I turn into the laneway, and there they are: the world’s top chefs in repose against a brick wall. Massimo Bottura of Osteria Francescana. Joan Roca of Spain’s El Celler De Can Roca. New York’s Daniel Humm of 11 Madison Park. And Hestor Blumenthal of The Fat Duck. Hosting the gathering is Ben Shewry, chef-owner of Australia’s highest-ranked restaurant, Attica.
It’s the kind of happy serendipity that might precipitate handshakes, selfies, and – dare I hope? – sage morsels of inspiration to fuel my culinary dreams…
When your thoughts swing to gelato flavours, how often does canola appear on your radar?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess: never.
Fortunately, the mind of gelato guru Chef Mario Spina of Burger 320 holds no such limitations.
When the team behind Beakerhead – Calgary’s annual smash up of art, science, and engineering – dropped a load of canola hay, seeds, meal, and oil on his stoop, and asked him to produce an entry to this year’s BeakerEats program, he took up the challenge with gusto. Notwithstanding a dramatic confrontation between his convection oven and the canola hay, Chef Spina came through with a toasted-canola-hay-infused gelato profiterole, topped with honey-chocolate sauce and a dusting of canola meal; a dessert that – judging by the moans of rapture emanating from my fellow diners – was right on the mark.
It was the crowning finish to the BeakerEats Chefs’ Collaborative Dinner, a public event that previews some of the delights awaiting diners at participating restaurants throughout Beakerhead. BeakerEats launches today, while the 2018 festival’s full lineup of activities, installations, talks and workshops – including a handful of culinary chemistry sessions – runs September 19 to 23.
Each year under its BeakerEats banner, the festival team selects a theme ingredient from Canadian farmers and producers, puts together a science kit of local products for Calgary chefs and mixologists, and challenges them to do what they do best: apply their creativity to the fullest expression of outstanding ingredients. The theme for 2018 is canola in all its forms – oil, seeds, meal, hay, and sprouts – a true prairie product grown by some 14,000 Alberta farmers.
As Beakerhead’s Paul Gordon noted at the outset of Wednesday’s dinner, canola itself has a long and interesting scientific history. From its lowly origins as an inedible lubricant for the steam engines that powered Canada’s WWII navy, to its current position as one of the world’s healthiest edible oils (whose spent grain has also become a top-grade feed for dairy cattle), canola is a Canadian success story that speaks to the best of health-friendly science and to research both collaborative and tenacious.
Our BeakerEats walk through canola history was fueled by a Bloody Airdrie created by Spirit of the Wench, Wendy Peters. It was a tasty tipple that combined summer tomatoes, cucumbers, and red peppers with blended canola seed and Absolut Lemon vodka.
Then it was on to the tasting menu – and what a menu it was!
River Cafe‘s Chef Matthias Fong started us off with bison tataki, tucked cozily with Highwood Crossing canola oil sorbet and canola hay infused cream, and laced with Fallen Timbers mead, honey-crystallized canola seed, and charred kohlrabi.
It was the perfect prelude to Chef Mitchell Carey’s Instagram-worthy salad of brassica-family vegetables, arranged with a cracker of spent canola & grains and honeycomb sponge toffee among pools of colourful canola infusions created by his Winebar Kensington team.
Next up were spicy morsels of canola seed cake, created by Chef Liana Robberecht of WinSport, with bitey Highwood Crossing confit tomatoes, ninja radish, tomato skin petals, and canola shoots.
Chef Mike Pigot brought his Home and Away crafting style to popcorn-and-canola-meal tempura shrimp, with drizzles of canola seed caramel and a brilliant canola aioli.
The main course was provided by the dinner’s host venue, Brasserie Kensington, and featured a canola-hay-smoked sous vide beef bavette created by Chef Jorel Zielke, sided with ABC Farms honey & parsnip saute and cold-pressed canola hollandaise.
And finally, that dessert: Chef Spina’s toasted-hay gelato, sandwiched between choux pastry layers made from a canola oil/butter blend.
I could wax endlessly about the tastes, textures, and stylings of the night’s creative offerings – but go try them yourself instead. You’ll find each dish on the menu of its creator’s home restaurant, from now until the end of Beakerhead 2018.
Be sure to ask Chef Spina about his canola hay tribulations.
Like many Calgarians, my distrust of our local weather runs deep.
(Just ask Leonardo DiCaprio how quickly the weather changes around here. But wait – he thought he was experiencing something new…).
Little wonder, then, that when hundred-year-old high-temperature records were falling like poplar pollen in April, I was seized with the conviction that our city would soon exhaust its miserly annual quota of warm summer evenings.
Call me paranoid, but the feeling was unshakeable. So on a balmy Friday just ahead of a predicted weather change, I made the carpe diem decision to cycle against the flow of bike commuters to meet my Man downtown for date night. We’d been itching to try out the new Al Forno Bakery & Cafe near the intersection of the Bow River pathways and the 7th Street cycle track. As luck would have it, my Man had ridden his bike to the office that morning. The plan called for hauling our bikes back home on the C-train if we lingered past daylight or imbibed too heavily.
