New and Old for Downtown Dining Week: Alberta Hotel Bar & Kitchen and Hardware Grill

It’s really too bad Edmonton’s only prix fixe dining festival (RIP Fork Fest) isn’t city-wide like Calgary’s Big Taste, or twice a year, like Toronto’s Summer and Winterlicious. But Downtown Dining Week, now in its thirteenth year, has provided a consistent opportunity for Edmontonians to sample the cuisine of the core.

I’m not sure if it is the current state of the economy, or whether people were just taking advantage of the promotion, but this year’s Downtown Dining Week seemed busier than previous festivals. After perusing the menus, I made two reservations: one at a fairly new addition to the neighbourhood, and a second at a tried-and-true establishment.

I was one among many who mourned the loss of Tavern 1903 at the end of 2014. Mack and I found ourselves there often, swayed by their combination of fantastic cocktails and inventive small plates. Thankfully, the vacated space in the historic Alberta Hotel did not stay empty for long – Chef Spencer Thompson (formerly of Toast Fine Catering, based at the Old Strathcona Farmers’ Market) moved in less than a year later, when Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen opened. I hadn’t yet had a chance to visit the restaurant, and there was no better opportunity than Downtown Dining Week to do so, all while catching up with some girlfriends.

The interior of Alberta Hotel Bar and Kitchen (an unfortunate mouthful of a name) hasn’t changed much from its predecessor, retaining the vintage bar and polished dining room, right down to the furnishings. The only difference that we could discern was a more cramped seating area – our table and the party next to us were wedged uncomfortably in the corner. And though it’s difficult to manage sound, given the open flow between the two rooms, the 80s pop music emanating from the bar seemed more suitable for a diner than a dining room laden with white table cloths.

No doubt, the $28 three course menu was a great deal. It seemed many others found it an equally big draw, as our server indicated that on the Monday of the same week, they served 300 patrons, tripling their usual covers that night. It was so successful that they decided to continue the fixed $28 three course offerings every Monday even after the close of Downtown Dining Week.

Even though we had the choice between two appetizers and two mains, all three of us ended up with identical meals. The bone marrow agnolotti was tasty, layered with brown butter and mushrooms, but I would have preferred the pasta to have been cooked a touch more.

Alberta Hotel Bar & Kitchen

Bone marrow agnolotti

The grilled swordfish main, served with a caper, red currant and pine nut beurre blanc was overdone, but the standout aspect of the dish was the creamy side of Gold Forest Grains farro.

Alberta Hotel Bar & Kitchen

Grilled swordfish with farro

The dessert, a chocolate fondant with warm caramel and graham cracker streusel was a bit inconsistent at the table. I found mine on the molten side, but the banana ice cream served alongside more than made up for it with its intense, concentrated flavour. When the pastry chef Kai Wong moves to her own bakery, I hope the ice cream will be on the menu in some form.

Alberta Hotel Bar + Kitchen

Chocolate fondant with banana ice cream

While our meal at Alberta Hotel was somewhat inconsistent, we did enjoy the overall experience. Our server was friendly and attentive, and the dishes were enticing enough to warrant future visits.

My second Downtown Dining Week reservation had to be at the Hardware Grill. Some of those dishes and drinks we loved at Tavern 1903 migrated to its established sibling, and it was about time for us to reacquaint ourselves with them.

One of my long lost loves was the Desert Shrub cocktail, a delicious combination of prosecco, grapefruit juice and tequila.

Hardware Grill

It’s been too long

Though the city’s love affair with cauliflower seems to have ended, the Korean fried cauliflower dish is classic, and perfectly made every time.

Hardware Grill

Korean fried cauliflower

Those drinks and dishes were in addition to the $48 three-course prix fixe menu, so the upsell worked on us. Hardware has had an ongoing $50 three-course promotion, called a "before sunset" menu for some time, but it has since expanded it from early seatings on Mondays to Thursdays to include all seatings on Mondays to Thursdays plus early seatings on Friday and Saturday. One has to assume the restaurant’s reputation as a special occasion restaurant has to hurt it more than others in an economy like this.

But like the consistency of the kitchen, Hardware Grill always delivers on service. We’re always impressed by the professional but easygoing nature of the servers – they always manage to ease the formality of the restaurant with humour and grace, and are easily the best team in the city.

We had far exceeded our 1.5 hour stay (as mentioned on the Downtown Dining Week menu), but we were never rushed. We felt bad, however, when leaving and realizing that there were a number of parties waiting for a table in the lobby.

While I will still hold out hope for a resurrection of Tavern 1903 in some form or another in the future, it’s nice to know that I can still satisfy my cravings at Hardware Grill.

Chef’s Table at Hardware Grill

In my family, June is a time for celebration. My Mum, Dad and I all share June as a birthday month, and of course, Father’s Day is a standard observance. This year, for one of my milestone birthdays, I decided the cumulative festivities could justify the Chef’s Table splurge at the venerable Hardware Grill. As it stands, $100 for five courses at the consistently excellent restaurant is reasonable, but it was still nice to have these special occasions to commemorate with my parents.

The Chef’s Table can accommodate up to six, and like any communal table, we were told that we’d likely be joined by a party of two that night. When we arrived, we noticed that the place settings were set for four. The couple never did end up arriving, but we appreciated the heads up nonetheless.

Hardware Grill

With my parents

The Chef’s Table is located right inside the kitchen, with a perfect view of Chef Larry Stewart and his crew. I’m sure the staff are immune to it now, but I would feel a little odd being observed, fishbowl-style, as I worked. That said, we really appreciated their candor and unaffected behaviour. As we would find out, unlike the nightmare back room scenarios portrayed on television, Hardware Grill is a pristine example of a well-oiled machine.

Hardware Grill

Our view of the kitchen

A printed menu laid out the five dishes for the night, which would be served over the course of three and a half hours. The meal was so well paced, we had no idea where the time went (it didn’t mean we finished all of our food, however – most of our entrée and desserts ended up in take-home boxes). And though the food was wonderful, what really set the experience apart was the staff. White linens sometimes equal stiff and awkward interactions, but at Hardware Grill, we are always floored by the service. Beyond gracious and professional, as expected at a fine dining establishment, staff are warm, good-humoured and seem to genuinely enjoy their work.

It was also the little things – for instance, we decided to order two wine pairings to share. Without missing a beat, individual glasses were delivered to each of us, a single pour split between two. Although this wasn’t my first time sharing a wine pairing, it was certainly the first time I’ve encountered the generosity of providing a second glass.

Just as the service was measured and executed perfectly, so too were the kitchen dynamics. Chef Stewart received each order, calling out items calmly. The other chefs would quietly get to work on their components, with Sous Chef Jesse Chalmers periodically updating the ETA of the main protein. Communication was paramount, and in this kitchen, was the cornerstone on an effective team. I wrongly assumed dining at the Chef’s Table would be a noisy affair; in reality, the din of the main dining room was noticeably louder than in the kitchen.

Hardware Grill

Mack observes the kitchen

The first course was a charming way to start off the meal – a bite-size sandwich layered with brioche, lobster, pancetta, arugula and oven-dried tomato paired with a lobster bisque. The photo is a bit deceiving – a heavy hand in the kitchen dealt the lobster.

Hardware Grill

Soup ‘n sandwich

The salad of buffalo mozzarella and symphony heirloom tomatoes was simple, but made with good ingredients, including a spike of lemon-scented olive oil, was delicious.

Hardware Grill

Buffalo mozzarella and tomato salad

Mack especially enjoyed the pasta course of hand-rolled goat cheese tortelloni, their creamy centres stealing the show. For me, it was the underlying corn broth that sung – it was skill that coaxed such fragrance and aroma from the corn.

Hardware Grill

Goat cheese tortelloni with beech mushrooms in corn broth

By the time we reached the entrée, we were already approaching the point of being uncomfortably full. Interestingly enough, we were encouraged to eat the hickory-smoked quail by hand, not something we would have expected. I ended up gravitating more to the vegetables on the plate, in particular to the caramelized cauliflower, lovingly browned in a way that I will try to replicate at home.

Hardware Grill

Hickory-smoked quail

After the preceding two courses, I was anticipating a light finish to the dinner. Instead, we were presented with a dense, intensely rich chocolate marquise. Even one half the size would have been too much for me, but the dollop of sour cream on top was curious, lending a tang that did not pair well with the chocolate.

Hardware Grill

Chocolate marquise

Kudos to the staff of Hardware Grill for a memorable experience. If anything, it reminded me that I shouldn’t let too much time pass between future visits to Edmonton’s most respected restaurant.

Hardware Grill
9698 Jasper Avenue
(780) 423-0969

The Lunch Option: Hardware Grill

Two Christmases ago, Mack’s parents gave us a gift card to Hardware Grill. It was particularly thoughtful because the four of us had shared a wonderful meal there a few months prior. We had always intended on putting the gift card towards lunch at the restaurant, but didn’t work to sync our schedules until last week (it helped that I had a meeting in the same neighbourhood right after lunch).

