Edmonton Restaurant Review: JOEY Restaurant Revamped Happy Hour (2019)

Tuna Poke Bowl

This weekend, Kirk and I ventured out to the JOEY Restaurant at Bell Tower. Located a couple of blocks from Rogers Place, it’s in the heart of the Ice District and it’s an ideal venue for pre-game gatherings.

While it’s incredibly dim inside, the design of the venue is beautiful. The two of us especially admired the indoor patio with it’s ball light fixtures, fireplace, rolling windows (closed during winter), and floor-to-ceiling wine cooler. Despite our love of that room, we ended up seated in the lounge alongside the brick wall, which has large hidden projector screens that are lowered when sports are on. The illumination emanating from those helpfully brightened my photos in the otherwise dark space.

Full disclosure before I continue, we were invited through my YEG Food Deals Instagram page to try JOEY’s revamped happy hour menu. It was launched right at the beginning of 2019, and it’s been heavily revised from their previous offerings in order to compete with the other two big players in the casual fine dining sphere, Earls Kitchen + Bar and Cactus Club Cafe. Both of those chains have been serving rather extensive happy hours for at least the better part of the past year, if not longer. JOEY Restaurant, on the other hand, had a very scant menu in comparison (a mere four or five drinks and maybe three food options).

Real Peach Bellini

On this occasion, JOEY Bell Tower took care of our first round of drinks. Everything else was ordered at our own discretion. As such, to start, Kirk ordered the JOEY Genuine Draft ($3.50) and I got the Real Peach Bellini ($4.50). The Bellini is a longtime staple, and a great cocktail that is cold, refreshing, sweet, and a touch tart. Kirk found the JOEY Genuine Draft to be a decent standard lager. To follow-up, Kirk tried the Parallel 49 Wobbly Pop Pale Ale ($4.50). Although the amber-coloured beer was hoppier, something that Kirk typically enjoys, it wasn’t for him as he found the flavour to be too soapy.

The majority of the items on the daily happy hour menu are discounted anywhere between $3 to $6 each from the regular prices, meaning the savings can be significant. If you’re okay to eat there during the hours of 3:00pm to 6:00pm or 9:00pm to close, then it’s well worth planning around those times. We considered this to be a fun night out for the week. Therefore, we decided to go to town with our meal.

We know no limits when it comes to happy hour.

Sharing is caring, so we split the Rosemary Garlic Fries ($4), Sliders Royal Duo ($8), Pesto Shrimp Flatbread ($10), California Chicken Club ($13) with fries substituted for a New Cobb Salad ($2), Seared Salmon Sushi ($13), and the Tuna Poke Bowl ($16). Technically, the last one was for me, but I offered some of the non-raw portion to Kirk (he declined).

This was a ton of food for a pair of people, so don’t order this much unless you genuinely want or need leftovers. In my case, I had half of a sandwich and two slices of flatbread for lunches this week. I also saved the majority of the rice, veggies, and wonton chips from the poke bowl to go with one of my at home dinners.

Rosemary Garlic Fries

I’ll begin reviewing based on our least favourite dishes to the ones we enjoyed most. Sadly, the Rosemary Garlic Fries were a miss for us. On the plus side, I found that the taste was amazing. The herb was heavily infused into the potato and the garlic wasn’t overpowering. The grainy mustard aioli provided for dipping was particularly delicious. What I didn’t like, and never really have at JOEY Restaurant, is the skinny cut fries. I’m not sure why they continue to insist on making these. They’re similar to McDonald’s fries, but, dare I say, worse. They always seem so dry, and they’re completely bland without the accompaniments.

The California Chicken Club is usually one of Kirk’s top picks at JOEY. However, it seemed as though the recipe had been changed slightly. The well-seasoned breast of chicken was still stacked with aged cheddar, smoky bacon, and spicy mayo. It contained some greens, too. We think it was spinach. Yet, the sandwich was missing the basil leaves that used to be included, which meant the pepperiness and hint of anise/mint was now gone. The aged cheddar wasn’t melted either. I would have preferred it to be heated and gooey rather than cold and speckled with condensation when it arrived at our table.

