G I LC H R I ST
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.