First off, thank you to Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen for getting me back into the swing of blogging again; it feels like it’s been awhile since the last restaurant review! With a grand opening last Thursday, dinner at the old Tavern 1903 space (may it rest in peace) on Jasper Avenue and 98th Street, was one of my most memorable meals for 2015 and something I did not expect on the first day of full service. Outstanding feedback from those who ate during the month of soft opening had given me high hopes and I was pleasantly surprised that those were met. A second meal this Saturday for Andrea’s birthday dinner paled in comparison, which confirms my belief that no restaurant is ever perfect upon opening. I am, however, impressed at the restaurant’s potential.
Built in 1903, the Alberta Hotel was the epitome of luxury, the first to include an automatic call bell, elevators and in-room showers. Doesn’t sound like much today, but at the time, that was the real deal. It stood as a main fixture in Edmonton’s downtown core until 1984, where it was disassembled brick by brick and restructured in 2011. It really does seem like it was just yesterday that I was sitting at Tavern 1903 and enjoying some Korean Fried Cauliflower, thinking I would have the chance to revisit numerous times in order to do a thorough review. Alas, due to disagreements with the landlords, Tavern 1903 closed its doors and made way only a few months later for the announcement of Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen, run by Chef de Cuisine Spencer Thompson of Toast Fine Catering in the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market and General Manager and bartender Brandon Baker, previously of Three Boars Eatery.
I’ve had a chance to try Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen twice now since their grand opening. My first was a reservation for 9pm, a much needed “second” dinner after a long day at work. Step one to recovery: drinks. I love the fact that all the cocktails have a year and bartender or mixologist noted on the menu, a much appreciated nod to their respective origins. It’s hard not to try one of Brandon Baker’s creations, so I ordered ‘The Absent Sun – Solstice Vodka, Green Chartreuse, Bénédictine, Hopped Grapefruit Bitters, Cinnamon’. I’m no expert in cocktails by any means, in fact, you can regard me as knowing absolutely nothing about it. All I know was that my drink smelled absolutely delicious but tasted overwhelmingly strong in alcohol and lacking in sweetness for balance. Cinnamon was notable though which made the drink a bit easier to sip throughout the night, even if it wasn’t to my personal taste. Joe was happy with his drink of choice, a glass of 2010 Borgo Di Colloredo from Italy.
For grand opening night, a three-course menu was offered for $55, and included an amuse bouche and complementary sparkling wine. With the ‘Beef Tenderloin’ course already going for $38 a la carte, it made sense for both Joe and I to go with the three courses as diners were still able to choose which dishes they desired.
Strangely enough, our starters were served before our amuse bouche and sparkling wine, a small hiccup in service to start our night. Joe ordered the ‘Bone Marrow Agnolotti’, one of my favourites for the night. Wild mushrooms and precious packets of agnolotti were sautéed in a brown butter sauce and poured over a celery root puree that was served inside the bone. It was a rich starter, with portions inching towards a main dish, but I’m not complaining. The agnolotti seemed to have lost it’s envelope shape, perhaps the dough a tad too thin, but otherwise a very successful dish.
I ordered the ‘Duck Duo’ (available only on the grand opening menu): a smoked duck breast and pâté, beet macaron, and saskatoon jam. The duck was cooked perfectly, although just a hair under seasoned. The beet macaron had fantastic flavours coming through and melted in your mouth and was eerily similar to the older North 53’s dehydrated beet meringue. My pâté was well seasoned, which balanced the dish overall, although I found myself reaching over to Joe’s starter a bit too often. Sorry Joe.
After some prodding, our amuse bouche came out with our sparkling wine after our plates were cleared. Our server didn’t exactly introduce us to the bites, although she had briefly mentioned the words salmon, goat cheese, and crostini when tempting us to do the grand opening menu earlier on in the night.
Joe seemed to be getting all the money makers that night, his ‘Beef Tenderloin’ (available only on the grand opening menu) was tender, succulent, and absolutely perfect. A large oxtail ravioli accompanied the star of the show, along with a roasted Belgian endive and a smooth potato purée. I only managed to grab a small bite of the purée and without any jus, I thought might have been a bit under seasoned again for my particular taste but Joe wiped the plate clean!
Our server had suggested to order the ‘Pembina Pork Cheeks’ and I had entrusted her with my main order and dessert. She had mentioned that the buttermilk polenta was outstanding. It was. I don’t even like polenta. Rarely do I even order it for fear of grittiness. This was the best polenta I have ever had, and was actually a part of Chef Spencer Thompson’s menu during his battle in Edmonton Food Fight (minus the lamb testicles, obviously). The pork cheek was done perfectly, falling to bits at the first touch of a fork and the whole dish was balanced with a housemade tomato jam and more of those wonderful wild mushrooms. A+. Actually, A++.
