Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Butternut Tree

Crab Tart

A few years have passed since The Phork opened and closed its doors. The eatery sat on the raised main floor of the Ledgeview Business Centre on 97 Avenue and 110 Street. With panoramic views of Edmonton’s Legislature, the High Level Bridge, and the River Valley, it was a gorgeous location that deserved to be utilized. Yet, to my knowledge, it sat empty until now.

The beginning of September marked the launch of The Butternut Tree and this venue’s chance at a second life. Although it had already been in business for a few weeks, the media event was only held this past Wednesday, and luckily, my boyfriend and I were invited as guests. After weeks of salivating over posts of their food on social media, I was extremely excited to acquaint myself with St. Albert-born Chef-Owner Scott Downey’s menu firsthand.

Arriving at the building, we managed to snag the very last spot in their underground parking lot; however, there is also free parking available at an adjacent Impark lot as well as on the street after 6:00 pm.

Making our way up to the lobby, the entrance to the restaurant is marked by simple signage over a glass door. As soon as the threshold is crossed, there’s a host to greet patrons and a view of a handful of the windows that overlook Constable Ezio Faraone Park. As we were led through to our table, I observed the kitchen with its floor-to-ceiling glass walls that give diners a look behind the curtain. There are also only 58 seats in a 2,500 square foot dining room (including an eating area for private parties with its own separate entrance), providing everyone — servers and guests — ample space to breathe and move.

The decor is somewhat sparse. Save for a painting hanging behind the bar at the far end of the room, the rest of the walls were pretty bare. But, when there is such picturesque scenery outside, there isn’t really a need to dot the place with much else. The overall design was a mix of modern and rustic. Grey-brown wide plank floors, accent wood beams, vintage pendant lights, recessed lighting, black wood tables and matching vintage chairs set the mood. It felt somewhat homey while simultaneously coming across as an elevated ambiance. As the sun set, the room dimmed and candlelight took over; it became intimate and romantic despite the echoing din from those around us.

On this occasion, we were given the choice of ordering à la carte or going with their tasting menu. The two of us opted to do the latter. Between the meat and vegetarian versions, many of the individual dishes were covered, albeit in smaller sizes to take into account the multiple courses. Therefore, we had the opportunity to try seven of the twelve plates off of the menu, along with a couple of creations only to be found in the table d’hôte.

To drink, my boyfriend decided to try both of the beers — Farmer’s Daughter Pale Ale and Shotgun Wedding Brown Ale (my personal preference) — from Cochrane’s Half Hitch Brewing Company. I, on the other hand, chose to go with their Sumacade cocktail: sumac spice, lemon verbena, dandelion honey, soda, and Eau Claire Three Point Vodka. This one actually surprised me as the dandelion is what I picked up on the most; it made for a very botanic and floral Kool-Aid flavoured drink.

The pretty and petite amuse bouches.

Our meal then began with a palate prepping amuse bouche each: cured halibut for him and baby corn for me. Off the bat, I noticed how delicately they had been prepared and plated on their custom-made ceramics. They were almost too pretty to eat. After admiring them, we sampled the food. Since the halibut was cured, it was cooked, but it retained that raw fish texture. Paired with tart apple and edible flowers, it was a balance of herbaceousness and zest. The baby corn was tender while still remaining firm. It was covered in a thin layer of sauce and then sprinkled with dried and crushed flowers and salt. It was the perfect way to whet our appetite.

The introductory course on the meat side was the Crab Tart whereby a rye crust was filled with crab in smoked crème fraîche and topped with unripe crab apple and herbs. It was way lighter than I expected. The rye shell was thin enough to imbue a deep, slightly sour flavour without overpowering the taste of the crab and the tart’s decorations. On the vegetarian side, dinner started with a dish of Kohlrabi. The bulbous stem was served as raw shavings in the salad, similar in flavour and texture to radishes and turnips. Just a tad crunchy and spicy as it married itself with the caraway, golden flax, and juniper.

Grilled Bannock

Both of us received the same second course of Grilled Bannock. A quick flat bread traditionally made by First Nations people, The Butternut Tree’s take reminded me of an open-faced English muffin piled high with wild mushrooms, berries, winged kelp, and pumpkin seed. It was probably one of my top dishes of the night even though I found the bannock to be overly charred. Initially, the burnt flavour was overwhelming; however, a couple more bites in and I saw how this seemingly simple plate was layered in a complex way to become earthy, sweet and nutty.

