Note from August 2015: Rumor has it that downtownfood may have closed, so make sure you call ahead before heading there (there does appear to be a Downtown Food in Calgary, but it is likely different). I’m leaving my review up, though, as a testament to what an awesome meal Chef MacLean prepared for us.
Tucked away in downtown Calgary is Executive Chef Darren MacLean’s downtownfood. dtf is Canadian classics with an Asian-fusian twist. The Chef makes no apologies for the controversy that his restaurant is sometimes the recipient of: he’s cooking his food, the way he wants, & doesn’t really care what anyone thinks as long as the customers are happy.
Chef Darren provided a running commentary throughout our multi-hour, multi-course, should-have-worn-my-stretchy-pants dinner at this funky restaurant during our visit to Calgary in June. He believes that a tasting menu should tell a story & that’s reflected in the pace & flavors of the seven course menu, which changes daily based on what’s fresh & available.
And so it began…
The restaurant’s rooftop garden is home to 50,000 bees, allowing Darren’s team to brew Killer Buzz right on-site. We started our meal with a tall glass of this honey beer, which had been brewed earlier that day.
Our taste buds were tempted for the first time with a little amuse bouche: an herb financier topped with ricotta on a plate that is custom made for downtownfood by a local potter.
My favorite dish of the entire meal was a glorified plate of salmon sushi. This perfectly spicy salmon maki is prepared with a light tempura, topped with quail eggs & the most incredibly fresh wasabi from British Columbia. You know how sometimes the spicy of wasabi lingers in your mouth awhile after you’ve moved on? This wasabi was totally unlike that: the spice was there for the bite & then quickly went away, your palette ready for the next bite.
Next we moved onto a beautiful, earthy mushroom salad that literally came out of the kitchen smoking under a glass dome. By sneaking some hickory smoke under the dome & quickly covering the dish, the mushrooms finish cooking & literally absorb the smoke as the dish makes its way from the kitchen to the table. The result was something that even a mushroom hater like me could embrace.
All this heavy food called for a light note & we got that from a beautiful, unique tomato consommé, served chilled with a little cheery tomato balanced on top.
B’s favorite dish of the entire night came from a creamy, perfectly textured foie gras. The beautifully pressed foie gras was topped with a fresh jelly made of rhubarb from Darren’s aunt’s garden. Now that is fresh!
Another literally smoking dish was the beef tartare. Now I know what you’re thinking: how can you smoke beef tartare all the way from the kitchen to the dining room & not have it cook? I don’t understand it either, but wowsers was it good. Served with homemade potato chips, my photo below doesn’t nearly do this flavorful, unique spin on a traditional dish justice.
The real treat of the meal came next when a huge jar of Northern Divine Caviar from British Columbia came out to the table. This is the only sustainable caviar in Canada & it was important to Darren to find high quality caviar that didn’t negatively impact the environment.
We plopped a dollop of caviar on top of a artful pile of scallop & perfectly salty pork belly. In fact, I change my mind. Move over salmon maki, this was my favorite dish of the evening.
By this point, I was really regretting my decision of wearing jeans to dinner & actually contemplated unbuttoning my pants. I sat there thinking “I’m wearing a long shirt, who would ever know?” But Canadians are proper & I didn’t want to offend my host, so onward we went, diving into the top layer of prime rib that is cooked with homemade beef fat. At least it was served with a little side of avocado to make it heart healthy. Ha! Did I mention that we were washing all these courses down with wine pairings? “Bad ass prosecco from Spain,” big bold red’s, crisp soft whites. So much wine. So much food.
Finally, it was time for dessert, which was served in perfect portion sizes. I really liked the fresh dish below: green tea cheesecake with candied pistachios, raspberries & liquid nitrogen sorbet.
I am normally not a fan of deconstructed anything – just serve me a whole piece of pie, darn it – but even my picky Floridian palette found the deconstructed key lime pie tangy, with perfectly browned meringue.
B’s favorite dessert (he’s a sucker for chocolate) was a smoked chocolate tart served in a tamer on sauce with smoked whipped cream. It tasted chocolate on your tongue with a smokey aftertaste. Definitely not your typical chocolate dessert…
As if we could eat anything else, a plate of macaroons topped with homemade popcorn arrived on another beautiful, custom piece of pottery.
Our meal at downtownfood was one of the most unique tasting menu’s I’ve ever had. Chef Darren has achieved something that is really hard to do in fine dining: the food is five stars all the way, but the environment is casual & relaxed with beautiful exposed brick separating the bar from the kitchen.
As we were saying good-bye to our chef for the evening, he left us with some parting thoughts: he’s the only one cooking food like this in downtown Calgary, a town which is still coming into its own. He envisions his menu to not be pretentious, but to be flavorful & accessible. Darren believes that if you cook good food, people will come to your restaurant.
I hope he’s right for many years to come.
Note: Our meal at downtownfood was provided compliments of downtownfood & Travel Alberta; however, all opinions are my own. You better believe next time I’m in Calgary, I’ll be pulling up to downtownfood for that night’s tasting menu.