Why Shokunin alone is worth visiting Calgary
Howard Levitt: I was recently introduced to Shokunin, which immediately became my favourite; inventive, delicious, reasonably priced and whimsically idiosyncratic
By Howard Levitt
Where should one dine in Calgary?
My historic favourites, Model Milk, Charcut and Rouge, all succumbed to the inevitable temptations of success, opening up other locations which diluted their chefs’ hands-on scrutiny, accordant quality and ongoing reinvention.
Happily, I was recently introduced to Shokunin, which immediately became my favourite; inventive, delicious, reasonably priced and whimsically idiosyncratic. It is in a nondescript block of the Mission neighbourhood.
Its owner and chef, Darren MacLean, hails from Innisfail, Alberta. Raised by a single working mother with culinary chops, he quickly became the de facto cook for his five siblings.
His first personal venture was Downtownfood, where he grew produce on the rooftop and raised beehives, creating beer with the honey. It reached No. 63 in Maclean’s top Canadian Restaurants before shutting down when its rent doubled, the fate of too many Canadian restaurants.
He then decided to explore 20 Japanese cities, immersing himself in the culinary possibilities, before opening Shokunin. He visited 15 sake breweries, developing relationships with the owners. He now carries an assortment of pre-war style Junmai sakes.
Shokunin is an open-concept kitchen, with an outdoor patio. Chef uses real wasabi from the west coast of Canada, shaved with a traditional shark skin grater. The restaurant also uses a Japanese charcoal made from white ubame oak called Binchotan, one of the best charcoals in the world. It doesn’t produce flames like conventional lump charcoal, but burns with an even thermal heat. MacLean also makes his own sushi vinegar using mirin, Kombu seaweed, sake and rice vinegar. Most restaurants here use young ginger (which makes it pink). Shokunin uses older gnarly ginger for its spice and acidity.
I started the night with a cocktail, Park Hyatt in the Mist, consisting of Nikka whisky, Japanese koji black tea syrup and Angostura bitters, smoked with maple wood before being poured into the cocktail glass over ice with a twist of orange peel. It was one of the most interesting cocktails I have ever had this side of Copenhagen. The pronounced smokiness created an interesting overlay.
Not only is the chef not Japanese, but the cooking is unlike any Japanese meal that I have ever had in this country. It was not entirely authentic but had a lot of big, bold flavours and was relentlessly inventive.
The palate opener was a small piece of nigiri, hamachi toro aburi, the richest part of the belly of yellowtail tuna seared with a torch to render some of the fat. After torching, the fish is seasoned, not with soy but with Maldon salt since soy would overwhelm the fish’s delicate flavour, a concept lost to too many Japanese restaurants in this country. The rice for the sake is cooked under pressure to compensate for the high elevation of Calgary, allowing the chef to create rice where the individual kernels combine to create a textured feel in the mouth rather than being gelatinous as it would have been otherwise.
Next course was a purée of summer pea with sake and mirin reduction. It utilizes several aspects of the whole pea, employing the large starchy peas to create the puree with the sake and mirin and the smaller sweeter peas for the soup along with local fava beans for garnish.
We had a salad with Broxburn tomatoes, fried garlic and pickled red onions. The garlic chips were made by blanching raw garlic three times in fresh milk each time and then fried. The dressing was a simple vinaigrette of red, white and black miso with sugar, mirin, freshly grated garlic and shallot. My wife considered it the best salad she has ever had — anywhere.
The next course was sashimi of kinmedai, or red snapper brought in from Japan. Like most of his fish, the snapper was killed using a Japanese technique called ike jime. If an animal (or fish) dies when it is frightened, 60 per cent of it becomes spongy and much of the animal cannot be used. This technique calms the animal and enhances its succulence. Hamachi sushi should taste like this but seldom does.
Next was a carpaccio from sidestripe prawns, first washed in an ice bath composed of sake, ice water and salt, which tightened and accentuated the sweetness of the prawns. It was then sliced thinly, brushed with garlic and a tiny brunoise of fresh ginger and seared with hot grapeseed oil. The prawns were topped with pickled onions, cilantro, ponzu, fresh lime juice and some light and spicy togarashi (chili) threads.
Rurinasu, blue eggplant, with togarashi chili was served as a palate cleanser with negi, Japanese scallion, as a garnish.
The kitchen staff used to eat sake and usu-marinated chicken skin with Bonito flakes to keep them going through the night. Now they serve them to guests as part of the meal, part of the casual interplay between the chef and the restaurant itself.
MacLean is nothing if not intense in his focus on excellence. At some point, a plate came by with too much moisture on the edamame. He turned it upside down, watched the moisture drop off and said “F—-n soup. Get it together guys and don’t let this happen again.” That was with only 16 people in the restaurant on a Sunday night — imagine if it was packed and the staff weren’t performing.
Isn’t this worth going to Calgary for?