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Innovation abounds at Calgary’s Foreign Concept

On paper, Foreign Concept is set up for success. Owner Duncan Ly is one of the city’s most celebrated chefs of the past decade and his Pan-Asian eatery also boasts his talented protégé, Jinhee Lee, as executive chef.

Colin Way/handout

2.5 out of 4 stars

Foreign Concept
1011 1 St. SW, Calgary
Contemporary Pan-Asian
Vegetarian Friendly?
A small list of custom cocktails and succinct wine offerings.
A large restaurant with separate lounge and dining areas and Asian colonial design accents.
Shitake mushroom and tofu, kuro tamanegi, imperial rolls, wild gulf prawns, Vietnamese coffee parfait.
Additional Info
The lunch menu differs dramatically from the dinner menu. The latter is more representative of the restaurant’s full capabilities.

On paper, Foreign Concept is set up for success. Owner Duncan Ly is one of the city's most celebrated chefs of the past decade and his Pan-Asian eatery also boasts his talented protégé, Jinhee Lee, as executive chef. Ms. Lee, who took home gold at the Canadian Culinary Championships this past February, is as serious about her craft as her mentor and is known for her solicitously beautiful plating.

Before Foreign, Mr. Ly and Ms. Lee's collaborative creation of contemporary Vietnamese cuisine at Raw Bar inside of the Hotel Arts became a favourite in the local food scene. Their departure from the hotel almost a year and a half ago to open this new venture was seen as a detriment to Raw Bar, which it was and arguably still is.

With these two at the helm, there's creativity abound on the menu. For starters, Britain's famous pub dish, the scotch egg, gets a clever remix with the infusion of vibrant aromatics such as lemongrass and chili into its ground-meat outer layer. Twirls of green onion and a little pickled-vegetable medley help cut the richness.

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The charred onion (kuro tamanegi) may not sound overly appealing, but the quartered and blackened vegetable topped with ground pork and doubanjiang – a spicy fermented soybean-and-rice paste popular in Sichuan cooking – offers an unsuspecting burst of flavour from its blackened exterior to its sweet inner layers.

Mr. Ly's house-made tofu with marinated shiitake mushrooms is another wonderful example of how gratifying a simple ingredient can be when it's shown some tender loving care. The umami-laden soy dashi broth kicks things into overdrive: It's good to the last drop, so utilize that spoon. The crunchy gai lan with house XO sauce is another vegetarian-friendly hit and is a fairly complementary side to most other dishes on the menu.

An absolute must-order here are the imperial rolls, as this classic Vietnamese dish is virtually impossible to find in Calgary. The golden and crispy pork-filled rolls with crisp romaine leaves, noodles and nuoc cham make their standard spring-roll relatives seem infinitely dull.

A major stumble here is the house-made charcuterie. On our particular board, the honey pepper beef jerky was devoid of any flavour, save a bit of oiliness. Thick slices of duck prosciutto shared a similar fate, with its undetectable five-spice seasoning and an improperly chilled chicken-liver mousse managed to slip out of my spoon and onto the table with viscous ease. Even the pickled mustard seeds lacked the acidic punch typical of a balancing complementary condiment.

Seemingly popular with many Calgarians, I found the honey-butter potato chips to be a little bizarre. This combination of crispy potato chips, made in-house, drenched a stunningly sweet honey-butter sauce is a more refined take on a junk food that's currently all the rage overseas. Much like eating chicken wings at your neighbourhood pub, I'd suggest asking for some extra napkins to clean up your honey-soaked fingers.

The cocktail menu is another disappointment that draws you in with grand names of drinks such as "The Last Empress" (a watery combination of vermouth, rosé, citric acid, cilantro, simple syrup and bitters) or "A Proper Offering" (a head-scratching blend of rum, chartreuse, peach juice, dill powder and lemon) but leaves you feeling despondent. I don't recommend ordering a cocktail here. Just stick with wine.

Dining at Foreign can also be notably affected by where you sit. The room is substantial in size (around 3,500 square feet) and, as a result, has been split up into a lounge section on the far west side and a larger dining area on the east side that is separated in half, more or less, by a partition wall. Sitting in a nearly empty lounge while echoes of a busy dining room down the hall dance around you can make for a mildly awkward dinner.

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In addition, low-top tables have been opted for beside some sections of the space's floor-to-ceiling windows in lieu of banquets. It's a terribly odd design choice that leaves one feeling as though you are sitting just a foot above the sidewalk in plain view for all passersby to see.

Despite its missteps, expect to end on a pleasant note with the Vietnamese coffee parfait, a layered dessert reminiscent of tiramisu with rich, creamy condensed milk, espresso and dark chocolate dusted with cocoa.

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