Edmonton Business Review: Awake Coffee House

The cafe side of Awake Coffee House.

I’ve been on a bit of a coffeehouse kick lately. They’re just really great places to go for meetings, and, since I’ve had many a get together over the past month, it’s ideal to have multiple options. One that I visited recently is called Awake Coffee House. Located at 11029 9 Avenue, it’s easily accessible for those on the south side. If coming from the Henday, just exit on 111 Street heading north, and it’ll be the first turn on the right hand side.

When my fiancé and I drove up to the building on a Saturday afternoon, it was incredibly quiet. The parking lot only had a few cars in it. We also immediately noted that it was attached to Twin Brooks Medical Clinic. Upon walking into the actual coffee shop, I did take in the clean, modern space of the cafe, but I also thought that the pharmacy on the other side was a bit odd.

The spacious seating area separates the cafe from the pharmacy on the other side.

The medical clinic has a door that connects into Awake Coffee House, so that patients can easily come in and put through their prescriptions. While that’s convenient, I have to say I’m not super keen on hanging out in a cafe where there’s greater potential of people who have succumb to illness hanging out there. Yet, that is apparently a strategic business decision of the Song sisters who own both the cafe and the pharmacy. As registered pharmacists, they wanted a more welcoming spot for people to wait as their prescriptions were being prepared. While I see it from their side, it’s not exactly my cup of tea.

I really liked the touches of mint/teal throughout.

Luckily, it was pretty empty that day. We were able to sit almost anywhere we wanted to. Some of the tables were more communal. Others were smaller and could be grouped should that be required. They have a suitable selection of beverages. In my case, I ordered a Small Chai Latte ($5), which was presented in a larger than expected simple teal mug. I found that to be a nice touch since the colour matched the rest of the design scheme seen throughout Awake Coffee House — greys on the floor, natural woods on the tables and counter, whites on the seats and lights, and teal/mint on the stools and chair bottoms.

Small Chai Latte

I’ve read mixed reviews about the drinks served at Awake Coffee House with the majority of the negative coming from around the time they opened over a year ago. Most people cited watered down beverages. This was my first and only visit so far; however, based on my Chai Latte, I think they’ve made improvements because it was really good. Not only was the size decent for the price (most places charge a similar amount for this beverage), but it was incredibly flavourful. They certainly didn’t skimp when preparing the latte. It also had a pleasant amount of foam action on the top and they dusted it with an extra helping of spice before serving, adding to the overall taste once it was all stirred in.

There’s a wall of greeting cards near the door.

Awake Coffee House also makes bubble waffles on the weekend! I refrained from getting one this last time. Nevertheless, it’s on my list of things to try when we return. I have my eye on the dessert style Pina Colada Bubble Waffle that I saw on their Instagram page a while ago, so I hope they keep it on the menu. Although I probably won’t be back super often, when and if I do go, I’ll probably stick to weekend afternoons, especially Sundays when the clinic isn’t open. For a germaphobe like me, it’s just preferable. Otherwise, there’s no denying that Awake Coffee House is super cute, and the idea behind it is certainly commendable.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Blowers & Grafton

Relaxing with a pint at Blowers & Grafton.

Driving down Whyte Avenue earlier this summer, I noticed the facade of a new establishment called Blowers & Grafton (10550 82 Avenue). Touting itself as a place for Halifax Street Food, I was immediately excited since Kirk is from New Brunswick and I had a hunch that he’d like it. Nonetheless, at the time, it was put on the back burner. Then, fast forward about a month when we decided to meet up with some friends for a bite to eat over the first weekend of the 37th Annual Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival. This ended up being our pick of the day.

Blowers & Grafton has a casual space with a distinctly East Coast feel.

We arrived just before 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday. The place was about three-quarters full and we managed to get seated right away. It’s actually quite a nice space with tables spread out well, so customers aren’t draped over each other. There’s a distinctly vintage rustic industrial design with open ceilings, original beams, brick, lots of stained woods, Edison bulbs screwed into pipes, warehouse-style pendant lighting, and upholstered metal stools. The only shots of colour in the place come from the reddish faux brick walls and a faded denim shade as seen on the seats and towards the back of the pub. To decorate, they’ve hung historic photographs of Halifax throughout. As our friends mentioned, the Edmonton location is much better than the initial hole in the wall built in Calgary. Overall, it’s comfortable and it immediately feels like a decent hang out spot.

So, for those who aren’t aware, Blowers & Grafton is a famous intersection in Halifax otherwise known as Pizza Corner. It laid claim to the name due to the number of shops that populated each quarter of the crossing streets. I’ve only been there once before and, if I recall, it’s no longer overrun with pizza. Although, other snacks like poutine may give the pies a run for their money. Both of those items are definitely on offer here, along with donairs, fish n’ chips, clams, scallops, and mussels.

The elusive B&G bottles. They’re hoping to stock these here as well. These were just a treat from the owner.

