The most luxurious thing on the menu here is the crispy lamb’s tongue and turnips roasted in little cubes of lardo. Simple ingredients, sublime execution: This is decadence, circa 2009. It’s also one of the most exciting things to happen to the way we eat in years. Those turnips, though they cost almost nothing, come improbably sweet and super-concentrated and just splashed with a good balsamic. The kitchen, which does rustic Italian, makes much of peasant staples: beans, potatoes, fresh pastas and organ meats. Cibo’s split local spot prawns, tossed with wild oregano and toasted fennel seeds, taste like they were grilled on the back of a boat, while line-caught B.C. rock cod – hardly a trophy fish in a salmon-crazed city – arrives crisp and caramelized on slow-cooked peas and house pancetta.
We have a 28-year-old British immigrant to thank for this. Neil Taylor’s last gig was at London’s famed River Café, the restaurant that helped to pioneer the something-out-of-nothing school of cooking. But the humble ingredients available in London can’t touch the humble ingredients a chef can get on the wild West Coast. Taylor has a way with simple foodstuffs that could put many a foie-gras-slinging celebrity chef to shame. Prime rib will never make the menu here: One night’s mixed grill brings fava beans with house-cured pork, as well as lamb’s liver, kidneys and heart. Pastas are gorgeous – think pastured veal agnolotti with organic lemon and pepper – and made from scratch every morning. It is gospel in the kitchen that nothing except the ice cream can stay in the freezer overnight.
Taylor does Meatball Mondays every week – that should keep the food snobs in check – and a regional-inspired dinner every month; Campania was a recent instalment. With Taylor’s cooking, the friendly, low-key service (sommelier and director of operations Sebastien Le Goff hails from Lumière and CinCin), and the glamorous room (glassed-in wine collection, terracotta floors dating back to 1908), it’s remarkable that Cibo has managed to remain as modest, in a way, as it is. Vancouverites – gazillionaires and goatherds alike – should be ecstatic to have it.
900 Seymour St., Vancouver, 604-602-9570, cibotrattoria.com
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The Black Hoof
“You’ve eaten through most of the menu,” our server announces. She looks impressed. In two progressively euphoric hours, my friend and I have consumed about 7,000 calories each, not to mention an anatomist’s grab bag of undersung animal parts. I offer my friend the dregs of the wine, but he just shakes his head. He is married to a vegetarian, the poor guy – he never gets to do this sort of thing. “I want to go home with that bone marrow on my lips,” he groans. “And the lamb’s brains. And the beef tongue and the horse. And especially the sweetbreads. Mmmm, thymus gland.”
The Black Hoof is known almost entirely for its excellent cured meats. The name is a translation of pata negra, the famous Iberian ham. The sign on the awning outside says only “charcuterie.” And unlike at most other charcuterie bars around North America, the 28-year-old chef at the Black Hoof, Grant van Gameren (ex of Lucien and Amuse-Bouche), makes nearly all of the 40-odd meats on rotation here in-house.
The best reason to visit, however, is for the cooked food, which is prepared, as our server puts it, on “a crappy, four-burner electric stove.” Check out the brain ravioli, sauced with a kiss of cream and orange zest; van Gameren finishes them with little sheets of Pecorino Pepato cheese. The braised octopus comes arrayed on al dente fava beans; the kitchen sets the tendrils off with bitter preserved lemon. Asparagus soup is deep-green and topped with bird’s-eye chili oil to give it a tropical kick. But the Black Hoof’s “tongue on brioche” (pictured on our cover) is easily the best of all. It is sharp and mellow and voluptuously fatty, and it comes sliced thin, stacked thick onto eggy toasted bread, and topped with a squiggle of tarragon-spiked mayo. Dessert – bacon and chocolate bread pudding – is merely a taunt after all that. Bacon and chocolate are for vegetarians.
928 Dundas St. W., Toronto, 416-551-8854
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This place had no business being born in 2009. The dining room, with its upholstered ceiling, black velvet lampshades, gold-trimmed mirrors and undulating glass wall, is a little bit modern, a little bit rococo: It feels more like Vegas than any place north of the 49th. Meanwhile, the design bill for the bar and lounge at the entrance, jammed with all of cool Calgary on a Saturday night, must have run well into the millions. The kitchen features four sous-vide cookers as well as a chef’s table, a bakery and a brigade of 20 on busy nights.
But the food here is the most stunning thing of all: Chef Justin Leboe’s local-inspired menu is smart, cosmopolitan and completely delicious. The kitchen pairs lobster chunks – don’t worry, it gets better – with tender-crisp sweetbreads and then leavens them with preserved lemon strips and a peppery North African froth of ras el hanout. Oil-poached octopus gets a barnyard kick from hunks of housemade speck. The pasta enveloping the agnolotti (prepared fresh every day, of course) is made black and beautiful with olives, then stuffed with rich and tarty local feta and tossed over an expertly balanced beurre monté. Leboe’s local beef tenderloin – this is Calgary, after all – packs way more depth of flavour than that uncoolest cut almost ever does. The accompanying whole braised morels and roasted parsnip purée prove that gilding the lily isn’t always such a terrible thing.
The food is fun, too. The palate-cleanser on the $95 tasting menu is preceded by the presentation of a pair of scissors, which are placed, ceremoniously, where a knife should go – only then does the housemade, plastic-encased, grapefruit freezie arrive. The bar also makes a wicked “bitumen martini,” after Alberta’s oil sands, from black vodka, red vermouth and cocktail olives stuffed with blue cheese. Bring back $100-a-barrel oil – we’ll take it if the boom times look like this.
100 – 207 9th Ave. S.W., Calgary, 403-271-7874, rushrestaurant.com
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