Hardware Grill owners Larry and Melinda Stewart opened the doors to Tavern 1903 a few weeks ago. Judging by the crowds, I’d say they’re off to a good start. They have the resto-cred and the building (the restored Alberta Hotel) to make this one of the more popular downtown restaurants in Edmonton. But do they have the food?
Boy, do they have food: 50 options for dinner, a 10-item snack menu for bar patrons, and 25 items on the lunch menu. From salads for the vegetarians to meat overload for the carnivores and pretty much everything in-between. In the mood for Asian cuisine? You might like the Thai seafood bowl. Mexican? How about tortilla soup? For your inner seafarer there are lobster rolls and crab cakes…and of course, the cheese: five offerings including the not oft-seen burrata, the more common mozzarella di bufala, and the smoked fior di latte. Tavern 1903 is appealing to a very wide audience but can they do all of it well?
From the list of 16 plates to share, we chose the Korean-fried cauliflower and the duck confit tacos. Both dishes were unique enough to pique our curiosity and both delivered on the taste and texture front.
We also ordered mozzarella stuffed pork meatballs and smoked devilled eggs, two items that appear on the adjoining bar’s snack menu but available to diners a few metres away on the restaurant side.
The pork meatballs were juicy, topped with a tomato sauce and formed around a piece of mozzarella that oozed out at the first slice of the knife. The devilled eggs were a hit, especially with the razor-thin crispy flags of pancetta sticking out of the smoky filling.
The burrata was a must-order. Its thin-spun casing and soft, buttery centre of fresh cream and unspun mozzarella curds characterize this cow’s milk cheese. The soft mozzarella originated in Apulia (Puglia) but Apulian burrata is a rare find in Canada because burrata, which means ‘buttered’ in Italian, has a shelf life of about 48 hours. Tavern 1903 serves a closer-to-home, North American-made burrata two ways: with stone fruit, peas, honeyed vinaigrette and smoked walnuts, or with basil pesto and tomato confit. The nectarines and honeyed vinaigrette served the right amount of sweet and flavourful complements but the balsamic vinegar interfered with the delicate creaminess of the cheese.
We passed on the salads and went straight for the meat. The Pig-Nic comes with pork belly, ribs and shoulder confit as well as coleslaw, a pretzel bun and a mound of pickles. The pork belly was a succulent hunk of meat strips between seared fat – delectable in a naughty way; the ribs had a sweet smoky glaze and the only complaint was that there was more bone than meat; the shoulder confit was a nice surprise – tender and topped with a fruit compote. The coleslaw is, by far, the best coleslaw in the city – take that how you want to take it (in this city where restaurants can’t do coleslaw to save their lives), and the bread-and-butter pickles here are as good as Grandma’s.
We didn’t have room for dessert, but had it anyways because maple bacon donuts were on the list. These donuts, fresh out of the fryer and coated with a sweet maple icing added those extra calories that we surely missed in what preceded this decadent denouement. I recommend you share this item; two donuts come per order, but they’re hefty and loaded with all the things you don’t need and all the things you want: sugar, fat and salt.
Let’s talk liquids. Cocktails and wine: A lengthy list of standard libations like martinis and margaritas, and interesting creations like the Meathook (made with bourbon) and the Tarragon Lemonade (made with gin). The wine list consists of about 40 wines from around the world, with only six or seven being from Canada. Will I ever stop promoting Canadian wines? No. Why? Because they’re as good as, if not better than, many wines from around the world, and they pair perfectly with regionally sourced protein, Canadian-made cheese, and yes, even donuts that contain two quintessentially Canadian ingredients like maple and bacon.
Now, for the water: Tavern 1903 uses the Q water filtration system. This is a time-saver for the staff who don’t have to lug around ice to chill pitchers of water, and an environment saver – no more crates of Evian or Perrier shipped across the country. It’s also costs the customers less – for those who prefer sparkling water. But people who want good old Edmonton tap water (and we do have some of the best in the country) might be annoyed with paying money to have Q, even if its only $1.00 per guest. If you ask for tap water, you will receive, and be charged for Q.
I liked Tavern 1903. I like the history of the Alberta Hotel, the care taken to keep and renovate the space (thanks to Architect, Gene Dub), and that restaurateurs with a solid reputation chose to make this their home. The room is gorgeous, the atmosphere is lively, and the food is of comparable quality to what other restaurants of its ilk offer in Edmonton. What I’d like to see, though, is for that eclectic menu to lose some weight and gain some focus; for local suppliers to be recognized and noted, and for Canadian wines and products to have more prominence. I think one of the Hotel’s earliest guests, Prime Minister Wilfred Laurier, would second that notion.
You can listen to my CBC Edmonton AM radio review with Mark Connolly here.