I was travelling the past week which is the reason for the slow in postings. Hopefully a blog isn’t too much like an heirloom sourdough starter that needs to be fed with cultivated regularity to sustain its swell.
The good news is that the travelling has afforded me an opportunity to do some research – also known as having fun eating out.
My destination: Calgary.
The first and only true reality program I’ve ever watched was Gordon Ramsay and his Hell’s Kitchen. I enjoyed this for first few seasons because, in my experience, it was a reasonable depiction of sometimes happens in a restaurant kitchen while at the same time it showed ‘everyday’ people putting their talents to bear. I initially enjoyed watching those contestants with talent think on their feet and create great food under tough pressure. And I especially enjoyed watching them create a menu while shopping or doing the blindfolded taste tests. I watched for a few more seasons, slowly losing interest as the series itself became derivative and the persons joining Hell’s Kitchen became increasingly a farce mixing social caricatures and those with self-destructive personalities … where people were chosen not because they could necessarily cook or because they reasonably had any chance of winning, but rather because they would make for “good” TV. And as it became clear that the producers used the promise of fame and the spot in an often prestigious new start up (in places like Vegas or Whistler) to lure out the naïve with the sole intention to embarrass and mock them for being wannabes, I abandoned the cruelty. Simply having a dream to join the “industry” no way gave Ramsay the right to treat them like they were actually in the industry and subject them to the abuse he thought they needed to prepare for it. There are a lot better ways to teach and grow a person than through a baptism by fire aka verbal abuse. Even the Conclave won’t elect an unprepared priest to be the next Pope. So, after 5 or so seasons, I gave it up … but soon thereafter discovered Top Chef which I still love to this day, though rarely have time to watch. It’s a program where industry chefs are pitted against their peers and are judged by yet more peers. And yes, it is still a “production,” but the food sells it.
Where am I going with this, you ask? You thought the destination was Calgary?
… enter, CHAR|CUT, one of Calgary’s most popular restaurants – and I will say at the outset, it is popular for good reason. Case in point: on a Tuesday night, the only table we could get was for 8:30pm – and when we came in, it was packed.
In its atmosphere and cuisine, CHAR|CUT brings my Food TV journey full circle, recalling the kinds of restaurants people were winning on Hell’s Kitchen (albeit not as ginormous) … but the food, oh the food, that’s where Top Chef comes into the picture.
Set in the boutique Hôtel Germain, the restaurant is a destination that leaves a memorable and very warm impression: roughhewn timbers are mixed with a modern, yet casual design; the kitchen is open and on one end of it, you can see the house-cured meats hanging and aging. The tables themselves are reminiscent of a charcuterie board – the clear inspiration behind the name. The place is at once, chic but feels “accessible” and inviting.
Co-owned by chefs Connie DeSousa and John Jackson, it gained fame when the then 29-year-old Connie DeSousa placed runner-up on Top Chef Canada 2011. And it only took one bite of the food at CHAR|CUT to immediately know why she had done so well in the competition. Having said all that, the other half of this creative enterprise is John Jackson and I suspect it is his own time spent at a small, local butcher-shop in Italy’s Marche region that has influenced the incredible cured meats we would soon sample.
My friend and I committed at once to a no-holds barred approach to the menu. We agreed, if it looked interesting, we were ordering it and there was going to be none of “I won’t eat that.” We each chose an appetizer to share: a slow-roasted heirloom beet salad with the most exquisite house-made soft goat cheese and I ordered the “Bone Marrow and Escargot au Gratin.” The beet salad was exquisite, as I said: beautifully marinated and dressed with a perfect balance of flavours. And the bone marrow and escargot? Let’s say that it is the kind of dish that wins things like Top Chef. Creative, intelligently conceived, and perfectly executed, it was about an 8” piece of beef shank (a guess), that was sawed lengthwise to create a kind of boat. On this marrowed boat were placed the escargot that were then fired to create a tasty (non-rubbery) escargot and a bone marrow that was the consistency of melted lard. It was a dish unlike any I’d ever tasted and I’m still blown away by the imagination and flavours.
Next up on the menu was the CHAR|CUT board filled with a selection of the meats we had seen when entering. What we soon experienced is some of the most amazing curing I’ve ever tasted … and after eating what felt like two pounds of meat, I’m sure there is a big bad wolf out there in search of his missing three little pigs. There was “Pig Head Mortadella and Brassica Mustard” that was hand-mixed and studded with pistachios and truffles (you’ll never taste “bologna” like this in your life); a shaved Tasso ham perfectly seasoned with paprika and topped with a cave-aged Gruyère; Lonzino Italian-style bar snacks made with strips of pork loin flavoured with fennel pollen, orange and black pepper (wow – these may look like long dog treats, but they tasted like pork jerky – and they were amazing!); a small pile of wild boar salami (yummmm); and, finally, there was a skillet-served Italian sausage with pickled preserved jalapeno … and while the sausage totally rocked, the pickled pepper nearly stole the show.
Full of the three little pigs, we took a break in our eating, drank a bunch of wine (a 2009 Zacherle “Project A” Calistoga Cabernet Sauvignon which was yummy and the young tannins an excellent match for the richness of the dinner) before we eventually moved onto a couple of “sides” to share. There was no room in our bellies, I’m afraid to share an entrée (which is where the “roasts” of the restaurant name come into play) nor did we sample dessert. We did try an excellent duck-fat fried poutine with cheese curds and truffle gravy (which while great and perhaps exquisite for Calgary, coming from Ottawa/Gatineau, I’ve had fancier and plainer poutiness that rocked more) … but we paired the poutine with an amazing plate of hand-made pappardelle with Manila clams and crispy pancetta and, if I were to guess, there was Meyer lemon peel in it as well … a flavour that showed up in a few places. You can judge a lot about a restaurant and chef by the quality of their homemade pasta – and I’d personally give 3 Michelin stars to CHAR|CUT based simply on their pasta. Wow.
This is some of the best food and meats, especially, I’ve ever eaten but given the exceptional quality of this, a couple could easily go in and eat for around $100 — $200 if you add in wine and dessert. The meat board would easily satisfy 4-6 people as a mid-course and for the two of us, it was practically dinner – but all that meat, meticulously made and sourced was a very affordable $36.
If your destination holds Calgary in your future, then I highly recommend you make CHAR|CUT your destiny – just make sure you reserve about the same time as you book your flight to make sure you get in.