Edmonton Restaurant Review: North 53 (Closed)

A place setting at the table.

A place setting at the table.

It was in the winter of 2013 that I happened to be passing along 124 Street when I spotted a sign in the window of a darkened corner of the building at 102 Avenue. A cryptic “North 53 Coming Soon” piqued my interest. My immediate assumption was that it was going to be the home of a new restaurant, and I was right. Shortly after, I was reading the Edmonton Journal and there was an article in the Food section about a young chef named Ben Staley who would be heading up the kitchen at North 53 (@north_53) with owner Kevin Cam by his side.

I was beyond excited to see that there was more new blood being woven into a neighbourhood that has had its mainstays throughout the years, but, recently, seems to be going through a revitalization of sorts. North 53 was just another step in that direction. Finding it difficult to keep up with all the fantastic dining establishments that are popping up in Edmonton nowadays, I did not make it to North 53 when they opened this past January. In fact, it took about nine months before I set foot in the place.

My friend and I decided that, before our scheduled book club meeting on a Friday evening in September, we would treat ourselves to a nice dinner. I was proactive and made a reservation for 5:30pm through their Yelp SeatMe system (very similar to OpenTable, but no points) found on their website. It usually isn’t an issue for us to be anywhere by that time after work; however, as it happened, my companion was stuck at the office later than expected. Thankfully, the staff at North 53 were accommodating when I phoned to see if we could shift our reservation back a little bit.

Finally, about an hour after our originally planned dinner time, we made it to the restaurant with a few minutes to spare. The neon sign our beacon in the rain, we walked into the small doorway where patrons are greeted with a canvas of graffiti art that paints the establishment as cool. The tables were not full yet, so we were seated immediately. The room is long and narrow with maybe a dozen tables in front of the floor to ceiling windows that span the entire length of the space. Across from the tables is a fairly long bar that is decorated with light woods, grey tiles, and chrome chairs and shelves as well as mirrors that serve to make the eatery look larger than it actually is. The tiled ceiling is black with statement desk lamp chandeliers. The design is sleek and modern with a twist, which goes along well with what I think they hoped to accomplish in regards to their food.

In a way, the sparseness in the aesthetics of the restaurant is a continuation of what looks to be a simplicity in the dishes they prepare, but that’s far from the case. The two of us were presented with two menus – drinks and food. They had a number of specialty cocktails, a couple of non-alcoholic beverages (tea and soda not included), some beers/ciders and wines listed. We opted for the mocktails, which were housemade lemonade and ginger soda. There was a bit of a mix up when they arrived at the table; I received my friend’s ginger beer and she my lemonade. It was only because we tasted each other’s drinks that we figured it out even though hers was clearly gingery with a tad of citrus thrown in for good measure. Both were pleasantly refreshing and my lemonade was just what I needed.

With regards to the food menu, they had two. You could opt to sit through a multi-course meal for about $100 per person, or you could go the à la carte route. Since we arrived to dinner later than we had intended and our friend would be waiting for us in less than two hours, we figured we didn’t have the luxury of indulging in the tasting menu. It sounded absolutely fabulous though. Watching another table enjoy it made it all the more tempting. Instead, we decided to share four plates from their regular menu, including the Cream of Broccoli Soup, the New Season’s Potatoes & Carrots, the Pork Loin and the Sockeye Salmon.

The Cream of Broccoli Soup was not the easiest choice to share, but it was definitely worth trying. The bowl arrived with a discus of fried cheese standing up out of a cloud of foam. In a separate carafe was the soup – a fine puree of broccoli and cream – which our server poured into the bowl, adding a beautiful, bright green colour. We crushed the cheese, so that it melted into the soup and dug in. The soup was incredibly smooth with the broccoli flavour playing off the cheese and onions wonderfully. Both of us said at the end that if we could have done our meal over again, we would have each ordered our own bowl of soup because sharing wasn’t enough. The Potatoes & Carrots were cooked very nicely, and this is coming from someone who doesn’t usually love carrots. I enjoyed it. Although, I’m not sure that it would have been a top choice for me in the future.

