Chow Down in Cowtown is an (almost!) weekly account of Calgary’s most awesome eats from Ceci n’est pas un food blog.
B. and I were super-lucky to get spots at the last seating of the first incarnation of CHARPOP on Tuesday! Long story short, it involved not getting our reservation request in until 4:08 two weeks earlier (registrations were open at 4 PM), being on the waiting list, my perennial brunchmate Tiffany offering us to share her 6 PM seating but me having other plans (!!!), then the news a few days later that we got the 9:30 PM seating (and would probably be eating till midnight…)
When I’d heard that Aviv from Sidewalk Citizen was involved in this dinner, I had an inkling that the “secret location” would be the bakery. I had never been, but I knew it was small, and would probably make an intimate venue for this pop-up restaurant.
Despite only allowing parties of up to four, tables of six and eight were set up, encouraging diners to interact with their tablemates. I was pleasantly surprised to have been seated at the “media table” with my friends Julie and Gwendolyn, who were there with Shelley Youngblut and a man who only introduced himself as “Jacob”, who I later found out was Jacob Richler!!! Now I am slightly embarrassed that I didn’t know.
I was surprised to find that the menu was à la carte (Decision Making?!?), having expected a prix-fixe menu, given the four-seatings-per-night arrangement. The menu was very “experimental”, featuring items that you usually wouldn’t see on a restaurant menu, like beef heart, sweetbreads, pig ear, tongue and octopus. “Small plates” (appetizers) were $17, large plates were $38 and sides and desserts were $12. Aviv’s influence was obvious throughout the menu, with many of the dishes paired with croissants, brioche, bannock and scones, and of course, there were the two desserts!
We decided to forego any drinking that night, which in retrospect may have been a mistake as it seemed like everyone else had a drink by their side and there was a lovely looking local blonde beer for only $5! We kicked things off with the Open Faced Croissant with Lamb, Sumac, Nigella Seeds & Mint ($12).
B. was a big fan of this dish, though he thinks he would’ve liked it better if the lamb was warm. I thought it was only ok – the croissant was soft and pillowy, but lacking a flaky crust, while the lamb was crumbly and a little too subtly flavoured. I had to take a few bites before I tasted the licoricey nigella seeds. Overall, the croissant reminded me of one of those meat-filled buns you get at a Chinese bakery… with just a hint of a more exotic flavour.
Next we shared the Crispy Pig Ear Salad ($17), tossed in a lemon chili dressing and topped with crispy toast and an egg cooked in a 64-degree sous-vide bath.
I was hoping to get a photo of the yolk dribbling out of the egg and onto the salad, but my plan was foiled by the magic of sous-vide! The egg had the texture of a soft-cooked egg, but the stability of a hard-boiled one. It was pretty neat. I also loved the pig ears – crispy little salty nubbins that reminded me of pork rinds. The salad itself wasn’t great – it was made mostly of bitter radicchio and wasn’t dressed very evenly. I think Jacob commented that he would have the crispy pig ear just by itself, in a paper cone like popcorn. I totally agree.
Julie and Gwendolyn were kind enough to share the last couple bites of the more popular salad that night – Baked Kale with Persimmon, King Mushroom, Farro and Pinenut ($17). I loved the earthy flavour of the roasted kale, and the large slices of king mushroom had soaked up the lemony dressing. Yum.
Our last small plate was the Smoked Veal Sweetbreads with Pig Skin, White Beans and Escarole ($17).
B. and I had recently eaten sweetbreads (the “pretty” food name for an animal’s glands, usually the thymus) in New York – at wd~50 we had some small bites of breaded and fried sweetbreads in a bowl of king mushroom “noodles” and ginger-banana chips as part of their tasting menu – so I felt comfortable ordering them. I was a little surprised that the sweetbreads were not deep-fried here.
The first bite was a little weird – the sweetbreads were soft, almost fatty, but not greasy. The tops were lightly seared and salted, so together with the smoky flavour, it was like eating bacon or smoked pork belly, but again, without the grease.
The sweetbreads sat on a stew of white beans and escarole, which was creamy with just a bit of chew, topped with a generous sprinkling of parsley. Usually we hate parsley but we ate it here, and enjoyed the stew’s smoky flavour, which mirrored that of the sweetbreads.
For our main dish, we shared the Beef Cheek with Squash and Savoury Scone ($38).
The beef cheek was literally braised for a day and was fall apart tender, while the peppery gravy had a hint of sweetness from the multicoloured squash, reminding me a little bit of Japanese curry. We thoroughly enjoyed it. The scone was nice – a firm, outer shell gave way to a soft, slightly cheesy inside, and worked well for sopping up the gravy at the end.
We had a side of beets ($12) with our beef cheek. I love beets, so I gobbled these down eagerly, but you could hardly tell that they were Hot Vinegar Beets with Orange & Thyme except for the sliver of orange peel that was nestled in the small bowl.
So before we started eating, I posted my excitement on Twitter/Facebook and Tiffany commented back “It was delicious!! Cinnamon buns!!” So I could hardly wait for dessert to arrive.
The Cast Iron Baked Cinnamon Bun with Spiced Rum & Raisin Gelato ($12) was the highlight of our meal. The warm, moist bun was slathered with a sticky, cinnamon sauce and topped with a generous scoop of a very rummy ice cream. Rum & Raisin is one of B.’s favourite ice cream flavours, so he totally fell for this dish, while I thought the rum-soaked raisins were just a little too boozy for me. I commented back to Tiffany, “OMGGGG!!! You were right about the cinnamon buns!!!”
On the other hand, Julie found the cinnamon bun a little too heavy of a finish for an already-heavy meal, but she did have way more food than us We also agreed that it was pretty pricey! We did come prepared to spend, and I get that we were paying mostly for the experience and all the work in turning a bakery into a pop-up restaurant, but still, $12 for a bowl of beets?
Still, I was very happy and excited to have been part of the first CHARPOP, especially since it sounds like the next one will be a while off. I heard Connie telling some diners that they were hoping to do another pop-up in the spring, but in San Francisco! So it may be a few more months yet before CHARPOP will be back in Calgary. I can’t wait to see what they will come up with next!