Location: 1609 Centre St. N.W.
Phone: (825) 910-8488
Cuisine: Contemporary Vietnamese
Atmosphere: Bright and inviting
Vegetarian friendly? Yes
Additional info: Closed Mondays. A new restaurant from the people behind the Calgary institution Pho Dau Bo
It’s no secret that my love for Vietnamese cuisine runs deeper than my love for most things in this world. This has resulted in many trips overseas to explore Vietnam and more meals at Vietnamese eateries in Western Canada than most folks will ever have in their lives.
So my expectations are high when I’m trying out a new restaurant such as Mot To, which Sarah Luong and Long Thai – two of the impassioned restaurateurs behind Calgary’s iconic Pho Dau Bo – opened this past spring.
Pho Dau Bo has become an undeniable culinary institution in Calgary since opening in 2008. It is famous for dishes like bone marrow pho and Vietnamese-style beef carpaccio. Mot To retains popular menu items such as these, using them as a familiar foundation for diners while also expanding their taste horizons.
Food aside, one distinct difference between the old and the new right off the bat is Mot To’s decor. The long, narrow room boasts floor-to-ceiling windows on its east and west sides, allowing natural light to flood the space. Tabletops are made of reclaimed chopsticks while a neon sign in between banquettes glows fluorescent pink and proclaims “This is what you came pho.”
While I did come for pho, soup certainly did not take centre stage during any of my meals here, not that that’s a bad thing. The Pho Grilled Cheese sandwich commands plenty of attention – and “oohs” and “aahs” – with its supremely swiss cheesiness and tender shaved beef tucked in-between perfectly golden pieces of toast. A small glass of piping hot pho broth is meant for dipping (think beef dip) and, well, this dish is what indulgent, cheesy dreams are made of, my friends.
Mot To’s aromatic pho broth finds its way into all kinds of situations on the menu including a slightly savoury-leaning cocktail, Un-Pho-Gettable. Made with gin, lime, Thai basil and chilled broth, it’s a drink that you certainly won’t find anywhere else. Herbaceous with a savoury lean, it’s a beverage that will surely pique the interest of most.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, but any sweet-toothed drinkers on the premises would be best to look past it to Good Morning Saigon, a version of the traditional Vietnamese coffee spiked with Kahlua and Baileys, shaken with egg whites. An Espresso Martini has got nothin’ on this, I assure you.
As nice as the curation of the drink menu is here, dining at Mot To is truly all about the food.
I so rarely say this, but you will be hard-pressed to find a menu item here that does not satiate you. There are spring rolls, of course, but the crab, pork and taro ones invoke a true taste of Vietnam. They are nothing like the small, narrow wheat-based rolls you’ll find at most places in Alberta and B.C. They are a must-order.
Likewise, the salad (goi) will transport you abroad, largely due to the inclusion of pleasantly crunchy (and unique) thinly sliced banana-flower blossoms and a fish-sauce-forward dressing. Mint, chilies, crispy-fried shallots … if you’re looking to raise the bar beyond mixed greens and oil-and-vinegar dressings, the texturally rewarding Mot To house salad will show you what’s possible.
The “popcorn” quail may be considered a slight stumble though. Lightly battered and fried quail halves served with a pepper-lime nuoc cham dipping sauce are definitely not the easiest items to eat, so be prepared to get carnal with your hands … and get a few teeny bones stuck in your teeth along the way.
The “Soupless Pho” (pho tron) is the restaurant’s take on a Vietnamese noodle salad and also delivers a lovely myriad of textures thanks to its mix of bouncy rice noodles, tender chunks of chicken, bean sprouts, lardons, green leaf lettuce and quail’s eggs. I’d dwell on this moment longer if it weren’t for the generous portion of bun rieu (crab and tomato soup) staring me down.
A rarity on menus in Canada, this soup is typically served with ground pork and fried tofu, but the restaurant also adds pork blood jelly into the mix here. Again, this a dish with textures abounding and a rich broth that will keep one coming back for more (and more).
Seeing as Calgary has one of the most dynamic Vietnamese-Canadian communities in the entire country, it’s no surprise that Mot To can balance traditional techniques with contemporary mentalities.
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