Downtown Dining Week 2017: Atlas Steak + Fish and Crash Lobby Bar

Running from March 10-19, 2017 this year, Downtown Dining Week remains the last event offering prix fixe (fixed price) menus in Edmonton. Given the number of restaurants that have opened Downtown over the last few months, it’s a great way to test them out with a lower overhead cost.

I took advantage of the two new additions to the roster – Atlas Steak + Fish (in the Grand Villa Casino) and Crash Lobby Bar (in the renovated Grand Hotel, now known as Crash Hotel). They were both offering deals too good to pass up.

Atlas Steak + Fish

First up, I met up with Linda for lunch on Friday at Atlas. The casino was quiet at noon, but it was obvious the word was out about the Downtown Dining Week specials as the restaurant was half full. Our server was clearly a bit panicked – he was being run off his feet as he shared that they weren’t expecting it to be as busy as it was. I understand that it may be difficult for new Downtown Dining Week participants to predict the potential uptake in business, but given this is likely the introduction for many to the business, I wonder why restaurants would risk leaving a poor first impression.

At any rate, Linda and I were excited about the $15 two-course lunch, particularly because it was our first time at the restaurant. Atlas has the gleam of a modern day steakhouse – the leather and wood banquets that you would expect, but reflective ceiling accents and statement light fixtures that you wouldn’t. I also appreciated that there was a generous amount of space between the tables – something that is becoming more rare with most new establishments.

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Atlas Steak + Fish

The bread course we started with was noteworthy – there are few things more comforting than warm bread. Atlas serves their house-made dinner rolls warm in cast iron pans, brushed with blue cheese butter and sprinkled with coarse salt. Thankfully for me (not a blue cheese fan), the flavour wasn’t so pronounced, and I was able to enjoy them.

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House made blue cheese butter buns

Linda selected the salad appetizer – the house salad with mixed greens, daikon, beets, carrots, almonds, goat cheese, and white balsamic dressing. It was certainly an aesthetically pleasing plate, but Linda was hoping for more substantial beet flavour, instead of beet curls as a garnish. I ordered the squash soup with spiced oat crumble and cherry balsamic. The squash had been smoked in their special Josper oven (what they use to prepare all of their steaks), and the smoky flavour was definitely notable. It was a very smooth puree, but I did appreciate the added texture from the crumble.

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Smoked squash soup

For mains, Linda was swayed by the off-menu prime rib special. I found it to be a tad too fatty for my taste, but she didn’t mind it as much. I opted for the spaghetti carbonara with Josper smoked pork belly, garlic, parsley crumbs, grana padano, and poached egg. The egg was perfectly soft poached (and beautiful in presentation), but as I typically prefer my carbonara creamier, I would have chosen a more traditional preparation of coating the pasta with the egg.

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Spaghetti carbonara

Service was spotty; we had to flag down the server on multiple occasions – for a soup spoon, for the bill, to pack up leftovers. Again, I think he did his best in the understaffed circumstances. Based on the food alone, I’d consider returning, but I would hope for better service on future occasions.

Crash Lobby Bar (inside the Crash Hotel)

Downtown’s former Grand Hotel has been undergoing full-scale renovations over the past few years. First came Denizen Hall, which opened in the hotel at the end of 2014, offering relaxed pub fare alongside restored retro arcade games. Then, Crash Hotel, with its initial phase of 25 rooms and refurbished lobby tavern, followed suit two years later. Urban Sparq Hospitality (who also run Knoxville Tavern, The Pint and Beercade) operates both Denizen Hall and the Lobby Bar, but has wisely chosen to distinguish them in feel and food. While Nate Box (of Elm Cafe) had been asked to create the menu at Denizen, Nathin Bye (formerly of Wildflower Grill and Ampersand 27) was brought in for Lobby Bar.

The space of the Lobby Bar (which shares the same entryway as the the hotel front desk) definitely resembles its sister restaurant, with identical wood paneling, leather banquets, and some of the same furniture. However, it is brighter, smaller in size and more open, with a reflective tin ceiling and a focus-pulling bar. And though two screens were tuned to the Oilers broadcast during our visit, the sound was muted in favour of a pop/dance soundtrack.

