FIELD TRIP #597 | Eating & Drinking Our Way Through Calgary After The Inundation
by Andrew Morrison with photos by Michelle Sproule | This literal grey area between summer and fall not only allows us to (slowly) come to terms with all the wet and cold that the immediate horizon holds, but also provides us with the breathing space to reflect on the good times we had and the roads we took. We spent a few weeks in Alberta this summer, traveling from town to city to country in our VW camper van. We’ll be reporting on the smaller places, such as Banff, Claresholm and Drumheller, at a later date. This first post is on Calgary, where we spent the few days.
The field trip coincided with the end of the Calgary Stampede, right when the city was recovering from the devastating flooding that had killed four people and displaced some 100,000. It was touch and go for a while as to whether or not we would even do the trip. We stayed glued to the news day after day as the departure date loomed and the flooding continued and were totally taken by the city’s “roll up the sleeves” reaction to the disaster that we thought, what the hell, let’s just see what happens. And off we went.
Without a doubt, our primary takeaway from the adventure wasn’t the scenery or the food (close!) or the accommodations, it was the resiliency of the Albertan people. They’d been hit hard – that much was clear from all the debris and damage we saw – but everyone we came across was genuinely upbeat in the aftermath. We heard countless stories of loss, near misses, and especially of neighbours helping neighbours, but there was never any wallowing or despair. There was instead a strange sense of pride, the kind that comes when you take a hard knock on the chin but you don’t go down. The estimated cost of the flood was over $5 billion, and yet the Calgarians we met seemed to more concerned about the rebuilding process of the Calgary Flames (three first round draft picks ain’t so bad). Life wasn’t about getting back to normal. Normal never left.
The next takeaway was the restaurant scene, which we knew next to nothing about save for the occasional glimpse, word, and taste from afar. In my role as the BC Judge at the annual Canadian Culinary Championships, I’ve always been impressed with every competing chef from Calgary. I remember well every dish that Hayato Okamitsu (then of Calgary’s Catch and now a chef instructor at SAIT) plated back when he won the Gold Medal in 2009 (his sukiyake-style short rib with soy cured foie gras and lobster bisque will stay with me forever). While it’s true that other Albertan competitors haven’t faired as well, Okamitsu’s positive, humble attitude has been brightly reflected in each of his successors on the national stage ever since, and that spirit made me hungry to explore.
So did My Favourite Restaurants, a book (now in its 8th edition) by The Calgary Herald’s restaurant critic, John Gilchrist. He’s an old friend, and each year he gifts me a copy. It’s a tantalizing resource, a real teaser, and up until this trip I hadn’t been able to make proper, strategic use of it. Our plan of attack began with Model Milk on 17th Avenue, which was #2 on enRoute’s Best New Restaurants list last year. It’s chef, Justin Leboe, had recently journeyed to Vancouver to dish a collaborative supper at Wildebeest, so we were keen to follow up on his own turf.
Model Milk is delightfully informal but the kitchen is as tight as a tick, churning out predominately comfort fare that has been amped up a rung or three. There, we feasted well on hay-smoked trout crostini, garganelli tossed with Spanish ham and asparagus, a veggie-thick salad with Green Goddess dressing, juicy flap steak with smoked bone marrow jus plated next to Lois Lake steelhead doused in salsa verde, and a host of comforting sides – everything from charred veggies and creamed corn to sweet potato salad and potato whipped with cheese curds – plus chocolate brownies with buttermilk ice cream to close. Oh, and cocktails. Model Milk makes really good ones – classic and boozy. It’s a pretty room, too, with a low-ceilinged mezzanine overlooking a broad and bright open concept avenue of tables below. The bar and street-side patio are up front, divorced from the main dining room by a set of stairs, while the kitchen is very open, with a handful of highchairs arranged ringside.
The burgers at the former were ¼ pound all-natural local beef lovelies, 100% antibiotic and hormone-free. We got to load them up as we liked (BLT with cheese, thank you) and wash ‘em down with chocolate custard shakes. The pizzas and pastas at Una were outstanding, and if there was once dish that I wish I could take home and replicate, it would be their albacore tuna salad (so thick and dilly with baby potatoes – kinda reminiscent of the tuna starter at Cuchillo). The looks of both rooms were clean and modern, and the service – we found this typical in Calgary – was super friendly.
For coffee, we zeroed in on nearby Analog, the location of which had been offered to us by a few coffee wonks in Vancouver. We made it our morning and afternoon base of operations, parking the van out front, doing some writing and general site upkeep (Scout doesn’t take holidays), and generally recharging after long walks around the city. They use a Slayer espresso machine, so they’re pretty damn serious about pulling shots. Great patio, too.
There’s lots to do in Calgary aside from stuffing your face. The city has an impressive public art program, and is committed to “acquiring great public art that impacts Calgary’s urban landscape and transforms the way Calgarians see, think and experience the city around them.” From just walking around, it seemed pretty clear that they have achieved their goal. Art was everywhere. In addition to a substantial collection (over 1,000 pieces ranging from drawings, paintings and prints to sculpture, ceramics, and textiles) that pop up on corners and in hallways at over 60 sites across the city, there are numerous outdoor sculptures that punctuate public meeting spaces and intersections. It’s just plain to see. And if you want to dig a little deeper, there is a free public art tour app that you can download here. The Calgary Art Gallery actually has a great show on right now: “Where The Heart Is” - an exhibition of paintings, photographs, drawings and ephemera celebrating interpretations of “home” – runs through to October 26th. Also worth a look is the Alberta College of Art + Design.
