When my dad was the parade marshal at the Calgary Stampede, he took us to the best steak houses in the city. We all know about Alberta beef – it’s the pride of menus across Canada – but, today, there is so much more happening on the Calgary dining scene: a confluence of Rocky Mountain proteins and Prairie ingredients; a new wave of hothouse and greenhouse; and a new generation of culinarians with the training and respect to harmonize flavours but maintain a philosophy of “integrity of ingredients.”
Still, we crave Alberta beef. Apparently, that’s the first question tourists ask: “Is this Alberta beef?” Well, when you’re in Alberta, chances are the answer is “Yes.” If you’re looking for a great steak, a better question is: “What is the feed: grain, corn or grass?” Of course, the handling and the cut are also essential. Not to be discounted, though, is one’s own personal taste. How we like our beef determines the cut we should order and the degree to which that cut should be cooked. Anything with more marbling needs the extra cooking time for the fat to dissolve into the meat and give it flavour.
My quest for Alberta beef begins at Saltlik, where they have trusted the same butcher for the past 18 years. Here, the beef is corn- and grain-fed, and is certified Angus beef, dry-aged for a minimum of 30 days. Highly recommended to me is the skirt steak with veal jus, sliced perfectly thin along the grain. Cherry tomatoes and shredded Parmesan cheese on top melt into the meat for a mouthwatering sensation. Vintage Chophouse uses grain-fed Canadian prime beef, wet-aged for 35-40 days. Our server asks us what we like, advises which cut we should order and the ‡ point to which it should be cooked to suit our preference. The tenderloin is succulent, and while the rib eye is also explosively flavourful, they are two distinctly different taste experiences. I have been told that the Calgary Flames hang out at The Living Room. One reason might be the steak. Rarely is a restaurant able to tell us the true origin of its beef, but when it is organic and grass-fed, as this beef tenderloin from Diamond Willow Farm is, it’s a source of pride as well as a quality that beef enthusiasts appreciate. This is the steak that ignites my Pavlovian response. With a touch of port gastrique and demi-glace, it has robust flavour and silky tenderness.
Calgarians are known for their laid-back attitude; it’s like one big small town, with a preference for cozy and comfortable. Vin Room is a casual wine bar from which to sample two-ounce pours from the largest installation of Enomatic machines in Canada. Seventy wines by the glass, and wine-inspired cocktails “made with love and bad intentions,” represent boutique wineries that might not be tasted elsewhere. Chef and sommelier collaborate for “flights and bites” of tapas to complement the wines, such as lobster nachos, Manchego and olive polenta fries, and panko-crusted eggplant chips.
People, and restaurants, are becoming more adventurous in their culinary pursuits. “This is the Food Network generation,” says Rouge chef Michael Dekker. “People as a whole are coming around to food, where it comes from, how it was produced and how we made it.” Menus are reflecting that. At Rouge, located in Calgary’s historic Inglewood, surf and turf is anything but traditional. Char-grilled tenderloin with grainy mustard foam is topped with freshly shaved black truffles and aromatic white truffle oil; a hint of cognac-flambéed natural jus and a white truffle and herb risotto sits underneath. This is paired with seared local steelhead trout, sautéed vegetables and some leek oil for a bit of colour and richness. It’s about taking the ordinary and reintroducing it with new possibilities. And, just when I thought I had twined my fork through every known pasta dish, Teatro braises veal cheeks with fresh thyme, tomato and orange gremolata in an artisanal egg pappardelle imported directly from southern Marches with a uniquely fresh texture. I have never tasted such delicious pasta in all my life.
Over the mountains and neighbouring B.C. is the Pacific coast, from which fresh seafood becomes part of the regional cuisine. At Catch, the flavour profiles on each dish enable us to experiment with ingredients rather than mask them. Crab cakes are accompanied by avocado with cumin and coriander; yuzu and citrus mint; mango and jicama; and each taste reveals a different expression. A Washington State oyster placed on charcoal is presented within a bowl cupped in glass. When the cloudy glass is lifted, hickory smoke rises above the oyster and a treasure trove of sea salt, star anise, togarashi and cardamom is revealed. Inventive and multisensory, these dishes pique our imagination as much as our tastebuds. The trend seems to be toward the sea, so Alloy offers a different fish feature every night, from Hawaiian spearfish to Icelandic wolf fish. Seared pistachio-crusted sea scallops in sweet-corn cream with thin yam crisps, and double-smoked bacon-wrapped prawns with fresh chunks of melon in rocoto dressing show how much flavour we can have without fat calories.
