Calgary | 306 17th Ave. S.W. | 403-452-4694 | pigeonholeyyc.ca

My friend can’t help herself: She’s running her fingers through the last crimson dregs of puréed umeboshi on a pretty Royal Albert plate. Just a few minutes ago, that intensely sour Japanese pickled plum was topped with tender dominos of milk-fed veal, piled with mushrooms and black sesame seeds. Now, it’s a tangy victory lap. Pigeonhole does finger-lickin’ good with finesse.

This fun, exciting, genre-bending restaurant anchored to a Victorian sense of refinement is a well-earned coronation for Justin Leboe. He ranked third on this list in 2009 at Rush, then climbed to second in 2012 when he reinvented Southern comfort at Model Milk in an old brick dairy building. Here, at his next-door wine bar, dainty small plates speak a futuristic culinary Esperanto that allows Southeast Asian street cooking and polished European tavern fare to understand each other. Nori crumpets are laced with strips of roasted seaweed, and the accompanying butter is infused with the pungent flavour of dried shrimp. After two or three Earl Grey martinis, I promise it makes so much sense.

Tonight’s crowd at Pigeonhole is young, dapper and prone to hugs, but 30 years ago, this space was a British tea room, frequented by Calgary’s gay community and ladies who lunched. Victoria’s old sign still hangs outside, overlaid with the new tenant’s name in glowing pink neon letters; the green marble tabletops and spindly chandelier are salvaged from the old girl’s wardrobe, too. Pigeonhole is named for the fact that it doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. Still, dishes like “edamame in salty butter” dare you to try: Shelled soybeans scream Japan, as does the springy texture of these perfect little cubes of tofu. Except that the tofu is actually rabbit mortadella sausage, and the warm bath of salty butter and crème fraîche is laced with tarragon that recalls a loose Béarnaise.

Over the sound of manic bebop jazz, chef de cuisine Garrett Bruce Martin leads a brigade hunched over Japanese charcoal hibachis and induction stoves, where they pan-char wedges of cabbage for 20 minutes before dressing them in jalapeno salad cream and grated mimolette cheese. I watch with jealousy as Leboe delivers a gorgeous caviar platter – mini crumpets, shaved egg yolk, British Columbia sturgeon caviar – to two men sporting pocket squares and milk-drunk smiles. A sip of slightly effervescent sauvignon blanc from Germany’s Pfalz region, a riesling stronghold where almost nobody grows sauvignon blanc, clinches it: Defying expectations is a tasty business.

After we’ve polished off the last gasps of maple brown-butter madeleines and amontillado sherry and paid the bill, the Victorian sentimentalist in me pockets that most old-school of restaurant keepsakes, a matchbook. It’s printed with the restaurant’s logo, a pigeon wearing a crown. Whether that bird is a king or a queen is, frankly, immaterial. Point is, it rules.


Comments
  1. Julie Diakiw

    November 2, 2015 at 2:48 pm

    Why is it so difficult to see quickly where the restaurants are. I don’t like the format… jD

  2. Ellen B

    November 2, 2015 at 7:12 pm

    AAARGH now I’ll never get in to this gem. I’ve been trying to make a weekend reservation for three months now, and the only available times ever are 5:00PM or 10:30 PM! Congratulations to Justin Leboe; I’ll just have to keep trying. You’ve hit it out of the park with this menu and space.

  3. David L

    November 2, 2015 at 8:28 pm

    Having been to both Rush and Model Milk, I am very excited to experience Pigeonhole. Justin does an amazing job at creating an intimate yet upbeat atmosphere in his restaurants, having a chic/professional environment in Rush, and a trendy/nostalgic environment in Model Milk. Bravo

  4. Candice

    November 2, 2015 at 11:39 pm

    I’m surprised there are NO Edmonton restaurants on this list. I’m not too sure how these restaurants are rated but I think it’s a little bias

  5. Karen W

    November 3, 2015 at 6:05 am

    Julie D….. The address is in the first line of the article. Pretty easy format, I ‘d say.

  6. lisa

    November 3, 2015 at 2:54 pm

    Please add the location on the first page!
    how can I care is the top tens are… 1000 miles away from me !

  7. Peter Arnold

    November 3, 2015 at 5:40 pm

    Curious situation. I left the first comment early this morning and somehow it’s disappeared. Surely AC isn’t censoring the comments!

  8. Peter Arnold

    November 3, 2015 at 6:56 pm

    Please delete me from all further email promotions and newsletters. If you’re going to that childish about a fairly innocuous comment, I don’t want to be associated with Air Canada.

  9. Air Canada enRoute Magazine

    November 3, 2015 at 8:30 pm

    Dear Mr. Peter Arnold,

    Allow us to assure you that your comment has not been deleted! Your original comment about Canada’s Best New Restaurants was not posted to this page, but rather to our profile of Soif, a different restaurant on our Top 10 list.

    Your original comment remains published on that page, and can be viewed here: http://enroute.aircanada.com/canadas-best-new-restaurants-2015/soif/

    Sorry for the misunderstanding. I hope this helps clears things up.

    All the best,
    The Air Canada enRoute Team


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