raviolo-dop-calgary

Calgary’s Food Scene Goes Big Time

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Raviolo, filled with egg yolk and ricotta and topped with Alberta sweet corn, is a signature offering from renowned D.O.P. in downtown Calgary. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

“Calgary is back,” says Connie DeSousa. And you can tell with a visit to the city’s new hot spots. They include DeSousa’s Chix Eggshop, a charming diner inside the Alt Hotel in the East Village. It’s the latest venture for DeSousa and business partner John Jackson, who together own the esteemed CHARCUT and Charbar, and are often credited with helping to pioneer Calgary’s contemporary dining scene. Chix Eggshop is both a departure and a return to the familiar for the chef duo. It’s a breakfast spot, which is new for them in Calgary but harkens to their California years when they oversaw a high-end establishment at the Fairmont Hotel San Francisco that focused on the first meal of the day.

“I really think that restaurant was Michelin-star worthy,” DeSousa says, reminiscing about her luxury hotel experience. “We’re not doing that level of cooking here, but we are celebrating breakfast and it’s my favourite meal of the day and John’s, too. We wanted to be more creative and it felt like a natural fit for us.”

It’s also an homage to family, with pictures of the owners’ mothers on the walls and an amiable atmosphere that might remind some of a neighbourhood Holiday Inn from generations past. The menu isn’t fancy, but it is lethal with flavours that compel you to lick your fingers and the cutlery they hold. It’s also enthusiastically current.

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Connie DeSousa has launched Chix Eggshop with her business partner John Jackson. Among the highlights are the Nashville-inspired hot chicken sandwich topped with fried egg. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Gluten-free options are available throughout the menu, avocado can be liberally ordered, a vegetarian falafel scrambler ($15.99) is a hit, and the eggs are organic and cage-free. The highlight? That would be the outrageous Hot CHIX sandwich ($11.99): A breast cutlet covered in equal parts hot sauce and melted butter, topped with a poached egg, served on a brioche bun and alongside a healthy offering of napkins. This is the second time in my life that the DeSousa-and-Jackson combo have spun my head on a dish I hadn’t previously been a fan of. Years ago, I savoured what is still the best poutine I’ve ever tasted — fries cooked in duck fat and slathered with luscious gravy at CHARCUT. And, now, Chix Eggshop has turned me around on Nashville hot chicken, which I have often found to be a lazy and underwhelming dish (the classic from Tennessee is simply hot sauce shaken vigorously out of a bottle and onto a slab of thin chicken breast).

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Chix Eggshop cocktails include (from left): The Slurpee with Jack Daniel’s, cherry cola and raspberry gelato; a Mimosa with three ounces of Prosecco and orange juice; and the rummy Wake-up Call. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

It’s also turned me on to breakfast cocktails. More than just the Caesar, the classic invented in Calgary, the morning eyeopeners at Chix include a Slurpee with an upturned mini-bottle of Jack Daniel’s in a tulip glass full of cherry cola and a scoop of raspberry gelato, a Prosecco-laden Mimosa, and the Wake-up Call with Flor de Cana rum, coffee, and milk.

“We wanted to rethink how we view breakfast,” DeSousa says, “and Calgary seems to be receptive to it.”

The city has been embracing new tastes for most of this century and as the pandemic, at last, ebbs the food scene is also making a healthy return. Thanks to fresh spots like Chix and another notable, Fire & Flora. In some ways, this culinary star is at the other end of the dining spectrum from Chix Eggshop. That’s because Fire & Flora is a vegetarian restaurant and one with clear ambitions to push the perception of what you can achieve without meats or fish. Vegetarian fine-dining restaurants are on the rise globally — with Denmark’s Geranium earning No. 1 spot on the World’s 50 Best Restaurants — and Fire & Flora is a delightful Canadian addition to the movement. It focuses on ingredients from this country, particularly agriculture-rich southern Alberta.

