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Alberta Report (mostly Calgary, long)

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Alberta Report (mostly Calgary, long)

Prabhakar Ragde | Jul 7, 2003 09:41 PM

Here are some impressions of meals we had during a week spent in
Calgary in early July. Thanks to Miles Pittman of FFWD weekly for
useful intelligence. --PR

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Yan Jing (10th St. NW) -- An odd-shaped room with a few tables,
decorated on the cheap, and with a modest Chinese menu (a refreshing
change from places with hundreds of ill-described items on theirs). I
think the reason for the sparseness is that there's basically one
person working the front room and one in the kitchen. The food was
decent, but not exceptional. The best dish we tried was foreigner's
chicken, which is basically a variation of gong bao ji ding, with
morsels of chicken, cucumber, carrot, and peanuts. The chicken had
been properly velveted so it needed only to be heated in the wok at
the last minute rather than cooked through, a rare touch. Nothing else
quite met this standard. Xinjiang lamb was thin slices of lamb
stirfried with chunks of green onion, with curry powder added. I have
travelled in Xinjiang, and they do not use curry powder there; they
would, I suspect, use leeks also. This is a Han conception of a
Xinjiang dish, and not a very successful one. Shanghai noodles are
supposed to be thick, chewy ropes; what we were served were slightly
larger egg noodles with a typical Cantonese topping of stirfried
vegetables (odd, because I get the impression the proprietors really
are from Beijing, and it is not hard to find Shanghai-style noodles in
any Asian supermarket). "Earthen mix", a Beijing-style vegetable
stir-fry of potato, eggplant, and peppers, got the last two vegetables
just right, but the chef had to use too much oil to keep the thin
slices of potatoes from sticking, and the dish was greasy. (But the
eggplant, which drinks oil if you throw it raw into a wok, was
perfectly textured -- it had been parboiled beforehand. Someone
clearly knows what they are doing.) If we'd been served these dishes
as part of a set meal, we might have been satisfied, but our
anticipation of three of the four dishes was not quite fulfilled.

Melange (Main Street, Canmore) -- We drove into Canmore at 6 pm on
Canada Day and were turned away from Zona's (perhaps fortuitously, as
I didn't like the look of the youthful crowd, or the
consciously-eclectic menu). Melange seated us promptly. They clearly
inherited a wood-burning oven and large prep space from the pizza
joint that last occupied the premises, and they've tried to structure
the menu around the oven. The food turned out to be a little like what
you might be served at the home of someone who spends more time
reading Bon Appetit and Gourmet than actually working in the kitchen;
all the right stuff was there, but the dishes didn't quite hang
together, it didn't feel organic (in a metaphorical sense). Lamb chops
and duck breast were properly grilled, but the balsamic-dried cherry
reduction and peach-mustard sauce respectively were unbalanced. The
same garnishes showed up on every plate (including the stuffed red
snapper). Worst of all, they appeared to have one chef in the kitchen,
one sous-chef working the oven, and two servers. Period. Everyone was
running ragged; I saw two "sizzling" appetizers dumped onto cold
skillets tableside, and another one delivered with the wrong
ingredients. They need a bit more reconceptualization, another
sous-chef, and a busboy/waterboy. Perhaps I am being too harsh; there
is probably no competition at this price point and style between east
Vancouver and west Calgary (I speak from bitter experience), and if
you're visiting the Rockies, I would recommend Canmore over the
ghastly excess of Banff townsite. It was a reasonable end to a day of
hiking and mountain-viewing, but it kept reminding me of better meals
at better restaurants.

Broken Plate (10th St NW) -- Cheery open space, plastic menus with a
standard North American Greek menu: a long list of mezes, and then
plates of grilled meat and fish served with potatoes, rice, and
vegetable. We did our usual trick of getting an appetizer platter plus
a few extra mezes. Prices seemed a bit higher than usual, but servings
were generous, and quality was a cut above; everything was just a bit
fresher and lighter than average. Calamari was properly deep-fried,
spanakopita were cleverly fashioned as giant pouches, horiatiki (Greek
salad) was not perverted with lettuce, and we enjoyed an unusual
feta/red pepper dip. Not a revelation, but worth visiting. Sit by the
window and watch the parade of SUV drivers going by.

Kensington Wine Shop (Kensington Ave) -- I nipped in here to quickly
pick up a bottle of wine with the family waiting in the car, and found
myself wishing I could linger. Alberta has privatized wine and liquor
sales, whereas I'm used to government stores (good prices, but limited
selection) in Ontario, and private stores in California (with higher
prices on everything, it seems). This store looked to have quite a
nice selection, from low-end to high, with a small selection of
quality beer (they advertise single malts, but I didn't look for them)
I found a decent French Sud-Ouest rose for $12, and nipped out again.

Harbour City (Chinatown) -- We tried to go to Grand Isle for dim sum,
but it was locked with a For Lease sign on the door. So we quickly
walked the two blocks to Harbour City, arriving just at noon on
Thursday and taking one of the last tables. Good ratio: only a few
non-Asians in the place. "This is old-school dim sum," my wife said
near the end, meaning carts and traditional dumplings (the only
innovation I noticed was plates of ginger beef, which I gather is an
Alberta requirement). One thing that was not old-school was the
friendliness of the women pushing the carts, though their English was
minimal (as expected). Oddly enough, the restaurant did better on
items that tend to be disasters elsewhere, such as steamed rice rolls
with BBQ pork (usually leaden) and panfried bean curd skin rolls
(usually soggy). Where they failed was on the simpler dumplings (har
gow, scallop) which were oversteamed. Prices were quite good. But my
burg, a quarter the size of Calgary, has a better dim sum restaurant
-- only one, and no Chinatown surrounding it, but still.

