The Butternut Tree: Betting on 'old school' comfort in a beleaguered locale

Chef Scott Downey is betting on the classics to anchor his restaurant, The Butternut Tree, in a space in Edmonton’s Grandin neighbourhood that has seen more than one restaurant pull up roots.

Impressive 'old school' menu worth the trip

The Butternut Tree is tucked away a short walk from the legislature grounds. (The Butternut Tree/Instagram)

Chef Scott Downey is betting on the classics to anchor his restaurant, The Butternut Tree, in a space in Edmonton's Grandin neighbourhood that has seen more than one restaurant pull up roots.

On a Tuesday evening, three friends and I found our way to this address that has bested more than one customer, for if you miss turning north on 110 Street, you will find yourself swept along southwards with no choice but to cross the High Level bridge.

Once that happens, chances of navigating your way back — over hill and dale, north across the river, alongside other weary travelers crawling through continuous construction zones — are slim, to none.

If you do survive a missed turn, know that you will be well fed after you sit yourself down in a cushioned, wide-bottomed chair at The Butternut Tree.

And if you secure such chair at a window-side table, you may never want to leave.

The space is elegant yet homey and the view of the legislature building and grounds is a sight to behold.

For all the progressive cookery happening at Edmonton restaurants as of late, it is surprising to see a menu of relatively conservative mains. Duck breast, elk tenderloin, pheasant, and rabbit; all with root vegetables and purees, and a jus for every occasion.

Downey, who cites Michelin-starred chef Daniel Boulud as a mentor, has learned his sauce-making skills from the master himself.

Downey's training at the Culinary Institute of America rounds out all other aspects of a French-classics-based culinary education.

The appetizers on this concise menu are where the intrigue lies. Of the five (ranging from $14-$19), we tried four.
 The tomato salad is a refreshing, brilliant compilation of ripe heirloom fruits topped with Winding Road Josef Cheese and dressed in sorrel cream and canola oil.

Pickled yarrow blossoms add a spicy, acidic note to replace pepper, a forbidden ingredient in this restaurant as it is not grown in the land of the Maple Leaf.

Items like lemon, lime, or other foreign ingredients are also cibus non grata in Downey's open-concept kitchen where the chef encourages transparency to heighten the dining experience. 

The charred broccoli with succulent pork belly has me Jonesing for this sensory overload for days after.

The broccoli accompanies four chunks of crispy belly mixed with pickled garlic scapes on a bed of nutty red fife grains. A leek ash-covered soft boiled duck egg is the crowning glory and brings the dish to a decadent level once the egg is broken and its yolky contents revealed.

The steamed and fried octopus tentacles and suckers that sit atop a pile of delicate spaghetti squash and cupped by a border of razor-thin radish slices are bland in comparison.

However, combining those components with the accompanying beet leaf pesto sprinkled with dehydrated pine-flavoured devils club shoot alters the experience — in a good way. Devils club and tentacles, it appears, are a well-suited match.

The mains are, surprisingly, old school.

Elk tenderloin plated with charred cabbage and fingerling potatoes is a study in burgundy and brown, and the one mustard-glazed carrot, despite its colourful efforts, cannot break up the autumn-hued monotony.

Had the elk been medium rare as hoped, and had the carrots been more plentiful, and perhaps a few leaves of any kind of greenery placed here and there, things may have been easier to swallow.

The rabbit dish, too, is heavy — surprising for such a little animal.

But, it's the nutty red fife wheat berries, the confit leek and turnips, the caramelized burdock root, and the amber-tinted jus that weighs down the exquisitely prepared mini-French rack, the lovely, textured terrine and the (albeit underseasoned) loin.

Downey utilizes the whole animal here; an act which deserves high praise.

It seems monochromatic is the theme for it appears again in the pheasant duo, a dish with a deboned leg stuffed with fennel and mushroom duxelle, and a partial breast roasted with wing bone attached.

The bird comes with a few dollops of red and white beet puree, some pickled candy-striped beet rounds, seared onions and pheasant jus finished with cherry jus for some much-needed acidity.

There is an overall heaviness in the air with roasting and charring and root vegetables. Chef Downey would do well to look to his appetizer options for inspiration and lighten up the main offerings.

Yes, winter is coming, but a little brevity would do wonders.

Kudos deserved for the 100 per cent Canadian wine list and craft beer selection.

It's rare to find a server who knows each ingredient of each dish, and how the dish is prepared. Compliments to the server.

For the sake of the entire staff, I hope The Butternut Tree, like its namesake on Downey's grandmother's property, can survive the ages — or at least the next few years.

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.