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Crash Lobby Bar

Mack and I stopped by on Sunday night to take advantage of the $28 three-course offering. Two of the three dishes could be selected from their regular menu, so it was a great way to sample several of their dishes in one shot.

As mentioned, the menu is quite a bit different than the comfort food-oriented fare found at Denizen Hall. The dishes at Crash Lobby Bar are more refined, less likely to require a deep fryer, and follow the trend of small plates meant to be shared. We did so with our four dishes.

The pork n’ beans was not something I would have expected to find here – sweet and sour honey scented shoulder, served alongside a trio of beans and kale. Everything was well prepared, and the pork was nicely flavoured.

Crash Lobby

Pork n’ beans

The meatballs, a mixture of beef and pork, looked promising, were unfortunately on the dry side, even when doused in the tomato sauce bath.

Crash Lobby

Meatballs

My favourite dish of the evening was the Crash take on beef and broccoli, with a 72 hour braised Alberta beef short rib. I loved the subtly sweet glaze, and the meat was perfectly tender and moist. The smoky, crispy house-made hickory sticks sealed the deal for me.

Crash Lobby

Alberta beef short rib

Mack’s favourite was the Crash burger, topped with aged cheddar, braised short rib, and a perfectly cooked sunny side up egg – it may have been messy but it was worth it. He also appreciated the deep fried pickle on the side.

Crash Lobby

Crash burger

Our third course was the dessert of the day, a cookies and cream cheesecake with a house-made berry compote. It was rich and satisfied our sweet tooth, but in some ways felt like an afterthought when compared with the previous courses.

Crash Lobby

Cheesecake

Service was good – the space was only about half full, but we were well taken care of. I certainly had a better overall experience at Crash Lobby Bar than at Atlas, and wouldn’t hesitate to return again.

Downtown Dining Week runs from March 10 – March 19, 2017 – check out the menus here.

Date Night: Tzin and Theatresports

Mack and I are fortunate to live on a street where there are so many great restaurants, but the truth is, when we’re at home, we typically end up dining in. As a result, we generally don’t eat out at the establishments closest to us, though we walk past them almost every day. So during Downtown Dining Week, we made a conscious decision to make a reservation at Tzin, the charming little wine bar just down the street from our condo, our first stop after work last Friday.

Tzin was packed, as per usual – reservations are a must at this 18-seat restaurant. It is such a warmly designed room, from the autumnal colours to the rich tapestries and throw pillows. Though seating is quite intimate (we were inches away from the next tables), space is cleverly utilized – from the closet slotted in the alcove between the kitchen and the front door, to the purse hooks located on the table posts.

We loved that the $50 3-course prix fixe menu featured several dishes off of Tzin’s regular menu, which provides a better snapshot of what the restaurant can do on a regular basis (as opposed to a special menu designed just for the occasion). It also offered us some choice, as we were able to select from two different appetizers, entrees and desserts. No question both Mack and I were felled by the promise of braised Irvings Farm bacon to start, but deviated for the rest of the meal.

The braised bacon raised the bar high right from the start. The thick-cut pork belly was braised to perfection; the fat just melted away, complemented by a balsamic apple compote and calvados gastrique. We both remarked that we would come back for this dish alone.

TZiN

Braised bacon

Mack enjoyed his chicken breast supreme well enough. My Four Whistle Farm rack of lamb was cooked to medium rare, but I would have preferred more aggressive spices. Likely, this was done on purpose, to balance with the underlay of harissa couscous, but it ended up meaning the starch provided the dominant flavour.

TZiN

Chicken supreme

TZiN

Rack of lamb

Dessert left us wanting more. The flourless chocolate torte, encased in a velvety chocolate ganache was bliss on a plate. Mack, who usually skips dessert, devoured his warm gingerbread cake, drizzled with Kracken rum caramel. The accompanying brown butter ice cream was so good we thought about asking Chef Corey McGuire to start hawking this flavour on the street in warmer climes.

