Cartago boosts the bar culture in Forest Heights
Surely one of the measures of any city worth its salt is the ability to support unpretentious local establishments that dispense decent food and drink to regulars, most of whom live within walking distance. Call them neighbourhood pubs, cocktail bars, local bistros, whatever — these places can underpin the very notions of community, civility and urbanity. And fun.
Due to decades of wildly misguided, sexist, Calvinist drinking laws and lobbying by politically connected hotel associations, it has taken cities in the Canadian prairies many years to begin to catch up with the rest of the world in this regard, and we still have a ways to go.
Which is why every new flower that blooms in this realm outside the power drinking vortexes of the city and region deserves attention. Such a flower is Cartago, which opened in Forest Heights a year ago and continues to win new friends from within and without the ’hood.
It’s a sleek, attractive, modernist space, occupying part of the ground floor of a nifty corner apartment block. In a few months, a delicatessen/coffee shop operated by the same folks will join Cartago next door. The vibe is urban-sparse — slate grey, subdued, cool …
The tasteful logo is of a jockey on a racehorse, and there is a galloping racehorses motif throughout the room. The menu is resolutely German-inspired.
None of which seems to have anything to do with the fact that the place is named for a provincial city in Costa Rica. I’ve always wanted to ask over a half-dozen visits, but finally queried our server the other night — (BTW, the servers are generally terrific) — what’s up with the Cartago creation myth? Well, it turns out that these simply involve some of the proclivities of the owners, and that’s it. Somehow, the mystery and weirdness of it all adds to its charm. Could Cartago make horse racing hip again? Let’s not go too far.
Again, the deal here essentially is to have some drinks with friends and an elevated snack or two. There is an extensive rotating beer and cocktail list, along with 13 fairly-priced wines. We’ve found the Hacker Lager, Driftwood Fat Tub IPA and Pago de Araiz Roble particularly potable. Haven’t made it for weekend brunch yet, but the menu looks enticing — and more importantly, it seems the
management actually is serious about energizing a notoriously mediocre cash cow.
On myriad visits, we’ve sampled most of the 15 items (including three sides) on the bill o’ fare at the moment and found them generally agreeable. Two things deserve mentioning at this point. First, a mea culpa — among global cuisines, German food doesn’t stand near the top of my favourites; second, there is definitely superior Teutonic culinary expression available around the city, even in hipster circles. In similar local wurstlandia, for example, Otto, Salz and Local Omnivore turn out a better sausage for my deutschmark any day. The idea of spaetzle poutine ($9 for a tiny, glutinous glob, weirdly topped with bean spouts) is probably deeply unwise.
Then again, you won’t go wrong with the house-made warm pretzels ($8), the German-style tiny, perfect beef meatballs served on cabbage with spaghettistyle spaetzle ($16) or schnitzel fingers (a good deal at $8). The schlutzkrapfen (standard-issue cheese and potato perogies, $10), flammkuchen (flatbread, $14 served a bit too cool) and wurstplatte (assorted sausage platter, $16) were just fine, the latter three pork sausages on display led by the Hungarian variety.
We shared a small slice of house-made pumpkin pie and commercial carrot cake ($8 each) which were OK, noticing a plate of beckoning lemon squares in a cooler. They must be a pastry for breakfast, which begins at 7 a.m.
All things considered, when you put the whole package together, Cartago is a special sort of place in a city of neighbourhoods that deserves many more like this. Forest Heights is lucky to have a local of this stature, combining friendliness and commitment to homemade quality.
Cartago offers a German-inspired menu, an extensive beer and cocktail list and a racehorse motif at 106 Ave. in Forest Heights.