Saigon Y2K (Crowchild Trail) -- We ate here a day earlier than
planned, because the restaurant we had planned to go to (La Tasca)
wasn't there any more. (It had been replaced by a ghastly-looking
Italian restaurant.) Saigon Y2K was nearly full at six on a Thursday,
mostly non-Asian faces. First, the quibbles: the same menu as every
other downscale Vietnamese restaurant in North America, no fish sauce
on the table (instead there was soy sauce, ewwww), no herbs in the
vermicelli bowls. Now the praise. The spring rolls, which is where
most places like this fail, were crispy and tasty here; the grilled
pork had been grilled in big pieces and sliced after grilling, meaning
flavour and texture were good; the vermicelli was properly soaked and
didn't clump together. Stir-fried beef with lemongrass had no
discernable lemongrass, and was bulked out with green pepper and
chunks of onion; a bit of spice saved it from being a generic Chinese
stir-fry. Grilled skewers of beef/chicken/shrimp and imperial rolls
with a taro root filling came out hot and fresh. Prices might be a bit
high for a restaurant of this type, but we're talking a matter of a
dollar or so.

Fuji Yama (5th Avenue SW) -- Nice atmosphere, except for the Canto-pop
playing as we came in, which changed to New Age muzak. Nearly empty at
seven on a Saturday, not a good sign, but the downtown area was
crowded with drunken louts on some sort of Stampede-related pub crawl,
so maybe everyone sensible was staying away. Everything was sort of
so-so; some of the sushi fish was good (notably the salmon and
hamachi), some lacked flavour. Sushi rice was a bit mushy. Too many
California rolls on the platters we ordered, but at least there
weren't egg nigiri (which ought to be banned). An okay meal, overall,
and about what we needed (it was just around the corner from a
reception we were attending), but I wouldn't consider this a destination.

Ploughboy (ICT Building, University of Calgary) -- The last place I
would think of going for good coffee, but I'd had a tip on this
place. They have a superautomatic, meaning you're not at the mercy of
a bad operator, and their beans come "from BC", meaning probably not
really fresh but probably microroasted. Espresso is decent, as is
their "pressure-brewed coffee", really a cafe crema (coarser grind,
more water).

Eiffel Tower Bakery (17th Ave SW) -- At five o'clock on a Friday, they
had a small selection of dubious-looking pastries, some viennoiserie
at 2 for 1 (no afternoon bake?) and a pave' (large flat squarish loaf
of bread) which we bought for lunch the next day and on which we found
a spot or two of mold -- forgiveable, perhaps, but the bread was airy
and unremarkable. A disappointment.

Patisserie Manuel Latrewe (1st St SW) -- Good viennoiserie; the almond
croissants were flaky and light, the filling was not cloying as it
often is. I had an espresso as fuel, no crema to speak of, but the
taste was surprisingly good; seems they market their own blends. They
even had duck rillettes in the refrigerator case, a mark of someone
who knows what they are doing; they were quite tasty. Their batard au
levain had the right scent and flavour, but was also fluffy in the
middle (does no one in this city know how to make a properly dense
loaf?).

Spolumbo's Fine Foods and Deli (9th Ave SW) -- Okay, that name is
stretching it. This place sells meat, with maybe one kind of
cheese. Sandwiches, soup. They made my daughter the small prosciutto
sandwich she wanted, even though it wasn't one of the options; the
rest of us had "spicy sausage on a bun", good Italian sausage (not
overloaded with fennel as many are) in a nondescript bun with some
tomato sauce. It was a decent if unremarkable lunch. What I liked
about the place was that it seemed to be a neighbourhood favourite;
people were drifting in and greeting each other, and the person who
bused my table appeared to be one of the football-player owners. If I
lived in Calgary I'd go back and try their other varieties of sausage
(which have to be cooked at home); good sausage is hard to find.

Latin Corner (4th St SW) -- The nicest space we ate in on this trip; a
high-ceilinged, skylit room open to the street at one end. There are a
few set meals and an assortment of small plates. Prices are a bit high
($10 for tapas, $20 for plates, $50+ for mains designed for two, like
grills or paella) but quality is good for the most part. The potatoes
in tortilla de papas should have been thoroughly browned instead of
just boiled, and the clams in ameijoas con chorizo were not the
freshest (our fault for ordering them on a Sunday night so far from
the ocean). Shredded beef, fried plantains, albondigas de pescado
(really just chunks of deep-fried fish), yucca cakes, and calamari
were all quite tasty; I could have used bread or some more starch to
sop up some of the sauces. We were greeted warmly and bid fond
farewell, but neglected a bit for long stretches in the middle
(fortunately, the atmosphere and the mellow live guitar music were
enjoyable). Churros for dessert were authentically-shaped, fresh, and
light; the closest we were to come to the mini-donuts I gather are a
Stampede tradition, and the closest I care to come, thanks. I would
recommend this place if you're not watching your pennies; order more
than you expect to eat.

Higher Ground (Kensington Ave) -- Stopped in at 8am Sunday morning
intending to get a double espresso, but it was quite chilly out, so I
ordered a double cappuccino, which I expected would be 10 oz or so,
with two shots in it. "Would you like a tall?" the barista said. "Uh,
I guess," I said. This turned out to be their largest size cappuccino,
so I was charged $3.69. Then they didn't have any cups that size, so
he poured my shot into the extra-large cup they use as their largest
size for drip coffee -- and then filled it to the top with steamed
milk. What I got was a huge amount of milk that tasted slightly of
coffee. I was not impressed. I could have had that at the Starbucks
next door.

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We enjoyed our trip to Calgary. It's not a culinary Mecca, but we
didn't starve. You won't, either. --PR

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