As I spooned into a beautifully caramelized slice of Saskatoon-berry-embedded, house-made focaccia lovingly surrounded by a warm Alberta honey creme anglaise – a dish that perfectly embodies the comfort that we all crave in our food come autumn – it made me wonder if dinner at Hayloft could have actually been any better.
But first, let's backtrack a bit…
Months ago, when I caught wind of a contemporary, locally focused restaurant opening up in Airdrie, Alta., I was unsure. The small city of around 60,000 people just north of Calgary does not offer much in terms of dining. In fact, it offers virtually nothing for a person with any remote interest in food culture or ingredient sustainability. I may be generalizing, but let me ask you this: When was the last time you drove to Airdrie for dinner?
It takes a healthy amount of courage to believe your concept could rise to the challenge of breaking the dining mould of a particular area and, more importantly, find success. I don't think Hayloft has so much broken this mould as it has shattered a glass ceiling.
"We want to honour Airdrie's history and become a part of the community, support local suppliers and celebrate the people who have contributed to Airdrie over the years."
This is the warm, printed welcome from owner James Hoan Nguyen and chef Jason Barton-Browne that greets you on the menu . The name Hayloft references the upper level of a barn that was used for storage and as such, the inviting space was designed in large part with reclaimed barn wood. The focal point of the room is shared between the white marble-topped bar with a vibrant wood-panelled front and the open kitchen right next to it.
Mr. Barton-Browne isn't trying to make his menu something that it's not and what it's not is a laissez-faire approach to a local mentality. The chef is no stranger to the Calgary food scene and his resumé includes working as Teatro's executive chef, and time spent at River Cafe and Boxwood Cafe, among other places. He may have shied away from the limelight over the years, but his focus on a truly local approach has never wavered.
On this particular evening, a plate of smashed Alberta white beans, smeared with a sharp cilantro pesto, and sweet oven-roasted tomatoes with impeccably grilled triangles of flatbread hit our table. "My regular supplier ran out of fresh basil this week. He had these big, leafy bunches of cilantro, so I'm working with that instead today," explained the chef. Unconventional, but it worked.
Knowing the freshest produce is slowly dwindling from farmers' markets and growers' storage spaces, the fall menu is thoughtfully accented with dishes that show the versatility of cellared vegetables such as squash and cabbage. Mr. Barton-Browne's roasted beet salad perfectly showcases this. Most of the beet salads you'll find on menus are yawn-inducing on a good day, but this generous and thoughtful dish sees a schmear of tarragon chevre from a small Alberta cheese producer, Dancing Goats Farm, topped with grilled cabbage, dots of apple butter, coriander salt, roasted baby beets and the acidic punch of red wine vinegar.
The handmade pastas here also show the chef's aptitude for executing Italian-style dishes like tagliatelle alla bolognese, roast squash agnolotti, tuna puttanesca and gnocchi with Dungeness. Perhaps not quite as local as Mr. Barton-Browne may have liked, but the sweet crab meat and pillowy gnocchi get along swimmingly, so to speak, in a rich cream sauce with toasted breadcrumb, garlic puree, mint oil and crispy slices of guanciale.
Steak is an undeniable necessity on a restaurant menu here in Alberta. It's a typical patron craving that seems futile to fight against, especially in a smaller city like this. So, if you're going to serve it, it helps to make it interesting. The robust serving of just-right, medium-rare roast sirloin rests happily on a warm bed of parmesan polenta alongside roasted mushrooms and fresh arugula heightened by a pan jus.
Returning to those final bites of bread pudding as our dinner wound down, my pondering morphed into sheer surprise. I was shocked, as you might be, knowing that the best meal I've had in Calgary this year (to date) has actually been in Airdrie.