Side of New Cobb Salad

We replaced the side of fries to our club with the New Cobb Salad (actually, we had asked for Caesar salad, but this is what we received). I appreciated the combo of romaine and shredded kale and the Grana Padano dressing. I thought that the crispy bits inside the salad were croutons, but they may have been chunks of double smoked bacon (the taste wasn’t all that salty though…). There was also no egg, so that’s why I honestly assumed we were having a Caesar salad as requested until I saw our bill at the end of the evening.

As you may have gathered above, Kirk is not really into raw fish. While he did take a chance here and ate a whole piece of the Seared Salmon Sushi, he opted not to have anymore. I finished off the rest of the dish by myself. In Kirk’s opinion, it tasted too fishy as if the salmon wasn’t fresh enough. I begged to differ. From past experience, I know that different types of salmon have very distinct flavours. To me, this did have a stronger fishy flavour, but not in a way that tasted off and inedible. It was still good. The torched umami sauce on top gave the fish a creamier consistency, and the shaved slice of serrano pepper atop each piece of sushi added a touch of spice on the palate without being overwhelming.

Sliders Royale Duo

The Sliders Royale Duo is a super basic pair of miniature burgers. Other than a thinly sliced pickle, there were no other groceries. Admittedly, I took out the pickle when I realized it was there. I’d already bitten into it, so I can say that it wasn’t as strongly flavoured as others often used on burgers. I probably could have gotten away with eating this one and refrained from disgust. More often than not, I find pickles ruin the flavour of everything else because it’s the only thing you can taste after. With that removed, just a bit of American cheese and a dollop of secret sauce was left behind. The beef patty wasn’t that thick, but the meat was juicy and wonderfully seared. Simple and satisfying.

Tuna Poke Bowl

On my part, I thought that the Tuna Poke Bowl was great. It’d definitely be a filling dish should one choose to have this as their main. It’s created with a mix of brown rice, green papaya slaw, crispy wontons, edamame, tomatoes, radishes, cucumber, avocado, and diced sashimi grade ahi tuna. Drizzled with miso dressing, it’s potentially one of the “healthiest” items you’ll find at JOEY Restaurant.

Pesto Shrimp Flatbread

Both of us agreed that the Pesto Shrimp Flatbread was the best item we sampled. At first glance, I was worried that the dough had been overcooked as it looked past golden brown. Nevertheless, upon my initial bite, I was met with a pleasantly crisp exterior and fluffy middle. Laid with whole milk mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes, plump shrimp, chipotle aioli, and ribbons of basil, it was like a flavour explosion in every mouthful. For the price during happy hour, it’s perfect for a light late lunch or early supper.

I have to say that the service at this particular JOEY Restaurant is not ideal. We had multiple staff stop by to check on us, but it was hard to attract the attention of our own server when needed and it took three asks for water before we finally got some. Still, when it comes to the updated happy hour menu, it’s much improved from their earlier iteration. With an increased number of choices available (a dozen beverages and over 20 food items), there truly is something for everyone now.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Cactus Club Cafe

A couple of my favourite things at Cactus Club.

For the past few years, I’ve been sharing my top 24 picks for the best eateries in Edmonton (check out the 2017 list here). Even though I have never reviewed it until now, Cactus Club Cafe has been a mainstay within the rankings. A favourite ever since 2009 when they entered the city’s food scene with their West Edmonton Mall location, it’s interesting to see how their brand has developed and been embraced.

Cactus Club’s Retro Logo; Photo courtesy of their Instagram page.

I don’t know if anyone else remembers, but I recall going down Jasper Avenue as a child and seeing this big sign with a drawing of a smoking cow on it. That was the original Cactus Club logo from when they first attempted to expand into Alberta in the 90s. Should my memory serve me correctly, the building that once housed that iteration of the restaurant is now the Rexall pharmacy on 118 Street. My family never went there, and it seems many others in the city avoided it because it closed soon after.

The dining room of the Jasper Avenue location.

