Chocolate cowboy sculpture by the Pastry Chef Karthi Sengothaian at Fairmont Palliser.
Follow Me Foodie to Calgary, Alberta!
… I think I heard a pin drop. Really? Calgary? Do I have to? Well I guess that depends on where you’re from. If you’re from Vancouver then chances are you might not want to “Follow Me Foodie” here, but if you’re from Saskatchewan, then this is probably pretty exciting. Now if you’re from Texas, meet your baby Canadian sister… sort of. She grew up on meat and potatoes, and by “meat” I mean top quality AAA Alberta beef, but her diet has changed and over the last 5 years she’s really grown up.
I haven’t been to Calgary since Stampede in 2009 and at that time things were just getting started in their culinary scene. I guess that applies to many cities though since the interest in food has really exploded over the last five years. Nonetheless I remember having good dining experiences the last time I was there. The good experiences came with research though, and I would still recommend careful restaurant selection because Calgary is a diamond in the rough… or oil in the oil rig?
As a Vancouverite, we don’t really care about Calgary, as to why I said “you might not want to Follow Me Foodie here”, but I can honestly say it was a nice surprise. I wasn’t even that surprised though because I was expecting good things. In recent years it has gotten more media attention and their new restaurants were getting rave reviews. It often makes me more skeptical, but I’ve been watching the work of some of their chefs and meeting more “industry Calgarians”, and I was looking forward to revisiting.
On this occasion I was invited by Tourism Calgary for an ultimate culinary weekend as part of the Top Chef Canada campaign they were hosting for contest winners. I decided to extend my stay to explore a bit on my own and six days was not enough. I’m actually excited to go back. I wouldn’t call it a “culinary destination” yet, but it’s “the little engine that could” and I wouldn’t underestimate it.
… but they have taken a strong interest in seafood. The chefs seem to celebrate it more than their customers, but baby steps. It is not like seafood has never existed there before, but the passion and options are better for it now. Coming from the West Coast I was more excited for the beef, but it is also apples and oranges.
I don’t want to be that person who keeps comparing their hometown to Calgary, and Vancouver and Calgary are incomparable, but it gives reference and context. The land and resources are different, so the quality and freshness of ingredients vary. Tastes are regional and cultural too, let alone subjective, and Vancouver is more culturally diverse.
I was only their for 6 days so I scratched the surface, but generally the menus featuring seafood were still pretty safe. Mild tasting fish, BC albacore tuna, East and West Coast oysters and a noticeable obsession with scallops. I don’t know what it was, but the scallops were often recommended and while the ones I had were good, for Vancouverites they would be rather standard. They source seafood from the East and West and while I saw a lot of BC options, I can’t say it was what I was there for.
For vegetarians, it might be a bit trickier. While culinary meccas have been jumping on the vegetarian bandwagon for the last couple years, Calgary isn’t quite there. I doubt it will ever embrace it, and it is not the vibe of the city, but there are vegetarian options. I’m not vegetarian, so I wasn’t bothered, but their food is a lot heavier so if I lived there it would be different. If you’re a carnivore, then Calgary will keep you smiling and bulk you up in no time. No Meatless Monday parties here.
In terms of cultural influence, they have a strong Vietnamese food scene and population, so the food can be somewhat Vietnamese inspired at Western restaurants. In Vancouver there is a much stronger Asian representation overall, but the food is usually inspired by Chinese and Japanese flavours. The “trend” of modern Vietnamese is something I listed in my Vancouver Food Trends 2012 and Food Trends 2013 post, and this would be interesting to explore further in Calgary.
There is more ethnic cuisine than Vietnamese, but unfortunately I didn’t have enough time to explore beyond.
The city is wealthy and the restaurants are generally more expensive than Vancouver restaurants. Their fine dining is pricier than ours and they can sustain those prices, especially with a business clientele with expense accounts, so be prepared.
It’s a very casual dining scene though and even the fine dining options don’t get too pretentious in terms of ambiance and dress. It has a strong patio culture in the summer, and I wouldn’t recommend coming in the winter unless you’re from Alaska.
Follow Me Foodie to Calgary in 6 days was a rush and I only got a small taste out of several restaurants. I prefer to do more at fewer restaurants, but this trip really introduced me to every “has-been” and current hot spot. I thought I could make a decent dent in 6 days, but my bucket list for the city only grew. It is a small community based city (population about 1 million) and there are only a couple busy streets with packed restaurants, but I could keep my appetite busy here. There are a lot of traditional steakhouses, pub type eateries, and “white bread and butter” places, but there are also plenty of new restaurants and culinary talent.
I definitely felt the enthusiasm for food from chefs and locals and it was charming. They emphasize “farm-to-table” dining as much as they can considering their geographical location and climate limitations, but it is not as much of an “eat local” city as Vancouver. I did try things I couldn’t get as good in Vancouver though, which will come up throughout this series.
Some places play around with molecular gastronomy and modernist cooking, but very few do them well, although the interest is there. The ideas were usually ambitious, but the effort appreciated. They’re not exactly on top of culinary trends, although they pick them up later, but North America in general is usually behind a few years in any lifestyle/creative trend.
I also attended some culinary events (some annual) and they really go all out. I’m not sure how often they happen, but I was impressed and it felt like they saved up energy to make them special.
As for the drinks, it is more about craft beer than cocktails and wine, although the cocktail scene is on the rise. It’s a city where people are generally friendly without being intoxicated first too. It’s approachable and fun, just like their culinary scene and the only thing I’d be intimidated by is their winter.
Trends, drinks, and events aside, a city’s culinary scene is as good as its chefs. Yes, the ingredients have a lot to do with it, and beef is what they’re famous for (for good reason too), but they are more than that. They have some strong chefs with international experience and the city seems supportive with culinary education. As a food city they haven’t boomed yet and there is still so much room to grow, but it’s not too early to visit.
Here is just a small taste of things you can expect from Follow Me Foodie to Calgary!
… to Caesar Salad (at Teatro).
… to Parsley Crusted Sea Scallops and marinated eggplant (at Teatro).
From bison tartare (at Feast of Fields)…
… to bison tartare (at Feast of Fields)…
… to beef tartare (at Teatro).
From pig’s head Mortadella (at the Top Chef Canada Dinner)…
… to rotisserie prime rib (at Teatro).
… to Albert Wagyu short rib… which I don’t understand (see article on “Wagyu” here).
… to a plated nitro salted caramel ice cream with black lava salt (at Teatro).
… to Poached Peaches and Corn Pudding (at the Top Chef Canada Dinner).
From traditional tiramisu (at Teatro)…
From goat milk ricotta cheesecake with lemon and tarragon (at Feast of Fields)…
… to the infamous Stilton Cheesecake.
From a Top Chef Canada Dinner with Calgary contestants…
And last, but not least, attending Calgary’s first ever “Really, Really, Long Table Dinner” in the heart of downtown.