the best of 2014: a year in review

2014 was a pretty great year for me in blogging.  I went on and posted about quite a few food adventures, made a lot of great food, but most important of all, I made a significant lifestyle change that will ultimately set the tone for this blog moving forward.  But, before we can move on, we must look back on some of the highlights of 2014 and celebrate what was probably my best year in blogging so far.

1. Most Popular Post of 2014

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Seoul Eats: The Patbingsu Edition

Funny enough, this was one of my first posts of 2014 and it has proved to be the most popular, judging from the over 2,600 views it had over the course of the year.  I guess people really love patbingsu, as it should be loved, for it is one of the most perfect dessert creations of my people.  I still remember the patbingsu in the above picture very fondly and I’m so glad that I was able to have a taste of it.  It was truly a foodgasmic experience and if any of you are patbingsu lovers hitting the Seoul area in the future, I highly recommend battling the crazy busy alleyway-style street of Samcheong-dong to find this little spot of heaven.

General note: Most of my “Seoul Series” posts garnered a ton of traffic in 2014, even the ones posted in 2013.

2. Most Popular Restaurant Review

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Korean Village (Calgary)

Am I sensing a theme here?  By views alone, my  post on Korean Village got the most views of my 2014 restaurant reviews.  I haven’t been back there in a while, but it would be my go-to Korean restaurant in Calgary (its close proximity to where I live certainly doesn’t hurt).  Their Tteok Galbi (pictured) is still one of my favourites and it’s difficult to find this on the menu at most Korean restaurants.  Ever since Mark’s parents moved back to Edmonton, they’ve been saying how lacking the Korean food is in Edmonton and how much they miss Korean Village, so the next time they pop down to Calgary, I’m fairly certain this will one of the first places they want to hit.

3. Most Popular Recipe

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Bulgogi (불고기)

Yep, there’s definitely a theme.  How fitting that my most popular posts are all related to my homeland.  I certainly did eat my fair share of great homeland dishes and being able to share my family’s bulgogi recipe was a great experience.  Every Korean family has their own version of bulgogi and my mom’s is still my favourite (I’m biased, obviously).  I’ve been wrestling with making a non-sweetened marinade to satisfy my bulgogi cravings but nothing has come of that yet.  This will be only of my experiments for 2015.

Now onto some of my personal favourites and highlights.

1. Best Overall Dining Experience

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CEREZO Cafe & Bar – Dinner Edition

I have to hand it to these guys.  From a quaint and completely unassuming house on the corner of Edmonton Trail, a group of dedicated and passionate chefs are cranking out delicious Japanese-influenced fusion dishes, all the while making you feel incredibly welcome and well taken care of.  A restaurant doesn’t have to be slick or fancy with all the right decor and a splashy presentation; Cerezo is living proof of that.  The place is super quirky and nothing quite matches, but that’s part of its aesthetic.  They have an interesting and varied menu that changes with the seasons and whatever happens to inspire the chef.  Our last visit to Cerezo was for dinner in the summertime and it was a truly memorable dining experience.  Each item was perfectly prepared and beautifully presented.  The service is quick, attentive, and friendly.  It happened to be a quiet night so one of the cooks came to chat with us personally.  We got to know the faces behind what makes Cerezo such a great place and it’s that kind of connection that really drives home a restaurant experience.  I hope to go back there frequently in the future and see what other delights they have come up with.

2. Best Overall Dish

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Spring Asparagus appetizer from Cassis Bistro

Oh yes, this simple little appetizer was really the best thing I ate in 2014.  How so?  I really think the answer lies in its sheer simplicity.  It’s asparagus, a poached egg, some frizzy greens topped with a mushroom sauce.  How could it be so spectacular?  Mark described this as “summer in my mouth”.  Truly, this was magical.  My only regret is not going back to have this again and again.  Since the menu at Cassis changes seasonally, this is probably no longer offered as an item.  Why didn’t I go back for more?  I really, really should have.  This was all things a great dish should be.

