I’m back after taking some time out to bring a new baby into the world. Matt pointed out that this now means I’m a mommy blogger (!) but I hope to keep turning out the same hip, cool content I did before I became a parent. Please don’t ever hesitate to let me know if I’m losing my edge!
Matt and I always find ourselves trying to scale back on the elements of our diet that balloon out of control, especially when we’ve been eating out a lot and trying to create content for the blog. Yes, I love foods that are deep fried, animal-based, sodium-rich, buttered and soaked in whipping cream, but I also relish natural opportunities to go for meals that have me flipping my hair in the wind feeling like a green goddess because there’s an oyster mushroom instead of pork belly in my tacos.
Enter Jeff and Phillip, two of our friends who share our love of cooking and eating adventurously! Their tendency to be very generous with their time in doing us huge favours means we often find ourselves owing them a nice dinner out since there’s no way I’m following up Phillip’s homemade pho or Jeff’s pizza from scratch with whatever lame weeknight dinner usually comes out of our kitchen! After one of the last big favours they did for us, we booked a night to treat the two of them to a meal at the Allium, one of Calgary’s newer veg-focused restaurants.
Sorry in advance for the photo quality – I was just taking a few quick photos on my phone to perhaps post an Instagram story, but have been thinking about this meal so much that I have to go full blog post, inferior photo composition or not!
The Allium’s concept is a bit different from other restaurants in the Calgary market – they have structured themselves as a co-operative, with all staff members taking literal ownership of the restaurant. While that means every staff member is going to be extra invested in the quality of the food and the customer experience, we did discover some training gaps.
I ordered an Urban Forage mocktail ($8), made with rhubarb, vanilla, strawberry and lemon. Matt ordered a Grandma’s Garden ($13) – love the whimsical names by the way – made with Banff-based Park vanilla vodka, rhubarb, vanilla, lemon and star anise vodka. When the drinks came out and I was expecting basically a very fancy lemonade, but my first sip had a distinct licorice flavour – something I could only attribute to the star anise vodka that was supposed to be in Matt’s drink. When I explained to the server that I was perhaps being overly cautious but wanted to check because I was pregnant, she was very apologetic and immediately had the drinks remade. All was well, though we noticed at the end of the evening that she hadn’t comped so much as the mocktail after that fairly serious mistake, something we thought would have been a given at a restaurant with a more traditional ownership structure.
After that bumpy start, the rest of the meal was stunning. Jeff and Phillip had some delicious local beer from Eighty-Eight Brewing and we cracked open the seasonal menu with vigor. Our server suggested two small plates and one large plate per pair at the table, so with four of us we were looking at quite the list of items. We pared it down slightly (gotta save room for dessert!), took some of her favourite suggestions and waited for each item to come out as soon as it was ready.
First came an amuse bouche, which in this case was a beautiful little tribute to banchan or Korean side dishes that come out to serve as condiments with cooked rice. Everything down to the pickles was house made and this was a lovely, acidic bite that woke up our palates in time for the first course.
We were definitely not disappointed by the soft sourdough jalapeno pretzel bites with stout mustard, smoked salt and a drizzle of jalapeno salsa ($9). The spice level was mild enough for all at the table (cough, me!) and the stout mustard was completely addictive. We were all a little sad when they took that empty plate away – there was still so much mustard we could have scooped up with our hands! (Or forks, I suppose…)
Next came the fried pickled mixed mushrooms with miso gravy and pickled shallots ($12). We were all intrigued and agreed we had to order it, but I really wasn’t sure what to expect from fried pickled mushrooms. This dish was a best case scenario! The fried coating was cooked to a perfect crisp finish and the miso gravy was a light but flavourful sauce perfect for dunking. The pickled shallots tied in nicely with the slightly acidic pickled mushrooms and each bite was a satisfying mouthful of textures and flavours. I would definitely recommend this dish to anyone – you don’t need to love mushrooms to appreciate this one!
After that was the fried Oaxacan cheese with salsa roja and three chili cream ($12). The cheese was coated in what we’re fairly sure was cornmeal and they were also fried to a perfect golden crunch. This felt a little bit like we’d ordered very fancy mozzarella sticks and we were not sorry about it.
The next dish was one Matt had been pulling for – the Mulligatawny ($18) with pulses, legumes, yellow curry, cilantro and pakora. I was skeptical as I was only familiar with Mulligatawny as a (delicious) South India-inspired soup. The logistics of a shared soup dish made me anxious. I should have trusted Allium’s team on this, as what they brought out was more of a curry-style dish without all the broth. The dish was seasoned beautifully, the pakora were crispy and flavourful without being greasy and the finely ribboned vegetables and microgreens added a freshness to the plate that made the whole thing very crushable. I could easily have eaten this whole thing by myself.
The last dish was the spaghettini ($16) with mushroom and sunflower croquettes, piperade (a Basque tomato and red pepper sauce) and herb pistou (prepared similarly to pesto, but originating in southern France). When we ordered this, I’m not sure what I was picturing, but I was delighted to realize it was a vegetarian take on spaghetti and meatballs. My only “beef” with this dish is when sharing restaurants send out items in odd numbers – come on, you know this is most likely going to a group of 2 or 4. Still, we split up our croquettes with delight and thoroughly enjoyed this dish. The piperade had a good heat level – not so spicy we were uncomfortable, but definitely zesty enough to rush us through the remainder of our drinks. The croquette was delicious and “meaty” from the mushrooms. This was a very filling dish that would have made a hefty entrée for one person.
We had (barely) saved enough room for dessert and after some negotiation, I got the team to agree to share one rather than go home empty-handed. (My initial proposal of ordering all three desserts was quickly rejected by the overly full groans of my dining companions). We settled on the chocolate date torte ($10) with apricot, london fog cream and cocoa nib tuile. This was definitely a sharing dessert – any date-based treat is going to be rich and heavy. We loved the smooth london fog cream and the tart apricot. Even the tuile, which I thought would add more sweetness than the dessert needed, was a highly appreciated component. This satisfied my itch for a dense slab of cake and then some!
The menu was innovative, the ingredients were all fresh and clearly lovingly prepared and the staff were – aside from one blip at the beginning – very helpful and clearly passionate about their product. I highly recommend the Allium (211A – 12th Ave SW) for a reasonably priced and elegant vegetarian meal. They don’t take reservations for smaller groups or pairs, so be prepared to wait (or go right when they open like nerdy old me) as the small dining room fills up quickly. Parking in this part of the Beltline is always tricky around dinner time, so don’t forget to give yourself a little extra time to find a spot. And definitely don’t skip dessert!