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CANMORE UNCORKED 2016 Insider’s Blog: PART 4

Karen Fennell Posted In: Dining Posted On: April 15, 2016

An extremely ‘progressive’ festival…

20 venues experienced, 32 to go…

1. characterized by such progress, or by continuous improvement
2. going forward or onward; passing successively from one member of a series to the next
3. eating a whole load of really good food in a single evening at a number of different restaurants while making friends with a number of really fun and like-minded individuals

The above is taken from – well most of it anyway; I may have added one of my own in there, but you’ll never guess which. The last few days have been all about Canmore Uncorked's progressive dinner tours. This is a concept that is pretty common around the world and is really very simple – go to several different restaurants over the course of a single meal. Now, you might read this and ask what are the advantages of moving around versus sitting comfortably in one place with friends or family, while being fawned over by a designated server whose job is to become attuned to your every need over the evening. So let’s consider this…

Firstly a progressive dinner is like speed dating with restaurants. Think the little bistro down the road looks kind of cute, but not sure you want to commit a whole evening? No problem. Think that upmarket-looking trattoria is great to look at but you are concerned it is just after your money? Quit worrying! This really is the best type of culinary speed dating with minimal risk – you know the restaurant is going to show you their best side, but you are not committing to more than 35 minutes in its company. If you hit it off you can always call it later, and you can be sure it will always give you its number! You just have to accept that it will be continuing to see other people behind your back…

Joking aside, it really is a great way to try something new, and every year we have heard great feedback from guests who visited places they had never heard of and which have now become regular favourites.

It is also a wonderful way to meet new people. With 20 guests on a tour and seating usually in large tables, there is every chance you are going to sit with different people every half hour or so, meaning lots of different conversations and an easy opportunity to engage with (or avoid) anyone at all. I did chat with one delightful couple that was celebrating their anniversary this week and that had rejected the idea of a romantic dinner for two in favour of a progressive dinner tour. As she pointed out, “we’ve been married 10 years, why would we want to talk to each other!” Secret to a happy marriage I guess.

And if I haven’t described progressives well enough then have a look at this excellent video diary from our friends at Two Cowboys.

For three years, all of our progressive dinner tours have start at the Grizzly Paw Brewery. This impressive facility has been operating for the last 4 years and offers retail and sampling opportunities (Uncorked special – taste three beers for $5), as well as daily brewery tours that take you through the whole brewing process, getting you right behind the scenes in a way not offered by most brewery tours. Starting the progressive dinners here works for several reasons; it is not a congested area so arrival is easy, the building is very cool and worth a visit, it is a chance for guests to start interacting and meeting new people, and most importantly THEY SERVE BEER!

Canmore’s fine dining restaurants are steadily increasing in both number and quality, and progressive tours have proven to be a great way to try several at a time. This year we ran two ‘Peak’ tours; the Lady Macdonald and the Mt. Rundle – each showcasing four higher-end locations, with transportation provided by bus. I started on Sunday with the Lady Mac, named for one of our prominent local mountain peaks (which in turn is named after the wife of Canada’s first Prime Minister). After a pleasant sample at the brewery we enjoyed our first course at Mountain Mercato, a specialty gourmet food market and Café on Main St, with a sampling of three of their wonderful cheeses paired with a glass of sparkling Cava. An interesting thing happened when we arrived at Mercato – the 20 of us were seated at one long table and without any organization all the men sat on one side and all the women on the other. Inevitably the point was raised that this really did look like a speed dating event and suggestions were made that a bell should sound every few minutes to keep us switching around. This of course broke the ice and got everyone laughing, and provoked the comment “I see this is a very progressive, progressive dinner tour”.

From Mercato it was on to Sage Bistro, where I had already enjoyed one meal this festival but was very happy for another. Here a pan-seared steelhead trout was paired with a crisp white while early evening sunshine poured through the windows. As dining partners switched around, new discussions started and the incredibly small world we live in showed itself when I met someone who went through the same university class as me, albeit two years apart – perhaps not remarkable except the university is 6944km from Canmore!

