We do our best to dine at new restaurants only after they’ve had at least four to six weeks under their belt, when they’ve had a chance to enhance systems, tighten up the menu, and refine service. Two weeks ago, we overlooked this practice knowing it would be a good opportunity to spend an entire evening in Westmount and neighbouring Glenora – first at North 53 and then, within walking distance, the Royal Alberta Museum.
North 53 has been the most exciting restaurant to open this year for a variety of reasons. They have thrown down the gauntlet in an attempt to redefine what is possible for northern kitchens by committing to using exclusively Canadian ingredients on their food menu (and in the dead of winter, this is no small feat). If that isn’t bold enough, the head chef Ben Staley is just twenty-one years old.
In many ways, the discourse around Chef Staley reminds me of the early fanfare surrounding Chef Daniel Costa just after he opened Corso 32, leading up to his eventual standing as the darling of the Edmonton food scene (when Bar Bricco opens later this month, expect another frenzy of excitement). In a town with few mainstream culinary rockstars, I’m hopeful that this bodes well for independent chefs who should be more recognizable.
The interior is decidedly modern chic, with a combined bar and dining room that highlights the contrasts of polished metal and untreated wood. Though we were the first to arrive that night, by our meal’s end, the restaurant was full.
We were told that the $100 six-course tasting menu would be the best way to sample the kitchen’s range of fare, but on our first visit, we thought it best to order a la carte. Like many of its peers, North 53 encourages sharing of their small plates. On this visit, we managed to try half a dozen.
But first, we opted for a drink, which, we learned quickly, wasn’t held to the same latitude standards shackling the kitchen. My Atwood was a pleasing way for me to ease into the weekend, sweet and citrusy, but Mack’s Smoke + Oak was the showstopper. Our introduction to North 53’s theatricality, his glass arrived topped with a two-inch slice of charred oak. When lifted, it was evident that the smoke had infused itself into the liquid beneath it. Talk about a way to set the stage.
Our starter dish consisted of a variety of carrot preparations (pickled, charred, sous vide and raw) and reminded me very much of Elm Café’s stellar vegetarian course at the Slow Food Canada Gala a few years back. Similarly, it was beautifully presented, a study in textures, and an unexpected way to deliver a typically underwhelming salad course. Our only complaint was that past the impressive layers, there wasn’t much there for $10.
The kale dish ($14) was also a pleasant surprise, stuffed inside handmade pasta and topped with hazelnut foam and pecorino. We were told that The Cheesiry was the source of the pecorino, but like all other local suppliers North 53 patronizes (including Heritage Harvest Gardens), they are left unlisted on the menu – hopefully this changes in the future.
Into the meat courses, it became clear the kitchen’s preferred technique was sous vide. Nearly every plate we sampled employed that method of cooking. The twenty-four hour dandelion root-glazed short rib ($17) was one example where we would have chosen an alternative preparation. Its spongy, springy texture was off-putting, and as a result, our least favourite dish. The accompanying romaine, however, grilled and sprinkled with egg yolk and pecorino, was a revelation. It made me long for summer barbecues and sunshine.
The main component of the heritage turkey plate ($20) involved a compound turkey breast that had been cooked sous vide for twelve hours. While the meat was moist, we didn’t find the turkey particularly flavourful. This in contrast to the smoked turkey leg inside the sidelong cabbage roll, which was delicious and had us wanting more.
Theatrics returned with the sockeye salmon ($18). Encased in a glass dome piped with juniper smoke, the act of lifting the cover, perfuming the air with a tantalizing scent will no doubt be one of North 53’s most immediate contributions to Edmonton’s food scene – reinventing the art of presentation. At any rate, the crispy line-caught BC salmon was our favourite dish, paired with a bite of sweetness from the macerated tomatoes and shallots, and the melt-in-your-mouth bed of northern beans (prepared sous vide, of course).
The apple dessert ($10) offered a taste of the fruit in three ways – a doughnut, curd and ice cream. The latter, refreshingly tart with a texture closer to sorbet, was the star of the bowl.
Service was endearing but professional, and for our tastes, perhaps bordered on too formal. Case in point – I recognize the restaurant wanted to keep the dishes independent from one another, but the fact that every tasting plate had to be changed after each course seemed a bit like overkill in a setting that didn’t connote fine dining.
Still, North 53 is a welcome addition to the restaurant scene, ripe with new ideas and enthusiasm about a different approach to sourcing food in Edmonton. I didn’t find myself left wanting for pepper, citrus, or any of the other typical condiments or flavours sourced from warmer climates. It will be interesting to see how their menu develops as the seasons change.
10240 124 Street