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A ling cod dish is pictured on May 17, 2018. Working with a vague theme of ‘new neighbourhood cuisine,’ it’s hard to tell what you’re in for when you sit down for dinner at Donna Mac.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

  • Donna Mac
  • Location: 1002 9 St SW, Calgary
  • Phone: 403-719-3622
  • Website:  donnamacyyc.ca
  • Price: $6-$32
  • Cuisine: Experimental comfort food?
  • Atmosphere: Fairly elegant, but comfortable
  • Drinks on offer: Wine and cocktails
  • Best bets: Porcini crullers, risotto, kielbasa, celery root, sundae
  • Vegetarian friendly? Vegan friendly
  • Additional information: Weekend brunch is also available

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Sugar, spice and everything nice comes to mind when thinking of what Donna Mac tries to achieve. Tucked into the corner of 9th Street and 10th Avenue SW, this six-month-old eatery from the owners of Proof and Vine Arts uniquely offers a “good neighbour” program where people in the area can come by to purchase small amounts of ingredients. You know, that borrow-a-cup-of-sugar-from-next-door sort of mentality.

It doesn’t necessarily have any bearing on a dining experience at Donna Mac, but it certainly helps set the tone of a neighbourhood restaurant reimagined.

Co-owner Amy Turner sets a table at Donna Mac. When flooded with natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows, the oxblood-leather banquettes seem warm and inviting.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

In a city’s restaurant scene, in which masculine interior design dominates and feminine design pops up every once and awhile (Ten Foot Henry, Bar Annabelle), Donna Mac, designed by Sarah Ward Interiors, lies somewhere in-between. Oxblood-leather banquettes would appear stiff and brooding in a low-light cocktail bar, but here – when flooded with natural light from floor-to-ceiling windows and set between square pillars, white and textured with wood and brass frames – they seem warm and inviting. The rainforest-brown marble countertop that runs along the exposed kitchen and bar area is especially beautiful, visually reminiscent of a galaxy far, far away.

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Most teeny details are down pat here, all the way down to the charming aprons donned by friendly waitstaff, led by one of the owners, Amy Turner, and the ceramic dishes one eats off, both of which were designed locally for the restaurant. It’s an attention to detail from which budding restaurateurs could learn a thing or two.

Since two of the owners here, Jeff Jamieson and Jesse Willis, also run one the city’s most-celebrated cocktail bars, Proof, there are few qualms to be had about libations. The wine list is interesting and approachable and the cocktail menu boasts plenty of playful creations. For something quirky and refreshing before dinner, try the “Doctor B” made up of rye, honey, apple-cider vinegar and cinnamon garnished with bee pollen. You’ll be happy you did.

The Humboldt squid dish. Experimental comfort food is, perhaps, the best way to describe what’s going on at Donna Mac.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The menu, created by chef Justin (Tino) Longpre is where all of the details stop adding up to success. Perhaps not completely, but by ordering a smattering of dishes here, you will be in for a roller-coaster ride of quality and composition.

Working with a vague theme of “new neighbourhood cuisine,” it’s hard to tell what you’re in for when you sit down for dinner. Experimental comfort food is, perhaps, the best way to describe what’s going on here.

To start with the good, I have ordered the porcini and gouda crullers to begin every meal at Donna Mac and have officially become addicted to them. The little fried chunks of mushroom and cheese batter have little to do with traditional cruller preparation, but are beyond delicious with their crisp outer exterior and gooey insides. At only $6, a second order is completely reasonable.

Line cook Carl Warren makes fresh pasta at Donna Mac.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The spring risotto offers a welcome level of acidity. Big chunks of maitake mushrooms and fresh green peas have been softly stirred into the tender rice before it’s topped with cured egg yolks, pea shoots and chives. It’s a nice example of how a couple of bright ingredients can turn a comfort dish into something enjoyable on a warm day.

A big bowl of kielbasa sausage and soft potato dumplings with pearl onions and crème fraîche is hearty, meaty and will happily trigger memories of home-cooked meals for anyone who grew up with Eastern European family or friends.

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As interesting as it sounds, skipping the pork belly would be a wise decision. Salty, clunky, briny and funky are a few words to describe this confused combination of seaweed, pork-belly chunks, sake-braised clams and a strange fermented rice that should never grace a person’s taste buds.

A big bowl of kielbasa sausage and soft potato dumplings with pearl onions and crème fraîche is hearty and meaty.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

The chef stumbles most when he ventures into vegan territory. After one bite, you can tell it’s a cooking style with which he is either unfamiliar or uncomfortable.

The cauliflower “grits” (i.e. riced cauliflower) with smoked almond cream and preserved lemon would be highly offensive to anyone hailing from the southern United States. Grits are made from corn, so the need to swap out ground corn for grated cauliflower seems completely unnecessary and painfully drags the dairy-free version of this comfort food further from its roots.

Likewise, a serving of house-made potato chips with vegan onion dip, made with fermented coconut cream and caramelized onions, proved a little worrisome with an aftertaste comparable to sunscreen. Admittedly, my friend and I did continue to eat this dip, if only to confuse ourselves further.

Donna Mac’s birthday cake. Earlier this spring, a different cake that was gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free and egg-free left the dessert menu.

Todd Korol/The Globe and Mail

Earlier this spring, a dessert entitled “everything free, but still delicious cake” was all too taunting in its title not to order. Even though it has since left the dessert menu, I can assure you that the sandy texture of this peculiar chunk of gluten-free, nut-free, dairy-free, egg-free cake combined with the taste of the bizarre chamomile foam on top was anything but delicious.

A couple of warmer weeks in Calgary as of late have seen the trees turn to green, asparagus sprout, flowers bloom and the temperature (finally) rise. As such, Mr. Longpre’s take on a classic sundae sounded like a perfect way to end the evening. Creamy ice cream made with fior di latte was scooped onto a base of caramel and chocolate sauce with crumbles of sponge toffee and two small, soft chocolate cookies resting on its side.

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This slight, but pleasant elevation of a summer staple is what I’d like to see more of at this neighbourhood restaurant. It’s sort of like being the new kid on the block. Sometimes it just takes a little while to fit in.

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