8223 104 St. NW
No listed take-out service
Tues. to Fri. 5 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Sat., 3 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.
Sun. 3 p.m. to 10 p.m.
Dinner for two, excluding beverages, tip and taxes: Basic, $60, loaded, $160
Food: 4.5 of 5 Suns
Ambience: 4 of 5 Suns
Service: 4 of 5 Suns
By GRAHAM HICKS
Never has any other Weekly Dish Edmonton restaurant experience started with bewildered, moved on to puzzled and ended up at delighted.
On first hearing the name Smokey Bear, I envisioned Montana’s style smoked BBQ, picnic tables and sticky ribs. The clever logo — a silhouette of a bear’s face with a fire as its snout — reinforced the notion of a conventional, family-friendly eatery.
Or — imitation being the highest form of flattery — would Smokey Bear be a MEAT clone? MEAT is the very successful barbecue house directly across from Smokey Bear on 104 Street in Old Strathcona.
Yes, there’s a massive grill in Smokey Bear’s open kitchen, where maple logs provide an evening-long cooking fire.
And yes, one mother of a pork chop is on the menu.
But that’s it for conventionality.
Smokey Bear is about sour, fermented, unusual creations, and original open-flame cooking by chef/co-owner Riley Aitken.
There are no burgers, no fancy steaks, no French fries, no deep-fryer and very few starches save for chapati-like flatbread.
Bewildered: Very little of Smokey Bear’s menu comes as expected. Eggplant ∙ Dried Berries ∙ Almonds, for instance, arrives as a mound of pureed, elegant eggplant, coated with chopped nuts and berries.
Bewildered moved to puzzlement as more dishes came to our table.
Despite the briefings of our well-trained server, you never knew what was coming. Oyster Mushrooms ∙ Yeast Sauce arrived as a skewer of delicate mushrooms quick-fired/smoked over the maple, on an intriguing sauce of pureed mushroom stems and — you’d never have guessed — yeast.
Puzzled moved to delighted. Our party of three realized we were in the hands of a master open-flame chef. We sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the unending magic culinary show.
Endive ∙ Blueberries ∙ Stilton is unexpectedly beautiful. Leaves of endive line up as if a fleet of blueberry-carrying boats, sailing on a luscious, creamed Stilton cheese sea.
And then Chef Aitken went happily conventional.
The massive pork chop, at least 10 ounces not including the bone, was beautiful, perfectly cooked and smoked, uniformly fire-charred on the exterior. The only extra flavouring was a sweet, underlying apple sauce. It needed nothing else. Go ahead. Gnaw on the bone.
Aitken returned to magic with Pumpkin ∙ Soured Crème ∙ Meringue dessert. Pumpkin-flavoured wafers of stiff, sweet meringue were fire toasted, served over a delicately soured crème fraiche with perhaps a touch more infused pumpkin. Uniquely delicious.
There will be adjustments, especially as Chef Aitken is promising an ever-changing menu.
A Chef’s Selection — almost everything on the menu for a minimum of two people at $80 each — is too much food, and too pricey, for two. Best to order from the a la carte menu, as all selections are designed for sharing in any case. For the three of us, it worked out to $45 each for seven dishes, including the mighty Pork Chop.
Smokey Bear will have the same growing pains as other new-born casual fine-dining eateries in Edmonton. I confidently predict the menu will be adjusted, in part, to reflect the tastes of less-adventuresome diners. That said, Smokey Bear’s 50 seats were just about full by 7 p.m. this past weekend. The wine list is short, but, again, unique.
Aitken and Company have arrived in Edmonton unannounced. He left Sherwood Park as a young man without any kitchen experience, developing his culinary talents in Europe and Australia. Having met partner and Smokey Bear general manager Ashleigh Smith in Australia, they decided to open their own restaurant. The economics of which, Smith says, are far more favourable in Aitken’s Alberta than in Smith’s Australia.
Smokey Bear should be considered with Biera, Clementine, Butternut Tree and Three Boars in unusualness and quality. If the menu moves slightly more to the conventional, it may even live up to comparison to Corso 32 or RGE RD.
Before returning to his native Nova Scotia in the ‘90s, Chef Peter Jackson’s Jack’s Grill was considered one of the best, if not the best, restaurant in Edmonton, through which Jackson trained and educated countless chefs and servers.
Jackson is returning to Edmonton as guest of honour at The Marc’s Sunday Supper Club series on Jan. 19, specifically to introduce Nova Scotia wines made from grapes grown in his Annapolis Valley vineyard. The menu will be by The Marc chef Spencer Thompson. Call 780-429-2828 for reservations.