spicy food reiterated a few times that it was very hot on her palate. I’d recommend ordering the Bulgogi and then sprinkling on the dry chili flakes provided at the table until it’s to one’s liking, and it won’t cost anything extra.

Cheese Dongasu with Cabbage Salad, Rice & Dongasu Sauce

I loved, loved, loved the Cheese Dongasu. This is basically a deep fried, breaded pork loin that is stuffed with cheese. On the side is a wonderful dongasu sauce — simplified versions are often made with Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, brown sugar, and Ketchup — for dipping, a bowl of white rice, and a cabbage salad in sesame dressing. I didn’t really need the rice that much, but it was good, not overcooked. I ended up packing that up (the remaining sesame dressing drizzled on top) with half of my humongous pork loin for leftovers. The cabbage salad was quite tasty as there was a good amount of dressing and the veggies were fresh and crunchy. The pork loin was the absolute star. There was so much cheese inside that when I pulled the pieces apart, the melted cheese just oozed out seductively.


The majority of the group opted for dessert: a scoop of vanilla ice cream ($2.25), a slice of carrot cake ($7), and the Ho-ddeok ($8.50). I can’t say a whole lot about the vanilla ice cream as there isn’t much to elaborate on, but the slice of carrot cake, though it appeared to be appetizing with nuts, raisins and cream cheese icing, was definitely not made in-house. It was brought to the table with plastic film still stuck to it, like when you go to the store and buy an individual piece of cake at the bakery. What was worth every penny was the Ho-ddeok. That is a warm, chewy dough pancake stuffed with sugar, honey, butter, mixed nuts, maple syrup, and cinnamon. It’s served with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. My friend described it as being similar to an elephant ear with filling. I think that potentially undersells it. However, I would go back for this in a heartbeat. Between this and the Cheese Dongasu, it’s a total toss up for my favourite bite of the night. Either way, try both, if you can swing it.

The service was attentive and friendly, the food hit the mark for the most part, the portions received for the price are more than reasonable, and the place is easily accessible. It also has the perfect ambience for those who want to spend the night catching up. The staff member was never pushy, so we felt comfortable taking our time and staying for a while. Plus, even though there was music playing, it wasn’t overly loud. We were able to hear each other talk without having to shout. Accounting for everything, Soy & Pepper turned out to be a fantastic spot for a get together. I’m already looking forward to my next visit because I really want to explore more of the menu with my fiancé.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sumo Sumo Sushi (Sherwood Park)

Our initial order of food from the Sunday Buffet.

Early in January, I came across a deal for the Sunday Brunch at Sumo Sumo Sushi in Sherwood Park. Their website listed an offering of five dollars off their usual price throughout the month. I hadn’t been there for years and was excited to learn that there was another all-you-can-eat option near the city, so I made a point of dragging my fiancé there over the last weekend it was available.

We arrived at the location on Lakeland Drive shortly after noon, so we kind of hit the lunch rush. The host at the front counter reminded us that the only menu on offer that day was the buffet and she asked if that was okay. She was also sure to let us know that the cost had been reduced to $29.95 per person instead of the regular $32.95 (updated February 2018). Once we had agreed to those stipulations, she checked to see if we had a reservation. Since we did not, we were seated in their enclosed patio space. The room was heated, but we were by a window and I found it got a little chilly after a while.

The Sunday Buffet menu.

Service was also slow to start as no one came by our table for a good ten minutes after we sat down. Once the server showed up, it wasn’t too bad though. She brought us our drinks (one beverage each is included). I opted for orange juice that came in a very tall glass, so I think the value was decent, especially since the majority of alternative sushi places charge extra. My fiancé chose to go with a pot of green tea. Sushi, sashimi, udon and shrimp tempura orders must be placed through the servers. On this occasion, the restaurant was out of toro and octopus. To make up for that, they relaxed their limit on the tuna, yellowtail and scallop. For our first run, we got six pieces of shrimp tempura, three pieces of chop chop sushi, and I maxed out on my sashimi portion by getting eight pieces of salmon and seven pieces of tuna.

