Plow and Harvest - VIP Preview Event

August 22, 2013
Plow and Harvest is the newest addition to the Edmonton food scene. Located in a strip mall just a bit north of West Edmonton Mall, this vibrantly green building is home to Canada's first fresh-casual restaurant (or so we've been told). The concept is to serve cozy comfort food with a focus on locally sourced ingredients. I was invited by the restaurant to attend their VIP preview event on Thursday August 15 before they opened their doors to the public. In the days leading up to the event, I was rather excited because this would be my first experience with farm-to-table dining and I was curious to find out how the restaurant would incorporate this philosophy into the menu.

The event was from 5-8 pm and I arrived half an hour early with my friend Mousie. Marlow Moo arrived at around the same time and we made our way to the door. Right at the entrance, an enthusiastic hostess greeted us and said we could sit wherever we liked. The night was off to a good start! Or so we thought. We made ourselves comfortable at one of the tables, and just as I took out my camera, another lady (obviously higher-ranking than the hostess) came over to tell us they were still prepping and not ready for us, then requested us to get up and leave and come back right at 5 pm. I had never been kicked out of a restaurant after being seated. So we went back outside and stood in the sun for 20 minutes until another couple arrived at 4:50 pm. They walked in and were not requested to leave, so we followed them back inside.

The restaurant is a large rectangular room with windows on three sides providing lots of natural lighting. I really like the brightness, the open layout, and the simple but warm farmhouse style decor. The only problem is that the chairs aren't all that comfortable, especially the stools at the communal table. The picture shown below is the left side of the restaurant from the entrance. The right side also has a similar seating area.

Right in the middle of the restaurant is the centrepiece: an eye-catching red tractor. Apparently there's a bit of history behind this tractor; it has been used by the same family for several generations.

Behind the tractor is a drink bar with electronic menu boards and what looked like ordering machines, so this might be a walk-up counter for ordering food. I wouldn't really know though, because we never got a tour of the restaurant or heard an introductory speech from the organizer. In fact, I don't even know who the organizer is because nobody introduced themselves apart from our waitress and the consulting chef (more on that later).

A welcome note on the table informed us that this was just a tasting event, which was not conveyed to us in the original invitation. As the event was scheduled for dinner time, I was under the impression that there would be enough food for a light meal. But in any case, I didn't have to leave hungry thanks to the unlimited drinks.
The restaurant also showcased their brand new portable touch screen ordering system. We didn't get to use it for ordering food, but the games (trivia, couples quiz, etc) kept us entertained throughout the event. I thought the system was pretty cool, but I wonder if this means there will be less interaction with the staff.

Shortly after we took our seats, our waitress came over and gave a short introduction of the restaurant. She told us they try to source all of their ingredients from Edmonton if possible, then from Alberta, and finally from Canada in the worst case scenario. Then she asked us what drinks we would like, and I immediately asked for ginger ale from the Boylan natural soda lineup. I've heard all about the natural soda made with cane sugar and no artificial colours, flavours or preservatives from Tuesday's event-goers. This was hands-down the best ginger ale I've ever had — crisp and dry with a light airy fizz that spread on the tongue. And I loved the fact that the drink was bottled in glass and served in mason jars.

For the following food and drink items, I will also be including my friend Mousie's opinion in orange.

Since the restaurant was not very busy in the first half-hour, our waitress quickly came around again and offered a second round of drinks. This time she recommended iced tea and lemonade which are both made in-house. I was intrigued because not a lot of restaurants do this, and for me this was the most impressive part of the experience. The iced tea tasted just like Hong Kong style iced lemon tea, minus the tartness. It was light but very aromatic. The lemonade was also quite good with fresh squeezed lemon juice and a subtle sweetness. I prefer the iced tea because I enjoy the deeper flavour of brewed tea, but this is solely personal preference.

Mousie's thoughts:
The lemonade was sweet and a bit sour. The flavour was nice and not overwhelming compared to most lemonades that you get, so overall it was quite pleasant.
The iced tea was the nicer of the two drinks - you can actually taste the tea in the drink, and the drink itself was not overly sweet. I'm not normally a fan of iced tea but this one was quite nice, and very refreshing.

At 5:30 pm, the first food item finally came out. By 6:30 pm, we had only eaten 2 samples with a third one on the way. Needless to say, we were starving and turned to drinks to fill us up. Luckily drink service was very quick and I had 4 drinks in total for the night. New record for one meal.