They have made a concerted effort to stock East Coast beers for half of their taps; however four of the six are standards like Alexander Keith’s and Moosehead. The rest of the options are Canadian brews with two coming from Alberta. This includes a B&G Wheat ($6.50) created specifically for Blowers & Grafton, likely by Minhas Micro Brewery out of Calgary as that company also created their standard bottled lager, which is currently only served at the Calgary location. NOTE: Happy Hour drink specials happen Monday to Friday from 3pm to 6pm and Sunday to Thursday from 9pm to close. Check my YEG Food Deals page for details.

The Bluenoser Cocktail

They also have an adequate cocktail list from which I selected The Bluenoser (our lovely server suggested it). In a mason glass was mixed a vodka base with St-Germain liqueur to give it a hint of elderflower. Additionally, flavours of lemon, lavender, blueberry and mint made up the remainder of the recipe. Honestly, considering the short cup, it didn’t seem to consist of two ounces of alcohol; this beverage was incredibly drinkable. I absolutely recommend stirring it up before sipping on it though. It’ll ensure that all of the ingredients meld together to create a full profile. Otherwise, it can be rather bland at first.

Foodwise, Kirk had his heart set on the Garlic Fingers ($13.50) with Bacon Bits ($2). I chose the Mini Lobster Rolls ($22). Our friends went for the Garlic Fingers (a group with three Maritimers cannot share a single order peacefully), too, and they added a basket of Brothers Fried Pepperoni on the side ($13).

I’ll admit, whenever Kirk raves about the almighty garlic finger from back home, I wonder what the big deal is. Hasn’t he ever heard of the cheesy bread found on the majority of menus at pizza shops galore? But, I digress. Yes, the Garlic Fingers are delicious (especially when fresh out of the oven). They take their homemade pizza dough and smother it in garlic butter and mozzarella cheese. You really can’t go wrong with a dish like that. What I think differentiates East Coast garlic fingers from anything similar is probably the sweet donair sauce provided for dipping. Blowers & Grafton does a good job and I’ve been told that they’re Kirk approved.

Mini Lobster Rolls

In my mind, the Mini Lobster Rolls could use a bit of improvement. These were comprised of decently sized pieces of real Atlantic Lobster tossed with mayo, lemon and fresh dill. I thought the mayo was a little light handed and I wasn’t a huge fan of the bed of tasteless slaw that the lobster sat on. It also didn’t need lobster butter on top. What was done right was the searing of the mini buns in butter. As for the sides, there were only two choices that didn’t require an extra cost: fries or chips. I opted for the latter. They were crispy and delicious and served with a basic ketchup. All in all, these were alright. Yet, for the quality and amount of food I received I can’t really justify the high price. If they had wowed me, maybe. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

Brothers Fried Pepperoni

Surprisingly, I think the Brothers Fried Pepperoni was the best thing I sampled from the Blowers & Grafton menu. The portion size was generous, the sausage was sliced thick, it wasn’t as greasy as I expected, and it came with a delicious honey mustard that was made in-house. While we went with the mild pepperoni, it’s available hot as well. Keep in mind though, the mild was still relatively spicy (nothing crazy, but there was a noticeable kick of heat).

Blueberry Grunt Donuts

Finally, it was time for a sweet finish. The only dessert they make is their Blueberry Grunt Donut ($1.50 each). A tad larger than a Timbit, it is relatively easy to fit in at least one at the end of a meal. The deep fried pastry dough was drizzled in blueberry grunt compote and maple syrup dulce de leche. It’s kind of rich because of the syrup, but with such a small dose, it’s manageable and worth it.

Before we left, we had a chat with a couple of the owners. They’re both extremely friendly and they were happy to discuss the expansion from Calgary to Edmonton. In fact, it’s going so well that they hope to make it even bigger down south. It never occurred to me before, but I suppose East Coast eats are a thing and there is a large enough customer base looking for this type of menu — a memory of home — in the Prairies. Being one of the first to bring Maritime street food here, Blowers & Grafton may just corner the market in the west.

Edmonton Business Review: Escape City

Friends and escape rooms = fun!

I’ve been hooked on escape rooms ever since they were initially introduced to Edmonton back around 2014. I lapped them up and I would go on gaming sprees, usually dragging along a newbie or two. When we left, they were addicted as well. For those who don’t yet know, an escape room is an immersive experience whereby a group is “locked” in a themed room and they have to work together to solve riddles, clues and puzzles in order to breakout. They typically range between 45 to 60 minutes in length and cost about $25 per person to play.

About a year after I delved into that world, more businesses in this vein finally started to pop up, including one of my all time faves, Escape City. Located on 59 Avenue and 104 Street (Calgary Trail), it’s tucked away in the corner of an old strip mall. Walking through the doors, there has always been someone sitting behind the counter to greet patrons. Otherwise, it’s a very minimalist space with white walls, a couple of long benches, and cabinets for lockers. A large bulletin board next to the till showcases the teams who have broken out of their rooms in record time (Note: the times listed are remaining minutes in the game, not total minutes played). On the opposite side of the room is an accent wall with “Escape City” scrawled in red, which is great for photo ops.

