Edmonton Business Review: Hansen Distillery

A bit of family history before being led into the production area.

Opened mid-December of 2016, Hansen Distillery was, by a slim margin, the second producer to enter the Edmonton market. Strathcona Spirits beat them to the punch by just a day. Although, to their advantage, Hansen Distillery has been welcoming customers through their doors from the very start.

Located in the west end of the city at 174 Street and 111 Avenue, their warehouse and retail space sits in the middle of a largely industrial area, which would be easy to miss. Nevertheless, the shop’s sweet lounge (available Tuesday to Saturday) as well as the tour and tasting offered Thursdays to Saturdays have given locals a great reason to pop by and expand their knowledge and palates.

Back around the Christmas holidays, I was given a certificate for two people to attend a tour and tasting at Hansen Distillery. I had been meaning to redeem it for a while, but I ended up holding onto it. Upon researching potential wedding venues in the new year, I came across their retail space as an option. I decided to reach out to owner Shayna Hansen to inquire about renting it out. Since I’d never been there, I thought it would be a wonderful opportunity to use my voucher and to preview the place in person at the same time.

My fiancé and I were scheduled in for the 2:00pm slot on a Saturday afternoon. When we arrived, there were no formalities. We were simply asked if we were there for the tour and when we nodded in confirmation, we were told that we could just relax until the rest of the group made it in. As we waited for things to start, I walked around the room snapping photos. For a business that has only been open for a little over a year, they have certainly done a fantastic job with the branding. The custom logos, signage, metalwork and bar are a perfect mix of rustic and industrial design. Along with that, history and Albertan roots are hammered home here.

Several minutes later, our tour kicked off with Shayna talking about her family’s long tradition. Moonshiners go back four generations to her great grandparents who made it through World War I only to have to deal with the Great Depression. In those years, the spirits were made as a means of trading for food to keep the family fed. Fast forward to a framed photo of her grandparents driving a 1928 Ford Model A (the same vehicle sits in the showroom) in a parade with “Moonshiners” blatantly painted on the side. Things certainly have changed from then to now where moonshining has become a legitimate business. The trade passed down to Shayna’s parents and, after some hesitation, down to Shayna’s now husband, Kris Sustrik, who handles it all from the distilling down to the bottling at Hansen Distillery.

When we passed through the doors into their production area, we got our first glimpse of the gorgeous copper still, named The Mistress. It happened to be distilling a batch of their Barn Owl Vodka on that day. Unfortunately, I didn’t retain the exact details of the distilling process. I will chalk it up to the fact that I’m encouraging everyone who reads this to book their own tour and tasting in support of this local business. Yet, I can relay that we were allowed to taste vodka directly from the machine by dipping our finger into a tiny pool of the liquor. I probably wouldn’t do that under normal circumstances. However, Kris assured us, at 98 to 99 per cent alcohol, it was extremely sterile. The lick of vodka was strong, but also quite sweet.

Each ingredient used for their spirits are natural and/or locally sourced. The single fake ingredient (Kris was very honest about this) is the stabilizer in the cream used for their cream liqueurs, giving the products about a year of shelf life. As soon as a batch of liquor is ready, they bottle it right there. On a typical day, they’ll likely be able to do 500 bottles and labels, although the record stands at over 700. It’s actually such a small crew, that Kris pretty much has his fingerprints on every single item that leaves the warehouse.

Expanding their current line of vodka, rye, gin and moonshine, they’re just over a third of the way to finishing their first batch of rye whiskey, which by Canadian standards must be mashed, fermented and then distilled in a wood cask for a minimum of three years. When the barrels are ready, they’ll bottle and sell everything through the shop to ensure fans of Hansen Distillery get to be the first to try them. Explaining the steps and how the wood of the cask affects the flavour, I could tell that Kris is incredibly passionate about the craft. A year in, they’ve already won a couple of awards. Call it beginners luck, or perhaps it’s a real knack. Either way, Hansen Distillery seems to have a good thing going for them. If anything, they’ve come into it at the right time, acting as influencers in a new and burgeoning industry.

The tasting begins.

As the tour came to a close, we were led to a long table laid out with popcorn, water, and taster cups sitting in specially made horseshoe-shaped trays. While most of the hard liquors were quite smooth, admittedly, I’m not inclined to drink them straight, so I only had small sips of their vodka (a bit like disinfectant), Border Crossing Rye (a decent precursor to an aged whiskey), and Trouble Gin (lots of juniper berries with a hint of citrus). They absolutely knocked it out of the park with their seasonal spirits though. After initial tastes of the two cream liqueurs (Saskatoon Berry and Chocolate Hazelnut), Ring of Fire, and Cherry Rye, I went back to finish each of those off as they were all delicious on their own. The one that took me by surprise the most was the Ring of Fire. As a rye spirit, I was fully expecting not to like it, but the cinnamon really comes through and the chilli peppers provide just the right amount of heat to warm the body.

