Edmonton Restaurant Review: BAR 94 at LUX Steakhouse

“94” lights up the back wall of the bar.

Earlier on in my career, I could often be found with my colleagues sitting at a table inside the lounge of LUX Steakhouse. We all liked each other enough to spend extra time together after work over a drink or two. Back then, my favourite was Martoonie Tuesday (maybe it was Thursday). For two dollars plus change, I could have a full cocktail. They weren’t all that strong, but they also didn’t break the bank. It was a way to unwind on the cheap. As the years passed by, more and more friends left for other opportunities, or the circumstances of their home lives had changed, and those gatherings eventually subsided.

Every so often, I’d still frequent the restaurant for lunch or dinner. It wasn’t the same though. Flash forward to last month when I decided to revisit with one of my girlfriends. I’m always keeping tabs on Edmonton food deals (check out the page on my blog), and having seen their happy hour offerings, I felt inclined to go. The lounge, renamed BAR 94 in honour of one of the city’s favourite hockey players and current shareholder, Ryan Smyth, still looks relatively the same. Yet, the menu has gone through some updates.

Sparkling cocktails for just $3 every Tuesday from 4pm to 7pm.

The bar does serve the same dishes as are available in the restaurant; however, they also have their own distinct menu consisting of casual eats that include about a dozen share plates (varying in price from $7 to $17 each) and five handhelds. Every Monday to Thursday from 4:00pm to 7:00pm, all of those appetizers — minus the Team Platter — are available for just $10 per item, and premium well highballs, select draught sleeves, and house red or white wine are only $5 per glass. On Fridays, everything is another dollar less. Best of all, on Tuesday nights, there’s even the option ordering a sparkling cocktail or a six ounce glass of Prosecco for three dollars. Honestly, these prices are difficult to ignore.

I booked a table for us using the OpenTable app. In my request I asked to have them save us a spot in the lounge even though the system is really only meant for the restaurant. While it’s usually first come, first serve for BAR 94, they seem to be able to accommodate reservations whenever possible. In this case, it didn’t seem to be a problem. When I arrived, I found my friend already seated at the far end of the space.

Both of us started with some bubbly. She got a stem of Prosecco. I selected a sparkling cocktail of Prosecco and Chambord. Then we ordered a few plates to split: Mini Steak Sandwiches ($15), BAR 94 Dip ($14), Power Play Perogies ($14), and Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese ($17).

Mini Steak Sandwiches

The Mini Steak Sandwiches came as five slices of baguettes with marinated AAA Alberta beef piled on top. These were garnished with plenty of crispy onions, roasted garlic aioli, and shaved Pecorino. When I first set eyes on them, I have to say that I didn’t find them incredibly appealing. They lacked pizazz, but one bite was all it took to change my mind. The meat was actually very succulent. The bread wasn’t overly toasted, so the edges didn’t scratch up my mouth. I found that the frizzled onions added some texture and paired well with the garlic aioli.

BAR 94 Dip

It’s hard to go wrong with dip and chips. The BAR 94 Dip was no exception. Theirs consisted of shaved brussels, roasted red pepper, cream cheese, and Parmesan in a skillet. The consistency was nice with a rich flavour, and it was easy to scoop up with the accompanying crispy tortillas. Although, I wouldn’t exactly call the chips crispy per say. They looked more like wonton chips as they had a puffy quality to them. Despite that, they lacked any crunch. I’m not complaining, however. I quite liked them that way. If I have them again, I’m not sure they’ll turn out the same. This could have been a one off situation for all I know.

Power Play Perogies

I was pleasantly surprised by the Power Play Perogies. I had pictured something more like what I could pick up at the grocery store with those thick shells and the pasty potato filling. These were a thousand times better. Think of pillowy pan-fried gnocchi pasta, except huge and filled with potato cheddar. They were then covered with sour cream, caramelized onions, and added bacon ($3). Super savoury and a great value for the money.

Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese

One of my go-to plates at LUX has always been the Truffle Lobster Mac & Cheese. It’s one of their signature items and for good reason. They’ve elevated a comfort dish to a new level by combining the everyman’s pasta with Atlantic lobster, shaved truffle and plenty of Parmesan. Admittedly, I ordered this more for myself. My friend is allergic to lobster, so I knew I was going to be the only one eating it, and I intended to take the leftovers home for my boyfriend to enjoy. This appetizer is worth every penny in my books.

For dessert, my friend chose the Home Made Pie (blackberry). The price changes based on the market price of the filling used. It was good. Not overly sweet. Yet, I would liken it to a tart since it was much thinner than a typical pie. I went with the Carrot Cake. The huge slice of spiced cake sat in a pool of delicious Maker’s Mark bourbon caramel and was topped with cream cheese icing and candied pecans. This was delectable, but I was only able to have a small portion before going into a sugar coma. I’d recommend finding someone to split this one with.

Not to be outdone by this meal, I ended up at BAR 94 for the second time in a month. This time I was there with a couple of my more currently beloved co-workers. It happened to be a Thursday (handcrafted two ounce cocktails for $8), so I chose what I believe was called a Hartley’s Lemonade. I didn’t love it. It came across as a bit acrid after each sip. Nevertheless, my second cocktail, the Tropical Sangria, completely made up for it.

That night, we opted for the ‘Bucket of Bones’ ($15) and two servings of the Steakhouse Nachos ($16). If we’re talking about bang for the buck, I’d argue that the ‘Bucket of Bones’ (a.k.a. crispy rib tips) is a best bet. They were well-breaded and tastily seasoned with maple, cider vinegar, and fresh thyme. Regardless, it was those Steakhouse nachos that we relished. The fresh cut russet potato chips were individually layered with shredded beef short rib, shaved aged cheddar, jalapenos, and house made salsa. Each piece had exactly the right amount of toppings, and the ranch dip was a perfect way to cool down any heat from the pepper. There just weren’t enough of them in a single order. Hence, the need to have a second helping. At regular price, it wouldn’t the most practical way to spend one’s hard-earned money. On the other hand, when shared during happy hour, it’s somewhat justifiable.

Needless to say, I’m on the BAR 94 bandwagon once again. With food that rarely disappoints and specials that are easy on the wallet, it’s going to remain one of my top picks for downtown happy hour.

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.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Wishbone

The interior has been updated since it’s MRKT days.

Today marks the official opening of Wishbone. Brought to life by Chef Brayden Kozak and Head Bartender/General Manager Shaun Hicks of Three Boars Restaurant Group, this is the latest entry to Edmonton’s bustling restaurant scene.

Often times, I’m pretty late to the game when it comes to trying new places. On this occasion, I’d say I was lucky to come across Wishbone on social media and, by following their feeds, I was able to stay in the loop on the eatery’s endeavours. That includes sneak peek dinners that they’ve been hosting for the past two to three weeks. Last Thursday, I attended one of these multi-course meals to get a sense of what they’re calling refined Canadian Surf & Turf offerings as well as their potential Vegetarian menu.

My friend and I arrived to the space that previously housed MRKT (above Red Star at 10542 Jasper Avenue). While the bones of the room remained the same (curved ceiling and the natural horizontal shiplap look), the rest had been revamped with booth seating, pea/avocado green coloured leather upholstery, simple white globe lights throughout and an industrial cement based bar next to the open kitchen.

When it came to the food, I went along with the Surf & Turf option for the evening. My friend, on the other hand, is allergic to shellfish. Therefore, with an unknown menu and wanting to avoid a reaction, she decided to give the Vegetarian dishes a shot.

As the plates were brought out and descriptions were provided, we did our best to keep track of everything that we were told. Admittedly, that proved to be a difficult feat. But, I’ll do what I can to stay as true to the dish as possible here.

