Location: 802 49 Ave S.W.
Cuisine: Contemporary Canadian
Atmosphere: Modern and minimalist.
Drinks on offer: Canadian wines, cocktails, espresso-based drinks and tea.
Best bets: Wine-poached oyster, sunflower-seed risotto, creamsicle cocktail, tiramisu.
Vegetarian friendly? Yes.
Additional info: Open daily for breakfast/brunch, lunch as well as dinner aside from Monday nights.
I’ve always found the Britannia shopping strip off Calgary’s Elbow Drive a bit of a perplexing location for modern-minded restaurants. While it is hypothetically situated in an affluent neighbourhood of the city’s Southwest, many eateries have had difficulty finding longevity in Britannia Plaza in the past five or so years.
There was the relatively short-lived Elbow Room, the even more short-lived Suzette Bistro, A1 Cantina – which has since morphed into a second location of Native Tongues by the same hospitality group – and I’m sure I’m forgetting one or two.
Regardless, one of the longest standing here is Starbucks, so perhaps that was a good indicator for Monogram Coffee that they could find purchase in this challenging nook of Calgary’s inner city. Along with Monogram’s newest location comes Primary Colours, an elevated cafe concept headed up by chef Matthias Fong (most notably formerly of River Cafe), supported by pastry chef Kevin Yang.
It’s rare to have a coffee shop serve thoughtfully composed cuisine beyond simple sandwiches, salads and soups, so this curious concept piqued not just my interest, but that of many industry and local food lovers.
The space itself is very true to Monogram’s minimalist design and boasts stark white walls, white-tiled islands and polished light-wood tabletops. Soft grey upholstered banquettes are appropriately comfy and relaxing and match the low-key vibe in the room.
This isn’t the kind of place that would feel buzzing on a weekend night, but I don’t think that’s the aim.
Depending on the time of day you pop by, you might find yourself enjoying any number of beverages. A matcha latte made with from-scratch almond-cashew milk hits the spot nicely during the daytime. Come the evening, the creamsicle cocktail, made with brown-butter-washed rye whisky, sea buckthorn syrup and the aforementioned nut milk, sounds dubious on the menu, but winds up being quite, well, crushable.
When it comes to wine selection, the cafe’s very succinct wine list places sole focus on Canadian wines. It’s limiting, but not unpleasurable thanks to offerings from top-quality vintners such as Nova Scotia’s Benjamin Bridge and Meyer, from B.C. If you’re not ordering a bottle, by-the-glass options are even more scarce, but, lest we forget, we are dining at a coffee shop.
Primary Colours’ creativity is most expansive with its food offerings. Chef Fong is especially playful with his signature ginger beets dish – dehydrated beets are battered and lightly fried and meant to mimic the texture of a classic Western Chinese beef dish. While the beets texturally are quite dynamic, the honey-ginger-chili sauce could pack a bit more of a punch to leave a lasting impression.
The country-fried mushrooms are also hard to resist based on description alone, but underseasoned cornmeal-crusted chunks of lion’s mane mushroom coupled with a fairly goopy mustard cream sauce is not a recipe for success on this particular visit.
Headed into an upward swing, the chef’s wine-poached oyster and bay scallop (ordered by the piece) is a true thing of beauty. Nestled into a bed of coffee beans – an homage to Monogram no doubt – the tender seafood is topped with a few teeny pea pods and preserved rhubarb. I’m still thinking about it.
Perhaps best described as “summer on a plate” is the sunflower-seed risotto. The slow-cooked approach to using sunflower seeds is so underutilized in the restaurant world, so we love to see it in action. Here, the sunflowers are enriched with a sake-kasu-infused butter (umami!) and plated with beet-pickled cauliflower (perhaps Barbie’s influence has seeped into the restaurant world?), charred broccoli, beans, squash, flowers and garden herbs.
Spooning into this reminds me that summer days are dwindling and, with them, seasonal vegetables too.
I feel more on the fence about a plate of bay scallops and shrimp that comes served with pea and romano bean “noodles” (i.e. shaved vegetables), almond emulsion, whole almonds and salmon roe. It is curious and the components are well-prepared, but it seems to lack excitement (acidity?) as a whole.
Desserts come courtesy of pastry chef Yang and are deftly created and unique. The highlight of one dinner here was the sea buckthorn tiramisu, visually familiar-feeling, but reimagined flavour-wise thanks to Japanese sponge cake soaked with Monogram coffee, sea buckthorn mousse and dark chocolate cremeux.
While not everything may be a home run here at Primary Colours, it’s hard to deny that you would be hard-pressed to find a more unique menu at a coffee shop in Alberta … or all of Canada for that matter.