I was in Calgary for work a month ago and I took the opportunity to visit some of their “best” restaurants, as determined by the Avenue Top 10 List.
Since these restaurants have received significant amounts of praise for creative food, plating and service (and also charge a fucking fortune), they will be held to higher standards.
These are the memoirs of my experiences.
For those too lazy to Google for themselves:
“Anju (Korean pronunciation: [andʑu]) is a general term for a Korean food consumed with alcohol.”
Few things bother me more than inexplicably/inappropriately named restaurants, so we’re off to a good start.
The restaurant itself is very nice, combining the modern “everything must be black” theme with more traditional Korean decorations.
By traditional Korean decorations, I mean the 4-5 ceramic jugs they had displayed in the front. The rest of the restaurant was honestly indistinguishable from a Cactus Club.
Service was prompt and friendly, without being intrusive. I like to touch on this as good service is very rarely noticed, but bad service can easily destroy your restaurant experience. In Anju’s case, the staff were attentive, knowledgeable about their food (nothing more embarrassing than not knowing what goes in your own dishes), and seemed to appear only when you need them.
The food was…
Most of our choices were based off staff recommendations, as we wanted the dishes that best represented the restaurant.
We started with the Spicy Salmon Tacos (Yuneo Tako if you want a gibberish Korean translation).
While the fish was definitely fresh, and I appreciated the work that went into the avocado mousse, I just found the tacos to be just a bit cloying. The fish was mixed with an oily cream based sauce, and combined with the natural richness of the avocado and deep-fried wrappers, just seemed too heavy for a starter. The bright side is that you get decent sized portions, and this could easily double as a main.
Next up was the Tofu & Foie Gras Parfait. The menu mentioned that it was served with Korean Pear Black Pepper Jam, Pine Nuts and Toasted Brioche. The presentation was well done, with creative use of a bathroom tile as a plate.
The actual parfait was very nice. The tofu and foie gras had been whipped/blended to a mousse-like consistency.
The “jam” was actually a small salad of pears and micro-greens. Don’t ask me why they called it a jam. The pear was raw, crisp and very sweet, with smaller/less noticeable sclereids. This did well to cut the richness of the parfait.
What killed an otherwise pleasant dish was the inclusion of the brioche (the wait staff stressed that this was baked in-house). The bread was sliced thickly, buttered and turned into a sweet, chewy pulp when you bit into it. This completely overshadowed all of the other flavors on the plate, especially the light foie gras and tofu. A normal crouton/melba toast would have done much better.
Next up was the Roasted Bone Marrow (So Golsu Gui) with scallions.
This was probably the worst dish of the night. The bone marrow seemed a bit off, and was much grittier than expected. It also had a heavy metallic after-taste. I understand that there’s bound to be some blood in the marrow bones, but this was almost inedible. Honestly, it tasted like sucking back a nosebleed.
To complete the dish, the chef included some brioche crostinis. I feel like my thoughts on the brioche are apparent by this point so I’ll leave it at that.
The last appetizer we ordered was the KFC sliders, which turned out to be a disappointment. The chicken itself was quite nice, with a sweet, spicy and sticky sauce and fatty dark meat. Once again, what killed the dish was the brioche.
You would expect that the chicken would be the star of the dish, but the brioche over-powered everything on your palate with its starchy sweetness.
I’m no award winning chef, but the dish would be vastly improved with any other type of bread and maybe a pickle or two to cut through the oil.
Oh, the dish also came with some piping hot, lightly salted, kettle-chip style curried potato chips, which were absolutely fucking delicious.
To finish things off, we settled for a more traditional dish, and ordered the spicy seafood stew. While the ingredients were high quality, and the presentation was homely and pleasant, the stew just didn’t taste like it should.
It’s hard to pinpoint what really went wrong here, but the stew lacked the depth of flavour you would normally associate with Korean home cooking. Maybe it was the toned-down spice levels? Lack of acidity? Or maybe the stew just wasn’t simmered for long enough for the flavours to meld.
Yeah, I think that’s it.
The shrimp were marinated in lime and garlic and were delicious on their own, but clashed with the rest of the bowl. The pork was fatty and perfectly cooked, but just tasted like boiled pork. The mussels were tiny, plump and fresh, but only managed to add a slightly bitter brininess to the soup, and the tofu tasted like nothing.
It’s a shame because it’s clear that the end product was so much less than the individual components that went into it?
One may read my post and think that I’m overwhelmingly against Anju, but honestly, I’m not.
The food, while not amazing, was passable, and I appreciated the thought and creativity that went behind every dish. The chef clearly loves his craft and makes the extra effort to improve his dishes, sometimes in ways that the customer may not even realize. I harped on the home-baked brioche, but it was a pretty good brioche, the only issue was that it was served with everything and drowned out the other, more important flavours.
Everything was technically sound and the presentations were spot on as well (with the exception of some limp onions on the marrow).
But above all, I’m glad I went to Anju because it provided an interesting insight in how traditional methods and recipes shouldn’t entirely be replaced by creativity and clever plating.