Edmonton's The Butternut Tree taps into local roots
With family ties on the East Coast, the chef has staged in New York and at Denmark's Noma
To say Canadian cuisine is having a moment right now isn't entirely true. Restaurants such as River Café in Calgary and Langdon Hall in Cambridge, Ont., are just a couple of iconic places that have been exploring the idea of locality and identity for some time. Still, many cities have seen an influx of younger restaurateurs looking to explore their Canadian culinary roots. Edmonton's Scott Downey is just that and his genuine focus on the matter makes him a new(er) kid on the block worth rooting for.
The Butternut Tree is a simple, but purposeful space. White walls are accented every 12 feet or so by thick, dark wooden beams that help frame the interior. A minimalist feeling stretches throughout the long dining room and its bar. Even its shelves see bottles of micro-distilled spirits such as Dillon's Vermouth and Newfoundland Screech Rum consciously spaced out rather than all clustered together as in most bars. It makes the room feel calm and focused.
With almost half of the wall space composed of floor-to-ceiling windows, the view of Edmonton's river valley is stupendous. It sets the stage nicely for a menu bursting with regional and foraged ingredients, Canadian historical nods and the chef's own heritage.
The service staff here are quick to inform you of Mr. Downey's résumé and his aforementioned approach. Growing up in St. Albert and with family ties on the East Coast, the chef has staged at Daniel Boulud's namesake restaurant in New York as well as Noma over in Denmark. It's hard not to expect big things with that sort of introduction.
For an edible introduction following a lofty one, an amuse-bouche arrives at our table. The compact bite consisting of a ribbon of cured salmon with whipped chevre, dried dill, pickled sea asparagus, red wine vinegar powder and chervil is an impressive start, especially on the small ceramic vessel we're told the chef helped design.
Chef Downey taps into his New Brunswick roots by reinterpreting poutine râpée, a classic Acadian dish of potato dumplings filled with meat, typically pork. His rendition uses braised meat of duck leg and forms a layer of potato dough around it before it is fried and finished with blueberry jus and undetectable pickled spruce tips. With an impossibly tough potato layer, it was not worth having more than several bites.
(It seems fair to note that after sending this dish back to the kitchen, the chef wholeheartedly agreed that the batch of dumplings were not made properly that day.)
Next came a nicely seasoned and pleasant elk tartare topped with cured egg yolk, a crispy potato lattice and touches of crabapple jelly followed by a bizarrely compartmentalized braised pork tongue, cabbage and apple dish and an equally perplexing and sloppy-looking plate of overcooked lingcod with bitter, pickled poplar tree buds and mushy winter squash pavé, among other things.
What came next, rabbit three ways, proved to be the low point of the evening. Dry rabbit saddle, dry bone-in loin and rabbit torchon sat beside schmears of beet puree and a mélange of baby turnip, charred onions, leeks and wheat berries. In a time when chefs cry foul over labour costs, it was also hard not to scratch my head and wonder why this kitchen spent time frenching the minuscule rib bones of a small rabbit.
A second visit one month later yielded much better experience, save a mediocre beet salad. Finished with a roasted yeast-infused goat milk and striking in presentation, it tasted paradoxically bland.
While perched at the bar, tonight's amuse presented itself as a miniature "mushroom royale" with pickled red currants, an airy foam, hazelnut and chervil. It was nice to start on the right foot again.
Revisiting the poutine râpée was tasty redemption. Warm, braised duck meat encased by a tender potato dough complemented by the rich blueberry jus was fulfilling on a cold night, though the tiny accents of pickled spruce tips seem unnecessary.
Also notably delicious and unsuspectingly hearty was the entree-sized plate of charred parsley roots, which were brushed with parsley pesto and coupled with roasted oyster mushrooms, sunchokes – which were confit and then grilled – sunflower-seed puree, Saskatchewan wild rice and crushed hazelnuts.
Consistent success here can be found in Butternut's drink menu. The strictly Canadian wine, beer and cider offerings are worth a nod, but it's the cocktail list that stands out, making an impactful chord as uniquely and imaginatively Canadian.
The "TBT Old Fashioned" is a perfect case study. This reinterpretation of the famous drink uses a combination of Gretzky Estates No. 99 whisky, cherry bitters made by the local Token Bitters, a dash of buckwheat honey and a few sea buckthorn berries. Likewise, "Forest" (made with Tempo Renovo Gin, nanny berries and egg white, strained and garnished with minced spruce tip) sips like a mountaineer's piney cousin to a city slicker's gin sour.
As we finish our drinks, an incredible cloudberry panna cotta hits the counter as our dinner winds down. The silky cream base is followed by a thin sheet of raspberry "ice", dots of sea buckthorn gel, diced Aurora Golden Gala apple and teeny leaves of mint. The greenery packs a profound punch, which detracts from the other elements, but easily pick a few leaves off and the dessert becomes sublime.
While I crack through the ice to get to the panna cotta, the server happily explains that the combination of ingredients in the bowl are meant to symbolize the region of the country they collectively grow in: the Okanagan.
That's not really the case with these ingredients, at least not naturally anyway, but being charmingly earnest in delivery while somewhat missing the mark sums up The Butternut Tree succinctly.