Edmonton Restaurant Review: Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen (Closed)

Lunchtime at the Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

Lunchtime at the Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

Dismay was the general consensus when Tavern 1903 folded towards the end of 2014. The restaurant was popular with patrons and, thus, there was a bit of disbelief when word spread of its closure.

I had only been to Tavern 1903 once, but I enjoyed the food and the sunny patio during the summer, and I had looked forward to going back. What I especially liked was the idea of Edmonton businesses having invested in the restoration of this historical building on 98 Street and Jasper Avenue that used to be the Alberta Hotel. My fear was that it would be shuttered and the gorgeous bar wouldn’t see the light of day for who knows how long.

Less than a year later, my bartender friend, Clayton, told me he was starting a new job at the Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen. I’m often clueless about new places until someone tells me about it or I read an article or blog post, so I had him confirm my assumptions about this establishment’s location. Sure enough, it was taking over that same spot vacated by Tavern 1903.

Beyond excited, I reached out to owners Spencer Thompson (Chef de Cuisine) and Brandon Baker (General Manager) to discuss another story. During that same time, they were in the midst of their soft opening. I didn’t visit over the first few weeks they were open. However, from what I was hearing through my friends, something great was in store for me.

Finally, for the official grand opening on November 19, I made my first trip to Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen.

The historic and gorgeous lounge and bar.

The historic and gorgeous lounge and bar.

As expected, the space has changed little since Tavern 1903. Knowing that the bar and lounge was reconstructed using the actual building blocks – tiles, chandeliers, lamps, etc. – of the original Alberta Hotel, it would have been a travesty to tamper with any of that. So, they did the right thing and kept the venue as is.

Upon arrival, we were greeted at as we stepped into the door. The restaurant had my reservation in its OpenTable system and we were promptly seated in the dining room. I was worried that the dimmer lighting would prevent me from taking some decent photos on my phone that evening, but it worked out okay in the end.

Our server, Joanne, popped by to fill our water glasses. Then she asked us if we were aware of the options for the evening – a set menu or a la carte. My friend and I had come specifically for the grand opening because, for one night only, they were presenting a three-course dinner complete with an amuse bouche and a glass of bubbly (the drink was not advertised beforehand, so it was a happy surprise) for the affordable price of $55.

The menu was laid out with three choices per course, creating a few difficult decisions for us. My friend opted to start with the Bone Marrow Agnolotti. I chose the Duck Duo as my appetizer. We both ordered the Pembina Pork Cheeks as our entrée. For dessert, I chose the Pear-Almond Frangipane (Joanne said it wasn’t as sweet as the AH Banana Smores) and my friend selected the Cheesecake.

The lobster crostini

The amuse bouche: lobster crostini

While we waited for our first course to make its way from the kitchen, we sipped on our champagne. Joanne showed up again shortly after to drop off the amuse bouche (a complimentary canapé from the chef). Before she walked away, we asked her what was on top of the crostini. It turns out that it consisted of lobster, which my friend has an allergy to. Thank goodness we took the initiative to find out before she went ahead and ate it. Throughout the evening, the service was pretty impeccable. This was the only misstep.

Our first courses were brought over by Brandon (whom I recognized from a couple of photos on the restaurant’s Facebook page). On initial glance, the dishes were plated nicely and the servings were sizable. As is typical of my friend and I, we sampled each other’s food.

Bone Marrow Agnolotti

Bone Marrow Agnolotti

The Bone Marrow Agnolotti was stellar. The pasta shells didn’t really stay intact, but I liked that the pasta was thin and light, not doughy. Stuffed inside the shells were wild mushrooms and bone marrow. The acidity from the bone barrow worked well with the earthiness of the mushrooms. There was some additional marrow to be found in-bone, along with more mushrooms, brown butter sauce and pecorino cheese. To finish off the plate, there was also a cloud of celery root puree. My friend scraped every last bit of food off of her dish, saying it was like heaven.

Duck Duo

Duck Duo

I later learned that the duck duo was new on the menu, and it was neat. I hope that it’s a dish that they’ll offer again. This plate included a combo of smoked duck breast served over Saskatoon jam and duck pate sandwiched between a beet macaron. The duck breast was incredibly tender; it was cooked just enough to get a touch of smokiness without overtaking the natural flavour of the meat while the Saskatoon jam provided overall balance. The pate was smooth and paired well with a melt-in-your-mouth beet macaron. It was different and creative.

Ramos Gin Fizz and a Whiskey Sour

Ramos Gin Fizz and a Whiskey Sour

In between finishing our appetizers and receiving our entrées, we headed over to the bar to say hello to Clayton who happened to be bartending that night. My dining companion asked him for a recommendation and he inquired as to what sort of liquor she likes. She told him that she likes whiskey sours and he was glad to whip something up for her. I went for a cocktail off of the curated menu, the Ramos Gin Fizz, which was created in 1887 by Henri Charles Ramos. It’s great to know that the Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen has knowledgeable people like Clayton behind the bar and Brandon who has refined the drink selection.