Leaning towards the lighter side of what I considered to be our first entrées were the Miss Tatum Rockfish for my boyfriend and the Broccoli for me. The filet of rockfish was thick as it laid on a bed of Saskatchewan wild rice, beans, and herbs. The finishing touch was a separate cup of kelp broth poured over the bowl before our very eyes. By adding the broth just prior to eating, the kitchen avoided presenting a bowl of wilted greens and flowers. I do wish that the fish had been a bit more supple. Otherwise, it worked well with the produce. As I’m not one to pass up some good pork belly, I really would have liked to experience the Broccoli as listed under the appetizers on their à la carte menu. Alas, the vegetarian rendition of the recipe obviously did away with it. Funnily enough, they kept the duck egg though, and I’m glad they did. The soft boiled egg is the star of the dish. Covered in leek ash, it has a gritty looking texture to it. Yet, the flesh gives way easily to reveal one of the most beautiful runny yolks I’ve ever seen. Combined with pickled garlic scapes (the flower stalks of the garlic bulb) and cereal grains, this was likely my favourite offering of the evening.

Our main dishes took a little longer to prepare. But, eventually, we were rewarded with my dish of Prairie Gardens Squash and his Bentley Bison Duo. I found that as an entrée, the squash wasn’t quite filling enough. I did like seeing the different ways in which the gourds were prepared as well as the use of the squash blossom (a soft, delicate, edible flower that grows from summer and winter squashes). The searing of the wilted spinach was another pleasant flavour profile. When I do go back to The Butternut Tree, I’d certainly be inclined to order the bison duo again. Both cuts of meat were succulent and juicy. Served with lentils, carrot, cauliflower, Saskatoon berry jus and some magical purée, it was heaven on a plate for me.

Last, but never least, was dessert. My boyfriend’s tasting menu finished with the Cherry ice cream with bee pollen atop rolled rye grains. We enjoyed the ice cream, but we both agreed that the rye was way too crunchy and strong in flavour. The Plum: duo of plum fruit with milk ice cream fared much better. Compatibly integrated with an oat crumble and a marshmallowy, sticky honey meringue, this was a sweet ending to die for. As an extra, we gluttonously added on the Ployes Cake from their regular dessert menu. I had seen a photograph of it on their Instagram account, and I didn’t want to leave without trying it. Looking like a stack of pancakes, the dense cake’s taste emanated from the use of maple butter. On its own, it was seemingly bland. The whipped cream, flakes of Alberta rose, nuts and berries helped to give it some depth, but I still wasn’t satisfied. On closer inspection, I think the issue stemmed from the kitchen missing one of the main components: black currant jam. The jam was supposed to be sandwiched between each layer of the cake, and it was clear that it hadn’t been incorporated. I have no doubt that had the jam made an appearance, this would have been an excellent choice.

Regardless of the few minor missteps we came across, this was a top notch meal that would be perfect for a special occasion. Chef Downey has taken what he’s learned from his time working with world-renowned Michelin-starred restaurants Daniel and Noma and applied those teachings to his own take on Canadian cuisine. Along with a phenomenal team, The Butternut Tree’s kitchen has shown us just how talented they truly are when showcasing their creations. I also have to give a huge shout out to the rest of the staff who kept the service running smoothly, and who also spend an inordinate amount of time polishing the silverware as every course comes with a new set of utensils.

The late-summer opening of The Butternut Tree brings another welcome addition to the city’s burgeoning food scene. With a focus on global flavours made using unique ingredients that hail from our very own lands, this new restaurant exhibits a refined menu for those willing to go on a spectacular culinary adventure.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Soda Jerks

The entrance to the West Granville Soda Jerks.

I remember when Soda Jerks opened their first location at West Point Centre in 2011. The concept of building your own burger from top to bottom at a restaurant was pretty foreign. As such, going there became somewhat of a treat.

Eventually, that first shop closed, and I didn’t give Soda Jerks much thought afterwards. Not until this year, anyway.

A few months ago, I launched YEG Food Deals on Facebook to share my knowledge of restaurant happy hour and daily specials on another platform. It’s the sister site to the pages already found on this blog. In keeping those resources up-to-date, I’m constantly researching and I happened to see that Soda Jerks still existed, just in different areas of the city.

With my information provided to them, I started receiving their newsletters in addition to getting a promotion in the mail. Summertime yielded a feature menu and a BOGO burger offer that was to expire over the September long weekend.

