Crystal’s Double Dozen: A Born and Bred Edmontonian’s Top 24 Eateries for 2018

Potato Leek Soup from Aarde

Every year, for the past five, I’ve been sharing a list of my 24 favourite Edmonton eateries at the end of December. Does anyone really care what I have to say? Not necessarily. But, if you come across this post and you live in the city, I hope that it sparks a memory of a place you already love, reminds you of somewhere you want to go to, or encourages you to try something new.

These are my picks for 2018:

1. DOSC

This quickly became a favourite haunt for me and Kirk. The espresso cocoa dry rubbed skirt steak is to die for. They also make some of the best Brussels sprouts with crispy pancetta we’ve ever had. Their bar menu is excellent, and the café is a relaxing spot, too. Every single time we’re there, we feel taken care of.

Review of DOSC

2. Ampersand 27

We picked this venue for our wedding, not only because it’s already gorgeously designed, but because we knew they could deliver on the food. The chef has actually changed since we reserved the space, but they’ve kept our go to dishes, including the Pork Buns, House-Smoked Beef Brisket, and In-House Cured Meats for their build-your-own cheese and charcuterie boards.

Review of Ampersand 27

3. Aarde

Open for just under two months now, I’ve been twice, and, although there’s always room for improvement, Chef Guru Singh, has shown great promise with his European influenced menu. Try the Vandaag Soup, Mushroom and Artichoke Tartine, Chorizo Sausage, and Dutch Almond Cake.

4. Partake

Also new to the city’s food scene (it’s only about 4 months old), this is the latest from the minds behind Urban Diner and The Manor Bistro. It’s French-inspired with a very boozy cocktail menu. We’d highly recommend the Croque Mon’Soubise’ and their more modern take on Beef Tartare. Don’t skip out on the baked brie pastry for dessert either.

Review of Partake

5. Prairie Noodle Shop

I finally wrote an actual review of this restaurant in 2018! The Spicy Garlic Miso Ramen always satisfies. But, what I love best is that they feature handmade dumplings from Gourmai (a.k.a. MasterChef competitor Mai Nguyen) on their menu. Pretty soon, they’ll have a sister location next door that focuses on just that! We can’t wait.

Review of Prairie Noodle Shop

6. Red Star Pub

I’d never actually eaten food here until this year, and I’m so glad that I took the time to try it. The light and fruity Beef Carpaccio and the thick, juicy Mini Burgers with piled high bacon apple relish are a delight. It’s also a cozy space to hole up in on cold or wet days.

Review of Red Star Pub

7. Destination Doughnuts

I quickly jump on the latest sweet treat bandwagon, and when it comes to doughnuts, what’s not to love? We’ve been blessed in Edmonton over the last few years with more and more shops popping up. This location on 124 Street has made a fan of me and my co-workers. Personally, I find the doughnuts are large, fluffy, and flavourful without being overly sweet. I can usually eat a whole one and not fall into a sugar coma.

Review of Destination Doughnuts

8. Fumaca Brazilian Steakhouse

This was our first Brazilian Steakhouse experience. We opted to try out their weekend brunch as it offers seven cuts of meat (now including grilled pineapple), standard brunch items like French toast or pancakes, and a salad bar for $25.99. I can’t compare it to their competition; however, we were blown away by the signature beef rumpsteak, pork sausage, and the droolworthy crispy pork belly.

Review of Fumaca Brazilian Steakhouse

9. Let’s Grill Sushi & Izakaya

This is one of the latest Japanese restaurants to grace our city’s streets. Instead of being located in Old Strathcona, it can be found downtown on Jasper Ave. Their sushi rolls are well-presented and tasty and they have awesome Honey BBQ Pork skewers, which are on special every Monday to Friday during happy hour. For dessert, the Matcha Crème Brûlée may have too thick of a caramelized sugar top for my liking, but the custard is A-OK.

Review of Let’s Grill Sushi Izakaya

10. Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

First thing that we love about this place is that there’s actually a location in our neck of the woods (far southwest corner of the city). Second is that they make an enviable meat and cheese board at a super affordable price — $12 for 2 to 4 people and $20 for a group of 4 to 6 — during their social hour.

