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: Wishbone

The interior has been updated since it’s MRKT days.

Today marks the official opening of Wishbone. Brought to life by Chef Brayden Kozak and Head Bartender/General Manager Shaun Hicks of Three Boars Restaurant Group, this is the latest entry to Edmonton’s bustling restaurant scene.

Often times, I’m pretty late to the game when it comes to trying new places. On this occasion, I’d say I was lucky to come across Wishbone on social media and, by following their feeds, I was able to stay in the loop on the eatery’s endeavours. That includes sneak peek dinners that they’ve been hosting for the past two to three weeks. Last Thursday, I attended one of these multi-course meals to get a sense of what they’re calling refined Canadian Surf & Turf offerings as well as their potential Vegetarian menu.

My friend and I arrived to the space that previously housed MRKT (above Red Star at 10542 Jasper Avenue). While the bones of the room remained the same (curved ceiling and the natural horizontal shiplap look), the rest had been revamped with booth seating, pea/avocado green coloured leather upholstery, simple white globe lights throughout and an industrial cement based bar next to the open kitchen.

When it came to the food, I went along with the Surf & Turf option for the evening. My friend, on the other hand, is allergic to shellfish. Therefore, with an unknown menu and wanting to avoid a reaction, she decided to give the Vegetarian dishes a shot.

As the plates were brought out and descriptions were provided, we did our best to keep track of everything that we were told. Admittedly, that proved to be a difficult feat. But, I’ll do what I can to stay as true to the dish as possible here.

To start, my friend enjoyed her appetizer of split pea fries with canola aioli. I didn’t end up sampling these. Yet, from what I could tell, the fries held together when picked up and they looked non-greasy and crisp with just a light breaded coating. The bright yellow aioli also provided a shot of colour to the plate. For the regular menu, the first dish consisted of a fresh shucked oyster sprinkled generously with shaved beef heart and served on a bed of salt. I’ve never eaten raw oyster – I prefer them fried – so this was new for me. The oyster slid out of the shell easily and it was briny, yet not in an overwhelming way. The juice was savoury and the dried beef heart shavings added texture and gaminess.

Roasted Beets with Stilton Blue Cheese

For our salad, we received roasted beets, caramelized onions, Stilton blue cheese and spicy greens. I can’t say that I tasted any heat from the greens laid atop the salad. That is unless cilantro is counted as spice. Personally, the herb sort of separated me from dish as I’m not a fan of the taste. To most, it’s refreshing. To me, it’s unpleasant. If I have to, I can get through a cilantro dish though. In this case, it wasn’t terrible. More than anything, the pungency of the blue cheese and the sweetness of the onions and tender roasted beets helped to mask any unwanted enhancements. My friend, conversely, loves cilantro and this plate turned out to be her favourite of the night.

Next up was a course of monk fish laid on stewed tomatoes, onions and a sauce with Vietnamese herbs and fish sauce. I thought I sensed some cilantro in this dish as well, but it was avoidable. What I did like about it was the use of shredded mint leaves as they provided some refreshment. The fish was also nicely seared on both sides, giving it that slightly charred taste and texture. The vegetarian version of this dish was made with a similar broth, minus the fish sauce, and instead of the monk fish, it was presented with stacked tofu cakes surprisingly rich in flavour.

Hanger Steak with Clams

The Surf & Turf main course ran the full spectrum by mixing both meat and seafood on the one plate. A slice of rye bread acted as the base. From there, it was piled with ramps, lacto-fermented onions, slices of hanger steak, clams and then, if I remember correctly, a clam jus reduction. I actually found the steak to have more chew than I’d prefer. On the plus side, the meat was cooked until rare to medium rare, which was ideal for me. At first, I didn’t think I’d like the rye bread all that much due to the toasting. Yet, I’d say that it won me over. The density of it helped to prevent sogginess from the sauce, and the sour, earthy taste worked well with the meat, clams and pungently garlic-like flavour of the ramps.

Rutabaga in Cream Sauce with Nori, Fried Kale and Hazelnuts

We were interested to see what the entrée for the vegetarian meal would consist of. It turned out to be a large helping of salt roasted rutabaga tossed in a creamy dressing and topped with lacto-fermented fried kale, shreds of nori and hazelnuts. The rutabaga sits between the texture of a potato and that of a beet. It has a hint of sweetness, which is why it likely worked so well with the somewhat bitter greens, salty nori and nutty hazelnuts.

To complete our dinner, sesame egg custard was prepared and served alongside sesame tuile cookies and a thick caramel sauce. The tuile cookies weren’t as delicate as they traditionally are, but they were delicious. They held up as I dipped them in caramel or layered custard and caramel on top of them. It appeared to be a relatively simple dessert, but it still felt indulgent and worth the calories.

