Experiential dining at Alder Room a finicky, fussy affair

Settle in and get comfortable, because dinner at Alder Room is an investment in time and money.

Is Edmonton ready for a modern experiential restaurant? Time will tell, Twyla Campbell says

Edmonton's Alder Room restaurant was recently named one of Canada's top 10 new restaurants in Air Canada's enRoute magazine. (Supplied/Alder Room)

Settle in and get comfortable, because dinner at Alder Room is an investment in time and money.

Chef Ben Staley wants you to spend $160 (or $230 with wine pairings) and three hours of your time for an experiential dining adventure at his Jasper Avenue restaurant. That ask also requires you to purchase those seats — or "tickets" as they're called — before knowing what food will be served. The 15 to 20 course tasting menu changes, sometimes daily, depending on what's been roasted, fermented, picked or prepared beforehand.

The adventure starts in the living room, an area at the front of the space modeled after a Nordic furniture showroom. Guests sit on couches and chairs placed around a Noguchi design-inspired table that holds snacks to stave off hunger before the actual tasting event begins.  

Out of the tidbits offered, the duck "Slim Jims" are the crowd favourite. The meat is salty and slightly dry and the crackle-popping of teeth meeting casing offers some textural pleasure. If these were sold as take-away items, I'd grab a couple of packs to have on hand for road trips.

Our 17 course meal officially begins with quail eggs and a variety of vegetables.

Small potatoes are "barely cooked but aggressively roasted over the fire," Staley says. They are smoky and salty and come with tiny twigs for spearing. It's a good start.

The sunchokes are also roasted (as are many items to follow). Hollowed out, fried, filled with burnt cream and presented on a wood slab, they are crispy, savoury and luscious, and we all wish for another.

Runny golden yolk oozes out of vegetable-ash covered quail eggs that come perched on chunks of charcoal in a black matte bowl, and near-transparent caramelized cabbage leaves are nestled amongst a mound of tree leaves. In this dimly lit room, it's easy to choose the wrong leaf, and eating the oak leaves are nowhere near as satisfying as the cabbage leaves, as one diner discovered.

Each dish steeped in culinary manipulation

After the snacks, guests are guided to the counter, where, for the next two and a half hours, Staley and his assistant arrange eight more courses consisting of scallops, vegetables, pork, duck and ice cream while explaining the various methods involved in getting the food to the plate. These plates, by the way, like all other accoutrements at Alder Room, are not standard issue — the pottered wonders are made by ceramicist Delphine Lippens of Humble Ceramics in Los Angeles.

Staley wants you to connect to the land and what it provides. It's a sound ideology, but one that appears to get lost in the finicky, fussy, multi-layered steps of culinary manipulation, of which he is so fond. As a result, the complexity that surrounds the ensuing courses leaves the diner feeling trampled in a sea of extraneous steps.

Beets are roasted for three hours giving them a soft, taffy-like texture, but robbing them of flavour. The accompanying blueberries mixed with hay cream deliver some much-appreciated interest to this dish.

The pork belly,cooked sous vide for 36 hours and tender as any pork belly I've enjoyed, is crushed under an overly acidic blanket of pickled green tomatoes.

One of 17 dishes reviewer Twyla Campbell tasted during a recent visit to Edmonton's Alder Room. (Supplied/Twyla Campbell)

The squash is also cooked for an interminably long period of time. To what end or benefit, one has no idea because as it stands, the squash is dry and lifeless. Not even the walnuts or house-made koji can resurrect it.

​It's the much-anticipated duck, though, that offers the greatest disappointment. Slowly spinning above the wood fire for the past few courses, the birds have been seducing us with their glistening bodies, but the strip of breast meat that is plated is so chewy, it's near impossible to cut. However, half of us are using our bespoke knives upside down — an honest mistake considering the shape — until Staley announces that everybody does this. The knife issue solved, the duck still puts up a fight and wins. Half of my meagre strip of meat remains on the plate, untouched.

Cabbage heads are cooked over the coals for four hours, resulting in charred leaves on the outside and a steamed interior. The raw core, Staley says, "retains a lot of nice texture." That's a bonus, I suppose, for those who like to eat the hard core of an uncooked cabbage. Like the cabbage leaves served at the beginning of our meal, this cabbage is packed with umami and delicious, especially when dragged through the accompanying chicken jus and caramelized tomato puree.

Two delightful ice creams — a silky smooth, salty jersey milk and a sunchoke flavour — end our counter experience before we retreat to the living room for the last dessert courses.

The squash served in this final iteration is a crisp wafer with a hint of sweetness and plenty of flavour. The amaro canelé is French pastry perfection, and the strawberries — having been cooked for three days in sugar — are jammy little rounds that look and feel like fruit leather.

Is Edmonton ready for a modern experiential restaurant? If the value is there, yes. Time will tell if a tasting menu option is giving the customer that value. 

Alder Room is located at 10328 Jasper Avenue.