It wasn’t until a decade or so later that Cactus Club decided to give this market another go. This time, it was the place to see and be seen. On its best nights, patrons would willingly wait hours just to get a table for their large group of friends. They didn’t want to go anywhere else. The chain had gone from a funky eatery to a sleek establishment that served consistently upscale food and drinks. It was so successful and busy (it literally took away business from nearby competitors like Joey and Earls) that I’m actually surprised it took another four years before the company launched a second eatery on Jasper Avenue. About six blocks east from the one that failed in the nineties, it’s become a popular spot for locals to hang out as well.

Having frequented Cactus Club for almost a third of my life, I’ve developed a love of specific dishes. Some, such as the BBQ Duck Clubhouse and the Chocolate Peanut Butter Crunch Bar, are signatures of Chef Rob Feenie who joined the business as a “Food Concept Architect” in 2008 just before their foray back into this province. Sadly, I don’t make it to the restaurant as much as I used to, and, when I do go out, I really appreciate good deals.

The recently updated happy hour menu.

They’ve long offered happy hour specials at Cactus Club (available from 2pm to 6pm and 9pm to close, Monday to Saturday). However, they recently revamped the menu, a la Earls, to cover a greater variety of their dishes and drinks at a few stellar price points (I’ll be listing the lower prices here, so check their online menus for the regular costs). Therefore, when my fiancé and I wanted to celebrate our second anniversary together, we chose to go here. We still ended up spending over $100 on our meal for two, but we certainly didn’t skimp on anything (we ordered a lot). It gave me a great excuse to reacquaint myself with plates that I hadn’t eaten in a while.

As far as my significant other goes, he’s quite content with a beer, so he alternated between the Udder Pale Ale and Longboard Lager ($3 per sleeve). Those are brewed specifically for Cactus Club and have been staples for quite some time. I started with a Whiskey Ginger Smash ($5) cocktail. I really didn’t taste a whole lot of ginger. I enjoy it when you get the spice from the root, but it didn’t come through so much as the rosemary. My second libation of the night was their classic Bellini ($4). It’s basically an adult version of a slushie that tastes like a fuzzy peach in liquid form.

The rest of our dinner was a free-for-all. We ordered two Mini Burgers and two Mini Crispy Chicken Sandwiches ($4 per slider), one for each of us. On the side, we shared a bowl of the Truffle Fries ($4). We split the Ravioli + Prawn Duo ($8), Pesto Chicken Quesadilla ($8), and the Blackened Creole Chicken ($20).

Honestly, of all the things we selected, we weren’t sure that the sliders were of great value. Sure, a few bucks are saved in comparison to the regular appetizers, but they’re pretty small on an individual basis. Despite the size and amount of meat, the flavour was there. I did remove the pickles and onions as I’m not a fan. Still, the chicken was clearly white breast meat, the sambal mayo gave it a little bit of a kick, and the mild, nutty Swiss cheese provided a balance. What made the mini burgers delicious was the red pepper relish and Dijon mayonnaise atop the perfectly charred Angus beef.

I almost forgot to include the Truffle Fries. Thankfully, I remembered part way through our meal. These were so yummy. The potatoes were fried to a golden brown and then doused in truffle, herbs and grated Grana Padano cheese. A small saucer of garlic aioli accompanied the fries, taking them to another level.

Ravioli + Prawn Duo

Instead of a trio of ravioli, the happy hour deal offers a duo of the dish. Two large pockets of pasta hold butternut squash and mascarpone. It’s cooked in a decadent truffle butter sauce and then served with a sautéed jumbo prawn placed on each square. Pine nuts and fried sage leaves garnish this masterpiece. The shrimp was plump and juicy. The ravioli and sauce is rich. The sage and pine nuts give it an air of earthiness. This is one of their standards for a reason.

Pesto Chicken Quesadilla

It’s funny to find something as simple as a quesadilla on a menu where they seem to lean more towards high-end than casual. Yet, the one at Cactus Club works. Admittedly, I’ve never much appreciated the triangles and strips of tortilla chips that anchor the plate (I’d rather fries or a salad without the additional cost to upgrade). Nevertheless, the Pesto Chicken Quesadilla is on point. It comes down to the combination of ingredients. There’s the herbaceous zestiness from the basil pesto, sweetness from the sundried cranberries, melted cheesy goodness, smoky grilled chicken, and a slight sweet-sour flavour from the light honey lime dip. This is something that I used to emulate at home because it’s a recipe that was accessible, easy, and satisfying.

