Edmonton Restaurant Review: Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

The open kitchen of Buco Windermere is surrounded by bar seating.

Sorrentino’s Restaurant Group expanded in mid-2015 with Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar in St. Albert. While I’ve never visited that location, a friend of mine is the executive chef at the newer Epcor Tower spot in downtown Edmonton. It’s just blocks away from Rogers Place. For me, the closest and most convenient is in Windermere.

My fiancé and I recently popped in to check it out. We spent an entire $65 OpenTable dining cheque on an indulgent Saturday afternoon lupper (lunch-dinner). The reason why we chose to go at that time is because they offer Social Hour specials daily from 2pm to 5pm and 9pm to close.

It’s nice and airy inside with an industrial feel.

Even in the middle of the day, there were a decent number of guests seated in both the industrial style lounge and dining room. However, there were just a few staff on hand, so service was a little slower than it should have been. It was worth it though, and it kind of forced us to sit there and enjoy our meal rather than quickly rushing through it all.

My Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail at the front and the featured Shock Top draft at the back.

To start, my significant other opted to go for their feature draft. At $5 for 12 oz. it was reasonable (regularly $7.50). That day’s option was Shock Top, so nothing too special. I chose to try their Peaches ‘n Cream cocktail ($5 for Social Hour, usually $9.50) — peach grappa, peach purée, white tea, and peach infused whipped cream. Our server said it took longer to make it because they had an issue with the whipped cream dispenser. That’s no big deal. I was more annoyed with the fact that it was so messy. The drink was filled so high that it was spilling down the sides of the glass and I got whipped cream all over my hands and the table. They never bothered to wipe that down or offered to bring extra napkins or anything. Other than that, I could have done without so much ice. The cocktail comes in a short glass, so the more cubes there are, the less drink there is, and I finished it really quickly.

For sustenance, we shared a Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 people ($12, typically $22), a Carne pizza, and a Fig Prosciutto pizza ($12 each, outside of Social Hour it’s $21). This was a ton of food and could easily have fed another couple.

Carne E Formaggio Board for 2 People

The cheese and charcuterie board was brought out as a starter, so we were able to snack on that first. This actually wowed us because we weren’t expecting the smaller size to be such an extensive spread. I think the only constructive feedback we have about this item is that it needs to come with more slices of bread. There were only two pieces per person. It meant the ratio of bread to cheese and meat was off, and it’d be nice to have more bread to balance everything out. Otherwise, the variety of cheese included a mix of both hard and soft textures and a range of mild to pungent flavours. The meats were also great. They stuck to the more familiar cured meats like prosciutto and salami, which ensures everything will be eaten when it comes to a chef’s choice type of situation.

For the pizzas, we were eventually asked if we were ready to have them fired up. We felt like we’d had enough of the board, so we said yes. It didn’t take too long for them to bake in their oven and they came out piping hot. The Carne is a pie layered with red sauce, meat, meat, and more meat. The toppings included short rib, Italian sausage, pepperoni, and bacon for the protein. Smoked caciocavallo and fior di latte filled the cheese quotient. This pizza was everything a meat lover could want as there was just so much of it and it was incredibly savoury. On the ligher side of scale, our Fig Prosciutto pizza is made without tomato sauce. It consisted of fontina cheese, fig jam, prosciutto, and balsamic drizzle. It has that salty-sweet combo that is appealing to a lot of palates. The crusts were easy to fold, crispy and slightly charred on the outside, and a little chewy in the middle.

Raspberry Ricotta Cake

Half of our meal was packed up to go as there was no way we could finish it all at once. But, we did save some room for dessert. In the end, we shared a slice of the beautifully presented Raspberry Ricotta Cake ($9). It was a bit more crumbly than I thought it should be despite the moistness of the ricotta and vanilla based cake. Still, the raspberry coulis, fresh berries, and fresh whipped cream did a good job of tying everything together.

