Optimistically Cautious

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Defying Expectations: Wildflower Grill

A fair food blogger reveals biases. So for the sake of full disclosure: I entered Wildflower Grill (10001 107 Street) hell bent on hating it.

My friends and I used to go to Lazia (10200 102 Avenue), the original of the Lazia Group's holdings, all the time while we were in high school. We loved the swanky decor (their glass-blown centrepiece sculpture was like nothing we had ever seen before), the generous portions, and the convenient City Centre Mall location. But our affections were eventually depleted by rising prices, inconsistent food quality, and poor service. I haven't eaten there in years.

When I had heard that the Inn on 7th was being renovated by the people behind the Varscona and Meterra Hotels on Whyte, I was excited, and even more so when I heard they were looking for a tenant to fill their designated restaurant space. However, when it was released that the Lazia Group was the winner of said space, I was only cautiously optimistic that their choice was the right one. Their many construction delays (a likely by-product of the oft-cited "Alberta boom") that pushed their opening back from Fall 2007 to February 2008 just helped maintain my scepticism about the Wildflower. After my visit last night, however, I am ready to take most of my criticisms back.

Having been open for just three weeks, to much less fanfare than expected in the local media in part due to the lack of a full-time Bistro writer at the Journal, the Wildflower Grill is situated on the ground floor of The Matrix Hotel. My first impressions weren't wholly positive: the plastic "NOW OPEN!" sign above the door, while understandable given their innumerable opening delays, seemed tacky for a restaurant of this supposed calibre. Upon entry, I immediately noticed the poor couple seated at one of the tables facing the entryway - perhaps they didn't have a reservation, but as the restaurant was never at capacity during my stay, I didn't see why such an unfortunate placement had been given to them.

I was greeted by a friendly hostess who opened with what became a standard Wildflower staff line: "Welcome to the Wildflower." Simple and oh so effective, this was one of the many small details that the restaurant nailed in their attempt to create an atmosphere where dining is a form of theatre. Since returning from New York, this was also the first time I didn't mind the idea of checking my coat.

The hostess led me to a table near the kitchen, which I at first balked at, given the number of empty booths away from what could have been a disruptive sightline. But I later relished the opportunity to observe the kitchen staff. The owner was literally on top of the line cooks the entire night, pacing around the area to ensure dishes were delivered efficiently and that the servers were taking care of their guests. Because of this, I couldn't blame the staff for seeming to be slightly on edge, so eager (and needing) to please they were.

As my "Welcome to the Wildflower" server Adam went to retrieve a glass of tap (not sparkling, or bottled still) water for me, I surveyed the decor. I nearly missed the beautiful wine cases on my way in, impressive but not pompously so. Everything was chic and simple: beaded curtains; dark carpeted floor; white booths (which they may come to regret after a year of wear); flower portraits; and lastly, a genuine, stemless orchid in a small hand-blown glass bowl on each table - management were really pulling out all the stops.

Shermie joined me soon after, and we took our time to peruse the page-long menu. I had warned her that the entrees were expensive, with plates ranging from the $26 butternut squash ravioli to the $49 beef tenderloin & lobster pairing. But to be fair, the prices are on par with other boutique hotels in the city, such as Madison's Grill at the Union Bank Inn. Though the Wildflower claims to offer "New Canadian Cuisine", their entrees don't appear to demonstrate a theme of any kind - a token pasta dish complemented by a few requisite beef and game plates "Canadian" does not make.

Shermie opted for the Mesquite Grilled Alberta 'Prime' Striploin ($48), while I chose the most foodie-centric dish on the menu: Chef Yoshi's Bouillabaisse. Knowing that the chef was Japanese, I thought such an entree, prepared with Asian fixings, would allow me to best judge the quality of the restaurant's offerings. While I intended to hone in on the fish, as shellfish really isn't my cup of tea, I was excited as well about trying soba noodles, an ingredient I recently read about in Ruth Reichl's Garlic and Sapphires.

After our orders were taken, Adam brought us amuses bouche. Count me shocked - I thought I had eaten in some fairly "fancy" restaurants in Edmonton, but none before Wildflower had ever served this pre-course. I wish I had written down the name of the amuse bouche, but all I can remember is the nice punch of flavour provided by the aged gouda.

Next, we were treated to a wonderful bread service, which at the Wildflower involved a lovely made-to-order brioche. Tasting just like the egg bread loaves available at T & T Supermarket, the brioche was delivered in the most clever serving vessel since frittatas in mini cast iron skillets - an oversized measuring cup. Two butters were provided, dressed with house-grown micro-greens, but really, the bread was sweet and fresh enough to be happily consumed sans adornment.

Everything was timed perfectly, as our entrees were made available shortly after our bread plates had been cleared and appropriate cutlery provided to us. My dish was artfully constructed, arranged as symmetrically as possible, and served with soy sauce, ginger, and wasabi mayo accompaniments. As expected, the collection of fruits de mer didn't really appeal to me, though I did my best to finish the scallops and mussels in respect of the chef. The fish pieces were a mixed bag - the teriyaki halibut was the best of the trio - sweet and tangy, and cooked to a buttery soft texture, it put the rather bland sea bass and surprisingly tough salmon to shame. It took me a while to find a frame of reference for the bonito broth (a type of fish stock), but it eventually occurred to me that it tasted like a saltier miso soup - a lovely broth that seems to warm one from the inside. Shermie enjoyed her steak (as well as the quiche side), but said that it wasn't as good as the Petite Filet at Ruth's Chris.

The surprise of the evening came when Chef Yoshi actually came out of the kitchen to personally visit with every table! Some may view this as unnecessary pandering, but as someone with a keen interest in food, this was too cool. Of course, when he asked if we had any questions, all I could conjure up was something I immediately wished I could take back - I asked for help identifying the bamboo in my dish. Of course, given that I haven't had bamboo shoots in recent memory, I can't be too embarrassed.

We elected to spring for a "sweet ending" to our meal, and that was the best decision we made all night, both opting for the Chocolate Tasting. While what we received was slightly different than the menu advertised, neither of us would have complained as dessert was an absolute masterpiece. The presentation of our dish was like those found in larger metropolitan centres (or Iron Chef America), not in Edmonton, I thought. Although there were a multitude of elements incorporated, I appreciated the flavour sophistication they tried to reach, and if anything else, the variety that $12 bought us. The mango compote & sorbet was deliciously refreshing and the pineapple foam was interestingly paired with the concentrated dense chocolate 'brownie', but our favorite was undoubtedly the milk chocolate parfait, velvety smooth and comparable to traditional gelato.

The Wildflower Grill begs for another visit in about six months, when the new car smell has worn off. Still, a restaurant like this can only heighten the bar for others like it, and I really do hope that the Lazia Group doesn't let it fall away with neglect like its other properties.

Exterior



Interior



Amuse Bouche



Brioche



Mesquite Grilled Alberta 'Prime' Striploin



Chef Yoshi's Bouillabaisse



Chocolate Tasting

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1 Comments:

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