Tuesday, May 20, 2014

North 53 - When Tasting Menus go Awry

Witch's Fizz
I had heard and read so many good things about North 53, a restaurant whose concept is to elevate Canadian cuisine using exclusively Canadian ingredients. They also happen to be one of the few restaurants that I have come across in Edmonton that actually has a tasting menu option on their regular menu, something that I rarely found here, but often found and enjoyed abroad such as in London, Paris, and even Hong Kong.

The space itself was long and narrow, with a very impressive looking bar that dominated one side of the restaurant. The furniture was modern, feature mostly metal bar stools and chairs, not the most comfortable furniture as we found out but thankfully I was seated on the soft, comfortable banquette.

North 53 Space
They had quite an impressive drink menu, ranging from wines, beers to a variety of house made cocktails. Although I don’t know much about cocktails and had to Google most of the ingredients, I wound up trying their Witch’s Fizz made of gin, strega, chartreuse, rosemary honey syrup and an egg, mostly because it sounded interesting. It looked like a something that had come out of a witch’s cauldron when presented to me, although I have to admit, I wasn’t in love with the drink, as it had a slightly strange taste that I couldn’t identify and didn’t particularly enjoy. It might have been the strega, which I read was an Italian herbal liqueur with 70 herbal ingredients including fennel, which is not exactly one of my favourite flavours. Then again, it could have been the chartreuse, anther liqueur that is aged with a variety of herbs, plants and flowers.  

Amuse bouche of pickled vegetables
We started with an amuse bouche of pickled vegetables, containing beets, white beets, carrots and an onion in a beer emulsion. I didn’t find the flavor from the pickling to be overly sour or tart as I normally do, but did find the beets and carrots to be almost too crunchy for my liking when contrasted with the very soft and sweet onion, the textures were polar opposites. Our first course was raw scallops with cucumbers, dulse, yogurt whey with dill. Although I normally love scallops, I have rarely ever eaten them raw. They were supple and slippery, but I found that the scallops lacked taste presented raw. Most of the dish tasted watery, a taste sensation that was likely magnified by the cucumbers and thin yogurt whey. Although I had tried dulse before, I had never been a fan, and oddly enough it was probably the best part of the dish, adding a much needed mildly salty and crunchy component.

Raw scallops with cucumbers, dulse
yogurt whey with dill
Next up was an elk tartare with elderberry, shallots, sunflower oil and cured feeb heart *Moofaint*. The humans found the elk meat mildly sweet with hints of tartness, and had a slightly fatty, creamy texture to it. The shallots added a crunchy texture to the dish, and although the humans thought the dish was ok, it wasn't a dish they enjoyed enough to have again. The last of the snack sized dishes was a sous vide duck breast with the fat removed, served with variations of beets, ligonberry and and nasturtium. The duck was overcooked, grey instead of pink, and dry. We wondered if that would have been the case had the fat been left on when sous vide. The ligonberries added too much tartness, overwhelming the flavour of the duck, and exploded anytime we tried to eat them, resulting in us wearing some of the ligonberries on our clothes for the remainder of the evening. I found the beets to be the best part of the dish as they were moist and juicy, unfortunately the dried beets were very chewy, as opposed to being crispy as I had expected them to be.

Elk Tartare with elderberry. shallots,
sunflower oil and cured feeb heart
Before our “bites” course, they reset the cutlery and we wondered why the short rib course would require a steak knife, as the humans normally found short rib to be quite tender and often didn't even require a knife. They also brought out a bread course with kabocha squash butter before we began our entrees. The short rib was glazed in black plum sauce and sous vide for 24 hours, served with Yukon gold potato puree and oxtail jus. The humans found the short rib was incredibly overcooked, dry, not even close to tender, not to mention dreadfully bland and under seasoned. The steak knife was definitely needed to cut into the grey meat and they did their best to choke it down, finding that the oxtail jus helped a little bit, adding a week bit of flavour and some moisture to the meat. The Yukon gold potato puree was also lacking in taste and the texture was pasty, overall a difficult dish to eat. We let the server know the short rib was overcooked, bland and dry, and she seemed shocked at the comment, only managing to reply back that perhaps the dish needed more oxtail jus and that she would let the kitchen know.

Sous vide duck breast with beets, ligonberry
and nastrium
The last course before dessert was a salad of pickled roots, which was described on the menu as homage to Noma, a Michelin Star restaurant in Copenhagen and consistently ranked as one of the best restaurants in the world. Their homage consisted of a salad of cooked onions finished in pear jus, cooked pears, and caraway seeds. The onion wasn’t sweet like I thought it might be cooked but was instead sour. However that was probably a good thing as I found the pears were far too sweet, and there was too much pear on the dish, making it almost a dessert like salad given the level of sweetness. Lastly, we were presented with a honey yogurt with burnt meringue and bee pollen. The meringue had a beautifully light, airy texture with a nice poppy crispiness, melting in my mouth, but the foamy yogurt was far too sweet for my liking after an already sweet salad. 