Review of Buco Pizzeria + Vino Bar

11. OEB Breakfast

Expanding into Edmonton at the end of October, this Calgary-based business has built up its popularity in record time. When we stopped in, we arrived early and managed to snag a table a few minutes after walking in the door. Within an hour, the entrance was jam packed with patrons waiting for seats, making for a very crowded space. The question of comfort aside, the food is tasty and fresh. It’ll be better when they get their liquor license, so the $5 mimosas can flow. In the meantime, their famous breakfast poutines (those crispy bacon lardons!) will have to do.

12. Rebel Food and Drink

There might be some people who disagree with this choice because I’ve heard and read some awful reviews of this spot in the Parkview neighbourhood. Nevertheless, the experiences I’ve had have been pleasant. Particularly, Kirk vouches for their Rebel Chz Brgr. It’s a dirty diner-style burger, but in the best way possible. I always enjoy the mini lobster rolls and the mussels, which are even better when discounted for happy hour.

Review of Rebel Food and Drink

13. Sushi Shop

Another debatable choice? Maybe, maybe not. For a quick, decent, and affordable sushi meal, this is where Kirk and I go to get takeout. Considering that it’s a fast food restaurant, they have an extensive selection of maki and sushi. Plus, the staff still take the time to make the items look aesthetically pleasing. We’ve never had a bad meal from here, and it’ll continue to be our spot when we need something less expensive to quell those sushi cravings.

Review of Sushi Shop

14. Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria

This local success story has expanded across western Canada and into Ontario over the years, and it’s easy to see why it has done well. The quality of their pizzas is very consistent no matter the location. Only recently have Kirk and I opted to build our own pies there, and I’m not sure we’ll go back to the ones on their menu (not that there’s anything wrong with them). Our personal creation, The KC, with sun-dried tomatoes, Soppressata, chicken, fresh prosciutto, and fresh feta hits the spot every time. Their pastas are also delicious.

Review of Famoso Neapolitan Pizzeria

15. New Dragon Palace

Over the years, the quality of the food here has fluctuated. Yet, it’s a family favourite, and it’s probably been around for almost as long as I’ve been alive. Of late, we’ve all noticed that the kitchen’s standards have gotten better again. The portions are very generous and the food is flavourful.

If you go, definitely pre-order the Peking duck. The skin is super crispy, and the meat is plump without a ton of fat. Placed in those steamed wraps with sauce, cucumber, green onion, and carrot, they’re pockets of delight. The broth made from the bones is addictive and the stir fry created from the rest of the meat is enough of a meal in and of itself.

Review of New Dragon Palace

16. The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery

This shop in the Glenora neighbourhood makes a robust chai latte. What’s better than that though? Their Pain au Chocolat pastry is amazing! The treats are flash frozen and shipped from France to be baked right here in Edmonton. Soft, flaky, and the perfect amount of dark chocolate.

Review of The Colombian Coffee Bar & Roastery

17. Joey Restaurants

I’ve come to realize that of all things, they do sandwiches and burgers really well. The California Chicken is often Kirk’s top choice there. The Ahi Tuna Club is forever going to be my favourite. Nonetheless, when corporate made the mistake of taking away the Ahi Tuna Club (thank goodness other customers complained and got it added back onto the menu), I found a replacement in the Butcher’s Sandwich. Sure, it’s a glorified beef dip, but damn is it good.

My favourite from Joey: Ahi tuna sandwich!

Review of Joey Restaurants

18. BAR94 & LUX Steakhouse

Between the bar and the restaurant, I’ve sampled a number of the items on the menu. I tend to go back to the sides and appetizers, which are great for sharing or as a sizeable dinner for one. I’d suggest the ‘Bucket of Bones,’ Truffle Perogies, and Truffled Lobster Mac & Cheese. Oh, and $3 glasses of Prosecco or sparkling cocktails on Tuesdays in the lounge can’t be beat.

