Who would have thought, besides chef Fan Zhang, that pureed popcorn would go so well with scallops? Photos by GRAHAM HICKS/EDMONTON SUN

Ampersand 27
10612 82 (Whyte) Ave.
780-757-2727
ampersand27.com

Delivery: Skipthedishes.com

Food: 3.5 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 3.5 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns

11 a.m. – 3 p.m., 4 p.m. to late, seven days a week
10 a.m. opening Saturdays and Sundays

Dinner for two, just food – basic $34, loaded $65

By GRAHAM HICKS

The good news is Ampersand 27 continues to be one of Old Strathcona’s best restaurants. The bad news is that the restaurant has lost the culinary edge it once had, years ago, under its initial chef Nathin Bye.

It’s a handsome space that has needed little renovation since the 200-seat space originally opened more than a decade ago. In the dining room, the ceilings are high, it is spacious with acres of natural lighting. An informal classic decor is based on elegant wood.

There is – like every restaurant these days – an exaggerated sense of informality. And, as always, a background clatter rises in intensity as the night goes on, making it difficult to enjoy that which was once a staple of fine dining, i.e. fine conversation.

Chef Fan Zhang has kept the best of what was – a well-regarded “a-la-carte” charcuterie where each meat and cheese can be ordered separately, an emphasis on small plates, a menu intelligently divided into three sections of seafood, vegetable and meat with seven offerings in each. Only in three oh-so-conventional large plates – chicken, pork chop and steak — do prices creep up over $20.

If there’s a unifying theme, it might be an understated Asian influence in the use of ginger, nori, fennel and mushrooms. That said, the food is pan-ethnic. The eggplant curry, for instance, is thoroughly South Asian, the New England clam pizza all about parmesan, parsley and garlic.

Our table of four passed on a charcuterie board, opting to slowly work our way through seven fully shared plates, starting with Chef Zhang’s steak tartare, a calamari “salad”, salami pizza, cauliflower, the eggplant curry, scallops and a deconstructed, thoroughly delicious cheese cake.

Full marks for the tartare, the vegetables, scallops and dessert.

The calamari, however, completely missed the mark. The salami pizza was the same boring thin-crust pizza being made in every restaurant within the Old Strathcona entertainment district.

The salami pizza was ho-hum and light on the salami.

The steak tartare was soft and very delicate, more liquidy than most, but equally pleasing. Instead of toast or rye, seaweed wafers were used as scoops – a creative turn, except the seaweed crisps were so uniform as to suspiciously look just like the ones from Costco.

Kudos for the (three) scallops, perfectly cooked within a “popcorn” sauce – an actual puree of cooked popcorn and melted white cheese which tasted as if it was simply meant to go with scallops.

A tasty steak tartare came with seaweed wafers rather then the conventional crostini.

Crowned with curly papadum, Ampersand’s eggplant curry was tasty indeed.

The cauliflower – finished under the grill with raisins for sweet, then served over top of a smooth, savoury, roasted pepper puree base – was a winner.  The accompanying lentils were magically cooked as to add a satisfying crunch without being burned.

As mentioned, the calamari was disappointing, especially from a kitchen that should know better. The squid meat itself was rubbery, not fresh, and presented within cooked spinach the defied its description as a “citrus salad.”

Sorry, even within a “salad” it was readily apparent this was squid not at its freshest.

But the dessert was redeeming — cheesecake tastes much better when broken out into its constituent parts! Zhang jazzed his up with taste pops of crumbled white chocolate, hidden in the fluffy, fresh cheesecake itself.

Ampersand 27 is not going to blow your socks off with innovative cooking, but most of Zhang’s menu is distinctive, reasonably interesting and offered within a pleasant (if noisy) atmosphere.

Given the gentle decline of culinary standards along the city’s historic party district (we mourn the passing of Packrat Louie, soon to re-open as a sister restaurant to Bottega 104), one should appreciate Ampersand 27 for what it is.  Our server may have been a tad too chatty for comfort, but she knew her stuff, and was a valuable guide.