Edmonton Restaurant Review: Crash Hotel Lobby Bar

The classic styling of the Crash Lobby Bar.

My last two posts were about my experiences during Downtown Dining Week (DTDW). This review will complete the trilogy by covering my meal at Crash Hotel Lobby Bar.

The restaurant, located on the main floor of Crash (previously known as the rundown Grand Hotel), is an unexpected gem in a revamped and refurbished building that has been brought back to its glory days. With heavy woods throughout and a bar wine rack disguised as vintage cubbies — likely to be found at the front check-in desks of older hotels — it’s a nod to the history of one of Edmonton’s long standing structures.

My table was all set to go upon arrival!

It’s not a large space by any means. Nevertheless, although it filled up as my friend and I hung out for the evening, it didn’t seem like anyone coming in had any issues finding a spot to perch on. To be fair, there was no hockey game going on at the nearby Rogers Place arena that night. I’d assume that it’d be much busier if that were the case. That’s why I’m glad to see that Crash offers reservations through the OpenTable system. When I arrived, they had my table all set to go. A card with my name and the time of my booking was sitting there waiting for me.

Our martini cocktails, which we sipped on.

Our server was quite attentive. She provided a couple of suggestions for drinks based on our palate preferences. I took one of her recommendations and tried the namesake martini, which was a mix of muddled ginger with marmalade, grapefruit vodka and lemon. It satisfied my penchant for slightly sweet yet sour cocktails. My companion went with the other, known as The Donald. A combination of vodka, lychee and grapefruit juice, this came off a little bit sweeter, but was still pleasing, especially with that kick of lychee fruit.

My friend’s old fashioned cocktail.

Unlike some of the other DTDW participants that create special dishes for the week, Crash opted to showcase their standard menu by allowing diners to choose any item for both the starter as well as the entree of their $28 three-course dinner. My friend and I decided we’d each go for the DTDW dinner and we’d split four dishes, which would allow us to sample more of the offerings.

I was actually very excited to visit Crash as I had heard that chef Nathin Bye had created the menu. Bye brought Ampersand 27 to life, so I could only imagine where he’d take these pub style plates. What I hadn’t realized was that Bye had completely left Ampersand 27 behind. Crash is his new full-time position and that’s interesting. A hotel restaurant doesn’t usually come to mind as the cool, hip place to hang out, and working in an environment where the goal is to gratify the masses can often be limiting. On the other hand, it’s not unfathomable that Bye would choose to take on the challenge of attempting to change that notion.

We selected the Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt salad, Alberta Beef Short Rib, Brussels ‘n Bacon and the Crash Burger. The majority of the dishes are made to be shared among the group, tapas style. The latter is most ideal for an individual meal, but it’s easy enough to divide that into halves (I’m not sure it’s the best if it needs to be allocated between more than two people). It’s important to note that plates are brought out as they’re ready. That means nothing is sitting for too long in the kitchen; it certainly makes for a compelling argument to share the food, ensuring no one at the table feels left out while others may already be eating.

Brussels ‘n Bacon

The Brussels ‘n Bacon were presented to us first. My initial thought was that the size was generous and that it could serve as a whole meal. Regularly just $9 for an order, it’s a great value, too. Prepared with Moroccan spices and sweet chili, the balance of flavours was excellent. The bacon was crisp and smoky; the taste melding with the rest of the spices. Fried chickpeas completed the dish. They were an unexpected accompaniment that provided an extra layer of texture and raised the Brussels ‘n Bacon to star status. It became my favourite dish of the night.

Alberta Beef Short Rib

A plate of the Alberta Beef Short Rib showed up next. There were two pieces of beef, each about four ounces in size, along with hickory sticks and broccoli. The menu indicated that there were supposed to be pickled mushrooms. I don’t recollect eating any of those. Nonetheless, I was happy with the dish as the meat was succulent. I still used a knife to cut it, but it was quite tender. Aside from what looked to be a bed of broccoli puree, the meat was cooked in an Asian inspired sauce, sprinkled with toasted sesame seeds and topped with hickory sticks (house made versions of the snack chip), which added dimension and made me forget about the lackluster broccoli florets, which were cooked fine, just nothing special.

Crash Burger

Our third dish was the Crash Burger. Admittedly, this was a bit disappointing. The brioche kaiser bun was, in my opinion, over toasted. The ingredients listed on the menu include braised short rib. I couldn’t tell if there was any in the burger. There was also supposed to be an onion ring, but I don’t recall that either. If it was there, it wasn’t memorable. The patty was decent though; it was well-seasoned and the meat was fresh. There was also plenty of aged cheddar and I enjoyed the fried egg. This burger comes with a side of fries (salad is an alternative) and a deep fried pickle. I’m not usually a fan of the second, but I had a bite of the pickle and it was good. The fries were fine. No dips were served with them though, and I could have used some ketchup or aioli.

Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt

Of all the dishes, we would have thought that the cold salad would have been the quickest to prepare, but it turned out to be the last to show up. Was this on purpose à la the mindset of the French and Italians where it’s believed that salad at the end of a meal helps to improve digestion? We don’t really know, but it’s a thought. I will say that the Roasted Beet & Greek Yogurt salad was quite a refreshing way to finish off our mains. I would have liked to see more beets and the Greek yogurt was a deceiving replacement for the typical goat cheese. Greens, squash and burnt Mediterranean honey ensured we got our fix of vegetables in a delightfully tasty way.

Cookies & Cream Cheesecake

Dessert was our third and final course. This consisted of a thin slice of tall Cookies & Cream Cheesecake served with a liberal dollop of raspberry jelly or puree. The cake was smooth and silky with layers of chocolate cookie crumble and what tasted like a caramel center. It wasn’t overly dense and, since the slice wasn’t thick, it came across as the perfect portion.

After getting this opportunity to taste a handful of Bye’s creations, I think he made the right move. It’s a chance for Bye to broaden his foodie fan base by showing us how well pub food can be done. The location is accessible and the menu is affordable. Every single dish has an element of surprise – from fried chickpeas to hickory sticks — that elevates each one from something ordinary to something superb (or nearing that, anyway).

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Zinc

Dinner begins with our appetizers.

As quickly as it arrived, the Downtown Business Association’s Dining Week (DTDW) disappeared. The dust has settled and here are my thoughts on the second of my three outings (Tzin was the preceding review).

Zinc, attached to the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA), is a place that I’ve dined at on only a couple of occasions previous to this. I’ve also had the pleasure of enjoying food catered by the restaurant during one or two events held at the AGA. Yet, I had never taken the opportunity to write about my experiences. This time seems as good as any to do that.

On a chilly early evening, my friend and I showed up to our reservation (booked through OpenTable) right on time. It took a few minutes, but one of the servers greeted us and promptly showed us to our table. Architecturally, the venue is beautiful. With tall floor to ceiling windows, a mix of modern décor and glossy washes of deep, bright royal blue, the space feels relaxing and tranquil even on a dreary day.

To keep things moving along, the manager took our drink orders. Both of us opted to stick with water for the night. He also put through our meal selections once we had decided between the choices available to us on the $45 DTDW executive dinner menu.

For my starter, I elected to try the fried oyster basket – cheese stuffed bologna or turkey pot pie were the other picks – which was presented in a relatively deconstructed and artistic way. The mini fry basket had been tossed on its side with the oysters scattered on the plate. Next to the basket was a skinny shot glass of sauce and closest to me were a few circular lemon slices. When it was set down before me, the server indicated that the accompanying sauce was of roasted red pepper. This was different from the description on the menu where I had read it was to come with a maple cocktail sauce. Honestly, I think the maple may have been a better flavour to go with the brininess of the oysters. That sense of sweetness and salt. The red pepper cocktail sauce was still good, but it was quite acidic and dilly. I could have done with a little less of the herb. On the other hand, basic lemon juice squeezed atop the non-greasy, crisp oysters was a treat on its own.

Braised Beef Cheeks with roasted root vegetables.

Rather than going with the duck cassoulet or the veal bolognaise, my entrée consisted of the braised beef cheeks. The meat, cooked in a red wine demi-glace, and the garlic smashed potatoes weren’t anything spectacular. They were just decent. I had actually expected the beef to be more succulent than it was. No, the absolute stars of the dish were the roasted root vegetables. A pile of sliced carrots and, my best guess is diced parsnips, sang in my mouth. Smoky from the slight charring and a little bit fragrant, I could have easily gone for another helping.

Butternut Squash Cheesecake

The final course was a butternut squash cheesecake. At first consideration, the squash appeared to be an odd component to a dessert, but that’s merely because it’s not the typical pumpkin. The butternut squash is subtly sweet and nutty compared to its relative. Most of the sugariness in this dish came from the white chocolate curls sprinkled over the cake as well as the peach and pear salsa and pieces of fruit that were there as complements. On the other hand, the minuscule grains of Tonka bean really stood out on my palate. Known to be fruity and spicy, these tiny shavings produced a bitterness that didn’t necessarily overwhelm my taste buds; however, the flavour couldn’t be ignored either. This was an enjoyable dessert, simply because every bite provided something surprising.

