BEST new RESTAURANTS 2016: alberta
Alberta's restaurant scene offers a bright spot in a gloomy year
From the Kickstarter-backed Chartier near Edmonton to the cozy Hayloft north of Calgary, restaurateurs in Alberta are still taking chances. Liv Vors and Dan Clapson pick the best
t's almost impossible to talk about anything in Alberta right now without the conversation quickly drifting to the province's sagging economy, and the world of food and dining is no exception. The past year has given the industry its own struggles and made the calculations that go into opening a new restaurant more complex. And yet, a number restaurateurs are finding innovative ways to survive – and thrive.
Food writers Liv Vors in Edmonton and Dan Clapson in Calgary pick the best new restaurants that have shone through in a gloomy year.
Alarmist economic trends dominated Albertan news feeds in 2016, and many wondered how the trickle-down effects might dampen Edmonton's insatiable appetite for dining out. Despite dire predictions, restaurant chairs are consistently filled and new eateries continue to open, in a show of confidence that Alberta's capital city will spend its hard-earned money close to home. This year saw traditionally transient endeavours, such as food trucks and pop-ups, metamorphose into tangible brick-and-mortar dining establishments. Izakayas and ramen show no signs of slowing down, nor do craft cocktails or locally roasted coffee. Exasperating weather conditions tested the mettle of local farmers and ranchers, but many Edmonton chefs and restaurateurs continued to use local meat and produce in spite of the uncertainty. A common theme emerges: 2016 was a year of extremes, and when the going gets tough, the tough get out there and support each other. – Liv Vors
11957 Jasper Ave., 780-756-4570, barclementine.ca
Edmonton's craft cocktail renaissance remains at fever pitch, but too often edible – rather than quaffable – creations are an afterthought. Clementine, however, matches prodigious bartending with some serious culinary chops. Bridging the gap between the downtown and 124th Street dining hubs, Clementine finds its home at the base of a soaring condo tower. However, to step through its door is to step back in time to The Big Easy, circa 1928. Rich wooden furnishings receive gentle light from ornate, opaque fixtures suspended in the tray ceiling, which modern touches like cleverly placed lights behind the bar, blend so seamlessly that they are scarcely anachronistic. House-made sourdough with pungent cheese butter highlights the kitchen's penchant for fermentation, while glazed jambonneau with cassoulet evokes classic Gallic fare from a bygone era. One might the debate the merits of a cocktail that mixes Japanese whisky with matcha versus one that stirs up Polish vodka with tarragon and honey, but don't be intimidated by the drink menu's complexity. Rest assured that you are in good hands. – Liv Vors
4. Bodega Highlands
6409 112 Ave., 780-757-0137, bodega.sabor.ca
Edmonton's historic Highlands neighbourhood has borne something of a curse, in that a string of restaurants has gone belly-up in the same heritage building along a well-travelled stretch of 112 Avenue. Fortunately, childhood friends and long-time business partners Lino Oliveira and Chris Mena had the foresight to transpose their successful Bodega, an Ibero-Lusitanian tapas bar, to this very building, much to the joy of Highlands' denizens. Now, the interior of this noble edifice has found new life with comfortable benches, a gold-hued ceiling, and a small bar that permits furtive peeks into the kitchen. The locals dive into impeccably spicy Piri-Piri Prawns, fork-tender braised boar cheeks, or contemplate more substantial fare such as chef Lino's traditional paella while grazing on toasts spread ever so gently with subtle Sardine Pate. The wine list favours the Mediterranean, but don't underestimate the bar's capacity for cocktails (the Archangel is highly recommended). Highlands finally has the restaurant it deserves. Go now before the secret gets out. – Liv Vors
3. Prairie Noodle Shop
10350 124 St., 780-705-1777, prairienoodleshop.ca
Prairie Noodle Shop began as a series of perpetually sold-out pop-ups two years ago, and the restaurant's transition to permanent digs elicited similar fervour. Indeed, the joint venture of co-founders Arden Tse and Terry Wong thrust the city into full-bowl ramen-mania. Prairie Noodle's sleek, subterranean space sports no paper lanterns or other noodle house trappings. Instead, it seamlessly blends concrete and blond wood – silhouettes of archetypical grassland animals (think coyotes, cattle and fowl) keep silent watch over the bustling open kitchen. In fact, Prairie Noodle's interior design was recently recognized by Design Edge Canada. Diners sidle up to the bar over a jumbo bottle of Hitachino rice ale, or relax into cowhide-backed nooks to slurp up Prairie Pork Shio, Smoked Gouda Miso or Roasted Barley Chicken Shoyu, or to just contemplate the world while snacking on a simple dish of edamame tossed with salt and leek oil. Prairie Noodle's formula succeeds because it interprets Japanese techniques with Albertan ingredients, rather than trying to be something it is not. – Liv Vors
