More on ALTA: the Extended Restaurant Review

ALTA has been a long time coming. The restaurant finally opened on February 28, 2017 and since then I’ve gone three times. I had a lot to say about this place, and not enough time on CBC radio to say it.

It’s a highly ambitious approach from Ben Staley whose menu at this 30 seat wine bar on Jasper Avenue has only 13 items (including two desserts). I say ambitious because every dish here is served cold or room temp. That in itself, isn’t a bad thing, but you’re asking customers to adhere to your very specific food philosophy where few items are offered—and that is a dangerous approach if you want to make money. Add to that a narrow wine list of only natural wines (known for their ‘funkiness’ and most definitely not for every palate) to pair with a fairly unique culinary concept (local but Nordic influenced). It’s not that Edmontonians are averse to risk; we are in fact known as a city rife with risk takers (in business and food from sold-out bear dinners to a place like Noorish that offers raw foods) but when it comes to succeeding in one of the most difficult industries out there, you need bodies to fill those seats, so no matter how beautiful your dishes look on Instagram, if you aren’t bringing people to your yard with overgrown coriander, pine emulsion, and pickled baby peaches, then something needs to change. Visiting ALTA out of curiosity and having no desire to come back does not a successful venture make, and when seats don’t get filled, it doesn’t take long before corners get cut and concepts get diluted out of desperation to remain afloat.

It’s April 24th, two degrees Celsius, and snowing here in Edmonton today, and a plate of pickled vegetables or some charred romaine—lovely as it is—is not what I want to comfort my belly on this cold and grey late spring day.

I appreciate Staley’s commitment to using only local and regional ingredients. Absolutely commendable. Overboard in some cases? Yes: no pepper, no citrus, no chocolate, and in the case of the black malt tart made to mimic chocolate: ruinous. He is talented, that’s irrefutable, and I championed him during his short time at North 53, but a successful chef—especially if that chef owns or co-owns the restaurant—also needs to know the business aspect of operating a restaurant, and that includes how to establish a connection with the people who matter; the customers.  Not sure if the 24-year-old chef is there quite yet.

You can listen to my on-air review on CBC Edmonton AM, or read the follow up article on the web.

All the food:

Top: Unripe plums, cured and marinated like an olive – savoury, tangy, heavy on the thyme, with various textures. Preferred the crisp ones over the soft ones; odd but they grew on us. Some soft, some crunchy.  Bottom: Malted hazelnuts – malt is one of the hardest things to describe: toasty/grainy/heady.

 

Cocktail made by Natasha Trowsdale. Clean, sophisticated and balanced.
Chicken liver on brioche/ pickled berries/ balsamic/sunflower shoots: lovely chicken liver, beautifully presented on brioche, topped with sunflower shoots and berries. Would like to see this on the sourdough bread instead of the brioche; that liver needs a more substantial base.
Sourdough bread with cultured butter.
Plate of last year’s preserves. Green coriander and yogurt whey salami with fermented tomato gastrique. These two items need to go together. The fatty salami is the perfect complement to the acidic preserves.
Lamb tartare with chickpea “miso”, pickled baby peaches, potato crisps. The meat is a combination of dice and ground; an odd texture made more odd by the chickpea “miso”. The baby peaches, although not very attractive, were an interesting component with the right acidity needed to bring out some much needed flavour in the meat.
Charred romaine with various seaweeds, fried garlic and hemp hearts. The surprise dish of the (one) night. Other than struggling to cut through the lettuce, this was a surprisingly satisfying dish.
Salmon, lightly cooked with charred cucumber/ buttermilk/ dill. The fish is moist, colourful and because it is cooked sous vide, the richness of the flesh is still retained.
Mussels, marinated in beer, vinegar & pine/celery/parsley stem. Despite all the ingredients, this dish lacked punch/ wow/ pizzazz. Perhaps the most forgettable of all the dishes.
Tart of black malt & freeze dried black currants: black malt, beeswax and brown butter, brought together to mimic chocolate. Texture and flavour didn’t work at all.

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