TZiN

Warm gingerbread cake and flourless chocolate torte

Proprietor Kelsey Danyluk is the consummate host, and always takes care of her diners. Her wine recommendations are always spot on, too! The kitchen was also extremely efficient – we were never left waiting long for the next dish.

I look forward to our next visit to Tzin – we’ll have to make sure to take advantage of its patio when the time comes!

After dinner, Mack and I walked over to the Citadel Theatre to take in Theatresports. Since Rapid Fire Theatre relocated downtown last fall, we’ve been meaning to check out their new home at Zeidler Hall.

The 7:30pm show that night was probably a smaller crowd than usual, but it did give the audience members a better chance that one of their suggestions would be taken up by the improvisers.

Rapid Fire Theatre

Matt Alden welcomes the audience

We watched several teams duke out one another in a series of improv challenges. As each team had to incorporate suggestions from the audience, it guaranteed that no show is the same. We were amazed by how quick-witted the actors were, and how the vignettes ended up in unpredictable, but hilarious places (such as a spontaneous song about Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan).

For $12, we thought that the ticket price was well worth the entertainment. You can look for Theatresports every Friday at 7:30pm and 10pm, while Chimprov, Rapid Fire’s long-form improv show, runs every Saturday at 10pm.

Tzin
10115 104 Street
(780) 428-8946

Rapid Fire Theatre
Zeidler Hall @ the Citadel Theatre, 9828 101A Ave

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

Edmonton’s Downtown Dining Week: Stagnant and Uninspired?

Though superhero Daryl Katz has been in the news of late for his plans to singlehandedly revitalize downtown Edmonton, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the city’s core has been on a steady upswing over the past few years. From the Paramount Theatre reclamation by the City Centre Church, to the trendy development of the 104th Street Warehouse District, to the stunning new Art Gallery of Alberta, there have been many positive changes in recent years.

Of course, the annual festivals that roll into Churchill Square during the summer months are a yearly guarantee of crowds, but I think the off-season events are even more important. To convince people that downtown Edmonton is a vibrant year-round destination, arts and cultural institutions, nightlife, and events are vital in the crafting of a core culture apart from warm-weather hot dogs and buskers.

To that effect, I think Downtown Dining Week (this year in its seventh incarnation) should be the jewel in the Downtown Business Association’s crown. Food has an uncanny ability to excite people, and dinner and drinks are often just the start of a night out. If presented well, I don’t see why discounted pre-fixe meals couldn’t be the successful lynchpin of a favourable downtown introduction to those unfamiliar with the district.

I wrote last year about how, in my opinion, the DBA is failing to engage those that don’t already frequent downtown restaurants, and seem to be satisfied with the status quo. There is no doubt that the DBA has to work a little harder – with Original Fare hosting Fork Fest, their own pre-fixe food festival twice a year, Downtown Dining Week doesn’t have the luxury of being the only discount menu event in the city. Still, with a self-proclaimed mission of encouraging people to “live, work, shop, play and learn” in the core, I think the way Downtown Dining Week is currently being organized (and promoted) is a missed opportunity. Sure, the number of restaurants participating in the promotion has increased each year, to a “record” 29 in 2010 (keeping in mind that the total number of restaurants downtown has also increased this year), but the event itself is stagnant.

A quick gander at the Dine Out Calgary site leaves me with a feeling of festival envy – the city-wide 91 participating restaurants notwithstanding, their event includes opportunities to dine with local food critic John Gilchrist, wine and chocolate seminars and cooking classes. I’m left with many questions – why hasn’t the DBA attempted similar events, which no doubt would get people excited about food, chefs, and ultimately, downtown Edmonton? There is no shortage of talent, or ideas – Gail Hall, who herself lives downtown on 104th Avenue, could speak at a luncheon; Kelsey Danyluk and Neil Chamberlain of TZiN could teach a food and wine pairing seminar; Moriarty’s, with their Enomatic wine system could host a wine tasting; and Paul Schufelt of Hundred, always innovative and currently dabbling in sous vide techniques, could lead a cooking class. Even better, the DBA could help celebrate the new AGA  by hosting a “dine out and art” night with a package meal and gallery tour deal.

