Crash Hotel Lobby Bar
10266 103 St.
(780) 719-3807
Food: 4 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 3 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 stars
Dinner for two (excluding beverages and tip): basic, $25; loaded, $50
Breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week

Urbansparq Hospitality, meet Nathin Bye, meet the Crash Hotel.

Nathin Bye, meet Urbansparq and the Crash Hotel.

Urbansparq is a low-profile hospitality operation based in Edmonton with the Midas touch – witness the proliferation of its flagship The Pint pub operations across Western Canada and into the USA, plus dozens of other well-run hospitality operations.

Nathin Bye is one of the city’s leading chefs, first at The Wildflower Grill, then Ampersand 27. He won the prestigious Gold Medal Plates Edmonton culinary competition in 2012 as a wet-behind-the-ears 26-year-old.

The Crash Hotel is a prototype for a possible new Urbansparq hotel division. The company bought the decrepit 70-room three-story Grand Hotel – a long-faded jewel on 103 Street a few blocks north of Jasper – about four years ago. Urbansparq saw something others didn’t, namely the hotel’s location kitty-corner from the future Ice District and Rogers Place.

As Rogers Place was being built, Urbansparq renovated and fully refitted the old Grand into the trendy, urban, historically hip Crash Hotel, with the Denizen Hall urban tavern on one side of the ground floor, the Crash Hotel Lobby Bar on the other.

Urbansparq recruited Bye after he left Ampersand 27 on Whyte Avenue, ostensibly to create and execute bar food/tapas fusion menus for Denizen Hall and the quieter, sit-down atmosphere of the Lobby Bar.

I suspect the scope of Bye's assignment may grow much larger, to become executive chef for all the Urbansparq operations, including an expansion of the Crash Hotel concept outside Edmonton. He’s simply too talented, creative and ambitious to contentedly cook and innovate in a cool but limited tavern/bar setting.

But what Bye is doing now is really fun.

In the Crash Lobby Bar, he’s re-inventing bar foods like short ribs and chicken drumsticks to be unique and interesting. He’s re-inventing tapas dishes like Brussel sprouts and salmon to be more bar-like, all in a $9 to $15 price range.

Along the way, he’s raising the bar (hah hah) – fresh, local, and made-from-scratch – for all the food the Denizen Hall beer-drinkers eat to absorb the alcohol.

The deep-fried drumsticks were suitably gooey, all honeyed-up and arriving on that checkered paper favoured by the retro-burger joints. But A) the meat was fresh and juicy and B) the honey sauce was extra-rich and savoury with sparkling Asian overtones.

How many bars serve a short rib that has been brined for five days and then slow-cooked for another three? The de-boned Crash short rib morsels could be cut with a toothpick, were sublimely tender, scented with soy, enlivened with pickled this-‘n’-that, and crunched up with what Bye affectionately called Asian “hickory sticks” on top.

Bringing tapas to the bar: Nathin has kept the elegance of fine tapas dining, but he sweetens things up more than would have been the case at the Wildflower or Ampersand. And he always adds crunch, be it Asian hickory sticks or, in the Brussels ‘n’ Bacon dish, crunchy chickpeas.

The charred, slightly bitter Brussels sprouts were bathed in a sweet Moroccan glaze, sitting on the crunchy chickpea bed with crispy bacon mega-bits scattered about and shredded red cabbage on top for colour. Delish!

The gin-brined fresh salmon – two good-size pieces - was beautifully presented, topped with celery leaves, surrounded by charred cauliflower/onion outriders, on a bed of quasi-crunchy quinoa – Bye’s creativity at its very best.

My only reservation about the Crash Hotel Bar is the décor. It may be about history, dark wood and solid wooden tables, but it’s visually impoverished.

Urbansparq has always been steps ahead of its competition: I’m convinced Bye has been hired to refresh and re-invent the bar food and nibbles across the Urbansparq/Pint empire – just as the Hardware Grill’s Larry Stewart, in a previous incarnation, Canadianized world flavours and recipes for Earl’s thereby pushing Earl’s out in front of its competition, making the chain what it is today.

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After decades, Ron Kauffman and Barry Sparrow have sold the venerable and always consistent Vons Steakhouse & Oyster Bar in Old Strathcona. Knowing a good thing when they see it, the new owners - not known in the hospitality business - intend to continue with the same name, menu, cooking and serving staff.

Graham Hicks