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Char Siu Lamb, right, and Albacore Tuna at The Hawthorn Dining Room in Calgary, on Nov. 7, 2019.

Jeff McIntosh

  • Hawthorn Dining Room and Bar
  • Location: 133 9 Ave. S.W. (inside the Fairmont Palliser), Calgary
  • Phone: 403-260-1219
  • Website: hawthorndiningroom.ca
  • Price: $7-$105
  • Cuisine: Globally inspired
  • Atmosphere: Refined, but comfortable.
  • Drinks on offer: Cocktails, wine and beer.
  • Best bets: Hawthorn bread, cavatelli, chicken spatchcock, not your mama’s dark and stormy (cocktail)

rating

2 out of 4 stars

The Hawthorn lounge.

Jeff McIntosh/STRJMC

It’s not too often that people jump at the opportunity to dine at a hotel restaurant in Canada. There’s always been a stigma from mediocre hotel fare.

In the past 10 years or so, we’ve seen Canadian hotels slowly reinventing how they do food (and drink) to compete with their respective cities’ booming food scene. Some of the best examples, perhaps, come out of Vancouver where places such as the Fairmont Pacific Rim, Fairmont Waterfront and The Victor at the JW Marriott are some of the hottest spots to go for an after-work cocktail and bite.

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Calgary’s Palliser was one of the last properties in the Fairmont chain in Canada to undergo a substantial renovation to its main restaurant, The Rimrock, and its accompanying bar. Although I will always have fond memories of the Oak Room (now an event space adjacent to the current lobby bar) and its tenure as one of the city’s longest-running bars, change is good and, in this case, was very welcomed.

After extensive renovations, the hotel’s new concept, the Hawthorn Dining Room and Bar, made its debut earlier this year. The new space is striking from its zig-zag black-and-white floor tiles to warm, rust-colour banquettes and U-shaped bar that spills out into the main lobby. The dining room isn’t all new as two of its most famous design accents – the grand fireplace and the colourful Alberta Foothills mural – remain. The latter of the two seems to serve as colour inspiration for the entire space and is a thoughtful historical nod.

The Hawthorn dining room.

Jeff McIntosh/STRJMC

It’s current chef, Dave Bohati, is a fairly celebrated and regular fixture of the Calgary food scene, but he’s hopped around a little bit in the past couple of years from Teatro to Murietta’s. Now at Hawthorn, he seems to be settling in nicely.

Menus in restaurants such as these need to be fairly vast to serve people from breakfast to late night. Because of this, there isn’t one main focus when it comes to a type of cuisine. Come in for lunch or dinner and the plates of food one can opt for are all over the map, so to speak.

The pommes frites get a pleasant Middle Eastern upgrade spiced with za’atar and served with harissa aioli. A plate of cavatelli is uncomplicated Italian, served with pine nuts, braised lamb, grana padano and a touch of mint. A deliciously succulent half-roast chicken draws from Portuguese roots with its piri piri along with a charred lemon and yogurt for balance. I rarely order chicken at a restaurant, but I’m happy we did here.

To go along with the chicken, we opted for pommes aligot. The classic French dish features potatoes mashed with so much cheese and cream that the potatoes become almost elastic, similar to that of a fondue. Here, that was no such case as a bowl of near-mealy potatoes manifested on our table. Perhaps it was an off day for potato mashing, who’s to know.

Then there’s the gai lan, prepared al dente with preserved lemon, slivers of nori, crushed cashews and a homemade XO sauce. This amped-up Chinese dish surprisingly lacked intensity and was too oily to finish more than a few bites.

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Huge chunks of albacore tuna also proved unappealing with a promise of ponzu, furikake (a seaweed spice mix, more or less) and orange, but lacking any sort of salt and acidity. An uninspired shrimp cocktail with cocktail sauce and green-goddess dressing for dipping also failed to impress.

Albacore tuna.

Jeff McIntosh/STRJMC

After two meals at Hawthorn, the surprising sleeper hit turned out to be the restaurant’s house-baked bread, which is served as a quarter loaf pierced with a knife, well-toasted with a schmear of black garlic butter and whipped butter. Any day-old bread is also repurposed by Last Best Brewing to create a signature brew for the restaurant. That’s a full circle I can get behind.

A simple caramel-chocolate tart ended one evening of dining here. A classic and satisfying enough dessert to spoon into, the cracked chocolate Hawthorn emblem resting on top of it seemed to be an analogy for things overall. Fine with all things considered, but a little off the mark.

Where Hawthorn stumbles with its menu, it makes up for with its elegant dining room, consistently pleasant service staff and an unexpectedly good cocktail program. The bar’s take on a dark and stormy with the addition of amaro and a pungent ginger puree is indeed – as the name implies – “not your mama’s dark and stormy.”

The hotel restaurant has an unexpectedly good cocktail program.

Jeff McIntosh/The Globe and Mail

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