We’ll definitely have to go back again soon to sample more items. Nevertheless, judging by what we’ve eaten there so far, overall, Buco Pizzeria’s menu is up to snuff. Where they can certainly use improvements is with the servers and management. They seemed kind of oblivious to the fact that they had guests. They were more preoccupied with setting up the restaurant for the evening and ignored current patrons unless they were blatantly waved at. It shouldn’t be a requirement to make full on eye contact with a staff member in order to get any service. They need to be trained to be more attentive. Hopefully, I’ll see changes with respect to that next time I’m there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Sushi Shop

I plated my order from Sushi Shop at home.

Living in the deep southwest corner of Edmonton, there weren’t a whole lot of dining or takeout options when I first moved into the area. Thankfully, things have improved. In late 2015, I found a flyer for Sushi Shop in my mailbox. It’s a quick service chain restaurant located in the Currents of Windermere development (also available in Kingsway Mall, City Centre and Southgate Centre). The first under the brand originally launched out of Quebec and is born out of the MTY Group, which has brought other recognizable names like Jugo Juice, Mucho Burrito and Thai Express to strip malls and food courts everywhere. Sushi Shop coupons are delivered to nearby neighbourhoods on a seasonal basis, so I usually order from them maybe a dozen times throughout the year.

Before putting my thoughts down for this review, I happened across a bunch of write-ups from other customers on Yelp and Google, and, to some degree, I completely understand where some of the bad ones come from. Many of the terrible notes were more to do with the service. I’ve had my share of incidents with this location. Sometimes staff don’t pick up the phone even after multiple calls, the wait can be long for the food, they don’t necessarily acknowledge patrons as soon as they walk in, etc. But, this is one of the closest and more affordable sushi options at hand.

For the most part, I’ve rarely been disappointed with what we’ve gotten. While I do wish they’d use real crab meat instead of imitation, the quality has, otherwise, almost always been more than decent. Although, admittedly, while upkeep of the store has gotten better, the rolls have, for some reason, been found looking less desirable lately. The fillings spill out, the rice isn’t wrapped tightly enough, and sometimes the rice is softer than I’d prefer; however, it still comes across as fresh and everything tastes good. After numerous visits, my fiancé and I have learned to stick with what we know is tried and true. Usually, we only sample something new when there’s a coupon offering a free item with purchase.

Surprisingly, a few of the giveaways, including the Black Mamba Maki ($9.95), Diablo Blossom ($8.95), Philly ($8.95) or Dragon Eye ($9.95) Crispy Rolls, Lion Sumomaki ($7.95), and Teriyaki Bomb Temari ($7.95 for 4) have actually been pretty great. Others like the Magik Blossom ($8.95) have not been up to par (this one tasted off; I’m not sure if it’s always like that or if an ingredient in the roll was past due).

Some have said that the prices aren’t much less than what you would pay at a more formal sushi restaurant. Therefore, they don’t see the value in spending their money here. But, I beg to differ. The majority of the rolls are between $7 to $10. Equivalents elsewhere probably range from $11 to $15 per roll. On top of that, gratuity is required. At Sushi Shop, if I want to, I can just pay the bill outright and be done with it. I carry my food to go and I get to eat in the comfort of my home. Usually, for about $25 to $30, both of us are fed to the point of bursting, and that’s just not possible at other sushi joints in the city (perhaps save for Tokyo Express).

My fiancé tends to go for the rolls with fully cooked fillings like the Ebi Maki ($5.95) and California Classic ($5.95). It’s hard to go wrong with those ones. I’m a little more adventurous, but also cheap, so my top picks for affordability are the Sweetheart Maki ($7.95; contains minced salmon and smoked salmon), Akanasu — sun-dried tomato pesto and light cream cheese — with Avocado ($4.95), and Inari Nigiri ($3.75).

Honestly, Sushi Shop is perfect for a quick fix whenever you have a craving. It’s definitely not going to be the best sushi anyone’s ever had. But, why are people expecting that from a fast food joint in the first place? Set your expectations based on what you’re buying into and it’ll be fine.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: London Local

Appetizers are sizeable and perfect for sharing.