Read the full review from March: Albertan take on ramen celebrates regional flavours
10349 Jasper Ave., 780-426-0346, uccellino.ca
Popular culture proffers the rather heavy-handed suggestion that all things Italian beget revelatory experiences à la Under the Tuscan Sun. Hyperbole, however, is not wasted on Italian food, as demonstrated by the works of chef Daniel Costa. His first two restaurants, Corso 32 and Bar Bricco, are firmly ensconced in Edmonton's collective culinary consciousness and his third, Uccellino, has already turned heads. Boasting a simple but expansive menu that draws upon the trattoria tradition of casual dining, Uccellino tempts diners with roast lamb, spaghettini with garlic and olive oil, or a full-sized chicken cooked under a brick, perfect for sharing. Crostini warrant special mention. While the roster changes frequently, those anointed with fettunta (whipped lardo, rosemary and sea salt) or anchovy butter (with lemon and chili) remain crowd favourites. Uccellino's two-storey dining room reverberates with happy chatter and the clatter of cutlery, clearly indicating that La Dolce Vita is close. – Liv Vors
Read the full review from November: Edmonton's Uccellino offers up ambitious Italian dining
5012 50th St., Beaumont, Alta., 780-737-3633, dinechartier.com
Beaumont's Kickstarter sensation burst from the gate in late winter of 2016, and quickly gained a reputation for lovingly crafted Canadiana such as tourtière, smoked meat and pouding chômeur. It's a quick 30-kilometre drive from Edmonton, and treks to this predominantly French-Canadian town are amply rewarded with a cozy wood-panelled room clad judiciously with mismatched furniture, pulleys, a topographical map, and a sketch of a voyageur. One might tuck into the best smoked meat west of Montreal, nosh on a hearty bowl of fèves au lard with maple and pork belly undertones, or nibble away at a bundle of addictive tempura green beans served cheekily in a maple syrup can, all while revelling in any of the bar's commendable libations. Owners Sylvia and Darren Cheverie are usually on site; don't hesitate to inquire about Chartier's back-story, for it is one of love and commitment to one's hometown, plus some seriously memorable cuisine. Canadians spend far too much time pondering the nature of our nation's culinary identity. Chartier reminds us that the answer was right here all along. – Liv Vors
Read the full review from July: Alberta's Kickstarter sensation Chartier is Canadiana at its best
I hate to be depressing, but it's been that kind of year in Calgary's food community, all things considered. With a dampened economy, growing spikes in hospitality wages, and food costs ever on the rise, opening a restaurant in the past year isn't just more difficult than it would have been in prior years, it's a hefty gamble. That being said, it's hasn't been all dark and gloomy. Plenty of interesting concepts have opened their doors. A city's economic struggles may stifle the growth of a local food scene, but curb creativity altogether? I don't think so.
5. Cluck N Cleaver
1511 14th St. SW, 403-266-2067, cluckncleaver.com
The idea of "chef-driven fast-casual" has been one of the most prominent restaurant trends nationally in the past handful of years. Burgers, Indian food, Vietnamese, Thai, hot dogs … you can likely find it done with a chef's touch in a grab-and-go format. Chef Nicole Gomes and sister Francine Gomes opened Cluck in late February and have been the talk of the fried-chicken town ever since. Though there are no seats here, simply a counter – the reason why this eatery never received a proper review in this paper – when it comes to the food coming out of the kitchen, there is little to fault.
The Gomes' Southern-fried chicken, covered in a secret spice mix that is made off-site, has been succulent-on-the-inside and beautifully crispy-on-the-outside each time I've ordered it – which is many. As well, the rich, indulgent chicken gravy acts as a perfect bath for the battered pieces of fowl. The "Little Clucker" is a refined take on a McChicken sandwich. After a bite or two you'll be ashamed that you ever sunk your teeth into the other fast-food variation. – Dan Clapson
4. Ten Foot Henry
1209 1st St. SW 403-475-5537, tenfoothenry.com
Perhaps a sign of vegetable-forward things to come in Calgary, Henry is the first restaurant in quite some time that proudly puts its best foot forward with its vegetable creations in the heart of Alberta beef country. Though it's not vegetarian by any means, dishes such as chef Steve Smee's bread dumplings with borscht, mushroom omelette topped with a bright frisee salad and truffle oil or the fried potatoes in an addictive lime dressing with charred peppers, fresh dill and parsley are far superior to any dishes accented by or primarily consisting of meat. It's refreshing.
