Exploring our Backyard: Highway 2 Detours

Mack and I usually end up popping down to Calgary at least a few times a year for a mini-break. Back in August, we did so, but made sure to plan some more unique stops on the way down and back up to Edmonton.

Southbound, we visited Eagle Creek Farms in Bowden, which claims only one of two sunflower mazes in all of Canada.

Bowden Sun Maze

Sunflower Maze

Although the maze wasn’t quite at their full height, it was still a sight to see.

Eagle Creek Farms

Sunflower selfie

It resembled more of a sunflower patch with pathways not as defined as the corn mazes we are more used to, but it was definitely eye-catching and visually stunning, especially with the number of bees buzzing in and around the flowers.

Bowden Sun Maze

The field was abuzz with activity

Eagle Creek also boasts a few other maze options (including corn, hay bale, and tree mazes), in addition to a small u-pick vegetable and flower selection. We were disappointed the strawberry patch wasn’t quite ready yet, but we did take the opportunity to harvest some zucchini, peas, and chard to take home with us.

Bowden Sun Maze

Ready to harvest!

Afterwards we stopped for lunch nearby at the Starlite Diner Car, which we have blown by on Highway 2 countless times. We’re suckers for retro diners, so the classic interior, with bright red booths and a long counter, was right up our alley.

Starlite Diner Car

We love diners

We didn’t expect the alien-themed menu, but all of the classic dishes you’d expect to find were available to order (their milkshakes were on high demand that afternoon). While the food wasn’t exceptional, our monte cristo and hot turkey sandwiches hit the spot. Service was also better than we anticipated.

Starlite Diner Car

Hot turkey sandwich

What did come as a surprise was the fact that one of the fellow diners at the counter had paid our bill! We’ve never experienced a pay-it-forward situation before, but after this, will have to return the favour ourselves.

Onward to Calgary, we had booked an AirBnB in the East Village neighbourhood, an area that would definitely be on our shortlist if we ever moved south. Mack’s favourite amenity is the Phil & Sebastian’s in the Simmons Building (which we took advantage of the next morning), but being within walking distance of Village Ice Cream isn’t bad, either.

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We are all Villagers

The East Village Junction Pop-up was also taking place just across the street from the condo building. The vacant lot had been populated with a dozen shipping containers transformed into retail outlets (some local, some national chains), but also featured a food truck, seating areas, and a programmed stage.

containR EV Junction

East Village Junction Pop-up

It was a neat way to encourage more foot traffic, and an idea that we’ve heard may eventually make its way to some underserved areas in Edmonton.

East Village Junction Pop-up

Mack was right at home

We hadn’t yet been to Studio Bell, so took advantage of our proximity on this visit. The architecture of the building was a draw for us, and we learned that the landscape of the prairies (including the hoodoos), as well as the curvature of musical instruments, was his inspiration for the designs.

National Music Centre

Performance Hall

Like most modern museums, there were lots of open spaces, lookout points, and areas where natural light could filter in.

National Music Centre

Fun with instruments

The museum offered a good variety of interactive exhibits, and we could see how it would appeal to music explorers of all ages. My favourite exhibit was the theatre organ that was used to create a live soundtrack for silent films screened in the 20s and 30s.

National Music Centre

Kimball Theatre Organ

GlobalFest had been on our list for some time, but the timing had never before lined up. A fireworks competition combined with cultural showcases, aspects of GlobalFest reminded us of a scaled down version of Heritage Days.

Calgary GlobalFest

GlobalFest

Over two dozen countries were represented with food, clothing, or cultural artifacts. In addition, multiple stages dotted the grounds, hosting musical and dance performances throughout the evening. I liked the passport idea that the festival had developed as a means of encouraging attendees to visit as many pavilions as possible (in exchange for the chance to enter to win a prize).

Calgary GlobalFest

One of three stages

In every other festival year, the fireworks each night are themed around a country. This year, in honour of Canada’s sesquicentennial, a region of the country was celebrated instead. That evening, the Prairies were in the spotlight.

The theme wasn’t obvious from the fireworks display, as some of the musical choices were outside of artists born on the Prairies. That said, I could appreciate the selection of certain firework varieties and colours that were paired with particular musical interludes – the shimmering fireworks were a great choice to accompany a Chantal Kreviazuk’s ballad. Overall, GlobalFest was a lovely way to spend a summer evening outdoors.

Calgary GlobalFest

Fireworks display

We couldn’t leave Calgary without a visit to one of our favourite restaurants – Blue Star Diner in Bridgeland has become our go-to brunch favourite.

They’ve made some minor tweaks to my favourite stuffed French toast dish since our last visit, but I’m happy to report it’s still equally delicious, and the white cheese whiz (in place of hollandaise) was addictive.

Blue Star Diner

Mack’s Bridgeland breakfast bowl from Blue Star Diner

Our the way to Red Deer, we stopped at the infamous Torrington Gopher Museum. It’s been on our bucket list for some time, and we can safely say it’s well worth the half hour detour. Photos really can’t do this bizarre attraction justice.

Torrington Gopher Hole Museum

The hunted or the hunter?

For just $2, visitors can take in the various dioramas that have position stuffed gophers in scenes capturing town life. Most are based around local businesses, but there are a few more politically incorrect ones as well.

Torrington Gopher Hole Museum

Albert GoFur, who made a trip to the Vancouver Olympics

The staff on duty was so obviously proud of the museum, and though she’d likely run through the introduction countless times, was happy to do so with each group entering the facility.

My favourite diorama was Moonlight Romance, featuring a gopher dressed in an adorable poodle skirt (the top visitor’s choice in 2015), while Mack couldn’t resist the church scene with a suspended gopher angel (the top pick in 2014 and 2016).

Torrington Gopher Hole Museum

Gopher wedding

We needed to stretch our legs before dinner, so stopped in Red Deer’s Gaetz Lake Sanctuary first. The 4km trail can be leisurely completed in an hour, even with multiple stops to admire birds on this federally-sanctioned migration route.

Kerry Wood Nature Centre

Gaetz Lake Sanctuary

We were, however, unprepared to witness the tree damage caused by 140km an hour winds earlier in the year. Because of the park’s status as a migration route, staff could only ensure the fallen logs were cleared from the path, but not removed.

Kerry Wood Nature Centre

Tree damage

I can safely say the more time we spend in Red Deer, the more aspects I find to appreciate – it definitely has more to offer than Gasoline Alley would suggest!

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Lookout point

I had my eye on Red Boar Smokery for a while, among a cluster of interesting restaurants and shops in downtown Red Deer. It’s also a good sign when their frequent updates on social media relate to selling out of product!

The interior is casual, with communal picnic table seating, and instead of actual plates, they offer strips of butcher paper. We chose the “barnyard special”, which was an ideal way to sample a variety of their meats and sides.

The pulled pork was the standout, with a great smoky flavour, while the pork belly was also notable, as the fat just melted away in our mouths. The accompanying sauces were fun to sample, with the honey mustard in particular winning our vote.

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Barnyard Special from Red Boar Smokery

Mack was happy we snagged the last bit of mac and cheese, but the apple slaw was actually the better of the sides; the tartness was needed to cut through the richness of the meat.

All told, we had a great time further exploring some attractions in our own backyard – we’re looking forward to what we will discover next!

2016 Calgary Eats Round-Up

It’s no secret Mack and I choose Calgary as our weekend getaway destination. Though it’s challenging to keep up with the Edmonton food scene sometimes, the distance (and perhaps the perception from afar) makes it even more difficult to know all of what’s changed in Calgary since our last visit.

This spring and summer, Mack and I were able to get down to Calgary several times for both work and play. It wasn’t enough to hit up all of the hot spots (though we do our best to fit in as much food as possible, heh), but we landed on some gems.

Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver

Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver is a takeout-focused joint opened by Top Chef Canada alum Nicole Gomes and her sister, Francine Gomes. Although it is their first partnership, everything about Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver is polished. From the bright pink signage and logo to the establishment’s backstory (chef and her chicken farmer sister merge their passions) it feels almost a little too slick. But I want to buy in to a local business that simply wants to do a few things very, very well.