Chef Lindsay Porter, of El Cortez, Have Mercy, and Woodwork fame, branched out in the fall of last year with her very own restaurant. London Local takes inspiration from her British heritage. Located in the Ellerslie area, the space has a decidedly pub-like feel, but with a slightly cleaner, more modern design aesthetic.

My friend and I arrived for our reservation, made through OpenTable, at 5:30pm on a Thursday evening to find the place relatively quiet. It made me question whether or not the business is doing okay as things didn’t seem to pick up even by the time we left three hours later. Still, to our benefit, the lower noise-level made it easy for us to carry on a conversation, which is something I truly appreciate.

Bottled Beer and House Brewed Iced Tea

Also, on the plus side, we made it in time for happy hour. While I chose not to partake, my friend was able to get a bottle of beer for half price. Most of their selection ranges from $7 to $8, so it’s a steal from 3pm to 6pm every Tuesday to Friday. If wine is preferred, bottles and glasses are also half off. NOTE: For those who like deals, London Local presents a 3-Course Roast Menu on Sundays for only $30 per person.

I opted to go with a non-alcoholic House Brewed Iced Tea, sweetened ($3). Rather than the bar mixing in the simple syrup on my behalf, they brought out a mini pitcher, so I could do it myself. It was alright, but I probably wouldn’t order it again. The tea was still quite bitter, but, being conscious of how much syrup I was using, I wasn’t too keen on asking for extra. The iced tea also doesn’t come with any refills.

For our meals, my newly minted Maid of Honor, selected the Bangers & Mash ($23), and I went with a couple of the appetizers: Steak Tartare ($16) and Asparagus & Cauliflower ($14). I figured it’d be best to sample more to get a better picture of what London Local has to offer.

Bangers & Mash

Come to think of it though, I didn’t have a chance to try any of the Bangers & Mash. All I can do is talk about how good it looked. The sausage was large and plump, surrounded by a pool of dark onion gravy. To the side was a huge dollop of smoked champ — chopped scallions, butter, milk, and cheese — mashed potatoes. It was then garnished with a beet and courgette (zucchini or squash) slaw. It came across as traditional pub food with a twist.

Asparagus & Cauliflower

I requested that the Steak Tartare and the Asparagus & Cauliflower be brought out together. Both were sizeable in portion. The latter was layered with a base of minted truffle cheese. Charred spears of asparagus and florets of cauliflower sat on top with a honey thyme glaze. This was absolutely delicious as the smoky veggies in their sweetly herbaceous coating and the mild soft cheese played very well together.

Steak Tartare

The diced beef tenderloin for the steak tartare was formed into a giant patty that additionally consisted of pickled beet, capers, and fried onions. It had a great depth of flavour. Devoid of any form of egg yolk that is so often found in steak tartare, this turned out to be a less dense version of what I’m used to, especially since it wasn’t minced. Combined with the toasted buttered cape seed bread, this was a real treat. My one complaint of the two dishes was that they were identically embellished with potato sticks, pickled onions and pea shoots. I would have expected a bit more creativity to be placed into each plate rather than the slapdash sense that I got. Show off the food, don’t cover it up.

Sticky Toffee Pudding

Despite an already full stomach, I didn’t want to leave without dessert. The Sticky Toffee Pudding ($11) that my friend ordered was similar to what I’ve had elsewhere. This was made of moist cake, toffee sauce, salted crumb, and vanilla whipped cream. It refrained from being overly sweet, and is one of those desserts that easily satisfies when nothing else can.

