Calgary embraces the cutting edge

CALGARY, Alberta

John Jackson and Connie DeSousa had professional experience many chefs would envy when they opened Charcut restaurant three years ago in their hometown. But they were still scared. Literally scared.

Was Calgary ready for them?

Despite time in some of the most prestigious kitchens in New York, San Francisco and Bonn, Germany, they weren't sure how pig-head mortadella and bone marrow with escargot au gratin would play in a meat-and-potatoes town on the edge of the Canadian Rockies.

"The precedent just wasn't there," Jackson said. The city's million-plus residents, he said, "were ready but needed someone to take the leap."

Young, flush with money from the oil and gas industry and hungry (literally and figuratively), Calgary indeed was ready. Today locals freely admit that the city's character has changed in recent years, in part because of the strides in its food scene.

The fresh takes on old standards, often with an emphasis on eating freshly and sourcing locally, extend in all directions: tapas, beer and wine, pizza, coffee, doughnuts, charcuterie and brunch. Many of the restaurants that have locals excited have opened in the last five years; many are less than a year old.

"You can't fake it here anymore," Jackson said. "Calgarians have higher expectations."

And that means, if you're just passing through, eating your way through Calgary is a delight. Here is where to go (all area codes are 403):

Breakfast and brunch

Calgary loves brunch, and there is no shortage of places to find it. Two restaurants that won me over included Blue Star Diner (261-9998, bluestardiner.ca‎), northeast of downtown, which offers a good-natured frenetic vibe full of locals and an emphasis on fresh local ingredients. It also serves dinner. The menu is the usual savory-sweet brunch dichotomy, done to an expert level whether a meat-eater (chipotle pulled-pork hash) or not (maple and coconut curry vegan scramble). In the heart of the Calgary action — the stretch of restaurants along 17th Avenue Southwest — sits Bar-C (984-3667, crmr.com/barc), where I found a mean game hash of elk and bison that arrived in a broth so savory, I ordered a piece of toast just to soak it up. Bonus points for an ideal beer pairing: a hibiscus wit from Montreal's Dieu du Ciel! (yes, exclamation included). Bar-C also serves dinner seven nights a week. With its salted caramel French toast and breakfast paninis, Vendome Cafe (453-1140, vendomecafe.com) calls itself a "touch of Europe" in Calgary's Sunnyside neighborhood. Also situated outside of downtown, Diner Deluxe (276-5499, dinerdeluxe.com) is funky throw back with a sense of humor. And keep at eye out for Phil & Sebastian coffee (philsebastian.com), which has three locations and is served in many Calgary restaurants.

Dinner

Among the reigning darlings of Calgary dining is the aforementioned Charcut (984-2180, charcut.com), which serves an ambitious menu of smart, modern comfort food. Its arugula and tuna conserva, served with shaved celery and lemon preserve, was tangy and bright, while the poutine was devilishly decadent. The steak cut, and preparation, changes regularly. And the pig's-head mortadella is the most complex and comforting cold cut imaginable. Throw in a clever cocktail list and sumptuous dessert menu, and you have a memorable evening. An equally impressive take on modern American comfort food is Model Milk (265-7343, modelmilk.ca), where the fish-beef-pork-veggies menu changes often (only the calamari and hamburger have stayed since Day 1). One of the restaurant's most popular features is the Sunday $35 fixed-price dinner of the kitchen's choosing. The Sunday I showed up was abnormally busy, which led the kitchen to run out of some items, but it improvised its way through with perfection. Farm (245-2276, farm-restaurant.com) has jumped on the locally sourced food trend, and a map in the foyer shows the locations of the Alberta farms from which the food hails. The Arctic char was moist, tender and expertly finished with carrot and potato puree (both local, of course). The special pork-and-beef-meatballs thrived in a chevre-herb marinara. Like Charcut and Model Milk, Farm feature an exposed kitchen and includes a bar offering a front-row seat of the culinary action. Also consider: Candela (719-0049, candelalounge.com) and River Cafe (261-7670, river-cafe.com), in Prince's Island Park.

Beer

National (229-0226, ntnl.ca), which opened in June 2012 with about 70 taps, which include many Canadian craft beers, found such quick success that the bar opened a second location less than a mile away. That location recently added a bowling alley. Both places draw large enough crowds for lines to form on weekend nights. But on a Saturday afternoon, I found that a beer list that justifies the passion and includes plenty of options not distributed in the United States. Next to National's 10th Avenue location is the similar Craft Beer Market (514-2337, craftbeermarket.ca), which also is huge, loud and offers an impressive list of North American craft beer. Should you want a smaller and quieter crowd, check out Beer Revolution (264-2739, beerrevolution.ca), at the edge of downtown. The five taps of the aforementioned Dieu du Ciel! won me over, as did the bartender's pride while explaining that they rarely have the same beer on tap more than once. A video board behind the bar announces what's on draft, when it was tapped and when it is likely to be gone.

Sweets

Open since summer 2012, Village Ice Cream (261-7950, villageicecream.com) is tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac, but it's worth the search. All ice cream is made in house, and it's richly delicious. The 10 year-round flavors include both classics (chocolate, vanilla bean) and the unlikely (huckleberry and coffee made with Phil & Sebastian beans). Bonus points for what easily was the best nondairy ice cream I've ever tasted: Oaxacan chili chocolate made with coconut milk. Most cities claim their share of hip doughnut spots, but Jelly Modern Doughnuts (453-2053, jellymoderndoughnuts.com) travels a step beyond. My chai-glazed doughnut filled with a chai custard center, topped with edible flowers, was both classic comfort food and a daring culinary adventure. You won't just happen upon it, which is why Sidewalk Citizen Bakery (457-2245, sidewalkcitizenbakery.com) is worth finding. There are two locations; the one tucked away in Sunnyside Natural Market, offered a stunning array of tarts, croissants and cookies (and the limited lunch menu of pizza and sandwiches also shined).

jbnoel@tribune.com

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