Next stop was Gaucho Brazillian BBQ – a meat-lovers paradise on Main Street. If you are not familiar with Rodizio dining you should certainly try it – unless of course you are vegetarian in which case just pop in for the best salad bar in town! Gaucho is famed for huge skewers of BBQ’d meat endlessly arriving to be carved at your table – as well as for owner Ede Rodriguez’s dance moves in our annual video. The progressive dinner tour provides a sample of a couple of their specialties, served with salad and a cassava stew, as well as a rich Brazillian Cabernet. I don’t know whether it is the food, the wine, the staff or the atmosphere, but I have never left there without having had a great time, and tonight was no different.

And then to dessert – something that we actually tried for the first time this year on the progressives having previously opted for four savoury courses. Murrietas on Main St was our host for tonight’s last stop, and the chocolate hazelnut crème brule did not disappoint – trust me, it was as good as it sounded!

The second ‘Peak’ tour is the Mount Rundle – named after the long mountain between Canmore and Banff. I have never thought to look up how this peak got its name; Canmorites look up at its easternmost point and call it EEOR (east end of Rundle) – which means my daughter has always assumed it is named after Winnie the Pooh and I would hate to shatter the illusion. But I digress…

First stop on the Rundle is Chef Studio, a fabulous Japanese restaurant whose entrance is slightly hidden just off Main Street. Now I must confess something here – as you may know I am trying to hit every Uncorked dining location in 12 days, and simple mathematics mean I have to cheat somewhere along the way, so I didn’t actually do the Rundle tour but instead went and tried each course individually. I am told by numerous people that the tours themselves flowed marvelously, and if the food I tasted is anything to go by I am sure they are right! But back to Chef Studio, and what I think may be the most creative dining experience I have enjoyed in the last week. Executive Chef Aki has focused on Umami flavours (pleasant savoury), which makes up one of the five basic tastes (along with sweet, bitter, sour and salty), and to achieve this has been very creative in the use of Koji, Japan’s national fungus (which you may (or may not) know as Aspergillus oryzae). Koji is the fungus used in fermentation of soybeans and in the manufacturing of both soy sauce and Sake, and is a living food rich in healthy enzymes and flavor possibilities. I can honestly say that until speaking with Aki I knew none of this, but the three sauces that were placed in front of me were all very different and extremely delicious, and the marinated chicken skewers would have been excellent on their own but were given a special touch by being barbequed on a mini charcoal brazier right in front of me. If you are looking for something a little different over the next few days then Chef Studio is well worth a visit.

Next up was Crazyweed (featured in a previous blog) with its pan-seared salmon set in an Indian-style tomato broth and topped with an onion bahji. Crazyweed has always been known for its creativity, and every now and then you feel almost guilty for disturbing the presentation of a meal and actually eating it instead of framing it. Photos can only do so much justice, so I will leave the best description to one of my team who said in a broad Newfie accent “it was da best ting ever”.

Third on the tour is Table Food & Drink. Now readers of previous blogs or followers of my twitter account will know that I have an extremely soft spot for this restaurant. I have always said that if it was on Main Street everyone would rave it about, but the fact it is located in the Coast Hotel means it can get unfairly labeled as a ‘hotel restaurant’. But this is NOT simply a hotel restaurant and it is well worth a detour whether during the festival or at another time (note for husbands: the Porterhouse steak for two makes a marvelous anniversary dinner). The dish for the progressive was Elk Arancini – think stuffed elk meatball surrounded by fried risotto on a bed of pasta. Once again, the creativity of our uncorked chefs cannot be questioned.

Finally for the Rundle was Habitat restaurant on Bow Valley Trail, where dessert was a half pear poached in spiced red wine and a coated chocolate mousse.Both of these were delicious, but like most men shiny things easily distract my attention and I was fascinated with the ‘champagne caviar’ that topped the dish. A conversation with the chef revealed that this is created by combining champagne with gelatin and dropping into very cold extra virgin olive oil, which causes creation of little jellies. I mean who comes up with this? And who has time to do it? Brilliant!

So I’ll pause here before describing the other progressives.
By my count this puts me at 26 down and 26 to go, so I better get on with it…

About the Author
Andrew Nickerson
President and Chief Foodie
Canmore Business & Tourism