Pembina Pork Cheeks (this is not the best photo)

Pembina Pork Cheeks (this is not the best photo)

The comfort quotient was met during the main course of Pembina Pork Cheeks topped with tomato jam and served with buttermilk polenta, wild mushrooms, arugula and local pecorino. The polenta was the creamiest I’ve ever had. It felt rich and decadent. That, along with the earthiness and bitterness from the mushrooms and arugula, leveled out any saltiness from the meat, which fell apart at the touch of our forks. The kitchen provided a hefty portion, too. Although we most likely could have had a few more bites (it was that good), what we got was enough when you consider that we still had dessert on the way.

I took a small forkful of cheesecake from my friend. The cake had an almond sponge bottom and what looked like two chocolates on top (that was probably the red currant jelly that was listed on the menu). There was also some lemon curd on the plate as well. I didn’t catch all of the flavours that were included in the dish. I only tried the cheesecake, but it had a wonderful velvety texture that wasn’t overly dense. My Pear-Almond Frangipane was paired with a lovely olive oil ice cream. The poached pear slices on top were great with the pastry, but this is a heavier dessert, and the last few bites were almost more than I could handle.

While I wasn’t necessarily more restrained during lunch the following day, I specifically chose items that I hadn’t eaten the night before, and I avoided stuffing myself with fillers like fries and crostini.

Janell(e), who was serving me, seemed educated on the menu and she was ready to give me suggestions, if I wanted them. However, I kind of already had my mind made up.

A cup of Lobster Bisque

A cup of Lobster Bisque

Lunch began with a cup of lobster bisque, which was delectable. Made sans cream, the tomato base created a soup that was more distinct. The tartness from the tomato helped to elevate the flavor of the lobster without masking it. There was also a bit of heat to the bisque (if we’re talking temperature-wise, it stayed warm until I was finished); a nice pepperiness that took it up another notch. The soup was served with five pieces of crostini. I only ate one of them. They’re a slightly more upscale version of a package of Premium crackers, which I love crumbling over my soup every so often, but I needed to save space for the rest of my food.

A close-up of the Beet & Chevre Salad

A close-up of the Beet & Chevre Salad

I followed my soup with the Beet & Chevre Salad. This is a good starter because it’s satisfying, yet it’s still light enough that you’re able to continue on to a main dish. The salad contains pickled candy stripe beets, greens, fried Fairwinds Farm goat cheese, pears and dill vinaigrette. I found that the acidity coming from the beets and vinaigrette was complimented by the subtle taste of dill and offset by the thin slices of subtly sweet pear, the bitterness of the greens and the savoury fried balls of creamy goat cheese.

A medium-rare Flank Steak & Frites

A medium-rare Flank Steak & Frites

My meal continued with an order of the Flank Steak & Frites. The steak was plated with a large portion of fries, a little bowl of garlic aioli, blue cheese butter and arugula-pecorino salad. Admittedly, I was skeptical about the blue cheese butter. I love cheese, but I’ve never been a fan of the pungent blue cheese variety, so I stepped out of my comfort zone with this. Despite my usual aversion, the blue cheese worked because it was incorporated into the butter, which melted right on top of my perfectly cooked steak (a quick note: I wasn’t asked how my steak should be cooked, but it came out a wonderful medium-rare; I lucked out, but the servers should be reminded to ask patrons about this, so that the meat is prepared the way the guest wants it). The cheese wasn’t overwhelming in taste or smell. This dish was also a good test since flank steak is a tougher cut of meat, and I have to say that the kitchen did well with it. It was by no means the tenderest steak, yet it wasn’t at all chewy either.

Focusing on the sides, I always enjoy some arugula. Although, this salad had the same dill vinaigrette as my appetizer (they could have changed it up with a different flavour accompaniment). The only alteration was some added pecorino cheese on top. That helped to anchor the salad and marry it with the steak. I only had a handful of the fresh made fries, which were crisp on the outside and soft on the inside as they should be. However, I thought they were overly salted, so they could have used a lighter touch there. If you eat the fries with the supplied garlic aioli, you don’t need the added salt at all.

My visit was made complete with a tasting of the banana ice cream, usually served with the aforementioned AH Banana Smores. It’s made in-house using liquid nitrogen. The flash freezing creates an exceptionally creamy texture and locks in that unmistakable flavour. I’m definitely going to have to go back for the full dessert.

All-in-all, there are a couple of minor kinks for the restaurant to work through. But, considering that they’ve only had their doors open for about a month through a soft opening and then their grand opening just last week, everything is going swimmingly. From the food to the drinks to the service/staff, they seem to be hitting all the right marks.

Let’s hope that they continue on this path. I’d hate to see the Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen go.

For a more in-depth look at this establishment, visit The Local Good to read my profile of Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen.

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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.

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!