Alta is Jasper Avenue's new kid on the block, and it shares the neighbourhood with some pretty big fish. Chef Daniel Costa's three-restaurant empire is right across the street, and Meso-American juggernauts Rostizado and Tres Carnales are a few short blocks away. Another wine bar or two are right around the corner, but this oughtn't to be cause for confusion, for Alta steps into a previously unoccupied niche.
In fact, it's difficult to derive just one descriptor for Alta's dishes. They are creative. Different. They are the creations of Chef Ben Staley, who was the opening chef for North 53 a few years ago. He has since worked diligently toward opening his own eatery. Alta, finally a reality after many months of hard labour, sits comfortably in its downtown digs. Its sister restaurant, Alder Room, is on track to open later this spring. Alta's big windows face Jasper Avenue. It's a bit like peering into a zoo exhibit of Albertan life, as all manner of vehicles and pedestrians trundle by, going about their lives. Small tables run the length of Alta's narrow room. Tiny lights twinkle from within the pale wooden ceiling, and one can catch glimpses through a shared entrance to where Alder Room will soon spring to life.
Alta's wine list is diverse and intriguing, and even includes a few orange wines. Nestarec Fork & Knives Neuburger (Czech Republic, $20/five ounces) proudly represents this category with a clean, clear, orange hue reminiscent of gentle sunshine through a stained-glass window. Flavour-wise, it is reminiscent of prosecco sans the bubbles, and leaves no aftertaste. It's like floating on still water. Cocktails ($15 each) are equally creative, with names that match their flavour profiles. "Steep" serves up vodka, strawberry, rucolino (an arugula liqueur) and a bold tisane over ice in a tall glass. It's a glamorous iced tea, reinvented. "Coastal" gently stirs together fino sherry, amaro Montenegro, gin and celery leaf for a concoction that evokes wind coming off a calm sea.
Fermented and pickled items figure heavily in Alta's brief but thoughtful menu, and the meal begins with a baseball-sized loaf of house-made sourdough bread ($8). The loaf is cleaved into four sections, all of which beg to be slathered with tangy cultured butter. Bar snacks include malted hazelnuts ($5) and plums that have been cured and marinated like olives ($6).
The hazelnuts shatter with crispness, and crescendo from sweet to bitter, leaving afternotes of toasty malt. As for the plums, one wouldn't know they were stone fruit based on appearance and flavour. They glisten like water-polished pebbles and pop with understated sweetness.
Larger plates include chicken liver on brioche ($16), lightly cooked salmon served with charred cucumbers and buttermilk-dill sauce ($20) and beer-marinated mussels topped with celery and parsley ($19). The brioche makes an impressive visual statement with its piped lines of chicken-liver parfait topped with nasturtium leaves, sunflower shoots and pickled onion. Each bite balances dense brioche with cloud-like liver pâté. A few pickled blueberries hide among the greens on top and add little pops of acidity to cut through the richness. The salmon tastes like Norway: just-cooked, fork-tender and kissed with dill and cucumber. The mussels, served cold, are a roller coaster of flavours that segue from the initial herbal hits of pine to crisp bits of celery and parsley that portend the arrival of spring. Though an interesting dish, it's our least favourite of the evening.
For dessert, koji rice pudding with sake kasu and wild ginger root ($10) intrigues with an aromatic drizzle of wild ginger oil that is best pulled into every spoonful of toothsome rice. Sake kasu, which are the lees left over from sake production, add yeasty notes.
It dares to be different, just like Alta itself.