Hardware Grill, for many reasons, has the distinction of being Edmonton’s finest restaurant. It is also the only restaurant in recent memory that Mack and I had to think twice about before deciding on what to wear – jeans or no jeans? Even though it was daytime on a Friday, we opted against denim. We discovered upon arrival that casual attire was acceptable; the suits were few, and there were numerous parties dressed in their Friday best.

The warmth of the dining room is apparent, regardless of the time of day, but I think I might actually like the room better at lunch, if not only because of the natural light, and the almost buoyant atmosphere.

Hardware Grill

Interior

We don’t normally order starters for lunch, but armed with a gift card, we threw caution to the wind. It’s always difficult for me to pass up French onion soup ($8) when I see it on the menu, and I was glad I gave in. The most amazing thing about the rich, subtly sweet dish was the bread – though submerged for the better part of the fifteen minutes it took for me to finish the soup, it did not dissolve into a soggy mess, and instead, retained its chewy, dense texture. The portion size could have also easily made this a light lunch in itself.

Hardware Grill

French onion soup

Mack’s romaine a la Caesar ($10) was equally well received, plated with care, and robed with a garlicky smooth dressing that could convince anyone that Caesar dressing from a bottle should not be tolerated.

Hardware Grill

Romaine a la Caesar

It was a wonder I was able to finish any part of my main at all, but I did my best, especially because the beef bourguignon ($20) was well worth the effort. The short ribs were fork tender (it was a definite sign when our server did not replace my butter knife with a steak knife), and the black coffee BBQ sauce hit all the right notes (and if the recipe isn’t a guarded secret, it should be). At first, I wasn’t sure about the inclusion of roasted corn kernels in the mashed potatoes, but it won me over in the end – the sweetness and unexpected pop cut through the richness. Mack also enjoyed helping himself to the slices of crispy pork belly off my plate.

Hardware Grill

Beef bourguignon

Mack had been waiting all week for the truffled mac ‘n cheese with baby lobster and shiitakes ($16). It was definitely not your diner mac ‘n cheese, baked and bubbling in a muted ceramic dish – this was its elegant, refined older sister, down to the use of ribbed shells. The sauce was much thinner than Mack had expected, but he enjoyed it all the same, and thought it was the perfect size.

Hardware Grill

Truffled mac ‘n cheese

It was a very pleasant meal – everything was well paced, and our server was professional but gracious. The prices are also quite reasonable, and would be a great option for those wanting to try Hardware Grill on more inexpensive terms.

Though I can’t see myself visiting Hardware Grill for lunch all that often, I could see myself returning now and again – especially for the beef bourguignon. Thanks again to Martin and Patti for the gift certificate!

Hardware Grill
9698 Jasper Avenue
(780) 423-0969
Lunch: Monday-Friday, 11:30am-2pm; Dinner: Monday-Friday 5-10pm, Saturday 5-10:30pm, closed Sundays

Professional but not Pretentious: Hardware Grill

While his parents were visiting Edmonton last week, Mack wanted to treat them to an experience unobtainable in Yellowknife, so we looked to the upper echelons of the city’s dining rafters and decided upon the Hardware Grill.

My one experience there several years ago was a positive one, but my memory of it is faint with the exception of an impression of excellent service. Being one of the priciest establishments in the city, however, meant that Hardware Grill is definitely a destination restaurant.

We walked in right on time for our early 5:30pm reservation, and were immediately greeted by a hostess and an attendant who relieved us of our coats and hats. We were led to a table in the main dining room with a view of the bar and the kitchen, angled in a way that we could also catch a glimpse of the stunning wine cellar. In terms of the interior, there isn’t much to say that would distinguish it from other wood-and-stone accented rooms, but their simple elegance speaks volumes about the type of experience the restaurant desires the customer to have.

Our waiter appeared with menus in hand, including a wine list with over 500 options. We were puzzled with a line at the bottom of the menu that indicated that “Hardware Grill prefers payment in cash or cheque”, as we weren’t sure how many diners would be carrying several hundred dollars in their wallet, but other than that, the menu was identical to the one found on the website. I must say that I love the detail in their menu – some restaurants choose not to list all of the accompanying sides and garnishes, but Hardware does, and I appreciate it.