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I’m not one to pass up a deal, so I was inclined to give Soda Jerks a try once more. We ended up at the West Granville location on Winterburn Road (near the River Cree Resort & Casino). It was lunch hour on a Sunday and about a third of the space was occupied by customers.

One of the servers greeted and seated us promptly before giving us several minutes to review the selection. We waffled for a while, but my mind was pretty much set on the Electric Pulled Pork sandwich ($13.50) from their seasonal “Pitch A Tent” options. I thought my boyfriend had made a solid decision. However, upon placing his order, he surprised me by going for the Bacon Jerk Jr. ($17+).

Bacon Jerk Jr. Burger

The latter was a double patty burger with bacon and an extra layer of bun in between. Processed cheese, lettuce, red onion, pickles and thousand island dressing garnished and flavoured the meal. I had a couple of bites and we both agreed that something was missing. I think it may have come down to charring of the meat and toasting of the bun. It didn’t have that grilled or buttery taste that’s so necessary. I also don’t understand why they bother to use processed (American) cheese slices. They still looked like plastic sheets when the burger was delivered from the kitchen.

Electric Pulled Pork Sandwich

As for my sandwich, I felt that it fared much better overall. It was a lot smaller, so I suppose it made for a lighter meal, too. The pulled pork was cooked with a root beer BBQ sauce that had a slight spiciness and sweetness to it. I do believe that they could have left the potato chips out of the sandwich. I get that the chips were included to diversify the textures. Yet, it failed because the sauce made them so soggy that I almost couldn’t tell they were even there. Just the beer bun with grains would have sufficed as the sole starch. On the other hand, I enjoyed the electric kale slaw. I’m quite certain that the base of the slaw used came from those Eat Smart Sweet Kale Vegetable Salad kits found in most grocery stores. But, that’s okay. The slaw was deliciously prepared; I think it was sautéed, so it was warm, and the slightly tangy dressing partnered well with the meat. A slice of melted havarti added a luxurious creaminess to the handheld lunch.

Both of us kept our side simple: Soda Jerks hand cut fries. These were decent. Cut to the same dimensions for even cooking, they were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. I did find them to be a bit bland though. I definitely needed the ketchup. I also tried to sprinkle some of their signature seasoning on a portion of the fries. It helped somewhat, but to really add enough flavour, I would have had to douse a lot more on and I didn’t want to do that either.

I do plan to go back to Soda Jerks to eat one of their donut burgers because I’m still trying to find something similar to what I sampled in Chicago last year. Although, once that happens, I’m not certain I’d go out of my way to revisit again. Yes, the service was good when we went on this occasion, and the prices are reasonable (especially on Wednesdays for 25 percent off burgers). But, the food was truly just alright. For the money and the calories, I know that better exists.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Urbano Pizza Co. (103 Street Closed – Visit 124 Street Location)

Portable pizza ovens that fast-fire pies in under 2 minutes!

The first time I tried Urbano Pizza Co. wasn’t at one of their storefronts. It was actually at last year’s Sturgeon County Bounty Culinary Cookout. As one of the participating partners at the event, Urbano was well prepared to serve the masses. They brought with them a couple of their portable pizza ovens (fast-fired in under two minutes) and were cooking up their meat (The Italian Stallion) and vegetarian pies as fast as they they could manage.

Urbano ended up being our favourite vendor of the night. Not only did they provide reasonable portions for the tickets redeemed, but their pizzas had a lovely thin crust and a mountain of toppings. In fact, my only complaint was that the toppings were so heavy that the crust couldn’t withstand the weight, making it tough to keep my slice together.

Fast forward a year later and I was contemplating where my co-workers and I could go for a quick lunch together. The light bulb in my head went off and I suggested Urbano Pizza Co.

The day we went, we arrived at the original downtown shop (at 102 Avenue and 103 Street) a little after 1 o’clock. It was quiet. There were a few staff members lingering behind the counter and one other customer perched on a stool in the seating area.

The menu displayed on a few screens.

We all took a few minutes to review the menu, which consisted of several Signature Pizzas and Pastas as well as the choice to build your own dish ($11.95 each; $7.95 without toppings). Although it was tempting to consider the latter option because I could pick whatever I wanted (similar to LOVEPIZZA and Blaze Pizza), I wasn’t in the mood to put a lot of thought into things. I ended up taking the lead by ordering The Vegetarian pizza.

