G I LC H R I ST

Calgary Herald - Calgary Herald New Condos - - Weekend Life -

With spring fi­nally ar­riv­ing, we’re see­ing the sprout­ing of many new restaurant­s around the city. This week, I thought I’d in­tro­duce three of them — Vel­vet Cafe, Des­tino Restau­rant and Lounge and A La Saj.

First up — Vel­vet Cafe in a lit­tle spot in Red Cap Cor­ner at 502 – 25 Av­enue N.W. that’s seen many ten­ants over the past few decades. Some have been good, oth­ers, not. And now, with the Mount Pleas­ant area around 4th Street N.W. bur­geon­ing with restaurant­s (Shi­gatsu, 4th Spot, John’s Break­fast, Flavours, Sura, the soon-to-open The Block), Vel­vet Cafe (403-338-2087) may be­come a per­ma­nent res­i­dent.

Own­ers Cassy Jurome and Adam Cook bring a wealth of ex­pe­ri­ence to Vel­vet. Jurome has worked in man­age­ment with the likes of Sun­terra, Star­bucks and Al­loy while Cook, a SAIT grad, has cooked at Fresh Kitchen for the past few years. To­gether, they have cre­ated a neigh­bour­hood­friendly menu of fresh-made soups, hand-crafted panini, del­i­cately con­structed pas­tas and house-baked muffins, all paired with Salt Spring Is­land cof­fee. There are a num­ber of gluten­free items too.

Open Mon­day through Satur­day from break­fast through late af­ter­noon, Vel­vet makes good use of its four­teen in­door seats and its pa­tio. (Ev­ery­thing can be pack­aged to-go if Vel­vet is full.)

In south­west Cal­gary, Romero Na­jera is liv­ing his dream of run­ning his own restau­rant. Ar­riv­ing in Cal­gary from Gu­atemala in 1992, he at­tended the SAIT culi­nary pro­gram to hone his culi­nary skills. Fol­low­ing that, he cooked at some of the best restaurant­s in the city — Teatro, Mescalero, Cilantro, Divino and Al­loy — think­ing that some day he would own his own restau­rant. So about a year ago he jumped into the man­age­ment side of the restau­rant biz, tak­ing over a space in Brae Cen­tre at 11440 Brae­side Drive S.W. that had been a pub. His plan was to open a con­tem­po­rary Latin Amer­i­can restau­rant that would have a ca­sual, neigh­bour­hood feel.

So, just a few weeks ago, Romero launched Des­tino Restau­rant and Lounge (403454-3655). But not with­out the tur­moils of ren­o­va­tion. Re­mov­ing a wall, Romero found mould. So down came the walls, to be re­placed with mould-re­sis­tant ma­te­ri­als. Romero also re­placed all the floors, the ceil­ings, light­ing and most things in the kitchen. The re­sult is a bright, lively 160seat restau­rant and lounge that has a unique menu and fre­quent live mu­sic.

Des­tino’s menu in­cludes po­zole, the rich Latin Amer­i­can soup of white corn, beef, pork, chicken and tor­tillas, co­conut-crusted lob­ster in a mango-co­conut glaze, Venezue­lan shred­ded beef braised in a tomato-anato paste (esto­fado de carne mechada) and chili rel­lenos stuffed with cheese and sim­mered in a tomato sauce. (There’s paella too!) Des­tino will add some wel­come flavours to the din­ing scene in Brae­side.

In the down­town core, an­other food cul­ture has been added to culi­nary fab­ric of our city — a Syr­ian sand­wich shop. A La Saj fea­tures flat­bread sand­wiches made the way they are in Da­m­as­cus and around the Le­van­tine area of the East­ern Mediter­ranean. Mo­ham­mad Elsabek and Ibrahim At­tereh have taken over the long, nar­row space at 112B Stephen Av­enue S.W. (403-296-2950) and painted it in a sleek, bright white. Pic­tures of Da­m­as­cus line the walls and a hand­drawn map of the Syr­ian cap­i­tal fills a large black­board.

A La Saj also fea­tures a saj, which is a domed grill used for bak­ing flat­bread. Dough is rolled out and laid over the dome where it cooks quickly. (The heat comes from un­der the dome. At home you can repli­cate it by turn­ing a wok upside down over a gas burner.) The breads are then folded around var­i­ous in­gre­di­ents such as chicken shawarma, hal­loumi or raclette cheese, hum­mus, bre­saola, falafel or mush­rooms. A La Saj serves both tra­di­tional Syr­ian sand­wiches and con­tem­po­rary, in­ter­na­tional ones with all sand­wiches un­der $12. They also cre­ate saj desserts by smear­ing the bread with Nutella or honey and ri­cotta.

You can also find shee­sha at A La Saj but they have adapted to the “vapour” style that ex­udes no smoke. One other note: A La Saj is al­co­hol-free.

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