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 Things to Do: Clay & Cupcakes

One wall of available ceramics at Clay & Cupcakes.

For the past few years, my obsession became Paint Nite events. I went on numerous outings with friends and I amassed more pieces of art than I know what to do with. I also outfitted myself with canvases, paint, brushes and easels for creative nights at home.

While I still love to do a quick session here and there (it’s such a relaxing activity), the eagerness to go every few weeks has abated. Tucked away between those times have been various other outings: dinners, festivals, escape games and pottery painting.

My finished ramen bowl, which was painted at Crankpots.

I don’t do the latter often. In fact, prior to a February evening at Crankpots Ceramic Studio on Whyte Avenue, I hadn’t been since I was a child. The hours we spent painting our ceramics was a lot of fun. Yet, the experience at that venue wasn’t the best. The space was overcrowded, customers hoarded paint colours, instructions from staff were poor, and we were almost charged twice for our items. Despite my ramen bowl looking gorgeous, I do think that the glazing was subpar because it chipped off (even though my boyfriend and I had been careful to hand wash everything) in a few spots after only several uses. Plus, Crankpots doesn’t phone or email to let patrons know if their pieces are ready to be picked up. I guessed and showed up the following weekend with fingers crossed that our stuff would be available.

Therefore, when my friend suggested we check out BYOB Ladies Night Out (held every Thursday night; a waiver must be signed if consuming alcohol on the premises) at Clay & Cupcakes, I was slightly apprehensive. However, I figured that there was no harm in checking out a new place. It couldn’t be worse than Crankpots. I was right.

The night we decided to go, the two of us rode the LRT and bus from downtown to the Summerside location on Parsons Road. It was easily accessible by transit.

The door prizes for BYOB Ladies Night Out.

We had booked spots in advance through their website. Therefore, when we walked in, tables had already been reserved with each of our names. The $10 payment for the event included a free cupcake ($3.75 otherwise) as well as the chance to win some door prizes. Unlike Crankpots, they do not charge paint, studio or firing fees. The use of all supplies and the space, as well as glazing, is built into the price of the ceramic piece(s) chosen, which means dropping in on any other night shouldn’t even require an additional reservation cost like it does for Ladies Night.

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Should one visit Clay & Cupcakes, I’d suggest sitting to the left side of the door when walking in and closer to the windows for the best lighting. Once we’d settled our stuff down at our table (no cocktails or beer, just bubble teas), we got up to peruse the selection of pieces on the shelves. I noticed that many of them were repeats as I looked around, but several caught my eye. It’s certainly wasn’t difficult to find something to decorate. The only thing one might be weary of is the dollar amount. I’ve learned that these ceramics tend to be a bit expensive. I lucked out on this occasion as I had an ADmazing Savings coupon for 15 percent off. With the discount, I ended up selecting a doughnut jewelry box for under $30, which quite honestly was perfect for me in terms of price and style. The staff member who was working that shift rinsed my ceramic in water to get me started.

All prepped with paint and brushes!

I then went about deciding on paints, which were all laid out by hue on a shelf, essentially in rainbow order. Palettes were stacked beneath them. I grabbed a couple trays and started to fill them with the colours I planned to use. The bottles of paint are to be placed back onto the shelf for others to refill as needed. Brushes — they could use more with finer tips for detailing — and sponges were also available from that area as well. Bowls of water for rinsing brushes had already been set out for each group. Overall, it was a very organized setup and there was actually ample room for guests to work since tables are comfortably set for four people each.

Painting completed! The slip on the right is to be filled out, so they can keep track of your piece.

As is typically the case, it’s recommended to layer the paints two to three times to get an even coat. My friend and I sat there for about two and a half hours making sure we did just that on both of our ceramics. Clay & Cupcakes has a good variety of paint colours, including ones that are speckled. Just check with the staff to make sure that there’s enough in stock to cover everything you plan to do with your piece; we were warned in advance of one or two bottles nearing empty, which they did not have replacements for.

My raspberry chocolate cupcake.

When all was said and done, we filled out a small slip of paper with our email address, phone number and the description of what we had made. We brought that up to the counter with our painted ceramic, and the employee rang our bills through. After I wiped up my hands, I finally ate my raspberry chocolate cupcake. I’m not sure where they get them from, but mine was delicious. While the raspberry icing was sweet, it wasn’t overly sugary, and the cake itself was dense, moist and tasted of dark chocolate, so there was a great balance.

About six days later (shorter than the 7 to 14 days mentioned on their website), I received a phone call to let me know that my box was ready. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make it until the weekend, and I should note here that Clay & Cupcakes is surprisingly closed on Saturdays.

My fired and glazed doughnut jewelry box.

I eventually made it there on my Monday off of work. When I showed up, all I had to do was give them my name. The staff member went to the back and I watched as she looked through the shelves at rows of paper bags. It seems that they have all of the fired pieces wrapped up and sorted in alphabetical order by moniker to keep them organized and make them easier to find.

