Rouge is arguably one of Calgary's best-known restaurants. It was one of only two in Canada to be named to the San Pellegrino list of the world's 100 best (placing 60th) in 2010. It's co-owner Paul Rogalski has competed on Iron Chef America as sous chef for Michael Smith, the star of Food Network Canada's Chef at Home show. Despite this remarkable list of credentials, I had never eaten there. A few weeks ago (review late due to technical difficulties) Wendy and I decided to rectify that.
For those who aren't familiar, Rouge is situated in the historic A.E. Cross house, located in Inglewood on an absurdly large lot, which is not only beautiful but practical, as there's a dedicated garden and substantial patio. Considering it's historical location and general renown, we were delighted to discover Rouge isn't fussy at all.The wine list, as you would hope, is impressive, and the prices, while fine-dining appropriate, are on par with easily 30 or 40 other restaurants within the city. While it is beautiful, with an atmosphere conducive to dressing up, you don't have to. The servers were warm and uber-professional with us, and a dad with two teenage daughters in jeans. It's accessible, not rarefied and condescending. The pleasant surprises continued when our server informed us that the Executive Chef, Michael Dekker (known as excellent in his own right) was out sick that night, and so none other than Rogalski himself was in the kitchen.
To start we were offered an amuse-bouche (pre-appetizer, literal translation is "entertain mouth") of halibut gravlax on a couscous salad. Served in individual soup spoons, it's amazing how much flavour can be packed into a portion that size. The dill stood out tremendously - it was so fresh, I had flashbacks to dill on the farm in Saskatchewan.
Rouge's menu changes continually in order to do just what we noticed - showcase fresh, local (when possible) ingredients. The night we visited, both Wendy and I chose starters prominently featuring pear. Her frozen pear and foie gras soufflé topped with seared foie gras was unlike anything I've ever had. The richness of the foie gras juxtaposed against the crispness of the frozen pear was wildly creative, and a complete contrast in textures.
My salad, which also featured pear (poached this time) and romaine lettuce was definitely more typical, but I actually preferred it over Wendy's soufflé. The 'dressing' was a Nova Scotia blue cheese served two ways - crumbled, and carbonated into a foam. The foam version was definitely interesting - light as air, with a smoky flavour reminiscent of bacon, but we both preferred the simplicity of the crumbles, which really allowed the flavour of the cheese to shine.
For her main, Wendy chose the duo of lamb. Probably the most tender lamb chops I've ever had without a hint of gaminess were served alongside a lamb neck Wellington. Our server mentioned that they make the pastry for the Wellington in-house using sour cream, and you could tell. It was rich and buttery but still substantial enough to hold the lamb.
Wendy's meal was excellent, but my duck was out of this world. The breast was smoked, Rouge's spin on "Peking-style." On any given day, hoisin sauce is one of my favourite things about Chinese food, and they make their own. The showstopper though was again a fresh produce item - a green onion salsa. I like green onions to begin with, but this was tangy and piquant and all-around wonderful. If they would bottle that salsa, I would buy it and serve it on a charcuterie plate as you would relish or preserves. Alongside they served sushi rice formed into a cube and then fried, for a twist on "fried rice."
For dessert, I had a chocolate cake that I admittedly cannot remember was referred to as either condensed or concentrated. Really, either one applies, as it was one of the most spectacularly rich cakes I've ever eaten. Fortunately they had abbreviated the size to match the richness, as I'd have felt guilty if I hadn't finished it. Wendy's chocolate mousse was also incredibly rich, while remaining light. It was dotted with fruit, and the strawberries gave me another childhood flashback. They were so ripe and so sweet that they tasted exactly like the wild strawberries in August in the mountains in B.C. where my Dad likes to go fishing. Except, with those berries, you had to get to them before the bears did. With Rouge, all you have to contend with are other diners.
Anytime a place receives the kind of hype that Rouge has, it's normal to be skeptical of whether it's deserved. I'm absolutely delighted to say that from atmosphere to service and particularly the staggering freshness of the food, it was what we both hoped. Having Chef Rogalski in the kitchen was just a bragging bonus.
On the ratings scale:
5 out of 5 Stars!
1240 8 Avenue SE