Move over, Beef - there’s new game in town

By Heather Greenwood Davis   Greenwood Davis / CTC

Sitting in the toney surroundings of Calgary, AB’s award-winning River Café, it’s hard to imagine the food in this city was ever anything but divine. The restaurant — with its upscale fly-fishing lodge motif and location looking out over Prince’s Island Park — sets the scene and mood for your meal long before you’ve ordered the bottle of 2005 Blue Mountain Reserve Pinot Noir.

The menu teases you with headings such as “one bites” (shiitake mushroom tortilla with grilled shallot aioli) and “to share” (red lentil hummus with whole-grain flat bread and roasted garlic). For those with a proclivity for meat, there’s game: wild boar rillettes, smoked rainbow trout and salt-cured bison on a single plate. Crackers and butter (and pretty much anything that can be) are made from scratch or locally sourced. If the food were any closer to its origin, you’d be eating on a farm. Service is prompt. Your stay is as leisurely as you like.

This is new-school Calgary cuisine. It’s the one that has food critics buzzing. Calgary’s dining scene is attracting international attention and high-brow observers along the lines of Wine Spectator magazine. (The City Formerly Known as Cow Town recently received one of the magazine’s coveted “2007 Best Of Award of Excellence.”) That’s right, partner, the city that once had foodies snubbing their noses now has them drooling for a taste.

Just don’t bring up Calgary cuisine of the past.

Only five years ago, there was little point in asking for a menu at dinner.“Steak and potatoes, no question,” says River Café executive chef Scott Pohorelic with a laugh. “You’d be asked how you liked your steak and whether you wanted baked or fries. That was it.”

Hello, boom times. Calgary is one of Canada’s fastest-growing cities, according to Statistics Canada, and with an average age of 35, is the country’s youngest. Why? In a word, oil. Over the last decade the country has sat back, collective mouths agape, and watched Calgary double over and over again. Construction is in full swing. Builders can’t hire help fast enough to keep up with the demand of million-dollar homes. Alongside the condos and office towers, restaurants are rising with big-name chefs holding the reins. Calgary — once dismissed as just another prairie outpost — has grown into a food capital critics say can rival (some say, surpass) Vancouver, BC, Toronto, ON, or Montréal, QC.

Paul Rogalski at Rouge, John Donovan at Divino Wine and Cheese Bistro and Dominique Moussu at Teatro have each brought to their restaurants a committed following. New kids on the block Wildfire Grill and JARO Blue are poised to follow suit. The chefs themselves are different, too.

Hotel Arts Raw Bar chef Duncan Ly is a prime example. Born in Alberta, he trained in Vancouver and Tofino, BC before returning to his home province. Now he is one of the city’s chefs that people refer to by name when choosing where to eat.

“Calgary’s evolving,” says Ly. “People are getting a bit more adventurous with food. Now you have to offer a variety of different meats to keep people happy.”

Canadian food critic John Gilchrist credits the change to the “emergence of the young Canadian chef,” a phenomenon underway coast to coast. “I’ve been reviewing restaurants for the last 27 years, and when I started, it was all about the Euro chef,” says Gilchrist. “They cooked some form of continental cuisine that they would begrudgingly use local ingredients for. Now it’s all about local, seasonal, all those slow food-y kinds of things. The guys and gals who grew up (here) are cooking things that they know about.

“Yesterday, I had fabulous Jerusalem artichokes for lunch and that’s something the European chef would look at and say, ‘What the hell is that?’ The local guys go, ‘OK! Let’s play with it.’”

Pohorelic believes the trend of “chef as celebrity” has played a role as well. “The Food Network has had an enormous impact on the industry,” says Pohorelic. “If you look at our local cooking school, it’s a lot more dynamic and has more motivated students today.

“The idea of being a chef is a lot more desirable now. Not that long ago, nobody knew the chef’s name,” Pohorelic says. “The food has gotten more interesting, too.”

Entrepreneurial and armed with an eco-sensitivity off the radar of earlier generations, these artistes come out of the kitchen not only to meet their guests, but also to find their ingredients. It helps that Alberta has a wealth of produce and protein, and that farmers have welcomed the newly minted recognition of their efforts. Chefs are short-listing game meat from the Canadian Rocky Mountain Ranch owned by the O’Connor family. And you’ll see them trolling the aisles of the Calgary farmers’ market — where a mandated percentage of all produce must be Alberta-grown in summer.

If the chefs are leading the charge towards a more wholesome, refined way of dining, diners are right behind them.

“It’s crazy. Customers talk to me all the time about what they’re cooking at home and it blows my mind,” says Pohorelic. “They’re putting more into their home meals than some restaurants put into theirs. They’re braising lamb shanks for six hours; it’s not just cooking in 15 minutes like it used to be.”

Companies such as Gail Norton’s The Cookbook Co. Cooks, which offers classes, hard-to-find ingredients and advice, have grown until they’ve literally busted at the seams. The Cookbook Co. Cooks’ motto: “You have to eat — so it might as well be interesting,” seems to have become the city mantra. The shop recently shut down to make way for a full facelift to better serve a growing audience. It all adds up to an educated consumer who simply won’t settle for lukewarm fries and a well-done steak anymore.

“As the clientele gets better educated about food, there’s more opportunity for restaurants,” Pohorelic says. “You can be the greatest chef in the world cooking the greatest food in the world, but if your clientele doesn’t get it, it’s going nowhere. There’s going to be even more opportunity for our chefs to experiment, play and get more creative.”

Food lovers around the world just drooled in tandem.

Calgary Features

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