For about an hour and approximately three ounces worth of alcohol, the usual price of $7 per person for the Hansen Distillery tour and tasting is well worth it. Plus, if inclined, grab a bottle of a favourite as they’ve recently lowered the prices of their bottled spirits, passing along savings incurred when the Government of Alberta and the Alberta Liquor and Gaming Corporation reduced the markup for small manufacturers who self-distribute products. When the tour and shopping spree is over, the cozy lounge space is ideal to relax and chat over a cocktail, too. Heck, it’s so adorable that I really could picture having a wedding reception there. At about thirty seats, including the bar, it would be quite intimate. A few extra tables could be squeezed in though. It may not work for me and my fiancé. Yet, it could be another couple’s dream spot.

Overall, this was a fun, casual learning experience. Shayna and Kris have been hitting it out of the park. With more than twelve months under their belt, I wish them the best of luck as they continue building the family’s legacy. They are the true embodiment of the entrepreneurial spirit in Edmonton and Alberta, and I look to them as an example for what can be accomplished here in my hometown.

A fun use of storage in their warehouse.

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Edmonton Restaurant Review: Characters Fine Dining

A shot with the kitchen in the background.

My friend and I both love food and, every so often, we’ll gratify ourselves with a tasting menu. For the past several months, I’ve been talking about visiting Characters Fine Dining for that reason. After over 18 years in business, chef Shonn Oborowsky, who opened the restaurant when he was just 26 years of age, has truly refined his offerings. The listing of dishes found online sounded too good to pass up, and at $95 before tax and tip for seven full courses, it’s actually quite fairly priced.

So, the two of us made it our mission to visit on a miserably cold and snowy Friday night at the beginning of February. We arrived at the building on 102 Avenue and 105 Street right ahead of our 5:00 pm reservation. The host greeted us immediately as we walked through the doors and offered to take our coats. We were then seated at a table for two next to the central fireplace and in direct view of the open kitchen. Our chairs felt quite regal with their deep, high backs. As I eyed the space, I noticed how classical and rustic it looked with lots of tuscan colours, brick walls, and wooden beams. By the same token, it also had a slightly industrial feel with exposed piping and ventilation, along with metal accents.

Throughout the almost four hours we were there, only a few people dropped in for drinks and maybe a handful of other groups came in later for dinner. We were the first table dining that evening though, so the service we received was attentive. Our server allowed us a few minutes to go through the menu and available beverages. I opted to stick with water while my friend went with a Broken Negroni ($14). As we had our minds set on the tasting menu we let her know at the same time.

Characters drink menu with a glass of their Broken Negroni.

The Broken Negroni was prepared quickly and my friend was pleased with it. This cocktail was made with sweet vermouth, Campari, orange bitters and prosecco. I had a sip and found the citrus to be enjoyable and it helped to cut through the bitterness of the alcohol.

We were then given our amuse-bouche. This is a bite that is additional to the expected courses, often setting the tone for the meal. Now, this is the only thing I really had a problem with during our entire experience at Characters. When we had placed our order for supper, my friend checked with the server to ensure that her shellfish allergy wouldn’t be an issue. The server said she would let the kitchen know. Typically, the amuse-bouche served is their baby octopus. As it turns out, it is made using shellfish, so the kitchen decided to come up with something different. However, they didn’t alter the menu only for my friend, they changed it for both of us. I do understand that it simplifies things for the chefs to make the same dish for both people and that it reduces the risk of cross contamination to avoid cooking the octopus for me, but I suppose I would have appreciated them asking what I would have preferred since I didn’t have the same food restrictions.

Our alternative amuse-bouche.

In any case, the octopus was exchanged for a wooden slab topped with a large slice of cured ibérico ham, pickled cucumber and artichoke, cantaloupe, and pine nuts. Unlike the typical one-bite amuse-bouche, this one required several bites to finish and was somewhat awkward to cut on the high perch as the nuts kept falling off onto the table. I also found it funny that with a single table to cook for, the kitchen made a mistake by forgetting to plate my artichoke. I noticed it wasn’t there as the difference between my friend’s block and mine was glaring, but I wasn’t planning to bring it up. In the end, the chefs realized on their own and the server brought out the missing ingredient right before I was about to eat. Still, the combination of flavours was excellent. The salty, fatty meat paired with the sweet melon perfectly and the tartness of the pickled veggies added an extra element of surprise.

