About a month after ALTA opened, I finally had a chance to stop by Ben Staley’s new restaurant. With my friend in tow, we headed over right after work at 4:30pm. It was still early for the dinner service, so a number of the tables were empty.
I informed them of my reservation and they let us choose where we wanted to sit out of the available spots for two. With approximately 24 seats in the whole minimalist space, it’s not big; however, with the food requiring less preparation upon ordering, the turnover can be quick.
As we settled in, our server/chef brought over an open wooden box that housed our utensils, napkins and the menu. It was clear that everything had a place and a purpose. “Alta,” short for Alberta was given a nod with the shape of the menu card, which was folded and cut in a way that conveyed the province’s map outline. These little details are the types of things that should be appreciated because, if handled properly, those factors will make all the difference between an average experience versus one that goes beyond expectations.
The staff were very knowledgeable about the drinks and the dishes available. All of the wines selected are no or low intervention. As such, the flavours of the grapes are brought out more. My companion ordered a glass of the Eric Texier Chat Fou Grenache Blend from France. I had a sip of the red to get a sense of it. I thought it was smooth, slightly dry and likely would match a number of plates. Although, I’m no wine connoisseur and, unless a red wine is extremely dry or bitter, they are all alike to me. My beverage of choice to accompany my meal was a glass of the Antech 2014 Brut Mauzac, a sparkling white wine, that refrained from being overly sweet or carbonated. Rather, it was balanced in flavour and pleasantly effervescent. Both glasses were $10 each for five ounces of alcohol.
Moving back to the food, I should explain that ALTA only serves cold dishes. The only option on the menu that will arrive to the table warm is the freshly baked Sourdough & Cultured Butter. All other items are either pre-cooked, raw or preserved (often a combination of those various forms of preparation) and presented at room temperature. Once assembled by a chef on staff, the chef then brings it over and provides an exceedingly detailed description of what you’re going to eat. While we dined, I tried my best to absorb all of the information I was given. Admittedly, I’m positive I missed some of the finer points as there was so much to learn.
What I did discover is that a cold menu can be quite satisfying. I had my apprehensions about an establishment that wasn’t going have any warm dishes. Yet, the Nordic influence of foraging (in this case, using only local ingredients) and fermenting works here. In the end, we sampled a handful of items. I think the chefs were careful to time out the dishes properly, but for the most part, they were brought out as soon as they were ready.
We began our journey through ALTA’s offerings by nibbling our way through a small bowl of the Malted Hazelnuts. The chef, showing his youth, described them as an adult version of cocoa puffs, which isn’t far off. After what sounds like an arduous and time consuming process of hand peeling the hazelnuts, they are then malted to amplify the taste. These little balls, upon hitting the tongue, have a grittiness on the outside and give off a coffee-like flavour that subsides to a slight saltiness as opposed to an anticipated nutty essence. Like the act of smelling coffee beans between tasters of wine, these seemed to be a great snack to have periodically as a way to refresh the palate.
In my mind, the Salted Pork Belly was going to be prepared in a more traditional way with thick pieces of meat and crisp edges giving way to a buttery level of fat. Of course, after seeing the concept of the establishment in motion, I completely understand that the pork belly would have to be done differently than I’m accustomed to. If served conventionally, without being hot or fried immediately before eating, the pork belly runs the risk of being subpar because it’ll lose its crispiness and become limp (think about bacon that has sat out too long). That’s why the thin slices of cured pork belly made so much sense when I saw them laid out over pieces of crostini that had been covered with walnuts and diced apple that had been cooked in overgrown coriander. The meat looked like delicate, semi-translucent strips of prosciutto. The apples were a little tart and helped to offset any salt from the pork. As a side note, I recommend that these be eaten with utensils. We attempted to devour these as if they were finger food, but the pork belly isn’t the easiest to bite apart with your teeth. If you want to maintain your grace in front of other diners, use a knife and fork.
This was followed by our favourite of the evening, a Lamb Tartare. I’m a sucker for a good beef tartare, and lamb is one of my preferred types of meat. Therefore, to find this uncommon take on a fairly common dish felt like a real treat. Oftentimes, people dislike lamb due to the gamey, earthy flavours often associated with the meat; however, that didn’t come through as I ate it raw. My taste buds really honed in on the salty and savoury taste of the chickpea “miso” that also created a smooth texture typically endowed by the addition of egg yolk in a usual beef tartare dish. Pickled baby peaches added a bit of acidity and dried flowers sprinkled over the meat supplied extra texture and a floral aroma. Served with the lamb was a bowl of house made potato chips. Unfortunately, I thought the chips were a tad too greasy. What I did love about the lamb tartare was that all of the components combined created a zestiness that couldn’t be duplicated by any single ingredient in the recipe. I think it goes to show that each element that went into the dish is needed in order to produce something entirely innovative.
After polishing off the two heftier plates of food, we decided that we had room for another main, so we opted to split the Salmon. This was an excellent choice and highly recommended if one is hoping for a lighter meal that gratifies. Not only was this a beautifully composed dish ─ the sauce was gorgeous in colour and provided visual appeal ─ it was one that introduced a new method of preparing cucumber (lightly cooked and charred). Dill was a huge part of the plate as it was done three ways: laid atop the fish in its natural form, as flavouring for the pickles and as a creamy buttermilk sauce. Most importantly, the salmon was cooked to perfection with the meat moist and flakey as it practically melted in my mouth.
No dinner is complete without dessert. With only a couple of options on the menu, we chose to go with the Tart of Black Malt. It hadn’t occurred to us that the malt was actually the malted hazelnuts eaten throughout the evening just pulverized and blended with beeswax and butter to give it the consistency of a chocolate ganache. The mixture was set over a crust made of crushed pumpkin seed. If we’re going by size, this half moon tart is excellent for sharing as there’s plenty to go around. Still, by far the greatest part of this dessert had to be the coating of finely granulated freeze dried black current on the top (sparsely accented with flakes of salt), which not only gave it a rich magenta colour, but also a sweet tartness that played well with the deep and aromatic flavour of the malt.
While this may not be a meal that I’d crave on a regular basis, I found it to be pretty inspiring and unique. Ben Staley and his team at ALTA should be commended for attempting to keep the business as localized as possible. Finding alternative ways of creating flavours that come from ingredients grown only outside of Canada (I’m talking about the malted tart alternative to chocolate) is impressive and really a testament to their kitchen’s talent.
All in, our bill came to $77 for food and $20 for wine plus tax. The restaurant is one of a few in Edmonton that has a no tipping policy. Even though I knew that going in, it still came as a nice surprise when I saw the receipt and was reminded of that. In all honesty, I hadn’t planned to order a glass of bubbly that night, and when I thought about it, the money I would have spent on the tip essentially went towards my drink. Is it a better value over other downtown establishments? Possibly. Most likely not though. The gratuity is probably already reflected in the price of each dish. What’s beneficial with it being a no tipping establishment is that what you see is what you get when it comes down to the cost.
That idea is almost the opposite to the menu. Tiny details and layers of intricate flavours lead to this sense of there being more behind the curtain. Where can they continue to take their offerings? How is it going to change with the seasons? That’s what I’m interested to find out.
Paired with attentive service, food that is more filling than expected and an experience that currently cannot be found elsewhere, I’m certainly inclined to revisit ALTA soon.