3.  Best Dessert

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Lemon Tart from Cassis Bistro

Yup, another mention for Cassis Bistro.  Come to think of it, that whole meal was pretty spectacular, but the true standouts were the appetizer and this beautifully balanced, perfectly executed lemon tart.  The crackling brulee top gave way to a silky smooth, tart and sweet lemon filling, all encased in the perfect crust.  A simple yet elegant dessert; it didn’t need anything more than that fine dusting of icing sugar.  As the theme seems to be at Cassis, they just let the food be with no need to embellish; the flavours did all the dazzling.

4. Best Sweet Item

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Cannoli at Cavalli Cafe (San Francisco)

The main reason I booked this particular food tour was the mention of cannoli.  I used to be a diehard fan of cannoli and this was the best sweet item of 2014.  The shell was crisp and fresh and the ricotta filling was a dream.  We went back for more cannoli the day after the tour while waiting for a table at a nearby restaurant.  If only I could’ve brought back some with me – these were awesome, awesome cannoli.

5. New Favourite

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Gruman’s Deli

It took too long for us to finally visit Gruman’s Deli but when we did, we both loved it.  Not only was the food great, the service was outstanding and our overall experience made us fast fans.  We didn’t get a chance to go back there in 2014, but we will continue to go back for their excellent smoked meat and overall casual, friendly vibe.

Honourable Mentions:  Shiki Menya, for their awesome ramen and Briggs Kitchen & Bar, for their awesome burger.

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That wraps up some of the highlights and bests of 2014.  I’m looking forward to a new year of blogging that I hope will be filled with many more great eats and experiences.  A big, giant thank you and hugs to those who visit, comment, and everyone in between.

crispy baked chicken wings

 

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Tis the season for gatherings and festive celebrations!  The holiday season is upon us and now that it’s nearing Christmas, I’m really starting to feel the spirit.  One of my favourite things to do this time of year is get together with loved ones around the dining table and share in some meals together.  There are some traditions that my family upholds (like our annual spicy seafood and beef hot pot, which is always a must), but I also like to change things up once in a while and bring a new dish to the table.

With our recent diet overhaul and lifestyle change, this got me thinking about how to approach social gatherings this year.  Mark and I are the only low-carbers in our immediate family and friends circle, so it can get difficult to get together with people when there’s food involved.  However, it is not impossible.  In fact, I enjoy the challenge of figuring out how to meet our needs while also ensuring that we don’t become a burden on others.  After all, this is our lifestyle choice and we have accepted the challenges that come with it.

We’re also of the mind that indulgence is not always about the volume of food consumed, but rather the quality and the atmosphere in which you enjoy said food.  When I think back to previous years, I had a habit of stuffing myself to the brim (you know the feeling… unbutton the pants, stake claim to a comfy spot on the couch and stay there for the rest of the night).  The food was great, sure, but it was spending time with the people I cared about that mattered the most.  This year we’re opting for the “mindfully indulge” mentally, with the focus on building new memories with loved ones and truly enjoying our time together.

Holiday potlucks are a pretty popular type of gathering and I was thinking of what I would take as a dish that would be both crowd-pleasing and low-carb friendly.  I was also trying to think of something that would be relatively healthy and not overly indulgent (there’s plenty of that anyway during the holidays in general).  Chicken wings don’t seem to fit the bill initially, but when they’re seasoned with a nice herb blend and baked in the oven until crispy, they’ll do the trick.

Everybody loves chicken wings, right?  They’re fun, versatile, and a staple at many social gatherings (think Wing Wednesdays).  These babies don’t need a deep fryer to come out just as delicious (if not more, in my opinion) as the bars and restaurants do them.  Besides, I’m afraid of deep frying in general (my delicate skin!), so the oven is one of my favourite cooking appliances.  Give these wings a try and then head on over to ALOHA’s magazine page for some more healthy recipe inspiration for your holiday parties!

