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What’s old is new again

Meaghan Baxter
Meaghan Baxter

Tavern 1903 revamps history with shareable indulgences

How amazing it is that in Edmonton, the city that seems eager to efface its own history as quickly as possible, a historic hotel that was disassembled and mothballed three decades ago should be restored to its former glory (or better) 100 years after it first opened its doors? I have a feeling that the tavern in the Alberta Hotel was somewhat less glamorous when the building was pulled down to make way for Canada Place in 1984 than it is now. And it’s an even safer bet that no patron of said tavern ever had it as good—food and drink wise—as the patrons of 2013.

In case you hadn’t heard, Tavern 1903 offers another venue for Melinda and Larry Stewart, the culinary talents behind near neighbour and local resto-bucket-list headliner Hardware Grill. But unlike the premium flagship operation, Tavern 1903’s menu seems more scalable in terms of budget, with fancy snacks and small plates in addition to big entrées and a broad range of adult beverages. They even invite you to dress “smart casual,” which is open to all kinds of interpretations in a town affectionately known to some denizens as “Dirt City.”

The bar side is an exacting recreation of the original tavern, while the dining room side feels more contemporary, somehow balancing a vaulted ceiling and floor-to-ceiling windows, sturdy, rustic tables and wood panelling with a feeling of coziness and intimacy. It’s a lovely space, but not daunting. Similarly, the service is professional and knowledgeable, but informal enough to feel hospitable as well.

You’ll probably have to rely on your server somewhat to help make up your mind. The list of by-the-glass wines, for instance, is quite lengthy, especially given the selection of “enomatic wines” dispensed through a system that uses inert gas (I’m not making this up) to extend the shelf-life of the wine. As such, you can sample a truly premium bottle—may I recommend The Chocolate Block from South Africa?—without having to buy the whole thing.

The major decision my co-diner and I faced was between sharing a few small plates or going for full entrées. After some debate—and a couple of sample-sized glasses of wine—we decided on the former, with a salad. This proved to be a winning strategy and entirely filling to boot. Between server and kitchen, the meal was thoughtfully paced so we could enjoy a couple of dishes at a time.

First to the table were the spinalis rib-eye rolls ($16) with chimichurri, sautéed red onion and horseradish crème fraiche, which shot to the top of my last requests list, should I be condemned to death one day. The spinalis, or cap, is the most tender part of the rib-eye, and the three portions here were grilled to rare perfection and slathered with Argentine chimichurri, a condiment made with parsley, onions, garlic and oregano. The horseradish-imbued not-so-sour cream was a delicious touch, and also went very well with the thick-cut truffle-oil fries dusted with parmesan ($8), which came with their own fruity-sweet house-made ketchup.

Next came three duck confit tacos ($14) open-faced on flour tortillas under a confetti of marinated cucumber and carrots, radish slices, sour cherries and cilantro, drizzled with sour cream and Sriracha. If the world is indeed facing a Sriracha shortage, I would rather the rest of it was used spicing up my delicious duck tacos than your grilled cheese sandwich. Sorry.

After the tacos, our server treated us to a couple of samples from Tavern 1903’s mozzarella bar, insisting that we shouldn’t miss out. My co-diner was particularly taken with the soft, buttery burrata atop crusty bread with fresh pesto and roasted peppers, though the firmer buffalo mozza served over fresh spinach, sautéed mushrooms and bacon jam was not short on merits.

Last but not least, we enjoyed an order of hickory smoked pork ribs ($15) in bourbon-molasses glaze with apple mostarda, a tart candied-fruit condiment that complemented the sweet, earthy smokiness of the lacquered meat. Alongside it, we enjoyed the Gem ($14), an artisan romaine heart split down the middle and lavished with blue cheese, candied bacon, a colourful assortment of small heirloom tomato halves and smoked devilled eggs in creamy “green goddess” dressing, which I didn’t even know was a thing until that moment.

Ironically, it was the salad with its rich ingredients and intense flavours that almost pushed us over the line, indulgence-wise. Nonetheless, we felt duty-bound to sample dessert and ordered the Glenlivet butterscotch pudding ($7), which came topped with candied, crushed-up pretzels in a lidded jar. My co-diner does not care for whiskey, but I found myself in a race to get a fair share of the scrumptuous booze-infused pudding.

After all the plates were cleared away, I was surprised to find two hours had elapsed as we sipped and savoured, but not as surprised as I was to see that our tab came in under $100 before tax and tip. It was amazing to feel so well looked after for less than a C-note but then, the resurrection of the Alberta Hotel seems a bit miraculous in itself. Best get in there and try it out, in case we all wake up one morning and discover we had dreamt the whole thing.

Tavern 1903 at the Alberta Hotel
9802 Jasper Ave



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