DREAMSCAPES FALL/WINTER 2021
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A CALGARY COOK-OFF: RESTAURANTS TO DINE FOR
 
(2021 - Fall/Winter Issue)

Writer: ELIZABETH CHORNEY-BOOTH



Even with the hope that living in a post-COVID era is upon us, as a food writer living in Calgary, it’s hard to stay on top of the evolving foodie scene with new restaurants that continue to pop up.

On this particular Friday night in Calgary (pronounced ‘Cal-gree’) I’m sussing out the scene in a newish neighbourhood called the East Village. Despite its convenient proximity to the flow of the Bow River and the excitement of Calgary’s Central Business District a few blocks away, less than a decade ago, this area was a gritty neighbourhood full of derelict hotels and seedy bars.

Today the East Village is a beacon of Calgary’s long-term plan to refresh its urban core full of new condos, restored heritage buildings as well as the home of Canada’s National Music Centre and the city’s new Central Library—a culture booster for curious minds, art lovers and bookworms. 

After a day exploring these local sights you are sure to develop an appetite. I know I did. Although it is a challenge to decide if I crave an Argentinian-style empanada at Charbar, hanker for an omakase sushi dinner at Nupo, or long for a deceptively delicious sandwich from Mari, a bakeshop owned by a couple who used to work with the famous chef, Thomas Keller. Each of these dining spots sits on a single block with plenty of other eateries only a short walk away.

I choose Nupo. Headed by chef Darren MacLean, who rose to international recognition because of his good showing on the Netflix chef competition show The Final Table, the slick Japanese restaurant at the Alt Hotel Calgary East Village feels like it could easily be in New York or Los Angeles. MacLean, however, is adamant that his restaurant has a distinctively Canadian—Calgarian, even—point of view. While a sushi chef feeds omakase customers ultra-flavourful dry-aged sushi, piece by piece, I decide to order à la carte, struggling to decide between a box of glossy barbecued eel set over sushi rice or a whole fish taco dramatically served with a selection of seven sauces and a plate of jicama tortillas. On the other side of the kitchen I can spot MacLean entertaining guests at Nupo’s alter ego called “Eight,” an exclusive restaurant within the restaurant known for its 12-course tasting menu served to only eight customers.

But this concentration of restaurants in  a formerly underserved neighbourhood in Calgary is not restricted to the East Village. Similar stretches of cosmopolitan restaurants dominate other neighbour-hoods across Calgary, like the eclectic and heritage-laden Inglewood to the east, and the densely populated Victoria Park and 17th Avenue to the south, while well-established restaurant zones like the Beltline, Mission, and Stephen Avenue continue to thrive.

A CITY OF RESTAURANTS

This Southern Alberta city has an admittedly well-earned reputation for being a meat-and-potatoes kind of town. While the meat and potatoes served at restaurants like Modern Steak, known for its prime grade Alberta beef, or Charbar are indeed very good, the restaurant scene has matured.

In Calgary the casual fine-dining concept has extended to some of the best restaurants in Canada with eateries that have attained high accolades from publications like Air Canada enRoute magazine and Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants.

Ten years ago, Calgary saw the opening of two restaurants that signalled a sea change: Una, an upscale thin-crust pizza place that refused to take reservations and CHARCUT, a meat-heavy roast house that emphasized shared plates and exotic fare like its signature pig’s head mortadella.

These restaurants emerged to complement already strong players like the rustically elegant River Café, which sits in tranquil Prince’s Island Park and is only accessible by a park pathway and footbridge. I’ve had many a magical meal there, dipping flatbread into the kitchen’s signature red lentil hummus flavoured with Okanagan sumac and plates of expertly prepared lamb and bison raised just outside of the city. Rouge, another independent fine-dining restaurant, also has helped set the stage for local food purveyors. Picture crispy duck confit plated with seasonal greens or herb-crusted pork loin with veggies plucked from the backyard garden.

CONTEMPORARY COMFORT

Chef Jenny Kang, who was born and raised on a farm outside Seoul, Korea, crafts Mediterranean dishes with a kiss of Asian influence at her glittering new restaurant Orchard in the heart of Calgary. Dishes like the juicy tiger prawn encrusted in crispy rice or marinated tomato salad dressed with a fermented plum vinaigrette could only come from a chef who skillfully musters Canadian-grown ingredients together with sublime Korean and Italian influences.

The same goes for the much-celebrated Bar Von Der Fels. The intimate urban wine bar, a hop skip and jump from Calgary’s legendary Stampede Grounds in Victoria Park, serves creative fare from a tiny commercial kitchen. I am eternally grateful that chef Douglas King’s rich and savoury dish of Fogo Island crab draped over Hasselback potatoes doused in brown butter has become a permanent signature dish.

Calgary’s large Mexican population has also brought the city up to speed in the taco world. Mikey’s on 12th, a popular live music venue, sells tacos from its Taco Shop window in the back of the club. Fans of Korean food can also get a taste of casual chef-driven expertise at JINBAR, a new restaurant operated by Top Chef Canada star Jinhee Lee who has used her considerable skill to create a selection of Korean-themed pizzas and ultra-crispy and flavourful Korean fried chicken.

For a city supposedly in an economic downturn this revelation might come as a surprise, but the vibrant restaurant scene tells a deeper story of Calgary’s entrepreneurial and multicultural population. Whether we’re eating locally grown produce or a Calgarian’s take on global techniques and ingredients, as diners we are digesting truths about a city that continues to flourish, even in the face of an uncertain post-pandemic future.

Travel Planner

For a list of restaurants, visit Tourism Calgary’s restaurant directory: visitcalgary.com/things-to-do#/1666/eat—drink

 
 
 
 
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