Review of BAR94 & LUX Steakhouse

19. The Art of Cake Café & Bakery

I’ve been a long time supporter of this bakery turned café. I used to walk over from work to their shop in City Centre Mall for a midday pick-me-up. I was so sad to see them move out of that space. However, I’ve since patronaged their new location in the Oliver area, and it’s wonderful to see how they’ve expanded to serve beverages (including wine, beer, and liquor), breakfast, and lunch alongside their usual baked goods. They still make some of the best scones, cakes, and cookies. It’s arguably a plus that they’re no longer so close by. Otherwise, I’d most likely be much heavier.

Review of The Art of Cake

20. Characters Fine Dining

My friend and I decided to treat ourselves to a multi-course tasting menu here at the beginning of 2018. The setting is beautiful, but not too stuffy despite the fine dining stigma. All of the dishes were impeccable, and they were able to cater to the dietary needs of my friend. The items change seasonally, but, if you ever have a chance to try the Cured Salmon, Beef Tartar, or Venison Wellington, do not pass it up.

Review of Characters Fine Dining

21. Dorinku

It’s a shame that I don’t make it here more often. Still, the Appetizer Platter and the Carbonara Udon continue to be some of my preferred items when they’re available. The pressed sushi is also tops.

Review of Dorinku

22. Villa Bistro

This business is never busy when I’m there, so I’m hoping it’s not a sign of things to come considering that the food is actually delicious when ordered properly. I mean, the pastas are decent, but the Braised Boneless Short Rib and/or the Loaded Villa Burger are where it’s at.

Review of Villa Bistro

23. Accent European Lounge

I’m not sure if you’ve figured this out yet, but I loooove beef tartare. For a really traditional take on the dish, this is the place to go. From the fried toast to the garlic cloves and the massive patty of raw meat, I’m in beef tartare heaven whenever I’m there.

The excellent and rich steak tartar with garlic and fried bread.

Review of Accent European Lounge

24. Biera

Full disclosure: I have not eaten at Biera yet. But, I did attend Avenue Magazine’s Best Restaurants 2018 event in March where Chef Christine Sandford was showcasing their Grass-Fed Beef Tartare. The sample was out of this world. I went back for seconds and thirds. It’s remains as one of the eateries on my list to visit, and I plan to be there sometime in 2019. It’ll give me something to look forward to.

Edmonton Wedding Venues

Ampersand 27’s lounge and dining room.

Right after Christmas this past year, I became engaged. I took it pretty easy at first, allowing the idea of marriage to fully sink in for a few months before starting on the journey of planning our nuptials. However, by the end of March, I thought it was time to start doing something. In my mind, it made the most sense to begin with a venue. Once we had that in place, we’d have a date, and everything else would fall in line.

My one real stipulation when choosing a location was that I wanted it to be different from any other that I’d previously been to for a wedding. Don’t get me wrong though. Every single one I’ve had the pleasure to witness has been beautiful and perfect for the couple I was there to celebrate. And, granted, I cannot guarantee that our selected venue will be new and unexpected for every single one of our guests. But, honestly, I just don’t want it to be a cookie cutter version of what my friends have already done and seen themselves. For me, that meant spots such as the Lodge at Snow Valley, the University of Alberta Faculty Club, and the Riverview Room at Shaw Conference Centre were out.

The following list is by no means comprehensive in terms of all of the places I actually reached out to. These are just the ones that Kirk and I decided to visit in person. They are discussed here in the order that we saw them.

Hansen Distillery

This option as a venue was a total fluke. We ended up here for a tour and tasting at the distillery earlier this year. When we were there I noticed how cute the lounge space is. It’s got tables, bar seats and even a stage in the corner that a band or DJ could use. They make fantastic drinks with their own spirits, too.

Rental fees at the time of inquiry were about $175 per hour. In addition, they had an expected spend of at least $2,000 on alcohol as well as an hourly cost of $20 for each bartender. At a minimum, before tacking on food catering and extra table or chair rentals, we’d be on the hook for $4,000 plus taxes and gratuities. In reality, that isn’t all that bad since beverages and the venue are already accounted for.