The laundry list of appetizers we ordered was as follows: Martin the duck confit ($14), Patti the warm goat cheese ($14) fritters, Mack the bacon wrapped scallops ($18) and the chanterelle risotto ($14) for me. As for entrees, Martin selected the rack of lamb ($42), Patti the Alberta beef tenderloin ($48), Mack the porcini-crusted sea bass ($48) and I the soy-lacquered duck ($36). We were in for a lot of food.

Bread service involved a basket of a variety of slices including (yum) herbed cheese biscuits. Although the restaurant claims to bake the bread fresh twice daily, it reached us stone cold. I think Mack and I will have to start making a list of restaurants (besides chains such as the Olive Garden, East Side Mario’s and the Old Spaghetti Factory) that actually serve warm bread.

Bread service

When our starters arrived, we were all surprised at how much food we were given – portion sizes were much larger than what we originally anticipated. Patti loved the combination of flavours in her salad – with the interplay of hazelnuts, dates and beets complementing the warm goat cheese fritters nicely. Mack had been looking forward to the bacon-wrapped scallops all week, and they delivered. I’m sure he could have eaten several in place of his entree if allowed. My risotto was good (the aroma of the chanterelles was lovely), but between the pearl onions and the candied bacon, I felt the dish was a little lost, and that the Unheardof version was better.

Crispy Duck Leg Confit, Grilled Polenta Cake, Forest Mushrooms, with Port and Pomegranate Relish

Warm Goat Cheese Fritters, Baby Romaine with Pomegranate Vinaigrette, Medjool Dates, Toasted Hazel Nuts and Baby Beets

Bacon Wrapped Atlantic Scallops, English Pea Ravioli, Sweet Onion and Red Wine Reduction, Tomato Marmalade

Winter Chanterelle Risotto with Mascarpone and Asiago Cheese, with Port and Candied Bacon

Plates were cleared, more wine was consumed, and by no time, our entrees arrived. Both Martin and Patti’s meats were cooked to their expectation (even though Martin’s lamb looked to be a little on the raw side), and both were really happy with their dishes. Patti especially loved the beets, one of her favourite vegetables. Mack’s seafood medley continued with his sea bass and lobster-truffled potato crepes, the latter of which stood out for him. I was was thankful that the kitchen took the time to slice up my duck breast – it definitely made it easier to eat, but it seems I couldn’t consume it fast enough to prevent the meat from drying out. I loved the crisp layer of skin and fat – a little bit of indulgence goes a long way. I wasn’t sure about the butternut-pear hash, but it turned out the pear was a good choice, as the sweetness played off the savoury duck and venison shepherd’s pie well.

Demi Roasted Lamb Rack, Cassoulet Style White Beans with Duck, Lamb & Bacon, Served with Zucchini “Spaghetti”

Alberta Beef Tenderloin, Smoked Mashed Potatoes, Baby Beets, Carrots, Short Rib “Yorkie” and Horseradish Crème Fraiche

Porcini Crusted Sea Bass, Lobster-Truffled Potato Crêpes, White Corn-Arugula & Gulf Prawns, with Warm Portobello Vinaigrette

Soya Lacquered Duck Breast with Shepherds Pie, Pear-Butternut Hash, Pine Nuts and Fig-Balsamic Sauce

Though we all claimed to be full, we weren’t able to pass on dessert (encouraged by this statement on the menu, how could you blame us: “Just dive in and swim through the calories,
happy as a clam”). Martin and Patti split the warm gingerbread cake ($11), while Mack and I shared the classic profiteroles ($11). At the time, I mistakenly thought we would have been brought mini Italian doughnuts (beignets), but the cream puff-like sandwiches turned out to be a good choice. Served with espresso ice cream and hot fudge sauce, they were a not-too-decadent ending to our meal. Patti loved the gingerbread cake – it smelled and tasted like Christmas.

Classic Profiteroles

Warm Prairie Gingerbread Cake

I found the entire meal wonderfully paced. We were done our three courses by 8pm, but never felt rushed or like we were looking for the next course. Service was also commendable – our waiter was superb – personable, demonstrating a sense of humor that put us at ease, but never stepping over that boundary of becoming too informal. I realized that although Hardware Grill is labeled as a “fine dining” restaurant, without the pomp and circumstance of announcing each dish as it is delivered, the entire experience was entirely comfortable and never felt pretentious or stuffy.

While the Hardware Grill is not an off-the-cuff dining choice, it provided exactly what we were looking for that night – a high-end venue, great food, attentive service, and an experience that facilitated a memorable evening of conversation.

Hardware Grill
9698 Jasper Avenue, Edmonton
(780) 423-0969
Monday-Saturday 5pm-close