Pork Loin

Pork Loin

When, what I’m going to call the mains, arrived at the table, we chose to each eat half of one and then swap plates. I started with the Pork Loin. Quite honestly, the pork seemed just a tad overcooked. I know it’s a hard meat to ensure that it is not only tender, but also cooked all the way through. It was not pink at all, so that’s good, but there was definitely more chew than I would have preferred. That was offset, though, by the accompaniments of steel cut oats, endive and stinging nettle. The oats looked like they were pureed into a velvety concoction, sort of like a side of mashed potatoes, but better. The endive added a sweet, nutty flavour and the stinging nettle a spinach-like taste. This was all topped off with two pieces of, likely, pan-fried or roasted kale (I’m guessing at the greens).

Sockeye Salmon

Sockeye Salmon

Once I finished my half of the pork loin, we switched, and I took my turn at sampling the Sockeye Salmon. Out of the two dishes, I would say that this one came out on top. The salmon was perfectly prepared and the skin, which was left on the fish, was superb. I don’t usually eat salmon skin because it’s often cooked to a soggy mess, but this was so crispy and delicious that you had to have every bite. The fish was served with mustard greens, snap pea and guy lan.

The evening was memorable and we definitely wanted to go back for that multi-course meal.

However, shortly after that first visit, it was announced that chef Ben Staley was leaving the restaurant to open his own place called The Alder Room (likely set to open by spring 2015). With that huge change, owner Kevin Cam hired on Filliep Lament as Staley’s replacement. He has created a new menu that consists of smaller bites to help cater to the late night crowd that they hope to attract with their introduction of late night hours. With that move, they have also done away with the tasting menu option. These modifications seem drastic, but I understand that with the entry of a new head chef, it means they have the opportunity to experiment with their offerings and their clientele.

Because of all of these alterations, I didn’t feel it was right to review the restaurant solely on the visit I spoke of above. I needed to go back to North 53 to experience the eatery in its current state. So, I gathered a couple of my friends for a night out on a cold December evening. We arrived before 6pm and, while a few tables were occupied, it wasn’t full.

We started off perusing the drink menu where they already have a number of signature alcoholic and non-alcoholic cocktails available. Of course, you also have the option to spin the wheel, allowing the bartenders to tailor a custom cocktail to your tastes by selecting a spirit base and flavour of your choice. Ultimately, two of us decided to order the Siberian Pineapple Express, which was sans alcohol, but quite flavourful. My only qualm is that the bartender prepared just one drink first, and, although we were told the second would be there in just a few minutes, I think it actually took at least 20 minutes, arriving after a drink that was ordered much later. Perhaps the bartender was slow or unorganized or forgot or missing ingredients, but that was not very acceptable. The third in our party asked for a suggestion from our server who pointed out the Rosey Cheeks cocktail. According to the menu, it is inspired by Persian ice cream and is made with a mix of Nigori Sake, lemon, saffron, cardamom, rose syrup, egg white and topped with tiny little rose petals. My friend said it was delicious even though she usually doesn’t tend to order sweeter drinks. It was also quite beautiful with a nice froth from the egg whites and the dark red petals adorning the cream-coloured foam.

Carrot Salad

Carrot Salad

When it comes to the food, the menu is quite small, but it’s split up into the following categories: snacks, plates (small), large plates and dessert. All items are technically meant to be shared tapas style. One friend was on a vegetarian diet when we dined, so, while there were dishes she could eat, her options were limited to bar nuts, a couple of salads, sunchoke soup (bacon was listed with this, so I’m assuming they just don’t add it in if you can’t eat it) and desserts. Since she couldn’t eat much else, she decided to go with the Carrot Salad. Made with green cardamom, goat cheese and pistachio, I had one bite and found the dish to be extremely refreshing on the palate.

As for the two of us who are currently carnivores, we opted to share several plates, including the Griddled Mushroom, Popcorn Chicken, Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart and Beer-Glazed Short Rib for dinner as well as the Apple Tart and Pouding Chômeur (“poor man’s pudding”) for dessert.