More than partnerships with non-food establishments, however, I think the best asset of Downtown Dining Week is the proximity of restaurants to one another (especially when compared with Calgary’s version). The variety of both casual and formal eateries and bars is fantastic, and if one of the goals is to encourage people to return after this event, shouldn’t DDW be organized so establishments are given maximum opportunities for exposure? For example, a package deal could include a beer and a share plate at The Hat, followed by entrees at Kai Asian Grill. Or dinner at ZINC, then dessert at the Harvest Room in the Hotel Macdonald.

Unlike last year, I decided to contact the DBA with some questions, given that they were probably not aware of my previous comments. I first e-mailed Victoria Boutilier, Communications Coordinator, on February 16, hoping to meet her for a coffee to chat about DDW.  Eventually, it was determined that my questions would be answered by e-mail, so I sent them to her on Wednesday, and finally received a response this morning. I think the answers speak for themselves.

How were the price points reached? Though some may say the recession has since passed, the high end of a $50 meal, which would be over $100 for two with tax and gratuity (and without beverages), is still pricey. The other route, of course, would be to ask restaurants to offer a tasting menu ($75-$80), which would include 4-5 courses, and could offer a better value.

When the program began 7 years ago, the price points were $15, $25, and $35. Based on the feedback received from restaurants it was determined that most found it challenging to offer a high-quality three course meal for $35. It was then that we decided to increase the last price point to not only accommodate feedback from participating restaurants, but as a way to encourage more restaurants to come on board. As a result, the program has grown to encompass a variety of restaurants, from ethnic and pub-style, to trendy and fine-dining. This approach was quite successful as we have had great feedback from both patrons and restaurants. A tasting menu would be a great idea to incorporate for the future if restaurants are interested in offering this.

Although the number of participating restaurants has increased this year (taking into account that the number of operating restaurants has also increased), Downtown Dining Week as a program has remained the same for the past few years. How has the DBA considered expanding the event? For example, Dine Out Calgary has organized a “lunch with” food critic John Gilchrist in as a part of their festivities, in addition to wine tastings and cooking classes. Has the DBA considered hosting similar events?

In 2008 the Downtown Dining Week program had 17 participating restaurants. Just two years later, there are 29 participating restaurants which is a testament to the growth and development of the program. We have also incorporated a contesting component to the event in partnership with Global Edmonton and the Edmonton Journal. It is definitely part of the plan to continue expansion of Downtown Dining Week and we look forward seeing both the DBA and downtown restaurants establishing new initiatives as the program grows. 

In my opinion, the best asset of Downtown Dining Week is proximity – all of the participants are within walking distance of one another. Has the DBA ever considered asking restaurant to partner up (e.g. dinner at Ruth’s, night cap at Moriarty’s; cocktail and appetizer at TZiN, dinner at Sabor Divino)? It would help with exposure of the area’s variety, which seems to be the goal of DDW.

Downtown Dining Week is a collaborative effort to get people to experience the diverse dining scene downtown. We promote downtown Edmonton as the place to live, work, shop, play and learn so for this particular program our focus is to get people to come downtown for dinner and then stay downtown to catch a movie, a show at the Winspear Centre or Citadel Theatre, to check out the new Art Gallery of Alberta, and the like.

Even though this is the seventh year of Downtown Dining Week, many people in the city still aren’t aware of this food festival. What has the DBA done to try and engage those that don’t live or work in the core? Particularly in light of the social media trends in the city?

The Downtown Dining Week program is the biggest it’s ever been. This year, we have expanded our advertising (through increased sponsorships) to include television, newspaper, and magazine. We have also turned to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook as a means to get the word out to the online community. In addition to these marketing developments, the Downtown Business Association has also enhanced the features on their website to better promote the program and make it easier for our visitors to get the information they need about the program. There has also been an increased focus on the pre-promotion of the program – with extensive and detailed collateral pieces that will be distributed throughout the city and surrounding areas before the event takes place. The Downtown Business Association is confident that with all of our cumulative promotional strategies, Edmontonians will become more aware of the program this year and will look forward to it year after year.

