Select is a treat: Weekly Dish review originally published in Edmonton Sun, Wed. March 20, 2013
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Food: 4 of 5 stars
Ambience: 4 of 5 stars
Service: 4 of 5 stars
Dinner for two (without beverages): Basic, $50; Multi-course, $90
How exciting to witness re-birth.
Just over a year ago, the Packrat Louie group, led by managing partner Jodh Singh, purchased Café Select.
Café Select … in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, this café/bistro on 106 Street just around the corner from the Avord Arms was one popular space. Its signature dishes are remembered by many - a vodka-spiked tomato soup, mussels, steak tartare and coquilles St. Jacques.
From the outside, it wasn’t much. And it still isn’t today.
But to enter then, as now, is to walk into a cosy Brussels or Prague café, with beautiful dark wood, gilded mirrors and antique light fixtures.
Over the last decade, the café had deteriorated. Discerning diners lost interest. Things were fading to black.
Enter the Packrat Louie gang. “I knew the restaurant was for sale,” says Jodh. “I went to dine. It was ripe for revival and we were looking for a new challenge.”
The transition is complete. What has emerged is a restaurant comfortably sitting in the top tier of the city’s bistro movement.
Like the Packrat Louie mother ship, Café Select steers back and forth between chef’s twists on the mundane, refreshed Select classics and forays into the unusual – surely what dining out is all about.
In the mussels, Chef Tony Giesbrecht (formerly sous chef at the late. lamented Café Presaud) has left well enough alone. The appetizer sized Select Mussels are as tender and plump as ever, bathed in a classic white wine/butter/garlic/carmalized onion sauce. (Café Select and The Marc, two superb mussel houses, are just 20 metres and one street crossing apart.)
An appetizer-sized fondu for one is extraordinarily inventive. Into the light fontina cheese fondue, just right in heat, texture and liquidity, is dipped bite-sized pieces of sauteed gnocci (soft potato pasta), fresh asparagus, and, in an inspired bit of tangy fun, proscuitto wrapped tart-apple wedges.
Select’s steak tartare is a must-try for lovers of fine-chopped raw beef. This is a gentle tartare, the capers, red onion and spices happy to let the steak speak for itself … with an egg yolk on top and kitchen-made bread crisps for crunch.
My trout entrée – a sneak preview of the upcoming spring menu - shows this chef knows his fish. The skin was delicately crisped, its flesh pleasantly salted. There’s Atlantic cod and sea bass on the menu as well. Could Select be a rare Edmonton restaurant with consistently good fish dishes?
Instead of rice, potato, etc. Chef Giesbrecht accompanied the trout filet with a very different, and very good, potato and leek bread pudding.
Dessert was another bit of whimsy. “Coffee and doughnuts” was a glass of chilled cappucino mousse topped by fresh whipped cream, with a just-made cinnamon dusted doughnut alongside. Tim Horton’s elegant younger sister!
The only disappointment was a follow-up Select burger for lunch. The beef was good, but the advertised flavours – truffled white cheddar, bacon jam, aioli and so on – seemed to drown each other out. The homecut fries were not up to Select standards, very basic, some burnt, and served with plain-jane ketchup.
Other than those fries, Café Select has the kitchen skills, creativity and ambience to compete in the top tiers of the city’s new bistro wave. The spring menu, partially previewed in Select’s special $15 lunches and $25 dinners during Downtown Dining Week which ends this Sunday, will be launched in early April.
Café Select, welcome back!
*As things worked out, Homefire Grill executive chef Bruce Wells cooked, and I served, the Sun Christmas Charity Auction off-the-land feast for eight on St. Patrick’s Day to highest bidder Steve Mellott and his family. To celebrate the Irish saint, Bruce came up with an inspired menu: A fish ‘n’ chips salad, potato + leek soup, lime sorbet, lambchops in a mint and Guiness reduction, and a fancy green mousse for dessert. The saint would have licked his plate clean!