CALGARY, Canada — If you're headed for the Winter Olympics in Alberta Province in February you'll find, among the vast plains and towering mountain sculptures, some surprisingly good food. Skeptics should remember that the Canadian culinary team won first place in the international culinary competitions in Germany in 1984.
"If someone is a good chef in Alberta, he or she is probably one of the best chefs in the world," says Maurice O'Flynn, executive director of the Alberta Culinary Arts Foundation, "because food costs here are so horrendous.
"There's only a two-month growing season for produce, so a lot has to be shipped in. In Alberta the only way a chef can survive is to be imaginative."
Winter Olympic venues are spread over several sites, so a sampling of restaurants takes in a lot of territory.
Home of Fine Beef
Calgary is home to some of the finest beef in the world, and we found the best steak at Hy's, a Calgary institution since 1954, when Hyman Aisenstat started a simple restaurant with red-and-white checked tablecloths.
Today's more elaborate version was built in 1967. Don't be dissuaded by the '50s kitsch exterior. Inside you'll find a formal dining room paneled in rich dark wood and stained glass.
The steaks and chops are grilled over an open pit fire at one end of the dining room, and they are excellent. Accompaniments, such as a mixed green salad, double-baked potato and spinach souffle, are much less successful, but the service is low-key and attentive. Steak dinners range from $16.95 to $20.50 Canadian, depending on the size and type of cut. (The conversion rate is about $1.26 Canadian to $1 U.S.)
There is life after beef in Calgary, and the best all-around restaurant we found is the 4 St. Rose, an informal cafe with high sky-lit ceilings and brick walls festooned with hanging plants.
Don't miss the pesto primavera--egg noodles set on a bed of fresh tomato sauce and topped with steamed vegetables in a pesto sauce ($5.95). Also good is the chicken stir-fry, tossed in a ginger oyster sauce and served on pasta ($6.50).
Desserts are exceptional--a rich cheesecake made with Winnipeg cream cheese ($3.95) and Thelma's apple pie with Granny Smith apples, a cream cheese cinnamon filling and shortbread crust ($3.25).
More for the view than the food, take the elevator to the top of Calgary Tower, where the revolving restaurant will give you a panoramic vista and an orientation of the Olympic venues around the city.
The $8.50 breakfast is adequate and includes a mammoth cinnamon roll, orange juice, scrambled eggs, pancake, bacon and coffee.
Other places worth trying are Le Rendez-Vous, Franzl's Gasthaus and Pasta Frenzy.
The Kensington district is a trendy enclave of boutiques and restaurants, and a real find here is Chocolates, Etc., a tiny shop tucked into an alleyway. Proprietors M. Martha Welsh and Michael D. Sanderson sell chocolates made locally by the De Hoogh family as well as Robert Atwell's creations from British Columbia. The Dutch hot chocolate, not too sweet and topped with whipped cream, is the best we've had outside of Holland.
Best in Banff
In general, the cuisine in the nearby Canadian Rockies doesn't match the splendor of the scenery, but there are exceptions. Le Beaujolais, opened in 1980 by former chef Albert Moser and businessman George Schwarz, is the best restaurant in Banff. "We have a traditional French kitchen," Moser says, "and we use as much local produce as possible--Rocky Mountain trout, Canadian cheeses and locally grown morels and chanterelles."
We were seated in the formal upstairs room at a window table with a view of Mt. Rundle behind us and the sounds of horse-drawn carriages below. We began with a rich chanterelle cream soup and traditional escargot Bourguignon. A rabbit loin in cider sauce was tender and served with wild-rice croquettes.
The Rocky Mountain trout was done in a rosemary cream sauce that was light but almost superfluous to the trout, which was so fresh that it evoked images of cold mountain streams.
Maitre d' Douglass Tappin prepared a flaming peach Melba at table-side for dessert--a comforting remembrance of a gentler age in restaurants. Dinner at Le Beaujolais will cost about $40 U.S. per person, not including wine.
Fun and Fondue
For an evening of sheer fun, try the Grizzly House, which serves every type of fondue imaginable--from Swiss to rattlesnake. The interior is a rustic hodgepodge of giant totem sculptures and pillow-formed mannequins, and the telephones at each table are a legacy from a former incarnation as a singles bar.
The Ultimate Fondue Dinner at $24.95 per person (two-person minimum) is a way to sample a little of everything. You can start with a traditional Neufchatel cheese fondue. Then comes a plate of raw beef, pork, buffalo and caribou chunks, to be cooked in hot oil and dipped in a variety of sauces.