While those items were being prepared, we ventured out to the ready made buffet. They do have a decent spread with a number of cold salads, a few hot salads, mussels, several maki rolls, meat skewers, teriyaki and tonkatsu, vegetarian tempura and a handful of dessert options.

I brought back a large plate full of seaweed salad, bean sprout salad, sesame beef pasta salad, California rolls, Aloha rolls, yam tempura and ponzu mussels. When we returned to our table, we realized that we were never given any utensils. To prevent further delay, I ended up grabbing a couple of forks from the buffet, but we did have to inquire with our server who apologized as the chopsticks and napkins should have been set out earlier. When she came back, she had those as well as a dish of wasabi and pickled ginger for us. Within the following ten minutes, she brought us our sashimi, tempura and sushi, too.

Some of the items I picked up from the ready made buffet.

I’ll begin by reviewing the buffet items that I chose. I felt that the seaweed and bean sprout salads were standard. The seaweed salad was seasoned well and the kelp had that crunchy, chewy texture. The bean sprouts were pretty fresh, and I enjoyed the flavour of the sesame dressing. My one issue was that the sauce was somewhat watery. Surprisingly, I really liked the sesame beef pasta salad. It’s kind of an unusual find in a Japanese eatery; however, the beef was tender and marinated nicely. I believe it had the perfect amount of mayo-type dressing on it (not drenched) that gave it a slight tang.

Tempura at Sumo Sumo was decent as the kitchen avoided over battering and the shell remained crisp despite sitting out in the buffet servers. Despite the California rolls tasting great with their use of cucumber, avocado and sesame seeds, I was a tad disappointed to see that they utilize fake crab meat. I appreciated the Aloha roll as it provided a balance of sweet and heat through the combination of tuna, avocado, masago, green onion, eel sauce, spicy mayo, pineapple, shredded coconut, soy and sesame oil. I loved the Kiwi mussels because they were so large and fleshy, and the ponzu sauce was light with a kick to it.

Chop Chop Sushi, Shrimp Tempura, Salmon & Tuna Sashimi and buffet items.

I’m very glad that they make the shrimp tempura fresh when requested. It meant that each batch came out piping hot. The chop chop sushi had a good ratio of scallop to masago to mayo to rice with a perfectly dry nori wrap. Shockingly, the pieces of sashimi were massive, at least when it came to the tuna and salmon. They were incredibly thick cut, meaning there was a ton of protein. I thought the tuna was the better of the two as it tended to melt in the mouth whereas the salmon was tougher and required more chewing. Since my fiancé isn’t a fan of raw fish, he took full advantage of the cooked meats (kebabs and tonkatsu at the buffet).

The second order of sashimi. The snapper on the top right corner of the plate were still frozen.

To maximize the value, I made sure to put in our second order for sashimi. This time, I chose to try three pieces each of the tuna, salmon, yellowtail, scallop, and snapper. It was a long time before this plate made it to our table and I know why. When I bit into my first slice of snapper, it turned out that it was still frozen in the middle and I could feel the ice inside the fish. The kitchen must have been hoping it would thaw. I informed our server of that problem and, thankfully, she offered to switch the snapper for something else. The salmon and tuna (more sinewy) were comparable to our initial dish of sashimi. I’m not sure that I liked the scallop sashimi that much. It sort of left a bitterness at the back of my throat and I don’t think it should have. On the other hand, the yellowtail was fantastic. The slices of this last fish were much more manageable in size and the flavour was sweetly tangy.

Chocolate Mousse and Crème Brûlée

By the time I made it through that portion of sashimi, I was so full. Yet, I wasn’t willing to leave without dessert. I was capable of fitting in a small cup of crème brûlée and a glass of chocolate mousse in my stomach. Both refrained from being too heavy, making either an ideal way to complete the meal. The restaurant allows diners a total of two hours to eat and we finished almost exactly within that time frame.

