A certain famous Oiler always orders the Hardware Grill's signature sea bass, and with good reason! Photos by GRAHAM HICKS/EDMONTON SUN

Hardware Grill
9698 Jasper Avenue
Hardwaregrill.com
780-423-0969

Reservations: opentable.com

Mon. to Thurs.  5 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Fri. and Sat. 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Closed Sundays

No listed delivery service

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

Dinner for two excluding tip, taxes and beverages: Basic, $70; loaded $130

By GRAHAM HICKS

A bit of slippage here, Mr. Stewart.

Not that any other restaurant will knock the Hardware Grill off its perch as THE downtown place for corporate dining, special occasions, or simply to enjoy a dinner for two based on surprisingly well-priced small plates.

But last Friday’s dinner for four — at least the tenth time I’ve dined at executive chef/owner Larry Stewart’s fine restaurant — was not as effortlessly perfect as in years past.

The at-table service was excellent – the city’s top waiters have always gravitated to the Hardware Grill – but the front-of-house host did not offer to take our coats on a rainy night. That was left to our server as we were seated.

And some dishes, while good, were not of the sky-high standard that have earned the Hardware Grill so many awards and accolades over the years.

Prices have eased to the $15 to $20 range on the Hardware Grill’s many  “small plates”.  Two can now dine at what’s still the best “classic” restaurant in town for under $70.

The beef carpaccio, scallops, smoked salmon, foie gras and the Hardware Grill’s iconic sea bass were excellent as always.

The whimsical, and delicious, smoked salmon on perogies.

But three dishes — the pork chop, risotto and lobster roll –  fell surprisingly short of Hardware Grill standards.

A member of our party groaned over the thought of force-fed geese, but could not resist the tender, butter-smooth goose liver pate. Each mouthful of foie gras had that Hardware Grill touch, thanks to the accompanying onion jam and a sour cherry sauce.

An oh-so-smooth foie gras is beautifully paired with onion jam and a sour cherry sauce.

Stewart’s smoked salmon was not only humourous (a healthy helping of thin-sliced salmon, caviar and a dollop of sour cream over two richly oiled perogies) but swooningly delicious.

The delicate, succulent sea bass filet arrived on a small mountain based on lobster-truffle potatoes, through layers of corn and light greens to the crowning sea bass — with a few prawns for structural support. (Hardware Grill regular customer Connor McDavid, I’m told, is highly predictable. He always orders the sea bass, along with the restaurant’s popular Korean fried cauliflower (KFC) starter.)

But then came the disappointments.

The Berkshire Farm enormous pork chop was good but not extraordinary, a degree or two over-cooked and covered in a somewhat ho-hum cider-cream sauce.

The pork chop, while enormous, was not up to Hardware Grill standards.

The lobster risotto was inexplicably over-dosed with vanilla.

The “toast of the day” lobster roll was nothing special, in fact generic, coming as it did with French fries in a forgettable bun. The Hardware Grill touch was completely missing.

The lobster roll was strangely generic.

Why? The kitchen is not under-staffed.  As always, through the glass wall, chef Stewart presided over a small army of culinary support staff. Many of Edmonton’s top chefs learned their craft in Larry’s kitchen.

Were the lapses the result of the triple-whammy that’s knocking back fine-dining all over town?

Restaurant expenses have jumped with the minimum wage increase and the carbon tax. Customers aren’t spending as they did in the oil-boom days. When they do spend, they want the tried and true.

The Hardware Grill bills itself as the “Evolution of Tradition”. Its food is usually top-notch, but it’s not breaking any new culinary ground, not at all.

Chef Stewart is giving the people what they want. The small-plate pricing has attracted a new millennial audience, though the main courses hover in the $30 to $40 range, with three touching the $50s.

Quick, Hardware Grill. Fix these cracks!

Food notes

• Olde Towne Beverly, 118 Avenue east of 50 Street, will showcase its eclectic offerings with specials during Olde Towne Beverly Dining Week, Oct. 5 to 13.

Taking part are my favourite Beverly haunts: The famous Uncle Ed’s/Stawnichy Ukrainian sausage house, the best sandwiches in all Edmonton at Drita Keller’s Swiss 2 Go, A Ya Mi Deh Jamaican Bakery and Restaurant, Widnyowksi’s Sausage House, Nalaz Kitchen’s all-day breakfasts and the colourful Old Beverly Café with its international burgers. More info at beverlybia.ca.

• The annual Feastival of Fine Chefs – Wed. Sept. 19, 6 p.m. at the Shaw Conference Centre – is one of the best food parties of the year. A thousand guests will try courses from competing culinary teams using only “black box” ingredients provided just 24 hours earlier. Last minute tix, $150, at afpa.com/feastival.