Before a recent trip to Edmonton I did my standard restaurant research. All trails seemed to lead to a place called Three Boars Eatery, located happily enough just a few blocks from my hotel in the neighborhood of Old Strathcona. I left a message requesting a booking the day before my arrival and two minutes later my phone pulsed. “Hi. You called. We’re full upstairs tomorrow night but there’s always room in the bar.”
The next night, after an airport shuttle ride through snow-choked streets and a quick check-in, I entered Three Boars’ bar area. It was populated solely by men, all of whom sported either a beard or a plaid shirt. Some, like me, boasted both. It felt like a homecoming. I overheard talk of poorly-behaved roommates at the far end of the bar, while the two gymrats next to me discussed in very technical terms the effect of steroids on a friend’s growth. The Rolling Stones ranted in the background; in the foreground, the service was attentive and nerdy. A revolving cast of three waiters asked questions and probed, made suggestions, and explained that the menu changes several times a week, sometimes daily.
Three Boars is about offal and local provenance. It’s full-fat and high protein. Three Boars is relaxed but it is also self-conscious, telling guests where all their food and drinks originate. I sipped local beers (fine, though nothing truly exceptional) and ate several small and very good courses: smoked pork jowls with grainy mustard, smoked steelhead trout, and bacon-wrapped figs stuffed with blue cheese. So far so good.
Then came the truly exceptional part of the evening, the part that made me sit up: a miso-braised pork belly sitting on steel-cut oats cooked in dashi, with scattered pickled mushroom, roe, and seaweed. The flavors were bold and beautifully balanced. The result was a wildly delicious and quite comforting savory breakfast, but for dinner. It entered the upper reaches of my global favorite food items chart with a bang.
Naturally I asked my waiters where else I should eat. “The food community is small in Edmonton, so everyone knows each other,” said one. To illustrate, he pointed out a chef sitting at the far end of the bar and then grabbed a fellow who was just leaving. “And this is Tarquin, the best bartender in Edmonton. You should have him make you cocktails.”Two nights prior, Tarquin Melnyk had won a Canadian Professional Bartenders Association prize as the best bartender in Alberta. He suggested that I visit Manor Casual Bistro, the restaurant where he tends bar, which I did the following night. I tried three of his complicated cocktails, thinking that each looked on paper as if it had too many ingredients, only to be walloped each time. These are remarkable, ambitious cocktails, some with either semi-exotic components (elderflower liqueur); others with remarkably exotic ingredients (phytoplankton).
Melnyk is personable well beyond reasonable customer service expectations. I had the feeling that, had I requested it, he could have devoted an evening to discussing new developments in the world of craft cocktails with me.
Edmonton’s dosage of friendliness was pleasing for sure, but what made my few days in Alberta’s frozen capital downright exciting was the vibe of being invited in, however briefly, to spend some time with a group of people making good food and drink for each other all bitter winter long.
[Image: Flickr | Hobolens]