Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Monday, June 20, 2011

McMurray Musings - Restaurant Review : "Gardenia Cafe"

Well, people, I've noticed that no one in the city really does official restaurant reviews, so it seems a niche I can fill. Why me? Well, I will never claim to be an incredible chef, as I'm not. I do, however, quite like to eat, and I know good food when I taste it. I've had the privilege of eating at some of the finest restaurants in Canada, and also some of the very best in London and Ireland. I won't say I know the intricacies of running a restaurant, or of preparing food, but I am a pretty decent judge of what is worth spending my restaurant budget on and what isn't. I eat out a great deal, and enjoy a wide variety of cuisines, so I am always keen to try new dining experiences. I stress that this review is based solely on my opinion and that of my dining companion.

Generally speaking I truly prefer to be positive when writing these blog posts. Oh, I can get cranky once in awhile and write about how pyjama pants in public irk me, but if I can find positive things to say about an event, a person, or a business I will. I really wish this would be one of those positive blog posts, but I'm sorry to say it won't be.

This past weekend I went to the Gardenia Cafe with a dear friend who also happens to be a kick-ass cook. As it was a Saturday evening I booked a reservation for 7 pm, and was startled when we arrived that only 3 tables were occupied. If anyone here ever dined at Gardenia's predecessor, Pesto's, you know it was often quite busy on weekends as it was a favourite "date night" spot. I was a little troubled by all the empty tables but thought perhaps it was just an unusually slow night. As the evening wore on, though, I began to wonder if there was another reason for all those vacancies.

I was pleased when I discovered that you can bring your own wine to Gardenia, so I brought along a bottle of a lovely Jacob Creek chardonnay (an amber coloured wine with delicious honey notes, highly recommended). For a $10 corking fee you can consume your own wine, and as far as I know Gardenia is the only spot in town this is available. This a lovely service, and as it turned out the best part of the night was the wine I provided.

The atmosphere inside Gardenia is pleasant enough - white cloth tablecloths, but the disposable paper napkins indicate that this is a bit more casual than one might expect. The decor is quite pleasant, and it is a small but cozy space. The wait staff are also pleasant and seem to know their jobs, which is always nice to find. After all those good bits, though, the wheels kind of fall off the wagon.

My friend and I decided to start with an order of bruschetta. The server informed us that the French Bruschetta ($7.99) was not available, and the Italian Bruschetta ($7.99) would be served on a bread other than the described toasted panini as they didn't have panini. We then opted to instead have the hummus and pita ($5.99) as the modified bruschetta didn't sound particularly appetizing. The hummus was served to us but we were not provided with individual bread plates and thus we shared our order in the more intimate way (avoiding double dipping, of course). The hummus, I am sorry to say, was a disappointment. Bland, boring, and with a mass-produced feeling it lacked the zing and flavour one typically expects in a quality hummus.

After the disappointing hummus we still had high hopes for our entrees. My friend had ordered the Chicken Paella with Greek Salad and I had ordered the Cajun Spiced Chicken with warm potato salad and European coleslaw. When our entrees arrived I think we were both a bit dismayed.

The Chicken Paella ($18.99) appeared to be an unseasoned, diced, cooked chicken breast tossed with converted rice, peas, and some red pepper in a red sauce. The greek salad appeared to be fresh and was tasty, but the paella is best described as bland, boring, and uninspired.

The Cajun Spiced Chicken ($18.99) was even worse. A limp, white, pallid, unseasoned chicken breast had been doused after cooking in some cajun and cayenne spice. The warm potato salad was two lumps of vaguely warm mashed potatoes with what appeared to be carrot pieces. The vegetable side was actually quite interesting, a blend of broccoli and other vegetables that appeared to have been stir-fried or steamed in a mildly spicy seasoning. I doubt it was the coleslaw side listed in the menu but regardless the vegetable was the only interesting part of the entire plate.

My friend and I were both profoundly disappointed. Considering Gardenia advertises their variety of ethnic dishes we felt certain we were in for a real treat, and yet were served meals that even I, a rather poor cook, could have prepared. The food was also ready suspiciously quickly and only vaguely warm, leading me to wonder how much of it is freshly prepared and how much sees the inside of a microwave right before landing on your table.

At the end of the meal (which neither of us really finished, and my friend's half-eaten paella wasn't even worthy of taking home in her opinion) we were offered the dessert menu which we declined. The lack of attention to the quality of the food didn't exactly inspire our confidence in the desserts and we determined we had eaten enough to form our opinion of Gardenia. As we sat to finish the bottle of wine we were further disturbed by the increasing numbers of small black flies that began to haunt our table. The meal ended when one of the flies landed in my friend's wine glass and we decided we'd simply been there long enough.

As I said at the beginning I prefer to be a positive person, and while I cannot be positive about this dining experience I can offer some constructive criticism. The management at Gardenia need to take a very close look at the quality of the food being served. I do not expect local restaurants to be five-star experiences (although that would be lovely) but I do expect a certain degree of quality for the money I spend. When being served ethnic food I expect that it will be a sensory experience of new flavours and smells, and not bland rice, cajun spice, and tepid mashed potatoes. Gardenia, your patrons deserve better. When the best part of the meal is the wine your own patrons have provided you have a problem, and one you need to address. By serving food that is more inspired and by building on all the good things you have (like your staff, location, bring-your-own-wine policy, and decor) you could easily fill every table in your charming little restaurant. Until you do so, though, this restaurant-food-loving blogger will not return. And truly, that's a shame, because I think there is a niche for this kind of restaurant in the city - and Gardenia has a chance to fill it if they make some changes. I'd love to see that happen, people.


  1. I have been to Gardenia many times and have had nothing but an extremely positive experience. I’ve even gone as far as bringing coworkers there on two separate occasions; the first with about 25 people and the second with eight. On another occasion they hosted a table of 18 for a friend’s birthday. While I can’t speak to the experience you had, I can say this is the first time I’ve heard such a negative response to Gardenia.
    When hosting especially large groups with varying expectations, one would expect complaints but there were very few and they were often minimal. When planning a nice night out, Gardenia is one of the top stops in town and most requested when I’m planning something. Those who have been before want to go back!
    When Gardenia was set up at A Taste of Fort McMurray event last winter, they were one of the most-in-demand spots; leaving on multiple occasions to get more product.
    Perhaps it was indeed an off night but with the amount I go there I know those are few and far between. By the way: If there’s a next time, order the desert.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Anonymous. As I said in my post I prefer to be positive whenever I am able to be but the quality of the food at Gardenia made that impossible in this instance. I was very disappointed, and since posting this have had others tell me that they too have had disappointing dining experiences at Gardenia. I continue to believe this is deeply unfortunate as Gardenia could fill a significant vacancy in the culinary options in this city. I am glad you have had such positive experiences and truly wish I had also - but I did not, and I feel a responsibility to be honest in everything I write. Thanks again for your comment!