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Why a good steak is rare in Calgary

Good meat is plentiful, of course, but dry aging to enhance flavour is hard to find


 

Photograph by Chris Bolin

Newcomers amid the throngs of tourists descending on Calgary for the Centennial Stampede should brace themselves for the unexpected. For example, visitors from sophisticated Toronto may struggle with the realization that their mayor is not a hick. And culinary enthusiasts from everywhere will be pleasantly surprised to learn that dinner out in Calgary is now something to look forward to. Unless, of course, they went to Cowtown hoping for a good steak.

I know, I know—such a caveat seems unthinkable. But imagine this: you are in downtown Calgary, settled in at the lively bar of a convivial, rustic Italian restaurant called Mercato, awaiting completion of your order of their ne plus ultra bistecca. Hungrily watching the open kitchen, you see a chef drop a massive steak on the grill, and listen to its enticing sizzle.

Then you notice the meat is emitting a small wisp of steam. The beef begins to visibly shrink. The wisp of steam builds to great wafts, and the steak shrinks some more.

What finally arrives on the serving board in front of you is beautifully presented. The thick slices fanned out across the board alongside the bone are a perfect, succulent medium-rare within and charred without. It has been seasoned generously with sea salt and olive oil, and topped with a mound of arugula and a grilled wedge of lemon. The side dishes and everything else seem perfectly fine. Except for the fact that the steak itself looked to be no more than two-thirds the size of what had landed originally on the grill.

Attack it with a knife and fork and you find that the fibre of the musculature in its fatty cap breaks apart easily into individual strands. And an even more obvious sign that the beef was aged wet in a Cryovac bag instead of dry on a hook comes when you pop some in your mouth and chew. The stuff is tender, yes, but its range of flavour is narrow and flat.

So my dinner companion and I moved on, stopping next at Model Milk to check on the state of steak with Justin Leboe—a good chef who nonetheless is never content to use one technique when three will do. He served me a bavette cooked sous vide, smoked on his Big Green Egg, and finally seared. In place of the richly succulent and bloody interior of flash-seared flank, his was cooked medium, and tasted oddly like brisket.

Next stop was a Korean restaurant named Anju, where we tried a rib-eye decked in the sweet soy and garlic marinade the Koreans more typically apply to their thin-sliced short ribs, kalbi. It was tender and tasty—but far more so for the marinade than for the beef itself.

For our final snack we nibbled on a grilled flatiron with piquillo peppers at a tip-top tapas joint called Ox & Angela. The flatiron is one of my favourite cuts. Properly aged, it packs great flavour. This one was not quite there. Any more than, say, the slow-cooked prime rib at Charcut Roast House, which is the only dish that fails to please on the menu of my favourite Calgary restaurant.

And so, in bed later, I dozed off wondering how it could be that so many ambitious new Calgary restaurants were doing such imaginative new things with steak, but were content to do it with such second-rate steak.

It was not the raw product that was to blame—Alberta beef can be magnificent. The trouble was that every piece I sampled was wet-aged, waterlogged and mushy. Back in Toronto, I have my Alberta beef dry-aged seven to nine weeks. It tastes funky and intense and rich with the iron of its dried blood. Theirs tastes like not much. Which suggests that Alberta beef tastes better in Toronto than it does in Alberta.

So once back home I worked the phones to prove myself wrong. Eventually I found the gold mine: Balzac Meat Processing, where owner Rod McLeod dry-ages steers—the best, most space-extravagant method known to man. He hangs the carcasses for 28 to 40 days. Shockingly, 90 per cent is snapped up by private consumers. One of the restaurants that buys some of the remainder for its “butcher’s block special” is the Vintage Chophouse—which is where you will find me next time I visit Calgary.

More photos from Chris Bolin detailing how the Vintage Chophouse prepares their steak.

 

 


 

Why a good steak is rare in Calgary

  1. The Calgary Chamber of Commerce estimates that there are over 580 locations in Calgary where you can get a steak. Only numbnuts from the east can pen such drivel based on only one or two visits to a steakhouse. Calgary GROWS the steaks, AGES the steaks and can cook a steak to any recipe or taste you have. And since the CALGARY AIR is 20 times better than TRONNA, your taste buds can appreciate this gastronomy much better.
    Or maybe GERMAN SAUSAGE from St Catharines is the usual fare for TRONNA-ites with 30% sodium nitrites for flavour…..thats what they are missing…

    • Excuse me gentlemen, the BEST beef in the world comes from Grey County Ontario

      • Sorry but everyone knows that the best beef in the world is from Argentina! Definitely not Ontario! And the ONLY exception I would allow for is Kobe beef from Japan.

        • Yes, apparently the Japanese feed their beef wine and give them massages. Unfortunately they have a small problem with radation due to the tsunami so they are importing Alberta beef now.

