Weekly Dish: Packrat Louie most pleasant indeed BY GRAHAM HICKS FIRST POSTED EDMONTON SUN: TUESDAY, JULY 04, 2017
It’s like catching up with a long-time friend who, in the interim, has slimmed down considerably, is looking great and exudes new enthusiasm and a positive mind-set.
In short, visiting Old Strathcona’s signature dining-out restaurant Packrat Louie after its recent renovation — both in decor and menu — is most pleasant indeed.
The open and airy eatery has been a South Side fixture since chef extraordinaire Peter Johner (now semi-retired but still making chocolates in the Okanagan) opened Packrat Louie in 1993. It’s been home to several of the city’s better chefs since Johner sold Packrat Louie in 2006, including Jan Trittenbach (Solstice Seasonal Cuisine) and Brad Lazarenko (Culina group).
The timing of the extensive renovation and re-invention was just right. Packrat was getting a little tired, its menu a bit stale. It took courage for managing partner Jodh Singh to recognize the need for short-term pain for long-term gain. The restaurant was shut down for several months and has emerged physically refreshed with an exciting, brand-new menu.
The renovations represent evolution, not revolution. The essence of Packrat Louie — in what was originally a turn-of-the-20th century warehouse – has not been lost. The beautiful big windows, charming exposed brick and hardwood floors remain, but everything else has been updated and refreshed.
More important is the adventurous menu make-over by new head chef Levi Biddlecombe, former owner/proprietor of the Attila the HUNgry food truck.
Biddlecombe honours the long-time Packrat Louie theme of appeal to the multiple tastes, appetites and wallets of the Old Strathcona dining crowd.
Boutique pizzas have been part of Packrat Louie’s personality since 1993. A delightful selection of soups, salads and small plates are listed for light eaters. The smaller selection of large plates acknowledges, but does not concentrate on Alberta’s beef heritage.
Within those categories, the make-over is massive. All that’s left from the past is Packrat Louie’s classic lemon pizza (the lemon being lemon-garlic oil) and Caesar salad. Everything else is new, and the offerings are a wise blend of chef Biddlecombe’s own imagination and a few trendy but beguiling (i.e. Brussels sprouts, tuna poke) dishes.
As has become the norm these days, the three of us visiting Packrat Louie were not big-time eaters. We ate sparingly, choosing a most interesting small-plates multi-cultural lamb ribs, summer salads, and the carrot/ginger/orange soup of the day.
Skipping the pizzas wasn’t that difficult, knowing I’ll be at Packrat Louie every few months for pre-or-post theatre snacks. Packrat Louie pizzas and toppings have always been among the best thin-crusts in the city.
The lamb ribs really have me excited about the “new” Packrat Louie. The small plate was extraordinarily generous. The five meaty ribs (for $17) were deliberately slow-cooked as one would do with pork or beef ribs, the meat falling off the bone — which is quite revolutionary for lamb. But it worked beautifully with a strawberry-infused sweet and peppery harissa glaze and the sprinkling of crunchy, crumbled tortilla chips.
Slow-cooked lamb in Edmonton is truly different. The mixing of Mediterranean, Mexican and good ol’ North American tastes added up to something new and quite addictive.
The carrot soup had all the richness, flavours and aromas expected of such a soup, livened up with the gentle saltiness of what I suspect was pureed seaweed and sesame.
The summer salad was a delicious jumble – shredded apple, pickled blueberries, strawberries, nuts and goat cheese dressing vying for attention – quite perfect to end a sunshine-drenched summer day.
My only disappointment was the Caesar salad carried over from the old menu. Every other dish had all the individual touches one hopes to find from a confident chef. The Caesar, however, was standard — romaine lettuce, bacon bits, lemon, croutons, parmesan. Give us your own take on a Caesar, chef Biddlecombe!
This visit was merely a prelude – the menu is full of interesting variations such as a beef and venison carpaccio, root-beer glazed duck wings, roasted onions with chili-braised octopus and noodles made from shredded zucchini.
Octopus, by the way, is a delicious, inexpensive Spanish/Portuguese seafood favourite that ought to show up on more and more North American menus.
Congratulations, Packrat Louie. This is one terrific re-invention!
Address: 10335 83 Ave.
Lunch: Monday to Saturday, 11:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Dinner: Monday to Thursday, 4 p.m. to 10 p.m.,
Friday and Saturday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m.; Closed Sundays
Price: Dinner for two, excluding tip and beverages: basic, $30; loaded, $70
Food: 4 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 4 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns