CALGARY – World-class food. Sleek and sexy hotels. And sophisticated bars with cutting edge design and local flavours.
This is a town that has come a long, long way in the past few years. Lucky for me, I got to sample some of the best Calgary has to offer on a recent, two-day visit.
The food might be biggest change a visitor would notice if they’ve haven’t been here in a while. Local restaurants are putting interesting twists on local favourites, with influences ranging from Vietnam to Italy to Thailand and beyond.
Bonterra is a lively, fun spot in the emerging area south of downtown that feels like a Tuscan village both inside and out, where the seasonal patio is one of the top places to dine in the city. I feasted on local ricotta from Calgary’s White Gold that came dusted with chili and olive oil and a side of rhubarb compote and crostini as well as amazing, fresh fish.
They do the best carbonara pasta dish I’ve ever had; using local, wild boar bacon and mixing it with a fresh egg and grana padano cheese (instead of the usual parmiagano). They also add a dash of duck fat for extra oomph, and it shows in a dish that’s rich and textured and incredibly delicious.
The owners also have opened a wood-oven pizza place next door, a cute spot called Posto with some fun touches. They already operate Cibo down on 17 th Ave., and they just opened a new place called Scopa in the Tuxedo Park neighborhood just north of downtown.
The best food in town could be CharCut , a meat-lover’s paradise that also knows how to grill a perfect fish and serves up lovely roasted beets with local goat cheese. Head chef Connie DeSouza does a wonderful steak with chimichurri, flavourful and fatty local pork, linguica with homemade piri piri sauce and more. The shrimp is terrific on our mixed platter and the fresh, grilled fish looks amazing. She pushes the envelope now and then. The Hunter Pie features rabbit loin and organs, ground pork and bison hearts ground together in a meat pie with a huge bone stuck inside like an inverted wheel and axle. But she also serves fabulous gold and purple beets with local goat cheese and thinly sliced, raw zucchini with lemon, olive oil, cayenne spiced pumpkin seeds and feta cheese that’s light and delicious. So she’s got tremendous verstality.
It’s not on the drinks menu any more, but if you ask for a Ginger Gimlet they’ll probably mix one up for you. Light and delicious and deeply flavourful, it is.
Completely different is Raw Bar at Hotel Arts, where you’ll find a “VietModern” menu and inventive drinks served in a cool, futuristic looking room with tube-like supports painted a deep aqua blue in order to tie into the nearby outdoor pool. Chef Duncan Ly is a great cook who puts fresh, Alberta updates on traditional Vietnamese food, such as raw beef with coriander and other Asian spices. The bar itself makes some wonderful drinks, including one with whisky, chartreuse, chamomile tea syrup and meringue. I haven’t stayed at Hotel Arts, but I did stay at their terrific sister property, the Riverside Inn, my last time in Calgary. This one is more urban and hip, located in another up and coming part of town on 12 th Ave just south of downtown.
You can find tons of great food offerings at the Calgary Farmer’s Market , which is open Thursday to Sunday 9 to 5. It’s a bit far from the core, but it’s a wonderful building that features mostly local products ranging from fresh, sweet carrots to, yes, glorious beef and locally roasted coffee. They had a lovely group of young women singing in the busker station when I visited on the Saturday of Victoria Day weekend.
The National on 10 th is a fabulous 10 th Ave. bar on a street that has a great feel. I loved the local Village Blonde beer, where they give 10 per cent of their profits to arts and culture groups. Even better than the beer is the atmosphere in this former industrial building. The main floor has ceilings tall enough for a giraffe to fit under, and there are dozens of small wooden casks piled up behind the bar. Instead of a blackboard listing what’s on tap, there are large electronic, colourful boards that resemble an airport or train station arrivals/departures sign; a fun touch.
Downstairs is a large, pulsing bowling alley and an arcade, and on the second floor you’ll find an out-of-the-way bourbon bar with cool bartenders and a wide variety of bourbons and some risqué photographs. A rooftop patio is said to be in the works for early fall or so.
Notables is a fun and lovely neighborhood place in the northwest suburbs, with juicy rotisserie chicken a specialty of the house. One unusual bit is a Stilton Cheesecake topped with a crème-brulee style crispy topping; a nice touch that takes out the usual cheesecake sweetness and applies a more balanced, intriguing taste.
Sidewalk Citizen Bakery is a crazy good suburban spot that makes sourdough-based croissants and the flakiest cheese sticks you can imagine. I didn’t have the room under my belt to try it, but they had a halva knots with croissant pastry, massively thick squiggles of chocolate and sesame seeds. Decadent doesn’t begin to describe them.
I was able to bed down at Le Germain in downtown Calgary. This is hands down my favourite Canadian hotel group. The properties in Toronto are outstanding, and so’s this one. There’s a cool vibe in the lobby, with some splashy modern art and purple furniture and a just-right bar. The rooms have cool-shaped sinks, lovely wood, crisp and clean designs and fun touches such as your room number on a frosted drinking glass in the bathroom. They have consistently great and stylish tubs and showers and overall the effect is sleek and sexy. The coffee wasn’t as good as I remembered it in Toronto, but the breakfast granola choices remain large and varied and fun for a very Euro touch, and there are plenty of other options for getting your day off on the right foot.
They also have a 24-hour gym and sauna, and Charcut is basically inside the lobby for easy access to one of the city’s top restaurants.