- Calgary, Canada
Calgary’s probably most famous for the Stampede it hosts every summer. But that changed quickly with the furore that arose when Netflix debuted “The Final Table” in November 2018. Spoiler: hometown chef Darren MacLean made it all the way to the final showdown, and since then, he, his restaurant — Shokunin — and Calgary have been making international headlines.
Shokunin takes inspiration from the humble Japanese izakaya, so if there are two things you can expect here, it’s fun and food. That much is clear in the attention to detail that goes into every part of the restaurant, from the menu and drinks to the soundtrack and service. Like the izakayas of Japan, this is a place to kick back and relax — though the food is next level.
The menu at Shokunin marries Canada’s exquisite produce with Japanese cooking techniques — and with a hefty dose of creativity, the result is super fresh, easy-to-eat dishes that tease all the senses. Especially if you grab a seat at the bar and can watch the kitchen at work.
The crowning touch, though, is MacLean’s laser-like attention to detail. Most nights, he can be found behind the open kitchen, directing his team and inspecting every dish before it goes out. If it’s not perfect, he won’t hesitate to send a dish back for extra time on the grill, and he usually puts the finishing touches on himself.
If there’s any advice to offer about a meal at Shokunin, it’s this — come hungry, because you’ll want to try almost everything on offer. Yakitori is the izakaya staple, so of course there are skewers — here, they’re made with daily-butchered chicken and use every part of the animal from thighs and wings to heart, oyster and ass. And since these sticks of grilled goodness are made to be eaten while drinking, it’s only appropriate to order a beer to go with it — in this case, you’ll want to order up a pint of the restaurant’s own sake-infused beer — Okami Kasu. The collaboration with Ol’ Beautiful Brewing took eight months and four recipes to perfect, and it goes down a treat.
There’s also a range of sushi (and sashimi) prepared with a delicacy that allows the fishes’ natural flavors to shine. And while you should absolutely try a few pieces, you’ll want to save space for the bigger dishes, which is where MacLean really flexes his culinary muscles.
The Alberta Bison Tataki puts a modern spin on the traditional beef tataki; the local meat is made extra flavorful by curing it for two weeks in its own fat, then pairing it with light seasonings. Another highlight, the Eggplant & Goat Cheese Tempura, is a surprising, delightful sweet-and-savory twist on agemono (Japanese-style deep-fried dish). Even dessert, a Japanese take on a tiramisu, becomes a beautifully balanced treat with a final lashing of salt.
You probably wouldn’t expect to find a truly quality Japanese meal in Calgary, one cooked with such a high level of produce, creativity and detail. But perhaps that’s the secret Netflix producers stumbled on, and why they asked MacLean to appear on “The Final Table.” And if MacLean has anything to do with it, Calgary will become a culinary destination in and of itself — he’s already got two other Calgary restaurant projects lined up for this year, and he’s making guest chef appearances around the world to help spread the word.
See our interviews with fellow “The Final Table” chefs Shane Osborn and Esdras Ochoa.
This writeup was based on a complimentary media tasting. The Loop HK doesn’t guarantee/sell restaurant review coverage. See our editorial policy here.