The Griddled Mushroom is served with a poached egg. I sampled a mushroom before we broke the egg and it had a distinctly Asian sort of flavour, reminiscent of Chinese dishes I’ve had in the past. Once we popped the egg with a toothpick, the yolk just melted into the sauce that was already on the plate, creating a thicker base and a smooth consistency. The Popcorn Chicken was our second selection off the snack section of the menu. Arriving to the table in a cute bowl that looked like it was filled with chicken nuggets covered in Parmesan cheese, these turned out to be slightly elevated versions of the fast food classic. The whole meat pieces were lightly breaded and succulent. The shavings on top were not cheese, but actually popcorn. I personally think the flavour of the popcorn is lost when eaten with the meat, but I put a bit of the popcorn on my tongue and the buttery taste was unmistakable. This dish is a fun idea, but maybe it could be better executed to fully take advantage of the popcorn and chicken combination.

Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart

Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart

The Rutabaga & Oxtail Tart and Beer-Glazed Short Rib acted as our main course. The tart had a lovely flaky pastry base that was stable enough to hold the pureed rutabaga filling. The oxtail was cooked until it was fall apart tender. Topped with a salad of herbs, this dish had a great earthy flavour from the rutabaga, wonderful complementary textures and a nice herbaceousness that balanced well with what seemed like oxtail with lingering hints of booze from the cooking process (again, I’m guessing here).

Beer-Glazed Short Rib

Beer-Glazed Short Rib

Lastly, we had the short ribs. For a “small” plate, the portion size was massive. Served in a circular plate-bowl, the bottom was covered with navy beans, diced celery and carrots and bone marrow. Placed on top were two huge pieces of short rib still on the bone. We split each piece in half, and started working away. The short rib was quite good, but I would say that the slightly smaller of the two cuts of meat was overcooked a little. I also think that the ratio of beef to the accompaniments could have been better. It was just too much meat and not enough in the vegetable or legume department, and the overall flavour of this particular dish was lacking compared to everything else that evening, or, perhaps not lacking, but too one-noted after a couple dozen bites. I had also never tried bone marrow before, so I wasn’t sure what to expect in that regard. In my head, I pictured some sort of puree-like addition to the plate, but I think the marrow was, in fact, the fattier pieces found mixed in with the beans. It was an interesting addition, maybe a way to compensate for the short rib’s own lack of fattiness. I will say, however, that the short rib is a great value for the amount of food that you do get. If I ever were to try that one again, I would be sure to have more people to share it with as it was too much for just the two of us.

If you assumed we were finished after all of that food, you were wrong. There was no way we were leaving without trying some of the desserts this time around. At first, we were only going to order the Apple Tart, but the special for the evening, Pouding Chômeur, sounded too good to pass up.

I know that an apple tart seems like a pretty generic dessert. Many restaurants have something similar on their menus, but this one was unique in that it kind of pulled from the idea of a baked brie pastry, pairing tart apples with ice cream and a salty-sweet base of cheddar shortbread. I loved that you could taste each layer and that the cheddar actually came through.

Traditionally, Pouding Chômeur is made with the cake batter rising above a layer of caramel or syrup as it bakes, but at North 53 it was like a reverse Pouding Chômeur because the liquid remained at the top. My guess is this is due to their use of a dense shortbread in lieu of cake. The result was a piping hot, rich dessert with a dark chocolate center that helped to offset the sticky and sugary caramel topping. It was absolutely delicious, but probably best in smaller doses.

Personally, my feelings of North 53 are mixed. I think the eatery is still going through growing pains. I also really believe that they would benefit from increasing the size of their menu to include a few more vegetarian dishes that can be eaten as a main dish if someone wanted to choose a singular plate as their meal and not leave hungry. That being said, based on my two outings, I can see why North 53 was shortlisted for Enroute Magazine’s list of Canada’s Best New Restaurants for 2014 (of the two Edmonton restaurants vying for a spot, RGE RD was chosen in the end).

The slightly altered decor, which now gives the place a moodier vibe.