In the heart of downtown, the boutique Le Germain hotel has recently opened its doors. Modern, convenient and relaxed, it is the most chic and comfortable launching point in the city. Within Le Germain, Charcut is fast becoming the talk of the town. Charcuterie, rotisserie and daily sandwich boards – and, for those in a hurry, a bag of warm cookies – are flying out of the kitchen to the urban hip who have discovered this new spot. What is most exciting is that, in addition to the wine selection, there is an equally large beer cellar. CharCut’s beer steward suggests two-ounce flights of beer in mini pilsner glasses to accent or complement the food, which it does. Presented with sophistication, there are nine local beers on tap, plus nine Oregon wines on tap from which to choose. The local beer that we sample, from light to smoky, is from Big Rock Brewery. I’ve been told that if I don’t like beer, it is because I haven’t yet tasted the right one. Shortly after my lunch at CharCut, having tasted the “right one,” I’m on my way to Big Rock Brewery. Alberta barley is sought after around the world. At Big Rock, they receive the earliest selections and, combined with their pure water, Alberta honey and Yacima Valley hops, their cold-filtered brews are clean and refreshing – and there are no additives or preservatives used. Tasting tours also inform the best pairings with food, which is becoming a very fashionable event.
A getaway in the middle of the city, River Café, located in Prince’s Island Park, is a favourite among Calgarians. Supporting regional and local purveyors, farmers and coastal fishermen, it has always been at the forefront of the local food movement – one of the most thorough champions of it. Dining in this wooden chalet, in the middle of the park, enjoying Olson Farm’s bison strip loin with maitake mushrooms, stone-ground polenta and an Okanagan cherry relish, is wonderful – everything here is organic and fresh, from its location to its construction to its function. Apart from being delicious, my lunch here is as educational as it is nutritional.
A getaway in the Rockies is, of course, something every Canadian must experience. Here, we trade in the skyscrapers for the mountains. More elite athletes live in Canmore than anywhere else in Canada – but it’s not about being fit; it’s about being active. The Metropolitan Grande Rockies Resort is “city chic in the Rockies.” Every amenity is cared for, every view is spectacular. While it is not uncommon to see a bear on the golf course, hiking through this wildlife corridor, we see elk, deer, mountain sheep, a moose and bones from a cougar kill. It is an awesome experience to be in this pristine environment, if only to reconnect to our land. At The Juniper Hotel & Bistro, the view from the dining room, at the base of Mount Norquay, is one of a kind. The panorama – the only eatery in the area with an unobstructed view of Mount Rundle and Sulphur Mountain – is overwhelming. Diverting from Rocky Mountain cuisine, here they pay respect to the movement of food along the first peoples’ trading routes in a “crossroad cuisine.” The first restaurant in Banff National Park to be “Ocean Wise,” they focus on game and vegetables. It is also the only hotel in Alberta that is powered 100 percent by wind energy.
The most holistic and rustic mountain cuisine experience is at the Baker Creek Bistro, not too far from Lake Louise. Oak-crusted smoked rainbow trout cakes, elk carpaccio and bison short ribs braised with cherries, local beer and star anise – we taste the soul of the food enabled by the affinity of the chef. This is Pan-Canadiana, a respect for indigenous ingredients and the training to prepare it beautifully.
In Alberta, the specialties include high-quality lamb, beef, bison, elk, local cheeses, canola oils, wild berries and nuts, mushrooms and alfalfa and clover nectar honey. Most of the great chefs are alumni of Southern Alberta Institute of Technology (SAIT) culinary programs, where they know that Canadian cuisine is about what is happening on the farms and how the chefs are keeping the integrity of the food. It’s about more than merely a “hundred-mile menu” because there are the realities of the climate to consider. Calgary chefs are maintaining a connection to farmers in a way that other cities are not, and the quality of food is much higher than what it used to be. “There are a lot more interesting products available,” says Sal Howell, owner of River Café. “It’s about the environmental impact, about other choices, and I think we have better choices.”