Having not grown up in Calgary, I wasn't particularly privy to the reputation that surrounded the Deane House, one of the city's oldest properties. Today is not the day for an Alberta history lesson, but when it comes to dining, this century-old house was known more as a place you might bring your grandma for tea or enjoy an average brunch during a baby shower. An undeniably famous property, but boring for anyone with a palate.
Luckily, last summer, River Cafe proprietor Sal Howell acquired the iconic property and went straight to work sprucing things up. Earlier this fall, the reimagined house reopened to plenty of excitement.
With some design consultation from Connie Young, the majority of the aesthetic decisions were made by the owner, Ms. Howell. The result is a truly inviting space that is complimented by paintings that pay homage to the gorgeous Alberta landscapes that surround it, ornate light fixtures – including a particularly striking one made entirely of branches in the east sunroom – and plenty of natural light from windows that surround most of the house.
Stroll into the pantry-inspired section of the bar and sit at a high-top while floor-to-ceiling shelves of preserves and antique serving vessels surround you. Head upstairs and you'll find the "library," a private dining room that feels like a room from the board game Clue brought to life.
Running the kitchen here is chef Jamie Harling, formerly of Rouge. The chef is fairly explorative when it comes to all things culinary, but above all else, it is easy to see that his true love lies in making bread. Mr. Harling's heritage red fife sourdough loaves boast a beautifully crunchy crust with subtly tangy, pillowy insides. I have no qualms about saying that this is the best bread I have ever had in a restaurant in Alberta.
This is how every meal here starts with the option of adding on the lacto-fermented squash purée covered in cold-pressed canola oil. Smear the tangy squash overtop of cultured butter on Mr. Harling's bread, have one bite and I'm sure you'll agree that you would be content to simply eat this all night long.
Mr. Harling may like to play around with proteins in tasty ways – take his braised rabbit perogies with pickled chanterelles, charred carrots and buttermilk carrot purée or the clever spin on shrimp and grits, made with Okanagan corn, pickled side stripe prawns, pearl onions and a sous-vide duck egg, for example – but he has a genuine knack for vegetables. Inside of using them as an accent for cuts of meat or fillets of fish, the chef allows them to share the spotlight in most cases and, in some, completely command it.
The pickled Poplar Bluff carrots with smoked red lentil hummus is sprinkled with crumbled Fairwinds Farm goat feta and topped with jagged, golden and crispy house-made crackers. It's a vibrant visual and equally rewarding to taste. Salted red cabbage takes a starring role in a salad of sorts, tossed with crisp Granny Smith apples, toasted hazelnuts and served over a lovely chicken liver mousse. The balance of tart and richness combined with the crunch of the hazelnuts almost called for a second order.
As talented as Mr. Harling is, the menu is not without its misses. The chef's beef tartare includes a healthy amount of diced beef heart dressed with juniper vinegar. On top of it all rests flimsy pieces of lightly charred cabbage. The springback sort of texture you'll discover in chewing on the heart combined with soft cabbage makes for a peculiar and fairly undesirable bite. I'd skip this dish unless you're an avid fan of offal.
As well, the charcuterie board here is a bit of a miss, particularly with the incredibly salty duck prosciutto, though the homemade Raincoast Crisp-inspired crackers and dots of sweet preserves help make up for the average meat offerings. Not unlike bread making, charcuterie is an art and, well, we can't be good at everything, can we?
On another occasion, as I sat across from a friend after a satisfying lunch as the sun poured in through the westward-facing windows of the old home, we, too, pored over the dessert menu. Explaining that crème brûlée is not something I regularly opt for – "It can be such a boring, cop-out dessert on a restaurant menu," I argued – I was swiftly proven wrong after cracking through the caramelized sugar top to find silky smooth pumpkin custard brimming with all of those flavours that make the season bright; pumpkin spice, if you will.
I look forward to watching Deane House evolve over the years. If their older sister establishment, River Cafe, is any indication I have no doubt the restaurant and its chef will leave a lasting legacy here in Calgary.
Special to The Globe and Mail