From this early experience, I can truly say that I’m looking forward to revisiting Wishbone. Compared to their other sit-down restaurant, Three Boars, there is a greater sense of polish in terms of service provided and presentation of the dishes. Yet, it doesn’t make the venue unapproachable. In fact, the opposite is true. The overall atmosphere is fairly casual, and the team is a friendly and nonjudgmental bunch (at least when it comes to joking about licking plates clean). For a place to expand the palate, give Wishbone a shot.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Splash Poke

The staff member who completed assembly of my bowl.

Last night, Edmonton’s first Hawaiian-inspired poke (pronounced poh-keh) shop opened its doors to the public with a crowd that snaked down the block and around the corner. Splash Poke, located south of Jasper Avenue on 109 Street, is a fast-casual spot to pick up a healthy, quick and customizable meal. Like Blaze Pizza or Amore Pasta, there are a few preset options to choose from, but at the core, it’s very much a build-your-own dish mentality.

I was lucky enough to be invited to the media and blogger preview lunch yesterday afternoon and doubly fortunate to work close enough to make it there during the two hour time frame. When I stepped into the store, I noticed how bright and modern it was. The tropical colour scheme of coral, turquoise and white runs throughout and makes for a cheerful space. It’s not the largest venue though. There are only about five tables and 14 seats total in the whole restaurant, but it feels spacious and laid out in a way that is still comfortable even if the line inside the establishment grows.

Looking at the menu, I had a tough time trying to decide on what to order. Creating my own bowl sounded great, but I really wanted to sample everything. In the end, I decided to go for The Works, one of the Splash Favourites. This includes cubes of salmon and tuna, shoyu sauce, all available mix-ins, toppings (except avocado at a cost of $1.50), garnishes and both the Splash and Sriracha aiolis. The only thing I asked to have omitted was the cilantro.

Knowing that there’s a need to avoid any contamination with the food, I understood why there was a glass barrier built between the prep station and the customers, but it did seem a tad too tall. Sure, I could see everything they were doing, yet it felt like it was more difficult to talk to the staff as they were assembling the bowls. Also, despite there being three people prepping the food, it seemed to take a bit of time. This could be a slight detriment to patrons if they’re expecting to be in and out, especially if they’re seeking something quick during a short break in their workday. Hopefully, with practice, the staff will be able to speed things up. And, they’ll likely have more premade bowls available for pick up in the cooler once they’re operating on a regular schedule.

The Works, a Splash Favourite.

Going back to my bowl, it was beautifully put together with layers upon layers of ingredients and flavours. However, my initial thought was that it was a tad too salty. I think the crab mix and the shoyu – a soy sauce made of fermented soy bean and wheat – were the main culprits. Next time, I’ll definitely ask that they lighten up on the shoyu. For my base, I had also selected the vermicelli noodles. Although they were the perfect consistency and refrained from being sticky, they didn’t do as good a job of soaking up extra sauce. Rice may prove to be the better bet and also be more filling. On the plus side, I loved that every bite brought a different flavour to my palate. With everything from seaweed salad to corn and panko to jalapenos merged into one dish, there was so much going on with regards to taste and texture that I never knew exactly what to expect as I continued to eat. Most importantly, the fish was exceptionally fresh as well.

Honestly, I’m not sure if I’d opt for The Works bowl again. Yes, it was a great way to try it all in one go. But, ultimately, I now know that there are flavours I preferred. If anything, it’s likely that The Tropical bowl would fit the bill for me with salmon, tuna, scallop, pineapple and mango. I found that the fruit paired really well with the raw fish and was wonderfully refreshing; the sweet natural juices actually helped to balance out any spiciness or saltiness in the sauces.

Personally, I think that Splash Poke would be a good alternative to some of the other nearby dining options. While some may argue that the increase in cost between protein portions is a lot – 1 scoop of protein is $9.95, 2 scoops for $13.95 and 3 scoops for $15.95 – I’d say that it’s pretty reasonable considering the type of meat. If one were to go to a sushi restaurant for sashimi, one piece can work out to almost $2 on average. From what I saw, at least during the preview lunch, the portions were generous here, so it seems with merit for the fish and scallop. The chicken and tofu are another story though.

Before leaving, I spoke with the owner, Angela Wong, to clarify the prices of the Splash Favourites, too. Those bowls are all made with two scoops of protein and, therefore, they do come in at $13.95. When I left I was full and satisfied, so the cost would have been justified by me. In fact, it’s not dissimilar to places like The Chopped Leaf where people are willing to shell out money for food there. Except, I truly believe that what I’m getting at Splash Poke is an elevated product at a comparable price point.

All-in-all, Splash Poke is on the right track. For the shop, it will come down to the quality of service and their ability to keep things as fresh as possible. As long as they deliver on both of those fronts, they’re sure to win over the lunchtime crowd and Edmonton’s downtown dwellers and visitors. Judging by the turnout yesterday evening, it seems that they may have already done so.

Visit Splash Poke when you have a chance!