Sadly, the Man was delayed for an hour past the appointed rendezvous – leaving me no option but to settle beneath Al Forno’s skylights with a glass of red wine, a bowl of warm marinated olives, and a good book (do I know my Man or what?). The cafe buzzed with happy-hour revelers, laptop-absorbed writers, workweek-debriefing couples, and girls-night-out new moms, and a steady stream of nearby condo-dwellers pushed through the door for a takeaway meal or a coffee to go. By the time my Man arrived, every seat in the house was filled by others who, like us, were drawn by the wine and beer specials and the intriguing list of housemade pastas and bakery-fresh flatbreads.
The servers proved amiable and well-versed in the vino offerings, and the twin delights of gorgonzola/pear and potato/bacon/rosemary flatbreads had us planning a return visit before we’d finished the final bites. When we eventually unlocked our bikes in the pink and orange twilight, weekday worries had dissipated along with the day’s heat. A quick calculation of daylight and blood-alcohol levels deemed us fit for the journey home, so we decided to forgo the C-train option. Forty minutes later, we cycled into our driveway just as darkness descended – a happy reminder of how, even in April, our city is blessed with a long and lingering dusk.
Bike Month made its annual launch in Calgary this week – which got me thinking about other great food and libation venues that are easily accessed from our nearly 800 km of cycle paths. As an unabashedly fair-weather cyclist who rarely ventures beyond the Bow River bikeways, I offer up my favourite trailside pit-stops below.
(The more devoted cyclists among you would no doubt cast a wider net – so please do add to the conversation with your own recommendations.)
And let’s get out and enjoy the summer! We’ve got firm assurances from Dave Phillips (Environment Canada’s ever-popular-and-rarely-wrong Senior Climatologist), it’s going to be warm and dry!
Nothing matches the leafy island location of this city-centre icon for a stellar weekend brunch. And I’ve lost track of how many times the cafe has appeared on lists of our country’s top restaurants for its thoughtfully-crafted farm-to-table Canadian cuisine. Procrastinators who’ve been shut-out of Calgary’s annual Folk Music Festival know that come July the cafe’s patio also provides some great unofficial ringside seats to the folkfest along with your meal.
Simmons Building (East Village RiverWalk)
Another addition to Canada’s Top 100 Restaurants list – though it only opened last year – is charbar, serving up meaty Argentinian-inspired cuisine from its wood-fired grill, as well as an array of vegetarian small plates for the herbivores among us. Sharing the gorgeous unconventional spaces in and around the historic Simmons Building are Sidewalk Citizen, with its artisanal sandwiches and overflowing pitas, and well-loved local coffee roasters Phil & Sebastian (who offer tours of the roasterie on Tuesday mornings). But the cherry on top is the oh-so-cool patio of rooftopbar@simmons with its unparalleled view of Calgary’s river panorama (and some tasty bar bites and gelato sandwiches, to boot).
Hose and Hound Pub and Gravity Espresso & Wine Bar (Inglewood)
Okay, so these two Inglewood favourites are not officially on the bikeways. But just a short detour off the river paths up 11th Street S.E. lie the sunny patios of two of my fondest places to lock up my bike and while away an afternoon. The Hose and Hound‘s location in 1907-built Fire Station No. 3 lends quirky historic decor to a pub-centric menu and craft beer tipples, while across the street at the Art Block the neighbourly welcome I receive along with my pinot makes Gravity my top choice of venue to write my first novel.
Heading west out of downtown, the river valley’s treasures turn to nature more than structure, but this cozy breakfast place-cum-Asian cafe-cum coffee klatsch is a welcome destination for weekday lunchers and Sunday morning caffeine-seekers. Operating out of a former Robin’s Donuts location since 2002, this family-owned venue offers bubble tea as well as wine and beer with its eclectic menu – and a stone fireplace to curl up near when my pedalling gets interrupted by a sudden hailstorm.
What would a westward cycle be without a stop at Angel’s (whose full moniker is larger than the diminutive interior of this aluminum-sided portable)? More than a source for sandwich wraps, home-baked goodies, coffee, and ice cream, Angel’s is also a godsend of pathside aid. They’ve got bike repair tools (supplied by Bow Cycle), first aid equipment (courtesy of Calgary EMS), and other emergency supplies – from battery chargers for stranded drivers to duct tape for hapless rafters.
Bowness Park Cafe (Bowness Park)
This old urban park, beloved to generations of Calgarians, will complete its phoenix-rise from the 2013 floods this summer – with a new wading pool for the little ones and a lagoon-centred sound system reminiscent of the park’s early-1900’s heydays. The miniature train will be back, too. Top of my discovery list this season will be the new grab & go market and full-service restaurant – Seasons of Bowness Park – scheduled for a soft-opening one day very soon. Can’t wait to check it out!
So tell me – where are YOUR favourite bikeway fueling stops in Calgary?
Shaking out our umbrellas, we follow the barkeep’s nod toward a cayenne-walled room, where a dozen damp tourists mill around a man in a red felt fedora. A single long table set with white linen dominates the windowless space. Among the framed black-and-white photos that line the walls, a small plaque tags this “The Mystery Room”.
And the mystery? Why, it’s a former Prohibition-era speakeasy, says the behatted Naif Shahady. Of course! This is New Orleans – we’d expect no less…
READ MORE of my food tour column in the current issue of Taste & Travel International (tasteandtravelmagazine.com).