Cluck n Cleaver

Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver

The footprint of Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver is small – most of the building’s space is dedicated to the kitchen. A stand-up eat-in counter and grab and go cooler makes up the rest of the storefront. It made me wonder if the economic downturn will naturally promote businesses with postage stamp square footage but high volume.

Although rotisserie chicken is available, we ordered the fried chicken. The breading was thick and crunchy, and encased the moist and juicy meat underneath. The accompanying cilantro corn and bean salad didn’t show much evidence of cilantro, but it was still refreshing. My favourite item was the buttermilk biscuit, flaky and rich.

Cluck n Cleaver

Winner, winner

I’m sure many Calgarians have flocked to Cluck ‘n’ Cleaver to pick up summer picnic spreads – just make sure to buy an extra biscuit or two – you won’t regret it!

Charbar

Mack and I always flirt with the idea of moving to Calgary, usually as an exercise to fantasize with hypothetical neighbourhoods and real estate, HGTV-style. No doubt, one of the areas at the top of our list is the East Village.

East Village

East Village

Located just east of downtown by the Bow River and within walking distance of a C-Train station, its location and natural beauty make it a desirable neighbourhood in our books. However, while a lot of the pedestrian and park infrastructure is complete, other amenities are still in development. A Loblaws offshoot is in the works, and additional retail would promote convenience for residents. Mack’s favourite feature has already been installed – his third place, in the form of a Phil and Sebastian’s Café.

The Simmons Warehouse, a former mattress facility, has been transformed into a thriving partnership between three complementary local businesses: Charbar (the sister restaurant to the smashing success Charcut), Sidewalk Citizen Bakery (who supplies its fine baked goods to a number of cafes in Calgary) and Phil & Sebastian (whose location in the East Village marks café number 5). The cross-promotion is obvious (Charbar serves desserts by Sidewalk Citizen, coffee flows from Phil & Sebastian’s to its partners, etc.), but the square footage has also allowed each business to enhance their operations – roasting space for Phil’s, a new savoury menu for Sidewalk Citizen, and patio space for Charbar.

Simmons Building

Simmons Warehouse

The care that was taken in the renovations of the space is evident. The preservation of the wood beams, letting natural light cross into the floors below, and the open flow of one business to another (the café and bar are adjacent to one another) score the partnership as a much deeper one than name only.

Our jaunt to the East Village was too late to catch the bakery during operational hours, but we peeked into the cafe before settling down for a pre-dinner drink at Charbar. They have some great cocktails to choose from, and if we didn’t already have a reservation in the dining room, I would have been fine to enjoy a meal at the very comfortable bar.

We eventually moved into Charbar proper, and seated next to the open kitchen, watched Chef Jessica Pelland expedite dishes all night. The Charbar menu features Argentinian-inspired share plates. The housemade chorizo (served with pickled vegetables and aioli) was fantastic, and our only disappointment was to learn we wouldn’t be able to take any of the chorizo home with us.

Charbar

Chorizo with pickled vegetables and aioli

The New York steak, served with green chimichurri and aioli was perfectly cooked and appropriately rested. Unadorned, it had a ton of flavour on its own. The beef fat fries were a delightfully indulgent side, but we could have done without the overseasoned broccoli, taken over the top with the addition of grated Grizzly Gouda.

Charbar

New York steak

It was too cold to enjoy the patio at the time of our visit, something we’ll be sure to rectify in the future.

Shiki Menya

At the time of our visit, Shiki Menya had the distinction of being the only ramen restaurant in Alberta that produced its own noodles (in Edmonton, you can now visit Nudoru for this). Even then, the incredible lure of the restaurant rested primarily with their limited quantity – Shiki Menya produces roughly 150 bowls per day, and shuts down after selling out. As a result, early birds are rewarded, and half an hour before they opened, we added to a line already ten deep.

We were grateful to be among the first group seated in the small restaurant. Though food made its way to the tables fairly quickly (turnover is key for them), the kitchen probably wasn’t yet firing on all cylinders, as our gyoza arrived shortly after our ramen. They had a nice char from the flattop, but they did need the additional flavour of the chili oil.

Shiki Menya

Gyoza

I was satisfied with the tonkotsu classic – the broth had great body, and I didn’t find my char siu too fatty. Tokotsu was one of the few options Mack could order because of his peanut allergy, and though it’s not his preferred broth, he really liked the springy noodles.

Shiki Menya

Tonkotsu classic

While I’m not sure our experience matched the hype around Shiki Menya, it’s another great addition to Bridgeland (just down the street from Blue Star Diner, which serves our favourite brunch in Calgary).

Pigeonhole

Several years ago, when Model Milk was all the rage in Calgary, we weren’t blown away by our visit. But Pigeonhole, Model Milk’s sister restaurant, was named Avenue Calgary’s number one new restaurant this year, so we had to give it a try.

Like Charbar, Pigeonhole encourages diners to share small plates. There was a lot of variety to choose from, but the menu as a whole was thoughtful, sophisticated, and refined. While that might leave an impression of pretentiousness, it was perhaps the opposite. Being a game night, some diners were even sporting Flames jerseys.

Service was professional and somewhat distant, but our server did steer us in the right direction. We learned firsthand why their charred cabbage is their runaway bestseller – the char lent a depth that I didn’t know was possible for cabbage, and the addition of some fat (in the form of mimollete cheese and aioli) made it sing. It’s possible this is the dish to be replicated in other forms at competitors – a charred napa cabbage salad can now be found at Charbar, for instance.

Pigeonhole

Charred cabbage

The airy ricotta dumplings, well seasoned, was ultimately our favourite dish, but Mack in particular was surprised by how much he enjoyed the creamy salt cod, combined with potato and andouille sausage. I also appreciated the smokiness of the pork stock base beneath layers of edamame, potato and egg.

Pigeonhole

Ricotta dumplings

Pigeonhole

Salt cod

Dessert was a bit of a miss, as the rice pudding didn’t live up to its name, as it was made up of puffed rice and cream. But it was a small blemish on an otherwise wonderful experience.

Pigeonhole

Rice pudding

The Beltliner

We’ve had our eye on The Beltliner for some time, a modern diner situated next to Central Memorial Park. We ended up having lunch there, but realized we would need to return again for brunch, as it was the more interesting menu (they do offer all-day brunch, but neither of us felt like eggs a second time that day).

Mack Male

Mack at The Beltliner

The clear sightlines, made possible with low booths and tables, made The Beltliner feel more open than other diners. They also had a takeout counter, which, considering the nearby residential and commercial tenants, makes sense to maximize their income potential (the nearby Boxwood has a similar model, one that doesn’t exist in the same way in Edmonton).

The Beltliner

Chicken club

We both enjoyed our meals well enough – Mack had a chicken club, while I chose their grilled cheese and a side of tomato soup. But we’ll be sure to return to try out some of their classic breakfast items next time.

Made by Marcus

Calgary’s independent ice cream game is strong – not only has Village Ice Cream expanded to three locations, but they’ve been joined by Made by Marcus, a vendor who started out a farmers’ markets but has just opened up a storefront shop on 17 Avenue.

The bench seating outside reminded us of Village Ice Cream’s Victoria Park location, but inside, they haven’t quite evolved yet to the same assembly line system, which to us meant more personalized service.

We shared a scoop of cookies and cream; our initial reaction was that the full fat nature of the Vital Greens cream really came through, delicious in all its indulgent glory. We also loved the chewy texture of the brown butter waffle cone.

Made by Marcus

Cookies and cream

Made by Marcus is a winner! They also sell ice cream in jars, as well as hand-dipped bars.

Himalayan

At first glance, Himalayan, tucked into a non-descript strip mall, seemed like a hidden gem. That is, until we walked inside and realized every table in the small, family-run Nepalese restaurant was booked solid. We would never have stumbled across it without the recommendation of our friends Dickson and Tammy, who suggested it.

Our server was patient and kind, walking us through the menu and recommending his personal and customer favourites. There are definitely similarities to other South Asian cuisines, but I know we didn’t manage to sample enough of the menu to really learn about some of the distinctions.