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These wings are just simply seasoned with sea salt, pepper, Italian seasoning, and garlic powder.  Any spice blend will work on these though, but I’ve been really loving Italian seasoning lately.  I buy my chicken from the local organic/health food store and they come in packs of a dozen, already prepared.  I’ve been consciously choosing organic, free range meats as much as possible, but it’s entirely a personal choice.  I make a couple dozen at a time – I find that this is the optimal amount to cook in the oven together, so that the wings aren’t crowded on the baking sheets and I can rotate the baking sheets halfway through the cooking time.  I’m also a fan of lining the sheets with foil before lining with parchment.  Clean-up is a breeze afterwards; I often don’t even have to wash the sheets afterwards, which is great because doing the dishes is not my forte.

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No need for a deep fryer to get these crispy.  All they need is some time in the oven.  They’re perfectly seasoned, crisp, and juicy, and work well as an appetizer or as a full meal (we often eat a couple dozen for dinner because they’re easy and delicious).

Crispy Baked Chicken Wings

  • 2 dozen chicken wings, tips removed, drumettes and flats separated
  • 2 tbsp Italian seasoning
  • 2 tbsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp fresh ground black pepper
  • 1 tbsp course sea salt

Preheat the oven to 425F and place the racks on the top and bottom third of the oven.  Prepare two large rimmed baking sheets by lining them with parchment paper or a silicone mat.

Place the seasoning, garlic powder, pepper, and salt in a small bowl.  Mix well.

Divide wings between prepared baking sheets and spread out in a single layer.  Sprinkle a generous amount of the prepared seasoning on both sides of the wings.  Bake the wings for 20 minutes; flip the wings and rotate the baking sheets.  Bake for another 15 minutes until crisp and golden.  Serve immediately.

bolero

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My mom celebrated her birthday last month and as an extra special treat, we took her for dinner to my favourite meatfest palace, Bolero, a Brazilian steakhouse that is every meat lover’s dream.  I fondly remember the first time I ate at Bolero a number of years ago for a friend’s birthday and the resulting meat sweats from consuming copious amounts of various cuts of beef and chicken.  It was so worth it, but sadly I hadn’t found a reason to go back until I was brainstorming where we could have dinner that was both a new experience for my parents and easy to adapt for our low-carb lifestyle.  I mean, how can you go wrong at an all-you-can-eat Brazilian steakhouse?  It’s a low-carber’s dream!

Bolero is located off Macleod Trail, just past Chinook Centre.  It’s awkward to get into the parking lot traveling southbound on Macleod (we did a “probable” illegal U-turn at the closest intersection), so going northbound is the easiest.  Even though our reservation was early (5:45pm), the parking lot was already packed and it took us a few minutes to find a spot.  Bolero also shares a space with Open Sesame, Tango Bistro, and Smuggler’s Inn, so that might explain the lack of parking spots.

For an early dining hour, the place was already bustling with diners.  The place has kind of a rustic cabin feel to it with its large fireplace near the middle of the dining area.  It’s also got a large bar that reminds me of old school classy hotel bars.  We were seated in a comfortable and roomy booth near the back, a perfect spot for enjoying a quiet dinner.

There’s three dining options for dinner – the “full rodizio”, which is the full-meal deal that includes unlimited access to their fresco bar (with various hot dishes, salads, and sides), the “teaser platter” which includes the fresco bar and a platter of meats of your choice, or just the fresco bar without the meats (on a side note, who picks this last option at a Brazilian steakhouse?).  We opted for the full rodizio, naturally, since this was a special occasion and all.

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Our friendly server came by, brought us drinks, and gave us some quick instructions on how the evening would work.  Each table gets their own “cue” to signal to the gauchos green for YES PLEASE BRING ALL THE MEATS, yellow for WE NEED A MEAT BREAK, and red for PLEASE STAHP I GOTS THE MEAT SWEATS.  When that cue is on green, those gauchos come in fast and furious.  A few times during our meal, we had to turn it yellow because we couldn’t keep up with all the meats that were being brought to us.

