The Ovens Have Landed: Starbucks Breakfast Sandwich Report

I was pretty excited when I saw that ovens were appearing in Starbucks locations across the city in March. While I knew I wouldn’t indulge in their sandwich offerings all that often (especially not having the time to stop in on my way to work in the mornings), I was looking forward to having the option of something more than cold pastries.

Mack and I had tried a sausage and egg sandwich while in Vancouver last year, and found it to be a sub-par cousin of the breakfast sandwiches offered at both McDonald’s and Tim Horton’s. However, we were eager to give it a second try on home soil. I would have loved to have been able to sample a free sandwich at the South Point location on Thursday, but we ended up walking to the Empire Building location that night for a quick bite before the RISE Celebration at the Citadel (the sandwiches are available until 90 minutes before closing).

All at $3.95, we had the choice of:

  • Classic sausage, egg & cheddar
  • Black forest ham, egg & cheddar
  • Peppered bacon, egg & cheddar
  • Reduced-fat bacon-style turkey with cholesterol free egg patty & reduced fat white cheddar
  • Spinach feta wrap with egg and roasted tomato

I opted for the sausage option, while Mack succumbed to the thought of having bacon for supper. We watched the barista unwrap our sandwiches and place them individually in the oven. When they were ready, they were transferred into a white paper bag with a seal that read “Great coffee deserves great food”.

Seal of Starbucks’ approval

I remember reading something a few months back about how Starbucks had to engineer their sandwich in a way that would make it virtually odourless, so the warming and consuming of them would not overpower the recognizable coffee aroma in its stores. I have to say they accomplished this feat with flying colours – the sandwich gave off nearly no smell – something a little scary when considering its main egg component. Mack liked the fact that the bread shell was not greasy at all, making it a less messy meal. I was disappointed with the sausage patty – it was chewy and lacked any real flavour, two things that are not surprising considering how it was prepared.

Sausage, Egg and Cheddar Sandwich

Peppered Bacon, Egg and Cheddar Sandwich

While I can’t say I won’t be sampling their other sandwich varieties, I think it’s safe to say that both Mack and I would choose our homemade egg sandwiches in a heartbeat. The ovens can also be used to heat up their other food items, though (Empire, for example, had a sign that said cookies could be heated up until 6:30pm), so we may find that the ovens are useful yet!

My Wish List for Edmonton’s Food Scene

There are always things to be grateful for, and Edmonton’s burgeoning restaurant scene is definitely one of them. While I can’t say I’m actually a part of its development (commenting about it just isn’t the same as more active participation), it’s been wonderfully rewarding as a lifelong Edmontonian to see independent eateries and other food establishments successfully compete with chain restaurants.

At the same time, I know there are things in our dining scene that I would love to see – perhaps things that are percolating and forthcoming, but haven’t yet bubbled to the surface. In no particular order, here are some things I want to see more of:

  • One-note restaurants: It may be gimmicky, but places that serve one dish really well, such as Soul Soup or The Dawg Father, do attract attention. They are typically introduced to tourists as providing the “best” of something, and at the very least, force people to concentrate on one type of food, which may draw them away from their comfort zone.
  • Single word restaurant names: I was a bit disappointed with the recently opened Kai Asian Grill. I was really hoping the restaurant would grab “Kai” by the balls and just go with a single word to sell themselves to the world, but no, they copped out by adding “Asian Grill” to all of their signage. Yes, I know Edmonton has a number of restaurants that have one word names (Culina, Viphalay and Spago come to mind), but they don’t generate the same kind of excitement or mystery based on the name alone. Examples: Rouge (a contemporary French restaurant), Rush (a contemporary American restaurant) and Cilantro (which offers southwestern fare) in Calgary.
  • Food establishments as the hook for exploration: Beyond Chinatown and Little Italy, there are areas in Edmonton that should be explored on foot. Though food establishments generally become the bait to lure potential visitors to particular areas, they should not be the be-all-end-all of a visit. In April of last year, I wrote about a few walkable day trips that included food stops along the way – it was only a sample; I’m sure there are many others that I failed to include.
  • Innovative concepts: I was really excited when TZiN opened nearly two years ago. I really thought it would usher in a new age in Edmonton’s restaurant scene that would involve small, trendy establishments offering their own spin on dining. It hasn’t happened yet, but I’m still optimistic. Perhaps this means a charcuterie wine bar for Edmonton in the near future, but I’m sure the imagination of the city’s restauranteurs is greater than mine.
  • Year-round Farmer’s Markets: Summers in Edmonton are ripe with farmers’ markets (including my favourite one – the City Centre Market on 104th Street), but it’s a fairly depressing scene in the winter. There are only two approved farmers’ markets in metro Edmonton that operate year-round – Old Strathcona and Westmount – and one unapproved one at the Salisbury Greenhouse in Sherwood Park. Farmers’ markets are great places for people to learn about food and to feel a little more connected to the people who produce it, so it would be great to have more opportunities to do so, even in the winter.
  • Community gathering places: The Carrot, a volunteer-run coffeehouse on 118 Avenue, will be looked upon years from now as an inspirational model. Arts on the Ave, the organization behind The Carrot, has helped attract attention to the beleaguered neighbourhood by acting as a hub for community members to connect with one another, and by promoting local artists and causes. Edmonton could use more such initiatives.

What is on your wish list for Edmonton’s food scene?

A European Lair: Caffè Artigiano

While Mack was occupied at BarCampCalgary, I played tourist and had lunch at Caffè Artigiano (Unit 100, Centrum Place, 332 6 Avenue SW). A west coast import that had coffee aficionado John Manzo, among others, excited about its first location outside of metro Vancouver, I wanted to see for myself what all the hype was about.

Occupying a rather large storefront in an office tower, the high ceilinged space resembles a European lair more than a typical café at first glance. A pedway positioned above Caffè Artigiano and its neighbours prevented much natural light from coming through – but perhaps the designers preferred it that way – the dark furniture and earth toned walls absorbed what sunlight did trickle through.

Peering into the cooler that contained an assortment of premade sandwiches, wraps and treats, I decided upon the Chicken and Brie Panino ($8.59) for my main course. A Spanish Latte ($3.59), which the clerk explained to me was a latte with a bit of condensed milk added, completed my meal.

I sat down at a large table fit for a library to await my food and drink. Lucky for me, Caffè Artigiano subscribes to a number of papers (including my favorite, The Globe & Mail), and like a library, affixes each edition onto a large wooden rod.

A few minutes later, my drink was called. Beautifully presented with an artful rosetta design, I almost didn’t want to take the first sip. I did, of course, and found that the latte walked the fine line between the jolt of a strong espresso and the creamy smoothness of milk, accented as a whole with just a hint of sweetness.

My panino, served with a small cup of coleslaw, was equally satisfying. Generously filled with chicken, cheese, then grilled, it left me full but not stuffed. While the chicken was a touch dry, the thin spread of fig jam helped alleviate somewhat parched bites.

I still struggle with the idea of having to pay nearly $10 for a sandwich in a coffee shop (granted, Caffè Artigiano is not just any coffee shop). So although I may be back for another cup of coffee, I would probably head elsewhere for something to eat first.

Rosetta

Chicken and Brie Panino and a Spanish Latte

Clever Name but Rather Lame: Wild Flour Bakery

This guest post was written by Mack, an Edmonton-based geek who fancies himself a part-time foodie. You can find him online at his blog, and on Twitter.

On Sunday morning I decided to skip the conference-provided breakfast in favor of making a stop at Wild Flour Bakery, located at 211 Bear Street. I had asked Sharon for a couple of restaurant recommendations before making my way to Banff, and Wild Flour was one of the two she gave me. I think the name was probably 80% of the reason she suggested it, but I figured I’d give it a shot anyway.

Wild Flour Bakery

I arrived at Wild Flour just after 8 AM. They are open every day throughout the summer months from 7 AM until 6 PM. There was a couple ordering some of Wild Flour’s artisan breads ahead of me, so I had time to look around and take some photos. The space is very modern looking, and fairly open with seating for about 40 patrons.