At this point I was skeptical that dessert would carry on the high, but Pastry Chef Kai Wong’s menu really pulled through. Joe’s ‘Alberta Hotel Banana Smores’ justified the restaurant’s name in its title, a deconstructed concept of chocolate ganache, finely ground graham crumbs, whipped marshmallow, and a housemade banana ice cream using the kitchen’s new liquid nitrogen toys. Joe got all opinionated about why dishes would need to be deconstructed in the first place, but he’ll need to start his own blog if he wants to share. Doesn’t matter if it was put together all as a single bite or its components beautifully plated individually on the plate, I was a big fan.
My ‘Cheesecake’ (a gluten free option!) was fantastic in consistency, and in combination with bites of the red currant jelly and lemon curd made a nice refreshing way to end the meal. Although described as an “almond sponge”, I thought the cheesecake base was denser than its descriptor, but who cares? It just tasted good and kept my mouth saying “yes” while my stomach was saying “please stop… bursting… with food…”.
What I loved about Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen was its transparency on sources of ingredients. On the back of the seasonal menus, thanks are given to the restaurant’s local suppliers, including Chef Thompson’s family farm, Paradise Fields. I was happy to see a lot of farms and producers listed were easily accessible at the Old Strathcona Farmer’s Market, no doubt through Chef Thompson’s Toast Fine Catering great connections and relationships. I wholeheartedly thank Mona Foods for providing such amazing wild mushrooms to a majority of the dishes on the menu. I only wished my much younger mushroom-hating self had discovered this earlier in life. Mushrooms are amazing.
Our night ended with a quick tour of the kitchen as the crew was cleaning up, and it was such a great way to share Chef Thompson’s excitement about the opening. You know when a child comes up to you and shares with you their brand new toy for Christmas? He’ll tell you everything about where he first saw the toy to how he begged his parents for it to how he unwrapped the gift then down to every function and detail of the toy. That’s exactly how I felt listening to Chef Thompson in his kitchen and about the food. Just sheer excitement and joy over the whole thing! Twinkly eyes too. I love that about passionate chefs and it really did show in the meal.
I had such high hopes for a repeat experience for Saturday’s dinner. A group of fourteen of us came to celebrate Little Miss Andrea’s birthday, each and every one of us ready to dig in to the menu. Our tables were unable to be joined due to fire codes, which admittedly caused an awkward service with one table receiving their dishes whilst the last table just starting to order. A bit disjointed although not due to anybody’s fault. I ordered the ‘Beef Carpaccio’ to start, thinly sliced and topped with The Cheesiry’s pecorino, pea tendrils and drizzled with cold pressed canola oil. Aside from the crostini, the meat was under seasoned and lacking in a good hit of black pepper. It made me wish I had ordered the ‘Bone Marrow Agnolotti’ again! But that’s why food friends are the best friends because thankfully, there were two agnolotti dishes ordered at my table. Surprisingly enough, one tasted completely different from the other (lack of brown butter coming through, and a difference in proportions of mushrooms). Some of the other tables were left with broken envelopes of pasta, making consistency between our orders quite noticeable. Methinks the kitchen was in the weeds for the busy night… or perhaps somebody went on a smoke break.
Although tempted to reorder the ‘Pembina Pork Cheeks’ just for that creamy, buttermilk polenta, I decided to try the ‘Duck Breast’. My particular breast was done medium rare although not quite as pink as my tablemate’s, perhaps a result of slicing too soon and not letting it rest. Noooo, my juices! I was happy to see the brussels sprouts well seasoned (perhaps by a heavier hand) and a smooth carrot puree. The roasted pears were quite sweet and overcooked, making it a bit disjointed from the rest of the dish.
Diane ordered the ‘Manitoba Pickerel’, which ended up being the most well balanced dish of the night in my opinion. For my taste, a touch more seasoning would have boded well for the gin and tomato broth, although I appreciated how much you could taste the heirloom tomatoes and zucchini.
A ‘Crème Brûlée Duo’ was on the dessert menu that was previously not available to order at grand opening night. I am a big fan of crème brûlée. No joke, if it’s on the menu, I have no choice but to order it. Much like duck. Apple cider was dominant in the first, as was the dark chocolate in the second. This isn’t crème brûlée with a hint of “x”. It was bang on, in your face. Which I thought was a good surprise. I wished the apple cider had set a bit more before torching but all in all, seemed consistent with how the evening was going.
What happened? My first experience was fan-friggin-tastic! Did I go in with too much high expectations on Saturday? Did our table of fourteen affect service and the kitchen? I’ll never know what really happened but what I do know is that if Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen advocates for honesty and transparency of their food, then so will I of my opinions. The potential for Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen to become one of Edmonton’s heaviest hitters is incredible, it really is. Consistency is always one of the biggest challenges for a kitchen. Pumping out the exact same dishes over and over again is what I rely on when I do a review and I only hope that when readers go to a restaurant based on my recommendations that they will get the same experience, if not better, than what I wrote about. I will most definitely be back to Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen (lunch menu prices look extremely reasonable and a ‘Bratwurst Burger’ calling my name) and retry my favourite dishes. Congratulations to Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen on their opening and may all the kinks and hiccups be ironed out in order to showcase its true potential!Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen
9802 Jasper Avenue