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They also brought us complimentary gluten-free Brazilian-style cheese bread, along with a couple of sauces (chimichurri and roasted red pepper) to enjoy with our meal.  We naturally skipped the cheese bread, but my parents indulged.  My mom remarked that they must be made with rice flour because of the texture (similar to Korean rice cakes).

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We started at the fresco bar, which had a few really great low-carb options.  I went with some beef stew, fish, chopped egg, and veggies.  The danger of having that fresco bar is filling the stomach with too much additional food besides the meat.  I only made one trip to the fresco bar to keep my stomach free for the meats.

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Here’s a little sample of what we were offered.  Pictured are the Linguica (a sausage made with smoked paprika), which was beautifully smoky and spicy, with a wonderful tender texture, and a Chicken Leg seasoned with cajun spices, which was actually a chicken wing (flavour was great though).

The other meats we tried were the Picanha (classic Brazilian cut of top sirloin with sea salt), Fraldinha (traditional Brazilian cut of bottom sirloin with garlic and parmesan), Bacon Wrapped Filet Mignon (need I say more?), plain Filet Mignon, Bacon Wrapped Chicken (HECK YES), Parmesan Crusted Pork Loin (with garlic and parmesan cheese), Baby Back Ribs (glazed with house made BBQ sauce – only for the parents since we are avoiding sugar), Chicken Legs (mislabeled, since they were chicken drumsticks but it’s all good), and Habanero Pork Loin.  My favourites were the meats wrapped in bacon, because you can’t go wrong there, the sausage, and the Habanero pork loin.  I found some of the beef tough and chewy, but that might’ve been due to the cut.  Otherwise, the beef was all done to a perfect medium-ish temperature.  My parents had a few slices of their famous Caramelized Pineapple (cinnamon and brown sugar), which really is one of the highlights of having a meal at Bolero but sadly we don’t eat fruits anymore.  We just admired from afar.  Damn did it ever look and smell delightful, though.

It’s not a proper buffet until your stomach wants to explode, and that’s exactly how we all felt by the end of the meal.  It’s a little bit pricey per person ($42.50), but I think for the variety of food and all the different types of meat they have to offer, it’s a great treat once in a while.  We had great service throughout the night and overall it was an enjoyable experience.  We ended up only staying for about an hour, which was a pretty short stay on average (typical seatings are for 2-hours).

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Afterwards, we headed over to our place and presented this gorgeous cake by Yann Haute Patisserie, their Fraisier/Tutti Frutti (Pain de gene, vanilla mousseline & fresh seasonal fruits), for my parents to enjoy, while Mark and I had a piece each of low-carb pumpkin cake leftover from Thanksgiving.  My mom thoroughly enjoyed this cake – she said it was light, moist and not to sweet, just the way she likes it.  I think she also had it for breakfast the next day (that’s the mark of an excellent cake).

Bolero
6920 MacLeod Trail SE
Calgary, AB T2H0L3
Phone: (403) 259-3119
http://www.bolerocalgary.ca/

Bolero Fire Grill on Urbanspoon

Yann Haute Patisserie
329 23 Ave SW
Calgary, AB T2S0J3
Phone: (403) 244-8091
http://www.yannboutique.com/

Yann Haute Patisserie on Urbanspoon

mercato

Back in mid-August, I met up with two of my best girl friends for a catch-up meal at Italian eatery Mercato.  This was actually my first restaurant meal since starting low-carb, so I was equal parts anxious and excited.  Anxious, because eating out presents many challenges as a low-carber, but excited because I enjoy hanging out with my friends so food often becomes a secondary thing when the evening is really about getting together, sharing laughs, stories, and making new memories.