Sample #1: Baked Potato Soup (reg size: $6)
I was expecting a super rich and creamy soup, but this was very light and mild with little salt. Mild flavours seem to be a recurring theme for most of the food items we tried. I was fine with this because I enjoy milder tastes, but others might find the food lacking in seasoning. The texture was slightly grainy because of small potato chunks in the soup. I still don't know what to think of this unexpected texture, but I did find the soup comforting and filling.

Mousie's thoughts:
I liked the soup, it had a great texture and you can tell there are actually potatoes in the soup even though it was pureed. The soup itself was not too creamy, and was quite light and fluffy. The soup was lightly seasoned, and the bacon and cheddar garnish added a nice burst of flavour that didn't overwhelm the soup. Overall it was a very nice dish.

Sample #2: Hand-Cut Plank Fries (as a side: $4)
I'm surprised that the restaurant would present fries to local media and food bloggers as part of their VIP preview. Fries are fries... And there was definitely nothing special about these ones. Because they were cut into fat planks, there was too much bland potato filling and too little golden shell. In addition, the fries were under-seasoned and the shell was not very crispy despite having been double-fried. I was also very disappointed that the ketchup was not made in-house, and I suspect they did not source it from a Canadian supplier either. It just tasted like good old Heinz.

Mousie's thoughts:
The fries tasted like potatoes - which is to say, they actually tasted fresh. We spoke to the server and they cut the potatoes in house and fry them in two batches - first at a lower temperature and then later at a high temperature, which gives them a soft texture on the inside and a crispy one on the outside. The fries were lightly seasoned, and tasted fresh so overall pretty good for a side.

Sample #3: Pickled Vegetables (as a side: $4)
Again, I'm not sure why the restaurant decided to feature pickled veggies out of all the other interesting menu items. I'm not a fan of pickled anything, so I tried a bit of each (onion, cucumber, jalapeno) and gave the rest to Mousie. My only comment is that they were all super juicy.

Mousie's thoughts:
As a person who loves pickles I was excited to try this side. There were three types of pickles, all made in house - Cucumber, onions and jalepeno. The cucumber was very fresh tasting, and was quite mild compared to regular pickles. The onions were nice but lacked character, and were a little too thinly sliced (would have been nice to get some thick crunchy ones). The jalepenos had a nice heat to them, although I wouldn't recommend eating more than one at a time if you're not a fan of hot stuff. Overall, the pickles were nice, although a bit milder than I prefer. I've never had pickles this fresh though so it was a nice experience.

Sample #4: Not-So-Sloppy Joe (reg size: $13)
The filling was a warm and mild chili with sweet peppers that added a refreshing sweetness to the meat and cheese. Be warned though: this is not for you if you're looking for some hearty, spicy, savoury meatiness. Sweetness is the dominant flavour here, so if you like that, then this is a good down-to-earth dish. But it might be a bit boring for some because this is the kind of sandwich that you'll feel like you can make at home.

Mousie's thoughts:
This was a so-so dish for me. The bread was not so great - it was a super soft white bread with little character to it. The filling was flavourful and slightly sweet, and there was a very slight butter aftertaste that was enjoyable. This definitely comes under the 'comfort food' category, and it had a nice freshness to it. The execution for this dish was nice, but not particularly exciting.

Sample #5: Baked Mac-N-Cheese with Bacon Breadcrumbs (as a side: $4)
This is one of the dishes I was looking forward to because mac-n-cheese is THE comfort food for me. The macaroni was on the soft side and the sauce was very light and mild, but the topping of savoury-smoky bacon bits and crunchy breadcrumbs added a nice burst of flavour.

Mousie's thoughts:
The first thing I noticed was that the sauce for the mac and cheese was very light, and not very cheesy like you'd find in most restaurants. As someone who generally doesn't like heavy or extremely cheesy dishes, this side dish actually was quite enjoyable. There was a nice crunchiness due to the breadcrumbs, and the bacon also added flavour to the otherwise mild dish. My biggest complaint is that the pasta itself was too soft.

Sample #6: Grilled Cheese Sandwich (reg size: $11)
I loved the filling! It was a very flavourful blend of juicy roasted tomatoes, arugula and melted cheese with the BEST smoky-sweet bourbon bacon jam ever. The tomato was so smooth and tender that I was almost deceived into thinking it was prosciutto. But this should not be called a grilled cheese sandwich because the cheese was really mild and there was so little of it. Also I did not like the bread because it was completely dry and toasted to a crisp. I would have appreciated a little bit of moistness to bring out the whole grain texture and flavour.