To start, my friend enjoyed her appetizer of split pea fries with canola aioli. I didn’t end up sampling these. Yet, from what I could tell, the fries held together when picked up and they looked non-greasy and crisp with just a light breaded coating. The bright yellow aioli also provided a shot of colour to the plate. For the regular menu, the first dish consisted of a fresh shucked oyster sprinkled generously with shaved beef heart and served on a bed of salt. I’ve never eaten raw oyster – I prefer them fried – so this was new for me. The oyster slid out of the shell easily and it was briny, yet not in an overwhelming way. The juice was savoury and the dried beef heart shavings added texture and gaminess.

Roasted Beets with Stilton Blue Cheese

For our salad, we received roasted beets, caramelized onions, Stilton blue cheese and spicy greens. I can’t say that I tasted any heat from the greens laid atop the salad. That is unless cilantro is counted as spice. Personally, the herb sort of separated me from dish as I’m not a fan of the taste. To most, it’s refreshing. To me, it’s unpleasant. If I have to, I can get through a cilantro dish though. In this case, it wasn’t terrible. More than anything, the pungency of the blue cheese and the sweetness of the onions and tender roasted beets helped to mask any unwanted enhancements. My friend, conversely, loves cilantro and this plate turned out to be her favourite of the night.

Next up was a course of monk fish laid on stewed tomatoes, onions and a sauce with Vietnamese herbs and fish sauce. I thought I sensed some cilantro in this dish as well, but it was avoidable. What I did like about it was the use of shredded mint leaves as they provided some refreshment. The fish was also nicely seared on both sides, giving it that slightly charred taste and texture. The vegetarian version of this dish was made with a similar broth, minus the fish sauce, and instead of the monk fish, it was presented with stacked tofu cakes surprisingly rich in flavour.

Hanger Steak with Clams

The Surf & Turf main course ran the full spectrum by mixing both meat and seafood on the one plate. A slice of rye bread acted as the base. From there, it was piled with ramps, lacto-fermented onions, slices of hanger steak, clams and then, if I remember correctly, a clam jus reduction. I actually found the steak to have more chew than I’d prefer. On the plus side, the meat was cooked until rare to medium rare, which was ideal for me. At first, I didn’t think I’d like the rye bread all that much due to the toasting. Yet, I’d say that it won me over. The density of it helped to prevent sogginess from the sauce, and the sour, earthy taste worked well with the meat, clams and pungently garlic-like flavour of the ramps.

Rutabaga in Cream Sauce with Nori, Fried Kale and Hazelnuts

We were interested to see what the entrée for the vegetarian meal would consist of. It turned out to be a large helping of salt roasted rutabaga tossed in a creamy dressing and topped with lacto-fermented fried kale, shreds of nori and hazelnuts. The rutabaga sits between the texture of a potato and that of a beet. It has a hint of sweetness, which is why it likely worked so well with the somewhat bitter greens, salty nori and nutty hazelnuts.

To complete our dinner, sesame egg custard was prepared and served alongside sesame tuile cookies and a thick caramel sauce. The tuile cookies weren’t as delicate as they traditionally are, but they were delicious. They held up as I dipped them in caramel or layered custard and caramel on top of them. It appeared to be a relatively simple dessert, but it still felt indulgent and worth the calories.

From this early experience, I can truly say that I’m looking forward to revisiting Wishbone. Compared to their other sit-down restaurant, Three Boars, there is a greater sense of polish in terms of service provided and presentation of the dishes. Yet, it doesn’t make the venue unapproachable. In fact, the opposite is true. The overall atmosphere is fairly casual, and the team is a friendly and nonjudgmental bunch (at least when it comes to joking about licking plates clean). For a place to expand the palate, give Wishbone a shot.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: ALTA (CLOSED)

The interior of ALTA.

About a month after ALTA opened, I finally had a chance to stop by Ben Staley’s new restaurant. With my friend in tow, we headed over right after work at 4:30pm. It was still early for the dinner service, so a number of the tables were empty.

I informed them of my reservation and they let us choose where we wanted to sit out of the available spots for two. With approximately 24 seats in the whole minimalist space, it’s not big; however, with the food requiring less preparation upon ordering, the turnover can be quick.