Mercato is located in the hip Mission district, its corner location prominent and hard to miss.  I’ve passed by Mercato numerous times; I often drive past it on my way home from the market.  The place is always packed with groups of people enjoying themselves so there had to be something good going on in there, right?  My friend Kris gushes about this place (I trust her opinion on Italian eateries because she is, in fact, Italian), which is why we chose to have our dinner there.  What I didn’t know until I walked in is that they also have a market attached to the restaurant, so not only can you enjoy a meal, but you can do your shopping there as well.

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We were seated near the window where we had a nice view of the dining room.  The interior is dark, but warm; only a few tables were occupied, but it was still lively and vibrant.  There’s ample seating at the bar and also around the open concept kitchen, where you can interact directly with the chefs.  Their concept is family-style – all the dishes are meant to be shared instead of ordering individual entrees.

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To start, we were given complimentary bread and olives.  Not gonna lie, that bread looked mighty delicious.  Just look at its pillowy softness!  I was still craving carbs – especially breads and pastries – at that stage, so it was difficult not to give in.  Kris actually noticed me staring longingly at the bread and had a good laugh at my expense.  I guess that’s what I get for staring at bread like a crazy woman.  My willpower was at full strength that evening, so I let my friends enjoy the bread and I tried not to stare too much at it.  #lowcarbproblems

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For sides, we chose two vegetable dishes – the Fagiolini (baby green beans with shallots, Trebbiano d’Abruzzo and toasted pinoli), which Kris had raved about, and the Asparagi (grilled asparagus wrapped in prosciutto di Parma with lemon and olio).  The green beans were indeed some of the best I’ve ever had.  They were so fresh and still crisp, with a lovely caramelized onion flavour.  The toasted pine nuts were a nice texture and flavour contrast to the beans as well.  The asparagus was also quite delicious because anything wrapped in salty cured pork is a winner.  They were perfect with a squirt of lemon to cut through the richness and saltiness of the prosciutto.

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For our mains, we shared the Bistecca (Fiorentina style bone-in rib steak with rucola, lemon and olive oil) and the Pesce di Spada (grilled swordfish with a zucchini, wild arugula fregola and caperberry insalata).  That steak was something special.  It was cooked to the perfect temperature, it was tender, juicy, and full of meaty goodness.  The lemon and course sea salt were the perfect accompaniment to the fatty, rich beef.  I thought the swordfish was a bit plain, but cooked well.  Overall, this giant board is a low-carber’s dream.

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First low-carb restaurant meal success!

The portions are quite generous so we had a decent amount of leftovers to take home with us (mine didn’t last long as Mark promptly devoured the contents of my takeaway box).  We were actually having so much fun that we didn’t notice that a couple of hours had passed until we were politely informed that the next party had arrived for their reservation at our table.  We’re the types to linger and continue chatting long after the food has been eaten and we didn’t realize that we were limited to a 2-hour seating.  Ah well, it was no problem for us.  We hopped over to the coffee shop across the street to continue on with our evening.

I was pleasantly surprised by my first experience at Mercato.  The prices are skewed to the higher end, but they make up for it with quality food and generous portions.  We had great service throughout the evening.  It wasn’t too difficult to find dishes that I was able to eat and my friends were so good about my new lifestyle that they stuck with things that I could have, even though I insisted that they get whatever they wanted (my friends are awesome).  I love the family-style concept, the liveliness of the place as it gets filled with diners, and a nice selection of low-carb friendly dishes.  I will definitely return to Mercato again, because where else can I get a giant steak served on a giant cutting board?

Mercato
2224 4 St SW
Calgary, AB T2S1W9
Phone: (403) 263-5535
http://www.mercatogourmet.com/

Mercato on Urbanspoon

charcut fall 2014 revisit

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I’ve written about Charcut here and here, so this place really doesn’t need an introduction.  This is one of our go-to restaurants for a special occasion meal, although we hadn’t visited for at least a good year and a half (hard to believe it’s already been that long).  Although we’re not much for official celebrations, we like to acknowledge both of our anniversaries – our wedding anniversary, and our “the day Cindy manned up and told Mark she likes him” anniversary, which is now going on 7 years strong.  We headed to Charcut to celebrate the latter this past weekend.