Himalayan

Fish Tareko

We loved the fish tareko, basa filets fried in a tasty chickpea batter. The Nepalese Takari was also a great dish, bathed in a creamy tomato based sauce with spinach, paneer (listed on the menu as cottage cheese) and potatoes. Our group was worried about the medium spice level, but by the end, found the heat to be just right.

Himalayan

Nepalese Takari

It’s a little off the beaten track, but Himalayan is well worth seeking out.

Native Tongues

I can’t help but think that Native Tongues is Calgary’s response to Edmonton’s wildly popular duo of Tres Carnales and Rostizado. The menu – a hybrid of tacos and family-style dishes – even seems to be a coincidental mash-up of the two.

The eclectic décor set the tone with its lived-in, distressed look and the prominence of the bar. We ended up seated at a large communal table, rubbing elbows with fellow diners in a way that felt very natural.

We shared the chilaquiles, their version of nachos. While we liked the even distribution of the toppings, the dish would have benefited from thicker chips; the deluge of ingredients soaked them through by the end.

Native Tongues

Chilaquiles

The tacos were probably the highlight for me (they can be ordered individually for your sampling pleasure) – the chorizo was great.

Native Tongues

Tacos

We also split the grilled whole trout, intrigued by the cooking method over charcoal. Unfortunately, the smoky flavour we were hoping for was undetectable, though the fish was cooked very well.

Native Tongues

Grilled whole trout

Our food arrived at a good pace throughout the meal, and I can imagine Native Tongues would be a great place to linger with friends over drinks and a continued flow of plates to share. It filled up even on a Monday night, so I can only imagine the line-ups on a weekend.

Ten Foot Henry

Ten Foot Henry might be my new favourite restaurant in Calgary. I managed to visit it twice in the last few months, enticed by their simple but chic decor, attentive service, and interesting share plates.

The name of the restaurant relates to a beloved comic strip character-turned Calgary arts mascot, and yes, you can meet the ten foot replica on your way to the restrooms. Lest you assume the dining room is decked out in comic book fashion – the space flows from the bar to the open kitchen, with subtle touches of greenery and soft lights.

Ten Foot Henry

Ten Foot Henry

The salt roasted potatoes were a revelation – seemingly simple, but perfectly executed and extremely addictive.

Ten Foot Henry

Salt roasted potatoes

Hangar steak was done equally well, served on a bed of charred romaine, and earlier in the spring, a concoction of whipped feta and fresh tomatoes on grilled toast was simple but delicious.

Ten Foot Henry

Hangar steak

It’s only a matter of time until we’re back in YYC – until then, I’ll be sure to keep a running tally of other restaurants we’ll need to hit up!

Culinary Highlights: 2014 Edition

I had a blast in 2014. Mack and I got married, had an amazing honeymoon, and leading up to it, we had our usual packed summer schedule. It was a wonderful year, with memories to last us a lifetime.

Here were some of my favourite food moments last year, starting off with some great local eats:

Tavern 1903

A part of me still doesn’t want to believe Tavern 1903 is closed for good; we loved the Korean fried chicken, truffled mac and cheese, and the desert shrub was my favourite cocktail in the city – RIP

Brunch at Elm's Dining Room

Although the Elm Café Dining Room is also no more, we loved their pop-up meals, which included buttermilk biscuits at brunch

The Parlour

I never thought I’d like, let alone enjoy, seafood on a pizza, but The Parlour makes magic happen with the Gamberi

Route 99

It was the year of the selfie – it seemed appropriate for Mack and I to take one at our favourite diner in the city

We did hit the road a few times before the honeymoon, with our annual winter sojourn to Calgary, a trip to Toronto for a friend’s wedding, and out to a nearby farm we’ve always been meaning to visit. We also had the privilege of attending Christmas in November at the Jasper Park Lodge.

River Cafe

It’s hard to believe it took us years to finally dine at Calgary’s River Café, but I guarantee we won’t wait that long before returning

Bymark

While in Toronto, our one splurge meal was at Mark McEwan’s Bymark – although the pan-seared halibut was perfect, it was the beluga lentils that spoke to me

Edgar Farms' Asparagus Festival

The return of locally-grown asparagus is what signals spring to us, so I’m happy we finally made it out to Edgar Farms’ annual Asparagus Festival last June

Sharon with the Olsons

It was a bit of a thrill for me to meet the Olsons at Christmas in November

Tourtiere

And though I probably didn’t cook as many new dishes this year as I have in the past, I can say that Anna Olson inspired me to make my first ever tourtiere. Even better, it turned out really well!

As usual, we had our share of events, starting with Eat Alberta in the spring, multiple What the Truck gatherings, our second 97 Street Night Market, and an ImMACulate Garden Party.

Eat Alberta 2014

It was my last Eat Alberta as a part of the organizing committee – it has been a blast!

What the Truck?! on 104 Street

What the Truck?! returned to 104 Street, in what was my favourite event of the year (the fact that I live on the street may have affected my choice)

97 Street Night Market

The 97 Street Night Market returned to Chinatown, and this year, included a food tour

Blink ImMACulate Garden Party

We partnered with the Hotel Macdonald for the ImMACulate Garden Party, a fundraiser for the Edmonton Humane Society

In early September, my sisters organized the best bridal shower for me. We started at Gail Hall’s loft for a cooking class, walked over to Tzin for an amazing meal, and ended with some bridal games.

Bridal shower

Making gnocchi at Seasoned Solutions

Sharon's Bridal Shower

We were lucky enough to receive two helpings of the bacon at Tzin

Bridal shower

The beautiful brides!

On September 27, 2015, I married my best friend. The only tears were happy ones (and mostly from me). To cap off a beautiful day, we had the most wonderful reception at RGE RD.

Mack & Sharon Wedding

Thanks to Blair and the team at RGE RD for a truly memorable meal (photo by Moments in Digital)

There’s so much more to say about the sights and sounds of Vietnam and South Korea that we experienced, but for now, these are the dishes that I’m still salivating over.

Honeymoon Part 1: Hoi An, Vietnam

Our homestay by the beach in Hoi An was a dream – where else would breakfast involve a regional dish as complex and delicious as cao lao?

Honeymoon Part 2: Ho Chi Minh City

Authentic bo bun hue in Ho Chi Minh City

Honeymoon Part 2: Can Tho

While in hindsight we should have included Hanoi in our itinerary, it was an experience to have pho for breakfast in Can Tho at 6 a.m.

Honeymoon

Japchae and fried rice at South Korea’s Namdaemun Market

Honeymoon

Mack will also never forget his favourite street dessert – an ice cream-filled waffle for $1

Though I’m still not certain where this year will take us, I can only hope it’s as delicious as 2014. Thanks for following along with me this year!

Calgary Mini-Break: All That’s Fit to Eat

Too often I put off my travel posts, which usually results in the good eats never being shared. Hopefully I’m reversing the trend now!

Last weekend, Mack and I headed down to Calgary for a much-needed break. Though the weather we encountered was more winter than spring, it was still nice to step away from our usual routine for a few days. While a dead car battery threw a wrench in some of our plans, we still managed to hit up more than a few places.

Coffee and Snacks

We’re always a little jealous of Calgary’s coffee scene – notably of Phil & Sebastian’s. It’s wonderful to find them all over the city – from mature neighbourhoods (Mission) to farmers’ markets (Symons Valley) to shopping centres (Chinook Mall), we’re never far from great coffee. We’re fortunate that District Coffee Co. in Edmonton now carries their beans, so it means we don’t have travel as far to pick up a bag!

Phil & Sebastian's

Pick-me-up from Phil & Sebastian’s

Analog Café by Fratello Coffee Roasters is one of our new favourites that opened last fall. It’s become a welcome haven on 17th Avenue after a day of shopping.

Analog Cafe

Afternoon coffee at Analog

As well, Analog carries pastries by Sidewalk Citizen Bakery, the darling of the baked goods scene in Calgary. We made the effort to check out the bakery’s main location, just off MacLeod surrounded by light industrial buildings. It was worth it for their flaky, buttery cheese sticks alone.

