Not very long ago, in a prairie town not so far away, the only fine dining was at the railroad hotel restaurant; it was the Fairmont Palliser’s Rimrock Room, to this day a stalwart, a room rich in ranching history, French onion soup, Caesar salad, and prime Alberta beef tenderloin. But the times are changing, and Calgary’s fine dining scene is as exciting as any other in North America right now. Fresh, local, sustainable, certainly, but there is a lot of innovation and flair, and accurate renditions of a diverse range of cultural options. It’s an exhilarating time to be there.
That’s not to say the new wave of chefs and restaurateurs are unaware of their geographic location. A visit to Bar C shows that in full. The charcuterie plate, all house-made from products raised on the Bar C ranchlands, include air-dried bison, elk salami, and an amazing bison tartare. Not far away, at Market, the herbs and many greens are on display just back of the kitchen and the “pass”, in their serene in-house Urban Garden, the first of its kind in the city, and present on virtually every plate that comes to table. A welcoming, long bar, and generously spaced seating only add to the charm of the home-style, local and seasonal dishes.
Over at Cassis Bistro, situated adjacent to the Casel Marché on 17th Avenue SW, Gilles and Andrea Brassart, along with chef Dominique Moussu, have created an authentic French bistro with plenty of local flourishes. Gilles explains why Calgary is in the throes of such an explosion of great dining options: “Andrea lived here, grew up here, but we met in San Francisco, both working in the restaurant business at the time. We spent a lot of time in France, too. But when it came time to be married, raise children, we thought Calgary would be a great place to do that. So, like several other restaurateurs I know, opening a place in Calgary that would not be out of place in France, or Italy, or Thailand, that is happening a lot. It makes for a great food scene.” Judging by the scallops, and the steak frites, Gilles is spot on.
A deli like Spolumbo’s, long a favourite, is still going strong. An even more traditional feel and approach is Grumans, where if you blink, you may well feel like you are in Montreal, perhaps New York, on a sunny day. The meats do come in part from Montreal, and everything is done right in a fairly expansive kitchen. Both places are abuzz at lunch, understandably so. Thai Sa-on, nestled on 10th Avenue SW, boasts, amazingly, one of the city’s best fine wine lists to go along with grandmother’s authentic cooking.
The arrival of Relais & Châteaux property the Kensington Riverside Inn is a real sign of the evolution of Calgary’s scene, with their Chef’s Table restaurant, an intimate, lovely room. Executive chef Duncan Ly, all wispy six feet three or so of him, presides over it all, with his classical French influences apparent at every turn, making his locally sourced ingredients shine.
There are some well-established names, too. Teatro is currently under the capable and imaginative hands of chef John Michael MacNeil. In a stately, high-ceilinged room, he brings plenty of verve; a recent visit featured a vermouth-infused compressed melon, replete with Iberico ham and fresh mint. Hard to think of a better way to begin a meal. Pastas, locally-sourced beef, lamb, and poultry, a daily European rotisserie option, a special experience in every way. Meanwhile, at Charcut Roast House, plenty of sizzle, and tastes to back it up. Co-chefs and co-owners Connie DeSousa and John Jackson have been wowing the crowds from day one. Rouge, re-invigorated and boasting a second, more casual Bistro Rouge, and Brava Bistro both have earned the city’s respect, and remain at the leading edge of things.
But that leading edge is harder to define, and even harder to keep up with these days. Downtownfood, chef Darren MacLean’s ode to micro-local, has the benefit of the UrbanAgProject, which he founded. Apiaries, rooftop herbal gardens, vegetables and fruits, it is a leg up on any pretenders. And not far away sits the splendid Model Milk. Chef and co-owner Justin Leboe is really onto something here, with a healthy apportionment of small plates, and some fabulous mains. The room itself, all brushed brick and heavy wood, almost demands conviviality and plate-sharing. There is a Sunday supper, which has a theme, and the team does that artfully, playfully, all in the name of great flavours.
Leboe, Brassart, and many another owner or chef in Calgary will inevitably, when asked, bring up one name, the frontrunner for a unique, terroir-driven cuisine for Calgary. That name is Sal Howell, proprietor of the now legendary River Café, survivor of biblically proportioned floods, leader in creating a demand, and thus a market, for locally grown ingredients, mentor to young cooks, pioneer in fine wine lists. Howell remains intrepid and passionate; “When we began, it was simply to find local products and cook with them. To have tastes that reflect the surrounding region. But it did grow from there,” she says. “Seasonality was something we had to actively pursue, to convince farmers to try things. These days, seasonality for us means we are excited all the time.” The room is welcoming, a huge stone fireplace and massive bar opposite, belie the generosity of the approach to food and wine here, where everything, including the place you are sitting at that very moment, is cause for celebration.
Calgary these days is something folks may not have considered possible 20 scant years ago. It is a food destination, bursting at the seams with great places to dine.
UPDATE, September 2018: Bar C, Brava Bistro, and Dowtownfood have closed; Kensington Riverside Inn has rebranded as Hotel Arts Kensington.
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