Blackened Creole Chicken

The final entrée we shared was the Blackened Creole Chicken. I’d never tried this one before, so it was new to me. Outside of happy hour, it’s usually over $25, so there was about a twenty per cent savings on this dish. I’m not sure it was worth the money though. It was a decent amount of food, for sure. However, a lot of it consisted of the buttered mashed potatoes. Also, while I could eat asparagus for days, the stalks we received were overgrown with the woody ends still there. Proper preparation calls for the bottoms to be snapped off, leaving only the tender portion of the greens behind. Other than that, the chicken (skin on) was well-seasoned and succulent.

Beef Carpaccio

We must have been done by now, right? For my fiancé, that would be a yes. For me, that was a hard no. Before leaving, I indulged in an order of their Beef Carpaccio. It’s been a favoured Cactus Club item of mine, and it’s one that I always return for. On this occasion, a few pieces of the crostini were a tad too toasted. Nonetheless, they tasted wonderful with baked-in garlic, drizzled in olive oil, and sprinkled with herbs and cheese. The super thinly sliced peppercorn-crusted beef tore apart at the sight of a fork. I carefully curated each bite with meat, Dijon aioli, a fried caper, pickled onion, arugula, and a cut of Grana Padano. This is truly the best.

When all is said and done, Cactus Club does a ton of things right. From a mix of atmospheres within the same restaurant (patio, lounge and dining room are all different) to the magic that happens in the kitchen to the well-trained front of house staff, it’s clear that this homegrown company is here for the long haul. They’ve learned from mistakes made early on and they’ve taken those lessons to grow this chain into a Canadian empire that appears to have the legs to go even further should they choose to. It wouldn’t be hard to imagine the Cactus Club name on an international scale. For now, I’m happy to have it in my backyard.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Old Spaghetti Factory

Place settings haven’t changed for as long as I can remember.

If there are any restaurants I’d be likely to avoid, Old Spaghetti Factory would fit the bill. At the very least, the one at West Edmonton Mall checks all the boxes. There’s almost always a wait to get a table, it can be crowded, and it’s often filled with the din of noisy children. In spite of those downsides, it’s really hard to say no to a fully inclusive meal for under $20 per person or under $15 when it comes from the lunch menu.

Where else can one spend that much and get unlimited bread, a soup or salad appetizer, a main, dessert, and coffee or tea? The answer is a resounding “nowhere.” For that reason, Old Spaghetti Factory has become one of my family’s favourite meeting spots. We’ve been going there more regularly since last year when the restaurant offered holiday deals on their gift cards over Christmas (purchase $25 worth and receive a bonus $10 to be used by mid-March). This year, my fiancé and I received a couple sets and, at the beginning of February, we got together with my parents to redeem the first $35.

Sourdough bread with whipped butters!

We already had plans earlier in the afternoon on the Saturday that we dined, so we ended up arriving just in time to take advantage the lunch specials that run until 4:00pm. My mom and dad had both placed their orders already. They were snacking on a loaf of sourdough and that heavenly whipped garlic butter. Seriously, I don’t even know why they still pass out the regular butter. Do customers even bother using the latter? Between the two options, it’s not even a competition. Whenever our table is cleared by the servers, it is, without a doubt, going to be strewn with pots of unused regular butter that are probably destined for the garbage bin.

Regardless, it didn’t take long for us to get our coffees, teas and starters. Everyone else at the table chose to go with the Minestrone Soup while I decided on the Crisp Green Salad with ranch dressing. The soup has a hearty tomato base seasoned with herbs and filled with conchiglie (shell) pasta and veggies. The salad is a mix of lettuce, red cabbage and julienned carrots. It’s fresh enough, although nothing too special.

