Story by Adrian Brijbassi
CALGARY, ALBERTA — It’s opening night at Calgary’s newest restaurant and chef Alison Bieber is buzzing about. Her smile is big and bright but it’s an anxious grin that reveals her state of mind. There’s a lot happening at Black Pig Bistro and a lot expected of the place, too.
Bieber helmed Cucina to acclaim in her one year in the kitchen at that Calgary restaurant. She’s also engaged to John Michael Macneil, whose Teatro is one of the most celebrated restaurants in the city. Bieber has carved a reputation for herself and Black Pig Bistro is her current opus. (She’s not related to Justin Bieber and will take Macneil’s surname after their marriage, which may put an end to questions she fields about her famous namesake.) Inspired from travels to Spain in 2013, the bistro is a representation of Bieber’s vision of an ideal restaurant. It’s casual, it’s friendly and energetic, and it’s European, with influences from Spain, Italy and France.
“We lived with a family an hour and a half north of Barcelona and they showed us a lot of home cooking. The traditional Catalonian dishes are what I know from there, and then I threw in some French and Italian too,” says Bieber, whose restaurant’s name is a homage to the Iberico ham, renowned across the globe as a connoisseur’s delight.
For its opening week, Black Pig Bistro has flown in Iberico ham from Catalan farms where pigs are raised on a diet of acorns and olives. The meat is as delicious as you’ve heard, with thin slices bursting with more complex flavour and texture than you’d imagine. Bieber will be sourcing her animals locally from Alberta’s Broek Acres farm, which has black Berkshire pigs similar to those found in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. With a nose-to-tail philosophy, the restaurant expects to go through three entire pigs in its first week.
During the restaurant’s first dinner service on Saturday night, the Iberico ham was the highlight of an excellent series of dishes from Bieber’s kitchen.
The Pork Dogs ($14) will be one of those crowd pleasers that will turn first-time customers into regulars. They’re topped with Manchego cheese and Korean chili, and served between housemade milk buns. The delicate Salt Cod Tortellini ($13) comes with a piquillo pepper sauce that will leave you tempted to lick the plate.
“I’ve been asking Alison to do this for years and it finally came together,” says Larry Scammell, a co-owner and the best man at Bieber and Macneil’s wedding in September. “We’re in a part of the city that’s ready for this.”
New Restaurant Comes to Calgary’s Bridgeland District
After Bieber left Cucina she was searching for an opportunity and the chance to take over a space that was formerly leased to a coffee shop emerged. She and Scammell connected on a plan and the restaurant came to fruition within just a few months. Black Pig Bistro is in Bridgeland, a traditionally Italian neighbourhood full of tidy bungalows and a handful of churches. From here, you can reach downtown Calgary by bus or with a 15-minute walk, traversing a bridge that takes you over the Bow River. Bridgeland is about to experience a boom like what so many other areas of the city already have seen. Condo projects are going up and people will be moving in en masse. Those hundreds and hundreds of additional residents will be the customer base for Black Pig Bistro, Bieber and Scammell anticipate.
The restaurant is one of Calgary’s wave of outstanding dining options. There’s CHARCUT, Model Milk, Rouge, Muse, River Cafe and Market — and those are just the ones I’ve tried. The city has a confidence in its dining scene and Black Pig Bistro gives it more reason to feel sure about itself.
Although hers is a Spanish-inspired restaurant, Bieber is quick to point out it’s not another tapas spot. The entrees are large, the steak is a hearty 12-ounce Alberta Rib Eye ($31), and the “bistro” name rings true in both its casualness and its romantic appeal.
Scammell notes that he and his wife, Denise, Bieber’s business partners, have given their chef the kind of freedom any creative type covets. “We’re happy to take care of the other things that go into running the business,” he says. “This is Alison’s vision and the style of food she wants to create. She’s a great talent and we want that talent to flourish here.”
MORE ABOUT BLACK PIG BISTRO
Location: 825 1st Avenue Northeast, Calgary, Alberta (see map below)
Reservations: Telephone: 1-403-460-0350. The first dinner service for the public takes place on April 23, 2014.
Menu Price Range: Dinner entrees cost $24-$31; desserts are $10 each; the exceptional wine list has by-the-glass prices from $6-$15; cocktails are $9-$12.
You Must Order: The Pork Buns ($14) are a delicious treat that’s satisfying, fun and more carefully constructed than you might think.