I noticed that Sysco is a partner/sponsor of Downtown Dining Week. What does their sponsorship entail? How does this align with the participating establishments that celebrate local food (Hardware Grill, Madison’s Grill)? How does this align with Edmonton’s recently passed Municipal Development Plan that preserves local farm land (and signals the City’s support of local food)?

This is the first year that Sysco has come on board as a sponsor of the event. They have numerous clients involved in the program and, as the Downtown Business Association promotes all downtown restaurants, we felt this was a great new relationship to build. We are also supportive of local food establishments and encourage people to dine out locally. Organizations such as Keep Edmonton Original and Original Fare are doing a great job in promoting many different local companies and restaurants throughout the city, including several retail and food establishments in the Downtown area.

Although some of Victoria’s answers could lead me to believe that the DBA is heading in the right direction (considering tasting menus, joining the social media fray), the general and vague nature of the responses overall leave me with the feeling that the Downtown Business Association really hasn’t given one of their premiere events much thought on how the festival could really grow and expand to highlight some of Edmonton’s best restaurants in a burgeoning area of the city. More than anything, I am disappointed in their lack of initiative and failure to make the most of a promising concept.

Exceptional Service: Pradera Cafe and Lounge

As I had mentioned last week, Friday marked the start of Edmonton’s Downtown Dining Week. After mulling over the options, May and I decided on Pradera Cafe and Lounge, situated in the Westin Hotel (10135-100 Street). Although I’ve been to other hotel restaurants in the area, the Westin’s attention to detail and personable service blew me away.

Upon entering the hotel, I noticed the partitioned off groupings of tables and chairs to the left, and figured this was the restaurant. But after approaching the host, he brought me to a secluded dining room in the back. With neutral-toned walls and classic furniture, it wasn’t remarkable by any means, though the fireplace was a nice touch. Whomever designed the layout of the room really should have rethought the placement of columns however, as though their intention may have been to create private spaces, really ended up disrupting the flow and prevented an initial feeling of welcome.

Aesthetics aside, starting from remembering my dining companion’s name (May was taken aback that they called her by name when she asked about our reservation), to having our coats checked, chairs pulled out and napkins laid on our laps, it was a level of service that was nice albeit a bit disconcerting (“We can do it ourselves!”).

As per the Dining Week menu, we were each able to select three courses. We both chose the more uncommon cream of roasted pumpkin soup with a cinnamon cream swirl to start (as opposed to salad). For the main course, I opted for the pan-fried chicken breast accompanied with portobello mushroom herb cream sauce served with chefs’ seasonal vegetables and potatoes, while May went with the poached filet of atlantic salmon with a lemon scented hollandaise sauce accompanied with chefs’ vegetable medley and potatoes.

The pumpkin soup was delicious – smooth, with a nutty, squash-like flavor, it made a great fall/winter appetizer. Before moving on to the entree, we were given a small scoop of blood orange sorbet. I must say I’m not used to the idea of a palette cleanser, but this was definitely better than the tart coconut concoction I had at the Harvest Room a few years ago.

The main course was fabulous – the pan-fried chicken was the best I have had since an apple wood smoked chicken breast at Flavours on Whyte. The portobello mushroom sauce was delightfully creamy, and if they bottled it I’m sure could be marketed as the new HP sauce – good with everything.

On to the dessert – and because I couldn’t pass up the Belgian chocolate mousse in a raspberry shell accompanied with a raspberry sauce, May was left with the banana fritters complimented with vanilla ice cream and maple syrup. The mousse was light and airy, but a tad too rich for my taste, particularly with the overdose in solid chocolate already. I much preferred May’s dish of cinnamon and sugar-coated fried banana pieces, something I should learn to duplicate.

At the end of the night, we were both well-fed and tickled with the service. The host, waiter, and busboy all made us feel special. And though it isn’t something I want to get used to, on occasion, it’s nice to be pampered.

Restaurant interior

Cream of roasted pumpkin soup

Blood orange sorbet

Poached filet of atlantic salmon

Pan-fried chicken breast

Belgian chocolate mousse

Banana fritters