For our mains, my dad opted for the Chicken Parmigiana Sandwich with Fries ($11.50), my mom and my fiancé both selected the 6 oz. New York Steak Sandwich ($14.25 each) — hers was medium rare with a side of spaghetti in clam sauce, his was medium served with fries — and I got the Lunch-Size Fettuccine con Pollo ($11.95).

Chicken Parmigiana Sandwich with Fries

Everything looked pretty appetizing. I’m a fan of their regular Chicken Parmigiana, so I assumed that having the breaded chicken topped with marinara sauce, Parmesan and mozzarella cheese in sandwich form would be just as good. Perhaps it would be a bit starch heavy considering the ciabatta bun and the fries, but the fundamentals of the dish would still stand.

The New York Steak Sandwich comes open-faced with the meat sitting atop a slice of garlic bread. Again, it’s quite a starchy dish when the fries or pasta are accounted for. The steak looks large as it covers a decent amount of surface area. However, it’s actually cut thinly, which means the kitchen has to be careful not to overcook it. Despite the meat appearing to be prepared as requested, it was somewhat tough when I had a few bites of my mom’s steak. Honestly, it’s hit or miss at Old Spaghetti Factory whether or not the meat will be okay. I prefer it to be more succulent. Occasionally, that’s what one will get there. Other times, it’ll have more chew. Yet, it’s hard to blame them when it’s such an inexpensive outing.

I’m not entirely sure how I forgot to snap a photo of my Fettuccine con Pollo. Nevertheless, I can describe it. Sautéed chicken and mushrooms are tossed in a tangy white cream sauce with the pasta and then laid in a ceramic dish and topped with mozzarella and cheddar cheese before being baked in the oven. My lunch stayed hot the entire time we were eating. The cheese was gooey and in abundance, and the sauce coated everything evenly. There was more chicken and mushroom than I expected, too.

Spumoni Ice Cream; I almost forgot to take a photo of this, too.

Next up, after our entrées were polished off or packed up, was the dessert. This is my favourite part of eating at Old Spaghetti Factory. Spumoni ice cream — chocolate, vanilla, and pistachio swirl — is kind of tough to come by at the grocery store (I do know that Chapman’s now has a gelato version), so I definitely consider this to be a real treat. It has the right consistency where it shows up at the table perfectly firm. And, for me, the green pistachio portion is what makes it special, so I tend to eat around it and save that flavour for last.

Our receipt decorated by our friendly server.

When I take in everything happening at the restaurant, I can see that it runs like clockwork with staff dancing between tables and chairs, dropping off meals, carrying dishes away and, all the while, they do it with a smile. I don’t think I’ve ever come across an unhappy server at Old Spaghetti Factory. In fact, on this particular day, ours joked around with us. When we got our bill, she’d drawn a giant heart around the total, written a “thank you” at the top of the receipt and stuck a smiley sticker to it as well.

I feel like that receipt is pretty representative of the eatery. Old Spaghetti Factory has been a mainstay in the city for as long as I can remember. Sure, the West Edmonton Mall location may have gotten a facelift a few years back, but it is ultimately the same friendly place with affordable food that people remember. It’s welcoming to anyone and everyone and it will continue to be (as will the Downtown spot) for years to come.

Daily drink specials at Old Spaghetti Factory.

Edmonton Business Review: Hansen Distillery

A bit of family history before being led into the production area.

Opened mid-December of 2016, Hansen Distillery was, by a slim margin, the second producer to enter the Edmonton market. Strathcona Spirits beat them to the punch by just a day. Although, to their advantage, Hansen Distillery has been welcoming customers through their doors from the very start.

Located in the west end of the city at 174 Street and 111 Avenue, their warehouse and retail space sits in the middle of a largely industrial area, which would be easy to miss. Nevertheless, the shop’s sweet lounge (available Tuesday to Saturday) as well as the tour and tasting offered Thursdays to Saturdays have given locals a great reason to pop by and expand their knowledge and palates.