After a few minutes, she brought a package over to me and unraveled the tissue paper to show me the contents. It was my doughnut box and it turned out beautifully! The glazing was applied evenly and thickly, so I’m expecting it to hold up well. I could not be happier with it.

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Before I left the shop, I had to take another peek around. They really weren’t kidding when they told us that new stock arrives regularly. Dozens of new ceramic designs lined the shelves on both sides of the store, and I wanted to buy half of them. I even saw on their social media pages and their website that they sometimes offer glass fusion and silk screening workshops. Both would be extra reasons for me to revisit. Not only does my boyfriend want to go back with me, but my co-workers even thought it’d be a wonderful idea for a future night out, so I suppose Clay & Cupcakes is now my new thing. Crafters and artists, make it yours, too.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Lava Rock Grille & Sushi

The exterior of Lava Rock Grille & Sushi

Living on the far southwest side of Edmonton, I admittedly don’t make to the west end very much. Therefore, I’m often unaware of restaurants that may have opened in that area. Thankfully, Groupon has helped to keep me in the loop. The site has showcased some fantastic offers over the past few months, including one for Lava Rock Grille & Sushi.

When I first saw the deal, I checked the address and, as I suspected, this business had opened in Mayfield Common. Situated to the left of World Health, that location has been home to several other eateries in the past. Most of them were East Indian in nature and none of them lasted long despite the often excellent food. Seeing that a new restaurant was willing to take on the challenge of this doomed space intrigued me and I immediately purchased a voucher.

The Sunday that my boyfriend and I decided to go, I called about 30 minutes before to make a reservation. Although it may not be a necessity all the time, I’d recommend booking ahead. We ate early at 5:30 and there were only a few tables occupied when we arrived, but the place filled up quickly while we dined.

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I have to say that I was really impressed with the interior of Lava Rock. The whole space was gutted and updated from what I last remember it looking like. The front has a bar and the back of the venue is completely open with the kitchen shifted to the side. There are also a lot more tables than there used to be and it’s much brighter and more welcoming as well.

The set menus that we got to choose from.

Once we were seated, the server went over what our Groupon included. Basically, we had our choice of four different set menus that I believe are always available to order even without the voucher. They range in price from $24 (Striploin and Basa Filet) to $29 (Filet Mignon) with Shrimp falling in the middle. We were to pick one meal each — to be filled out on the paper we were given along with our choice of sauces — and we both opted for the 8 oz. Filet Mignon.

Dynamite and Spicy Salmon Rolls

Service was quite prompt. We received our pieces of Dynamite Roll and Spicy Salmon Roll shortly after our order was taken. Truthfully, these were quite basic. I disliked the rice to filling ratio and that the tempura shrimp in the Dynamite Roll wasn’t warmer. The latter is a sign that these were probably prepared in advance. Otherwise, the flavours were fine. The raw salmon tasted decent and the texture was okay.

Read these instructions before cooking the meat.

While we were still working on our maki, the slabs of hot rock were wheeled over to the table along with the meat and sauces we’d chosen. The server quickly ground some salt onto the stones and lay the meat on top to begin the cooking process. Before she walked away, she uttered a few instructions and then left us to our own devices. I do recommend taking the time to read the small card placed at every table. It goes over all the dos and don’ts of dining there. My biggest takeaway is that nothing other than salt and whatever protein ordered should touch the stone. One of the servers had to remind people as they ate. Her reasoning was that everything else burns and creates uncomfortable clouds of smoke.

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In any case, eight ounces of meat is a lot of food! I’m not complaining though. It was awesome. The cut I got was a bit gristly on one edge. However, it was easy to cut off and the rest of the filet was perfect. I like my red meats cooked to a medium rare. Yet, due to the number of items I was indulging on at the same time, the meat did cook a little past that point. It was still so tender though, so no matter. I especially loved the sesame sauce that I paired with my steak.

Beef Ramen and Green Salad

If that wasn’t enough, the meal also included a cup of green salad and a bowl of beef ramen soup. The salad was fresh, but it wasn’t my favourite. There were these teeny little red peppers that just had this odd taste and were a tad too seedy. The ramen also didn’t have much in the way of beef or noodles and it was cold. Mostly, I was disappointed with the flavour as the soup was incredibly bland.

Mixed Tempura

Our dinner was completed with a plate of mixed tempura: zucchini, shrimp, oyster and scallop. The portion wasn’t large. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised that they provided so much seafood rather than the usual veggies. Everything was breaded lightly and had a crisp texture. Nothing was too greasy.

By the time we polished everything off, we were both full and satisfied. Sure, there were improvements to be made; the sushi wouldn’t be my top choice and I’d skip the salad and ramen. But, overall, the restaurant offers great value with these set menus. As long as one doesn’t mind playing a part in cooking their own meal, it’s well worth a visit to eat at Lava Rock Grille & Sushi.