Edmonton's Norwood neighbourhoood connects two worlds: the city's small but mighty Little Italy, and the underdog mom and pop shop-flecked 118th Avenue. Norwood attracts young families, drawn by its character homes and affordable real estate, and one gets a profound sense of the Edmonton that existed before vinyl siding and massive front-entry garages were rampant.
Dilapidated buildings and drug houses still persist, though, despite police and citizens' valiant efforts to oust them. It's an "other side of the tracks" sort of place, the sort that gets a bad rap from those unable or unwilling to see the inner city's inherent beauty. Yet, community spirit is strong here in Norwood, particularly in its fledgling neighbourhood restaurant, Otto.
Otto occupies the ground floor of an old apartment block. Signage is subtle, but to stride through Otto's door is to enter a warm room framed in weathered wood and cinder blocks, and anchored by a small bar at the back. Seating includes a few booths and a long communal table. Owner Ed Donszelmann, a veteran of the city's culinary scene, is a friendly fixture.
Beer, the majority of which is brewed in Alberta, and sausages are Otto's mainstays. The beer list alone would take weeks to work through, for many dozens tempt from behind Otto's brick-backed bar. "All Hops for a Basement," ($7) is a gorgeous IPA brewed by Hell's Basement in Medicine Hat. It's a breathless and creamy hit of airy pine and citrusy hops. "Collective Project Hefeweizen" ($7), brewed by Collective Arts in Hamilton, is almost dessert-like, with strong notes of yeast and banana.
Otto's simple menu centres on sausage, made by local charcuterie wunderkind Fuge Fine Meats. Sausages ($7 each) are, in fact, the only entrée. The flagship Otto Dog sings with hot, melty, smoky Gouda from nearby Sylvan Star Cheese Farm, and scarcely needs embellishment from any of the three types of mustard (Dijon, hopped, or yellow). Italian sausage is heavy with fennel, but balanced by assertive Calabrian chili flakes. Lamb Merguez is heady and fragrant with North African harissa spices, and Beef Bratwurst is robust and toothsome with undertones of caraway and mustard. It's a carnivore's dream come true.
Sides need work, however, as does the service. House Salad ($6) is an average assemblage of sliced cukes and onions marinated in vinegar. Its crunch is satisfying, but it perplexingly lacks acidity. Potato Salad ($5) needs salt and arrives ice cold. Fries ($5) are especially disappointing. Good French fries should be easy points, but these bland and flaccid spuds could have come from any hockey rink canteen.
Despite Otto's inviting vibe, service is flat-out frustrating. Our indifferent server forgot multiple parts of our meal throughout the evening, and seemed to know surprisingly little about the menu. All of this could have been forgiven upon the arrival of an exquisite Financier Cake ($7), sweet and rich with ground almonds. But the coffee we ordered as an accompaniment (and the server couldn't tell us a thing about the beans) never arrived. Instead, the bill was slapped unceremoniously down on the table, bringing the evening to an abrupt end.
Norwood has hungered for a little place to call its own, and Otto will surely help bridge the gap between Edmonton's downtown and its outlying neighbourhoods. Locals already fill its communal table with regularity, but newcomers are advised to skip the fries and focus instead on sausages and beer.