The harvest box, as it’s called, is supplied and stocked weekly by Garden Collective, a group of five entrepreneurs who grow herbs and vegetables in a 2,200-square-foot enclosed garden on the second story of an office-mall hybrid building. My bartender said I could go see it for myself, so the next morning, I did. It’s at the end of a Plus 15, the Calgarian term for the 60-plus skywalks, each about 15 feet above the street, that connect the city’s buildings. They make up one of the world’s largest pedestrian skywalk networks. Garden Collective’s space is behind vast glass windows and across from a shop that sells diamonds. Passersby frequently pause to snap photos.
It was co-founded by Zishan Kassam, a Calgary, Alberta, native and software product manager by day. “We have the modern technology to be able to grow in a city, so why are we so reliant on supply chains that start abroad?” he said, noting how the pandemic made the situation all the more urgent. He explained how, within the limited confines of the space, he has an unconstrained capability to adjust temperature, light and the nutrient levels in the dirt to modify the flavor and character of the herbs and leafy greens, which he sells to at least 10 restaurants at any given time.
The city has long been known for the Calgary Stampede, the century-old rodeo event that takes place every summer and typically draws more than 1 million visitors. But that seasonal event doesn’t define Calgary year-round. It’s also a popular stopover for people heading to take in the stunning nature of Lake Louise and Banff National Park, which is close to the Canadian Rockies. And in recent years — thanks to a lively culinary scene fueled by chefs who have managed to create locally focused menus, despite the prairie city’s extreme weather — Calgary has become a destination in its own right.
It welcomes about 7.7 million visitors annually, and it’s preparing to welcome more in the coming years. Two new boutique hotels — the Westley, which opened last year, and the Dorian, slated to open later this month — will feature local chefs and art. This is part of the lead-up to the increased draw the city expects when the reimagined Glenbow, the city’s arts and culture center, opens in 2024, the same year as the BMO Centre at Stampede Park. The expansion will make BMO Centre Canada’s second-largest convention center.
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Major Tom is one of the restaurants that uses Garden Collective’s bounty. The glam-yet-laid-back spot is on the 40th floor of an office tower. If you face west and squint, you can make out, in the distance, a ski jump turned zip line in Canada Olympic Park (or WinSport, as it’s known today), site of the 1988 Winter Olympics. The Calgary Tower, a major tourist attraction, is a few short blocks away. On a Thursday in May, the city below twinkled all the way to the horizon, but the more radiant part of the evening was the baked Pacific lingcod, served with charred eggplant, olives and green-tomato vierge, a French interpretation of marinara sauce. Marigold petals from Zishan and the crew were scattered on top.
Garrett Martin, the culinary director, told me he visited Garden Collective that afternoon for a tasting, and explained the process. “If we don’t think something has enough flavor or needs sweetness, they just manipulate the water content, light or heat exposure to get different results. They’ve been doing a lot of tweaking for us, and it’s been coming through nicely,” he said. The team once grew dill, but it didn’t pack a lot of a punch, Garrett recalled. A few weeks later, they brought back a more dilly dill. “I love to support local, but it has to be good,” he said.
“Locally grown” is a common priority these days. More and more chefs, restaurateurs and bartenders focus on area specialties in the interest of highlighting regional bounties, cutting carbon footprints and supporting local farmers and makers. But that’s challenging in some places, such as Calgary, where the growing season is short and plagued by hail, wind, and unseasonal snow and frost. But over the week I spent there in May, I found a city that operates like a sturdy Möbius strip, a system closed in on itself, yet mesmerizing in how it functions.
It’s something I saw in high-definition at Rouge, which serves modern dishes in a historical house with creaky floors and Victorian flourishes. The restaurant gained widespread acclaim when it notched a spot on the San Pellegrino World’s 100 Best Restaurants list in 2010. But more recently, one of its claims to fame is co-founder and culinary director Paul Rogalski’s role in “Wild Harvest,” an outdoor adventure and cooking show that airs on PBS stations across the United States. He co-stars with producer Les “Survivorman” Stroud. Les forages, Paul cooks. It has informed the dishes served at Rouge.
He offered to show me around the garden out back, where he has a beehive, a greenhouse, and beds of herbs and veggies. As we walked, he told me about the rewards of experimenting with spruce tips in the kitchen, and the abundant chickweed — whose name is tragic to him. (“Nothing is a weed. It’s either prolific and invasive or not.”) He plucked the sweetest asparagus I’ve ever known, as well as sorrel, which I’d later have in a tangy sauce in a fish dish. He pointed out crab apple blossoms, which made an appearance in dessert.
Sal Howell, proprietor of River Café, has a similar philosophy. River Café is located on the tiny, quiet Prince’s Island Park on the Bow River, a 365-mile body of water that’s fed by the glacial runoff of the Canadian Rockies. The island is about a mile from downtown, but it feels a universe away. Sal founded the cafe in 1991 as a concession stand, but built it out into a fishing-lodge-inspired wonderland, complete with a hanging birch-bark canoe and hickory furniture. The place serves Canadian Rocky Mountain cuisine. I had read about Sal’s garden, and when I asked her what she’s growing, I was again led outside.
“There’s rhubarb coming up. And I see lovage and chives — lots and lots of chives,” she said, pointing to the different greens poking up from the garden that wraps around the building. She leaned over and plucked a few lovage leaves for each of us. It struck me as celery’s alter ego, its feathery leaves slightly peppery with a fleck of anise.