The slightly altered decor, which now gives the place a moodier vibe.

The establishment has great potential, but they have to find the right footing by figuring out what their signature dishes should be and branching out from there. They also need to improve on the consistency of their service. With all that in mind, they’re definitely not a write-off. I appreciate the space, which now has a darker appeal with all the chairs painted black as opposed to mirror-like silver, yet aims for a bit of that vintage, homey vibe with the use of mismatched antique dishes (these are the only two changes to the aesthetics that I could discern).

North 53 is a cool, casual hangout for Edmonton’s in-the-know crowd who want a place to go for late night snacks, good cocktails and conversation.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment, visit The Local Good to read my profile of North 53.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: The Hat

The long and narrow layout of The Hat.

The long and narrow layout of The Hat.

The Hat (@TheHatYEG) calls itself the oldest public house in downtown Edmonton – having opened a little over 100 years ago – and the venue seems to hold a lot of memories. I know that over the last several years, for a variety of reasons, I’ve had plenty of wonderful get-togethers with family, friends and colleagues in the venue. If only its walls could talk. I’m sure that they’ve seen and heard more than I can imagine.

Reservations are accepted through OpenTable. Pretty much all tables accommodate four people with space for larger parties at the back. It’s a narrow room, but they’ve made good use of it. The bar takes up about three-fifths of the one side, and gives singles (or duos when the place is full) a spot to dine. The TVs that line the walls often have some sort of sporting event or movie showing just in case you need something to look at when everyone at your table is too busy eating to hold a conversation.

It can get noisy when the resto pub is packed, but usually after work hours on a weeknight, it’s not so bad. Dim lighting, neon signs, wood and brick walls, padded black booths and stools, and an intricate tin tiled ceiling gives the establishment a sense of nostalgia and creates a comfortable atmosphere to chat and sit with a drink for a while.

Rosemary Chicken Sandwich with Fries

Rosemary Chicken Sandwich with Fries

If you’re hungry, there are a number of dishes that will satisfy. My recommendations include: Mac and Cheese, Californian Chicken Burger, Funky Crunchy Chicken Sandwich, Perogy Nachos, Wings ($4 on Wednesday) or Chicken Morsels (if you’d rather not deal with bones) and the Spinach Salad. I’d also suggest that you upgrade to sweet potato fries if you decide to go with a sandwich or burger. The portion sizes are definitely generous. If you’re just a little peckish, you can probably split most of the plates between two people.

The Shawarma Wrap - a signature item - with Sweet Potato Fries

The Shawarma Wrap – a signature item – with Sweet Potato Fries

My favourite dish is certainly the Mac and Cheese, which is made maki roll style. Presented as four large flat cylinders of KD sized macaroni that is shaped, stuffed with cream cheese, garlic, jalapenos, roasted red peppers, then panko breaded and served with sides of wasabi and sweet & sour chili dip, it was the first time I had seen mac and cheese prepared this way. It’s more than enough to share (although, you might not want to), especially if you order an appetizer of chicken morsels to go with it.

The Mac & Cheese

The Mac & Cheese

One day I would also like to try one of their desserts. In particular, I think the Cheesecakechanga sounds awesome, but I never have room for it. Perhaps I’ll have to go just for a sweet treat sometime or maybe I should work backwards and start with dessert instead.

The restaurant is pretty much an institution. Having had its ups and downs and its facelifts throughout the century, it still stands alongside places like the Fairmont Hotel MacDonald and longtime businesses like the Edmonton Journal, which have been around about the same amount of time. I hope the establishment will be there long after I’m gone, so that more people can continue to build their own personal experiences there. The Hat certainly holds a spot in my heart.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Upper Crust Cafe

Upper Crust Cafe opened in 1986, just a year after I was born, and has lived up to their initial goal of becoming a popular yet unpretentious place to enjoy a good meal. After 28 years, they are now well-known for their desserts and catering services. However, it’s their knack for making sandwiches using freshly baked in-house molasses or oat bread (other types are available; however, they are not housemade) that made me a fan several years ago.