As we settled in, our server/chef brought over an open wooden box that housed our utensils, napkins and the menu. It was clear that everything had a place and a purpose. “Alta,” short for Alberta was given a nod with the shape of the menu card, which was folded and cut in a way that conveyed the province’s map outline. These little details are the types of things that should be appreciated because, if handled properly, those factors will make all the difference between an average experience versus one that goes beyond expectations.

The staff were very knowledgeable about the drinks and the dishes available. All of the wines selected are no or low intervention. As such, the flavours of the grapes are brought out more. My companion ordered a glass of the Eric Texier Chat Fou Grenache Blend from France. I had a sip of the red to get a sense of it. I thought it was smooth, slightly dry and likely would match a number of plates. Although, I’m no wine connoisseur and, unless a red wine is extremely dry or bitter, they are all alike to me. My beverage of choice to accompany my meal was a glass of the Antech 2014 Brut Mauzac, a sparkling white wine, that refrained from being overly sweet or carbonated. Rather, it was balanced in flavour and pleasantly effervescent. Both glasses were $10 each for five ounces of alcohol.

Moving back to the food, I should explain that ALTA only serves cold dishes. The only option on the menu that will arrive to the table warm is the freshly baked Sourdough & Cultured Butter. All other items are either pre-cooked, raw or preserved (often a combination of those various forms of preparation) and presented at room temperature. Once assembled by a chef on staff, the chef then brings it over and provides an exceedingly detailed description of what you’re going to eat. While we dined, I tried my best to absorb all of the information I was given. Admittedly, I’m positive I missed some of the finer points as there was so much to learn.

What I did discover is that a cold menu can be quite satisfying. I had my apprehensions about an establishment that wasn’t going have any warm dishes. Yet, the Nordic influence of foraging (in this case, using only local ingredients) and fermenting works here. In the end, we sampled a handful of items. I think the chefs were careful to time out the dishes properly, but for the most part, they were brought out as soon as they were ready.

Malted Hazelnuts

We began our journey through ALTA’s offerings by nibbling our way through a small bowl of the Malted Hazelnuts. The chef, showing his youth, described them as an adult version of cocoa puffs, which isn’t far off. After what sounds like an arduous and time consuming process of hand peeling the hazelnuts, they are then malted to amplify the taste. These little balls, upon hitting the tongue, have a grittiness on the outside and give off a coffee-like flavour that subsides to a slight saltiness as opposed to an anticipated nutty essence. Like the act of smelling coffee beans between tasters of wine, these seemed to be a great snack to have periodically as a way to refresh the palate.

Salted Pork Belly

In my mind, the Salted Pork Belly was going to be prepared in a more traditional way with thick pieces of meat and crisp edges giving way to a buttery level of fat. Of course, after seeing the concept of the establishment in motion, I completely understand that the pork belly would have to be done differently than I’m accustomed to. If served conventionally, without being hot or fried immediately before eating, the pork belly runs the risk of being subpar because it’ll lose its crispiness and become limp (think about bacon that has sat out too long). That’s why the thin slices of cured pork belly made so much sense when I saw them laid out over pieces of crostini that had been covered with walnuts and diced apple that had been cooked in overgrown coriander. The meat looked like delicate, semi-translucent strips of prosciutto. The apples were a little tart and helped to offset any salt from the pork. As a side note, I recommend that these be eaten with utensils. We attempted to devour these as if they were finger food, but the pork belly isn’t the easiest to bite apart with your teeth. If you want to maintain your grace in front of other diners, use a knife and fork.

Lamb Tartare

This was followed by our favourite of the evening, a Lamb Tartare. I’m a sucker for a good beef tartare, and lamb is one of my preferred types of meat. Therefore, to find this uncommon take on a fairly common dish felt like a real treat. Oftentimes, people dislike lamb due to the gamey, earthy flavours often associated with the meat; however, that didn’t come through as I ate it raw. My taste buds really honed in on the salty and savoury taste of the chickpea “miso” that also created a smooth texture typically endowed by the addition of egg yolk in a usual beef tartare dish. Pickled baby peaches added a bit of acidity and dried flowers sprinkled over the meat supplied extra texture and a floral aroma. Served with the lamb was a bowl of house made potato chips. Unfortunately, I thought the chips were a tad too greasy. What I did love about the lamb tartare was that all of the components combined created a zestiness that couldn’t be duplicated by any single ingredient in the recipe. I think it goes to show that each element that went into the dish is needed in order to produce something entirely innovative.