Zinc’s website is keen to point out that the menu puts a focus on fresh Alberta ingredients and food products with inspiration for seasonal changes being taken from the rotating featured art exhibits. I have no clue as to what is currently being showcased at the gallery. All I know is that the dishes we tried were delicious and, even though the plates weren’t necessarily inventive, it’s an interesting notion – one that I believe to be true – that food and art are really one in the same.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tzin Wine and Tapas

Sweet endings at Tzin Wine and Tapas.

Each year, when March rolls around, I’m always excited to see what Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) has to offer. In 2017, I almost forgot about the annual event. There seemed to be very little advertising, and I was only reminded, at the beginning of the month, when I overheard a co-worker chatting about it in the office.

With it on my mind, I immediately decided to check the website to see if the menus from the participating restaurants had been posted. Sure enough, most of them were there. To my disappointment, the list was noticeably shorter than in previous years. Yet, after perusing all of them, I had narrowed my choices down to a few places that I had been meaning to try.

The first that my friend and I decided to visit was Tzin Wine and Tapas. Located on the 104 Street Promenade at 101 Avenue, it’s easy to overlook. The standout feature when passing by would be the bright orange door and the small window that may give you a peek at the chefs cooking away in the tiny kitchen at the front of the establishment.

The interior of the restaurant. This photo was taken just inside the entrance.

From what I had already read about Tzin, I knew that it was a small venue, but I still found myself slightly taken aback when I stepped foot into the restaurant. With only about six tables and maybe a handful of bar seating, it’s easy to understand how it fills up so quickly.

When we arrived, there was only a single table left by the door, and it was ours. Thankfully, there were only two of us dining together. A third, as the table was set for, would have made for a tight squeeze and possibly an uncomfortable dinner with people coming and going right next to us all evening.

The sole hostess/server was very personable and polite. She grabbed us a bottle of tap water, as requested, while we reviewed the regular menu and the DTDW selections. We opted for the latter as $45 per person for an executive three-course meal is typically a good deal at some of these more upscale eateries.

Cod with Risotto and Chimichurri

To start, we were presented with a filet of cod about the size of a small palm. It was laid on a bed of black garlic risotto and served with white balsamic chimichurri on top. I was quite keen on the risotto as the consistency was creamy and the rice a little al dente. For me, chimichurri is hit or miss. If made in the traditional way with parsley, I’m a fan. In this instance, I’m fairly certain that the parsley was substituted for cilantro, which is not a friend to my taste buds. Even so, that’s something I can work past. What I cannot forgive is how the cod was prepared. The white fish was overcooked to the point of it being almost rubbery. A knife was necessary to cut the cod apart and it was relatively chewy.

Heritage Angus Beef Brisket Sausage

I felt that the kitchen fared better with the second course: a skillet of heritage Angus beef brisket sausage in a red wine and herbed bean salad. Although the sausage was a bit dry, I thought that the flavours were nice and savoury. The beans were prepared well, refraining from becoming mush. Furthermore, I liked the fresh sprouts, which brought colour and crunch to the dish. Other than infusing more juice into the sausage, my one suggestion is that the dish be served hot. Either it wasn’t warm to begin with or it cooled off too quickly.

Alberta Bison Ranch Meatballs

My favourite was our final plate. This included Alberta bison ranch meatballs in sage cream and pecorino cheese. Honestly, the meat was somewhat parched; however, that isn’t entirely surprising with a leaner meat such as bison. The rich cheese sauce helped to counteract that dryness though. I especially enjoyed the sage leaves as they conveyed a bittersweet, piney flavour and crispy texture. As much as I appreciated this dish, I, nevertheless, had a couple of qualms. Most astonishing was the portion size. There were simply two meatballs that were hardly larger than the Swedish variety found at IKEA. My other issue was that there were no accompaniments in the form of either a veggie or a starch. That would have delivered added appeal and sustenance. Therefore, as the last course of the DTDW dinner, I expected it to be more filling.

By the time we worked our way through the evening’s menu, I wasn’t full, so I considered the desserts. The bourbon and butter cake called to me. My friend caved and ordered the flourless chocolate torte. I’d say that these two sweet endings were the stars of the night when compared to the rest of our meal.

Flourless Chocolate Torte

The torte was actually lighter than I anticipated and the taste of fresh raspberry appeared to be folded into the chocolate with dots of fruit puree and balsamic reduction decorating the plate. There were also pieces of almond brittle that amplified the sweetness of the dessert.

