Location: 421 Riverfront Ave. SE, Calgary
Price: $8 to $68
Cuisine: Contemporary Latin American
Atmosphere: Modern and elegant.
Drinks on offer: Cocktails, mezcal and tequila, wine, some beer
Best bets: Avocado, Empanada, Causa, Scallop, Bone Marrow, Pincho, Tostada
Vegetarian friendly? Yes
Additional information: Reservations highly recommended, also open for weekend brunch.
Walking into Fortuna’s Row, you are immediately hit with a jaw-dropping interior design.
Huge concrete walls encase a dining room full of banquettes with grey- and rust-coloured fabric and dark-hued wooden tabletops. An open kitchen boasts a huge brick-encased fire grill, while a small finishing kitchen to the left pops out thanks to abstract white and dark grey tiling.
The slightly curved back bar boasts warm brown tiles and behind it, a tall wooden mirrored shelving unit that reflects the low light of the dining room. Throughout the room, there is plenty of tropical vegetation, some in terra cotta pots, others tucked into grey brick planters, all of which create a luxe, south-of-the-border vibe.
While the restaurant, which occupies a space that previously housed the long-standing Bookers Crab Shack on the cusp of Calgary’s Chinatown and East Village, has received endless buzz on social media, those digital photos don’t do it justice.
Around the corner, a sign that says “Standing Room Only” announces a separate lounge area (but don’t let the name fool you – there are seats).
And then there is the food and drinks.
From the classics to their own line of signature drinks, the restaurant’s bartenders know what they’re doing. The Basil is subtle spin on a classic gin martini thanks to the addition of a basil eau de vie and drops of basil oil. A perfect start to the evening.
On one visit, White Chocolate proved an appropriate boozy hug on a chilly night. Made with tequila, orange brandy and cocoa butter, a huge square ice cube dotted with white chocolate makes for an unorthodox yet fun garnish for a drink brimming with winter flavours.
The food here comes courtesy of much-celebrated local chef Mikko Tamarra – who is best known for the popular Con Mi Taco. At Fortuna’s, Mr. Tamarra is given an opportunity to create more visually refined plates that offer up regional culinary applications of Mexico and beyond and, more often than not, hit the mark.
While there were substantial menu changes between my first and second visits here, I will forever have fond memories of the esquites. The chef’s take on Mexican street corn arrives as a shallow bowl of tender corn kernels dotted with charcoal mayonnaise and green chilis and pomegranate seeds. Bone marrow is glazed with chintextle, a dried pepper and shrimp paste, roasted and nestled on top.
A truly decadent variation on this corn dish theme.
Also departed from the current menu is a beautiful hokkaido scallop ceviche, garnished with purple potato chips, minced red onion, octopus “jerky,” aioli and microgreens. This refreshing creation has been replaced by an equally lovely two-bite dish of a lightly torched scallop with cauliflower pudding, sunchoke chips, garlic and guajillo chili oil, as well as a salsa verde. The subtle heat from the oil coupled with the comforting savoury pudding and tender scallop makes for a perfect late fall dish.
Equally as warming to eat – while subzero temperatures continue to stick around in Calgary – is the empanada. Impeccably folded around its outer edge and enticing in its plump and golden-brown-crust glory, the braised beef filling coupled with buttery pastry is a delightful bite. If you’re looking for a bit of acidic balance in the dish, just drag your forkful through the schmear of wasakaka (essentially an amped-up guacamole with Venezuelan roots, made with a base of avocados, peppers and onion).
Speaking of avocado, Fortuna’s version of guacamole comes in the form of, well, well-seasoned guacamole topped with tender shredded beef, thin slices of pickled carrot and oregano microgreens.
The downside? The crispy plantain chips, being fairly thick and unpleasantly chewy at times. With that said, the addictive meaty-creamy combination was happily finished by the spoonful.
A textural and visual delight comes in the form of a reimagined purple potato causa (a Peruvian potato casserole of sorts) topped with a delicious octopus tartare, fried chorizo crumble, pico de gallo, nasturtium and aioli. It’s bright and savoury and one of the most unique things you can opt for here.
Mr. Tamarra’s lamb ribs are flavourful enough thanks to a spicy-smoky glaze and puffed-rice garnish alongside a carrot “hot sauce,” but are a real struggle to eat. Too big and awkward to eat with your hands and not quite tender enough to saw through with a knife, I wouldn’t recommend frustratingly fiddling around with this dish when you can find more effortless reward in the other small plates such as the aforementioned, or even the perfectly crispy vegan tostada topped with braised leeks, chard, charred onions, avocado and sesame.
Another protein that falls short here is the grilled berkshire pork ($55), topped with chorizo ragu and served with celeriac puree, braised endive and pickled mustard seeds. With a bitter, gassy aftertaste, likely thanks to the grill (and on two separate visits no less), the pork itself is tender, but quite unpleasant to chew on. Its accompaniments try valiantly to make up for the main protein, but it’s still a hard bite to swallow.
Menu missteps aside, it’s impossible not to be charmed by the overall experience of a night at Fortuna’s Row.