Sidewalk Citizen Bakery

Pastry case at Sidewalk Citizen Bakery

We also usually end up visiting at least one farmers’ market while in town, and this occasion was no different. Crossroads Market renovated a portion of their building to accommodate more food vendors – hopefully in the summer the stalls will be filled with more produce vendors, as I find the import-happy Chongo’s is a poor substitute. At any rate, we decided to share an order of poutine from Rocky’s Burger Bus, parked outside of the market, for lunch (one of the items that made Julie van Rosendaal’s 2014 list of 25 Best things to Eat).

Rocky's Burger Bus

Rocky’s Burger Bus

It was comforting to see the container of russets on the windowsill of the bus, and as expected, the fries tasted fresh and remained crispy in spite of its gravy bath. We did find the gravy to be on the salty side, but it was still pretty tasty.

Rocky's Burger Bus

Poutine from Rocky’s Burger Bus

Bensonhurst Pizza

Open for about a month, Bensonhurst Pizza joins an already crowded club of Calgary pizza joints. However, Bensonhurst distinguishes itself by not specializing on one type of pie, but offering a variety of styles, including Neopolitan, Sicilian, Californian, New York and Chicago. Bensonhurst is named after one of the neighbourhood’s in Brooklyn’s Little Italy, so the menu is rounded out by other American-Italian favourites – meatballs, lasagnas and the like.

We were advised that a 9-inch Chicago-style pizza ($18)  would be enough for two, and warned that it would take 35 minutes to make. I’m not sure it was worth waiting for. I’m not one for overly greasy pizzas, but this one ran the other end of the spectrum, with a crust so dry it reminded us of bread. As a result, it could have used much more cheese, if only to provide a bit more fat for flavour.

Bensonhurst Pizza

Chi-Town Classic with pepperoni and mushrooms

While we liked the concept of offering multiple pizza varieties, Bensonhurst might have to make sure the execution is better to encourage repeat business. Hopefully this was just a blip attributed to their newly-open status.

Briggs Kitchen & Bar

Briggs Kitchen & Bar wasn’t our first choice for brunch, but being walking distance from our hotel and having the option of reserving a table was enough to sway us.

With Top Chef Canada alum Xavier Lacaze in the kitchen, I hear that dinner seats are hard to come by, but on that morning, the tables were few and far between. The industrial chic room, with buffed concrete floors and dark metal fixtures lent themselves more to an after-dark dining experience, but we expected as much. Their brunch menu is small and more sophisticated than most.

Case in point, my classic breakfast ($11) was comprised of ratatouille, prosciutto and fried eggs. I would have preferred the addition of some varying textures (crispy prosciutto, perhaps?), and likely should have waited several moments before diving in – the cast iron skillet kept the dish piping hot.

Briggs

Classic breakfast

Mack’s breakfast perogies ($13) was the better dish, if not only for its unique nature and, well, a generous sprinkling of crispy bacon.

Briggs

Breakfast perogies

Of note, our server was excellent, chipper and upbeat, and made sure our coffee was always topped up. It was a different kind of brunch than what we’re normally used to in Calgary, but one we’d return to, particularly if our group required reservations.

River Café

I’m a little embarrassed that it took us this long to finally get to River Café, a restaurant consistently regarded among Calgary’s best. And I’m happy to say it didn’t disappoint.

Tucked in Prince’s Island Park, requiring a five minute walk from the nearest parking lot (or for us, a half hour walk from our hotel), River Café should be one of the examples cited in conversations about Edmonton’s river valley development. I recognize that our river valley poses a gradient challenge Calgary doesn’t face, but I was more than a little surprised that a room full of people, many dressed in their weekend finery, were more than happy to brave the cold for a cozy dinner.

The room’s décor, lined with vintage cross-country skis, snowshoes and canoes, borders dangerously close to kitschy, but it somehow manages to remain on the charming side of cabin chic. Between the roaring wood hearth and the unseen forno oven in the kitchen, we smelled like campfire by the end of the night, cementing the concept of River Café as an urban getaway.

River Cafe

Mack at River Cafe

The food was memorable, starting with a white gold burrata ($15) – a made-in-Calgary item that seems to be appearing on menus all over the city. It featured a healthy serving of the fresh cheese, served with pickled cucumber and rye crisps.

River Cafe

White Gold burrata

Our server sold the night’s feature so well that Mack and I both decided to order it. Heralding spring, the al forno roasted halibut and fiddleheads ($39) was perfectly cooked and was such a joy to eat. It’s rare that we select the same entrée, and even more uncommon that we don’t regret it.

River Cafe

Roasted halibut and fiddleheads

I enjoyed the dessert of s’mores ($3), and in particular the buttery house-made graham cookie.

River Cafe

S’more

The service was fantastic – besides an initial delay in taking our order, ended on a note so warm and familiar we wanted to return for brunch in the morning. Needless to say, we’ve earmarked at least one of our next meals in Calgary already.

It was definitely another successful food-filled mini-break!

Weekend in Calgary: Borgo and Market

Back in March, Mack and I headed to Calgary for the weekend. Though I recapped some of our eats on that road trip, I haven’t yet posted about our suppers.

Borgo Trattoria

Borgo Trattoria is the latest offering from the chef behind Capo, the acclaimed Italian restaurant that has since closed. Though I never had the chance to visit Capo, from what I gather, Borgo would have been its younger, hipper sister, not only because of its atmosphere, but also because of a less traditional menu that emphasizes share plates.

Reservations are only permitted between 5-6:30pm, but we didn’t mind, as it guaranteed us a table. If you aren’t an early eater, be prepared for a wait! The crowd in the lobby started forming halfway through our meal.

The interior was somewhat puzzling, a mash-up between a warm, Italian kitchen (the heart of the dining room was a brightly lit bar) and a nightclub. The techno beats streaming from the speakers didn’t seem to match the décor, and neither did the unnecessary projection of Fashion Television episodes on the wall above our heads. We hoped the food would stand up for itself, as opposed to relying on the sights and sounds to enhance the experience.

Borgo

Mack at Borgo

We were pleasantly surprised. The arancini rivaled Corso 32’s version, paired with creamy cheese fonduto sauce. It was hot, crispy and simply delectable. The sauteed mushrooms paired with crostini were okay, but it seemed the flavour relied heavily on the truffle oil.

Borgo

Aranini

Borgo

Mushroom crostini

The orichette, with broccoletti and smoked bacon, was a bit of a let down. It was missing something, though we did enjoy coming across the pops of bacon.

Borgo

Orichette with borccoletti and smoked bacon

The highlight of our meal was undoubtedly the veal meatball. It was a dash salty, but all components, from the Sunday sauce, tender meat, and perfectly executed creamy polenta made up a dish that almost had us licking our plates clean.

Borgo

Veal meatball and polenta

Service was consistent all the way through (dishes arrived lightning fast), until the end, when we waited quite a while to settle our cheque. Our server was doing the best that he could though – it was a packed house by that time.

We enjoyed Borgo as a whole, and now have our go-to dishes if we decide to return in the future.

Market

The next night, we were lured to Market, just two weeks old at the time. It was all over the Calgary blogosphere, benefitting from Executive Chef Geoff Rogers’s debut on the third season of Top Chef Canada in a few weeks time (though it has since been announced that Chef Rogers will be moving to Vancouver to join another TCC alum, Trevor Bird, at Fable Kitchen).

When we arrived, the room was buzzing. We also realized we were the only diners not to receive the memo of the dress code for the evening: four inch heels and miniskirts for the women, and the sneaker-suit jacket combo for men. Needless to say, we felt more than a little out of place, but thankfully, our server put us at ease. Still, it’s worth saying that between the nightclub atmosphere and attire at Borgo and Market, we were glad Edmonton restaurants haven’t picked up on this trend.

Market prides itself not only on sourcing local ingredients, but also on making as much from scratch as possible, including breads, cheese and cured meats. They even have an Urban Cultivator which allows them to maintain an indoor garden  year-round.  This was mirrored in the décor, with glass terrariums suspended from the ceiling. The rest of the interior was plain, if stark, entirely black and white and devoid of any colour.

The menu, skewed towards small plates, changes often to reflect the seasons, but at that time, emphasized comfort food. As a result, Mack and I couldn’t decide between dishes and ended up with four, much too ambitious given the richness of the items.

For balance, we chose to start with their greens. It was a pretty standard salad, but Mack especially enjoyed the pickled beets, and I loved the inclusion of fresh watercress.