Bourbon and Butter Cake

As for the bourbon and butter cake, it looked to be on the heavier side, but it was moist and the bourbon caramel wasn’t sticky at all. There was a streak of pomegranate molasses to the side of the cake that provided a delightful tartness. It elevated the dish by giving it some dimension where the dollop of lavender whipped cream failed.

DTDW is meant to be a showcase for downtown restaurants. If they’re able to wow patrons, the hope is that they’ll return. Based on my experience of Tzin, I’m highly unlikely to make a point of going back. Sure, the service was excellent and attentive. Moreover, I was thoroughly impressed with how well the chefs were able to function in such a small kitchen space. Perhaps the regular menu would have proven to be more satisfying as well.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to discount the shortcomings I saw on this occasion, and even harder for me to be convinced that this is a place worth opening up my wallet for. When it comes to similar food at a great value, I’d much rather stop by Tapavino, situated on Jasper Avenue and 110 Street.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Madison’s Grill

The dining room of Madison's Grill

The dining room of Madison’s Grill

I have always loved the idea of the Union Bank Inn. A little boutique hotel that sits nestled between towering office buildings in Edmonton’s downtown core, it holds a historical designation for its past as actual banks with a wonderful modern renaissance look. That continuation of history persists in its new incarnation as an inn for the weary traveler, and the structure’s external appeal threads its way through the interior as well.

An excellent example of the wonderful architecture, Madison’s Grill, the restaurant which takes up the whole front of the house on the main floor, combines classical styling in the ionic pilasters with the clean lines and bold patterns of the furniture. The old meets new quality is also apparent in the food they serve where traditional dishes make way for contemporary takes.

Over the last several years, working just a couple blocks away, the opportunity for me to dine at this establishment has arisen many times. I have eaten there on a whim, been invited by my manager as part of team meetings, and usually made a point of stopping by during the annual Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) that has been presented by the Downtown Business Association for eleven years now.

This March was no different. A reservation was booked early on for lunch that at $15 for two courses was a steal. Although, unlike some of the other participating restaurants, the menu for 2014 didn’t allow for any choice (only one appetizer and one entrée was available). Previous menus that Madison’s Grill had come up with gave patrons at least a couple of options, so that was a slight let down, but regardless, it was still a great deal.

The first course consisted of a steaming hot bowl of Fire Roasted Tomato Bisque that was topped with pesto sour cream. It was pleasantly thick with a creamy texture that came from the addition of the fresh sour cream. The soup had a nice, deep, concentrated flavour that was more savoury than tangy, which I loved. Our second plate was a Pulled Chicken Creamy Herb Primavera that used farfalle pasta and incorporated grilled vegetables. The white sauce wasn’t overwhelming and the dish itself was quite light, which, for a plate of pasta, can be hard to pull off. I, personally, would have liked a slightly larger portion and, perhaps, just a bit of extra kick with the taste – a more fragrant cheese or added spice to bring it up a notch. However, the grilled vegetables, including red and yellow peppers and asparagus were cooked to the perfect tenderness.

With the money saved on our meals and the available room in our tummies, we splurged on dessert. An order of the Hazelnut Bernard Callebaut Brownies showed up in front of us looking as decadent as ever – three layers served with mixed berries on the side. For me, this was the star of the lunch hour and I’m so glad we shared it. It was a rich and dense dessert that satisfied the sweet tooth in me without being too sugary.

The Hazelnut Bernard Callebaut Brownie - scrumptious!

The Hazelnut Bernard Callebaut Brownie – scrumptious!

Service there is always up to par. The hostess for that afternoon greeted us quickly and offered to hang up our coats (we decided to keep ours as we were still warming up from the cold), we were brought over to a nice table by the window that overlooked the park by ATB Place (formerly TELUS Plaza), and our server was keen to answer any questions we had and he periodically checked on us to ensure we were doing okay.

Overall, I don’t believe that this visit necessarily represented the establishment at its prime with respect to the main course, but taken with all the other experiences I have had there (amazing pork loin during a previous DTDW event and fantastically hearty yet healthy breakfasts), I still count Madison’s Grill to be an outstanding restaurant that focuses on local. The Tomato‘s readers agree, placing it at No. 23 on the list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton in 2013 and No. 43 in 2014. I look forward to seeing what they have to offer on their spring menu, whenever the season decides to grace us with its presence for good!

