A taste of the Prairies
A Cochrane restaurant prides itself on delivering hearty, rustic flavours, but how does it stack up to the fierce competition that Calgary adjacents offer?
Chains aside, new restaurants don't pop up very often in Cochrane, a growing commuter town that is 10 minutes, more or less, from Calgary's northwestern city limits. Earlier this year, though, Half Hitch Brewing unveiled its brewpub in the town's industrial area and Fence and Post opened this past spring – signs the community is interested in more than just run-of-the-mill options.
On a rare but recent visit to Cochrane's main street – the town's singular charming strip of road – a friend and I stood awkwardly in the entrance of Fence and Post with another couple also waiting to be seated. Without any acknowledgment in our direction, the server continued to have what appeared to be a casual conversation with a table three metres or so from the door for several minutes before seating us and the other couple. It was a wrong foot to start off on, but not a detrimental one.
Proudly proclaiming itself as Prairie-themed eatery, Fence and Post succeeds in embodying that Prairie homestead, cozy vibe; something we can all appreciate more so as winter approaches. Inside, there's a marrying of simple country accents with a modern restaurant layout that includes an open kitchen and bar. Small posts and coils of barbed wire mounted to one wall, small flickering lanterns hanging off the other, and there's also plenty of rustic wood panelling separating the restaurant into two sections. It sets the stage for dinner appropriately.
Flipping through the drinks list, one is also happy to see a collection of spirits with preference to Alberta-distilled products, including Canmore's RAW Distillery and beers from local brewers such as the aforementioned Half Hitch. The restaurant's signature Caesar complete with house-made beef jerky (wonderful) and crunchy house-pickled beans is certainly noteworthy as far as the iconic hangover drink is concerned. The wine list here ventures farther afield, naturally, but boasts options that will satisfy the average wine-minded diner.
It's chef Chris Hartman's menu where things start to get a little confusing, as the offerings can depart significantly from the rustic surroundings you've been cozying up to.
The chef's small cluster of lightly battered chunks of chicken, tossed in a salty and relatively mild Szechuan sauce with a split creme fraiche and herb "aioli" isn't necessarily bad, but rather expensive at $15 and completely unnecessary on a Canadian Prairie menu. After asking, we discovered that "Chicken 65" was an ode to the year this particular Asian-style dish was created. Moving deeper into research mode (i.e. Google), it still remains a mystery which historical dish it paid homage to.
Another plate playing against the Prairie theme is the braised Alberta lamb ribs that is glossed over with a sticky pomegranate sauce and dusted with dried sumac. One can't deny how enjoyable the fall-off-the-bone tender meat laden with sweet-and-sour sauce is and, sure, some sumac might grow in the Okanagan, but I don't recall any farmers harvesting regionally-grown pomegranates this season.
Creations that fall much better in line with Post's projected mantra are dishes such as the house-made pastrami, sliced thin and piled modestly on two soft pieces of homemade bread before being toasted with Swiss cheese, mustard and sauerkraut, or the flaky puff pastry tart topped with caramelized onions, blistered tomatoes, roasted carrots, winter squash and chevre. Though, the sandwich errs on the small side (especially for $16) and the tart – flaky and dry – combined with overroasted vegetables, sits in front of us quietly calling out for a jus or sauce of some sort.
On an earlier evening visit, our young, bubbly server was informative and earnestly interested in making sure we ate well. She sold us on many things such as tasty wild mushroom-filled arancini balls, scallops, the fun mozzarella "balloon" with basil pesto and toasted house bread, as well as the night's special, a house-made pasta prepared as a baked cannelloni stuffed with Swiss chard and tomato sauce. Sold.
A singular molecular technique is displayed here and rather awkwardly with the seared scallops. Fresh and properly seared, there are no qualms about the scallops themselves or the smooth, sweet raisin purée, almond crumble and compressed apple accompanying them; however the distinct freshness of celery did not lend itself to a dish with a whirlwind of flavours already spinning on our forks – even less so with its caviar-like bursts once bitten.
Toward the end of the evening, a sizable plate of pasta arrives at the table, piping hot. Swiss chard along with a bolognese sauce of sorts had been stuffed into long tunnels of fresh pasta, topped with crumbled feta and cream sauce and baked before finished off with a peppery arugula and basil oil.
The burned ends of the cannelloni may not have found approval in Italy, but this dish, to me, is a perfect example of what I expect to come out of a Prairie kitchen on a cold night.
For Cochrane, Fence and Post is by far the most modern place that one could have a meal, but compared with other out-of-city-centre contemporaries such as Chartier (Beaumont, Alta.) and Hayloft (Airdrie, Alta.), it could have much better focus.