Suburbs have long been the unchallenged territory of chain restaurants. Leases may be cheaper and spaces significantly larger than those more central and metropolitan, but here in the farthest reaches of Edmonton's urban existence, restaurateurs cannot rely on walk-by traffic or the implicit cache of downtown physiognomy. Any eateries other than the same sequence of franchises that repeats with disconcerting uniformity from subdivision to subdivision must attract and retain the favour of an audience intrigued enough to commit to a lengthy commute. Hence, with a few notable exceptions, these incipient neighbourhoods remain uncolonized.
Workshop Eatery is indeed at land's end. It is closer to Edmonton International Airport than it is to city centre, and lonesome streetlamps scarcely illuminate the adjacent, under-construction show homes. Workshop's warm light spills out into the suburban darkness, though. The restaurant threw open its giant garage door (albeit into an equally interesting lobby dominated by planet-like light fixtures) in November, 2015. Workshop's industrial-garden vibe begins with blond plank walls that connect a polished concrete floor to an impossibly high ceiling crisscrossed with duct-work. A painted veggie mural encircles a blackboard proclaiming the day's features in cheerful chalk at one end of the L-shaped space. Around the corner, a back-lit pantry boasts jars of colourful house-made preserves. Beehives thrive on the roof, and outdoor planters will burst with vegetables once winter's hold has loosened.
Workshop's menu reads as an ode to Alberta-grown ingredients, be they farmed, fished or ranched, with some clever wordplay thrown in for good measure (Token Steak Dish, anyone?). Starters burst out of the gate with Belly & Butternut ($16), which unifies deftly caramelized pork belly and vibrant slices of butternut squash with lashings of sticky-sweet maple and smoky ancho oil. The accompanying scatter of corn kernels, however, is lost in the shuffle. Riverbend Garden Beets ($14) is a kaleidoscope of raw, roasted and pickled beets that shelter a toasty cache of pecans and cloud-like dabs of starkly white goat cheese. Chicken liver parfait ($11) cuts the voluptuous intensity of offal with an indigo interjection of Saskatoon berry jam, lending itself nicely to cranberry-nut bread.
Entrees, however, falter. A buxom glass of Skulls Shiraz (Australia, $15) bolsters braised lamb shank ($34), but the meat's dry and chewy texture is vexatious. The mound of farro risotto riding shotgun seethes with salt. Duck Duck Cous Cous ($32) presents a chevron of nicely pink duck-breast slices that could have been magical were the glorious layer of subcutaneous fat rendered off completely. The eponymous couscous substratum screams with heavy-handed thyme, but glorious garnet-hued preserved cherries are a boon to both the fowl and an emphatic glass of Paso Creek Zinfandel (USA, $12). Parsnip puree misplaces the root vegetable's innate sweetness in a perplexing sea of vanilla bean.
Sweet redemption arrives in the earthly guise of honey and yogurt panna cotta ($9). Here, a whisper-light cloud of unapologetically sour yogurt shares its mason jar with sunshine-smooth apricot jam and an encore appearance of the kitchen's wickedly good preserved cherries. A hazy drawl of honey, sourced from Workshop's rooftop hives, is gentle rather than obsequious. Warm apple crisp ($9), although a cinnamon-scented crowd pleaser, forges no new paths, but pairs consummately with a glass of Sandeman 20 Year Tawny Port ($12) that chases the crisp like a drinkable butter tart.
Workshop succeeds with straightforward flavour profiles but stumbles when the seasoning becomes complex. The inviting and impressive physical space evokes rural warmth, although the Top 40ish soundtrack is distracting, and the servers were, at times, inattentive. Workshop Eatery's potential is tangible, though, and further colonization of these peripheral neighbourhoods will follow now that primary succession has commenced.