If you're headed for the Winter Olympics in Alberta Province in February you'll find, among the vast plains and towering mountain sculptures, some surprisingly good food. Skeptics should remember that the Canadian culinary team won first place in the international culinary competitions in Germany in 1984.
"If someone is a good chef in Alberta, he or she is probably one of the best chefs in the world," says Maurice O'Flynn, executive director of the Alberta Culinary Arts Foundation, "because food costs here are so horrendous.
"There's only a two-month growing season for produce, so a lot has to be shipped in. In Alberta the only way a chef can survive is to be imaginative."
Winter Olympic venues are spread over several sites, so a sampling of restaurants takes in a lot of territory.
Home of Fine Beef
Calgary is home to some of the finest beef in the world, and we found the best steak at Hy's, a Calgary institution since 1954, when Hyman Aisenstat started a simple restaurant with red-and-white checked tablecloths.
Today's more elaborate version was built in 1967. Don't be dissuaded by the '50s kitsch exterior. Inside you'll find a formal dining room paneled in rich dark wood and stained glass.
The steaks and chops are grilled over an open pit fire at one end of the dining room, and they are excellent. Accompaniments, such as a mixed green salad, double-baked potato and spinach souffle, are much less successful, but the service is low-key and attentive. Steak dinners range from $16.95 to $20.50 Canadian, depending on the size and type of cut. (The conversion rate is about $1.26 Canadian to $1 U.S.)
There is life after beef in Calgary, and the best all-around restaurant we found is the 4 St. Rose, an informal cafe with high sky-lit ceilings and brick walls festooned with hanging plants.
Don't miss the pesto primavera--egg noodles set on a bed of fresh tomato sauce and topped with steamed vegetables in a pesto sauce ($5.95). Also good is the chicken stir-fry, tossed in a ginger oyster sauce and served on pasta ($6.50).
Desserts are exceptional--a rich cheesecake made with Winnipeg cream cheese ($3.95) and Thelma's apple pie with Granny Smith apples, a cream cheese cinnamon filling and shortbread crust ($3.25).
More for the view than the food, take the elevator to the top of Calgary Tower, where the revolving restaurant will give you a panoramic vista and an orientation of the Olympic venues around the city.
The $8.50 breakfast is adequate and includes a mammoth cinnamon roll, orange juice, scrambled eggs, pancake, bacon and coffee.
Other places worth trying are Le Rendez-Vous, Franzl's Gasthaus and Pasta Frenzy.
The Kensington district is a trendy enclave of boutiques and restaurants, and a real find here is Chocolates, Etc., a tiny shop tucked into an alleyway. Proprietors M. Martha Welsh and Michael D. Sanderson sell chocolates made locally by the De Hoogh family as well as Robert Atwell's creations from British Columbia. The Dutch hot chocolate, not too sweet and topped with whipped cream, is the best we've had outside of Holland.
Best in Banff
In general, the cuisine in the nearby Canadian Rockies doesn't match the splendor of the scenery, but there are exceptions. Le Beaujolais, opened in 1980 by former chef Albert Moser and businessman George Schwarz, is the best restaurant in Banff. "We have a traditional French kitchen," Moser says, "and we use as much local produce as possible--Rocky Mountain trout, Canadian cheeses and locally grown morels and chanterelles."
We were seated in the formal upstairs room at a window table with a view of Mt. Rundle behind us and the sounds of horse-drawn carriages below. We began with a rich chanterelle cream soup and traditional escargot Bourguignon. A rabbit loin in cider sauce was tender and served with wild-rice croquettes.
The Rocky Mountain trout was done in a rosemary cream sauce that was light but almost superfluous to the trout, which was so fresh that it evoked images of cold mountain streams.
Maitre d' Douglass Tappin prepared a flaming peach Melba at table-side for dessert--a comforting remembrance of a gentler age in restaurants. Dinner at Le Beaujolais will cost about $40 U.S. per person, not including wine.
Fun and Fondue
For an evening of sheer fun, try the Grizzly House, which serves every type of fondue imaginable--from Swiss to rattlesnake. The interior is a rustic hodgepodge of giant totem sculptures and pillow-formed mannequins, and the telephones at each table are a legacy from a former incarnation as a singles bar.
The Ultimate Fondue Dinner at $24.95 per person (two-person minimum) is a way to sample a little of everything. You can start with a traditional Neufchatel cheese fondue. Then comes a plate of raw beef, pork, buffalo and caribou chunks, to be cooked in hot oil and dipped in a variety of sauces.
For dessert--what else?--chocolate fondue with fresh fruits. A tip: order the bagna cauda on the dinner and ask for a separate appetizer of cheese fondue to be served at the same time--then you can dip the lightly cooked vegetables in the cheese fondue.
The Post Hotel, just down the hill from Lake Louise, serves such dishes as duck breast with ginger ($16.50) and trout in a cream sauce ($14.00) in a formal room walled in huge pine logs. The breads and pastries are freshly made, and the apple fritters at breakfast are not to be missed.
The Nordic Ski Centre is at Canmore, an appealing little town about a 15-minute drive from Banff, and Gallagher House there is in a Victorian home on the main street. Fran Gallagher opened the restaurant about a year ago. The food is an eclectic blend of continental and Canadian.
