Relaxed but Refined: Madison’s Grill

Did somebody say poutine?

That’s what I thought to myself when I saw the lunch menu being offered by Madison’s Grill during Downtown Dining Week. While I don’t normally have enough time to head into the core for a weekday lunch, a combination of some accrued overtime and sheer desire to try Chef Blair Lebsack’s upscale take on poutine drove me to make a reservation.

Though the restaurant was nearly empty when Mack and I arrived, it quickly filled up with diners from nearby office towers, many who seemed eager to partake in the special pre-fixe deals before us. In the elegant dining room, seated at the table clothed in white, the polished hardwood gleaming in the late morning sunlight, it was easy to just relax. And while I do enjoy the quick-serve options of my usual Chinatown lunches, the refined setting provided a nice change of pace.

I knew I had my heart set on the braised Spring Creek Ranch short rib poutine ($15) before I even entered the restaurant, but that’s not to say that the regular lunch menu did not have its own allure. From the Sylvan Star grilled cheese sandwich ($15) to the Irving’s pulled Berkshire pork sandwich ($16) and the grilled scallop and prawn risotto ($19), it was clear to both of us that this wouldn’t be our last daytime visit to Madison’s. Mack had to fight the urge to order a second helping of poutine, but eventually decided upon the prawn orzo ($15).

Before our food arrived, Blair was nice enough to chat with us for a bit. When I said I was surprised to find Sylvan Star cheese curds on the menu, he replied that the award-winning company only makes them a few times a year. For the occasion of Downtown Dining Week, Madison’s put in an order for 10 kg of curds! He also noted that the sauce Robert “gravy” was a reference not only to the French brown mustard sauce, but also to his Chef de Cuisine, Robert.

Our food was promptly delivered, and yes, I am happy to say that the poutine lived up to my high expectations. The squeaky cheese was divine, stringing errant fries together under a delicious gravy bath. And what of the short ribs? Off the bone came the meat, with just the right proportion of luxurious fat to enhance the tender richness of every bite.

Braised Spring Creek Ranch short rib poutine

Mack was equally enthralled with his prawn orzo (though he did slightly regret not ordering the poutine after a small taste). He thought the pasta had been cooked perfectly, and liked the combination of the prawn cream sauce and warm prawn salsa.

Prawn orzo

We were satisfied with our mains, and so declined the offer of a dessert menu from our server. Little did we know, Blair had a sweet surprise in store for us anyway, and brought over a complimentary trio of truffles. Beautifully plated, my favourite was the almond-coated round, with the flavour and texture of the toasted nuts pairing well with the dark chocolate. Mack preferred the orange-flavoured truffle.

Trio of truffles

Our lunch at Madison’s Grill was a breath of fresh air, and left us both relaxed and ready to return to work. It’s a safe bet we will be back soon.

Madison’s Grill (in the Union Bank Inn)
10053 Jasper Avenue
(780) 401-2222

A Love Letter to Local Food: Farmers’ Market Dinner at Madison’s Grill

When I saw the menu for the third Farmers’ Market Dinner at Madison’s Grill, I couldn’t look away. Sylvan Star Cheese fondue? Nature’s Green Acres short ribs? Greens, Eggs and Ham duck confit? Not only did every dish sound delicious, but the ingredients for nearly the entire dinner had been sourced locally. Moreover, several producers would be joining us for the meal. We were in.

The fact that the dinner cost $70 per person (plus $30 for wine pairings) was a moot point when I made our reservations two weeks prior. But after the fact, I can wholeheartedly say that the experience was worth every dollar.

It was a little comical that we made our way to the Union Bank Inn on Friday via public transportation, but then again, it didn’t make sense to drive, particularly in the dinner’s context of sustainability. After our coats were taken, we joined a couple seated at one of the two tables in the Vintage Room, right by the fireplace. Meals at a communal table have to do with the luck of the draw sometimes, but fortunately for us that night, Monique and Patrick and Slow Foodies Nicole and Steve provided us with good company, and enhanced our evening with lovely conversation.

