The atmosphere and presentation at The Holy Roller impresses despite its shortcomings
The Holy Roller is the recent-ish addition to the resto-cartel that already includes El Cortez and Have Mercy, all now crouched on the same block of Old Strathcona.
The space is huge with an elegant but cozy bar/lobby in front and a more cavernous, contemporary restaurant space in the back with bare brick and a raw, unfinished look that probably cost a small fortune to achieve. Featuring pop-art touches like pink and green neon squares on the walls, and a life-size plaster jungle cat skulking toward a big glass roll-up door, there are chandeliers, whimsical decals and a backlit garden of microgreens that add to the insistent eclecticism of the décor.
Servers tote tablets to beam your order straight to the open kitchen. It turned out that even on a Thursday night a reservation was a good idea, as well-attired good-lookings were draped over the available furniture.
The menu is likewise fancy, from the long list of house cocktails to the extensive selection of pinxtos, appetizers, pizzas, shareable plates and entrees that all have a cutting-edge cachet.
But here’s the thing: it doesn’t amount to very much.
I ruled out the extensive draft beer selection and started with a house-specialty cocktail called The Sacred Heart ($12), made with gin, Ancho Reyes chili liqueur, lime, cucumber and a pinch of dried Thai chili. This was my first intimation that an impressive list of ingredients does not make an interesting preparation—everything was accounted for but produced no special cumulative effect that made me think, “let’s do that again!”
Our server, attentive but glancing, collected our order after a couple of tries (it took a while to get through the menu), then it seemed like we were gang-served by the rest of the staff, which made me wonder why it took so long. We had the misbegotten notion that the pinxtos and appetizer might precede the rest of the meal, but after a bit of a wait all the food arrived at once. I suppose I was quite hungry by then.
The bacon and gorgonzola pinxtos ($6) were as described—three pieces of crostini with a heap of pebbled bacon and blue cheese, drizzled with honey. The strew of slightly wilted greens on which they came added to the sense the plate had sat somewhere for a while before reaching us, which didn’t redound to its favour.
Ceviche is a Latin American dish where raw fish is “cooked” by marinating it in citrus juice. The The Holy Roller version ($15) used halibut and scallops, but negated the essential acidity with coconut milk, and rather obscured the delicate texture and flavour of the fish with mango, onions and what appeared to be sriracha.
The roasted carrot salad ($11) was unremarkable, slices of carrot that seemed barely roasted tossed with oranges and chickpeas over spring mix in a hibiscus-honey reduction, with some ricotta crumbled on top. The menu promised dried cranberries but there were none in evidence, which was fine by me as the reduction was plenty sweet with little counterbalancing tartness or savour.
For the main course we ordered the steak board for two ($29), featuring angus steak, maple sweet potato mash, mixed veg (broccoli, roasted carrot and eggplant), and four crimini mushrooms filled with spinach cream. One of the pieces of steak had been cooked to the requested medium rare, making it obvious that the other piece had somehow been cooked past medium rare. The reliance on charring for flavour further undermined the beef, ancho-cascabel butter notwithstanding. I enjoyed the stuffed mushrooms and velvety sweet potatoes.
Co-diner and I weren’t exactly feeling encouraged at that point, but decided to pursue dessert. The pistachio mousse ($8) was the least decadent-sounding of the offerings: a squat parfait glass with a layer of raspberry gelatin on the bottom, a just-noticeable layer of pistachio mousse, lots very powdery graham crumbs that ended up all over the table, then lots of rose-scented whipped cream laden with toasted hazelnuts and a few berries—some lovely notions that somehow didn’t coalesce into satisfying food, something of a theme on the night.
On paper it certainly looked like a $100 meal, but the The Holy Roller experience left our palates unconvinced.
The Holy Roller
8222 Gateway Blvd.