Edmonton Restaurant Review: iPho and Grill Vietnamese Cuisine

#91 Special Combination 5 Vermicelli Bowl

I was really waffling on what to eat and where to go for dinner last month. Ultimately, I picked iPho and Grill Vietnamese Cuisine located along Calgary Trail at 6104 104 Street. We showed up right around six o’clock on a Saturday night without a reservation, and we didn’t have any problems getting a table. It was busy when we arrived though. A number of the tables were already occupied, including one with a large group of about ten people. It meant service was a tad slow, but thankfully, we weren’t in a rush to go anywhere else after. Despite the wait to order, the booth was comfortable and the space was new, clean and modern.

To drink, I ordered a Fresh Fruit Mango Bubble Tea ($4.45). Contrary to the name, the beverage doesn’t include any tapioca pearls in it for the base price, so you do have to add them for an extra cost ($0.75). I actually found that the mango tasted more artificially flavoured than fresh, but the consistency was smooth and there was a decent ratio of pearls to smoothie, so I didn’t run out of either before the other.

Fresh Fruit Mango Bubble Tea & Spring Rolls

As his starter, Kirk opted to go with an order of the Spring Rolls ($5.95). These rice paper wraps were freshly fried to a crunchy, thin, golden-brown and filled with a mix of ground meat, veggies, and vermicelli noodles. I didn’t eat any of his, but a couple of pieces came with my own food, and I thought that they were delicious. For the appetizer, they served the spring rolls with a side of fish sauce for dipping. Kirk wasn’t a fan of using it, but I think that the funky sweet, salty, and fishy taste married well to create a nice balance of flavours, amping up the spring roll ingredients.

Kirk’s main dish was the Specialty Chicken Noodle Soup ($10.95). He requested that they make it spicy for a dollar more. It would have been nice to try the broth before it was altered, just to see what it tasted like in a more pure form. All I can say is that the spicy version was HOT. The soup was piping temperature-wise, but the heat on the palate from the spice was even difficult for Kirk to handle. I had two spoonfuls of the broth and, while I enjoyed the flavour profile at first, it definitely kicked you in the throat at the end and the spice really lingered. Otherwise, I believe that the bowl could have used a little more of the chicken as there wasn’t a whole lot of meat, and the same goes for the noodles.

So much food in the #91 Vermicelli Bowl!

Whenever I go for Vietnamese, I usually turn to the vermicelli bowls and their Special Combination 5 (#91 on the menu; $15.45) didn’t disappoint. It had a well-portioned combination of noodles, bean sprouts, lettuce, cucumber, and carrot to form the base of the meal. It was topped off with copious amounts of grilled beef, chicken, pork, shrimp, and spring rolls. A small dish of fish sauce was provided to coat everything (I used all of it). The veggies were crisp and juicy, the noodles had a nice bite to them, and the meats were all prepared nicely. Occasionally, I find that the beef at other restaurants have a lot of tendon running through the pieces, making them chewier, but I didn’t have that issue here. The beef also had a distinct lemongrass flavour. The three meats were tender, and I was especially happy with the shrimp, which were surprisingly plump and perfectly seasoned. I devoured the whole bowl and went home very happy.

Once we were fully satiated, we head over to the counter to take care of our bill. I’m unsure whether or not they will take payment at the table, but we noticed a number of other patrons walking up to the till, so we did the same  thing. Overall, iPho and Grill was pretty good; however, if you aren’t certain that you can handle something truly spicy, you’ve been forewarned about their soups.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: vivo Ristorante (Windermere)

Bruschetta & Ricotta

I’m always looking to try new eateries, so I was super excited to hear that vivo Ristorante was opening a Windermere location, which is in my neck of the woods. In late spring, they welcomed patrons into the space previously occupied by Chili’s (layout remains the same). At first, the reviews seemed somewhat dire, so I was apprehensive to go right away; we waited until this month before we ventured over.

Now, to be fair, this iteration of vivo Ristorante is not the same as their two other restaurants in west Edmonton or Sherwood Park. Although I’ve never been to either of those (yet), they have a reputation for serving upscale Italian food. While the menu still leans towards Italian-style dishes in Windermere, the atmosphere is a lot more casual and they’re catering towards a clientele that wants to have an enjoyable meal out without breaking the bank.