The only thing to keep in mind is that it’s a small space. Typically, the lounge only seats 30 people. But, more can be squeezed in. It just really limits the number of guests you can have. Yet, for those who intend to keep their wedding a more intimate affair, this could be a great location.

Enjoy Centre

Glasshouse Bistro. Photo courtesy of the Enjoy Centre.

Without a doubt, the Hole’s Enjoy Centre in St. Albert is stunning. Yet, as of this year, they only have two options for rentals, including the Moonflower Room and their Glasshouse Bistro. They used to have the Park Room on the lower level, which was better for smaller weddings like ours (we’re expecting around 85-100 guests max).

First off, I have to stipulate that, being a greenhouse, the building is warm. We met with their events planner at the end of March and it was already sweltering inside (I mean, we were literally walking around the perimeters checking for plug-ins in case we needed to bring in multiple fans). I seriously can’t fathom what it would feel like in late summer. By the same token, if you’re okay with warmer temperatures and you want it to feel like you’re getting married in a tropical destination, then this may be the one for you.

During our tour, we took a look at the Glasshouse Bistro. It’s their restaurant and it resides on the west side of the building (I believe because it seemed like the sun was setting on that side). Since the sun was shining through the windows, it made it even warmer. Otherwise, it’s a pretty venue that can be laid out with longer banquet-like tables for a sit-down dinner of up to 120 guests. The other side of the restaurant where there’s usually a cafe is then turned into a dance floor. I guess one of my problems with it is that you still have all of this retail space sort of right next to the party area, taking away from the ambiance a little bit.

My other qualm with the Glasshouse Bistro was that there were only two options for food. Either the reception is catered by their own kitchen — around $95 per person (the most expensive I came across) — or by Elizabethan Catering Services (the only outside vendor they will work with on the restaurant side).

Moonflower Room. Photo courtesy of the Enjoy Centre.

Still, the rental fee was way more reasonable than their Moonflower Room. Found on the opposite side of the floor and situated next to the greenhouse, this is where they have their seasonal market. The room is massive and can either be booked as a whole or split in half, so only the front portion is used. It’s sort of cavernous, but it’s open, inviting and versatile with a minimalist design to it. When we viewed it, a party was being set up, making it easy to picture what it’d look like. It’s also big enough that everything from the ceremony to the reception to the dance can happen in one location.

Unfortunately, with a minimum cost of $5,000 just to rent half the room, it was already digging way deeper into our pockets than we wanted. Adding on all of the other costs like a food caterer (they’re more flexible with the Moonflower Room as other vendors can be used as long as they’re approved by the Enjoy Centre), bartenders, alcohol, music, etc. meant our budget would rack up really fast.

Muttart Conservatory

Atrium of the Muttart Conservatory. Photo courtesy of the City of Edmonton.

The very same day we went to see the Enjoy Centre, we also stopped in to the Muttart Conservatory. It’s one of the city’s most iconic landmarks with pyramids that can be used for intimate ceremonies of 25 to 50 people, depending on which one is selected. The atrium in between the four pyramids would then be rearranged for a wedding reception.

Being a City of Edmonton property, the rental fees are much more reasonable, and they pretty much give free reign over all of the spaces like the atrium, pyramids and the classrooms for the whole evening. What I didn’t like was how tight the schedule would be on the day of the wedding. Due to the fact that the Muttart Conservatory would be open for regular business on the day of and doesn’t close to the public until 5:00pm, any wedding setup wouldn’t be able to be done until after that time. Personally, I didn’t want to be stressing out over stuff at the last minute, so it kind of put this location at the bottom of my list.

Ampersand 27

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

This is a restaurant situated right on Whyte Avenue and 106 Street. It’s in Old Strathcona, but a block or two west of the most high traffic areas. It makes it a little bit quieter and laid back. It’s also connected directly to the Varscona Hotel (they now own the restaurant, too), which we found to be an extra convenience, especially for our many expected out of town guests.