The interior of Upper Crust Cafe.

The interior of Upper Crust Cafe.

I was dragged there by a friend the very first time I visited. She couldn’t stop telling me about the fantastic sandwiches and potato salad. Never having been much of potato salad lover, I was skeptical. But, upon sitting down at one of their distinctive green-topped tables and biting into a deliciously thick roast beef sandwich that was layered with alfalfa sprouts, tomato, lettuce, cheese, cucumber and house mustard, I was a convert. Not only were the sandwiches filled to the brim with healthy yet tasty ingredients, the included side salad was there to ensure that your stomach would be completely satisfied. I took my friend’s advice and tried the potato salad and, to this day, I find myself getting a hankering for it at times. I think what I love about the salad is that it isn’t overly creamy or eggy, which I tend to find off-putting with other variations. It’s actually been a long while since I’ve eaten an actual meal there and I hope to do so in the near future.

Bringing this back to the present though, my most recent experience there was after a hearty brunch at the Sugarbowl (@sugarbowlcafe) about three months ago. My friends and I wanted to keep chatting and decided that we would walk over to Upper Crust for dessert. Since they had made The Tomato‘s second annual list of best eats and drinks in the city, coming in at No. 78 this year, this presented a good opportunity to hit up another top 100 location.

A slice of the carrot cake.

A slice of the carrot cake.

Walking into the establishment, you are met with the dessert display where every cake, pie and square looks rich and decadent. The three of us perused the choices for probably fifteen minutes, asking what each iced cake was before making our decisions. After we ordered, we made our way to a table by the window. It was rather quiet in there that afternoon, with maybe a handful of tables occupied.

My friends had carrot cake and chocolate cake with raspberry filling, both of which looked delicious. The carrot cake was without raisins, pineapple and nuts as my friend prefers. I didn’t try their slices, so all I am going off of is the appearance of the cakes. They seemed to be quite moist and fairly dense with the perfect amount of icing to go with each piece.

I went with the coconut cupcake. It was touted as the best cupcake in the city by Edmonton Journal (@edmontonjournal) writer Liane Faulder (@EatMyWordsBlog) a few years back when cupcakes were all the rage. Being someone who certainly appreciates the humble dessert, I was intrigued at the time. Despite that, I never did make my way to Upper Crust on a Saturday (the only day they are available) to eat one. That is until now. I have to say that I did like the flavour of the cake and that the icing was topped with shredded coconut; however, I was a little disappointed with the overall texture. I’m not sure if it was just this particular batch, so I can’t be definitive about this, but the cake seemed too solid to the point of being slightly dry and the icing wasn’t as creamy and smooth as I would have liked.

Regardless, we popped in for a quick dessert and ended up staying for around a couple hours because we had so much to discuss. The server was attentive and, though his shift was over before we were ready to go, we never felt rushed. This relaxed atmosphere makes this restaurant a wonderful place – nice and quiet – for an afternoon or evening out with with family or friends.

Writing this review, I now find myself salivating and wanting, very badly, to eat some of their potato salad and a sandwich. I’ll be back soon to quell that craving!

Downtown Dining Week, Why Not YEG Restaurant Week?

The Downtown Business Association (DBA) is celebrating the end of, what I suspect was, another successful run of Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) in Edmonton, Alberta. For the eleventh year in a row, they have brought diners out to try menus from 30 different restaurants located in the city’s core. Over a period of ten days, people were able to sample a variety of menus that included $15 lunches as well as $25 or $50 dinners.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

An ad for Downtown Dining Week that I pulled from the Edmonton Journal website.

Being that I work in the area, I took every chance I had to eat at as many places as I could over the 10-day period. It only amounted to five meals for me, but, personally, I couldn’t imagine having such rich meals for both lunch and supper every day in such a short amount of time anyway. I especially savoured the opportunity to visit restaurants that have a reputation for great food, but that I may not typically go to on a whim because of the prices, which meant I ventured over to the Hardware Grill, Madison’s Grill, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, Sorrentino’s Downtown and Normand’s Bistro. All of them did an excellent job of helping us to watch our wallets while delivering top-notch food, even when the dish was as simple as a pulled pork sandwich.