I think we’ll leave it at that for now, but make sure you browse below for where to stay, things to do, places to eat, and so on, plus a gallery of our photographs. Calgary has a lot going on…
WHERE TO STAY
HOTEL ARTS | We loved our hotel and were pleasantly surprised by the cuisine in its restaurant, The Yellow Door. It was also ideally located, equidistant (steps, really) from the heart of downtown and 17th Avenue, where we found great shops in addition to plenty of restaurants, bars and cafes.
119 12 Avenue SW, Calgary, AB | www.hotelarts.com
WHERE TO EAT & DRINK
MODEL MILK | This is the big “must” for us. We’d happily dine here again and again, and spent more time up front at the bar.
308 17th Avenue SW, Calgary | www.modelmilk.ca
CHARCUT | Chefs John Jackson and Connie DeSousa are awesome. They cooked a lobster versus pork battle supper for us (and dozens of others) at Yew in Vancouver’s Four Seasons last year. They are a fun-loving pair with a crazy passion for high quality, rib-sticking fare. Emblematically Calgarian.
101, 899 Centre Street SW, Calgary | www.charcut.com
UNA | If you dig pizza, look no further.
618, 17th Avenue SW, Calgary | www.unapizzeria.com
MILK TIGER LOUNGE | Kickass cocktails properly made by right gents.
1410 4 Street, Calgary | milktigerlounge.ca
ANALOG COFFEE | Brother Russ and Chris Prefontaine have done a hell of a job with this place. Great coffee, pastries, and service.
740 17 Ave SW | www.fratellocoffee.com
JELLY MODERN DOUGHNUTS | We stumbled in here bright and early one morning and went to town on freshly made doughnuts. It’s a bit bright when you have a hangover, but you’ll fight through it for the cream fillings.
1414 8 Street SW, Calgary | www.jellymoderndoughnuts.com
THINGS TO CHECK OUT IN OCTOBER
UPPERCASE MAGAZINE | If you are a ‘Creative’ you’ve likely heard of Uppercase Magazine. If not, Calgary is a great place to get yourself up to speed. This quarterly print magazine is full of design and craft inspiration. The journal is published by Calgary native Janine Vangool. Check Uppercase out here. Get yourself a subscription for sure, but if you’re in town, be sure to check their website to see if they have any workshops on the go.
BECKY McMASTER | We saw Becky McMaster’s art hanging on the walls of Model Milk Restaurant on 17th Street. The Calgarian adds layers of colour, patterns and light to faintly visible frozen frames of super 8 movies to achieve a subdued but awesome effect. We immediately fell in love. If you’re in Calgary in October, Becky is showing her work (along with Lindsay Falk, Lisa Hodgkinson & Kris Weinmann) in a show called Open Concept this Saturday.
Opening | Saturday, October 5 | 8pm Until Late| 1543 – 17AVE SE. Inglewood | DETAILS
WORDFEST | Calgary’s readers and writers festival, Wordfest, runs for six days and is comprised of more than 60 events (readings, panels, workshops and parties. Big ticket authors at WordFest 2013 include Margaret Atwood and Chuck Palahniuk, but there are over 70 artists presenting talks on everything from mystery writing to poetry and everything in between. Check out the full line-up of presenters here. The 2013 festival runs October 14-20 but WordFest hosts events year-round, so check their website for the latest scoop on literary events in Calgary.
October 14-20 | Various venues and times | DETAILS
LAUGH | And now for something completely different…John Cleese will be in Calgary this month on his “Last Time To See Me Before I Die” tour. Catch him at the Centre for the Performing Arts on October 20th and have a few laughs.
October 20 | Epcor Centre for the Performing Arts (205 8th Avenue S.E.) | DETAILS
FARMERS | If you’re a food lover, nothing gives you the lay of the land faster than a wander through a farmers market except for a tour through a farmers market led by a foodie. Visit on a Saturday morning and you can cruise with a chef or culinary instructor from the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology. Guides will point out local producers and introduce you to the stand-out food and produce that Calgary is famous for.
Saturday, October 26 | 9am | Calgary Farmers’ Market (510 77 Avenue Southeast) | $60 | DETAILS
METAL & BEER | It’s a question you’ve asked yourself before: “Now that I have this fantastically cold beer in my glass, what would be the appropriate musical score to compliment it? Some might go for a bit of Bach, others Bowie – but if you’re thinking Black Sabbath, Calgary’s Willow Park Wines and Spirits has something perfectly suited to your taste. Metal & Beer is an evening of fine metal tracks paired with a selection of hardcore beer. It’s ideal for discerning head-bangers and beer lovers. Bonus: food will be circulating and videos will be shown on the flatscreen.
October 25 | 7pm | 10801 Bonaventure Dr SE | $25 | DETAILS