I watched the staff as they put my pizza together from start to finish. When not in use, they always pull down the cover of the case to keep the toppings fresh. As they went along, I had the opportunity to let them know if I wanted anything excluded or switched out or added on. There are no extra charges for changes made, so it’s completely customizable.

A view of the prep counter from the seating area upstairs.

By the time I’d paid at the till, my pizza was already out of the oven and had been transferred to a wooden pizza board. I guess the staff members typically bring the food to the customer’s table, so the guy who had my pizza was a tad reluctant to hand it over to me at first. Yet, after checking with another person, he passed it over to me and I made my way up the stairs to grab a table.

The rest of my party followed and their pizzas showed up a few minutes later. I didn’t sample everyone else’s lunch. However, I was told throughout our meal that they all enjoyed what they had selected: The Piri Piri, To the Greek, and Pork & Pineapple.

The Vegetarian pizza with a bottle of Root Beer.

I loved my Vegetarian pizza. It’s a bit different from others as the base doesn’t consist of the usual tomato sauce. Instead, it’s replaced with a puree of eggplant curry. Then it’s topped with roasted cauliflower, grilled zucchini, mushrooms and roasted red peppers. Flavourful and filling despite the lack of protein, I’d be inclined to get this one again.

In fact, the pizzas are quite large for the price. None of us were able to finish the whole thing. One of the employees passed by and came back carrying takeaway boxes without us even having to ask. The leftovers served as my lunch the next day.

Just this month, I went back to Urbano for dinner with a friend. We each ordered a pizza. I still didn’t opt to build my own, but I made sure to try something new. This time, I chose the Salmon. I opted to omit the red onions though. What remained of the toppings was Hollandaise sauce, white sauce, smoked salmon, capers and arugula. I will say that the salmon loses a bit of it’s appeal from an appearance standpoint since the fish turns more of a brown colour after being cooked in the oven. Nevertheless, it’s quite delicious. The smoked salmon still had a tenderness to it along with the salty flavour, and the creamy sauces worked well to balance out the slight bitterness from the greens. The one issue I did have, and maybe it’s due to the amount of sauce and the moisture from the salmon, is that over time, the crust can get a bit soggy as it sits. Still, I ate the whole thing.

My friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza on the right.

I also had a bite of my friend’s Pork & Pineapple pizza. It’s not one that I’d usually go for, but it was decent. Made with tomato sauce, roasted pork loin, pineapple and Camembert cheese, it was certainly more traditional in flavour. Personally, I do think it was missing a little something; it needed an unexpected punch of flavour to add an element of surprise. Regardless, those who like Ham & Pineapple likely won’t be disappointed.

Urbano Pizza Co. is the sister to the upscale Sabor Restaurant. Owners Christian Mena and Chef Lino Oliveira took a sharp left turn when they decided to go the fast-casual route. Yet, it’s a concept that works. With others like it popping up all over the city, it’s obvious that they were on the right track. Perhaps it’s because I’m often going there before or after the lunch and dinner rushes, but I’ve experienced nothing but friendly faces, quick service and tasty food each time I’ve visited Urbano. Plus, it’s fairly affordable for a relatively healthy meal with fresh ingredients, many of which are made in-house.

They’ve also got a great deal on their Pizza of the Day. Ask for details when visiting!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Montana’s BBQ & Bar

Plaid for lunch at Montana’s seemed appropriate.

I’ve never put much thought towards the Montana’s BBQ & Bar restaurant chain. There are four locations that dot the south side of the city and two relatively close to my home. Yet, for some reason, they never really appealed to me.

I’m going to chalk that up to the fact that I didn’t grow up going camping or lodging, so the very rustic cabin atmosphere didn’t seem to lend itself to the idea of a great meal out. However, my boyfriend had mentioned time and again to me that Montana’s makes some pretty good wings. Plus, I just happened to get a coupon in the mail.

We ended up going to the South Edmonton Common branch for lunch on the August holiday Monday. We arrived just as they opened and one of the servers greeted us before she walked us to a booth nearby a few other customers.

The interior of the South Edmonton Common Montana’s location.

My first impression was that the joint was just as I imagined it would be. High ceilings with wooden beams (essentially wood everywhere), a stone fireplace, mounted animal heads, classic truck facades and a full-size canoe were among the decor choices I noticed.

Crayons and kraft paper provide entertainment at the table.