From the get go, we were treated so well by their restaurant manager and chef. The two of them gave us a full tour of the facilities, including the banquet room in the hotel, their hospitality suite, private dining room, lounge and main dining room. They sat down with us for a whole hour afterwards to discuss what we were envisioning for our wedding day, and they were willing to work with us on our budget.

Ampersand 27 itself is gorgeous. I hadn’t been there in a while, but I vividly remembered the twinkling lights on the ceiling, the stone accent wall and fireplace. That hasn’t changed at all, and it’s absolutely the perfect backdrop for an elegant, modern wedding. The restaurant is broken up into distinct spaces, too, so it’ll be easy to configure it for a ceremony, reception, and dance.

Before we left that day, the restaurant was incredibly generous, inviting us to have a drink and a snack. The hospitality they showed us was amazing, and it really helped to solidify them as a top contender for our wedding day. FYI, this is the one we’ve picked! We’re so excited to celebrate our big day here.

Revel Bistro and Bar

The historic and gorgeous lounge and bar.

Revel Bistro and Bar is located on Jasper Avenue. It’s right across the street from the Shaw Conference Centre. Previously, it housed Tavern 1903 and Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen. This latest restaurant is brought to us by the same owners as PRIVADA Wine & Tapas in St. Albert. With a minimum spend of about $7,000 plus taxes and gratuity for a weekend booking, it’s probably one of the more affordable buyouts you’ll find.

I’ve always loved this place for the history. When the building was restored, they kept the look of the old bar that used to be inside the original Alberta Hotel. It has a nostalgic style with a fancy wooden bar, detailed tiling, pretty moulding on the ceiling and light fixtures created by the same man who designed the Titanic (so they say). It’s neat and it’s pretty. But, that’s only on the lounge side of the venue. The other half is much more sleek and modern. As it turns out, the ceiling was paneled in such a way as to amplify sound since it was made to showcase live music (CKUA is next door and I guess it was thought that they could utilize the space sometimes).

Relegating the wedding to one side of the restaurant or the other would really limit the number of guests we could have as the dining room really seats about a maximum of 70 people. The lounge can maybe accommodate another 50 people, if I recall correctly. Trying to utilize both spaces for a sit-down dinner would be difficult, if things like speeches are to be made throughout the evening as the entrance to the restaurant kind of blocks off the two sides from one another.

Logistically, it just didn’t seem ideal for our particular plans. Plus, Revel Bistro and Bar is so new that, at the time of our meeting with their manager, they had yet to host a wedding there. While they had a few already booked for the summer, they really didn’t have any experience to go off of, which is something we weren’t entirely comfortable with.

Characters Fine Dining

Characters dining room. Photo courtesy of Characters Fine Dining.

In April, we set up a meeting to view Characters Fine Dining. I’d been there once before for dinner with a friend and it stuck with me as a unique place to hold a private event. It’s a large space with an open kitchen, lots of seating and a dual-sided fireplace. When we arrived for our meeting, we got to see the lay of the land.

It’s got a much more rustic industrial vibe than anything else we’d checked out. But, there’s a warmth to the place that makes it very cozy. Their manager explained that the backside of the main floor dining room could be configured with theatre-style seating for a ceremony in front of the fireplace. The other side of the restaurant, closest to the door, would be styled for the reception. If needed, we could also rent out one of the private dining rooms in the basement for cocktails in between. Or, the patio, weather permitting, could be used for that as well.

They probably had the most extensive set menu choices out of the few restaurants we looked into. The most popular options started at around $75 per person. The expected total spend to rent out the whole main floor was about $10,000. However, that supposedly would include all taxes and gratuities. Despite the cost, this did turn out to be one of our favourite choices because everything could be done under one roof.

Prince of Wales Armouries

This was the very last venue we decided to look at. After a month of tours and meetings, I was pretty much ready to pick somewhere. I was also getting antsy about places being booked up because I’d heard how far in advance couples tend to reserve things. The Prince of Wales Armouries at 108 Avenue and 104 Street is slightly off the beaten path and maybe not the easiest to find. It’s also not a location I was super familiar with since I tend not to go much further north than Jasper Avenue.