Charcut hasn’t changed since we’d been there last.  It’s still busy and vibrant; the place was packed to near capacity at our 6:30pm seating.  Menus and waters were provided, and we settled in see what new offerings they had that evening.

The challenge with eating out, of course, is selecting a dish that fits into our new lifestyle.  At a charcuterie this isn’t really difficult, and we’re not shy about asking questions if we’re not sure about certain menu items.  It comes with the territory.

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To start, Mark ordered for himself Oysters with Lemon and Tomato Mignonette.  It’s handy that they allow you to order oysters individually, so you’re not stuck having to order a set amount.  This worked out well for Mark, since I refuse to go near oysters after I heard them being described as swallowing salty, oceany snot (great way to convince someone to try a new food, right?).  I have texture issues and sea snot is not on my list of things I can tolerate.  These oysters were from New Brunswick and Mark was more than happy to carry on by himself, and it’s pretty difficult to mess up oysters.

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For his main, Mark chose the Prime Rib with Rosemary Jus.  This is ordered by the ounce and Mark opted for just a 5 oz. serving.  It came with a whole head of roasted garlic on a bed of arugula, creamy horseradish sauce, and a small pot of rosemary jus, which Mark liked so much, he just drank it straight from the vessel.  The prime rib was done perfectly; it was moist, tender, and seasoned well.  I think Mark underestimated the portion size and wished he had ordered a couple more ounces.

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As for me, I went for the fish of the day, a pan-fried New Zealand Red Snapper.  We rarely have fish at home, so this sounded like a good option to me.  If you’re wondering what that creamy mass underneath the fish is… well.. it’s polenta.  I had asked the server what the fish came with, as the menu didn’t specify anything other than lemon and fine herbs.  She said it came with broccolini, so I wrongly assumed that it just came with that as the side.  WRONG.  This was not the server’s fault since she wasn’t entirely wrong, but it was a tad misleading.  It didn’t bother me too much so I delicately lifted my fish off the polenta and pushed it all onto one side of the dish.  I’m pretty certain I ingested miniscule amounts of polenta, but no harm no foul.  Mark was concerned that I would still be hungry, but the portion of fish was generous and with the couple of large stalks of broccolini, I was perfectly satisfied.  The fish itself was pan-fried really well – it was flaky, moist, and seasoned with just the right amount of salt.  A squirt of lemon is all it needed.

I have obviously been out of the restaurant game for too long, so I forgot to take a picture of the side we ordered, Duck Fat Fried Brussels Sprouts with Lemon and Chili.  So, this might be my new favourite vegetable side dish, ever.  It didn’t look like much when it was set down in front of us, but one bite is all it took to get us.  I might have to buy a deep fryer JUST to recreate these Brussels sprouts at home.  They were crispy, earthy, a little bit sweet, and tangy from the lemon.  So simple, yet so tasty.  For all you Brussels sprouts haters, you cannot hate on anything that is fried in duck fat.  Really.

To end our meal, we each got an Americano and naturally skipped dessert (we had berries with whipped cream at home instead).  We used to be the type that would eat until we were stuffed beyond capacity, but nowadays we’re able to eat until we’re satisfied and that’s more than enough for us.  It feels good to enjoy a meal and not feel like passing out into a food coma afterwards or have to unbutton my pants from the stomach expansion.

Charcut will continue to remain as one of our favourite go-to restaurants.  Their menu remains simple yet contemporary, and it’s easy to adapt to our new lifestyle.  Our next big occasion is my birthday in January, so perhaps we will find ourselves there once again.

CHARCUT Roast House
100, 899 Centre St SW
Calgary, AB
Phone: (403) 984-2180
http://www.charcut.com

CHARCUT Roast House on Urbanspoon