Foodie Weekend - A Calgary Report (Warning - long!)
My best friend says i blabber on too much, and has me in the habit of warning everyone if i plan on writing something longer than 4 paragraphs, so consider that ample warning.
Anyway, i had a good friend of mine and his wife coming into town for the weekend from Edmonton. They both are really into food, and were looking forward to experiencing some of the best of what Calgary had to offer. I thought what we did might be of interest to some people.
I find this question seems to come up for me a lot. "I have a friend in town, where should i take them to get a quintessential Calgary experience?". Heck, we've even endlessly debated this on CH as well. So i gave it some thought, and this what ended up happening.
I started early - they were due in Friday, but i was so pumped up about an entire weekend centred around food, that i wanted to get an early start. Thursday evening, I met my former roommate at my favorite place for sushi in town, Blowfish. I love this place - the head chef, Tomo, has a great combination of classic skills with creativity and innovation. Having just gotten back from an extended trip to Japan, i find my standard for quality is quite high at the moment. This is the place that satisfies me. I always go Omakase - and get a great combination of cooked dishes and raw fish. Highlights included a crab and salmon tataki salad, tempura scallop with orange and fish roe, and ocha o zuke, along with a wonderful sesame creme brulee. There was a few standard dishes included as well. (nigiri, maki, another appy). Probably a bit too much food, but at it was phenomenal value for money. His ocha o zuke, is better than any that i had in Tokyo. It is that good.
Friday afternoon, my friends show up a bit late. It's mid afternoon, and his wife has decided with a fussy baby in tow, to pass on dinner. So i order some Vogglio's pizza for her before we head out - a Vogglio's Supreme, and a Mexicana. It passes with flying colors.
My friend and I wanted a different fine dining experience - something that would give us the opportunity to sample a wide variety of dishes, and drink a lot of wine. I considered Rouge, Divino, and a few other establishments, but had been offered the opportunity to take part of a "western omakase" - a tasting menu at ei8ht that just seemed too good to pass up. Now i've been to ei8ht a couple of times - the first time was decent, the second time was excellent. And the opportunity to have a tasting menu not bound by the limits of a menu that needs to have a more universal appeal was something that appealed to both of us. We didnt want an experience where every dish was safe - we were looking forward to some adventerous eating.
The overall experience was amazing. Definitely a meal that inspired us to try new approaches to food in our own cooking. While im not going to recount 10 courses and the wines to match, there were some definite highlights (almost all protein)! There was a seared scallop dish paired with braised pork belly that was spectacular. Perfectly cooked scallop, with amazingly flavoured, textured, braised pork belly - my favorite dish of the night. There was a sablefish dish that redefined black cod for me. Usually i have it miso-marinated, but it was such a dish with clear flavours and texture that it gave me a new appreciation of the fish itself. A seared tuna salad demonstrated the freshness of ingredients, and lamb three ways included an amazing piece of lamb tenderloin - a first for me. Dessert was amazingly innovative that took into account textures, smells, flavours, and a balance that is rare in desserts. With desserts utilizing thyme, root vegetables, they were definitely odd, and yet, surprisingly tasty.
Now i wont claim every dish was perfect - it wasnt. But every dish was well conceived, and executed with clear purpose. It was such an enjoyable experience from a food, service, and creativity standpoint that my friend put it in his top 5 meals ever. The only real let down was a limited by the glass menu of wines to pair with some of this great food. Some of the pairings were spot on, but some fell quite flat. They never ceased trying to find the right wine when we werent happy though - definitely something i appreciated. But i'd like to see a better wine list by the glass.
Saturday morning came surprisingly quickly, and with baby in tow, we headed off to Manuel Latrouwe for a pastry. My friends have travelled extensively in Europe, and they were eager to try pastries that i had hyped to the point of calling them my favorite pastries in Alberta - as good as one's i've had in Europe. We arrived around 8:30am - and the place was packed. Restaurants were picking up bread orders, and a lot of people were in line to start their day out right! Who would've known, as i don't usually make it there until 11am at the earliest :)
We ordered a chocolate bun, a brioche, two vanilla croissants, and a couple of loafs of bread for later. And the pastries were as good as advertised. At that time of morning, they are still coming fresh out of the oven (after an appropriate cooling period). My brioche was still warm, and wonderful. Definitely a huge plus!