Banoffee Pie

As a fan of the movie Love Actually, I’ll probably never forget Keira Knightley’s character’s fondness for Banoffee Pie ($11). Therefore, when I saw it on the menu, I had to try it. This iteration of the dessert is not at all conventional as it foregoes the typical solid or crumbled buttery biscuit base and replaces it with rum cake doused in banana pudding and caramel sauce. Some whipped cream and toffee bits finished it off. I mean, it wasn’t really a pie. In fact, it was most likely the sticky toffee pudding in disguise. However, I do understand where this recipe is coming from and the flavours are spot on.

London Local certainly has a decent vision of where they want to take their menu. It’s pub food elevated. What we had was great, and the service was, too. Nevertheless, there are improvements that can be made. Chef Lindsay is known for her flair in the kitchen where she turns classics on their head. I believe that tweaking dishes, like those appetizers, so that they each feel entirely different and special is what will take this establishment up another notch.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Ampersand 27 (2018 Update)

The bar and dining room of Ampersand 27.

Located on 106 Street and Whyte Avenue, Ampersand 27 is right in the heart of Edmonton. Seeking out potential venues for our upcoming wedding, my fiancé and I popped in for a venue meeting with Restaurant Manager Laura Rudd and Executive Chef Fan Zhang. It’d actually been a little while since my last visit (read my previous review here), but my recollection of the place was spot on.

Those twinkling lights on the ceiling make for an excellent backdrop.

The space is just as beautiful as I remembered with twinkling lights on the ceiling, a statement fireplace against the back wall, modern teals and metallics mixed with natural woods and stone, and a funky amoeba-shaped bar. What I didn’t realize was its direct attachment to the Varscona Hotel right next door, which we consider to be a big plus as we’re going to have plenty of guests travelling from out of town. With accommodations nearby, room for a dinner, reception, dance, and hopefully a ceremony, this seems like an incredibly versatile spot with plenty of possibilities.

Their charcuterie menu is quite extensive with all meats made in-house.

Neither of us really had a solid idea of what we want for our celebration. However, during our discussion with Laura and Chef Fan, both of them had some excellent suggestions and seemed eager to bring our vision to life. They gave us a lot to think about, and, when we were done our tour and conversation, they actually invited us to stay for a drink and some charcuterie.

Look at this amazing cheese and charcuterie board!

In all honesty, they were super generous. When they offered to make us a plate, we expected that they’d provide just a small sampling of food to whet our appetites. Afterwards, if we were still hungry, we were more than willing to stick around and make a night of it on our own. But, wow! We received a humongous board chockablock full of house cured meats (my faves were the Bresoala, Truffled Mortadella, and Kielbasa), homemade pickles, preserves, and beer mustard (the best!), in-house baked sourdough bread, and a variety of cheeses (creamy Port Salut and Goat Gouda won the night). All in, I guessed the total value was around $100, including our beverages. They outright spoiled us!

Although we technically didn’t need anything else to eat, we opted to treat ourselves to an order of their 3 Pork Buns ($15) with an Extra Bun ($5) to make it even, as well as a side of the Brussels Sprouts ($5).

Brussels Sprouts in Garlic Butter

The latter was cooked until the greens were tender, but still had bite. The outer leaves were also charred and crispy, just the way I like it. The sprouts may have been a tad greasy, yet I suppose that’s a given considering they’re prepared in garlic butter.

As for the Pork Buns, they were mentioned by a couple of the staff, so we thought it made sense to try them. I’m glad we did because they absolutely did not disappoint. The thick cut pork belly was seared until crisp on the outside and the fats had rendered. Sriracha mayo, hoisin, thinly sliced pickled cucumbers along with baby leaves and chopped green onion finished them off. Pillowy soft steam buns held everything together.

Warm Brownie for dessert!

Before we left, we had to try a dessert. Our choice of the evening was the Warm Brownie ($11; it may not currently be available). It was sort of deconstructed and served with caramel sauce, sponge toffee bits, roasted peanuts, fresh whipped cream, and a mint leaf for garnish. This was absolutely decadent and sweet; it’s the perfect dish for sharing as the portion size is more than decent.