My only criticism was the packed quarters – I felt bad for the servers who had to work between a too-narrow space between the two tables (resulting in a few dropped dishes). I had to wonder if the decision to include an additional eight seats beyond their original limit of twenty was the right call.

The cocktail hour was accented by dainty hors d’oeuvres – including smoked salmon, beef tartar, and Fairwinds Farm goat cheese tartlets. The beef tartar was particularly excellent.

Smoked salmon tartlets

Before the meal began, Chef Blair Lebsack invited the two producers up to provide some background on their farms. Andres Gruenberg (of Greens, Eggs and Ham) and Eric and Ruby Chen (of Peas on Earth), gave us snapshots of their production, and were ever gracious about the work that they do. Blair then proceeded to introduce the appetizer course – descriptions also accompanied every subsequent dish, and was much appreciated. It was obvious that Blair has a lot of respect for local producers (having visited their farms and all), so it was great to hear about some of the cooking processes he used to create the dishes.

The Sylvan Star Cheese fondue came in individual servings, much to my delight (not that I wouldn’t have shared, heh). The grilled apple, Saskatoon berry compote and spicy pine nuts were fancy accompaniments, but I probably would have been happy just with baguette slices and cheese. Yum.

Sylvan Star Cheese Fondue

The Northern Alberta Pike fillet (from Lesser Slave Lake) was a favourite of some around our table. Wrapped in Pembina Pork bacon and topped with candied bacon(!), it was a surprisingly subtle course, with each element holding its own. The fish had been cooked perfectly, and the underlying shellfish and golden beet broth lent an earthy note to the dish. Not surprisingly, Mack loved the candied bacon.

Northern Alberta Pike Fillet

The cleverly named Duck, Duck, Goose was my personal favourite. Andres had asked Blair why he hadn’t been ordering goose, which spurned experimentation in his kitchen. Both birds were served two ways – in-house smoked duck breast atop potato-onion hash, an absolutely sublime pulled duck confit with braised leeks and parsnip puree, slow roasted goose breast with sour cherry pan jus and goose rillette on toast points. The servings may look deceivingly small, but it packed a hefty punch – and had Mack been momentarily distracted, I would have swiped some of his duck confit.

Duck, Duck, Goose

As I had the chance to visit Nature’s Green Acres last summer, I was looking forward to trying their Nouveau Beef again (butchering at seven months lends the beef its name). The braised short ribs did not disappoint – meltingly tender, the flavour in the meat was inherent. The mushroom confit and mushroom-marrow farce were great accompaniments, and mirrored the beef’s richness.

Braised Nouveau Beef Short Ribs

By that point in the meal, I’m sure I would have been satisfied with flavoured whipped cream for dessert, but of course, Blair did not disappoint, and ended the dinner with a bang. The white chocolate pecan brownie had been doused in a duck egg-EnSante wine sabayon and macerated berries – every bite was a textural firework of nutty, tart sweetness.

White Chocolate Brownie

The dinner was a love letter to local food, no question, and I was especially thankful for the opportunity to share a meal with some of the city’s wonderful producers. Shopping at a farmers’ market or even visiting a farm is one thing, but breaking bread is something else altogether. Blair said that another Farmers’ Market Dinner is in the works for March, though patrons would probably get something similar by ordering the chef’s 6-course “Menu Surprise” – a tasting menu that allows the chef to utilize producers that cannot offer great quantities of ingredients.

Thanks to Blair and the staff at Madison’s Grill for a wonderful evening!

Madison’s Grill (in the Union Bank Inn)
10053 Jasper Avenue
(780) 401-2222

Meet the Locals Food Festival

On Thursday night I headed out to Planet Organic in Old Strathcona to take in their first ever Meet the Locals Food Festival.

