From sunrise to sunset, can a person have it all when it comes to one singular restaurant? At Alforno Bakery & Café, a person can. Well, just about.
This café-meets-patisserie-meets-restaurant concept is not an easily achieved one. In fact, it's virtually non-existent in Canada.
Calgary has tried to make it work, but at the opening, the odds were against its parent company, the Teatro Group. Over the past three or so years, two other notable businesses strove for a similar experience – deVille in the Bridgeland neighbourhood and Corbeaux Bakehouse – and, for a myriad of reasons, neither succeeded.
Alforno, on the other hand, has operated this unconventional concept with ease since opening in January.
The room is busy from opening to closing almost every day of the week. If you try to come for a sit-down meal on the weekend, you'll be disappointed.
I have always been a firm believer that a busy coffee shop or café relies on proximity to its patrons – not so much the quality of the coffee. The small percentage of the foodie population who consider themselves coffee aficionados may want to kill me now, but let's face it: Very few people are willing to drive to a particular location for a specifically poured espresso or certain roast of coffee. But people are willing to drive for a unique experience.
That is what Alforno succeeds in offering. Coffee isn't just secondary here; I would say it is fairly irrelevant. Everything else comes first.
Say, for instance, you're up early in the morning. You can arrive at Alforno at 8:30 a.m. and walk into a bright, airy space designed by R + D Architecture where there is not a bad seat in the house, whether it's a brown studded-leather banquet in the corner or the couch under the grand skylight.
Next, you order a coffee and a blueberry cornflake muffin. They are baked fresh each morning by pastry chef Leah Gamache and her team, along with pastries such as buttery apple hand pies, beautifully hand-painted macarons and more. The muffins are light and fluffy, with a sweetness that hits your lips before the tart blueberries kick in. It is a lovely start to a day.
Ms. Gamache, an ER nurse-turned-pastry chef from Vancouver, joined the Teatro Group as its executive pastry chef almost two years ago. At Alforno, she really shines, pushing out a long lineup of creations that fills the glass cases at the counter.
The Sprinkle Bar, new to the bake case, tastes somewhere between Momofuku's famed crack pie and a confetti cookie – but about 10 times more addictive. Then there are those larger-than-life cream puffs, filled with blueberry compote and cream cheese. They will make you wonder why you've ever settled for one-bite cream puffs.
As the morning progresses, a regular café would simply ignore you or clear your empty cup and plate and look at you awkwardly, implying you should leave. Here, peppy, young servers float around the room topping up water or offering to get you another drink or a bite. Naturally, you say yes because it's lunchtime now.
Chef Erik Burley is the other half of the culinary equation here, taking charge of the savoury side of the extensive menu, which is comprised of everything from panini to pastas, pizzas and salads.
You turn to the panini stacked proudly in the glass case beside the till. One of them is a crispy interpretation of the Teatro Group's popular porchetta sandwich from its stationary food cart, Carne. It's slathered with lemon aioli and a hazelnut gremolata and makes for a delicious lunch.
As good as that panino is, Burley's bucatini carbonara is the menu standout, with its crispy chunks of salty pancetta, dashes of chili and Grana Padano cheese. It seems even more impressive when ordered beside the big slab of lasagna, which could use more béchamel.
The pizzas here are not overly conventional, being more like flatbreads, but the Yukon, with diced potatoes, bacon, goat cheese, caramelized onions, aromatic rosemary and mozzarella fior di latte is unique and fairly delicious as well.
Once the sun sets, that's when some of Alforno's flaws come to light.
The mood of the room feels like a restaurant more than ever now, but the service gets a bit muddled when you order at the counter, then sit down and have the pseudo-evening server inform you happily about the wine program and how it's curated. She brings you a second glass so you don't have to go back to order from the counter. But you're left wondering how generously to tip when you're handed plastic takeout containers to pack up your leftovers. It's not detrimental to the dinner experience, just a little perplexing.
Regardless of the few service hiccups, Alforno Bakery is well worth a taste pretty much any time of the day.