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.
All the food: