Edmonton's Whyte Avenue is slowly regaining its mojo. For years, independent players were squeezed out by exorbitant leases, leaving residents to wonder what had become of their city's most famous avenue. The sagging economy, however, brought forth an unexpected benefit. Cooling demand for commercial spaces meant that prime real estate was no longer off limits to smaller players. Independents, such as pub-restaurant Malt and Mortar, are recolonizing Whyte Avenue once more.
Malt and Mortar occupies a grand brick building with ample windows. It's a prime vantage point for people-watching. Even in winter, pedestrian traffic remains unfazed. Inside, new construction handily passes for vintage. Beams, bricks and duct work all create a polished vibe that hits far above the average of the usual beer and burger players. Jazz is swinging in the background tonight, and the televisions are mercifully on "mute" while hockey players whiz back and forth.
A commendable (and rotating) tap selection draws heavily upon Albertan breweries. Notable examples include Edmonton's Alley Kat, Fort McMurray's Wood Buffalo, Calgary's Big Rock and Lacombe's Bench Creek. Cocktails are available, too, but beer is the safest bet. A Mango Bellini ($11) is unbearably sweet, but a Green Tea Mojito ($12) is a clean combination of rum, tea and ginger.
Malt and Mortar's menu presents a substantial cross-section of bar snacks, but keeps the roster interesting. A substantial bowl of Cheddar Sriracha Popcorn ($5) nudges the evening into motion. It is pleasantly spicy, exceptionally cheesy in a "two packets of cheese dust in the Kraft Dinner" sort of way and each handful begs for another. Kim Chi Tatchos ($15.50) are a welcome break from the usual platters of seething cheese and greasy chips. Here, lattice-cut fries hide shreds of spicy kimchi, all under a blanket of shredded pickled carrots, scallions and peanuts. White miso crema is lost in the fold, but peanut-butter hoisin sauce is voluptuous and scrumptious.
Louisiana Corn Bread ($7) arrives warm, soft and fragrant, but could really use a few drizzles more of hopped maple syrup. The concept is sound, but the drizzle is absorbed so quickly that the end result is rather dry. Baked Brie ($12) with whisky apple chutney is agreeable; granted, it is hard to screw something up when the dish's primary constituents are not house-made. Indeed, the eerily uniform nubs of the baguette's underside betray a commercial origin. The chutney, however, is delightfully redolent with tart apples and is generously laced with smoky whisky.
Mains are halfhearted. A Peking Duck Clubhouse ($15) suffers from too much lettuce and not enough duck. Mac and Cheese ($15.50) is adequately cheesy but lamentably gluey. The Lamb Burger ($16) is the best pick of the lot. Here, a juicy lamb patty shares its bun with zesty beet horseradish sauce and gently salty feta. It's a tasty burger indeed, and any one of Malt and Mortar's on-tap beers would wash it down nicely.
Malt and Mortar's food takes a back seat to its voluminous compilation of Albertan beers. Fortunately, Malt and Mortar's brews, paired with its front-row view to Whyte Avenue, create an attractive space where one might watch the game with friends or simply observe life's passing parade. Every avenue needs such a venue.