The menu is broken into four sections: drinks, breakfast, sweets & treats, and lunch. I decided to order a medium Organic Fair Trade Coffee ($1.75 – they serve Kicking Horse) and the Toasted Breakfast Sandwich ($5.50, also available with two slices of Valbella ham for an addition $1.50).

At this point, things started to go downhill (that didn’t take long did it?). Maybe I’ve been spoiled at Starbucks where a barista always hands you a full cup of coffee, but I thought it was odd that I was given a cup to fill on my own. At the end of the counter were three coffee butlers, two bold roast and one medium roast. I set about filling my cup with the medium, only to find that it wouldn’t stop coming out! I started to say "It’s not stopping!" and when one of the employees finally noticed, she remarked "oh no not again!" Apparently they jam open quite frequently. Anyway, when I eventually got my cup full of bold roast I nearly burned my hand! The coffee was ridiculously hot, and there were no sleeves.

I took a seat in the corner and started reading some of the free newspapers they had available. Wild Flour prides itself on cooking with organic and local ingredients, and on making everything from scratch. With that in mind, I didn’t expect my breakfast sandwich to be ready immediately, but after about fifteen minutes of waiting I started to wonder. I took my order slip (my order number was the normally lucky 88…not so lucky this time) up to the counter to inquire. I was informed that they had "lost" my order, and that they’d make it right away. At this point I thought to myself – epic fail! It’s never acceptable for a restaurant to lose an order, especially when it isn’t that busy.

My breakfast sandwich arrived about five minutes later. The menu describes it as: "Our herbed egg frittata & three year old Quebec cheddar on sourdough." Unfortunately, the description is a lot tastier than the sandwich itself. I found the egg kind of spongy and far too thick. I think there should have been more cheese too!

On the whole, my experience at Wild Flour was a negative one. Even without the coffee incident and lost order, the breakfast sandwich wasn’t worth the money and the employees were probably the least friendly of any I encountered in Banff. I could probably be persuaded to give their lunch menu a shot, but I definitely won’t be rushing back to Wild Flour the next time I’m in Banff.

Wild Flour Bakery

Inside Wild Flour Bakery

Wild Flour Bakery

Seating

Toasted Breakfast Sandwich

Toasted Breakfast Sandwich

Coffee Oasis: Marcello’s

Beckoning through the glass and beyond the courtyard of Telus Plaza was the mysterious Marcello’s (10025 Jasper Ave, Unit #63).

I’ve been meaning to go for months since seeing what looked like an independent coffee shop across the way from my morning Second Cup, and now, having been, I wonder why I didn’t make the trek over sooner.

Marcello’s, it turns out, bills itself as a “market & deli”, has locations in six cities in Canada, and offers much more than just coffee. With a self-serve hot breakfast station featuring scrambled eggs, sausages, and home fries, a plethora of freshly-baked muffins, and a convenience store selection of dried cereals and sweet treats, even picky eaters would not go hungry.

As for coffee – count me amazed – Marcello’s serves no less than two dozen varieties of coffee every day, with more than a handful of flavoured varieties (my personal favorite). At $1.50 for a medium, it is also slightly cheaper than a similar-sized jolt at Second Cup.

Look to Marcello’s when you’re short on change, want more coffee options than Second Cup has to offer, and desire to avoid jostling for space and seats in the nearby Starbucks.

Marcello’s in Telus Plaza

Hot breakfast options

Muffins galore

Coffee, coffee and more coffee!

Fresh and Friendly: Da Capo Cafe

I had a quick coffee at Da Capo Caffe (8738-109 Street) over the summer, but I had always been meaning to go back to give their menu a try. An opportunity came up on Wednesday evening to do so.

While I’m still not sure that I like the design of the cafe, I understand the reasoning behind it. The dining area is essentially split in half by the substantially-sized staff/food preparation area smack in the middle of the cafe. This does allow for two lines – one for espressos and another for food, but in my opinion this division creates a lack of harmony in the seating space.

