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.