Meet the Locals Food Festival

Meet the Locals celebrates local food producers and manufacturers, and is deliberately set during a time when some believe local food production stops – the organizers wanted to draw attention to homegrown food that is available seasonally and year round. And as Planet Organic locations in Edmonton stock about three dozen products from area companies, they definitely have a strong base to draw from.

Grainworks display

The festival has two components: tasting tables and cooking demonstrations. On that night, six local companies were on hand providing customers with product samples. I had the chance to try some elk from Shooting Star Ranch (so incredibly tender), flatbreads made with wholesome and filling lentil, chickpea and whole wheat flour by Rio Vita, fresh bagels from Henderson Bagels, hummus and spanakopita (still warm) from Supreme Georgio’s Fine Foods, and chocolate from Kerstin’s Chocolates.

Rio Vita Flatbreads

I also had the chance to chat with Emily from Mighty Trio Organics, a company located near Redwater that produces cold-pressed, unrefined hemp, flaxseed and canola oils. I was particularly interested in the canola oil, which is made from GMO-free canola sourced from a farm twenty minutes away from them. Though I have heard the term “cold-pressed” before, I didn’t really know what it meant – Emily explained that when manufacturing the oil, cold-pressed oil is not heated to beyond 40 degrees Celsius, preserving the essential nutrients in the oil. She poured me a bit of oil to sample, and I was blown away by it – orange in colour, more viscous than conventionally-made oil, and possessing a slightly floral aroma, it tasted richer and unlike any canola oil I have tried before. I would imagine that like most high-quality products, I would end up using less of this oil in cooking. They didn’t have the oil in stock that day, but I will be heading back soon to pick up a bottle for myself.

I also stayed on for the first of two cooking demonstrations by Madison’s Grill Executive Chef Blair Lebsack.

Blair Lebsack

Blair’s commitment to supporting local farms was apparent throughout his forty-five minute class, as he talked about personally visiting all of the farms that supply products to Madison’s Grill. On the menu, besides the Sylvan Star Cheese gouda, apple-pear compote and crackers, were a spinach and radish salad with goat yogurt dressing and a bacon cassoulet topped with bison sirloin.

His meal utilized no less than eight local products, including Fairwinds Farm yogurt, Alley Kat Raspberry Mead, black eyed peas from Grainworks, bacon from TK Ranch and bison from Olson’s High Country Buffalo.

The dressing on the spinach salad was superb, and it was just a simple combination of vanilla goat yogurt and sherry vinegar. I also had to commend Blair on his attention to detail – prior to the start of the cooking class, he removed all of the stems from the baby spinach leaves. When an attendee asked why he was doing that, he explained that it made the salad easier to eat, and negated the potential hazard of a diner getting spinach stuck in their teeth. The restaurant would then use the stems for purees to ensure that nothing was wasted.

Spinach and Radish Salad with Goat Yogurt Dressing

He also incorporated what he believed to be under-utilized vegetables into the meal – radishes in the salad and celery root in the cassoulet. I have to say that my favourite part of the cassoulet wasn’t the vegetables or the beans, but the bison striploin that topped it. With a sprinkle of salt to finish, it was a perfect bite of steak.

Cassoulet with Bison Striploin

As Meet the Locals is taking place once a week for three months, you still have a chance to check it out in December and January. And until then, although farmers’ markets are great places to shop and interact directly with food producers every week, it’s hard to beat the convenience of a store like Planet Organic that offers local products seven days a week.

Meet the Locals Food Festival at Planet Organic, 7917-104 Street
Continues December 14-20 and January 11-17
Tasting Tables: Monday-Friday 3-6pm, Saturday 10am-4pm, Sunday 12-4pm
Cooking Demonstrations: December 14 and January 11 at 6:30pm with Julianna Mimande, co-author of We Eat Together; December 17 and January 14 at 6:30pm and 7:30pm with Gail Hall of Seasoned Solutions; January 16 at 6:30pm and 7:30pm with Sebastian Lysz of Relish Culinary Consulting