Spending as much time as I do in the major cities of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, it’s always interesting to watch the ups and downs of each experience over the course of 12 months.
For Calgary, this year has been largely peppered with mediocrity in terms of openings, plenty of closures and plenty of new craft breweries. One may even say too many, but time will tell.
Edmonton boasted plenty of new concepts as well, but only a handful truly stood out, especially when the splashy new J.W. Marriott hotel commanded most of the media spotlight with its debut in the city’s Ice District.
Saskatoon has had a year of quietly chugging along with Ace Burger Co., Odla and, most recently, Prairie Sun Brewery’s re-envisioning being the sole three buzzworthy spots.
Ever an advocate for Winnipeg – as plenty of my colleagues and friends will say – I am continually surprised at the dynamic things happening there. With the opening of the luxe new food hall downtown, Hargrave Street Market, it’s hard not to think that Winnipeg’s food scene is the most interesting in the Prairies.
Couple that with the fact that two week-long collaborative chef dinner series were recently announced for winter of 2020 in both Edmonton and Winnipeg, I am almost willing to predict that these two cities and their respective food scenes might get their fair share of the national limelight this year.
1. Noble Pie at Eighty-Eight Brewing (Calgary)
2600 Portland St. SE #1070, noblepiepizza.com
Speaking of breweries and their culinary contributions getting ahead of the pack, this year’s top spot on my list goes happily to Noble Pie and its home brewery, Eighty-Eight.
The New York-style pizzeria within a 1980s-themed brewery (with emphasis on Calgary and the ‘88 Olympics) that started out as a hobby project by owner Mike Lange has developed more than a cult following in Calgary, where waiting an average of one to one and a half hours for a whole pizza is the norm. Everyone, including me, packed into that taproom, seems happy to wait, albeit drooling a bit as we watch other folks’ pizzas leave the kitchen.
There is little to fault with the base dough Mr. Lange makes with a multiday process, which always offers a healthy chew and a little tang. The toppings that follow may include imported American pepperoni, Ezzo, as well as Mike’s Hot Honey from Brooklyn. These little touches help make Noble Pie’s pies something even a New York-dwelling food lover would approve of.
If you’ve never been, order the Roni (pepperoni, banana peppers, grana padano, pecorino romano, Sicilian oregano aged mozzarella, tomato sauce) to see what all of the fuss is about.
I’d be shocked if you left disappointed.
2. Nonsuch Brewing Co. (Winnipeg)
125 Pacific Ave., 204-666-7824, nonsuch.beer
One would never expect a ceiling covered in shimmering gold, open umbrellas to be one of the most unforgettable design accents of the year. And yet, here we are at Nonsuch Brewing in Winnipeg, which boasts not only a one-of-a-kind interior (the adjacent dining room’s ceiling is made up entirely of “waves” of tassels, too) and impeccably brewed beers such as the well-rounded Baltic Porter or Tripel, but imaginative culinary creations in an atmosphere that is truly a world of its own.
House-made charcuterie can be worrisome at many restaurants, but such is not the case at Nonsuch, with chef Tyrone Welchinski’s boards boasting anything from homemade Hot Rods to flavourful bresaola and perfectly balanced house pickles.
Tartare gets a clever upgrade with deer meat and dill aioli, and a thick slab of toasted rye with baba ganoush, dukkah, preserved sour cherries, winter squash and mustard is like the avocado toast’s much cooler older cousin.
With the proliferation of micro-breweries in Canada, one must stand out and Nonsuch does just that.
3. Partake (Edmonton)
12431 102 Ave. NW, 780-760-8253, ouipartake.com
This quaint, French-focused cocktail bar just off of 124 Street in downtown Edmonton is worthy of many repeat visits.
I can’t help but think of the Shire seeing the well-crafting curved-arch doorways within this unassuming space in a strip mall. Saddling up to the bar with a friend is a consistently wonderful way to spend an evening.
Dishes such as aligot (think the creamiest, cheesiest potatoes you’ve ever had), beef tartare with beet and barley relish, and mini pomme duchesse with aioli for dipping are just a few of the tasty, highly shareable plates of food with which you can nibble the night away while sipping a drink such as the Bubble Fit For A Queen, made with green chartreuse and maraschino.
4. Lulu Bar (Calgary)
510 17 Ave. SW, 403-930-5707, lulubar.ca
In the midst of places such as Cilantro, Buttermilk and Home & Away closing their doors on 17th Avenue (though the latter two have now relocated), Lulu Bar proves that people will always flock to something that’s shiny and new on an oversaturated street as long as it lives up to its looks.
Its menu, which was created by Concorde Entertainment Group senior culinary director JP Pedhirney and restaurant chef Joseph Sokoloff, is all about mish-mashing Polynesian and Southeast Asian (and occasionally Chinese) flavours on an eclectic menu that runs the gamut from char siu hot dog baos to French omelettes with green curry, skewers of house spam (a must-try) and chili sweet-and-sour steak bavette with herb salad and fried shallot (also a must-try).
Given its fairly tropical theme and light and bright atmosphere, the drink program is a truly fun one with a mix of tiki-esque drinks such as the thirst-quenching Coconut Cooler or stiffer Pineapple Negroni made with aged pineapple rum.
Most opt for the gigantic, Instagram-friendly ice cream pie, the Baked Hula, for dessert here, but pastry chef Katelin Bland’s expert techniques are much more prevalent in the tangy, well-textured passion-fruit pavlova.