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Hardware Grill

Our view into the kitchen of the Hardware Grill

Our view into the kitchen of the Hardware Grill

Every year I look forward to the Downtown Business Association‘s Downtown Dining Week (DTDW). Why? Well, I get ten days to visit a variety of restaurants in the core of the city that may not always make it to the top of my list for one reason or another. It’s certainly not because of the food. On the contrary! More than likely it is due to the fact that I probably can’t shell out a hundred dollars for a meal on a regular basis. In jumps this event to save the day. This March was no different.

The very first establishment my friend and I decided to visit this time around was Hardware Grill (@HardwareGrill). A mainstay of the Edmonton food scene since 1996, the restaurant has continued to rack up accolades both locally and nationally, including making The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks in Edmonton two years in a row now (No. 19 in 2013 and No. 30 in 2014). Considered to be the pinnacle of fine dining in this city, we walked over to the brick building with the striped awnings on 96 Street and Jasper Avenue for a relaxing dinner after a busy Monday at the office.

Upon walking into the doors, we were promptly greeted by the hostess who acknowledged our reservation, hung up our coats and showed us to our table. On a previous visit I had sat at the front of the restaurant, which provided a view of the street, but this time we were seated by large glass windows that gave us a view of the chefs working in the kitchen. We could literally watch our meals being made in front of us. That was a nice surprise and a fun touch of whimsy to be able to peer behind the scenes.

The Hardware Grill's cocktail list

The Hardware Grill’s cocktail list

Our wonderful server, Luis, came over to explain the drink (a nice list of custom cocktails that can also be found at their sister location, Tavern 1903) and wine (extensive) menus as well as the DTDW selections. Both my friend and I opted to go with the three-course dining week dinner. We really couldn’t go wrong. Between the two of us we were saving about $50 on our meals – compared to a regular evening there – and we could use some of that money towards beverages (we each had a glass of wine). It was definitely the best option for us.

To start, we were brought a bowl filled with a variety of soft bread slices and a dish of earthy extra virgin olive oil, which was paired with sea salt for dipping. I’ve been told that you can tell just what you’re in for at a restaurant based off of the bread, so this was already a great sign of things to come.

For our appetizers, we decided to each order something different, so we could sample a larger number of dishes. Since my friend loves gnocchi, as do I, we shared a plate of the venison ragu and potato pasta with shaved parmesan. The freshly made gnocchi was nicely browned and crisp on the outside (the way it should be) and the venison added some extra bite and texture to the dish. It’s sad to point this out, but this appetizer is not to be found on their regular menu, so if you’re hoping to try it, you are probably out of luck. However, I will note that we each ate only half and I have to say that if either of us had eaten the entire plate, it could have served as an entree in and of itself. Thankfully, we had room for more! The first course that I went with was a much lighter on the palate and a variation of it can be found there on a usual basis. This was the fresh burrata mozzarella with pepperonata, crostini, fennel marmalade and fig balsamic. The portion size of the mozzarella was huge and paired with the extras it was a star and a great balance to the heavier, but equally delicious gnocchi.

As I’m unlikely to buy and make myself a veal chop at home, I thought that this was an opportune time to sample their grain fed version for my main course. My friend followed suit for most of the same reasons, but also because the fennel salad that accompanied the potato crusted cedar plank salmon had crab in it, which she’s allergic to. Neither of us were disappointed in our decision though. The massive veal chop, covered with maple bacon, mushrooms and Cipollini onions, was plated on top of a creamy polenta, tomato confit and it’s own natural reduction. The dish was as good as it sounds, but not to the point where we could both polish off the entire thing. The portion size was so large that the two of us each left half of the food on our plates, making Luis worry that we didn’t enjoy it. We reassured him that wasn’t the case – we expected to take the other half home for later. Room needed to be saved for dessert!

Again, we both chose the same dessert. Really, that’s kind of the one part of the meal that’s the hardest to share. While I’m sure their marble brownie would be amazing, we went with the liquid cheese cake parfait – layered salted shortbread crumble, rhubarb-Saskatoon compote and creamy, almost like a greek yogurt consistency, cheese cake that was to die for. I would have eaten this for all three courses.

If anything, that dessert describes the Hardware Grill and the food they serve – textures and flavours that are rich, vibrant and layered to build depth. Their consistency and attention to detail in the kitchen parlays into the rest of the restaurant. The service we experienced was exceptional from the moment we walked in to when we left. Luis made it feel like we were old friends and the hostess gave us a fond farewell for the evening.

For a special occasion or just a quiet night out with a friend, this classy restaurant fits the bill.