ALTA's locally-focused menu leaves critic as cold as the food
The austere facade of ALTA is a good indication of what awaits inside the new wine bar on Jasper Avenue.
The long and narrow interior is finished in subdued greys and blonde wood. A bookmark-sized menu comes tucked in a box with soft linens and hefty flatware. MoMA-worthy wine decanters, Scandinavian pottery and other modern accessories serve not only as functional pieces, but as artistic props in this photo shoot-ready room.
There is no clutter here.
The setting plays a vital role in promoting ALTA's image. Check their Instagram feed and you'll see that lighting and depth of field are as important as the ingredients — be it a purposefully placed chive blossom on a rosy mound of lamb tartare, or nasturtium leaves and newborn sprouts crowning a swirl of liver paté. Precision is paramount.
Chef and co-owner Ben Staley describes ALTA as a wine bar serving seasonally-focused dishes made with regionally-sourced ingredients. It's obvious that Staley is an admirer of the Nordic food movement, a trend where foraging minimalists pick, pickle and ferment things.
At ALTA, the food is raw, preserved, or pre-cooked and served cool or at room temperature. The dishes are assembled and brought to your table, not by a server, but by a chef who can describe to you in the deepest detail what it took to get that food to your hand-made plate.
That is music to my ears. You will never hear the words, "I think" spoken by the staff. At ALTA, they know.
So I struggle to understand why I've never seen more than eight other people in this 30-seat restaurant on any of the three nights I visited.
During a recent Thursday evening, my dining companion and I were the lone occupants over most of a two-and-a-half-hour span.
Carefully curated, but not comforting
It could be that pickled baby peaches and brined unripe plums aren't initiating the Pavlovian response of Edmonton diners. It could be that the wine on offer is of the trendy-but-not-for-everyone natural wine variety including orange wine, which, if it is your sole intent to get drunk, then the motto of Buckley's cold medicine would be appropriate: It tastes awful, and it works.
Maybe the reason is obvious: save for the in-house baked sourdough, no food is served hot.
If this was the Caribbean, I'd be all over a cold menu. But this is Edmonton, where half of us are convinced summer happened that one day two weeks ago.
ALTA's plate of colourful preserves is pretty enough to warrant its own private gallery showing. But delightful as they are, one does not crave pickled pears, carrots and baby corn during spring snowstorms. The same can be said for the beer-marinated mussels, beautifully presented with razor-thin celery slices and a precise dice of bright orange pepper. But what I would give for just a cube of braised short rib, or a warm bowl of anything.
Surprisingly, it was the charred romaine lettuce showered in seaweed bits, fried garlic and hemp hearts that finally made me feel like I was eating food deserving of ALTA's buildup. The salmon with charred cucumber in a dill cream was even better. The fish was so perfectly cooked that if Staley offered a few more iterations of this dish, he'd have lineups out the door until Christmas.
Dessert was a disaster, plain and simple: a half-moon slice of black malt tart with freeze dried currants looked and tasted like marmite with a texture akin to sludge. The black malt was blended with butter and beeswax to mimic chocolate, an ingredient unusable at ALTA because it is not grown in Canada.
There is no denying Staley's talent. What is missing is the ability to connect the customer to the plate — those seats aren't going to fill themselves.
ALTA's menu needs an alteration, and quick.
You can hear Campbell's reviews on Edmonton AM every second Friday. You can also see more of her reviews on her blog, Weird Wild and Wonderful, and can follow her on Twitter at @wanderwoman10.