We celebrated Matt’s recent birthday at one of our favourite spots, Workshop Kitchen + Culture. When we showed up last week, the room was buzzing with a pre-theatre crowd (not uncommon in a restaurant that doubles as the lobby to the Theatre Junction Grand), but we nearly had the place to ourselves once they went in to be seated. I was pleasantly surprised that the music and noise from the show inside didn’t filter out into the restaurant itself, so we were able to enjoy a peaceful meal. (An important detail for grumps like me!)
We’ve had their “improv” tasting menu (3 courses for $55 or 5 for $80) in the past and had never been disappointed, so this seemed like the right occasion to try again. I sadly am trying to cut back on pop (but am apparently not trying to cut back on extravagant, fattening meals), so I went for the recommended wine pairings rather than their addictive maple cinnamon cream soda.
This time around, the amuse bouche was a curry poached prawn with chili and crispy rice cake. Each piece was so big we had to actually cut them half. It was either that or risk some of it not making it all the way into our mouths, but Workshop doesn’t feel like the right venue for cramming anything into your face. The prawn and curry sauce were warm and mild while the rice cake was nicely browned and toasty. An excellent start!
Next out was smoked salmon and fresh trout tartare with crispy capers, cucumber and dill. With the pieces of crostini, this was a really filling dish that made us feel like we were eating a fancy lox bagel. The smoked salmon made it heavier and saltier than I usually expect from a fish course, so at first we were concerned that we were missing some acid in the dish, but the wine pairing accounted for that very nicely and we were able to enjoy the generous portion. The only thing I would have changed was the crostini – they were a little too firm for their width, so we needed either thinner slices or softer bread to save our teeth from having to bite into such a hard material.
Next was an absolutely incredible pulled pork croquette in an apricot and horseradish glaze with fennel and a tangle of garlic scapes. (In case you don’t know, scapes are the green bits that grow above the ground). While the combination sounded confusing at first, this ended up being my favourite course. We cut into the croquette to find that it was just a dense ball of sweet pulled pork, so no lame fillers distracted us from the main event. The glaze was sticky with the horseradish working perfectly to cut through the sweet apricot. The soft, mellow fennel was a whole other level of enhancement and I worked hard to make sure I had a piece of fennel and pork together in every bite.
The main was a delicious, rare beef striploin with gremolata (a chopped herb and lemon condiment), roasted cauliflower, smoked baby potatoes, asparagus and endive. It was a good cut of strip with a nice sear and the lemony gremolata was a strong accompaniment. The vegetables stole the show a little because we couldn’t get enough of the cauliflower with its beautiful yellow tint, which I guessed was from turmeric. The smoked potatoes were so savoury and delicious as well. It’s always great when the vegetables and starch are just as flavourful as the protein.
The cheese course is where it went off track for us a little. It was described to us as a lemon and cracked pepper ricotta “cheesecake” in a pool of tomato coulis. It really played tricks on my mind as you’d take a bite of a mild lemon cheesecake, then get a mouthful of what was essentially a house ketchup. The dish looked sweet, so it took my brain a few bites before it adjusted to the savoury reality. When I tasted it with the tiny basil leaf garnish, I could see a parallel with lasagna flavours, but this dish just didn’t do it for me. That’s part of the fun of an improv menu though, there should always be a course that challenges you.
Dessert was Matt’s favourite and I couldn’t have planned it better myself if I’d called the restaurant to tell them all of his favourite things. It was a maple porter cake served with peanut butter gelato, sponge toffee, espresso chantilly and peanut brittle. The wine pairing was a Pineau des Charentes, a fortified wine made from fresh, unfermented grape juice in a cognac barrel. Because of the light, bread-like texture of the cake, the rich peanut butter gelato and the sweet, grape-y wine, this felt like a take on a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. We absolutely devoured this course and I was ready to lick the bowl. 11 out of 10!
I can’t recommend Workshop (608 1 St SW) highly enough and in fact, it’s a spot I already regularly recommend to friends and family! Their regular dinner menu is to die for, their Lougheed Lunch special has become a downtown staple ($25 for 3 courses and a house-made Workshop pop or a hot cup of coffee) and their improv menus are always exciting and different from anything else I’ve seen around town, even if the occasional course pushes me outside of my comfort zone. If you have a special occasion coming up or you just want to try something a little different downtown, make yourself a reservation right away!