At any rate, I approached a staff member with the simple question of “What is there to eat?” He led me to a chalkboard menu on the other side of the counter, listing a dozen or so pizzas, calzones and salads in the $10-15 range. I did a quick scan of my options, and chose the Margherita ($10.50, including tax). A patron next to me in line ordered the black truffle-prosciutto-parmesan variety without hesitation, which the server noted was his own favorite, so I may have to return in the future to try a more adventurous topping combination. A note on payment – cash is the only means accepted, so like Leva, you have to be prepared.

I took a seat on one of the stools facing the windows looking out onto 109 Street (I find the rest of the space much too dim), and was immediately brought my requested glass of water. The wait was tempered by a free weekly I had picked up on the way, and half-way through the paper, my pizza arrived. The server wasn’t kidding when he said the pizza was ideal for sharing – it was huge! The sauce was reminiscent of the sweet tomato base used by Famoso, nice and light, but the best part of the pizza was by far the crust. Addictively crunchy, I would have gladly consumed an entire plate of breadsticks made from the bread alone. And though it hit the spot that day, I would pick Leva’s version if forced to choose.

Still, with great service and interesting menu items, I wouldn’t hesitate to return to Da Capo.

Margherita Pizza

Transcend Coffee

I’m a little torn on whether or not I should even write a review on our visit to Transcend Coffee (9869 62 Avenue), consistently lauded in the media and by local foodies for their approach to coffee. Granted, we had huge expectations, particularly after our sojourn to Calgary’s Phil & Sebastian’s, for an equally fantastic experience. But I’m sad to say that Transcend didn’t live up to the hype.

Surrounded by industrial buildings and warehouses, we weren’t sure what the inside of Transcend would look like. Turns out, they probably ended up choosing the off-the-beaten-path location more for cheap rent than anything else, as they had two whole floors to themselves, with the main floor divided into a retail front space with limited seating and a coffee “laboratory” and roasting area in a separate room in the back.

Count me as surprised when I spotted a Clover on the counter…I guess we didn’t have to head south after all to test out fresh French-pressed coffee. Anyway, I approached the barista with this open question, which in hindsight, probably wasn’t the right way to start off a conversation: “We’re new. Can you provide us with an introduction?” She probed us for our usual coffee preferences, and after telling her that we wanted a lighter brew, she recommended the Ethiopia Yirgacheffe. We ordered two regular Clover-brewed cups, which came to $5.

Though I understand that not every independent cafe employee is as outgoing and passionate as the one we encountered at Phil & Sebastian’s, it is difficult not to directly compare the two. Transcend’s barista really wasn’t chatty, and as we surveyed the room, it seemed to us that the Transcend crowd was made up entirely of regulars. That morning anyway, we felt like the odd patrons out.

After an abbreviated wait, we were given two filled coffee-press vessels and two Bodum double-walled glasses. We headed to the second floor to access their additional seating area, and found that we had the room to ourselves. While quiet, the furnishings had us thinking we had infiltrated someone’s home office and living room – between the desk and open files on one side, a mishmash of furniture, and a television in the corner, we didn’t feel as “at home” as we were supposed to.

Our coffee had a light brown hue to it, almost the color it takes on after the addition of milk. It was thin, and to me, had acidic notes to it, though Mack disagreed with that assertion. He remarked about its lack of an aftertaste, but we both noted that it probably wasn’t the type meant to provide that morning jolt – we were ready for more after finishing our cups. After my second brush with Clover-brewed coffee, I’m starting to question whether or not it does make a difference, at least to me. I hope the coffee tasting Mack and I are planning to attend later this spring will shed some light on specialty beans and brewing processes.

Perhaps Phil & Sebastian’s spoiled me, or perhaps I shouldn’t be looking for an “experience” at a cafe, but there has to be something (like the people and the passion behind the coffee) that sets the independents apart from the Starbucks and Second Cups of the world.

Exterior

At the bar

Second floor seating area

Our coffees

Holiday Vantage Point: Three Bananas Cafe

Needing a quick bite to eat downtown, and not in the mood to jostle with the Friday night food court crowd, I was pulled towards the reliably quiet Three Bananas Cafe on Churchill Square.