Our first course of Grilled & Smoked Sardine had the best presentation of all the dishes we ate that night. The fish was plated under a bell jar filled with smoke that slowly dissipated once lifted. Admittedly, I’m not a fan of sardine. I do like the stronger taste of the marinated fish, and the meat is often quite supple, but I do not handle bones well. It was easy enough to pull out the larger backbone; yet, the tiny, thinner bones were much more difficult to deal with. Although they are edible, I find it unpleasant to eat them, especially when and if one pricks my throat. Therefore, this was a slow course to get through as both my friend and I were careful to pick out as many bones as possible and to set them aside. Otherwise, this was pretty delectable with the smoked paprika lemon mayo, charred tomato, arugula, and the recurring artichoke.

Following the sardine, we continued with a seafood theme. This second course consisted of a slate slab laid with a small salad of baby beets, a streak of butter, a crab claw-shaped pretzel, and two rolls of horseradish crusted Beet Cured Salmon. Because of the beets, the salmon had this incredibly deep, translucent red colour and a sweetness that lingered with the smokiness. Fresh beets on the side really anchored the plate and alleviated any dry mouth due to the saltiness and starchiness of the pretzel.

Course three was another item from their appetizer menu. The Carrot Risotto was made with a carrot beurre blanc. It ended up with a super creamy texture where the carrot wasn’t really discernible until bites of the peeled or roasted carrot were had.

Beef Tartar is one of my favourite things, so our fourth course did not disappoint. I also liked that this was, again, presented differently. A handmade wooden bowl housed the round of beef tartar that was topped with an egg yolk, balsamic onions and arugula. Inside the bowl was also a long copper spoon for scooping. On the side, we were given a wooden board of grilled black bread. The bread was a warm, buttery and soft base for dollops of the melt-in-your-mouth tartar. I would have gladly had another portion.

At this point, it was sinking in that there were still three more courses to go. I felt fine and I knew I could power through, but my friend was starting to wane. She did make it through the next course of Cider Glazed Pork Belly though. Underneath the meat was braised red cabbage. On top was a helping of julienned carrots and green apple. The slab of pork belly was sizeable and so delicious as the meat was juicy on the inside yet the cider glaze and the fatty layers had rendered while cooking into this gloriously crisp and caramelized outside. This is a star and absolutely a steal at $15 for the solo appetizer on their regular menu.

The entrée came from the restaurant’s list of main courses. Regularly, the Venison Wellington costs just under $50, so the value of their tasting option becomes very apparent here. Plated with asparagus and raspberries as well as a generous amount of sauce and Miataké mushrooms, this pastry crusted venison was a rich dish. Arguably, it was worth every calorie. Even if I was full, I wouldn’t have stopped myself (my friend only managed one mouthful and then had the rest packed to go). The meat was the focus and it was ridiculously succulent. In fact, it was so tender that I’m certain the steak knives provided weren’t needed. A butter knife would have sufficed.

Dessert was our seventh and final course of the evening. Named The Honey Pot, this was a duo of a ceramic cup filled with a crème brûlée-like custard decorated with a piece of honeycomb imprinted bee pollen meringue and a square of Georgian honey cake with a piece of sponge toffee atop it. I couldn’t decide which component was my favourite — the meringue with the chocolate nibs, the bubbly sponge toffee, the dense cake with fig purée, or the thick yet smooth custard — so I alternated bites between them all while dipping my spoon into the bee-shaped sprinkling of icing sugar for added sweetness.

Considering that Characters is about to close in on twenty years of business in Edmonton and that the eatery serves impeccable dishes in a wonderful atmosphere, my friend and I were astonished to see that it was so quiet there on a Friday night. It’s a shame that it wasn’t busier. As this was my first time there, I’m hoping that this is not usual for them. The setting is too beautiful and the food is too good for this place to sit so empty. I mean, the restaurant essentially takes up the entire main floor (and basement?) of the building, so they have plenty of room and tables for many to enjoy.

Sure, the price point is a tad higher than other nearby venues, so it won’t become the norm to pop in every week or every month. Nevertheless, consider a visit to Characters Fine Dining to be an event or a treat. Once I took into account the amount of food we received and the number of hours we were there, it all made sense. Do yourself a favour and give in to the indulgence of a meal there.

Edmonton Restaurant Review: Revel Bistro & Bar

Roast Brussels Sprout Salad

From the purveyors of wine and tapas at Privada in St. Albert comes one of the latest additions to Edmonton’s restaurant scene, Revel Bistro & Bar. If a visit to the new establishment seems at all familiar, it’s likely because it resides in the refurbished Alberta Hotel building at 98 Street and Jasper Avenue. In recent years, the same location has been home to not one, but two other eateries: Tavern 1903 and Alberta Hotel Bar & Kitchen. Both had wonderful chefs at the helm, creating some truly delectable dishes, yet neither was able to last too long.

The historic and gorgeous lounge and bar.