Salmon

After polishing off the two heftier plates of food, we decided that we had room for another main, so we opted to split the Salmon. This was an excellent choice and highly recommended if one is hoping for a lighter meal that gratifies. Not only was this a beautifully composed dish ─ the sauce was gorgeous in colour and provided visual appeal ─ it was one that introduced a new method of preparing cucumber (lightly cooked and charred). Dill was a huge part of the plate as it was done three ways: laid atop the fish in its natural form, as flavouring for the pickles and as a creamy buttermilk sauce. Most importantly, the salmon was cooked to perfection with the meat moist and flakey as it practically melted in my mouth.

Tart of Black Malt

No dinner is complete without dessert. With only a couple of options on the menu, we chose to go with the Tart of Black Malt. It hadn’t occurred to us that the malt was actually the malted hazelnuts eaten throughout the evening just pulverized and blended with beeswax and butter to give it the consistency of a chocolate ganache. The mixture was set over a crust made of crushed pumpkin seed. If we’re going by size, this half moon tart is excellent for sharing as there’s plenty to go around. Still, by far the greatest part of this dessert had to be the coating of finely granulated freeze dried black current on the top (sparsely accented with flakes of salt), which not only gave it a rich magenta colour, but also a sweet tartness that played well with the deep and aromatic flavour of the malt.

While this may not be a meal that I’d crave on a regular basis, I found it to be pretty inspiring and unique. Ben Staley and his team at ALTA should be commended for attempting to keep the business as localized as possible. Finding alternative ways of creating flavours that come from ingredients grown only outside of Canada (I’m talking about the malted tart alternative to chocolate) is impressive and really a testament to their kitchen’s talent.

The final bites of Salted Pork Belly and Lamb Tartare.

All in, our bill came to $77 for food and $20 for wine plus tax. The restaurant is one of a few in Edmonton that has a no tipping policy. Even though I knew that going in, it still came as a nice surprise when I saw the receipt and was reminded of that. In all honesty, I hadn’t planned to order a glass of bubbly that night, and when I thought about it, the money I would have spent on the tip essentially went towards my drink. Is it a better value over other downtown establishments? Possibly. Most likely not though. The gratuity is probably already reflected in the price of each dish. What’s beneficial with it being a no tipping establishment is that what you see is what you get when it comes down to the cost.

That idea is almost the opposite to the menu. Tiny details and layers of intricate flavours lead to this sense of there being more behind the curtain. Where can they continue to take their offerings? How is it going to change with the seasons? That’s what I’m interested to find out.

Paired with attentive service, food that is more filling than expected and an experience that currently cannot be found elsewhere, I’m certainly inclined to revisit ALTA soon.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Tzin Wine and Tapas

Sweet endings at Tzin Wine and Tapas.

Each year, when March rolls around, I’m always excited to see what Downtown Dining Week (DTDW) has to offer. In 2017, I almost forgot about the annual event. There seemed to be very little advertising, and I was only reminded, at the beginning of the month, when I overheard a co-worker chatting about it in the office.

With it on my mind, I immediately decided to check the website to see if the menus from the participating restaurants had been posted. Sure enough, most of them were there. To my disappointment, the list was noticeably shorter than in previous years. Yet, after perusing all of them, I had narrowed my choices down to a few places that I had been meaning to try.

The first that my friend and I decided to visit was Tzin Wine and Tapas. Located on the 104 Street Promenade at 101 Avenue, it’s easy to overlook. The standout feature when passing by would be the bright orange door and the small window that may give you a peek at the chefs cooking away in the tiny kitchen at the front of the establishment.

The interior of the restaurant. This photo was taken just inside the entrance.