MORE ALBERTA FOOD: Liking Lethbridge

Chef/owner Adam Ryan’s Rhubarb Tartare ($20), served with wasabi cream and seaweed, is a bold example of what creative vegetarian cuisine can achieve. The aroma that comes off the plate is reminiscent of sushi. The flavour is ticklish, a blend of sweet and earthy — with a strong kick of wasabi spiciness. Ryan admits the “tartare” name is a misnomer. He cooks the rhubarb in a stock of three seaweeds and beetroot, and stirs in black and white sesame seeds.

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Umami-rich grilled cucumbers at Fire & Flora are served with babaganoush and edible flowers in a fascinating mix of flavours. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Another inventive plate is the grilled baby cucumbers ($11), served with babaganoush, a fistful of dill, shallots, and edible flowers. Located next to Calgary’s trendy District Food Hall at the Beltline, Fire & Flora smartly offers pizzas and has a sharp, concise wine list. A transplant from Toronto, Ryan credits the evolving dining scene in Calgary for drawing him west.

“Calgary, right now, seems to have recovered a lot faster and you can feel the energy and the creativity happening in the industry here. It’s exciting to be part of this scene,” he says.

He’s right — the city’s culinary landscape has grown more diverse and interesting. Here are some of the outstanding (and mostly new) restaurants you’ll want to taste in Calgary:

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The popular potstickers at Roy’s Korean Kitchen are filled with prawn and pork. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

Roy’s Korean Kitchen: Roy Oh earned a following among Calgary’s local dining community at his former restaurant, Anju. Earlier this year, he launched Roy’s Korean Kitchen (admitting that he doesn’t like using his name but was persuaded to do so by business partners who recognized the impact of his clout). The restaurant displays a mastery of Korean cuisine as Oh pays homage to his heritage with authentic ingredients that will wow the palates of diners in a city that has become increasingly more adventurous about food.

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Roy Oh has launched an eponymous restaurant in Calgary’s Mission neighbourhood as well as a take-out spot in the city’s District Food Hall. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The cozy space in the increasingly popular Mission district of the city seats 42 people. Workers in the open kitchen dish out delectable plates with Oh’s recipes that masterfully blend classic Korean ingredients to craft a menu that is both personal to him but accessible to a multitude of diners. The proliferation of cuisine from Korea makes items like KFC sliders ($16), potstickers ($12), DIY lettuce wraps with a range of meat choices (starting at $18), and charred shishito peppers ($8) familiar. Oh surpasses expectations with offerings like oxtail tortellini ($14), topped with Grana Padano and white truffle oil, and soy-maple Brussels sprouts ($12).

Like Anju before it, Roy’s Korean Kitchen is a must-dine location in Alberta’s big city.

D.O.P.: Like Oh’s latest enterprise, D.O.P. is a recently opened darling focused on family recipes that are elevated with culinary panache and a clear desire to rejuvenate the understanding of a popular type of cuisine. In this case, it’s Italian that gets a dazzling spin with Old World flavours lovingly plated using ingredients like whipped ricotta, homemade pesto, Calabrian sausage, and smoked olives.

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White anchovies ($12), drenched in olive oil and accompanied with pickled onions, are a favourite at D.O.P. in Calgary. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

While the menu has a series of fantastic plates, it’s the Raviolo ($32) that you must try. It’s a gigantic piece of pasta stuffed with a soft egg yolk that drips out when pinched by your fork. The yolk covers the golden plate with a luscious sheen that melds with sweet Taber corn, ricotta, and butter. It’s true scrumptiousness of Italy — with that renowned Alberta corn giving you a fitting taste of the Canadian prairies too.

Named after the Italian designation that guarantees the authenticity of products made in that country’s various regions, D.O.P. takes its heritage to heart, with a simple, unfussy dining space that lets its food and service shine.

Queens Breakfast Cocktails: Maybe it’s all those free pancakes and early-morning Caesars during the annual Stampede that is driving Calgary’s embrace of breakfast. The first meal of the day is No. 1 with notable chefs and restaurants, including Queens Breakfast Cocktails, with decadent plates like grilled chorizo, bacon, lemon ricotta pancakes, side salad, and poached eggs ($22). Chef and co-owner Jenny Chan uses her talents and passion for European flavours in a range of decadent dishes, some of them lovingly adorned with edible flowers and plated in a room surrounded with portraits of famous female monarchs.