One may even go so far as to say the spot is cursed. Superstitions aside, Revel Bistro & Bar has taken over the space with aplomb. Design-wise, they did very little to change the interior. The historic bar remains on the right side of the venue with a dining room on the left. The only difference that my friend and I could distinguish was the switch to bar top tables in the lounge. That, and a new coat closet. Otherwise, it looks almost identical to its last iteration as Alberta Hotel Kitchen & Bar (as depicted in the photo above).

My dining companion and I walked over after work, arriving early for our 5:00 pm reservation. However, there was no problem being seated in advance. The place was nearly empty at that point, and the host let us choose our own table, so we opted to sit by the windows.

We had actually studied the menu in advance on their website and we thought we had had our minds made up on the dishes we planned to order. As it turns out, the restaurant was in the midst of updating their offerings, so a few of the items we wanted were no longer available. The snack plate of charred lamb belly was gone and so was the chicken roulade.

On the plus side, the new options sounded fantastic. My friend chose to go with an Amaretto Bourbon Sour ($11) and the replacement Crispy Chicken Thighs ($25). I decided to start with the server recommended Roast Brussels Sprout Salad ($13) and continue with the main course of Manila Clams & Lamb Belly ($28).

The Amaretto Bourbon Sour was a simple, well-made cocktail that was smooth with just a bit of a kick at the back of the throat. While she sipped on that, I worked my way through the generous Roast Brussels Sprout Salad (pictured at the top of the page). It’s really similar to a salad currently found on the Privada menu, so I have a feeling they brought over one of their popular St. Albert dishes to share here. The plate consisted of brussels sprouts (slightly firm, crunchy, somewhat charred), quinoa, cranberry puree, pickled onion, sherry vinaigrette, and grated Parmesan. It was an excellent combination with small hints of bitterness from the greens, sourness from the vinaigrette, and sweetness from the pickled onion and cranberry puree. For a lighter meal that is still kind of hearty, this is a wonderful pick.

Crispy Chicken Thighs

I had originally wanted to try the chicken roulade for dinner and was disappointed to hear that they had removed it from the menu. The idea of the chicken thighs didn’t really appeal to me as much, so I skipped it. On the other hand, my friend was willing to give them a go. I’m really glad she did, too. I sampled all of the components of the plate and it was spectacular. The tender chicken had been fully deboned, and the skin was nicely crisped. The fleshy, marinated king oyster mushrooms added an earthy flavour that played well against the saltiness of the ricotta gnudi (gnocchi-like dumplings).

Manila Clams & Lamb Belly

Honestly, I felt like my Manila Clams & Lamb Belly could have been improved upon. Our server mentioned that it was the hit of the night at their New Year’s Eve event, so I thought it was a sure bet. There wasn’t anything overtly wrong with it, but it became pretty one-note about halfway through. The Alberta lamb belly was prepared with a black garlic glaze, making it really savoury. However, I don’t think enough of the fat had rendered off while the meat was cooked. It lacked the crispness that I like with perfectly made pork belly. I ended up cutting away some of the softer fats that I found to be unpleasant in the mouth. The clams were fine. They paired okay with the onion broth. The charred cabbage and fennel were decent accompaniments. What this item really needs though is some sort of starch or grain to ground the plate and make it more well-rounded.

Despite the filling food we’d polished off, we couldn’t leave without having dessert. I chose the Chocolate and Coconut ($12) while my friend went with the Cheesecake ($12). I’d say that both desserts had their pros and cons.

Chocolate and Coconut

The Chocolate and Coconut was made with a coconut bavarois as the base. Bavarois is a gelatin and whipped cream dessert that reminds me of a light flan. It was topped with hazelnut ice cream, chocolate soil, brown butter string, dehydrated chocolate mousse, Thai basil, and basil seeds. It sort of came across as an excessively complicated dish, and I believe that the strong chocolate elements overpowered any of the coconut flavour. Also, be careful not to breath in when taking a spoonful of the chocolate soil. It’s like a finely crushed cookie and I made the mistake of doing that, causing me a bit of throat irritation as I ate.

Cheesecake

I think that the Cheesecake was definitely the better of the two desserts. It was just balanced and didn’t seem to be overcompensating for anything. The cheesecake was incredibly fluffy and creamy. The tartness of the cheesecake mousse was a match made in heaven with the intense blood orange pumpkin ice cream. The sponge toffee added some needed texture. Although, I could have done with a little less of it as too much turns overly sugary and I wasn’t super keen on the stickiness of the confection on my teeth. My friend, a fan of toffee, absolutely loved it.

From this one visit, I see great potential with Revel Bistro & Bar. They have a focused menu that is at once familiar, but also adventurous. The service we received was impeccable and the atmosphere is upscale without the pomp and circumstance. Most of all, I just hope that they last. This venue has seen many talents in the kitchen and none have stuck so far. Maybe this will be the one to break the spell.

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.