Their menu is reasonably priced with the most expensive pizza/pasta/burger coming in at $18 and the majority of the mains in the mid-twenties range. Plus, they offer a daily happy hour that includes drink specials or food items such as arancini, meatballs, and bruschetta from 2:00pm to 6:00pm and again from 10:00pm to close for a steal.

Beer & Cocktails are on special during happy hour!

When we dropped by during the August long weekend, we found out that on Mondays they have all day happy hour, so even though it was past their usual time frame, we were able to take advantage of the deals. Kirk got a Snake Lake draught ($6 after a $3 discount) and I got a High Tea signature cocktail ($11 after $3 off). I found the beer to be pretty good; it was cloudier than expected, but it was smooth and didn’t leave a lingering bitterness at the end. The High Tea cocktail had two ounces of alcohol in a small glass, so it was initially quite potent; however, after some food, the flavour seemed to mellow and it was pleasant to sip throughout our meal.

To eat, we shared a few happy hour plates (all up to fifty per cent off) including four Meatballs ($0.97 each), four Sliders ($2.50 each), and Bruschetta ($5). Additionally, I wanted to try their Brussels Sprouts ($9), and Gnudi ($16) for some variety. The food was prepared quickly and, before we knew it, dishes were being presented at our table.

Sliders

I’ll start with the Sliders because we did have an issue with them. The patties in the first batch that came out actually had raw centers. We made our server aware of the problem, and she was quick to take them away and offered to either have the dish taken off of the bill or to have them remade. We still wanted to eat the miniature burgers, so we asked that the kitchen just make a second order for us. They turned out much better. Fully cooked all the way through, the all-beef patties were juicy on the inside with a nice char on the outside. The sweet pepper relish, provolone cheese, and vivo sauce hit the spot with a mix of salt and sweet. When we got the bill, I saw that they actually comped both the original plate and the replacement for us, which I thought was excellent on the part of their management and staff.

Continuing with the meats, vivo’s Meatballs are made with all-beef as well. They’re covered in a rich marinara sauce with a decent sprinkling of asiago cheese and focaccia crumbs. The balls were pretty succulent and they fell apart easily with a fork. Since you can order as many as you want from the happy hour menu, I recommend getting them as a side to one of their meatless pasta dishes.

I was surprised by the portions of the Bruschetta, which not only came with the diced compilation of sweet bell pepper, jalapeno, and roma tomato, but also included a generous bowl of herbed ricotta cheese with grape tomatoes, basil, and mint oil. Five or six large slices of crostini completed the dish. It was light and refreshing, and, despite having jalapeno in it, it was not spicy.

The wonderfully fried Brussels Sprouts were a different take on the veggie in that they were served in a spicy honey. The requisite crispy pancetta was there for the savouriness, but the heat and the sugar was unique. Most other restaurants avoid the sweet route with Brussels sprouts whereas vivo jumped right in. It totally works, especially when the tiny cabbages are fried so beautifully and the honey plays off the smokiness of the charred leaves.

Gnudi

My pasta dish came out a little later as a main course, but I snacked on the Gnudi between helpings of everything else that we were still working on. It also arrived with a rolled slice of crispy pancetta that I broke apart and stirred into the sauce. The meat provided hits of salt that cut through the otherwise bright and citrusy in-house lemon cream sauce. Green peas and pine nuts brought in texture that balanced out the pillowy pieces of fresh-made toasted ricotta and spinach gnocchi. A thick slice of garlic toast came with the dish, too. I was worried it might be overly crunchy, but it was actually perfect and soft in the middle, making it the ideal vessel for sopping up any leftover sauce.

In the end, I didn’t have anything to worry about with vivo Ristorante. The service was attentive and caring; they went out of their way to make things right. Sure, they have some poor reviews online. Yet, I think most of them were from patrons of their other locations who expected the same sort of menu and upscale quality they were used to. They didn’t realize that the new vivo Ristorante Windermere was aiming to be more relaxed with a very unpretentious menu. It’s not five-star dining by any means, but the food is affordable and satisfying nonetheless.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Situation Brewing

The interior of Situation Brewing.