Market

Greens

We had to order the charcuterie board as well, given it would best showcase some of the kitchen’s from-scratch preparations. The air-dried bison, duck bacon and chorizo were great, and the pickled vegetables and house-made mustard were nice touches.

Market

Charcuterie

The potato and onion dish was Mack’s favourite, with melt-away gnocchi, caramelized onions, and pops of crispy fried onions.

Market

Gnocchi

The lamb tart put us over the top. Though I’m not usually a fan of lamb sausage, the Ewe-Nique sausage tasted almost like pork, bursting with flavour. We didn’t initially take to the buttery crust, thinking it didn’t pair quite well with the savoury toppings, but it grew on us.

Market

Lamb tart

I can’t speak to the food since Chef Rogers has moved on, but I’m hoping they retain the philosophy behind their menu, and the food quality that we experienced that night. I’m looking forward to returning to see what seasonal treats are now in store!

Weekend in Calgary: Airbnb, Burgers and Brunch

To celebrate our anniversary, we headed to Calgary in early March. Calgary is our favourite weekend getaway, and allows us to dabble with a few more players in their ever-changing food scene. We had to cut our trip short this time around because of the snowpocalypse that Sunday, but still managed to fit in quite a few eats!

Airbnb

Our go-to accommodation in Calgary has been the luxurious Hotel Le Germain in downtown Calgary. It’s an easy way to pamper ourselves, and we’ve always had such a relaxing time in their serene and contemporary rooms.

This time, we couldn’t justify the cost for a two-night stay, and used this opportunity to explore booking through Airbnb. A site that connects travellers with property owners who have an extra room or unit to rent, Airbnb offers a plethora of short-term stay options. The apartments are often at a fraction of the cost of hotel prices, with the added benefits of a fully-furnished home, such as a kitchen or in-suite laundry. Friends of ours have raved about their experience using the site in New York and Paris; why couldn’t it work a little closer to home?

Although the Airbnb selection on Calgary wasn’t as extensive as those of larger municipalities, they still have more property listings than Edmonton. We narrowed down our search to private lodgings in central neighbourhoods, and eventually settled on the Clean Central Modern Apartment located in Mission, just south of the 17 Avenue entertainment district. The photos had been verified by Airbnb (they have since been updated by the property owner, so haven’t yet been re-verified), and the comments for the listing were very positive.

Communication with the property owner Christoph was seamless, and in most cases, I received an instantaneous response. We arranged to meet up on Friday afternoon to access the keys and a tour. In this way, it is a little less convenient than a hotel in terms of a fluid check-in time, but it was a relatively minor hassle when compared with the cost savings.

The one-bedroom unit appeared exactly as advertised, though some furniture of equal quality had been swapped in. Everything was extremely clean, and the building was quiet. Best of all for that particular weekend, since most of our dining experiences clustered around 17 Avenue, the location was spot-on.

AirBnB

Living room/kitchen

AirBnB

Bedroom

A bonus of this unit was its direct proximity to the Elbow River walking trails. We stretched our legs after arrival, and could see how this unit would be well-suited to a longer-term stay.

AirBnB

Beautiful walking trails

We wouldn’t hesitate to stay at this unit again, and I am happy to say that our first experience with Airbnb was a positive one! I’ve booked another Airbnb unit for an upcoming trip to Toronto, so we’ll see how that one works out!

Clive Burger

Burger bars seemed to trend up in Calgary last year, with several establishments opening up within months of one another. Clive Burger was one we had read about during our last jaunt south, so we headed there for lunch on Friday.

It’s an easy-to-miss storefront tucked onto 17 Avenue. The order counter and open kitchen was pretty standard, but the rest of the decor was modern, fresh and fun. I loved the pop of the orange chairs, the pendant lamps, and especially the wall of cartoon Clive and friends “documenting” their world travels.

Clive Burger

Interior

Clive Burger

Fun cartoon wall

The menu was fairly standard, similar to other burger bars in Edmonton (Burger Joint, Rodeo Burger, Five Guys among them). A hamburger was $6, with less than a dozen free fixins to choose from. Fries (fried in peanut oil) were $2.50 for a small.

After we ordered, we were given a buzzer that would notify us when our order was up. Mack noted that this was less personable than name calling, but it was definitely more efficient.

Clive Burger

Clive buzzer

The burgers themselves were nothing special. Mack found the patties to be disappointingly thin, but I found that to be on par with most other burger bars. Glaringly, Mack’s paid egg fixin was left off his order – he would have gone back to have it remade, but given we were both hungry, we just chalked it up as a loss.

Clive Burger

Burger

The star of the meal turned out not to be the namesake burger, but the chipotle-mayo Clive sauce that accompanied the crispy fries.

Clive Burger

Our spread

I’d drop by Clive again if I needed a greasy pick-me-up in the area, but it didn’t impress us enough to want to return again in a targeted way.

Analog Coffee

Two doors down from Clive Burger was Analog Coffee, Fratello Coffee’s new cafe on 17 Avenue. Similar to how Phil & Sebastian’s expanded after gaining popularity at the barracks location of the Calgary Farmers’ Market, Analog Coffee serves up coffee at the new CFM, and opened this standalone cafe at the end of 2012.

Analog Coffee

Analog Coffee

It’s a beautiful space, warm and rustic, with a beckoning bakery case filled with goods from La Boulangerie and Sidewalk Citizen.

Analog Coffee

Interior

We ordered a pour-over cold brew made with Fratello-roasted coffee (if course), but the best thing was the milk station also featured several different syrup flavours – I loved the opportunity to sweeten our drink to taste. Make sure you stop by if you are in the neighbourhood!

The Fine Diner

We hadn’t yet hit up The Fine Diner in Inglewood, so we planned to have brunch there on Saturday morning. When we arrived, we were a bit surprised that there wasn’t already a crowd in the lobby. It turned out The Fine Diner was blessed with a back room (which looked like it used to function as a private dining space) where brunch-goers were invited to sit and enjoy some coffee while they waited (until we have similar provisions for overflow, I’m not sure we can talk about Edmonton’s brunch culture in the same breath).

We had to wait about 40 minutes for a table, not bad considering the dining room was relatively small. The high-backed banquet seats reminded me of Dairy Lane, but the decor was cleaner and more sophisticated.

The Fine Diner

Hurrah for brunch!

The Fine Diner is notable for the fact that they cure their own bacon. So we both had to try the bacon for ourselves – I ordered the egg breakfast ($11), while Mack chose the bacon benny ($13).

The bacon didn’t disappoint – thick-cut, salty, with a hint of maple syrup sweetness. I did expect crispier potatoes though with the use of the term “hash browns” on the menu.

The Fine Diner

Egg breakfast

Mack liked his eggs benedict, with soft poached eggs, and a bread base that did not get soggy. The fresh fruit was also a nice touch.

The Fine Diner

Bacon benny

While we enjoyed The Fine Diner, I have to say we liked our most recent experience at Blue Star Diner just a bit better. But in the grand scheme of the brunch scene in Calgary, The Fine Diner is another good addition.

Crossroads Market

Our typical farmers’ market haunts in Calgary include the Kingsland Farmers’ Market and Calgary Farmers’ Market, but from Mary Ellen and Andres of Greens, Eggs and Ham, we heard about the Crossroads Market. Since we were dining in nearby Inglewood anyway, we took the opportunity to stop by after brunch on Saturday.

Given our major farmers’ markets are situated in public transit-accessible locations, it’s always a shift for me when approaching the Calgary markets, which are usually challenging to reach with any means of transportation other than a vehicle. The Crossroads Market seemed to be the same.

Because we new Greens, Eggs and Ham was a relatively new vendor at Crossroads, we expected to be greeted by farm fresh products. Instead, our first visual was a wall of VHS tapes.

Crossroads Market

VHS, anyone?

We quickly learned that Crossroads was in transition, renovating so it would resemble the other large markets in Calgary. Wooden beams framed some of the food stalls already, but the flea market aspects will remain. Maybe it’s just us, but it is one thing to have hand-made arts and crafts for sale, but antiques and collectibles didn’t seem like the best fit alongside farmers’ market vendors.

