Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 21, 2017

© Courtesy Hotel Le Germain

Chefs Connie De Sousa and John Jackson debone a pig's head for Charcut's signature mortadella.

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Carnivore country

Forget beef — Alberta's adventurous restos are carving up new territory

Albertans can be downright romantic about blades that glide through beef like Darth Vader’s light sabre. At Calgary’s Knifewear (tel: 403-514-0577; knifewear.com) , Kevin Kent will sell you an artisanal knife from Japan for a top-of-the-line $2200. Kent, whose specialty is exclusive knives from Japanese masters, offers products for as little as $35, for an ultimately disposable but still impressive ceramic blade.

Kevin Kent’s samurai knives sharply underscore the level of commitment in Canada’s capital of carnivorism. You think Rockies grub stops at charcoaled bricks of Alberta prime? Think again. Think beef, but broaden the palette to include lamb, pork, bison, venison, elk and caribou of the first order. The hoary marmot was still safe at the time of this writing.

Devout locavores might fall into a snit: Lamb and venison are from Australia and New Zealand, and the caribou, from Quebec. Doesn’t matter. The point is Alberta chefs know what to do with it.

Snout to tail

To discover just how far Alberta’s come, the curious carnivore need go no further than Calgary’s Charcut (tel: 403-984-2180; charcut.com), the restaurant in the swank Hotel Le Germain. The name implies just another steakhouse, but there’s nary a whiff of charbroiled steak on the premises.

It isn’t easy to pigeonhole a restaurant whose signature app is pig-head (including the snout) mortadella infused with pistachio and truffle. Everything is local and artisanal, and chefs Connie DeSousa and John Jackson either cure it or smoke it. For Albertans, it’s a new — and deeply rewarding — way to eat meat.

Diners eat plenty in this packed, intense, loud, happy space. Vegetarians start with a lovely salad of house-made goat cheese, peppery arugula and heirloom beets, sweet-and-savoury all at once. Regulars dive at the silken mortadella, or the bone marrow, or both.

Spit-roasted chicken arrives crispy-skinned to the letter. House-made merguez sausage melds lamb and pork to juicy effect, sizzling with ancho chilies. Organic prime rib from the superlative Spring Creek Ranch, done in a wood-smoke rotisserie, is deeply flavorful. And the accents —preserved lemon, fried capers, tomato mignonette and browned butter — speak of a kitchen that knows how to tickle the palate.

East meets West

In Canmore, where real estate soars above the surrounding peaks, the newbie is the Grande Rockies Resort. Its snazzy-looking restaurant, Habitat (tel: 403-679-5228; granderockies.com/restaurant.asp), breaks new ground with its fusion of Chinese and Western sensibilities. Its mastermind is Henry Wu, the hotelier and restaurateur who created Toronto’s Hemispheres, Sen5es and Lai Wah Heen. Wu doesn’t suffer inferior cuisine. Chef Vincent Leung is his hand-picked choice.

Habitat razzle-dazzles. Leung zaps crispy fried calamari with Chinese five-spice and dabs it with lemon mayo. Alberta prime assumes explosive, tongue-numbing dimension with a Sichuan peppercorn sauce. Chef Leung glazes rack of lamb in cumin, the most underrated spice in the Indian kitchen. And duck breast arrives rare, to be folded into Beijing -style pancakes or stuffed into lettuce cups with house-made hoisin, a Cantonese tour de force.

Up the road at Banff’s busy, busy Bison Bistro (tel: 403-762-5550; thebison.ca), “Rocky Mountain comfort food” translates as pizza topped with smoked bison, mozzarella, onions and oddly, edamame, and it works. A deconstructed Caesar struts its stuff with novel components — salted lemon, fried capers and pink peppercorns — and it, too, performs impressively.