Up next was the Currie Barracks Farmer's Market - a overly commercialized, yuppie-centric "farmers" market that i love for our morning cup of coffee. It drew comparisons to Granville Island - something that never really occured to me. My Sunday ritual usually includes a trip for groceries and my Phil and Sebastien coffee, so i definitely wanted them to try their coffee. 3 perfect cups of coffee later, we were happily wandering around. We had decided earlier we'd rather just buy some nice ingredients and cook at home, rather than go to Capo for dinner, so we picked up groceries while we wandered.
After shopping (with a nice long side trip to J Webb for some underrated, hard to find Burgundies and Cotes du Rhone), we were off to Tazza for lunch. Now i've said enough about Tazza on here, but needless to say, i think it's some of the best value food in Calgary. Fresh, homemade ingredients, everything is made with love. Great great food, at amazing prices. We split a Chicken Shistawouk and a platter that made for a great light lunch for 3. If you havent tried it here yet, do yourself a favour and give it a try. I promise you won't be disappointed.
After an evening of cooking and more wine, our last meal is Sunday brunch. Rather than go with standard western breakfast fare (of which i believe Edmonton does a better job), we went to Pfantastic Pannenkoek House for... Pannenkoek. Used to lining up at 11am or noon, i expected things to be much quieter at 9:00am. Boy was i wrong. Who are all you people that get up at this crazy hour!? :)
PPH is definitely one of my favorite places for breakfast in town. It has a wide enough variety to please everyone, and their savoury pannenkoek are excellent - well balanced, large servings of pancake with the right amount of toppings. Just greasy enough to cut through a hangover haze, but not a Galaxie Diner/Nellie's Belly Buster type meal that knocks you out of commission for the rest of the day.
Anyway, this was the itinerary that i chose to highlight some of the best parts of Calgary cuisine. There are a lot of other options would have been excellent as well, but for me, these are the places that are both excellent, and yet different enough that it's a bit of a new experience for many visitors to our city. Sorry for the length :)
That wasn't too long. Maybe because it was interesting.
A good sampling.
I guess I have to try Tazza again. We DID have a bad experience.
Superb report Yen! I also like how your exposed your guests to so many parts of the city, urban and suburban. And high and lower end.
Thanks everyone - im glad it was well received. I hope it will be useful to some.
Sharonanne - normally, i wouldnt stump this hard for a place, but i have a special spot for places of character, family run, that try and maintain high quality along with low prices. Im disappointed you had a bad experience - but i certainly have at most places over a period of time. I think it's understandable. However, next time you're in, find Youssef (he's the tall, big linebacker - you can't miss him), let him know you had a bad experience last time and i insisted you try it again. Honest feedback works surprisingly well in the industry. At any restaurant i have tried a place a second time after a bad first experience, I invariably let them know i am there for a second try. They typically appreciate the second effort, and work extra hard to ensure you have a great experience the second time. That is, if they are actually a restaurant worth visiting.
Hart50 - Do give it a try - i think it's very underrated in terms of the food put out. If you arent too picky, one trick i have found to be of use when dining out is to ask what "chef recommends this evening". This worked for me at eight (and many other places as well). They generally tend to be very honest - and like everyone, appreciate being given some input. Now i know some people think this is an excuse to clear out yesterday's shellfish, but at establishments with a good reputation, they arent willing to risk it for selling some old stock. One bad review can cause them way more loss of business than some spoilage ever will.
John - high and low, urban and suburban is what i consider the essence of Calgary to be. We arent some fancy high fashion kind of city, and we arent some cowboy town either. There are many faces to Calgary, and you need to see a lot of it to appreciate the diversity, and how interesting it can be.
