Master chef is quite a character: Weekly Dish column originally published in Edmonton Sun, Sept. 5, 2012
Characters Fine Dining, 10257 105 St.
780 421-4100 www.characters.ca
It is delightful to head to a restaurant where the chef is in full control, is a true master of the kitchen, and likes to have fun.
When an extremely young Shonn Oborowsky returned from European and Asian chef apprenticeships, he opened Characters on 105 Street.
It’ll never work, scoffed skeptical foodies. The kid’s just been given a toy by his parents. (Dad Don Oborowsky owns Waiward Steel, both Don and Shonn’s mom Judy are community leaders.) Edmonton’s not ready for another high-end restaurant, they said.
Well. 13 years later, Characters is not only still here, it’s thriving.
And certainly, after our fine-dining experience last week, Characters must be included in any list of Edmonton’s Top 10 restaurants.
Characters is in its own stand-alone building, a single-story former warehouse on 105 Street a few blocks north of Jasper. The 50-something crowd may remember Night Fever dancing here, when it was the Sugar Tree discotheque. The room itself is one of Edmonton’s best, with a mountain resort ambience, hardwood floors, brick walls, a central fireplace and high wooden ceiling. In wonderful contrast to modernity, there’s no clatter. Diners can actually converse!
The fun aspect of Characters is always discreet, but shows up in more than the food. There’s a private room for four on the main floor … in the old elevator shaft.
As the name suggests, Characters is about being different.
Not for Oborowsky the standard pre-meal linen-wrapped bread in a basket. No, his pre-appetizer offering is a good-sized serving of yam fries, chive-specked hot potato chips with black-bean aioli dip.
The menu takes some time to peruse, as its suggestions are full of creative culinary flair. For appetizers/salads, what to choose, the foie gras slider, scallops wrapped in boar bacon, or baby octopus salad? How about the Iberico ham carved from the leg of a specialty-bred, chestnut-fed Spanish pig? What to pick from a choice of mains — duck breast in BBQ duck poutine, tuna loin with whole roasted garlic, miso-glazed sea bass or a venison tenderloin?
Echoes of Spanish pulpo (octopus) in my taste memory, I opt for the grilled marinated baby octopus and am amply rewarded. The fresh, chopped, warmed and gently salted octopus has just the right texture to play off the soft avocado and mesclun greens. The appetizer-sized spaghetti aglio olio, with garlic, oil, a hint of chili and basil is clean, refreshing and light on the mouth.
The duck breast is spectacular, but so is the ahi tuna loin and the venison tenderloin.
It’s not only about the flesh itself – beautifully grilled and presented, with generous portions – but about the surroundings.
The duck breast arrives on top of a rarely-seen (in this town) and unique veggie succotash. The breast is without traditional duck greasiness, a delicious, slightly sweet meat that’s a great break from our inevitable beef, pork and chicken.
The whole roasted garlic bulb on top of the steak-sized loin of tuna is a visual exclamation. Garlic, its edginess softened by the roasting process, is unusual but utterly satisfying. Who knew garlic and tuna worked so well?
Few chefs understand venison, how to coax the best out of the meat in its grilling. Shonn has this one nailed. The venison is soft but firm, crusted on the outside, cooked perfectly through the interior. Paired up with green beans, baby beets and goat cheese, the venison dish unleashes new and beguiling tastes.
Dessert calls for the banana, Kahlua and pecan bread pudding. How can one resist, and it is just as good as it sounds.
Two thoughts about Characters. Be warned, it is expensive – main dishes run in the $35 to $40 range. As somebody said on its Urbanspoon website, “if you can afford Characters, it’s as good as it gets.” Lunches are equally interesting, and more affordable.
And I’d make sure, if making a reservation, that Chef Shonn will be in the kitchen. For the price and the unique creativity, you want the hand of the master himself. Accept no substitute!
Food: 4.5 of 5 stars
Ambience: 4 of 5 stars
Service: 4 of 5 stars
Dinner for two (without beverages): Basic, $80; fully loaded, $140
• Taking place September, at all the Sorrentino group of restaurants, is the fabled 18th annual fall mushroom harvest festival. Save your pennies for the festival’s wrap-up Truffle & Wine Dinner ($100 per person) Nov. 8 at Bistecca Italian Steakhouse. Worth every penny.