Back around the Christmas holidays, I was given a certificate for two people to attend a tour and tasting at Hansen Distillery. I had been meaning to redeem it for a while, but I ended up holding onto it. Upon researching potential wedding venues in the new year, I came across their retail space as an option. I decided to reach out to owner Shayna Hansen to inquire about renting it out. Since I’d never been there, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to use my voucher and to preview the place in person at the same time.

My fiancé and I were scheduled in for the 2:00pm slot on a Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, there were no formalities. We were simply asked if we were there for the tour and when we nodded in confirmation, we were told that we could just relax until the rest of the group made it in. As we waited for things to start, I walked around the room snapping photos. For a business that has only been open for a little over a year, they have certainly done a fantastic job with the branding. The custom logos, signage, metalwork and bar are a perfect mix of rustic and industrial design. Along with that, history and Albertan roots are hammered home here.

Several minutes later, our tour kicked off with Shayna talking about her family’s long tradition. Moonshiners go back four generations to her great grandparents who made it through World War I only to have to deal with the Great Depression. In those years, the spirits were made as a means of trading for food to keep the family fed. Fast forward to a framed photo of her grandparents driving a 1928 Ford Model A (the same vehicle sits in the showroom) in a parade with “Moonshiners” blatantly painted on the side. Things certainly have changed from then to now where moonshining has become a legitimate business. The trade passed down to Shayna’s parents and, after some hesitation, down to Shayna’s now husband, Kris Sustrik, who handles it all from the distilling down to the bottling at Hansen Distillery.

When we passed through the doors into their production area, we got our first glimpse of the gorgeous copper still, named The Mistress. It happened to be distilling a batch of their Barn Owl Vodka on that day. Unfortunately, I didn’t retain the exact details of the distilling process. I will chalk it up to the fact that I’m encouraging everyone who reads this to book their own tour and tasting in support of this local business. Yet, I can relay that we were allowed to taste vodka directly from the machine by dipping our finger into a tiny pool of the liquor. I probably wouldn’t do that under normal circumstances. However, Kris assured us, at 98 to 99 per cent alcohol, it was extremely sterile. The lick of vodka was strong, but also quite sweet.

Each ingredient used for their spirits are natural and/or locally sourced. The single fake ingredient (Kris was very honest about this) is the stabilizer in the cream used for their cream liqueurs, giving the products about a year of shelf life. As soon as a batch of liquor is ready, they bottle it right there. On a typical day, they’ll likely be able to do 500 bottles and labels, although the record stands at over 700. It’s actually such a small crew, that Kris pretty much has his fingerprints on every single item that leaves the warehouse.

Expanding their current line of vodka, rye, gin and moonshine, they’re just over a third of the way to finishing their first batch of rye whiskey, which by Canadian standards must be mashed, fermented and then distilled in a wood cask for a minimum of three years. When the barrels are ready, they’ll bottle and sell everything through the shop to ensure fans of Hansen Distillery get to be the first to try them. Explaining the steps and how the wood of the cask affects the flavour, I could tell that Kris is incredibly passionate about the craft. A year in, they’ve already won a couple of awards. Call it beginners luck, or perhaps it’s a real knack. Either way, Hansen Distillery seems to have a good thing going for them. If anything, they’ve come into it at the right time, acting as influencers in a new and burgeoning industry.

The tasting begins.

As the tour came to a close, we were led to a long table laid out with popcorn, water, and taster cups sitting in specially made horseshoe-shaped trays. While most of the hard liquors were quite smooth, admittedly, I’m not inclined to drink them straight, so I only had small sips of their vodka (a bit like disinfectant), Border Crossing Rye (a decent precursor to an aged whiskey), and Trouble Gin (lots of juniper berries with a hint of citrus). They absolutely knocked it out of the park with their seasonal spirits though. After initial tastes of the two cream liqueurs (Saskatoon Berry and Chocolate Hazelnut), Ring of Fire, and Cherry Rye, I went back to finish each of those off as they were all delicious on their own. The one that took me by surprise the most was the Ring of Fire. As a rye spirit, I was fully expecting not to like it, but the cinnamon really comes through and the chilli peppers provide just the right amount of heat to warm the body.