Mousie's thoughts:
The whole grain bread was fantastic - it was crunchy, yet easy to eat and not so hard that it cut my mouth (which is a big issue I have with most bread that is not soft). The sandwich itself was not oily at all, and the flavour sort of just filled my mouth with happiness. The roasted tomatoes provided the juiciness needed to offset the bread, and the cheese and bacon jam were complementary to the flavours rather than overwhelming. This was the best dish of the night, I was tempted to ask the waitress for another one after I'd finished mine.
After our meal while we were sitting, one of the chefs came out and talked with us, and he agreed with me that the grilled cheese was his favourite dish. He seemed really excited and knowledgeable about where the ingredients in the dish came from and how they all came together, which says a lot about how much care they put into their food.

Sample #7: Buttermilk Fried Chicken Sandwich (reg size: $14)
This was supposed to be the star of the show because the people who attended Tuesday's tasting kept raving about this. They talked about how the chicken was fried perfectly, and mingled with creamy dijon mustard and zesty jalapeno in between soft slices of crusty bread. Well the chicken was indeed nicely breaded with a rather tender texture for breast meat. I enjoyed the crispy, lightly battered chicken, but I would've preferred more sauce because the sandwich was dry and lacked flavour. I could not taste the dijon mustard, and there was no jalapeno in my sample at all.

Mousie's thoughts:
As someone who doesn't enjoy breaded chicken, this dish was alright. The white bread was the same as the Not-So-Sloppy Joe, which is to say it was pleasant but not very interesting. The chicken was very nicely breaded - it had a great crunchy texture on the outside, and the meat on the inside was tender, which is a combination that is quite hard to find. The lettuce/coleslaw was moist and complemented the dryness of the bread. The menu says it has dijon and jalepenos in it, however I didn't really notice either flavour in the dish, which is a shame because I'm a huge fan of dijon mustard. Overall, the dish was pretty mild; if the coleslaw was just a bit more flavourful I think I would have enjoyed it, but as it stands it wasn't that memorable of a dish.

I was really looking forward to dessert, but at 7:30 pm, our waitress came around and told us we had already tried all of the food samples for the night. We ordered another round of drinks and the consulting chef James Bailey finally had time to stop by our table for a short chat. He seemed very enthusiastic about his work and told us the bread they use is custom-made for them by a local bakery. For one of the sandwiches on the menu (they're not sure which one yet), the bread will be branded with a Plow & Harvest logo. This logo will be created by stamping the bread with honey water before it goes in the oven. Pretty wicked!

After the chat, it was already 7:50 pm and the event was coming to a close. As we got ready to leave, we realized that the goodie bags they had laid out near the entrance were all gone. When I asked about this, the girl at the door said they didn't make enough. She told me it was just soda and pickled veggies and asked me to come back and try them. I wasn't particularly interested in the contents, but it was pretty disappointing to see other guests leave with something and yet there was nothing for me.

As if that weren't enough, I found out on Twitter after I left that a "select few" had been served dessert — the old-fashioned frozen custard sandwich. I'm sure that was on many people's wishlist for the night, but we were told that this was not available to us while a small group of people got preferential treatment. I'm not sure why the restaurant would do something like this, but it definitely left a bad taste in my mouth.

Overall this wasn't a bad experience. You can't go wrong with free food and unlimited drinks. I think the kitchen was doing a pretty good job, and most of the food was decent. Our waitress was also very attentive and quick with our drink orders, but seemed a bit exhausted as she told us she had been working since the morning. My complaint is with the management that handles the front end of the restaurant. There is a definite lack of communication between the staff. From being seated by one person then kicked out by another, to having no dessert and goodie bag, the whole event just felt disorganized and nobody was there to take charge.

I'll probably come back one more time to give it another try, but I'll wait until the initial hype is over because I know how hectic the service can be. Hopefully I'll have a better experience next time.

Mousie's summary:
I really liked this taster. If I were to sum up the dishes in a word it would be fresh. The dishes all tasted like they were put together with confidence, that they trusted in the quality of their ingredients and therefore didn't have to use heavy sauces or a lot of salt and seasoning. The food also didn't taste greasy or heavy at all, and I left the restaurant full and satisfied without feeling bloated.
The service was good, the waitresses came by often and were responsive to our requests. For an event like this I'm not expecting amazing service since most of the night the front of house staff are running around trying to serve everyone at once, and overall I had a nice experience (especially considering that one of the chefs came out at the end and spoke to us for a few minutes).
I'm eager to go back and try some of their other dishes, like their salads or their albacore tuna melt. All in all, this was a fun event and I am really glad that Krispy invited me to join her and take part in the great food!

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