I can’t lie. Ampersand 27 completely won us over. Laura and Chef Fan showed such amazing hospitality. Additionally, their fantastic server Janell cannot go unmentioned. I previously knew her from another restaurant that she worked at simultaneously as she held a position here, and she’s wonderful. Janell has a way of putting the customer at ease and making them feel like a friend.

While nothing is set in stone at this time, Ampersand 27 is at the top of our list. Not only are the share plates such a delight, but the people who run the place can’t be beat. Even if it doesn’t end up being the venue for our nuptials next year, it’s still going to be one of our favourite Whyte Avenue businesses and restaurants for a long time to come.

Edmonton Happenings: Streetcar Shows Edmonton

Singer Ken Stead performs for us atop the High Level Bridge.

Streetcar Shows Edmonton has been chugging along since 2013. Founded by Tad Hargrave and Zizi Lievers with Peter Seal hosting and photographing events, it’s probably one of the city’s true gems. These are intimate concert experiences taking place on electric streetcars run by the Edmonton Radial Railway Society. I’ve been registered to their mailing list — currently closed on their site, so check their Twitter page or join their Facebook group for updates — for two or three years now, but I always found it difficult to get my hands on tickets. By the time I’d read the newsletter and linked over to Eventbrite, the 32 spots would already be sold out.

The streetcar being prepped for our trip across the High Level Bridge.

This year, I happened to sign into my webmail account at just the right moment and I snagged two tickets for the inaugural show of the 2018 season. I was ecstatic to finally be going to a Streetcar concert. Taking place last Thursday, May 17, we arrived at the train platform located behind the ATB Financial Arts Barn in Old Strathcona about 15 minutes prior to embarking. Peter checked our names off of his list and we waited until we were told to climb on. NOTE: There are no washrooms on board. If needed, make sure to use the one in the barn beforehand.

Ernie, one of the drivers of the streetcar, gave us a history lesson.

The restored streetcar had two drivers for the night, but Ernie was our guide. He gave us a little bit of a history lesson as the vehicle made it’s way down the tracks towards the middle of the High Level Bridge. Moving along, Edmonton’s downtown skyline eventually game into view. Once we’d come to a full stop, Peter introduced our performer of the evening, Ken Stead. While he sang (and joked), the river and traffic flowed quietly beneath us as we basked in the slowly setting sun.

 

Ken Stead, born and raised in Edmonton, and now residing in Calgary, has a soulful voice. Despite living in Canada, his Irish-Scottish background seems to come out, in the form of a slight lilt, when he speaks. He flipped between his own original songs and covers that ranged from Foy Vance to Bill Withers, fully encompassing the persona of a down-to-earth folk-rock artist.

 

Lasting about 45 minutes, the first half of the show went by quickly. The streetcar then trundled northward towards the other side of the High Level Bridge. We were supposed to take a break at the stop directly across the street from the Legislature Building, but the driver overshot it, and we ended up going all the way to the Grandin Station terminal. There, we were able to get off and stretch our legs while the musical equipment was shifted to the other end of the streetcar. The backrests of all the seats were flipped to face the opposite direction, allowing passengers to be seated again in the direction of travel. It also gave all of the riders an opportunity to be closer to the show as those who previously sat at the front were now at the rear of the train.

Out on the bridge once more, we were treated to another 45 minute set. Being above the water, it started to get chilly as the darkness fell, but the close quarters and the music helped to warm me to my soul. As we returned south, we came to a surprise standstill in a heavily graffitied tunnel for one final (sing-along) song. It sounds like this is something they do at every show, but I won’t give every single detail away. All I can say is that it makes for a special moment.

Inside the tunnel at the end of the night.

Two hours after our departure, we found ourselves back where we started our musical journey. It’s definitely a night that neither my fiancé or I will ever forget. It was so much fun, and I’m already itching to go to second Streetcar Show as soon as possible. Haven’t been yet? I urge everyone to follow their pages. You may luck out and catch a post about tickets in the nick of time.