After a few weeks of enjoying BC’s lush forests and bountiful ocean I was gifted the opportunity to explore some of the province’s interior – and found myself driving fourteen hours inland to Calgary, Alberta. A city 1.2 million strong, known for its oil and beef production, at about 1,042 meters above sea level, it is not a place one would expect to run across a decent Japanese restaurant, but I was determined to track one down. Ke Charocal presented itself to me. Found in the Beltline district, this family owned restaurant attempts to bring a little taste of authentic Japanese cuisine to Calgary. Located in a converted art house, the space has an expansive two floors of dining, including sushi bar seating and rooftop patio. The outside, specifically the faded “Ke” logo, font choice for “Charcoal Grill and Sushi,” and yakitori poster did not match the sleek, modern rustic interior. Had I not looked this place up ahead of time, I probably wouldn’t have walked in off the street.
I wandered in for late lunch on a Wednesday, and found this to be their slow period. The server was prompt and sweet, seating us at the sushi bar and explaining the menu layout. As a general rule, if I walk into a restaurant with an open kitchen that is where I will sit in order to get a better idea of kitchen layout, cleanliness, and cooking methods, to form a more well-rounded opinion about the food. The menu had offerings from sushi to yakitori, teppan and stone grill. We ordered a little bit of everything, beginning with lobster miso soup, yellowtail and ahi carpaccio, and grilled broccolini. The miso was a favorite, arriving with large chunks of lobster meat, alongside the traditional tofu and wakame. They also included the shell, which gave the broth a further depth of flavor.
The carpaccio came dressed with green onion, kaiware, wonton chips, sesame oil, and tamari. I was pleasantly surprised with fish quality, proficiency and thickness of the cuts, but unfortunately the “chips” threw me way off. They didn’t end up being wontons, but rather strips of multi-colored tortilla chips which quickly became soggy. I picked them all out.
The broccolini, while not a seafood offering, deserves a shout-out due to its ample portion, balanced seasoning, and flawless cooking. My culinary companion is a veggie fiend, so this was a particular delight in between bites of fish. Our second round came with wild salmon oshi sushi, lobster sushi, and teppan scallop. Of these the lobster sushi came out on top. Done gunkan maki style, the lobster had a beautifully herbaceous flavor with a lingering peppery after taste. It was unclear to me exactly what they did to achieve this. Only downside was the loose nigiri ball.
For those who don’t know, oshi sushi is “box sushi.” It is pressed into rectangular mold and usually comes without seaweed. Unfortunately I would not order Ke Charcoal’s iteration again. Even topped with jalapeno miso sauce there was little impressive flavor. The salmon was also lightly seared which is usually something I don’t mind, but in this case resulted in an odd texture to a usually velvety fish. Finishing it off the teppan scallops were pleasant, lightly breaded, set atop seaweed salad, drizzled with aioli and a squeeze of lemon. While an easy to eat dish, there was nothing out of this world about it. All in all, Ke Charcoal gave a solid showing for an inland restaurant with seafood focus; though I would say their traditional cooking methods wavered in authentic Japanese flavor. Still, it was an experience I would definitely suggest to others passing through Calgary. There’s a little bit of everything for all palates, attentive staff, and impressive atmosphere. Our waitress told us that weekends book up quickly, and it is wise to make a reservation. An extra little surprise at the end of the meal came in the form of a box of Pocky with the check instead of a mint, nice touch.