Edmonton Restaurant Review: RGE RD

A timely plate of duck during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Go Oilers!

RGE RD has been open for about four years now. In that time, it has racked up numerous accolades on both a local and national level. As the spotlight on the restaurant and chef Blair Lebsack grew, so did my yearning to visit. Yet, with me, it’s always the case that I’m late to the party.

After sitting on a gift certificate for almost a whole year, I decided to cash it in when my boyfriend and I celebrated our one-year anniversary together this past weekend. To ensure that we secured a spot during regular dinner hours on a Saturday evening, I made a reservation about two months in advance through RGE RD’s website.

Knowing that the establishment had already been around for quite some time, I’ll admit that I was a bit apprehensive about this being my first experience with them. When there has been so much talk and praise for a chef and their restaurant, it’s easy to buy into the hype. Flashbacks of my dinner at Corso 32 ran through my head and I told myself not to have too high of expectations.

When we arrived, the dining room was nearly full. A couple happened to be leaving as we walked in, thereby opening up a second table, and the hostess was nice enough to let us choose the seats we’d prefer. I opted to take the spot nearest the door as it gave me a peek into the kitchen, provided sightlines of the bar and allowed me to people watch (my boyfriend got to stare at me and a window without a view).

The dining room of RGE RD.

It’s a compact space. I counted about forty seats total, but the website mentions that there are sixty. Perhaps that includes the seating on the other side of the building? Called The Butchery, that area is typically reserved for large groups and private events. Our half of RGE RD was cozy though. With all of my design expertise (thank you, HGTV!), I’d like to call the look ‘Industrial Farmhouse.’ The mishmash of cement walls, natural woods, metal lighting fixtures and sheepskin chair backs really conveyed a modern rustic feel.

I will mention that once we settled in, it seemed to take some time before our server came to check on us. Once she did, however, we received relatively steady service throughout our meal. She provided information on that day’s specials and was able to answer a few questions regarding the menu.

One of my inquiries was about the RGE RD Trip Multi-Course Dinner. Personally, I’d been hoping that it would be possible to order one RD Trip between two people. My thought was that we could split all of those courses and then order more off of the regular menu in an effort to sample their popular plates as well. I figured that was a win-win situation. Much to my chagrin, we were told that everyone at the table must participate in order to do the RD Trip, so my boyfriend caved and adventured with me. For $85 each (price may vary), we received six undisclosed courses that served as a canvas of Canadian-inspired cuisine.

Course 1: Tomato with Fiddleheads

The initial dish consisted of a single plump tomato sitting in tomato sauce with slightly charred bright green furled fiddleheads to accompany it. I’d only ever seen fiddleheads once before while walking around an organic grocery store, so I was surprised to find them here. My boyfriend, who is from New Brunswick where fiddleheads grow wild, was also excited to see them in our bowls. That’s when it clicked in. We were being taken on a culinary journey across the country and that trip started in the Maritimes. This was a small salad to whet our appetites and the lightest thing we ate all evening. I liked the balance of the acidity from the tomato and the slight bitterness from the fiddleheads, which seemed similar in texture to asparagus.

Course 2: Pork Belly with Scallop

Our second plate was a combination of seared scallop and pork belly presented with garlic emulsion and a slice of cayenne pepper. My boyfriend said his piece of pork belly was amazing; apparently juice literally shot out of the meat when he ate it. I can’t confirm that the same thing happened to me, but it was succulent and smoky with the caramelized fat. I especially loved the scallop as it was firm yet delicate on the teeth with just the right amount of searing on the top and bottom. The garlic emulsion and the hit of heat from the seedless cayenne pepper also played off of the tongue nicely.

Course three was actually my favourite of the night. This was a mushroom risotto with ricotta and cracklings served with semolina bread and sour cherry & sage butter. If done well, risotto can be so delicious and hearty. In this case, the rice was still al dente and the sauce was incredibly creamy and flavourful once the dollop of ricotta cheese was melted in. My boyfriend argued that it would have been made better with added protein, but I was happy to eat it with just the mushrooms as the fleshiness of the fungi felt satisfying enough and the crunch from the cracklings provided a twist to the typical risotto dish. The slices of bread were soft and, although the pink-coloured butter didn’t pack as much of a punch as I hoped it would, I noticed hints of sour cherry with a couple of bites.

Course 4: All About the Duck

The risotto was followed by a plate of duck breast with a cube of duck rillette bread pudding, apple puree and pickled pear. I anticipated that the duck breast would be tenderer, but there was a little more chew to it. Still, it was delicious when combined with morsels of the pickled pear as the sweetly tart taste offset the earthiness of the meat. Rillette is similar to a pate and it was pressed into the bread pudding, creating a savoury version of the dessert that disappeared way too quickly.

Having travelled across Canada during our dinner, it was practically inevitable that our main entrée would utilize bison in an effort to represent RGE RD’s home province of Alberta, and represent they did. We were offered a wrapped bison medallion where one portion of the gamey meat was from the shank and the other was braised. Aside from a couple of small pieces of bone lingering around, I found the meat to be juicy and the braised meat fell apart so easily. Underneath the bison was a mix of sunchokes, potatoes and green beans with eggplant puree as well as some wine reduction swirled around the edge of the plate. Sunchokes are supposed to be fragrant and nutty in flavour, but honestly, I don’t think any were in my dish. Only pieces of potato ended up on my fork as everything was starchy in texture. Granted, I lucked out with the green beans though because my boyfriend said he didn’t get any of those.

Course 6: White Chocolate Ganache Buttermilk Tart with Red Wine Poached Pear

Already stuffed, we had one final course to go. Dessert was a dense white chocolate ganache filled buttermilk tart topped with red wine poached pear. The shell was like a cookie base and, oddly enough, it wasn’t too sugary even with the white chocolate middle. The taste of the red wine in the pears really came through and they mostly helped to counter the sweetness. Despite being so full, I sort of wished dessert had been bigger.

Counting the wait time at the start of our evening and the duration of our full meal, we were there for three hours. Now that I’ve completed the RD Trip dinner once and I’ve seen the value (the available bison dish on the a la carte menu is $36 on its own), I’d say that foodies should consider this to be worth the money. Three out of six plates included some sort of protein and most of the portions were quite large in size. In fact, I was actually questioning whether or not I’d manage to finish everything (I did).

I’ll have to go back to try their standards like the questionable bits and the octopus. But, based on the gastronomic voyage we took, it turns out that RGE RD, for the most part, is deserving of the acclaim. While this is not an everyday place to dine, it’s certainly one to keep in mind for a treat or a special occasion.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: North 53

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.