Several months have passed since I last stopped by, but not much had changed about the place. As I mentioned in my previous post, however, the cafe is a tad on the dim side in the evenings, with only a few ill-placed spot bulbs overhead. Surveying all available tables, only two were bright enough to allow for comfortable reading. I was lucky to snag one, and thumbed through a free weekly while waiting for my Traditional (pepperoni and mushroom) Pizzette. Not exactly cheap at $8.95, I figured I was paying more for the venue and the view – great for people watching in the summer, the windows are an even better vantage point in the winter, opening up to the BrightNights displays on the east side of Churchill Square.

My pizza required a wait of about fifteen minutes, but arrived hot and very cheesy. It wasn’t as good as I remembered, but considering the last one was consumed as I was moving back to solid foods upon recovery from my wisdom teeth extraction, a less than fantastic second trial was to be expected.

If you’re around the Square to take in the holiday decorations, why not stop by Three Bananas for a warming mug of hot chocolate?

Traditional Pizzette

Brought to you by Sugar: Vi’s for Pies

In an effort to kill two birds in one night, May and I followed up on a new restaurant with dessert at a cafe we had both been meaning to visit for some time – Vi’s for Pies (13408 Stony Plain Road).

Not too far from our next and last destination, we had just enough time to ogle the dessert case and have something to round off our meal. There were at least fifteen tempting selections to choose from, including various cheesecakes, tarts, cakes, and pies. May could not resist trying their mango cheesecake, while I opted for a lemon tart and a hot chocolate. But beyond sweets, Vi’s also serves homemade soups and sandwiches,and instead of the traditional paper menu, display their daily creations on a chalkboard and easel moved to accomodate patrons still deciding.

While we waited for our plates, we admired the cute outdoor patio (it reminded me of the location of Carrie’s simu-date in an episode of Sex & the City), and is definitely worth checking out in warmer seasons. The dining area itself wasn’t too shabby either, featuring a fireplace and walls painted in a warm red tone.

Our desserts were ready in no time, and we were both pleased with the presentation – little florets of whipped cream dusted with cocoa accented the plate. When we sampled our treats, however, we found them much too sweet for our liking. The lemon essence in my tart was much too strong; the shortbread base wasn’t bad, but the overpowering tartness of lemon flavor prevented me from enjoying my dessert as a whole. This pattern of saccharin saturation was also continued in my drink, unfortunately.

I would return to Vi’s for Pies in the future, but only to sample their hearty lunch/dinner options…or perhaps their pie.

Vi’s for Pies

Outdoor patio

May admires the dessert case

May’s mango cheesecake (top) and my lemon tarts

Notes on Food

  • Mr. Mike’s Steakhouse & Bar is now open in West Edmonton Mall! Strange I haven’t really seen it mentioned in any of the local papers.
  • Bettina pointed out a unique alternative to flowers and candy – Edible Arrangements! While they may not last as long as a bouquet, they are certainly beautiful to look at. They are on the pricey side, but I’d be open to taking the idea and making up single-stem pineapple/melon flowers myself. They’d be perfect as takeaway gifts to give following a baby shower or spring dinner party.
  • Original Fare has introduced gift cards! Valid at 17 independent Edmonton-area restaurants, I can’t think of a better present for your epicurean friends.
  • Starbucks has been promoting a campaign of culinary coffee pairings, going the route of wine. Though I like the education aspect of it, it’s also a clever way to try and upsell their pastries. I did sample the Chocolate Cinnamon Bread the other day (though with tea and not alongside the recommended coffee), and it was surprisingly bland. Perhaps I’ll eat it with its “other half” next time.
  • Also on Starbucks – did anyone notice how quickly the stores cycled through their drinks this summer? From Raspberry to Orange to Blueberry Frappuccinos and Iced Teas, and now to their Fall Pumpkin Spiced Latte…I felt it was a bit too much, too soon, going against their marketed ideal for the summer of relaxing and just enjoying life.
  • I stopped by Essence Organic Tea Bar (10011 102 Ave) on Friday, and had their Java Lat-tea (I will admit the pun made me smile). It’s actually better than a very similar drink I had at Blendz in Vancouver, and though perhaps mainly psychological, it felt healthier than a cup of joe. I hope their business picks up – it was completely empty during my visit.