For about an hour and approximately three ounces worth of alcohol, the usual price of $7 per person for the Hansen Distillery tour and tasting is well worth it. Plus, if inclined, grab a bottle of a favourite as they’ve recently lowered the prices of their bottled spirits, passing along savings incurred when the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Corporation reduced the markup for small manufacturers who self-distribute products. When the tour and shopping spree is over, the cozy lounge space is ideal to relax and chat over a cocktail, too. Heck, it’s so adorable that I really could picture having a wedding reception there. At about thirty seats, including the bar, it would be quite intimate. A few extra tables could be squeezed in though. It may not work for me and my fiancé. Yet, it could be another couple’s dream spot.

Overall, this was a fun, casual learning experience. Shayna and Kris have been hitting it out of the park. With more than twelve months under their belt, I wish them the best of luck as they continue building the family’s legacy. They are the true embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit in Edmonton and Alberta, and I look to them as an example for what can be accomplished here in my hometown.

A fun use of storage in their warehouse.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Black Bull Kitchen & Bar

The interior of Black Bull Kitchen & Bar.

In mid-December, I took my boyfriend to Black Bull Kitchen & Bar (16642 109 Avenue) for dinner. It was our first visit and, again, it was all due to a Groupon I had on hand. We made our way there immediately after work, so we arrived pretty early at around 5:00 pm.

When we walked into the establishment, it was empty, save for someone hanging out at the bar. The single server greeted us right away though and let us choose our own table while she grabbed us some menus.

As soon as we were settled, I mentioned that I had the voucher that covered dinner for two people, and she took the time to explain how it worked. In our case, we were each able to order a virgin cocktail and an entrée valued at up to $32. The thing is, the majority of their dishes only cost about $13 to $25. Only one option would have maxed out the deal on its own: the 14 oz. T-Bone Steak. However, our server let us know that we could add upgrades to the plates until they totaled the full value, which was fantastic.

Virgin Pina Colada and Virgin Caesar

While my boyfriend sipped on his Caesar and I on my Pina Colada, we studied the menu. Ultimately, we both opted for the 10 oz. New York Striploin ($25). It comes with a side of veggies as well as a choice between garlic mash (the winner on that evening), home cut fries, or rice. He decided to order extra shrimp ($5) and I selected the lobster tail ($7).

The food was prepared in a decent amount of time. They weren’t plated super fancy, but the dishes had pretty pops of colour from the carrots, broccoli, shrimp and lobster. Atop the seafood was a big dollop of butter. Surprisingly, there was also a slice of garlic bread accompanying everything as well.

I’ll get the bad out of the way first. Although the lobster tasted fine, it was severely overcooked. It made it incredibly difficult to pull the meat from the shell and, when I did get any on my fork, it was relatively dry and rubbery. That was unfortunate. I probably should have mentioned it to the restaurant while we were there, but I didn’t do that.

On the other hand, my boyfriend told me that his shrimp were great (he ate them all so quickly that I didn’t have a chance to sample any). Our plates came out piping hot, too. The steaks were both prepared as requested — medium rare for me and medium well for him. They were succulent with very little gristle, meaning almost nothing was wasted. I especially liked the charring on the top and bottom of the steak that helped to sear in the juices, keeping the meat tender and flavourful.

I have to say that the vegetables were kind of pedestrian. They seemed to have been steamed and had little flavour. I doused them in the butter from my lobster to make them a bit tastier. I thought the bread was alright as it was a bit toasted and had enough garlic butter without being overpowering. The garlic mashed potatoes were excellent. They were creamy, the seasoning came through well and the herbs that had been mixed in just elevated them a little more.

In the end, I’d say that Black Bull Kitchen & Bar is a serviceable location. Nothing we had was out of this world good, and the chefs can certainly show some improvement when it comes to lobster. Otherwise, everything else was passable and the portions were generous. It’s comfortable, clean, bright, well-decorated and totally seems like the classic neighbourhood hang out. If anyone has a voucher, I’d definitely recommend giving this place a shot. If that’s not a possibility, still stop by and grab something more affordable than steak off of the menu. I’ve heard that their burgers and pizza are worth a visit.