Crossroads Market

Flea market

Crossroads Market

Inside Crossroads

After wandering through the merchandise stalls, we encountered a shoddy food court packed with weekend traffic. We’re certain a few of the vendors may have been hidden gems (most of them seemed to be mom and pop-run ethnic eateries), but we weren’t looking for a meal.

Crossroads Market

Food court

To be honest, we didn’t take time to explore the protein or prepared food vendors, as we were more interested in produce that day; I was hoping to pick up some fruit to snack on the rest of the trip. We finally found a major produce vendor called Chongo’s at the back of the market, but to our disappointment, none of it appeared to be local.

Crossroads Market

Carrots the size of my arm

We know Calgary markets permit imported produce like bananas to be sold alongside BC apples, but this was ridiculous. None of the items that could have been grown in Alberta that can be cellared for winter sale did not appear locally sourced, and worse, most of it wasn’t labelled with a country of origin. I had to wonder whether the customers in the long lines thought the produce was local, simply because they were shopping at a “farmers’ market”.

Crossroads Market

Produce at Crossroads

On the Crossroads Market website, it looks like their summer and fall seasons see more local vendors present. But I can imagine it can be pretty confusing to the average consumer, and unless questions are asked, assumptions could be made about the true origin of the produce.

We’d have to return in the heart of the local growing season to really assess this market, but based on this experience, it will take more than a superficial makeover to convince us that this Crossroads truly a farmers’ market. I’d stick with Kingsland and the Calgary Farmers’ Market on any day or season.

I’ll be writing more about our dinner outings in a separate post!

Weekend in Calgary: Sushi Club, Zoolights, Vendome Cafe and Devonian Gardens

I had the pleasure of catching up with my friends Annie and Andres in Calgary over the weekend. It was nice getting to spend some time with them and getting to know their new neighbourhood a bit better!

Downtown Calgary

The view from their apartment

Sushi Club

Living in the walkable Kensington, Annie and Andres have the advantage being surrounded by a wealth of amenities, including restaurants serving easily a dozen different ethnic cuisines. They took me to one of their favourites on Saturday night – Sushi Club.

Sushi Club

Interior (with incredible chalk art!)

Non-descript, but extremely popular (given their reservation roster was completely full for the night), the small restaurant seems to pride itself on fresh product and creative rolls. Knowing my aversion to raw seafood, Annie and Andres were gracious enough to set aside their usual order in favour of several platters of cooked rolls. The server was extremely helpful, pointing out their most popular dishes, as well as her personal favourites. She was also great in explaining exactly how many pieces came with each order.

The odd cod roll was my favourite – a take on fish and chips with battered and fried cod and a pickle  encased in seaweed and sushi rice and drizzled with tartar sauce. The cod was hot and freshly fried, and paired with the tart pickle and salty seaweed really did work as a two-bite taste.

Sushi Club

Odd cod

The crunchy calamari jalapeno roll was similar, though also featured the additional kick of heat from the peppers.

Sushi Club

Calamari jalapeño roll

Annie’s favourite of Hawaiian shrimp katsu rolls were served last, likely because they could almost be mistaken as dessert sushi. Topped with crushed pineapple and a coconut cream, they were the sweetest and lightest roll I had ever tried, and were definitely unique.

Sushi Club

Hawaiian shrimp katsu rolls

Obviously, I didn’t try their sashimi, but Annie and Andres can vouch for the quality of the seafood. And based on our overall experience, I wouldn’t hesitate in returning again if I’m back in the neighbourhood.

Zoolights @ the Calgary Zoo

Annie thought it might be fun to be tourists after dinner and visit Zoolights at the Calgary Zoo. Every holiday season, the Zoo transforms into a winter wonderland after dark, lit up with over 1.5 million lights. Adult admission was $10, though because none of us had ever been, we didn’t really know what to expect.

It turned out to remind me very much of a cross between the Alberta Legislature at Christmastime (with holiday music being piped through the grounds), and a walkable Bright Nights, the festival that used to take place at Hawrelak Park in years past.

Although the temperature during the day was above zero, when night fell, the temperatures quickly did as well. Combined with high humidity, it ended up being a rather chilly night. Thankfully, organizers prepared for this, with various fire pits located throughout the walking trails, and some indoor reprieves from the cold. The cafe was also open, so we took advantage of that and picked up some warm drinks to accompany our walk.

Pit stop

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

One of the indoor greenhouses (aka warming places)

Most of the displays were grouped by theme. Although I didn’t have my sweetheart with me, “lovers lane” was a favourite, complete with Cinderella and her Prince Charming.

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Annie and Andres in lovers lane

Candyland was also a whimsical attraction, lined with coloured lollipops and candy canes.

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Of course, there were a number of animal-themed displays as well. Some of them were animated, but all of them made great photo opportunities.

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Swinging monkeys

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Pet giraffes

In addition to the light displays were other activities for kids as well – a carnival area, and even Santa’s Village, where children were able to video conference with Santa.

Zoolights @ Calgary Zoo

Top of the evening to you

In all, we were impressed by how expansive the sights were – it was a great way to spend an evening outdoors. It’s really a win-win – patrons get into the holiday spirit, and the Zoo is able to generate more income in the off season. Check it out if you’re in Calgary over the next few months – Zoolights runs until January 5, 2013.

Vendome Cafe

Hoping to find a brunch spot within walking distance of their Kensington home, Annie did some researching and came up with Vendome Cafe, about five minutes away from their place in the neighbourhood of Sunnyside. I’m always up for trying new brunch spots in Calgary, so Andres, Annie and I walked over on Sunday morning.

Upon entry, we found a well-worn, charming cafe, anchored by a wooden counter and towering chalkboard menus. But the quaint surroundings couldn’t make up for the experience as a whole.

We joined the queue (a typical sight for Calgary brunch spots), but were confused by the fact that half the patrons did not have coats on – was this line for ordering or for tables? We had to ask the counter attendant (there was no staff responsible for managing the line), who explained that guests were expected to snag their own table, then line up to order at the counter. When asked why not all people in the line seemed to follow this system, she responded that “They must not have been here before.” A posted sign reading “Please seat yourselves and order at the counter” would have alleviated all of the confusion. It was almost as if they convinced themselves that they were a cafe, when in fact, they were a full-service restaurant. The endemic theme of Vendome expecting patrons to learn the system without guidance continued with the restrooms – they were simply a cluster of unmarked doors.

We put in our order at the counter at 10:30, and no joke, our food did not arrive until 11:30. Most of the parties around us didn’t seem to mind the similar wait, chatting over their morning coffee, but had we known such a delay would be imminent, we would have chosen a different establishment. We did spy a couple who had clearly been here before – as they wisely ordered from the pastry case for a pre-brunch appetizer probably knowing their main meal would take some time.

The food was actually quite well prepared, though nothing would have made up for the lack of service and wait at that point. My open faced sausage and egg sandwich ($9.95) was tasty – the perfectly fried sunny side up eggs dressing up the focaccia, lettuce, tomato and breakfast sausage nicely. Annie and Andres both ordered the blue crab eggs benedict ($14.95), which had quite a kick for a breakfast dish, and again, featured perfectly poached eggs.

Vendome Cafe

Open faced sandwich

Vendome Cafe

Blue crab eggs benedict

The complete indifference to service was something I’ve never before experienced in a city ripe with some great brunch establishments. Given this wealth of fabulous brunch restaurants in Calgary (with Blue Star Diner being at the top of my current list of favourites), I’d be hard pressed to ever return to Vendome without good reason.

Devonian Gardens

Anytime I’ve been in Calgary over the past six months, I’ve tried to keep on top of when the Devonian Gardens was to re-open. It’s been under renovation for the last two years, and given it is such a green oasis in an urban setting, I was keen to see what the refurbished gardens would look like.

Devonian Gardens

I was finally able to check it out this weekend. The koi were still around, delighting children and adults alike.

Devonian Gardens

Koi

But the big change was how open it now was – instead of doors closing off the gardens from the connected mall, the food court just flows right into the gardens. Given the number of visitors that Sunday afternoon, perhaps this integration is helping to remind people that it does exist.

