Chow Down in Cowtown is an (almost!) weekly account of Calgary’s most awesome eats from Ceci n’est pas un food blog.
I unfortunately was too busy (as per the fact that I’m writing this a week late!) to go and check out the restaurants, but I celebrated by making a slow-cooker version of this Moroccan Pork & Vegetable Stew as well as Ma Po Tofu, a spicy Szechuan dish that is becoming a staple in our household.
Still, I somehow found myself at the same restaurant twice (!) in a week! I was at downtownfood for the Passion for Pork Restaurant Week Launch Party, then again for their website launch party. (So yes, I got to eat for free but was not obligated to write about it.)
downtownfood has been open for about three months, but is going through a “rebirth” of sorts as Chef/Owner Darren MacLean recently bought out some of his previous co-owners. At both events, Chef MacLean prepared hors d’hoeuvres versions of dishes that appear on the regular menu, which can be described as Pan-Asian-French fusion, with an emphasis on local ingredients and small plates. He also came out regularly to mingle with guests, making sure everything was ok while explaining his vision for the restaurant; both in terms of the food and the space.
I was impressed by how much is done in-house – Chef MacLean bakes his own bread, smokes his own oysters and bacon, pickles his own vegetables, makes his own kimchi and so on. He is also creative – I liked how for the Passion for Pork Launch he was able to adapt the menu with little porky twists, like frying oysters in bacon fat or making bacon fat aioli instead of just parading out a bunch of dishes made from different cuts of pig.
Some of the highlights from both nights -
The Beet Tartare ($5) combines sweet, earthy beets with a zippy aioli that has a bit of a kick. The star for me, surprisingly, is actually the cumin crisp. It’s thin and light, and the cumin gives it a nice smoky flavour that lingers on the palate.
Just $3 gets you a thick slice of Tuna Tataki – tender, seared rare albacore tuna topped with wasabi masago in a bold, Asian-inspired vinaigrette with sesame and daikon.
For the vegetarians out there, I loved this Mushroom Ragout with Noble Meadows Goat Cheese (made non-vegetarian at the Passion for Pork Launch with the addition of lardo!) The mushrooms have a meaty texture (and flavour too, thanks to mushrooms’ umami qualities) and the goat cheese adds a tanginess that cuts through the richness of the ragout. Served on a thin, crisp crostini made in-house.
The hot dishes at downtownfood also impress. Most of the pork products served come from Broek Pork Acres, a family-run farm near Coalhurst/Lethbridge, like in the Braised Pork Tail (!) Cake and the Pork Wontons ($15 for a full dish)
I’d never thought that I’d ever eat the cute, curly tail of a pig, but the meat is ground in the cake, so you probably couldn’t tell. The cake itself is very tender, with a flavour that seems slightly richer than regular pork (or maybe it’s just because I knew I was eating pork tail.) The Pork Wonton is good – the skin holds up well without being too thick, and the filling is uniform and tender, with just a bit of warm juices inside. It departs from “traditional” wontons a bit with a hint of sweet, sour and spicy flavour, thanks to the addition of pickled vegetables (occasionally you’ll find a bit of numbing Szechuan peppercorn), and is served in a Chinese rice wine broth.
Breakfast at Midnight ($4) is downtownfood’s signature tapa (I’m guessing so because it’s the only one with a non-descriptive name.) It features a poached quail egg, dipped in panade (as per this NY Times Magazine article on Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated, it is “a paste of bread and milk”) before being quickly deep-fried. Done right, the yolk squirts across your plate as you cut into it. Smoky bits of house-cured bacon, a drizzle of salsa verde and a thick slice of house-baked bread round out Breakfast.
But the favourite dish amongst most of the people I’ve talked to seems to be the Crispy Smoked Oysters ($13).
I grew up eating those greasy, salty smoked oysters from a can, and this is completely different. The oysters are big and meaty with a hint of smoky flavour, not salty. The oysters are lightly breaded and then fried to a nice crisp without any greasiness. The light frisee salad on top, dressed in a tangy dressing, adds a nice contrast.
As in any meal, you have to save the best for last, and although I’m sure downtownfood has an excellent dessert menu…
…my favourite dessert can be found on the drinks menu.
Behold, the Butter’d Beer.
It is well-documented that my love for Butter’d Beer knows no bounds. A creation by Chef Whitney V, who worked the bar at both events, the Butter’d Beer takes the inherent caramel, coffee, vanilla and nut flavours in Innis & Gunn and Wild Rose Honey Brown and brings it to the next level by heating it up with Demerara sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. It tastes like a creamy latte, without any dairy (eh, vegans and lactose intolerants?!)
The servers were very friendly, but I would love to go back to see what a “regular” service is like. Aside from all the changes that the restaurant is going through right now, the menu is also seasonal, so I can’t wait to see how downtownfood does as it continues to evolve!
628 8 Ave SW
Calgary AB T2P 1G4
Open Mon-Thu 11 AM-10 PM; Fri-Sat 11 AM-midnight. Closed Sundays.