All of those things truly set a tone. Although, I don’t know that they scream barbecue. Either way, I didn’t actually mind it. The casual setting is great for a family outing, especially if one has children. We don’t have kids, but the kraft paper placemat that covered the entire table and the cup of crayons provided are arguably entertaining for adults as well.

Going in, the only thing I knew we were ordering was a basket of the Double Dusted Chicken Wings ($13.79, but half price on Mondays). Otherwise, we had some decisions to make. Between the two of us, we finally settled on the lunchtime Reuben Sandwich ($15.99) and Mac ‘N Cheese ($11.99).

Double Dusted Chicken Wings

The wings didn’t take long to make their way out from the kitchen. The reason why my boyfriend enjoys them so much is because there’s a lot of meat. I have to say that he was right. The wings themselves were larger than what might be found elsewhere. The only thing is that these orders only have eight wings each. Other restaurants often serve wings by weight and instead of eight wings, there might be ten to twelve instead. It balances out. Also, even with half price wings when we went, they still work out to be almost $7. Compare that to Tuesday night at Original Joe’s where a whole plate of wings comes to $4.50, and I’d probably be more inclined to go to the latter. In any case, I tend to prefer wings that are cooked with dry rubs, so these were quite messy. But, the texture was okay (still slightly crispy despite all the sauce) and the medium flavour was savoury, a little zesty and had a small kick of heat at the end. Reach dip also helped to tone down any spiciness, if needed. On a side note, I will commend Montana’s on their excellent sourcing of wet wipes, which are supplied to diners. They’re some of the best I’ve ever used.

Reuben Sandwich with Chippers

Moving along to our mains, my boyfriend is the one who chose the Reuben Sandwich. Smoked pastrami isn’t my favorite kind of meat. Yet, I’ll admit that it was quite good. I think it comes down to it being made in-house versus anything I’d get at the grocery deli. The meat was plentiful and succulent. Combined with mustard, thousand island dressing, sauerkraut and cheese, it proved more complex than I expected. Our main suggestion for improvement would be to grill the buttery marble rye a little longer to give the bread more texture and flavour. For his side, my boyfriend chose the chippers, which are fresh made potato chips sprinkled with dried dill seasoning and served with a dill dip. These were surprisingly good on their own. The potato slices were big, crunchy and non-greasy with a hint of the herb. Personally, I found the dip to be too strong, so I refrained from eating much of it.

Both of our entrees actually showed up about half way through our devouring of the wings. The server even apologized that everything came out at the same time. It didn’t matter so much for the sandwich, but it would have been nice to get the Mac ‘N Cheese a while later. I wanted to finish the wings before they got cold, but it meant that I was delayed getting to my pasta.

Mac ‘N Cheese with Caesar Salad & Cornbread

Thankfully, the macaroni and cheese came plated in a hot iron skillet. By the time I got to working on the dish, it could still be considered warm. I liked that Montana’s utilized cavatappi (corkscrew) pasta. The shape picked up more of the cheesy bacon and white wine cream sauce, locking in all the flavor. The whole thing was then baked with additional cheese until melted and golden brown. I do wish that there had been more crispy bacon tossed on top, but overall, this was a passable mac and cheese. If anything, this lunch-size version is a great value; included with the pasta is a side of Caesar salad (an appropriate amount of dressing for me) and in-house baked cornbread (sweet, moist, not too crumbly). The cost won’t break the bank and all three components of the meal are definitely filling enough.

Skillet Cookie

Now, we could certainly have skipped dessert that day, but the coupon I had on hand required a $40 purchase in order to receive a $10 discount, so we went for it. Montana’s provides several options in the sweets department. We ultimately decided on the classic Skillet Cookie ($6.99). First, I’ll say that it wasn’t quite what we were expecting. Our idea of a skillet dessert is that it’s made right in the pan itself. When the dish was delivered to our table, it looked like two already baked chocolate chip cookies had been sandwiched together with caramel in between and then placed into the skillet to be warmed. The dessert was then topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. I did find it to be very sweet and I tapped out before it was finished. However, it wasn’t bad by any means. The cookies were soft and chewy with lots of melted chocolate. The semi-sweet chocolate chips probably even aided in balancing things out with a touch of bitterness.

So, is Montana’s BBQ & Bar going to be a place I visit regularly? Most likely not. Nevertheless, going forward, I won’t discount it either. Timing issues aside, the service we experienced was excellent at this particular spot, and the food, while not the best I’ve had, is of decent quality for the price.

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