Devonian Gardens

Water feature

The garden is lined with seating, and we were sure on most weekdays would be packed with lunchgoers seeking to enjoy a bit of green on their break.

Devonian Gardens

Love the living wall

Thanks again to Annie and Andres for having me – I’m looking forward to my next visit already!

Calgary Birthday Round-up: The Big Cheese, Model Milk, Blue Star Diner and Una Pizza

Back in June, well-timed with my birthday, Mack and I took a mini-break in Calgary. I relish any opportunity to further explore their culinary scene (something impossible for visitors to keep up with), but I think we made a fair dent that weekend.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

The Big Cheese Poutinerie was voted “best poutine” in Calgary in the recent FFWD poll, so we thought it was worth checking out.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

They had quite a few more options than La Poutine, many with an intense variety of topping options, such as mac and cheese, Scottish curry and corn dogs. We ordered the most basic traditional (just curds and gravy) and the Notorious P.I.G. (Carolina pulled pork, double smoked bacon and
Italian sausage).

We brought our poutine boxes to their adorable backyard patio, fenced in and graced with trees, and dug in.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

Mack loves poutine!

The fries weren’t as crispy as we would have liked, and the Quebec curds didn’t squeak, but the Notorious P.I.G. was still darn tasty (and our favourite of the two). I liked the sweetness from the bacon, which helped offset the rest of the meat.

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

Traditional

The Big Cheese Poutinerie

Notorious P.I.G.

Model Milk

We’d heard some great things about Model Milk, which at the time, seemed like Calgary’s “it” restaurant. As a result, we were really looking forward to try their spin on Southern comfort food.

Model Milk

Look for the cow!

We loved the name upon hearing its origins – Model Milk is an homage to the building’s history as Model Dairy. Some of the plant’s fixtures, such as the viewing window into the bottling area, were preserved in the conversion to a restaurant. As a result, the dining room presents as a gorgeous marriage of the industrial with rustic. The pendant lights above were a lovely touch above our table, but the best seat in the house was undoubtedly at the chef’s table beneath a skylight.

Model Milk

Interior

Model Milk

Chef’s table

Q Water (a water filtration system sold as an alternative to imported bottled water) seems to be all the rage, but the administration of it (i.e., the cost) varies greatly between restaurants, to the point where it’s entirely up to the diner to clarify. I was reminded of this at Model Milk, when we accidentally ended up with pricey Q Water because I didn’t ask when given the choice between “sparkling” and “still”. The tab? $3 a person for water.

Model Milk

Q Water

Their menus had similar numbered iterations to what we were familiar with at Three Boars, and similarly, although there were a few vegetarian options to choose from, the chefs appeared to like all incarnations of meat.

The veal croquette starters ($12) were crispy without being oily, and we loved the texture and the interplay of sweet and spicy in the apple chili glaze.

Model Milk

Veal croquettes

My dish, named pig ($28), was quite the showstopper. Aptly put, tenderloin was wrapped in sausage then wrapped in bacon, and presented so moist and tender that it literally fell to pieces when sliced. Even more a compliment to the chef, it didn’t leave me with a fatty mouth feel. I also enjoyed the refreshing sides of crushed edamame and mint and a pea, celery and apple salad.

Model Milk

Pig

Mack liked his halibut cheeks ($27), prepared with a crunchy potato crust and a creamy tartar sauce. The underlay of potatoes were a bit of a hit and miss – some were well cooked, while others were hard and glassy.

Model Milk

Halibut

Given the menu changes so frequently, I’d be hard pressed to say what’s for dinner at Model Milk today, but based on our experience, I’d love to be surprised on our next visit!

Blue Star Diner

Opened by the same folks behind Dairy Lane, we knew we would be in good hands at Blue Star Diner, a relatively new restaurant in the quaint community of Bridgeland.

The crowd outside told us we were in the right place, and though it was a cold and drizzly out, we didn’t mind the half hour wait, tempered by the offer of hot coffee to sip.

Blue Star Diner

A typical Calgary brunch line-up

Once inside, we marvelled at the charming interior – baby blue paint, crisp glass display shelves, funky chalkboard walls, and perhaps my favourite accent – framed photos of the farmers Dairy Lane sources from.

Blue Star Diner

Interior

Local was definitely all over the menu as well – I really appreciated that the names of producers were highlighted prominently. The newest producer to join the ranks, Broek Farms, was even profiled on a tabletop card.

The servers were friendly and efficient, though Mack’s one small complaint was that the coffee refills petered out after our plates were delivered (his litmus test for brunch service). But in a way, the food more than made up for that minor misstep. My order of stuffed French toast ($12.75) was one of the best brunch dishes I had in recent memory, an irresistible combination of Sylvan Star gruyere, mushrooms, herbs and hollandaise.

Blue Star Diner

Stuffed French toast

Mack’s Broek pulled pork eggs benedict ($15) featured perfectly soft poached eggs, and pork that kicked back and complemented the tangy hollandaise.

Blue Star Diner

Pulled pork eggs benedict

Though I have quite a few diner favourites in Calgary, Blue Star Diner is now hovering near the top. It most definitely deserves another visit the next time we’re in the city.

Una Pizza + Wine

We had enjoyed our meal at Ox & Angela earlier this year, so wanted to try its brother establishment with an equally good reputation, Una Pizza.

At 5:30pm on a Sunday, it was already hopping, and we snagged just about the last of the open seats. We elected to sit outside to drink in the rays, given it was the only sunny break that entire weekend. With its vantage of 17 Avenue however, it also made a great people watching spot.

Una Pizza & Wine

On the patio

Una Pizza is actually open until 1am every day, quite a feat and commitment by the owners to ensure quality late night dining exists in Calgary. The menu offered quite a range of non-pizza dishes, many with a Spanish flair, but we stuck with the pizza side of things.

Una Pizza & Wine

Two-tiered pizza

I chose the mushroom pizza ($20), layered with roasted criminis, smoked mozzarella, truffle oil and arugula. I could taste the time taken to cook down the mushrooms, and the flavour combination was good enough to inspire me to replicate it at home.

Una Pizza & Wine

Mushroom pizza

Mack’s red pizza to my white featured san marzano tomato sauce, prosciutto, provolone and arugula ($18). He noted the crust was much different than Edmonton’s go-to independent pizza joint, Famoso, firmer, crispier and not wood fired. That day, it really hit the spot.

Una Pizza & Wine

Prosciutto pizza

We loved the vibe of Una – fun and vibrant, it reminded us of Tres Carnales. Though the food took a little longer than expected (we had ordered just after the small party next to us, but by the time our food arrived, they had already finished their meal), Una is the type of place where you linger over a glass of wine and catch up. We’ll be back.

A much belated thanks to Mack for a great birthday weekend!

Calgary Steak-Out: South St. Burger, Kensington Riverside Inn, Knifewear and Telus Spark

Besides exposing us to some of Calgary’s best restaurants, our YYCSteak Tour also inevitably allowed us to explore some of the other things our southerly neighbour has to offer.

South St. Burger

On our way down to Calgary, we decided to stop at Crossiron Mills for lunch. I had spotted South St. Burger the last time we were there, and this seemed like an opportune time to finally give it a try.

South St. Burger

South St.

We were initially lured by their use of fresh Spring Creek Ranch beef, though the ability to customize each of our burgers wasn’t overlooked as well (something that seems to be all the rage at present, with chains like Five Guys and Rodeo Burger picking up steam in Edmonton).

The system was very similar to what you would encounter at Harveys – customers order and pay first, then are shuffled through a line to have your burger designed. South St. offers almost thirty different toppings, including several different mayos, relishes, and even a mango chutney.

South St. Burger

Toppings

I ended up just choosing their burger combo ($9.29( while Mack upgraded to the cheeseburger combo ($10.29). Although we liked the size of the patty (much thicker than Five Guys), if they hadn’t made the claim of using fresh patties, we wouldn’t have known otherwise – they appeared to us to have been cooked from frozen. On the side, I have to say I enjoyed the onion rings, even if Mack didn’t.

South St. Burger

Our meal

South St. Burger

Burger

As a whole, South St. wasn’t disappointing, but it also wouldn’t be worth a detour either.