Bread with kabocha squash butter
Dessert consisted of a preserved strawberry dish with a strawberry consommé, crème fraiche ice cream, red pepper, basil and elderberries finished in liquid nitrogen. The elderberries didn’t add anything to the dish, the crème fraiche ice cream tasted ok on it’s on, but the strawberry consommé was cloyingly sweet, overpowering all the other elements on the dish. I found that the mix of the savoury red peppers and basil with the sweet components didn’t really work for me as they were juxtaposed and never found a way to harmonize to one delicious bite.
Sous vide shortrib with Yukon Gold potato puree
and oxtail jus

The Goat’s milk panna cotta with textures of wild blueberry, rolled oats and tarragon I found inedible. The panna cotta tasted ok but it felt overcooked and too thick compared to other panna cottas we had experienced previously. The rolled oats under the textures of wild blueberry tasted like it belonged in a breakfast bowl instead of this particular dessert and the savoury tarragon clashed with every other element in the bowl. Again the mix of savoury and sweet was not working for us and the different components in the bowl seemed to fight each other for dominance instead of working together to create one balanced dish. Before leaving, we were presented with a dish of small treats, including a salted caramel, chamomile shortbread and a honey marshmallow.

Homage to Noma
The good things I can say about the meal were that our server was very good, attentive and friendly. The portion sizes were perfect given the number of courses and the pacing was handled well, although the meal probably could have been a little slower given our experiences with other tasting menus at restaurants such as Restaurant Gordon Ramsay, The Fat Duck and Viajante. Although most diners in Edmonton probably are not used to having meals that last three to four hours, we have found that well paced tasting menus last a minimum of over two hours, while this meal was well under two hours.

Honey yogurt with burnt meringue and bee pollen
I’m not sure what would have improved the dishes other than not over cooking the proteins. Although my understanding of the sous vide machine is that it’s supposed to cook things evenly and keep them moist, so why both our sous vide proteins came out overcooked and dry is beyond my knowledge. I however have noticed that many chefs in Edmonton get almost giddy when a sous vide machine is delivered to their restaurant kitchen, kicking off weeks of experimentation as they try to sous vide practically everything in sight. Thankfully I’ve been lucky and having been the guinea pig to sous vide experiments conducted by Chef Matt Phillips have yielded some rather tasty morsels. Although even he has admitted there are some things that should not be sous vide, a lesson learned from his own experimentation. It just seemed that in many cases dishes were under seasoned, flavours lacking or certain items just did not work together.

Preserved strawberry dessert
Perhaps I have been spoiled by tasting menus at Michelin Star restaurants while travelling abroad? Then again, I’ve had some pretty spectacular tasting menus whipped up by chefs such as Chef Matt Phillips of Lux Steakhouse, Chef Andrew Cowan of Hundred Bar and Kitchen (who has done at least two for us - read about them here and hereboth of Edmonton, and Chef Rogelio Herrera of Alloy Fine Dining (read about that one here) of Calgary, all of which left us satiated and satisfied, unlike at North 53. For the most part, all of these other tasting menus were at much more reasonable prices than the over $200 bill we wound up with at North 53 after taxes and tip, especially given the ingredients used at these other occasions and as is always the case with Chef Andrew Cowan, the sheer amount of leftovers we went home with.

Goats milk panna cotta with textures of wild
blueberries, rolled oats and tarragon
Overall, there was nothing we found enjoyable about our dinner at North 53. We left feeling comfortably full but nowhere near satisfied, with the worst dishes of the night being dessert. The tasting menu was by no means inexpensive and I was hoping for a more enjoyable experience flavour wise, given the hefty price tag and the rave reviews everyone else I knew gave the restaurant. I'm not adverse to paying a high price tag, if the meal is good. However, they were charging quite a bit for a tasting menu that I felt like was composed of a bunch of dishes they were experimenting with but had not yet perfected. I was sorely disappointed and there was not a single dish presented that evening that I would return for. I personally don’t foresee returning to North 53 as a result of this experience. I personally think that a tasting menu should represent the best of what the restaurant and the chef has to offer and if that was their best, then they it would appear that they don't have much to offer diners in my humble opinion other than a big gaping hole in their wallet.

North 53
10240 124 Street NW
Edmonton, AB
Twitter: @north_53

North 53 on Urbanspoon 

1 comment:

  1. That's odd. Off night? We went soon after (on May 21) and had an opposite experience with the food. The amuse was different, but the rest of the courses were the same. The duck breast had the skin and fat left on so it was still very moist. The short rib was so tender and buttery (our favorite dish of the night). Perhaps they learned from your comments!


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