"...high and low, urban and suburban is what i consider the essence of Calgary to be. We arent some fancy high fashion kind of city, and we arent some cowboy town either. There are many faces to Calgary, and you need to see a lot of it to appreciate the diversity, and how interesting it can be."
Very well said. I can't wait for the day Calgary isn't referred to as "Cowtown" because we are soooo much more than that name implies.
Thank you for the report yen! I love the CFM yuppiness and all heh. Nothing compares to P&S's coffee... I wonder if they'll ever open a location open more than 3 days a week? ...and it's thanks to you that I make a weekly trip to Manuel Latruwe too - I'm one of those crazy people lined up at 8-9 o'clock in the morning on a weekend. In my defense...I'm not a morning person but my kids are up by 7:00am regardless :)
Im learning this about people with kids. They don't seem to have an option about when they wake up! Crazy :)
As for P&S's coffee, i love it, but i do have to say, thanks to John, im starting to get a better education in coffee, and there are a small but growing number of good coffee places in town. If you're craving good coffee during weekdays, try Bumpy's. I havent gotten over to Beano yet since the change in ownership, but am looking forward to trying that as well.
We don't get to decide when we go to bed either! But I get to decide what everyone eats, so there is my revenge :)
I love reading you Yen... informative, personable... and your recommendations have always been huge hits with myself, and those I share them with. My husband now asks if the rec is from "that Yen guy".
You're too kind - i just hope that we get many of the lurkers (you know who you are!) to start contributing their hard-earned secrets as well. It's a big city with a lot of great, little-known places around.
With respect to your "that Yen guy" comment - i have a funny story for you. I met another Chowhounder once, who recognized "Yen" from my posts. They asked me "So what is your real name?". I said "Yen". Response? "Uh, oh..... seriously?" Lol. I knew my name was strange, but i didnt think it fell in the unbelievable category! Made my day! :)
I have grown up in Calgary and you can't believe how far this city has come in terms of its culinary scene. We have come along way from the days of Hy's and the Owls Nest being the height of so-called culinary excellence in this town.
I am dating myself but I can remember in the early 80's when a Chinese restaurant opened up and produced a new kind of Chinese food called Szeuchuen (sp?). We were all simply amazed.
Anyway, I am delighted that "Cowtown" has risen to the occasion and I think we can be all very proud of our culinary scene.
I'll try Tazza again but not sure if the family will go with me. The guy you describe was there and involved in some way with our meal; he was either taking orders or delivering. There was only one other table eating at the time so it wasn't that they were busy. We also were asking about the food so it was obvious we weren't veterans.
I know it is cruel - but have to give them a reason to come back. Maybe next time will be Blowfish, Divino, and Capo i think, with Alberta King of Subs, and a healthy dose of 17th ave SE for pupusas, aloo pies, and other ethnic treats! And of course, the Dessert House for Bubble Tea!
Besides, his wife loves cheese - we walked by Divino and checked out the menu when we went to the Cellar that Saturday PM, and she decided she'd kill us if she was stuck with a teething baby the day we went to Divino. We figured we'd better wait :)
I remember a bit from your recent review so i went back to look at it again. These are not excuses, but just my own observations.
1. I have actually found the beef occasionally dry as well. Usually, they use a combination of fresh crisp bits, and some kept in the steamer to get that nice contrast of soft and crunchy. If they just had a rush, or it was very quiet, i've noticed the steamer is often empty (probably to avoid mushy beef). My own personal preference is the chicken. I'd suggest giving that a try.
2. The pita with the platter is never served warm - but if you ask, they'll do it for you.
3. When you said your husband prefers A&A, their sauce is very very different. It could just be a difference in personal preference, in which case, im happy that you have a place you enjoy. For me, the reasons i like Tazza better are the sauce, grilled pita, the fact that the ingredients are all prepared by them (their pickles, hot peppers, sauce, vegetables etc.), and the fact that it's better balanced. It's not a pure quantity kind of Shishtawouk. You get a nice blend of flavours and textures.
Anyway, im a big proponent of trying things at least twice before never going again. I hope your next experience is as good as the meals i and many others have had there as well!