The Harvest Room

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Venerable Edmonton mainstay keeps thing fresh

All right, let's get this straight: the Harvest Room at the Mac is not where you would normally head for a quick lunch-time snack. The food is just too good to be taken lightly. So is the high-ceilinged room with the open kitchen that is the ultimate in quiet elegance, with paintings on the wall, a two-level dining area in carpet and hardwood. And don't forget that uninterrupted-by-highrise view of the river valley, amplified even further during the summer months by hosting one of the city's most in-demand patio areas.

Still, does that mean it should not be considered for a lunch-hour repast? Absolutely not. And if you'd prefer to up the ante, wait until 1 pm, when the lunch crowd has all but left, and the only tables being serviced are held down by the dawdlers and those who don't really heed an office clock. That's when you're guaranteed to get the best service, and dishes that are prepared without the dash of adrenaline that is demanded in a kitchen under siege.

For a restaurant that plays in the Principality of Beef, the Harvest Room smiles especially hard on seafood. Of the 17 dishes on the lunch menu, six feature scallops, prawns, halibut, ahi tuna and shrimp. Even vegetarians have another six dishes highlighting the likes of portobello and wild mushrooms, baby field greens and a pasta of baby pear tomatoes and fresh basil. So what does that leave for the carnivores in the crowd? Plenty, as it turns out. But first thing's first. When offered seafood, why not try seafood?

The coast-to-coast seafood chowder ($13) is nothing short of stupendous. I mean that quite seriously, having grown up with my parents' Maritimes chowders that were often grounded in salt cod. A swim-in-the-sea mélange of everything that is tasty and good for you, the Harvest Room's cross-country tour-in-a-bowl consists of Alberta golden trout caviar, smoked wild cod from BC, Northwest Pacific shrimp, Atlantic salmon from New Brunswick, double-smoked wild boar bacon from the Yukon and organic fingerling potatoes, presumably from Alberta. While it might seem that this many flavours and textures could compete for attention and possibly cancel out each other, such is not the case. Instead, we have a soup that sends layer upon layer of flavour, in a complexity that is both rich and sweet, with just enough edge from its smoked components. The surprise is the peel-on fingerling potato that decorates the top. When you get a mouthful of the cross-cut tuber along with the crisp bits of boar bacon, something quite magical happens: crunch and saltiness in one fell swoop.

Still sticking to the non-meat side of life, I choose the balsamic roasted Sherwood Park portobello mushroom entrée ($23). This is much like a mushroom sandwich—only without the bread. The mushroom does the bread duty, encasing a sage-seasoned mash of potato, swiss chard and butter beans. The accompanying yam purée is grilled slightly on top. The dish offers a sturdy mouth-feel texture, and, yes, even—and quite unbelievably—the flavour of beef. Indeed, if you were to close your eyes, you'd swear you were eating critter not the darkly coloured and flavoured fungus that is the mature version of the brown cremini mushroom you often find in your local supermarket. The only thing missing from the dish's flavour profile is an advertised shot of tomato chili oil, and that's a bit disappointing, as it might have been a rather entertaining counterpoint to the dish.

My dining partner chooses the Pacific halibut fillet ($24), a beautifully prepared, grilled-on-top piece of fish that falls away easily into chunks and flakes when merely nudged with the fork. The pilaf of bulgar wheat, wild and brown rice nicely matches the flavour of the halibut—advertised as "line-caught" which is given a slight acidity with a citrus emulsion.

Desserts are a simple choice here, and could easily prove to be the heftiest part of the lunch, had they not been given a delicacy reserved for far more elevated fare. By name, date pudding and saskatoon pie would appear to be more the food of the masses than the gods, but it turns out we're in for a bit of a treat. The date pudding ($11) is decorated with sliced strawberries, a kumquat and blackberries on the side. A light caramel sauce dressing the pudding explodes into orange, an effect that, with the accompanying apple chutney—an extraordinary surprise itself—just cuts slightly the sweetness of the warm dessert. The saskatoon pie ($10) sports a short crust, and not the lattice variety shown on the menu, but who can complain? The berries take advantage of a vanilla that rushes to the forefront and rescues them from tartness. But then, so does the same caramel-orange sauce that graced the date pudding.

This is a restaurant with some well-earned history in Edmonton, and a decided reluctance to rest on its laurels. Indeed, given its tendency to local sourcing of ingredients and its lack of reliance on almighty beef, the Harvest Room might even be considered cutting-edge and envelope-stretching. At dinner, you'll find 20 dishes on the menu that echo the same movement toward alternative protein sources as seen at lunch. Of the 20 dishes, nine are seafood- or vegetable-based, and you will see dishes from lunch considered worthy for the dinner trade. And if meat remains your game, the options besides beef are intriguing, to say the least: venison strip loin, cornish game hen, duck breast, quail, wild pheasant.

Plus, the rock historians in the crowd remember that the Rolling Stones stayed at the Mac for the two Commonwealth Stadium shows in October 1994 during the band's Voodoo Lounge tour. Who knows? The dish upon which your halibut sits at lunch could easily have been used by Mick or Keith. V

Mon – Fri (6:30 AM – 2 PM & 5:30 PM – 10 PM); Sat, Sun & Holidays (7 AM – 2 PM & 5:30 PM – 10 PM)
The Harvest Room
Hotel MacDonald
10065 – 100 ST

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