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Belgian waffles ($17) are a signature dish at Queens Breakfast Cocktails. The popular spot north of downtown Calgary serves massive breakfast plates and creative cocktails. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

As the restaurant’s name suggests, it’s got cocktails not to be missed — including the bacon-topped Wakey Wakey Eggs & Bakey ($14) with bourbon, egg foam, lemon, and maple syrup.

Launched in 2019 in the Greenview neighbourhood, about six kilometres north of downtown Calgary, Queens also serves lunch and dinner, featuring even more opulent food and drink options.

Lonely Mouth Bar: The cosmopolitan tastes of Calgary are on display at Lonely Mouth, an attractive Asian-focused restaurant on busy 17th Avenue. Right next to the raucous Ship & Anchor bar, Lonely Mouth has a laid-back vibe with a menu that evokes Tokyo. The udon ($16) is the star.

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Asian comfort food done well at Lonely Mouth Bar: Udon with an Onsen egg served alongside shrimp tempura and a sake pairing. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The noodles are handmade and served in a large bowl full of delicious broth with daikon, ginger, yuzu, and togarashi. Be sure to add an Onsen egg ($4) for a rich flavour experience and pair it with sake.

Not-so-new but favourite places to visit, include:

Native Tongues Taqueria: Authentic Mexican dishes are the reason you want to go. The Mezcal experience is the reason you’ll want to come back with friends. Native Tongues has one of the largest and most diverse Mezcal collections anywhere in Canada. Go on a journey of this spirit invented in Oaxaca and learn the gamut of its flavours, including rare artisan options. It’s an eye (and throat) opener that will give you an appreciation for the potable that too often is confused with tequila.

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Native Tongues is a cantina-style Mexican restaurant with a unique, potent, and educational Mezcal tasting experience. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

And don’t worry about the authenticity of the menu — the tacos ($3.95-$4.95 each) and ant0jitos ($8-$16) will not disappoint Mexican food lovers. All of it is served in a festive, cantina-style setting.

The Mash: Another favourite on 17th Avenue is a crowd-pleasing craft-beer hall that churns out one of the most beloved and odd pizzas you’ll encounter. The dill pickle and bacon pie ($18.75 for 10 inches; $27.50 for 14 inches) is wildly popular in Calgary. The crust is the key to the pizza’s distinctiveness. It’s made with upcycled spent grain from the beer distillation process.

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The dill pickle and bacon pizza, made with spent grain used for craft beer, has earned The Mash a loyal following. (Adrian Brijbassi photo for Vacay.ca)

The upcycling process restores the fibre and protein that was not removed from the grain during beer-making. Some leftover grain is returned to farmers for animal feed or compost while much of it is used in the kitchen at The Mash to create a soft, tasty, wholesome dough. Pizza aficionados should be sure to try this one. The Mash, which has five locations in Calgary and three others elsewhere in Alberta, also serves its own craft beers, including seasonal selections.

A MAP OF THE RESTAURANTS NEAR DOWNTOWN CALGARY MENTIONED IN THE ARTICLE

Adrian is the editor of Vacay.ca and VacayNetwork.com. He also edited "Inspired Cooking", a nutrition-focused cookbook featuring 20 of Canada's leading chefs and in support of the cancer-fighting charity, InspireHealth. "Inspired Cooking" was created in honour of Adrian's late wife and Vacay.ca co-founder, Julia Pelish, who passed away of brain cancer in 2016. Adrian has won numerous awards for his travel writing, travel photography, and fiction, and has visited more than 55 countries. He is a former editor at the Toronto Star and New York Newsday, and was the social media and advocacy manager for Destination Canada. His articles have frequently appeared in the Huffington Post, Globe & Mail, and other major publications. He has appeared on national and local broadcasts, talking about travel, sports, creative writing and journalism. In 2019, he launched Trippzy, a travel-trivia app developed to educate consumers about destinations around the world.