Howell’s kitchen staff makes clever use of what most people would dispose of, which results in creations such as vinegar made from beer-foam runoff. Sourcing local here is an extreme sport. Lamb, grains, seafood and wine are easy enough to get, but when it comes to citrus, olive oil and other pantry staples that have no place on the Canadian prairies, it’s more challenging. But they pull it off beautifully. Camelina and flax oils do the jobs usually done by olive oil. The popular hummus is made with red lentils and is flavored with sumac instead of lemon juice.
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These are all sophisticated restaurants — not exactly the kind I’d dine in every week if I lived here. But what’s particularly striking to me is that enjoying Calgary’s self-contained ecosystem can be an everyday pursuit, too. A local friend and I took a 35-minute drive, past horse farm after horse farm, to Granary Road. The destination is home to an “active learning park,” with activities that offer children a crash course in nature, such as a small bat museum in a maze of caves and an ant-farm-themed climbing and slide complex. But it’s educational for adults, too.
On a Friday afternoon at the farmers market, which is held in a grand wood building with arched ceilings every weekend April through September, I got into a conversation with DJ Fendick, who does business as Mister Grow It All. He makes jun tea, the “champagne of kombucha,” he declared. It’s produced with fermented green tea and honey instead of the familiar mix of fermented black tea and sugar. With delicate effervescence and a gentle mint flavor, the basil mojito variety was particularly intriguing.
At a nearby booth, I inspected leafy greens fanned out across the table. “None of that spent any time in a truck,” said the young woman helming the table. She had a long braid and tattoos of brightly colored flowers up and down her arms. She turned to the floor-to-ceiling windows and pointed to a giant greenhouse beyond the play area. “It’s from our aquaponic farm. You can take a tour.”
Mikayla MacDonald was my guide through a sweeping greenhouse containing a vast system of tanks, PVC pipes, plastic trays called deep-water culture beds, and vertical towers of white geometric cubes that would make for fitting decor in a mid-century-modern-style living room. A career physiotherapist, she works here on the weekends. She calls it her hobby. She walked me through the process, which, in the simplest terms, goes like this: Fish produce ammonia when they digest, and beneficial bacteria convert it to nutrients, or natural fertilizer, which feeds the plants. All the while, water is recirculated. She sent me off with an electric-green cluster of bok choy.
On the way back to the city center, we took a detour for a quick lunch at Mash. The pizza joint started as a brewery and turned into a regional mini-chain, where workers use the spent grain from brewing to make the pizza crust. There will be nine locations by the end of summer.
The bartender’s nails were painted with flames in honor of the National Hockey League’s Stanley Cup playoffs, in which the Calgary Flames were competing that week. The grains make a flour that’s higher in protein and vitamin B than common flour, she explained as she pulled a pint of Papa Bear Prairie Ale. The leftover cereals from that brew went into my mushroom pie, imbuing the crust with an earthy density. Plus, because it’s all one company, the integration factor saves on both money and carbon emissions. It’s a most clever — and tasty — prairie ecosystem in full effect.
700 Second St. SW, 40th Floor
The postcard-perfect views from this 40th-floor dining room are as much of a draw as the classy, unpretentious menu. For added drama, sit at the bar, where spirits are arranged on towering shelves. Chefs put a premium on locally sourced ingredients. Open Tuesday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 4 p.m. to 11 p.m. Starters from about $5; entrees from about $16.
A number of vegetables and herbs used in the kitchen are grown in the garden in the back of this charming restaurant, located in a house built in 1891. Chef and co-owner Paul Rogalski, who stars in “Wild Harvest,” brings his knowledge of nature’s eccentric flavors to his imaginative menus. Open Tuesday through Sunday, 5 p.m. to 10 p.m. Tasting menus from about $88, starters from about $12 and entrees from about $21.
The Derrick Gin Mill & Kitchen
Shelves of old-timey oil cans and sepia-toned photos of drilling machinery nod to the history of oil drilling in Alberta. The taxidermy on exposed-brick walls and the extensive list of craft cocktails indicate that it’s a vintage-inspired modern hangout. The menu includes elevated pub fare with an emphasis on smoked meats. Open Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. or later. Starters from about $5, sandwiches from about $15 and mains from about $20.
25 Prince’s Island Park
No cars are allowed on Prince’s Island Park, so factor in a few minutes to walk to this restaurant on the Bow River. What started as a concession stand in 1991 was transformed into an upscale, playful eatery in 1995. The menu celebrates Canada’s bounty with an eye on sustainability. Look for British Columbia oysters, Pacific salmon and Alberta lamb, as well as creatively prepared veggies. There’s also an award-winning wine list. Open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and 5 to 10 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Starters from about $12, lunch entrees from about $18 and dinner entrees from about $28.
What started as Half Hitch Brewing Co. in 2016 has become a regional chain that will have more locations by the end of the summer. Pizzas here are cooked with the grains left over from beer production. Options include the familiar, such as pepperoni and wild mushroom, and the eccentric, such as Nashville hot chicken or dill pickle and bacon. Open Monday through Wednesday, 3 p.m. to 9 p.m., and Thursday through Sunday, 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. Pizzas from about $12; beer from about $5 for 16 ounces.
226066 112 St. W., Foothills County
Perhaps best described as an agricultural amusement park, Granary Road features a working farm, mini-golf, goat yoga, and a park with interactive, educational activities for kids. The farmers market offers locally made spirits, kombucha, baked goods and body products, as well as fruits and vegetables, some of which are grown at the on-site aquaponic farm, which you can tour for a small fee. Farmers market open Friday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Learning park open daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Park admission about $12 for ages 3 and up; free for children younger than 3.
Potential travelers should take local and national public health directives regarding the pandemic into consideration before planning any trips. Travel health notice information can be found on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s interactive map showing travel recommendations by destination and the CDC’