But, I was intrigued by photos I’d seen on the City of Edmonton website. Once more, as a city property, when compared to other privately owned businesses, it’s got quite an affordable rental fee. They also have two different rooms available for booking. Between them, I much preferred the Governor’s Room though. It’s much more historic with the 19th century look whereas the Jefferson Room is only a bit fancier than a standard hall.

When renting out the Governor’s Room, it also comes with the use of the West Terrace on the second floor, which is like an indoor patio. It’s perfect for the dance at the end of the night, and it’s quite unique since it showcases the Prince of Wales Armouries as a building within a building.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Characters Fine Dining

A shot with the kitchen in the background.

My friend and I both love food and, every so often, we’ll gratify ourselves with a tasting menu. For the past several months, I’ve been talking about visiting Characters Fine Dining for that reason. After over 18 years in business, chef Shonn Oborowsky, who opened the restaurant when he was just 26 years of age, has truly refined his offerings. The listing of dishes found online sounded too good to pass up, and at $95 before tax and tip for seven full courses, it’s actually quite fairly priced.

So, the two of us made it our mission to visit on a miserably cold and snowy Friday night at the beginning of February. We arrived at the building on 102 Avenue and 105 Street right ahead of our 5:00 pm reservation. The host greeted us immediately as we walked through the doors and offered to take our coats. We were then seated at a table for two next to the central fireplace and in direct view of the open kitchen. Our chairs felt quite regal with their deep, high backs. As I eyed the space, I noticed how classical and rustic it looked with lots of tuscan colours, brick walls, and wooden beams. By the same token, it also had a slightly industrial feel with exposed piping and ventilation, along with metal accents.

Throughout the almost four hours we were there, only a few people dropped in for drinks and maybe a handful of other groups came in later for dinner. We were the first table dining that evening though, so the service we received was attentive. Our server allowed us a few minutes to go through the menu and available beverages. I opted to stick with water while my friend went with a Broken Negroni ($14). As we had our minds set on the tasting menu we let her know at the same time.

Characters drink menu with a glass of their Broken Negroni.

The Broken Negroni was prepared quickly and my friend was pleased with it. This cocktail was made with sweet vermouth, Campari, orange bitters and prosecco. I had a sip and found the citrus to be enjoyable and it helped to cut through the bitterness of the alcohol.

We were then given our amuse-bouche. This is a bite that is additional to the expected courses, often setting the tone for the meal. Now, this is the only thing I really had a problem with during our entire experience at Characters. When we had placed our order for supper, my friend checked with the server to ensure that her shellfish allergy wouldn’t be an issue. The server said she would let the kitchen know. Typically, the amuse-bouche served is their baby octopus. As it turns out, it is made using shellfish, so the kitchen decided to come up with something different. However, they didn’t alter the menu only for my friend, they changed it for both of us. I do understand that it simplifies things for the chefs to make the same dish for both people and that it reduces the risk of cross contamination to avoid cooking the octopus for me, but I suppose I would have appreciated them asking what I would have preferred since I didn’t have the same food restrictions.

Our alternative amuse-bouche.

In any case, the octopus was exchanged for a wooden slab topped with a large slice of cured ibérico ham, pickled cucumber and artichoke, cantaloupe, and pine nuts. Unlike the typical one-bite amuse-bouche, this one required several bites to finish and was somewhat awkward to cut on the high perch as the nuts kept falling off onto the table. I also found it funny that with a single table to cook for, the kitchen made a mistake by forgetting to plate my artichoke. I noticed it wasn’t there as the difference between my friend’s block and mine was glaring, but I wasn’t planning to bring it up. In the end, the chefs realized on their own and the server brought out the missing ingredient right before I was about to eat. Still, the combination of flavours was excellent. The salty, fatty meat paired with the sweet melon perfectly and the tartness of the pickled veggies added an extra element of surprise.