Often times, when we’re driving by Whyte Avenue, we pass Situation Brewing along Gateway Boulevard and see patrons enjoying drinks and food behind their big glass windows or on their sidewalk patio. I’d only been once before, but it was at least a couple of years ago, so it’s been on my list to revisit for a while.

 

On the weekend, Kirk and I decided to make it our stop for date night. We arrived at around 6:30pm on the Saturday and found it to be surprisingly empty. There were other customers, yet it was by no means full, although it did get busier later into the evening. Still, with the few groups near us, it was noisy. The surrounding glass, flat walls, and open ceiling created a lot of echo. If you’re loud or with people who can project their voices, it’s fine; however, for anyone else who might be hard of hearing or who prefers not to have to yell across the table, you may want to seek out an alternative.

It took a few minutes for our server to greet us, but once he did, he was quite attentive, checking on us regularly without being intrusive. Kirk was trying to be good before the wedding, so he skipped on the beer, but I ordered a pint of the Salty Señorita Kettle Sour ($9). I always find that Situation Brewing does sours really well. There is the tartness that hits the tongue, but it doesn’t linger. It subsides fairly fast to reveal the other flavours in the beer at the back of the throat. This one was no different.

For our food, we shared an order of the Brussels Sprouts & Cauliflower ($15). A mix of the veggies were sauteed in garlic butter and topped with shaved Parmesan. Personally, I thought that the level of garlic was perfect as it added the right amount of spice. The cheese brought in some extra salt and nuttiness. We would have liked for the sprouts and florets to have more char though; they weren’t exactly crispy enough, otherwise. I also found that the price was rather high considering the size of the dish. With only about five pieces of cauliflower and four whole sprouts, it didn’t feel worth the cost.

Our handheld entrees fared better with both Kirk’s The Big Stitch ($18) and my Lamb Burger ($17) satisfying our appetites. Both of us opted to stick with the house-cut fries as our accompanying side. Those were prepared to a beautiful golden yellow colour with a nice crunchy exterior giving way to a soft center. They were also lightly seasoned with spice that provided a hint of heat on the palate.

The Big Stitch is a burger that consists of a seven ounce patty of beef and boar topped with thick cut bacon, grainy dijon mustard, fig ketchup, lettuce, tomato, and cheddar between a brioche bun. The bun held together well until the last bite (it’s the worst when your bun falls apart). I had a couple mouthfuls of Kirk’s meal and it was tasty even though the patty was drier than both of us would have liked. Cooked until well done, the meat was more of a brown-grey than reddish brown in colour. The flavour from the char was good though and the fixings were appropriate. It’s also a hefty burger that fills you up.

I thought that my six ounce Lamb Burger could have used some extra feta cheese and the cucumber, mint, and pickled onion relish, but I really enjoyed the taste. It was refreshing and light, which is perfect for a summer meal. The bursts of juice from the cucumber gave the meat some succulence. The patty was also charred well and the combination of lamb and boar provided a decent ratio of lean to fat while also cutting the gaminess of the lamb that some people (excluding me) don’t like.

We were too full to grab dessert on this occasion, but we’ll certainly be back to try more at Situation Brewing, including happy hour. Next time, we’ll probably attempt to visit at a quieter time of day and also ask to be seated away from the larger tables, so it won’t be as noisy and we can converse more easily. Otherwise, Situation is an awesome pub with a satisfactory menu and a great selection of their own house brews.

Edmonton Business Review: Made by Marcus

The queue during opening weekend was pretty long.

I’ve been following Made by Marcus on Instagram for at least a couple of years now. Originally based out of Calgary, this beloved local ice cream shop has now made its way north with a back alley store on Whyte Avenue and 104 Street. With infrequent visits south, I never had the opportunity to try Made by Marcus before, so I was happy to learn that the Edmonton location had finally rolled out the welcome mat at the end of June.