After doing the math, I surmised that all of the food I ate myself was equivalent in value to what I paid for our lunch. Everything that my fiancé ate was the cherry on top. Ultimately, I would say that our experience at Sumo Sumo was a fun one. Even though I don’t think it’s as good as Watari ($36 during dinner gets each person 30 pieces of reasonably sized sashimi and all items are made to order from the kitchen), this was, overall, alright. I think if Sherwood Park isn’t too out of the way, it’s worth dropping by once in a while to fulfill any cravings. Otherwise, Sumo Sumo is a place that I probably won’t be going out of my way to visit for another few years.


Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Black Pearl

The interior of The Black Pearl.

A group of us played an evening of escape rooms at SideQuests Adventures Inc. on a Tuesday night. When we were finished, we parted ways, but a couple of us had planned to stay out and grab a bite afterwards. We didn’t have anything specific in mind. Yet, being on the 4th Street Promenade of downtown Edmonton, it made sense to explore the block to find a place to hang out.

We passed by a few popular spots before we decided to give The Black Pearl a try. Stepping through it’s doors was like walking through the wardrobe in The Chronicles of Narnia. There’s a ton of woodwork throughout the space. At the back are a few fish tanks. Netting and ropes drape down from the ceilings and stairwell as a decorative measure. If it isn’t already apparent, this is an eatery that specializes in seafood.

Arriving a little over an hour before the establishment would be closing for the night, it was surprisingly still quite full. There were even a few people cozied up to the bar indulging in platters of oysters and crab legs. However, we managed to snag a table for two without issue.

Each of us ordered a cocktail to start. My friend went with the Light and Crisp ($7) and I grabbed a Rosemary Gin Fizz ($10). I can’t attest to how her beverage was, but I loved my choice. It was smooth, refreshing and ever so slightly tart. I thought it was a fantastic night cap as it quenched my thirst and hit the spot without coming across as too strong.

Fish Tacos

For our food, my friend opted for the Fish Tacos ($17) while I selected the Beef Tataki ($16). First off, I’ll just say that, looking over the menu, I found the prices to be higher than I would have liked. I do realize that the restaurant is trying to bring in the freshest ingredients by importing most of their seafood from the west and east coasts of the country, but I don’t think that a Seafood Mac & Cheese — made with lobster and baby shrimp — should cost $27 per plate. At least, not when I can go to Bar 94 at LUX Steakhouse and have Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese for $17 instead (only $9 to $10 during Happy Hour on weekdays, too).

Cost aside, the Fish Tacos were sizable. Considering that the dish only comes with two tacos, the pieces of fried haddock wrapped in the tortillas were relatively hefty. Served with in-house made coleslaw and chipotle mayo drizzled on top, these turned out to be very filling. The fish was also prepared well with the meat flaky and moist.

Beef Tataki with a glass of the Rosemary Gin Fizz

I wasn’t entirely sure that a restaurant with a focus on seafood was the place to be ordering Beef Tataki, but one forkful of the sliced beef and baby shrimp put my mind to rest. Honestly, I usually hate baby shrimp. They’re often overcooked and rubbery. In this case, they were actually succulent. Most likely the juices from the tataki marinade helped to keep them from becoming too dry, allowing me to enjoy them for once in my life. The star of the plate was, as it should be, the beef with edges nicely seared. The meat was thicker than I expected. But, it was incredibly tender and perfectly marbled.

Service also plays a big factor, and, here, at The Black Pearl, it was impeccable. Our server was warm, willing to answer questions, checked in on us at appropriate times, and reminded us about last call in case we wanted anything else before we left.

The intimate atmosphere, the delicious cuisine, and the top notch hospitality certainly makes me want to revisit The Black Pearl. When I do, I’ll be keeping in mind their daily specials like the half price fish tacos on Wednesdays and the $10 tapas on Thursdays because as much as I enjoy going out for a meal, I always appreciate it more when it’s also friendly on the wallet.


Edmonton Restaurant Review: Mai Vietnamese Fusion

The exterior of Mai Vietnamese Fusion.