From what I had already read about Tzin, I knew that it was a small venue, but I still found myself slightly taken aback when I stepped foot into the restaurant. With only about six tables and maybe a handful of bar seating, it’s easy to understand how it fills up so quickly.

When we arrived, there was only a single table left by the door, and it was ours. Thankfully, there were only two of us dining together. A third, as the table was set for, would have made for a tight squeeze and possibly an uncomfortable dinner with people coming and going right next to us all evening.

The sole hostess/server was very personable and polite. She grabbed us a bottle of tap water, as requested, while we reviewed the regular menu and the DTDW selections. We opted for the latter as $45 per person for an executive three-course meal is typically a good deal at some of these more upscale eateries.

Cod with Risotto and Chimichurri

To start, we were presented with a filet of cod about the size of a small palm. It was laid on a bed of black garlic risotto and served with white balsamic chimichurri on top. I was quite keen on the risotto as the consistency was creamy and the rice a little al dente. For me, chimichurri is hit or miss. If made in the traditional way with parsley, I’m a fan. In this instance, I’m fairly certain that the parsley was substituted for cilantro, which is not a friend to my taste buds. Even so, that’s something I can work past. What I cannot forgive is how the cod was prepared. The white fish was overcooked to the point of it being almost rubbery. A knife was necessary to cut the cod apart and it was relatively chewy.

Heritage Angus Beef Brisket Sausage

I felt that the kitchen fared better with the second course: a skillet of heritage Angus beef brisket sausage in a red wine and herbed bean salad. Although the sausage was a bit dry, I thought that the flavours were nice and savoury. The beans were prepared well, refraining from becoming mush. Furthermore, I liked the fresh sprouts, which brought colour and crunch to the dish. Other than infusing more juice into the sausage, my one suggestion is that the dish be served hot. Either it wasn’t warm to begin with or it cooled off too quickly.

Alberta Bison Ranch Meatballs

My favourite was our final plate. This included Alberta bison ranch meatballs in sage cream and pecorino cheese. Honestly, the meat was somewhat parched; however, that isn’t entirely surprising with a leaner meat such as bison. The rich cheese sauce helped to counteract that dryness though. I especially enjoyed the sage leaves as they conveyed a bittersweet, piney flavour and crispy texture. As much as I appreciated this dish, I, nevertheless, had a couple of qualms. Most astonishing was the portion size. There were simply two meatballs that were hardly larger than the Swedish variety found at IKEA. My other issue was that there were no accompaniments in the form of either a veggie or a starch. That would have delivered added appeal and sustenance. Therefore, as the last course of the DTDW dinner, I expected it to be more filling.

By the time we worked our way through the evening’s menu, I wasn’t full, so I considered the desserts. The bourbon and butter cake called to me. My friend caved and ordered the flourless chocolate torte. I’d say that these two sweet endings were the stars of the night when compared to the rest of our meal.

Flourless Chocolate Torte

The torte was actually lighter than I anticipated and the taste of fresh raspberry appeared to be folded into the chocolate with dots of fruit puree and balsamic reduction decorating the plate. There were also pieces of almond brittle that amplified the sweetness of the dessert.

Bourbon and Butter Cake

As for the bourbon and butter cake, it looked to be on the heavier side, but it was moist and the bourbon caramel wasn’t sticky at all. There was a streak of pomegranate molasses to the side of the cake that provided a delightful tartness. It elevated the dish by giving it some dimension where the dollop of lavender whipped cream failed.

DTDW is meant to be a showcase for downtown restaurants. If they’re able to wow patrons, the hope is that they’ll return. Based on my experience of Tzin, I’m highly unlikely to make a point of going back. Sure, the service was excellent and attentive. Moreover, I was thoroughly impressed with how well the chefs were able to function in such a small kitchen space. Perhaps the regular menu would have proven to be more satisfying as well.

Nonetheless, it’s difficult to discount the shortcomings I saw on this occasion, and even harder for me to be convinced that this is a place worth opening up my wallet for. When it comes to similar food at a great value, I’d much rather stop by Tapavino, situated on Jasper Avenue and 110 Street.