With a seasonal menu, the 13-year-old Characters is always changing the wow factor. Shonn Oborowsky was just 26 when he opened it and continues to up the ante, to where the restaurant boasts several Wine Spectator awards of excellence for a list that includes old and new world bottles and spotlights the wines of Cliff Lede, an Edmontonian with a winery in Napa Valley.
Every meal begins with a small cup of hand-cut fries and potato chips, with black bean aioli. “Our version of bread,” the waiter told my dining partner and me. But it also speaks to the unfussy yet high-end personality here, best exemplified in a $17 foie gras and fig slider (that’s singular). It sounded like an ooh-la-la appetizer, but it was almost demeaning in how the oil dripped down my chin and wrists.
The baby octopus salad is the more dignified starter, one you’d expect at a fine restaurant. The tough seafood is worked to tenderness and sweetly marinated, then mixed with greens, artichokes and fanned avocado. Like the entrees, it’s substantial but, unlike them, underpriced at $12.
Characters is well-known for its seafood menu and it’s one of the few Edmonton establishments with ahi tuna. The large Hawaiian loin ($39) in a piquant reduction is rounded with pine nuts and lots of grilled vegetables. (Actually, expect generous seasonal vegetables on all the entrees.)
Oborowsky can do a lot with simple ingredients. The baked lentil loaf comes with two purees — one mellow, one citrusy — that changes the flavour of the leek-wrapped black lentils (the caviar of the legume world) with every bite.
We clinched our meals with tableside s’mores, a $14 plate of graham crackers, pre-skewered marshmallows, shards of refrigerated chocolate and a small coal-fire cauldron. After it arrived, the only thing lacking was a crown and staff. Certainly, the gawkers made us feel like the royal couple. No surprise, the s’mores have never budged from the menu. (10257 105 St., 780-421-4100)