The Caribou Lounge (tel: 800-661-1595; crmr.com/deer) at Deer Lodge, a five-minute walk from Lake Louise, salutes itinerant carnivores with its Rocky Mountain Game Platter. A substantial lunch for two, the charcuterie selection includes smoked air-dried bison, venison ham, elk and caribou pate, elk salami and smoked peppered duck, none a threat to the unadventurous palate.

Banff bounty

Remember the old $20 bill and that Rockies postcard of Moraine Lake and the Valley of the Ten Peaks? Moraine Lake Lodge is only accommodation on the most beautiful lake in the Rockies. Designed by Arthur Erickson, the post-and-beam log structure presents a postcard of picture windows, crackling wood fireplaces, Oriental rugs and a demanding international clientele.

Its status calls for outstanding cuisine and the Walter Wilcox Dining Room (tel: 877-522-2777; morainelake.com) — named for the Yale university student who accidentally discovered the lake in 1899 — brings downtown standards to wilderness cooking. Its signature app is bison carpaccio with pine nuts, a worthy Canadian riff on the beef dish said to be invented at Harry’s Bar in Venice in 1950.

Among mains, tenderloin of venison in a crushed juniper berry and peppercorn rub is plainly the dish to order, its pink flesh a melt-in-the-mouth proposition. The Canadian Game Sampler is a robust go-wild trio of bison tenderloin, rack of caribou and red deer sausage. The dessert of choice is without question the lemon tart which proprietor Dave Hutton plainly cherishes. Traditional in style, it benefits from massive lemon with minimal sugar, a tart tart, with brûlée crackling atop and a side of sweet basil ice cream. It could be the best of its kind on the planet.

Grill on the Parkway

The most legendary of local mountain men was guide, outfitter and eccentric Jimmy Simpson. On the shores of Bow Lake, Simpson built Num-Ti-Jah Lodge (tel: 403-522-2425; sntj.ca), as his base for outfitting ventures. By 1950, with the opening of the Banff-Jasper Highway, it was a log palace with 16 rooms.

This is pretty much the way it is today, an amiably rustic wilderness lodge with a history. But the cooking that emerges from its unusual log kitchen is anything but rustic: Num-Ti-Jah chefs such as the irrepressible Charlie See please modern travellers with fare in the order of duck confit salad, maple-glazed duck breast with blackberry orange compote and bison striploin.

This is one of the few Rockies restaurants where you can actually find Alberta lamb, which is so expensive even the most elevated restaurants run away from it. It’s also the finest lamb in the country. The kitchen sauces it in maple syrup, butter and mint jelly. Its fat produces the kind of surge of pleasure usually associated with bone marrow or foie gras.

The drive from Bow Lake to Jasper National Park on the Icefields Parkway is simply the most eye-popping and profoundly scenic highway in Canada. At the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge, the Moose’s Nook Northern Grill (tel: 866-540-4454; fairmont.com/jasper) speaks eloquently of haute Rocky Mountain.

This is grandly old-fashioned hotel dining. A jazz trio plays old favourites on request, a mellow version of “The Way We Were” inescapable and at the same time, entirely appropriate. The moose head over the fireplace has fallen off and been replaced with huge, shaggy bison head. The fireplace crackles.

The menu fairly sags with beastly offerings — bison carpaccio, boar belly, bison tenderloin, Spring Creek beef tenderloin, venison chop, rack of lamb. Bison carpaccio turns up deliciously charred and sliced thicker than most carpaccios (which don’t work because of their exiguous portioning). Boar belly comes braised with soy and white beans in an exotic riff on pork-and-beans.

A brawny prime rib practically hangs over the plate, a vegan’s horror movie. Rack of lamb takes a different turn with a lovely crust of crushed coffee beans, and it’s divine. Mains arrive with seductive, deeply reduced lip-sticking sauces in a style they don’t turn out in today’s chic eateries. But these sauces pair incomparably and exquisitely with carnivorous delights. The flesh is never weak.

For information on travel to the region, consult Travelalberta.ca.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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