Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tavern 1903 (Closed)

My friend snapping pics of our meal.

My friend snapping pics of our meal.

Tavern 1903 (@Tavern1903), the brainchild of Hardware Grill (@HardwareGrill) owners, dropped into downtown Edmonton’s dining scene with a bang. Situated on the main floor of the restored Alberta Hotel – built in 1903 – it is located at 98 Street and Jasper Avenue, its front sidewalk made into a fairly large and welcoming patio space. The day that my friend and I decided to walk over during our lunch break, it was a sweltering 30 degrees outside (not so much now). I had made an OpenTable reservation ahead of time, requesting an outdoor table, if possible.

A hostess was standing at a podium just in front of the door waiting to greet us. She acknowledged my booking and directed us to a table in the corner of the patio; it was under one of their large umbrellas that shaded two of the four seats. She apologized there wasn’t more protection from the sun available, but we were happy to be taking advantage of the weather and thanked her.

Our server came over shortly after we sat down and presented the menus to us. Filtered still or sparkling Q Water is provided free of charge (most other restaurants seem to charge a small fee for unlimited filtered water), so we were given beautiful green glasses filled with thirst quenching liquid. After inspecting the tumblers more closely, I realized that they were sawed off wine bottles, the bottoms used for a new purpose. I like the idea that the establishment is trying to find different ways to be sustainable, and the brilliant emerald colour made me want my own set. Being that we had to return to the office in an hour, we opted to order a couple of non-alcoholic beverages including their regular and blueberry lemonades to further keep us hydrated. The blueberry lemonade was a gorgeous pink, nicely sweetened by the berries, but still slightly tart.

The pretty pink coloured blueberry lemonade.

The pretty pink coloured blueberry lemonade.

Having previously read reviews of the restaurant where praise was given for their Truffled ‘Mac N Cheese’ with Baby Lobster & Shiitakes, and also having recently eaten a similar dish at the Century Hospitality Group‘s (@CenturyHG) Lux Steakhouse & Bar (@LUXSteakhouse), I was inclined to give Tavern 1903’s version a shot. My friend did the same, except that she chose to go with the Smoked Ham Hock & Green Peas rather than the seafood.

Unlike Lux, the pasta didn’t arrive in an iron skillet. Instead, it came to the table in a massive bowl the size of my head. Shell shaped pasta was coated with white truffle oil and 3-year aged cheddar, a sauce that was much lighter than the heavyset competition. I actually very much liked it. The shiitake mushrooms added a meaty texture and woodsy flavour, and the lobster was well distributed in larger chunks with virtually no trace of the crustacean’s exoskeleton to be found (something I cannot say about Lux – I bit on a lot of shell there). I sampled the ham hock and green pea plate and thought it was quite tasty as well. However, the ham created a dish that was, overall, saltier. While I did finish off every bite of my bowl, it was a struggle on this particular occasion because the heat coming off the mac and cheese combined with the overpowering sunshine just about did the two of us in, so I recommend sitting out on the patio on milder days if you plan to eat anything that comes piping hot from the kitchen.

Needing to get back to work, we weren’t able to stay for dessert, so I will have to make a point of visiting again for that. But, my friend did order some corn bread with bacon butter to go. She absolutely loves fresh corn bread and, unfortunately, she told me she was disappointed with it.

Regardless, the patio is wonderful for when Edmonton is experiencing good weather, our entrees were delicious, the service excellent, and the interior of the restaurant holds a certain charm – reinstated to its past glory with intricate ceiling moldings, wall lamps, tiling and an original cash register, the look certainly screams traditional tavern with modern touches. It’s unique, historic and they serve good food and drinks, which is probably why it currently holds both the No. 2 and No. 21 spot on The Tomato‘s list of 100 best eats and drinks for 2014. So, if you find yourself downtown searching for another great place to indulge, look no further.

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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.

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!