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Monday, July 22, 2024

Finding Fabulous Food in Calgary

Check out why this Alberta city is popping with flavour.

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Photos and text: Maureen Littlejohn

If you are looking for some taste bud tingling, I discovered recently that Calgary is the place to go. I had heard through friends, and social media, that the city has many award-winning restaurants and creative culinary entrepreneurs. So, to discover what was happening in the city’s food scene I went on a marathon eating blitz. 

Here are my results….

Beautiful chandeliers, hanging plants, and a sky-high wine rack met my gaze when I entered this Asian Mediterranean oasis. My favorites from the mostly plant-based menu were grilled romaine, broccoli with za’atar and gochujang, and artichoke panzanella salad with arugula tomato bacon, and grapes. In addition, I tried the beet and burrata combo with plum vinaigrette. The offerings were nuanced, and seasonal, with often unusual spicing. Nothing is boring about eating your greens here. 

This was a sweet sanctuary in Memorial Park. Inspired by Israeli and Mediterranean flavours the dishes used in this restaurant are predominately local ingredients. The solarium seating, I was told by chef Stefan Gusztak, was inspired by Calgary’s Central Memorial Park at the turn of the 20th century. 

“They used to have garden rooms that were semi-closed spaces for picnicking and courting,” he explained. 

The wooden lattice design is a tip of the hat to these enclosures. 

The restaurant grew from Sidewalk Citizen Bakery, started by Aviv Fried and Michal Lavi. It is where the pair began to hold Tzavta events. Tzavta is Hebrew for sitting together and sharing food and conversation. They were inspired inspired by author Jane Jacobs’ book The Death and Life of Great American Cities and decided to create a restaurant dedicated to the public sphere and enhancing the city’s cultural fabric. 

I was there for brunch and was able to dig into a most satisfying shakshuka (smoked tomato, eggs, feta, crème fraiche, pita), as well as some potato pancakes. 

The restaurant also does dinner, and cocktails, with a happy hour. 

Located in a downtown skyscraper, 40 stories In the air, it is a 1960s-style steak house with a twist. Since it opened in 2021 the restaurant has topped many lists of Canada’s best restaurants. The most popular cocktail is “All the Way Up” with Suntory Toki whiskey, apricot liqueur, Amaro Montenegro, and pistachio The Alberta beef is out of the world… all steaks are brushed with house butter, then broiled at 1800 degrees. This ensures a caramelized crust. For seafood lovers, lobster and scallops are also on the menu. Where the twist comes in is with the hors d’oeuvres, which are all worth trying. These include a potato donut with French onion custard and chives, crispy hen egg with pepperoni jam, and Major tots with smoked sturgeon and pickled onions.

This restaurant and sake bar got its name from the Japanese word kuchisabishii. It means when you are not hungry, but your mouth is lonely and would like some company. Satisfying hunger is a good idea here, too. Certified saki professionals Greg Williams and Courtney Kocken took me through a Sake Experience. Different styles of sake such as Fukushima and Nagori were paired with a variety of tempuras (shrimp, squid, yam) as well as hand rolls, black cod, steak with shishito peppers, and wild mushrooms. 

You have to be in the know to find this low-profile Vietnamese cocktail bar tucked away in Chinatown. Nhi Tran and her husband Tanner Ennis opened the spot in 2020 and word has gotten around about their Vietnamese small plate menu that includes banh mi with pork belly, and banh xeo crepes with pork and shrimp. Creative cocktails such as Morning in Hanoi with coffee-infused vodka, cold brew, condensed milk, coconut, and kalua are also a draw. Formerly Tran was a chartered accountant and Ennis was in HR, but they wanted to have a more flexible life. “Plus we have an amazing staff that makes it all possible,” explained Tran. That includes input from her mother (who is usually in the kitchen) and father, originally from Saigon. They owned the Orchid Room Vietnamese/Thai restaurant in Calgary for 10 years. “My mother’s chicken wings are out of this world. Our recipes are family favorites.” 

Cochu 

The owner of this jewel box of a shop, Anne Sellmer, is an award-winning, 6-star grand master chocolatier. A former Industrial designer, it’s no wonder many of her chocolate creations are geometrical feats of engineering. She wasn’t there the day I visited, but Lacey Suen, the operations manager, told me they use only fresh cream and butter. She also gave me instructions on how to eat chocolate. “Bite it, then let it melt in your mouth. Close your mouth and breathe through your nose to set off your olfactory senses.” Working hard not to gobble these delicious treats, I did what I was told. The effect was like a chocolate garden blooming in my mouth. 

Village Ice Cream 

Billy Friley, a former aerospace engineering student, was sitting on the porch of his grandmother’s house in Montana when an idea came to him. While eating a pint of huckleberry hand-made ice cream, he decided frozen dairy treats were his future. Not rockets. His first frozen parlor opened in 2012, and he now has five locations. Every month there is a seasonal flavour. It was carrot cake when I was there. The lineups were worth it. 

Bridgette Bar

This place is famous for its mile-high banana pie. Swiss meringue, banana slices, pretzel crust, and rum caramel drizzle made it one of the best I have ever eaten. There is also a location in Canmore and one soon to open in Toronto. 

Calgary Farmers’ Market

This is the place where you will find fruit, vegetables, meats, fish, cheeses, sweets, and lots of pre-made specialties to take home. Plus there are many spaces where you can stop for a coffee, meal, or snack.

Here’s a list of some outstanding producers I encountered.

  • Phil & Sebastian Coffee Roasters for great coffee and donuts.
  • Stock and Sauce for soups and sauces. Phil Faba and his wife Kari started it 22 years ago and now 7 of their 9 kids are in the business.
  • Innisfail Growers is a group of five farms, that make jams, jellies, and sauces from their harvests.
  • Pie Cloud is owned by Maureen Depatie and Tanner d’Esterre. They claim their lemon meringue pie is the best in Calgary. Also offer Waygu hotdogs and burgers.
  • Heart Choices was voted the best vegan resto in Canada by Avenue Magazine. Peanut sate is a big favorite.
  • Gemstone Grass-Fed Beef is an Alberta beef venture by Lorin Doerksen and Andy Sedlak. Why is the meat so good? Climate, grass-fed, and healthy soil improves nutrient density in feed. Dry aged for 21 days.

Sip and Swizzle at Burwood Distillery

This spirited spot specializes in gin but also has whisky. There are 80 different gin deconstructions, rich with botanicals and herbs. The Summer Garden Party series has cucumber, grapefruit lemongrass, and triple berry. Winter has Winter Berry, Mandarin Orange & Cranberry, and Spiced Apple. It is located in the Stables on the Currie Barracks that were built in 1936 and home to B Squadron of Lord Strathcona’s Horse Regiment. Veranda is the name of the taproom and spirit hall. I opted for a tour and tastings plus a gin blending class. Food includes oysters, burgers, pizza, and pasta. 

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