Although, in my opinion, a few establishments should have worked a bit harder to entice people; they could have ventured away from their regular dishes to experiment with something new, or refrained from picking the least expensive plates from their usual selection of fare (if it costs the same to dine with them during DTDW as it does on any other night, it means it isn’t really “specialty-priced” as per the description on the DBA site) as part of the attraction of the event is that it provides deals where they aren’t typically found, making it a lot more affordable. Regardless, the majority of the DTDW menus had variety, giving you the choice of more than one item per course that ranged from salads and sandwiches to hearty pork and steak dishes or fish to pastas. Every lunch consisted of two courses and each dinner had at least three (appetizer, entrée and dessert).

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison's Grill, along with their regular menu.

The Downtown Dining Week menu at Madison’s Grill, along with their regular menu.

Now, my qualm with DTDW is that it continues to remain the same size. The food festival, if you will, hasn’t really expanded year after year. In fact, it may have even shrunk slightly in terms of the number of restaurants participating. Some of the same restaurants come back annually, others are replaced with new ones (the Confederation Lounge, Tavern 1903, Normand’s Bistro, The Burg, De Dutch (see previous review) and Fionn MacCool’s are the latest additions). I like that there are repeats because, if I didn’t have a chance to go to one the previous year, maybe I’ll be able to visit the next time. However, I would love it if the list of new places partaking got bigger every March.

To me, Edmonton is a city with a burgeoning food scene that deserves to be showcased. More and more chefs and entrepreneurs seem to be taking the leap and succeeding at making Alberta’s capital first-rate in terms of the availability and assortment of quality places to dine out. In my mind, DTDW should be growing, not just sustaining. I picture it being at least as large as Calgary’s The Big Taste, which is citywide and has more than 70 “Revolutioneateries” getting involved over ten days. Ideally, it would become similar to NYC Restaurant Week, lasting about three weeks (sometimes extended) and runs both in the winter and summer seasons.

Of course, this might be wishful thinking on my part. I can only speculate as to the difficulty of putting something like this together. I’m sure the DBA has attempted to increase the number of establishments taking part in DTDW. I asked my friend who works for the urban planning office with the City of Edmonton what streets constitute the downtown area and while she wasn’t able to answer me right away, I did Wikipedia it. According to the information logged on the wiki, downtown Edmonton is bounded by 109 Street, 105 Avenue, 97 Street and 97 Avenue. If that’s the case, the DBA has stuck within the appropriate grid. Yet, some consider surrounding communities like Oliver to the west to also be part of downtown. That would include everything from 109 Street up to 124 Street from Jasper Avenue to 105 Avenue. Can you visualize how amazing DTDW would be for all you foodies out there if that area were included?

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill - Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

More delicious food like this dish from Hardware Grill – Fresh Burrata Mozzarella!

Dishcrawl, an online community of culinary enthusiasts, with a branch in Edmonton has organized events focused around various parts of the city, 124th Street being one of them. I attended a crawl where we walked door-to-door between eight establishments tasting samples and drinks, but not full-out meals. I think that those restaurants, having participated in Dishcrawl’s Neighbourfood event, would be highly interested in adding their names to a dining week list (I could be wrong; I don’t know how it ultimately affects the costs and revenues for the restaurants, but the publicity that may lead to repeat business is a big positive for them, I would think).

Would that mean the DBA would still be the sole host of Dining Week in that type of incarnation? Maybe not. It would likely mean several separate dining weeks spread out throughout the year, or more hands in the pot with a joint event put on by the DBA and the 124 Street Business Association (really, any number of other groups that are willing to take part) to make this something that brings the Edmonton restaurant community and food lovers together.

It’s all about providing extra exposure to those that participate, no matter where they are located, and expanding the dining week (or month!) theme so that Edmontonians can truly appreciate the diversity of amazing food that exists in this city while, hopefully, finding some new favourites. That’s the goal I see!