The lines were long during their first weekend in business, so I decided to wait a bit before going. Kirk and I actually bought tickets for a Secret Streetcar Show around mid-July, so it made perfect sense to go for a late night ice cream run after the concert. As we turned to enter the alley at 10:00pm in the evening, the bright pink shop at the end of the lane was like a beacon. Although there was a door to the side, no one really used it since the front of the shop was completely open. Surprisingly, it was still busy. The queue didn’t run down the whole alley, but it still snaked through the space and most of the indoor seating was occupied. A few benches were also placed outside to accommodate overflow.

The Made by Marcus menu.

Thankfully, it didn’t take too long before we made it to the counter. With three staff on hand to scoop and another to process payment, there seemed to be a decent rhythm. A kids scoop is $3, a “single” scoop of ice cream is $5 and can be split into two flavours, a “double” scoop is $7 and you can probably choose three flavours, and a flight is four scoops for $9. Waffle cones are an extra dollar each.

Waffle cone makers!

Kirk and I decided to share a flight without any added waffle cones. It took a while for us to pick four out of the dozen plus flavours (I think they usually have even more to choose from), but we eventually got it down to the Lemon Curd Blueberry, Tahini Cookie Dough (Vegan), Moonshine Brown Butter Pecan, and Bananas Foster & Rum Caramel.

The first thing I will say about Made by Marcus ice cream is that the quality is top notch. The flavours are strong and the small batches are extremely creamy and smooth, making for a very rich and decadent dessert. It felt like silk as there was not an ice crystal to be found.

Our ice cream flight includes four flavours for $9.

To be completely honest though, not all of the flavours we chose lived up to my expectations. I was really excited for the Lemon Curd Blueberry, which is a signature flavour. I thought it’d be citrusy, sweet, and refreshing. And, it was a first. The tongue was initially hit with a pop of zest from the lemon curd and sweetness from the cream and blueberry; however, what lingered at the end was an incredibly bitter aftertaste. I truly thought that the Lemon Curd Blueberry would be my favourite, but it ended up dead last.

The Tahini Cookie Dough is a vegan option, so it’s also lactose-intolerant friendly. If you don’t already know what it is, tahini is a spread made from toasted ground sesame seeds. It has a really nutty flavour to it, but it’s not as pronounced as a black sesame ice cream, for example. This was probably one of the more subtle tastes out of the four scoops we got. I didn’t mind the flavour, but I was hoping for more chunks of cookie dough throughout.

Clockwise from the top left: Tahini Cookie Dough, Lemon Curd Blueberry, Bananas Foster & Rum Caramel, and Moonshine Brown Butter Pecan.

Since Made by Marcus is known for their experimental flavours and collaborations with other local businesses, I’m going to assume that the Moonshine Brown Butter Pecan makes use of a moonshine alcohol in some way. If it was supposed to be there, I didn’t find that the flavour of the liquor came through much, but the brown butter did add to the nuttiness and amplified the taste of the pecan pieces.

Our top pick was most definitely the Bananas Foster & Rum Caramel. The flavour was spot on with the banana tasting natural and not artificial. There was a hint of the rum, but nothing overpowering, and the caramel brought in the perfect amount of sweetness. Kirk and I practically fought over this scoop because he kept eating it and touching nothing else.

A late night visit to Made by Marcus.

After trying Made by Marcus for the first time, I certainly understand the hype more than I used to. The standard of their ice cream is ridiculously high and they put a lot of effort into creating the unique flavours that they’ve come to be known for. Not every flavour is going to be a hit for everyone (Dill Pickle & Peanut Butter is an acquired taste, right?), but with the number of choices available, there’s bound to be something you’ll like amongst the signature, seasonal, and vegan options. While Edmontonians are warriors who will eat ice cream even in the dead of winter, make the most of your nice summer and pop into Made by Marcus for a cone or two!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: MEAT

Our shared platter of food at MEAT.

I’ll be the first to admit that, with all of the restaurant offerings in Edmonton, it often takes me a while before I revisit places. Even if I absolutely loved it, I’m more prone to try something new (that’s how I keep this blog going) rather than returning to the same spot over and over again, especially when I have to watch my spending.

