Characters Fine Dining has been a staple in downtown’s restaurant circuit for over 13 years. Shonn seems to get mixed reviews depending on who’s working the kitchen that night, but I figured I’d decide for myself what Characters is all about with a positive review from one of my co-workers.
Restaurant type: Canadian, complex flavours, heavy, dinner oriented, shirt+tie, mature audience
Honest flavour: 6/10 - Characters is like many restaurants in Edmonton in that it seems to offer one dish for each protein component. To my surprise, we were immediately graced with a dish of french fries as opposed to the typical bread. This was strange to me, specifically because they were served cold, and were obviously out of a freezer bag. Crispy in the a la KFC sort of way, and served with a side of ketchup and a salty, asian inspired mayo type sauce- not my idea of ‘Fine Dining’ as the name suggests. After looking at the menu, and not being one to let an opportunity slip by, I ordered the Iberico Ham for my appetizer despite it being more expensive than my main dish. The ham was nicely cured, and was accompanied by cantaloupe, pine nuts, artichoke hearts, bread, and other pairings to mix and match with. I am a fan of this type of dish because I enjoy seeing eactly what flavours I am about to enjoy; this group of pairings was perfect, and I appreciated the simplicity. Unfortunately, the appetizer was not a preview for things to come with the chicken kiev. The chicken itself was tasteless and under seasoned, even the breaded outside seemed to only taste like oil. The herb sauce inside the chicken was also lacking any sort of kick, and the pool of carrot puree only made the lifeless dish feel soggy. The lemon sauce atop my chicken was bright and surprisingly tangy, it would have done better being the focal point of my plate. The overall feeling about the true flavour was unanimous- somewhat boring and uninspired, though my appetizer stands out as a real winner.
Ingenuity of flavour: 3/10 - Every chef has his/her go to methods, ingredients and flavour combinations. Have you ever been to a restaurant and tasted a continuous theme of flavours throughout your meal, regardless of the dish? If you pay attention to what you eat (and I assume if you’re reading this- you do) chances are good you’ll notice this natural flow simply because the chef has their own unique way of cooking. When you take the flow out of a meal, but keep the same ingredients and methods, you end up withThis simple truth has been made painfully apparent to me at Characters Fine Dining- my main course looked almost exactly like my date’s! The Chicken Kiev came in a dollop of carrot puree, three pieces on a long plate with a lemon sauce on top of each piece, and greens laying atop each chicken slice, and around as garnish. The ‘Kind of vegetarian dish’ came almost the exact same way - pieces of potato and gnocchi laying in the same carrot puree, this time on a square plate with a very small amount of spatzle sprinkled across the plate, and polenta smeared in a similar fashion to the carrot puree. To top it off, the vegetarian dish had the same greens as my plate scattered throughout. Two totally different dishes, chicken kiev and a vegetarian plate both with the same orange sauce, the same yellow/fried component in the puree, and the same greens for garnish- really unfortunate. Though I’ve already commented on how my dishes actually tasted, the true misstep for me was how each component didn’t seem to add to my chicken kiev. The lemon sauce was fantastic on it’s own- but with the bland chicken, the simple carrot puree, and the flavorless herb sauce inside the chicken, the acidity didn’t seem to balance in any way. Perhaps if the carrot puree was sweeter, the acidity would be a nice component, but I’m still not sure it fits the dish despite it being the only interesting item on the plate. The greens on the plate were cut with long stems- so long that thy were actually difficult to eat without breaking each stem off. On the whole my main was disjointed, boring, uncomfortable to eat, and looked exactly like the plate across the table from me. I did, however, appreciate the fact that Characters offered a great tasting plate for my appetizer; the thought that went into the ingredients is obvious. Still, in a restaurant of this calibre, I would expect the same thought put into every dish on the menu.
Restaurant Vibe: 2/10 - Characters has some interesting ingredients that seem to be put together in uninteresting ways, but the real disappointment came from the service and overall atmosphere in the restaurant. I appreciate knowledgeable, friendly staff, and a comfortable experience- neither of which I found at Characters Fine Dining. The room is big and open, much like a typical Canadian chain such as Perhaps Characters is just ‘too fine’ for me; immediately the Maitre d’ gave that look of ‘I’m not sure you belong here’ as my date and I walked in the door. He sat us quickly, and our waiter, who also seemed completely devoid of personality was equally as snooty and unprofessional. When I ordered wine for my date and I, he responded with, ‘We’re out of that shiraz, but we have a different bottle. It’s new. It’s better.’ I wasn’t aware that one bottle of wine could be better than another, he obviously had no idea what it tasted like, and the cookie-cutter, uninformed answer seemed to match his persona for the duration of the evening. Another thing that struck me as odd was that a different, female server took our orders, brought our appetizers out to us, and then our original server returned to bring our mains. It’s really a shame, because she was friendly, and presented herself as being genuinely interested in my questions about the menu, and gave honest answers.
Overall Value: 4/10 - I like good food, and I don’t mind paying for it. I’ll gladly pay for a chef’s knowledge in how to pair ingredients, the ability to utilize cooking methods to their fullest, and the art of creating a menu that makes me want to come back. Maybe I’d be inclined to give Characters another shot if the meal across the table from me didn’t look exactly like mine, and at $34 for my chicken, I certainly wouldn’t be ordering it again. My appetizer (which was probably designed to share) was an astounding $35- certainly the most expensive appie I’ve ever ordered, but I’d wager it was actually bordering on being worth it. When it was all said an done, out bill was arund the $180 mark including wine- and at that price, I would expect exemplary service, and really fantastic food. Characters definitely missed the mark in the value category.
Final Thoughts: All in all, Characters seemed to hold up to it’s Urbanspoon reviews as being snooty, with mediocre food, and a high price tag. Definitely not on my list of places to return to, but maybe I’ll give it a second chance one day once they’ve ironed out some of their unpleasant staff and Shonn has decided to offer some new things on the menu. Hopefully I won’t find any carrot puree or cold french fries if I do make it back.