Had I not strolled by Mai Vietnamese Fusion along West Edmonton Mall’s Bourbon Street earlier this year, I never would have known of its existence. Intrigued, I searched for it online and found that the restaurant itself had no website or Facebook page. The only trace of it came through reviews left by patrons on Yelp and Zomato. Their only social media presence was on Instagram and even that hadn’t been updated since the summer of 2016.

Those reviews I’d seen weren’t very flattering either. Yet, a Groupon deal was all I needed to forgive any negatives and give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a try. I waited almost the full four months before I went to redeem that voucher on a Saturday night. When my boyfriend and I walked up to the host standing outside the front of the establishment, we indicated that we needed a table for two people. She seemed disorganized and asked us to wait while she ran inside to find an empty space (shouldn’t they have a seating chart at their disposal?). When she came back, we were told that there wasn’t anything available, but something would be ready within ten minutes or so.

The entrance into the restaurant.

As we waited, my eyes explored the room, and I have to say it was designed well. A giant Buddha greets patrons as they come in through the door. To the left hand side of the entrance is a whole wall of smaller figurines of the same in a variety of colours. On the main level, there are a couple of semi-private rooms for larger groups as well as some more intimate tables for couples. Up a few steps on the right hand side are a number of large velvet-lined booths overlooked by a handful of portrait paintings. Overall, the aesthetic was modern with just a touch of the traditional.

Condiments at the table along with fresh basil and bean sprouts.

Once we were seated, we reviewed the menu. Initially, I thought it was a bit expensive in comparison to other restaurants that serve the same type of food. However, I do understand that the cost of rent at WEM is much higher than it would be anywhere else, so I’m assuming that is reflected in their prices. Ultimately, my boyfriend opted for the large Pho with Steak ($15.70) and I went with the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli ($16.20).

It didn’t take much time for them to prepare everything because, before we knew it, our bowls were brought out to us, along with a plate of fresh basil and bean sprouts. Then we went to work devouring it all.

Pho with Steak

The Pho with Steak was very generous in size. There were plenty of noodles in the bowl and enough steak that my boyfriend nearly failed to finish off the meat (unheard of). The soup wasn’t particularly hot, but it was warm enough. Fattiness was apparent in the broth with bubbles of oil at the top, yet it didn’t seem greasy when consumed. It was a nice, simple soup. I wish I could give a true sense of what it tasted like on its own though. Unfortunately, I only had some after my boyfriend added in a bunch Sriracha sauce to it. Arguably, that added a delightful heat that also elevated the flavour of the dish. Of course, I won’t know for sure how pure the soup is until I go back and try the pho again without that alteration. In any case, it was good enough for me to want to keep drinking the broth.

Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli

My portion of the Grilled Beef & Spring Roll with Vermicelli did not disappoint. Sure, it wasn’t as big as the pho, but it was all noodles, veggies and protein. I almost had a hard time stirring the components together for fear of anything jumping ship out of the side of the bowl. In the end, I managed to get the fish sauce mixed in well though. Again, they did not skimp on the noodles (as a cheap ingredient, they shouldn’t be). The ratio of vermicelli to beef was almost perfect. I especially enjoyed the meat as it was marinated really well; the lemongrass flavour definitely came through and there was a pleasant charring from the grill. The two spring rolls were deliciously crisp and filling, too.

Our only issue with the restaurant was the service. Each staff member that we encountered came across as friendly, and, as I mentioned before, our food was presented pretty quickly. Despite that, there was still a sense of mismanagement. With several people working that evening, two tables, including ours, never received our requested glasses of water. Both of us had to ask random employees for our drinks towards the end of our meals because we couldn’t find the person who was supposed to be our server.

Otherwise, it turned out to be a decent dinner out. I think I understand why the restaurant doesn’t necessarily have the greatest reviews out there. Nonetheless, if someone can see past possibly subpar service and they happen to be at West Edmonton Mall with a hankering for Vietnamese cuisine (and other Asian-style dishes), I would tell them to give Mai Vietnamese Fusion a chance.