For that reason, I hadn’t been back to MEAT for a few years. Yet, when a friend of Kirk’s was in town last week and he had this on his list, I jumped at the chance to go there. I’m a big fan of barbecue and it turns out he was, too. Although, I’d go so far as to say that he’s a connoisseur and I am not.

The interior of MEAT.

When we arrived on the Wednesday night, the eatery was jam packed with people, and even with rain storms brewing, patrons were willing to take tables on the (covered) outdoor patio. The wait was probably about thirty minutes, but it went by pretty quickly.

My Beets by Sinden Sour from Town Square Brewing.

Upon being seated at one of the longer communal tables, one of the managers actually came over to inform us that our server was a bit behind with the crowd that evening, so he offered to grab our drinks himself. We appreciated that all hands were on deck with their staff to ensure that service was still smooth and as prompt as possible. The guys each ordered pints of Blindman IPA ($8) and I opted for a can of the Beets by Sinden Sour from Town Square Brewing ($9.50).

The MEAT menus.

For our food, we shared several items between us: one pound of Beef Brisket ($26), a full rack of pork BBQ Ribs ($18), their featured Beef Ribs ($20), small Garlic Fries ($6), large Brussels Sprouts ($12), small Mac & Cheese ($7), and a Pickle ($1). Sadly, we were told that the Cornbread Skillet was sold out when we put in our order; however, later in the evening, we saw that they did have them available once the kitchen was able to make more.

Brussels Sprouts

I’m really not a traditional pickle person, so I didn’t eat it myself. Nevertheless, the guys seemed to enjoy it a lot. The pickle was also quite massive considering it was just a dollar, so that was a decent value. Our other veggie dish of Brussels Sprouts was alright. Personally, I love the miniature cabbage-like greens, but I find that they’re best when pan-fried or roasted to get that crunchy outer char. Here at MEAT, they shred the Brussels sprouts to turn it into more of a slaw and it has a sort of buttery flavour. It kind of became a bit one note after a few mouthfuls.

Garlic Fries

The Mac & Cheese was good though. The spiral cavatappi noodles were well-coated in a creamy, mild cheese sauce. I only wish that we had gone with the large over the small because the latter is pretty tiny, at least when splitting between a trio. Hands down the best side we tried ended up being the Garlic Fries. These were awesomely crispy and every bite was infused with the pungent herb. I rued the fact that we only ordered a small for that as well.

When it came to the meat, there was certainly no shortage. Our server nodded feverishly when we asked if the amount of protein we’d selected would be enough for the three of us, and she was right.

Beginning with the Beef Ribs, these were my least favourite. The meat itself was cooked to a nice medium finish and was relatively tender while retaining a delicate balance with a simple seasoning of salt, but there was fat that hadn’t fully rendered and not enough meat on the bone. It also didn’t have much burn or char on the edges to give it that smoky taste that you hope for with barbecued beef.

The larger Beef Ribs on top.

The smaller pork BBQ Ribs fared much better. I still didn’t think there was enough meat on them either, but there were certainly no large pieces of fat remaining. Every bone could be polished off clean and the char was superb. I probably could have eaten two whole racks of just the BBQ ribs. Messy, but worth it.

Slices of Beef Brisket hidden beneath all the ribs.

If you want straight up meat, the Beef Brisket is the way to go. The pink smoke ring on the outer edge of the brisket wasn’t extremely deep, but it was very even all the way through and the beef was succulent. Flavourwise, the smokiness wasn’t as pronounced as we would have expected, but that’s what their sauces are for. The guys particularly liked the spicy and bourbon sauces. I went for the mustard and cherry ones, which added some heat and sweetness.

Pecan Pie

To finish off our meal, we shared the Pecan Pie ($10) for dessert. It tasted freshly baked with crunchy pecans and a smooth, buttery filling. I really would have preferred a cold scoop of maple ice cream to go with it instead the lighter whipped cream. But, overall, this was a pleasant way to complete our time at MEAT.

The venue gets rather loud when it’s full, yet with a number of gluten-free options for diners and excellent service, it’s a prime spot for group gatherings. There’s such a communal spirit at MEAT. Everyone there seemed to be having a fantastic time catching up with friends and family, and there’s nothing better than convening over good food.