5. Smokey Bear (Edmonton)
8223 104 St. NW, 587-759-0209, smokeybearyeg.com
I’d hate to say it’s finally nice to have a truly interesting restaurant by Whyte Avenue, but it’s finally nice to have a truly interesting restaurant by Whyte Avenue. On a street predominantly filled by bars fit for drunk college students, it’s a welcome surprise to have discovered Smokey Bear just off its east end this fall.
After spending several years cooking in both Denmark and Australia, chef/owner Riley Aitken recently returned to Canada to open Smokey Bear. His menu heavily revolves around a stunning wood-fired grill tucked in the back corner of the room, where the chef team churns out dishes such as grilled flatbread with pickles, sour cream and Meuwly’s Nduja or oyster mushroom skewers in a umami-ridden yeast sauce.
The space itself is modern, but comfortable and with an interesting wine list to go along with the food, there isn’t much to fault at Smokey, especially considering that it’s the newest kid on the block.
6. Sidewalk Citizen Restaurant (Calgary)
340 13 Ave. SW, 403-263-2999, sidewalkcitizenbakery.com
As a long-time fixture of the Calgary food scene, most Calgarians have fallen in love with Sidewalk Citizen and its two bakeries over the years. Earlier this year, owners Aviv and Michal Fried took over the former Provision space in Central Memorial Park and after extensive renovations, transformed it into an airy, Middle Eastern concept that does not disappoint.
Doing away with the patio, Sidewalk Citizen’s new restaurant is more-or-less one half greenhouse built largely with wooden slats criss-crossing from the ground up, allowing tropical and citrus plants to thrive on the perimeter of the dining room.
The food is prepared by chef Colin Metcalfe, the Frieds’ right-hand man, and does not disappoint. House-made falafel and fermented hot sauce with salted cabbage and cubes of barramundi, cucumber and radish marinated in tahini yogurt and garnished with sesame seeds and dill are just two examples of what you can look forward to here.
I can only imagine how busy this restaurant will be in the summer when the “greenhouse” front door opens completely and the summer breeze wafts the delectable and exotic smells from the kitchen out to passersby.
7. Filistix (Edmonton)
10621 100 Ave. NW, 780-726-4708, filistix.ca
A popular destination for University of Alberta students on-campus for flavourful Filipino and Southeast Asian fare, Filistix upped the ante for itself this year by opening a proper, sit-down restaurant in the city’s downtown core.
The lunch menu mimics what you’d find on campus, simply scoops of curry with piles of rice, if I may generalize, but the breakfast menu boasts a most wonderful burrito filled with longanisa, scrambled eggs, onions, cheese and aioli.
Come nighttime, Filistix offer table service, cocktails and dinner menu that celebrates Filipino ingredients and classic dishes in creative ways. Fried noodles, pork-belly skewers, juicy dumplings and more.
Remember: vinegar is a staple condiment in Filipino cuisine and it’s placed on your table for a reason. So use it to help round out the rich and often slightly sweet flavours you’ll encounter here.
8. Purlieu (Calgary)
3109 Palliser Dr. SW, 403-280-7474, purlieucalgary.ca
It’s clear that the minimally designed but cozy space, which seats perhaps 30, has become a favourite of the Calgary suburb of Oakridge for its thoughtfully prepared food and attentive service.
In particular, the mussels and fries with vadouvan curry still linger in my mind as one of the most warming dishes I’ve had this year. As well, the chef’s take on duck cassoulet sees small slices of Chinese sausage added to the braised bean mixture, which helps to add a pleasant sweetness that you can’t quite put your finger on at first.
Restaurants such as Purlieu are a lovely example that there can be more interesting eateries in the suburbs than simply chain restaurants and decades-old, outdated Italian eateries.
9. Hawthorn Dining Room and Bar (Calgary)
133 9 Ave. SW, 403-260-1219, hawthorningdiningroom.ca
After months of renovations, the Fairmont Palliser hotel finally opened its new restaurant and lobby bar this spring. Designed by Frank Architecture and Interiors, Hawthorn Dining Room and Bar is nothing short of jaw-dropping visually. Paying pleasant homage to Alberta history, the former restaurant’s giant focal-point fireplace remains as well as the foothills mural, from which the interior draws its colour inspiration.
When it comes to the food, not everything on the menu here by chef Dave Bohati is a home run, but definitely make a point of trying the Hawthorn bread with black garlic butter as well as the piri-piri chicken if you’re feeling carnivorous.
Cocktails here are a different story, as the bar team can comfortably shake and stir up all of the classics one could hope for in addition to a clever custom cocktail list as well.
10. Magic Bird Fried Chicken (Winnipeg)
61 Sherbrooke St., 204-615-2977, magicbirdfriedchicken.com
More of a pop-up inside of staple live-music venue The Handsome Daughter, there’s nothing quite like Magic Bird in Western Canada and that’s why it’s easy to love. While most fried-chicken concepts focus solely on multipiece meals, this eatery moves outside of the golden, crispy-fried box, offering up a substantial menu in addition to the aforementioned of strips, sandwiches and wings. All of which can be served with Magic’s vast array of homemade sauces (the honey dill is especially delicious) and fermented hot sauces.
Perhaps not an everyday meal, but that goes without saying.
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