In late May, I spent a magical evening at Calgary’s legendary River Café. Tucked into the lush greenery of Prince’s Island Park, this rustic wood-and-glass charmer overlooks the lagoon where the Bow River passes through downtown Calgary.
On the outdoor terrace, we slurped raw oysters as the sun dappled through the trees and fuzzy goslings waddled across the paths. Inside, a bevy of guest chefs tamed a giant Pacific octopus into pretty carpaccio checkerboards and churned seaweed into ice cream.
The River Café was a fitting venue for a collaborative Ocean-Wise dinner celebrating sustainable seafood, which the landlocked city has embraced with surprising vigour (40 restaurants have joined the Vancouver Aquarium-based program). Restaurant founder Sal Howell was the first to get on board umpteen years ago. Since opening in the early 1990s, River Café has been a regional leader in the sustainable food movement, using naturally raised meat and pesticide-free produce. It has created connections with local farmers, supported the suppliers of wild foraged foods and inspired countless young chefs.
Over five days in Calgary, I encountered incredible passion and camaraderie in the culinary community. All across town, I discovered menus touting ethical stewardship and in-house plates made-from-scratch. From Hotchkiss heirloom tomatoes to Poplar Bluff potatoes, the provenance of local ingredients was highlighted with pride. The energy and optimism reminded me of Vancouver 10 years ago.
It’s hard to believe that River Café was almost swept away in the flood. When the river rose, the building looked like an island unto itself surrounded by a muddy brown moat. Miraculously, the restaurant still stands. The water line stopped just short of the dining room floorboards. The patio and edible garden were untouched. The basement, however, was gutted. As with so many restaurants, there were huge losses in equipment, food and wine inventory. River Café will not reopen until at least the end of the month.
I wish I were in Calgary this week to support its restaurant industry and help with the cleanup. If you go to Stampede, I urge you get outside the fairgrounds and visit some of the fine establishments that so impressed me.
340-13th Ave. SW, Calgary: 403-265-4006. Boxwoodcafe.ca
River Café’s casual sister restaurant reopened last week. Located in the restored gardens of Central Memorial Park (Calgary’s oldest), Boxwood Café is a bright and airy downtown oasis for wholesome fast food. The kitchen may be small, but it follows the same philosophies as River Café – the ingredients are local, everything is made in-house (even the bread), herbs and greens are grown in a backdoor garden, meats are slowly roasted on a rotisserie. Try the porchetta sandwich, perfectly tender and thinly sliced, adorned with cracklings, bright cilantro salsa verde and a heap of peppery arugula all piled high on chewy ciabatta.
1919 Sirocco Dr., Calgary: 403-514-0561. Bistrorougeyyc.com
From the same team that put Calgary’s Rouge Restaurant on the international culinary map (it is one of two Canadian restaurants ever to grace the S. Pellegrino Top 100 list), Bistro Rouge is a casual offshoot celebrating the great flavours of Alberta and beyond. Only a few months old, the laid-back bistro is in Signal Hill, a southwest suburb. The kitchen’s luscious creations – a mix-and-match velouté bar, multilayered lobster with handmade pasta, tenderly pounded striploin paillards grillé (a reinvented classic rarely seen any more, not even in France) – are well worth the drive. Meanwhile, in Inglewood, fine-dining Rouge has reopened with a (necessarily) simplified menu that brings the historic red house back to its pure garden-fresh roots.
308-17th Ave. SW, Calgary: 403-265-7343. Modelmilk.ca
Funky and fun, this modern restaurant is in a historic dairy building in the heart of uptown’s thriving main strip. Justin Leboe, the former executive chef at Rush, has joyously released himself from the shackles of fine-dining, busting out with an innovative menu that features fried chicken next to foie gras. The eclectic fare includes buffalo wing sweetbreads, velvety shrimp and grits and twice-cooked duck in Chinese XO broth. The bar features some of the best cocktails in town. And the Sunday Supper, a family-style feast for $35 a person, is a fantastic deal.
105-550 11th Ave SW, Calgary: 587-352-0964. Avecbistro.com
Owned by several impressive fixtures in the local culinary scene – Kirk Shaw, Jackie Cooke and Gail Norton – this new bistro combines classic comfort food with personable yet professional service (still a rarity in Calgary) and a stellar wine list. The crispy (deep-fried) chicken with foie gras truffle sauce is already a cult favourite among foodies.
National Beer Hall
241 10th Ave. SW, Calgary: 403-474-2739. Ntnl.ca
Alberta is undergoing a craft beer explosion and the beer hall boom is one of Calgary’s most kick-ass trends. This is the National’s new second location (the original is on 17th Avenue). It’s a big playground for adults with a convivial vibe, communal seating and white lights strung along lofty ceilings. There’s a bowling alley in the basement, a beautiful rooftop patio and 69 kegs of draft beer on the wall (plus a few ciders and sodas). It’s all North American microbrew, much of it local. The elevated pub fare includes duck confit poutine, smoked oysters and a buck-a-shuck raw bar. Yeehaw!