We had spinach fettuccine with Black Forest ham, green pepper, onion and tomatoes in a cream sauce with Parmesan cheese, and tourtiere, a French Canadian beef and pork pie--gently spicy, with a tender, flaky crust.
Dessert was a moist carrot cake. Lunches run $6 to $9 per person, and dinners are about $20. Afternoon tea is from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m., and the scones ($2.75 for two) are freshly made and served warm.
It's expected that many Olympic spectators will stay in Edmonton and shuttle by air bus to the Games (a 25-minute flight to Calgary). If this happens to you, you're in luck, because Edmonton has the best restaurants in Alberta.
An Elegant Experience
The Chef's Table, for instance, is an elegant, understated dining room in an industrial section of town. We sampled oak leaf lettuce with fresh asparagus wrapped in Black Forest ham, perfectly grilled lamb chops in a light mustard flower sauce, roasted pheasant served in a sauce of juniper berries and black currants, and milk-fed veal chops with fresh chanterelles. Dinner is about $35 to $40 per person, without wine.
"The pheasant is from Wetaskawan," owner/chef Peter Lai said, "and the chanterelles are from Innisfail in central Alberta." Lai alleviates some supply problems by growing his own hydroponic vegetables--baby lettuce, carrots and herbs.
Swiss-born Peter Johner, owner and chef of Boccalino in downtown Edmonton also has a hydroponic garden. "It's the only we way we can have fresh herbs all year," he says, leafing through the giant basil plants that thrive beneath the eerie ultra blue light of his indoor garden.
Boccalino serves Swiss/Italian dinners ranging from $8 to $15 in the restaurant, and light salads and pastas from $5 to $10 in the more casual cafe. The brewpub offers snacks and light and dark home-brewed beer.
Pizzas are cooked in a wood-burning oven by Chinese cook Chuen Yin Hok, and they are phenomenal. Our favorite was a simple cheese and lemon pizza made with a blend of mozzarella and Fontina and topped with parsley.
Also downtown is Claude's, a lovely French restaurant on the first floor of a restored turn-of-the-century office building. Gallic-born owner Claude Buzon is always there to greet guests and oversee the kitchen.
Claude's offers such dishes as escargot in a puff pastry, fillet of sole in white wine and mussels and pork medallions sauteed in butter, apple, fresh cream and Calvados. Prices are about $25 to $30 per person.
The Chilean brother and sister team of Yelisse Krug and Sergio Gallo operate Swallows, which serves French specialties in a charmingly rustic room paneled in weathered barn siding. Lunches run $6 to $10, dinners $25 to $30. The house salad greens were unusually fresh and crisp and the breads were freshly baked. We also sampled a pecan pie loaded with pecans and not overly sweet, and a subtly flavored Cointreau pumpkin pie.
More Casual Dining
For a more casual dining experience there's the Sceppa Trattoria & Deli. Ralph Maio, from Calabria, Italy, and his wife Bonnie serve such Italian specialties as stuffed roast pork Romana and braised beef Barolo. They make their own pastas and pork sausages, and Bonnie's homemade zuppa Romana cake is light as a cloud.
The menu changes every day according to what's fresh, and a meal costs less than $10 per person. Order at the counter and arrive early.
Also worth trying are Walden's, Bones and the Russian Tea Room. The latter serves a few Russian dishes, but it's really the cakes that are special.
You'll find other dining options in Edmonton's mega-wonder, the West Edmonton Mall, which includes a five-acre water park, an indoor lake with four submarines, an amusement park with the world's largest indoor roller coaster, and a mini-zoo with black bear cubs and Siberian tigers--all under one, 5.2 million-square-foot roof.
Best Bets for Food
The food outlets are endless, but the best bets are Cafe Orleans, serving Creole dishes, The Sherlock Holmes, a British-style pub, and the Pacific Fish Co., offering fresh seafood daily.
For formal dining there's the Four Seasons Hotel Dining Room, presided over by awarding-winning chef Ernst Dorfler, the Ramada Renaissance Hotel's La Gueridon under the direction of executive chef Armin Berger, and The Carvery at the Westin Hotel.
Recommended: Banff: Le Beaujolais restaurant, 212 Buffalo St.; Grizzly House, 207 Banff Ave. Calgary: Chocolates, Etc., Kensington Lane; 4 St. Rose, 2116 4 St. S.W.; Franzl's Gasthaus, 2417 4 St. S.W.; Hy's, 316 4 Ave. S.W.; Le Rendezvous, 909 17 Ave. S.W.; Past Frenzy, 2120 4 St. S.W. Canmore: Gallagher House, 637 8 St.
Edmonton: Boccalino, 10525 Jasper Ave.; Bones, 10220 103 St.; Chef's Table, 11121 156 St.; Claude's restaurant, 10112 107 St.; The Russian Tea Room, 10312 Jasper Ave.; Sceppa's Trattoria & Delicatessen Ltd., 10923 101 St.; Swallows, 10137 124 St., and Walden's restaurant, 10245 104 St.