Join those interesting options with a thoughtfully designed room by Connie Young (my favourite interior of the year), a consistently impeccable service staff led by Mr. Smee's counterpart, Aja Lapointe, and their daytime attached concept, Little Henry, that offers coffee, pastries and more, and it's hard not to be impressed with everything the couple have managed to pull off here. – Dan Clapson
Read the full review from May: Ten Foot Henry's sum is greater than its parts
3. Hayden Block
1136 Kensington Rd. NW 403-283-3021, haydenblockyyc.com
It's almost like the owners of Hayden sat down in one too many scenester restaurants in Calgary and beyond, finally snapped and yelled, "Can't we just have some fun?" That is how I imagine the concept for this Texas barbecue establishment was born.
In this warm wood-accented eatery in Kensington, the casual and lively vibe is usually infectious, especially on a weekend evening when you're elbow-to-elbow with other folks hunkered down at one of the many communal plank tables.
Boasting big platters of smoked meat such as the phenomenal turkey breast, tender, juicy brisket and the bone-in beef short rib – which remains the top cut of meat I've devoured in 2016 – there are few things on Hayden's menu that don't deliver. The long list of brown liquor available and interesting cocktails such as Coffee and a Smoke made with Buffalo Trace, Amaro, rice crispy simple syrup, espresso, bitters and allspice only add to the fun factor here. If you're looking for me on a Friday night for the next little while, this is likely where you'll find me, with a smoked pork rib and a stiff drink. Naturally. – Dan Clapson
Read the full review from September: Calgary's Hayden Block succeeds in serving up serious Texas-style BBQ
2. Deane House
806 9 Ave SE. 403-264-0595, www.deanehouse.com
If a restaurant conceived by acclaimed restaurateur Sal Howell, with a menu created by chef Jamie Harling, wasn't anything less than superb, I would have been sorrowfully disappointed. Lucky, there isn't much to nitpick about when it comes to dining at what is currently one of the most buzzworthy restaurants in Calgary.
A historic, but formerly lacklustre, dining destination has been transformed. It feels like Ms. Howell has given it a second lease on life.
And then there's the food. Mr. Harling shares the same internal passion and sustainability values as Ms. Howell when it comes to running the kitchen. Feel satiated by dishes like meaty smoked sturgeon resting on a creamy cloud of pomme puree with roasted sunchokes, sturgeon caviar and sprinkling of full-flavoured "everything bagel" crumb or the salt-baked celeriac and creme fraiche agnolotti topped with ember-roasted pear and trout roe. Don't skip over the complementary thick-cut slices of Mr. Harling's house-made sourdough; it's an edible foreshadowing of the delicious things that are to come. – Dan Clapson
Read the full review from November: Calgary's revamped Deane House the start of a lasting legacy
5101 - 403 Mackenzie Way SW, Airdrie, 403-980-8123, www.haylofton8th.com
"Really? In Airdrie?"
That's the reaction I received (and continue to receive) most often when I gave this restaurant a four-star review earlier this fall. Living in the Calgary core, I don't often feel the urge to make a lengthy drive for a bite, but I do when Hayloft pops to mind. In addition to offering a comforting, barnwood-accented atmosphere that seems cozier and cozier as the temperature dips, when it comes to the food here, few chefs in Calgary have as steadfast of a devotion to locally minded cooking as chef Jason Barton-Browne. Thus, if you want to know what Alberta tastes like, then Airdrie's first trailblazing, contemporary restaurant is an ideal place to go.
Mr. Barton-Browne, who himself lives on a farm outside of Calgary, is intensely focused on working with the producers that surround him and as such, his menu is brimming with the best and most seasonal ingredients the province has to offer. Bison, lamb, beef and cellared vegetables such as cabbage and rutabaga are just a handful of items that receive thoughtful transformations in Hayloft's open kitchen.
With his previous experience as the head chef of Teatro, the chef is particularly deft at pasta-making, so diners reap these benefits in filling plates such as bison agnolotti with white onion puree, morels and grilled rosemary jus or the Alberta lamb ragu that embraces soft ricotta gnudi topped with crunchy sunchoke chips.
Winter is always a challenging time for any Alberta restaurant that aims to stay true to this kind of concept, but if there's a restaurant that can weather the, well, weather best before the first spinach leaves break through the soil, it would be Hayloft. – Dan Clapson
Read the full review from October: With a focus on local ingredients, Hayloft is worth the drive to Airdrie
MORE FROM THE GLOBE AND MAIL