- Location: 1214 9 Ave SE, Calgary
- Phone: 587-356-2686
- Website: gorillawhale.ca
- Price: $6-$21
- Cuisine: Japanese fusion
- Atmosphere: Funky, loud and lively
- Drinks on offer: Sake, craft beer, wine and some cocktails
- Best bets: Halloumi yakitori, bread and butter, flatiron steak, gorilla rice, Kit Kat, Shiso-ito
- Vegetarian friendly? Yes.
- Additional information: Open daily for lunch and dinner. Takes reservations.
Leave the prim and proper diners and unadventurous eaters at home, folks, because grabbing a bite at Gorilla Whale is certainly not for the faint of heart.
This new eatery in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood seems to really like to hammer it into a diner’s head that they march to the beat of their own drum. As loudly as Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell echoes through the room on the singalong playlist, the menu wants to buck tradition and take people on a rollercoaster ride. A wild ride indeed.
To make the most of your time here at this rock ‘n’ roll-inspired, Japanese-style eatery named after Godzilla in Calgary’s Inglewood neighbourhood, you’re best off dining with a fun group of friends who don’t take themselves, or their food, too seriously.
Why? Because the restaurant truly makes a point of not wanting anyone to.
In the name of all things unserious, the kitchen will top an adequately fried soft-shell crab with store-bought Chinese crackers or marinate a cut of ostrich in Dr. Pepper before slicing it into a carpaccio preparation and drowning it unpleasantly in a pile of Dijon mustard-marinated cucumbers and onions. But, soda pop in a fancy dish? Bro!
The restaurant even has a Wagyu burger topped with foie, unagi and Big Mac sauce up for the ordering. How badass, eh?
Rewinding a bit, Gorilla’s executive chef, Dirk McCabe, has some healthy pedigree. His résumé boasts places such as Beckta in Ottawa – regarded to be one of the best restaurants in the country’s capital – as well as the late, but much-respected Catch Restaurant and Oyster Bar. Given his culinary background, this style of food seems fairly out of his realm, but the menu is not without its interesting efforts.
The warm Japanese milk bread (think Parker House rolls) with a teriyaki bone-marrow butter are a hit with my table on two separate visits, as did the halloumi yakitori, though have you ever met a seared chunk of this salty, bouncy cheese that you didn’t like?
Outside of the halloumi, all other yakitori I have had here has been overcooked and dry. I think this traditional technique is best left to other places that truly take it seriously, such as Shokunin.
The agedashi tofu and cucumber sees fried slices of both in a well-balanced dashi broth with spinach and sprinkles of black sesame. It’s rare to come across cooked cucumber and this is a nice way to enjoy it as such.
Mr. McCabe’s flatiron steak is also unexpectedly delicious with shaved rainbow carrots (which still remarkably hold an al dente texture), tender and nonsensical Cool Ranch Doritos gnocchi resting on a generous ladling of wonderful miso hollandaise.
Then there’s the standout of the night, the “gorilla rice.” Somewhat reminiscent of Chinese sticky rice, this umami-laden dish boasts small cubes of supremely flavourful mortadella, edamame, intense Japanese pickles, seaweed and fried soy beans. A fried egg on top becomes mashed into the mix, adding a nice richness to the whirlwind of flavours already in play.
Pastry chef Jess Lypkie, formerly of Two Penny Chinese, works some magic here when it comes to the sweet side of Gorilla Whale. Her interpretation of the Japanese wasabi Kit Kat appears as a white chocolate-glazed layered cake with wasabi sponge, yuza, white-chocolate matcha pastry cream and candied pistachios.
The kewpie chocolate cake topped with sugar-crusted nori arrived dry and crumbled at the touch of a spoon, but sweet, interactive redemption was found in the grapefruit meringue sphere that one of my dinner mates smashed eagerly with his spoon before sharing the grapefruit curd, tea-smoked lychee and coconut hiding inside.
Nathan Head, one of Calgary’s most recognizable cocktail minds, is behind the bar here and works with a surprisingly small list of just seven cocktails. Given that his past stations (Milk Tiger, Proof) are some of Canada’s most well-known cocktail bars, this seems to be a peculiar post for him. That said, with healthily stocked bar shelves there’s no shortage of options, and he seems happy and obliged to take requests. His “Shiso-ito” is a fun remix on a classic mojito. Made with a mix of simple syrup, lime, rum, sake and distinct, pungent shiso leaves, it is remarkably refreshing.
As serious as Gorilla Whale allegedly doesn’t take its concept – loud music, funky pop art on the walls et al – I have to wonder why it lets servers wear toques during dinner service. I expect that kind of attire from casual pubs or uber-hipster watering holes, but not from a place where plates cross the $20 mark.
Call me old-fashioned, but if I’m looking for a wine pairing recommendation, I would like it coming from someone who’s groomed themselves for service.
Halfway through our dinner, a friend exclaimed how loud the music was, left our table, strolled over to another to take the hand of another friend and proceeded to dance in the middle of the dining room much to the amusement of other patrons and service staff alike.
Sometimes fun can supersede food at a restaurant, and judging by the smiles on most people’s faces right at this moment, I can’t say that it’s necessarily a bad thing.