It’s ideal to arrive 15 minutes in advance of your allotted time to ensure everyone has a chance to pay and sign the waivers (if you’ve played here before, they do keep them on file, so you don’t have to sign it again). As with any other escape room place, you are not to bring in any of your belongings. Phones, especially, should be locked away as it’s all too easy to cheat or make the game easier with them on hand. Plus, it’s important that photos aren’t shared of the room and its puzzles because the whole point of playing is to be challenged. Where’s the fun in knowing in advance what’s going to happen?

When the team is ready to go, a staff member will lead the way. They’ll present the house rules: no lifting carpets, no pulling on things that are nailed down, no climbing, etc. Then, a video introduction is played before the countdown starts and the game begins.

As an early subscriber to Escape City’s newsletter, I was invited to beta test for them. The very first room I got to experience was Keller’s Magic Emporium. At the time, I didn’t realize it was rated as their easiest room. Admittedly, I found it to be too quick to work through as we got out with probably 20 minutes to spare on an available 45 minutes (sometimes I don’t care about breaking a record; I just want to be entertained for as long as possible while still breaking out). What I did like was that they found a way to personalize the game a bit. Everything was quite linear, and the design was superb. They utilized some locks in the room, but there were a lot of other styles of puzzles, too. This one is best for beginners.

A taste of The Cabin. Photo courtesy of Escape City.

My second go at one of their rooms was with The Cabin. This was a well-though-out game and our group was literally a minute away from solving the whole thing. Alas, we failed, but it was very close. While it is considered to be one of the more difficult challenges at Escape City, I believe our ultimate downfall with this particular room was the size of the space and the number of players. Most of the time I struggle to get more than four or five people to come out. In this case, I recall having seven or eight in all. With limbs everywhere, visuals were blocked, hindering our ability to fully grasp everything we were supposed to see. My recommendation with the majority of places I’ve been is to have no more than six people.

Room number three at Escape City was The Inheritance. I’d only just started dating Kirk at the time. He was so enamoured with The Cabin that, on a whim as we were passing by one night, he decided we should zip into the front doors an hour before closing to ask if we could play an impromptu game. The staff was happy to oblige. I feel like we used a lot of hints (you can have up to two, if you want your time to count towards their rankings; otherwise, you can have as many as needed). But, what do you expect when you only have two brains trying to decipher stuff like this at 10 o’clock in the evening? We managed though. There were a couple of puzzles that we solved without doing it the way the room was planned (it happens on occasion). We also wouldn’t have gotten out within the actual 45 minutes. Thankfully, the employees working that night were nice enough to give us extra time. It’s been designated with a three out of five star difficulty rating and I think that’s a fair assessment.

Adventure four was The Great Discovery. It’s no longer running, but this one had a lab storyline and made sure to encourage the use of multiple senses in order to solve the puzzles. Our team worked well together as each person brought something to the table, and we felt really accomplished when we escaped this room.

The Hunt for Arms Magee (previously known as Quarterback Sneak) was the fifth room played at Escape City. It’s also classified as middle of the road in terms of the overall challenge. I have to say though, this was most likely my least favourite out of the handful of games we’d played here at this point. I didn’t think the quality of the room itself or the production value was as high as the others. Mainly in the first half (the second portion had a fun element), the premise felt silly and oversimplified in comparison. This room was a joint effort between Escape City and Explore Edmonton. It was originally meant to tie into the Grey Cup and pitted the idea of the Edmonton Eskimos against the Saskatchewan Roughriders. I thought they just tried way too hard to tie in Edmonton elements. They’re best left to making rooms where the imaginations of the designers aren’t hindered by the tourism board’s vision.

We excelled at Neurological! Also, this is apparently my lucky shirt.

Approximately ten months later, I finally found an excuse to go back. This time, we were celebrating Escape City’s third birthday (August 2018). It’s crazy to think that they’ve graced us with their presence for this long and even weirder to realize I hadn’t played any escape rooms in over half a year. We tried our hand at Neurological, one of their hardest. I’ve been told by many people who tackled it before me to go with a large group (eight to ten). In the end, I managed to wrangle together a total of five people. Needless to say, I was a bit concerned that we didn’t have enough brain power. Turns out, that worry was unnecessary. We demolished this room! Unlike the others, you start with 60 minutes on the timer, and we completed it with 11 minutes left to go. This one splits the team up at the beginning and the goal is to come back together to alight all the senses. It required clear communication and a lot of teamwork to succeed. We were told at the end that only 14 per cent of of the people who play this one break out, so we felt like superstars.

For those that want to hang out a little longer, you can either get there early or stay for a bit at the end and commiserate over a drink because, surprisingly, Escape City does sell cans of beer and a few other non-alcoholic beverages. Basically, it’s a great option for parties of any kind. While I’m not likely to throw a shindig here myself, they sure do know how to reel me back in. Seeing as how I had pretty much tackled all of their rooms, I wasn’t expecting to be return again any time soon. But, lo and behold, for their anniversary, they’ve just launched a new one called Frank’s Revenge about an uncle looking to even the score. If I have my way, curse be damned. Our winning streak has to live on! I’ll be back with friends in tow!

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.