Bodega Highlands' physical space has lived many lives. Over the past decade, the modest heritage building in Edmonton's historic Highlands neighbourhood has been a Ukrainian bistro, a Creole kitchen and an astonishingly short-lived pizzeria. Vestiges of these former incarnations aged the space prematurely, and it seemed as though each successive tenant merely slapped a few coats of paint over what was old, as opposed to renovating. Fortunately, long-time friends and enterprising business partners Chris Mena and chef Lino Oliviera (the talent behind popular Portuguese eatery Sabor and take-out pizza joint Urbano) recognized the noble bones underneath so many layers of flaking paint. More importantly, the pair recognized a yawning void: Highlands needed a neighbourhood haunt.
Mr. Oliviera and Mr. Mena transplanted their popular Bodega tapas bar from downtown, and gave the languishing room a sorely needed facelift. Chipped paint and austere lighting have been replaced with a gilded ceiling, comfy benches and a splashy painting of a matador. A small bar allows peeks into the kitchen and large windows facilitate Arcadian views of tree-lined streets. Bodega's bar mixes fine cocktails: a Gin Gimlet ($13) refreshes with aromatic ginger, zippy lime and a good shot of Alberta-made Eau Claire gin. The wine list is brief but well thought-out. Mediterranean vintages are front and centre. Adega Vinho Verde ($9/6 oz.) stands out, and balances razor-sharp crispness with the slightest hint of petillance.
Bodega's menu adheres to the tapas-bar credo of sharing. Small plates make up the lion's share of the menu, and one would be remiss not to maximize the number of dishes sampled. Crostini with Sardine Pâté ($6) sing with subtle spice and are not a bit too fishy. Patatas Bravas ($6) delight with their simplicity. Each tiny spud is at once tender and crisp, though the kitchen has gone overboard with the spicy garlic aioli on top. Empanadillas ($6) appear a bit motley, but each palm-sized triangle bursts with morsels of rich, spiced lamb.
Meatier small plates include the likes of Piri Piri Prawns ($12) and Angus Skirt Steak ($12). The former features a trio of nicely charred plump prawns perched on little puddles of aioli – each bite bursts with marine sweetness, sinuous smoke and heady garlic. The latter sees a generous cut of tender beef cooked just rare and then lovingly cleaved across the grain before being drizzled with chunky, verdant chimichurri sauce. Finally, Braised Boar Cheeks ($9) are fork-tender, peppery and unapologetically gamey, as they should be.
Crema Catalana ($6) – the Spanish Portuguese answer to crème brûlée – is feather-light, judiciously sweet and swimming in rich caramel sauce. It falls in the "Goldilocks Zone" of desserts: neither too big nor too small, and function as a welcome coda to a scrumptious evening. Even though the hour is late, tables remain occupied by enthusiastic diners who loath to leave the comfort of a stylish room with exceptional food. Highlands' patient vigil for a stalwart neighbourhood spot has finally been rewarded.