Playing favourites: Edmonton's building blitz of mega recreation centres a tough act to follow
Edmonton: The New Capital is a special series taking the pulse of the city. From Terwillegar to Castle Downs, CBC journalists are talking to people about how Edmonton is changing and what it means for the future.
When Brad Lazarenko opened Culina Mill Creek in 2004 and used products from local farmers with whom he'd established relationships, he wasn't doing it for the sake of any trend. He did it because it was the right thing to do.
Sourcing local got him noticed, but it wasn't just the food that was getting attention. It was the room, too.
Culina was small and quirky — sort of "broody Paris meets modish Bohemia" — and a far cry from the plethora of large, corporate steakhouses and garish chains that dotted the culinary landscape.
Knowing how the food was raised was also a guiding principle for Jessie and Darcy Radies who opened their restaurant, The Blue Pear, in 2000. Food integrity mattered.
That way of thinking was a departure for many Edmonton restaurants owners in the early 2000s who generally ordered boxes of frozen product and ingredients sourced from foreign countries. Back then, no one could offer how the pork was raised or from what waters the fish was caught.
Cindy Lazarenko, who shared her brother's principles in operating her restaurant Culina Highlands, impressed the judges at Air Canada's EnRoute magazine with her modern Ukrainian fare, securing a spot on its Best New Restaurant list for 2009.
That was the same year Duchess Bake Shop set up on 124th Street, bringing exquisite macarons and pastries to the city.
People were open to culinary creativity and showed they would pay well if the quality was there.
Creative genius turned heads at EnRoute
Carla Alexander had known this for years. Her tiny restaurant, Soul Soup, was the successful precursor to MRKT, the bistro on Jasper Avenue that Alexander opened in 2010. MRKT had a sleek, ultra-modern interior and a menu that highlighted seasonal and locally sourced ingredients.
Alexander's friend, Daniel Costa, also opened a restaurant that year. His was a small, sleek Italian eatery called Corso 32 that forever changed the way Edmontonians thought of Italian food — no pizza or over-sauced pasta, just dishes that were simple, refined and had soul.
Something as uncomplicated as a house-made ricotta drizzled with good quality Italian olive oil made people swoon.
It was all about letting good quality ingredients speak for themselves. In fact, they spoke so clearly, that Corso 32 cracked EnRoute's top 10 list of best new restaurants in 2011.
Seven years later, it's still hard to get a reservation at Corso even though Costa has opened two more restaurants on the same block.
Brad Lazarenko created sparks with Culina Mill Creek that Daniel Costa fed into a roaring blaze with Corso 32. The rest of the country was taking notice.
In 2011, three friends helped to stoke the fire with six months of social media posts revealing tiny bits of tantalizing information about a taco joint they were building.
Restaurant magic in Edmonton
By the time Tres Carnales opened its doors that summer, people were already lined up to check out the attractive room — one to see and be seen in — and the quality food. The lineups still haven't abated.
Small was proving to be mighty.
Three Boars set up shop in a tiny house on 109th Street, offering small plates and whisky-focused cocktails. The menu was created around the harvested foods that farmers would deliver weekly to the back door. Chef Brayden Kozak introduced offal and diners lapped it up. Lamb neck, beef tongue, no problem. When it came to new ideas, Edmontonians were a very accepting audience.
And the love for local producers kept growing.
In 2013, Blair Lebsack and partner Caitlin Fulton opened RGE RD, a prairie-focused fine dining spot with a Canadian-centric wine list and ingredients sourced exclusively from a handful of farmers the two had worked with over the years.
Lebsack knew how those ingredients were raised — he'd even helped to grow and harvest many of them himself — and the restaurant's fare was described as rustic yet exquisite. Those same adjectives could be used for the room, which was accented with fur throws, iron hardware and soft lighting. RGE RD secured the number four spot on EnRoute's 2014 list, a remarkable accomplishment.
With that run of banner years, expectations in Edmonton became understandably high. Mediocrity, once a ruling force, was being put in its place as vocal customers demanded quality. Thanks to chefs like Alexander, Costa and Lebsack, they'd gotten used to quality food and spaces with panache.
Then North 53 arrived and pushed the customer to their limits.
The room's walls and ceiling were dramatic black with spider-like lights reaching from the ceiling. The original food concept was a tasting menu featuring all-Canadian ingredients whipped up in ultra-modern preparations.
People balked. And owner Kevin Cam listened.
The menu changed to more approachable plates (though the cocktails — thankfully — remained edgy and exciting, and to this day are still some of the city's most favoured.)
As long as there was value, patrons would swallow exciting creations made with quality ingredients. And Edmonton's stellar cast of restaurateurs was happy to oblige.
Food artisans are getting their due
Costa opened his second restaurant, Bar Bricco, a place for small plates and wine. The boys behind Tres Carnales followed up with Rostizado, a place for Mexican roasted fare. More Mexican food appeared at El Cortez, an east L.A.-vibed eatery that was the first of three Michael Maxxis restaurants.
On the finer side, Solstice arrived, offering tranquillity and seasonal cuisine.
Kevin Cam's second restaurant, Baijiu, saw Chef Lex Boldireff modernizing traditional Asian dishes in a 1930s Shanghai-style speakeasy; Costa unveiled restaurant three, Uccellino.
Bespoke barmen opened the doors to Clementine; the elegant fare at Bündok by chef Ryan Hotchkiss made him the darling of local media.
Garner Beggs of Duchess Bakeshop revealed Café Linnea and Ben Staley brought modernism to Jasper Avenue in side-by-side restaurants, ALTA (now closed) and Alder Room.
In 2017, four Edmonton restaurants made EnRoute's Best New Restaurant list. An unprecedented three — Alder Room, Café Linnea and Clementine — placed in the top 10. Heads across the nation swivelled in the direction of Alberta's capital city.
And they hadn't even heard yet of phenom Christine Sandford and what she was doing at Biera, the new restaurant inside of the Blind Enthusiasm brewery.
The big rooms are gone. Vegetables are taking up more menu space. Servers can tell you how dishes are prepared and (for the most part) from where the ingredients hail.
And it's not just the restaurants that are shining, it's also the artisans: chocolatiers, bakers, cheese-makers, craft brewers, butchers and sausage makers.
Edmonton is enjoying a resurgence of craftsmanship. It's a wonderful time to live in this city.
Five years ago, I was part of a food panel and was asked the question, "Is Edmonton a food destination?"
I said, "No, not yet."
If I was asked today, I would happily, wholeheartedly, report the opposite.
Read more stories on our Edmonton: The New Capital series on cbc.ca/edmonton or listen to CBC Radio One, 93.9 FM/740 AM.