Kensington Riverside Inn

Tourism Calgary arranged for us to stay in the Kensington Riverside Inn, a marked departure from our usual high-rise digs in the core. It was a nice change though, as the charming room featured a semi-private patio area, turndown service, and a coffee tray in the morning.

Kensington Riverside Inn

Kensington Riverside Inn

There were also certain advantages to residing in the Kensington neighbourhood. One was its proximity to one of Calgary’s most bustling cafes, Higher Ground (coincidentally, it turned out one of our fellow YYCSteak companions, Dan Clapson, was the coffee shop’s manager).

Higher Ground

Breakfast at Higher Ground

The other was how close we were to the Bow River and its waterside trails. Although the blustery conditions didn’t make it an ideal day for a stroll, we still took some time to explore what the area had to offer.

We took some interest in a pedestrian bridge that was still under construction at that point, called the Peace Bridge. Due to cost overruns and its somewhat avant-garde designs (one local told us that to them, it resembled one of those “Chinese finger traps”). The bridge opened on March 24, 2012 – I can’t wait to cross it the next time we’re in Calgary!

Peace Bridge

Peace Bridge

On our way back to the hotel, we also stumbled across this incredible bird house tree (dubbed the “Urban Bird Timeshare”) in the Sunnyside neighbourhood. What a unique and lovingly-crafted landmark!

Whimsical Tree

Urban Bird Timeshare

Knifewear

We had intentions to do some window shopping in Inglewood, but it turned out most of the boutiques and culinary shops were closed on Mondays. Thankfully, Knifewear, the store that we really wanted to check out, was open!

Knifewear

Knifewear

Specializing in Japanese knives, we had only heard great things about Knifewear. Mack and I have been meaning to get a “real” knife for some time, but knew we wanted to wait until we could get down to Calgary.

The salesperson that assisted us was knowledgeable, and asked us some probing questions so that she could better recommend us a knife that would suit our needs. The best part of the shopping experience was actually getting to try them out! There were tomatoes and potatoes available on cutting boards so customers could get a firsthand feel of what the knife was like to hold and chop with.

Knifewear

Trial station

We ended up with an American-style factory-made knife – I had wanted some familiarity with what we currently use. And after using it for a number of weeks, I can say I am more than happy with the purchase – and I know where I’ll be heading when we need to further upgrade our collection!

Knifewear

Our knife!

Telus Spark

Tourism Calgary also wanted to provide us with an opportunity to check out one of their newest attractions – the brand new Telus Spark, their rebuilt space and science centre. Located in the same area as the Calgary Zoo, there’s no doubt this will be a high-traffic area for visitors to the city.

Telus Spark

Telus Spark

Although the HD digital dome theatre is forthcoming, we were still able to get a good sense of the facility from the permanent galleries that were complete. Without a doubt, the biggest impression it left on us was just how hands on it was.

Telus Spark

Erosion at work

There were a countless number of opportunities for patrons to “play”, including the Being Human, Earth & Sky and Energy and Innovation galleries. One example in the latter space that Mack and I particularly enjoyed was a wall where we could learn how much energy common household appliances would use when left plugged in and idle (for example, a coffee maker uses 305 watts per year).

Telus Spark

How can you prevent brownouts?

The galleries also featured areas where patrons could leave their mark by commenting on an exhibit or answering a posted question. It was neat to see the collected responses – some very heartfelt and personal.

Telus Spark

The wishing tree in the creative kids museum (for children aged eight and under)

The busiest gallery by far during our visit was the Open Studio. It was definitely made with the twenty-first century child in mind, with most of the activities being driven by digital technology. Many of the young patrons we saw were engrossed in animating their own scene – with options to do this digitally, with figurines and on paper.

Telus Spark

Painting with sound!

As a building overall, Telus Spark also has some great function space. Theatres aside, the 10,000 square feet atrium is wonderfully open, with high ceilings and built-in projection, sound and lighting systems. We could see it being used for Pecha Kucha nights in Calgary.

Telus Spark

Atrium

Telus Spark has also introduced some great events to try and engage unconventional audiences. Their once a month adult-only nights turns the facility into an evening destination, with a DJ, bar, and time and space for adults to get in touch with their childlike curiosity. It’d be neat to see something like this in Edmonton (though I’m not sure the expansion of the Telus World of Science will get us quite there).

In all, it was neat to see what’s possible with a brand new science centre. Check it out the next time you’re in Calgary!

Calgary Steak-Out: Rouge

In addition to commemorating the Stampede’s 100th Anniversary this year, Calgary also co-holds the title of Cultural Capital of Canada in 2012. As a result, Tourism Calgary is seeking different ways of marketing their city, including how to highlight their burgeoning food scene. So for two days in February, Tourism Calgary invited several food bloggers to join them for “a new take on steak”, showcasing how five local restaurants are interpreting the old standard of meat and potatoes. Mack and I were fortunate enough to be a part of this group (which included Calgary bloggers Julie van Rosendaal, Gwendolyn Richards and Dan Clapson), and took part in a junket that saw our accommodations and meals covered. It was a first for both of us, and while we acknowledge that we no doubt received special treatment (which colours the experience in a way that no average dinner could live up to), the trade-off in access to the chefs and behind-the-scenes exposure made it worthwhile. Thanks to Tourism Calgary for the opportunity!

We ended the YYCSteak Tour at the most formal of the restaurants we dined in that weekend, Rouge. Located in a historic house in the central neighbourhood of Inglewood, Rouge is known for its celebration of  seasonal ingredients and exquisite wine pairings. In fact, two years ago, it was named one of the S. Pellegrino World’s 100 Best Restaurants.

Chef Paul Rogalski’s French-style cooking techniques and commitment to local producers reminded me very much of Chef Blair Lebsack. Both have such deep respect for farmers that a conversation with them reminds you that sourcing locally can be the norm and not the exception. We were fortunate that Chef Rogalski was able to sit down and join us for the entire dinner that night and share some of his insights (and of course, introduce each course!).

It was clear that Chef Rogalski had put a lot of thought into his take on steak, so much so that we weren’t getting just one interpretation, but four. The first was a steak tartar, dressed with Rouge’s signature beet paint and an incredible accent of creamy, thick egg yolk that had been cooked in an immersion circulator. Mack thought there could have been more crostini, however.

Rouge

Steak tartar

Before the second dish arrived, we were told that we would be having shabu-shabu. I really wasn’t expecting the slice of shaved beef,  horseradish agar gel and mushroom terrine with an herb-infused elk consommé that we were presented with. I didn’t enjoy the texture of the terrine, and the beef was actually quite difficult to eat in that shallow bowl, so it was not my favourite course. That said, it was easily the most elegant take on shabu-shabu I’ve ever had!

Rouge

Shabu-shabu

My favourite course was the lamb two ways: a cut of sirloin and braised lamb bound together with lentils. The latter was particularly memorable, with perfectly prepared lentils enriched with bites of tender, shredded lamb.

Rouge

Lamb two ways

Then, perhaps the most elegant plate of steak that weekend, served with a foie gras and bone marrow spring roll and a salsify bean puree. Not captured in the picture below was the most delicious rosti – it only made sense that their potato component would be equally compact but delicious.

Rouge

Steak and spring roll

It should be said that Manager Andy MacDonald did an amazing job pairing wines with each course, but because we were departing for Edmonton immediately after that dinner, we didn’t really indulge all that much. On another occasion, we would have been happy to fully partake, but we know from Gwen that the pairings were enjoyable!

Rouge

A thumbs up from Gwen!

The kitchen even had something sweet for us to end with – a bee pollen macaron with lemon cream.

Rouge

Macaron

Although we appreciated the experience at Rouge, it was actually our least favourite of the YYCSteak visits. I still can’t quite put my finger on it, but it probably had to do in part with the relative formality of the restaurant compared with the others (I’m finding that I am definitely gravitating more to the casual upscale form of dining as of late). So although there is a time and place for such proper meals, I will admit that Rouge wouldn’t be our first choice on future trips to Calgary.

Still, many thanks to Chef Rogalski and the rest of the staff at Rouge for their generosity and hospitality – it did help round out our perspective of the Calgary steak scene.

Rouge
1240 8 Avenue SE, Calgary
(403) 531-2767