Our first course of Grilled & Smoked Sardine had the best presentation of all the dishes we ate that night. The fish was plated under a bell jar filled with smoke that slowly dissipated once lifted. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of sardine. I do like the stronger taste of the marinated fish, and the meat is often quite supple, but I do not handle bones well. It was easy enough to pull out the larger backbone; yet, the tiny, thinner bones were much more difficult to deal with. Although they are edible, I find it unpleasant to eat them, especially when and if one pricks my throat. Therefore, this was a slow course to get through as both my friend and I were careful to pick out as many bones as possible and to set them aside. Otherwise, this was pretty delectable with the smoked paprika lemon mayo, charred tomato, arugula, and the recurring artichoke.

Following the sardine, we continued with a seafood theme. This second course consisted of a slate slab laid with a small salad of baby beets, a streak of butter, a crab claw-shaped pretzel, and two rolls of horseradish crusted Beet Cured Salmon. Because of the beets, the salmon had this incredibly deep, translucent red colour and a sweetness that lingered with the smokiness. Fresh beets on the side really anchored the plate and alleviated any dry mouth due to the saltiness and starchiness of the pretzel.

Course three was another item from their appetizer menu. The Carrot Risotto was made with a carrot beurre blanc. It ended up with a super creamy texture where the carrot wasn’t really discernible until bites of the peeled or roasted carrot were had.

Beef Tartar is one of my favourite things, so our fourth course did not disappoint. I also liked that this was, again, presented differently. A handmade wooden bowl housed the round of beef tartar that was topped with an egg yolk, balsamic onions and arugula. Inside the bowl was also a long copper spoon for scooping. On the side, we were given a wooden board of grilled black bread. The bread was a warm, buttery and soft base for dollops of the melt-in-your-mouth tartar. I would have gladly had another portion.

At this point, it was sinking in that there were still three more courses to go. I felt fine and I knew I could power through, but my friend was starting to wane. She did make it through the next course of Cider Glazed Pork Belly though. Underneath the meat was braised red cabbage. On top was a helping of julienned carrots and green apple. The slab of pork belly was sizeable and so delicious as the meat was juicy on the inside yet the cider glaze and the fatty layers had rendered while cooking into this gloriously crisp and caramelized outside. This is a star and absolutely a steal at $15 for the solo appetizer on their regular menu.

The entrée came from the restaurant’s list of main courses. Regularly, the Venison Wellington costs just under $50, so the value of their tasting option becomes very apparent here. Plated with asparagus and raspberries as well as a generous amount of sauce and Miataké mushrooms, this pastry crusted venison was a rich dish. Arguably, it was worth every calorie. Even if I was full, I wouldn’t have stopped myself (my friend only managed one mouthful and then had the rest packed to go). The meat was the focus and it was ridiculously succulent. In fact, it was so tender that I’m certain the steak knives provided weren’t needed. A butter knife would have sufficed.

Dessert was our seventh and final course of the evening. Named The Honey Pot, this was a duo of a ceramic cup filled with a crème brûlée-like custard decorated with a piece of honeycomb imprinted bee pollen meringue and a square of Georgian honey cake with a piece of sponge toffee atop it. I couldn’t decide which component was my favourite — the meringue with the chocolate nibs, the bubbly sponge toffee, the dense cake with fig purée, or the thick yet smooth custard — so I alternated bites between them all while dipping my spoon into the bee-shaped sprinkling of icing sugar for added sweetness.

Considering that Characters is about to close in on twenty years of business in Edmonton and that the eatery serves impeccable dishes in a wonderful atmosphere, my friend and I were astonished to see that it was so quiet there on a Friday night. It’s a shame that it wasn’t busier. As this was my first time there, I’m hoping that this is not usual for them. The setting is too beautiful and the food is too good for this place to sit so empty. I mean, the restaurant essentially takes up the entire main floor (and basement?) of the building, so they have plenty of room and tables for many to enjoy.

Sure, the price point is a tad higher than other nearby venues, so it won’t become the norm to pop in every week or every month. Nevertheless, consider a visit to Characters Fine Dining to be an event or a treat. Once I took into account the amount of food we received and the number of hours we were there, it all made sense. Do yourself a favour and give in to the indulgence of a meal there.