Charcut – worth the hype?

It’s been all about the food, so far, at Calgary’s popular Charcut, named one of the top restaurants of 2010 by enRoute magazine. That was before Connie DeSousa, co-owner and chef, appeared on Top Chef Canada, and showed the big boys what a little prairie gal could do with a knife. Now, thanks to that added element, Charcut is getting even more attention. To my surprise, Ms. DeSousa was actually in the kitchen the day I stopped in at Charcut and I found it comforting that she still had a hand in real reality, not TV reality.

Before I watched Connie’s first appearance on the TV show, I thought the restaurant’s name was the short form of “charcuterie” and pronounced it as such, but no: Charcut stands for CHAR (the custom built rotisserie and charbroiler) and CUT stands for the vintage-style slicer and hand-crafted charcuterie eating bar. Char.Cut. Got it.

I’m a fan of restaurants that work with local producers, and use seasonal ingredients. Charcut does all that and we need more restaurants who think this way. Good to see that Spring Creek Ranch is Charcut’s beef supplier. For those of you who don’t know, SCR has blazed a trail to make retailers and restaurants aware of what real beef tastes like from animals raised naturally with no antibiotics or hormones.

All signs were pointing to a great meal.

We started with the wild mushroom and barley soup. At $9/bowl I expected a substantial serving, but that crostini spanned the width of the bowl, and crostini (meaning “little toast”) are, well, little…so you get an idea of the portion size.
The wild mushrooms were a mix of exotics but lacked the depth of flavour I expected. The barley too didn’t bring anything to the table other than to act as a thickener.
The $17 burger was substantial and speared with a wooden skewer to keep it all together. The patty, made from Charcut’s homemade sausage was topped with a great slab of cheese. Fries came sprinkled with Parmesan. The meat was finely ground and packed to the point of being near concrete, which highlighted the seasoning but masked the flavour of the meat. My dining companion conceded defeat at the halfway point.
The grilled trout was fresh, sweet, and perfectly cooked. It was very lonely on the plate though, sitting on top of four asparagus spears and nothing else. At $26, it would be nice to have a little rice, or even some bread served alongside.

Charcut’s spit-roasted meat of the day was Spring Creek Ranch steak. I ordered the steak and arugula salad. The size of the plate is impressive. The massive amount of arugula was dressed in a buttermilk vinaigrette and topped with a generous portion of perfectly done medium rare steak. Scads of deep fried onion abounded.

Arugula is a strongly flavoured green, full of peppery notes. The buttermilk vinaigrette should have tempered the pepper, but due to the scant amount applied to the salad, it was arugula overload. The thin slices of pickled peppers were unnoticeable — until you bit into one. Their bitterness did nothing to balance the dish. The salty onions simply overpowered everything on the plate including that beautiful, tender, succulent steak. The steak though, on its own, was divine.
We placed our hopes on dessert. The cheesecake with rhubarb topping, served in a tiny mason jar saved the day.

The cheesecake was silky smooth and the rhubarb had just the right tart to sweet ratio. But the fresh-baked chocolate cookies were lacklustre, and had I been blindfolded, I couldn’t have told you if these were homemade or squeezed out of a tube.
You can’t help but have high expectations of Charcut after all the press and accolades it’s received, so yes, I expected more than I got. At $115 for lunch (before tip) for three people, and no liquor, I’m a little hesitant to try again, but I remain optimistic. 
On CBC radio that morning, I heard a baseball player talk about the team’s winning strategy. He said that when you come to every game, you play to win. No matter who it is you’re playing, no matter what team it is in front of you, you always play to win.
This is how restaurants should think. Every customer needs to be won over no matter how many times you’ve served that dish; every meal is a new game. On the day I visited Charcut, the team didn’t play to win, and somebody most definitely dropped the ball. Here’s hoping they step up their game.

CHARCUT Roast House on Urbanspoon

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