      • …which is right next door to the VERY BEST beef of Bruce County. :-)

    • Evidently you’ve never been to Toronto. I remember living in Edmonton and I went to the much vaunted Von’s steakhouse off Whyte ave. and the service was great with a wonderful ambiance, but I had to spit out the meat because my tongue could detect the antibiotics and growth hormones in the beef. I bought some fresh beef to be fair, and tried three other steakhouses raved about by the locals. Same response. I agree with the reviewer that the steak was poorly aged and I guess my evil Eastern tastebuds are too sensitive or I am just an idiot with six degrees and licenced as a cook, although I practice medicine now. I now live in Toronto and find the air quality to be excellent, better than what I remember of holy and perfect Calgary or saintly Edmonton, and as I experienced when I lived in Montreal before Edmonton, central Canadian beef is cleaner and the flavour and texture is superior. Of course, each to his/her own on taste, but you turned this matter into one about regional politics and your hatred of all things from the evil East rather than food quality.

      • And you are an expert in what Anti biotics and hormones taste like?
        I doubt it.
        Maybe it is just different than you are used to.
        To say it is aged wrong is just and opinion.
        I travelled to Texas and found the beef far to rich for my liking because I am used to Canadian Beef. US Beef is generally corn fed and Canadian Beef generally grazed on grass especially in Western.
        The techniques and Beef is varies from region to region and restaurant to restaurant.
        I will bet you that a steak at the Keg in Calgary tastes just like a steak in the Keg in Toronto. You are making generalizations based on little statistics, just like the author of this article.

      • Andrei….No one said Calgary was holy or perfect or that Edmonton was saintly. You might be practicing medicine but what of you are in need of is some psych counselling. It is JUST FOOD.

    • And for the record, the best German sausage in Ontario is definitely not from St Catherines, I’m not sure they even make it there, but from the city of my birth, Kitchener-Waterloo.

      • We all know what the Germans make sausage out of.

    • Bullroar, Philip. I lived there for over a decade. Albertans don’t even know what a good steak is…unless they hang it to dry themselves. A few Calgary restaurants, in the past, have served very good prime rib roast. The ones I used to know are all gone.

    • As a sometimes Calgarian and sometimes Torontonian, I can assure you that while the air in Toronto is worse, Calgary starting to get smog as well—all those sprawling subdivisions and SUVS don’t come at no cost.

  2. Another example of the value of a food critic. Aging is aging, idiot. Wet aging produces a juicier steak. The best is 26 days in the bag – 2 in the air in the fridge. Once the fibres start to decay the meat becomes tender. I think we should bag all food critics, then cook them VWD, then in the garbage with them.

  3. Best steak I’ve had in Calgary as a resident of the city for 10+ years was at Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

  4. Without any doubt, the best steak I ever ate or will ever eat was from a feral cow in the Queen Charlotte Islands which I shot myself. Totally wild and grass fed. No growth hormones, corn or anti-biotics. Had a local rancher dry hang it for a month. Incredible taste from a cow that was probably 8 years old and all natural. The liver tasted like liver should which is to say it didn’t taste like an oil filter pumped full of chemicals. Most people have no idea what I’m talking about.

    • I know what you are talking about. I grew up on ranch in Alberta. If you shoot an animal like that, there is no lactic acid build up in the muscles because the animal experiences none of the anxiety that occurs when it is shipped and slaughtered. Naturally the meat is more tender and tasty. Our beef was grass-fed and there was no reason to treat them with anti-biotics if they staying on the home place. They were never given growth hormones. We also had some fantastic bison, raised the same way.

  5. That funky flavor from your dry ageing process is decay and rot. Good thing its being heat treated before you eat it or it’d make you pretty damn sick. If you claim the easterners have it figured out, then that would go along with every other bassakward thing that comes from that part of the country that you think is so wonderful and everyone else thinks is stupid. Case in point, you’ve judge the whole Province against your singular point of view.

    • well there ya go, Mark. A cowboy with prissy middle-class phobias on treating raw food.

  6. I am not sure why the writer didn’t go to somewhere like Phil’s steakhouse. Why go to a Korean restaurant if you want a great steak?

  7. I DISAGREE, Calgary offers some of the BEST steaks ever. We just celebrated our Wedding Annivesary at the Long View steakhouse and it was the best Filet Mignon that we have ever tasted. VERY reasonable prices on such good food, Calgary has some of the BEST cuisine that I have ever tasted.

  8. I never knew meat was pink till I came to Canada. In England it was brown. Of course they hang it for a while, not like here.

  9. The article is 100% true when it comes to the steaks at the restaurants mentioned. That being said, the writer went to several “fashionable” eating joints and did not go to one singe Steakhouse. That is absolutely idiotic. Its like eating Sushi from Safeway and complaining that Sushi in Calgary sucks.

    Best Steaks in Calgary are at:
    1) Ceasars – personal favorite, awesome atmosphere
    2) Vintage – I HATE the pretentious service, but it is probably the best quality steak
    3) Chicago Chophouse – Not as good since ownership change a few years back, but still solid
    4) Ruth Chris – Great steak, but overpriced
    5) Thomsons – Solid, old people ambience
    6) Carvers – Solid

    Stay away from getting steak at fine dining / foodie type joints in Calgary. They buy terrible steak and dress it up too much. e.g. Charcut or Model Milk.

    • I’ve lived in Toronto most of my life, and moved out here to Calgary 8 years ago…
      Sorry Calgary, the beef out east is better. When I moved out here, one of the first orders of business was to try some Alberta beef. I’ve been to many restaurants out here, and I can truly say, that my like the Calgary Stampede… the beef is far too over rated.

  10. The author went to odd places if getting a great steak was his goal.

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