30 best things Dan Clapson ate in Canada in 2020

The Globe and Mail's Prairie restaurant critic and columnist looks back on 2020

Head to Ucluelet, B.C. to try Pluvio's imaginative and delicious take on grilled oysters.

It's funny how certain stretches of this year felt like their own separate eternities while others zoomed by. Now that it's the end of December, it is almost hard to believe that it's the end of 2020. We've made it my friends, but let's not kid ourselves, the first part of 2021 will be just as challenging for our Canadian hospitality industry...if not more so.

If it is within your means, I encourage you all to seek out interesting food and drink within your local communities. Now more than ever.

As nice as it has been to spend more time in my own kitchen becoming a more confident cook, I've also found satisfaction in ordering plenty of takeout (pictured below with every Calgarian's favourite pizza, Noble Pie) or trying out meal and cocktail kits; local restaurants and bars have really mastered the art of those three things since the springtime.

With that in mind, it feels poignant to look back on the past twelve months in terms of the many culinary creations and libations I was able to eat and drink throughout my travels as stunted as the exploring has been. This collection of dishes and drinks from independent restaurants and producers–presented in alphabetical order, as always–barely scratches the surface when it comes to all the wonderful Canadian–made items that are out there ready and waiting for us to try.

I hope this inspires you to try new dishes and discover new (to you) favourites as we head into the new year.

Abyssinia’s Mahiberawi platter (Calgary, AB)

My dinner at Calgary’s Abyssinia was a swift blow to my culinary “expert” ego. Two pages into their Ethiopean-Eritrean menu and I found myself unfamiliar with nearly everything I glanced at. Luckily, there’s a platter (and a menu glossary) for that.

The mahiberawi platter offered up all kinds of stews, tucked into separate sections by way of rolled up injera. Whether they were centred around lentils, chicken, goat or otherwise, the Ethiopean spice blend berberé was typically present. A delicious smattering and the tip of the iceberg of what this type of African cuisine can offer.

I look forward to exploring it more in the coming months.

Agrius’ smoked brisket pizza (Victoria, B.C.)

For all of my griping about so many restaurants hopping on the pizza bandwagon throughout the pandemic, all it takes is a truly delicious pizza to shut me the hell up.

Victoria’s Agrius did just that earlier this year when this thoughtfully composed pizza landed in front of my partner and I during an expansive dinner.

Seeing as the restaurant is already celebrated for its aptitude for baking, it came as no surprise that the pizza crust was rewarding in and of itself. The combination of shaved house-smoked brisket (almost bresaola-like), wilted dandelion greens, mozzarella and, of course, tomato sauce helped put this pie in a league of its own.

Annabelle’s Kitchen’s pecorino-stuffed fried olives (Calgary, AB)

Though this particular dish is currently not available for takeout, I am counting down the days until our lockdown lifts and I can sit down at Annabelle’s Kitchen for an order (or two) of these supremely tasty fried olives.

Castelvetrano olives are stuffed with pecorino then coated in semolina and fried to golden crispy perfection. The olives are served along with fried chickpeas as well, so crunchy-outside-soft-inside textures are abound here.

Aurora’s Restaurant’s panzerotti (Sault Ste. Marie, ON)

My good friend Jamie Penno has been singing the praises of Sault Ste. Marie’s signature food, the panzerotti, for longer than I can remember. Having the opportunity to drive across Canada in the early fall, I couldn’t turn it down if it meant a stopover to have a taste of this deep-fried, cheesy, saucy creation.

Though panzerotti was created in Italy, it seems its peak popularity is in rural Ontario. If you’re a family restaurant in Sault Ste. Marie and not making panzerotti, you’re doing something wrong. Aurora’s is–according to my friend-one of the top spots to go for said item and it did not disappoint. Essentially a gigantic, handmade pizza pop, it was easy to fall in love with my panzerotti after one bite.

Thankfully, these are not available in my neck of the woods as I would likely be consuming (at least) one per week.

Bannock Express’ bannock cheeseburger (Saskatoon, SK)

Aside from being an outstanding community supporter, Bannock Express dishes up plenty of fun and fulfilling variations on the bannock theme in the heart of Saskatoon.

The plain bannock here is delicious in and of itself, especially with a slathering of butter and jam. The bannock cheeseburger sees a sizable homemade beef patty topped with tomato, lettuce and cheese placed pleasantly between a sliced piece of bannock. It’s undeniably simple, but deliciously memorable.

Beaucoup Bakery’s bonbons (Vancouver, B.C.)

Beautifully painted bonbons are a dime-a-dozen these days, but finding small-batch chocolates made with fillings inspired by signature baked goods of one of Vancouver’s top bakeries is something worth paying attention to. Thus, I have become smitten with the clever confections created by Betty Hung at Beaucoup Bakery.

Her initial line of bonbons sees six different flavours per box such as Raspberry Brioche and Chausson aux Pommes. The Almond Croissant (almond praliné and brown butter ganache, and almond crunch) is probably my favourite of the bunch and I am looking forward to seeing what new flavours pop up throughout 2021.

Biera’s scallop ceviche (Edmonton, AB)

It’s not a year-end list by yours truly without a brief gushing about something that chef Christine Sandford has conjured up at Biera.

This scallop dish was enjoyed with a friend in Edmonton in the fall with summer long gone from the rearview mirror. The combination of tender P.E.I. scallops with shaved crab apples, banana peppers, edible pansies and a sour cherry vinegar was so bright, bold and beautiful. Truly summer on a plate.

Bolo Cakery’s Cheese Wheel (Calgary, AB)

A close friend and fellow food writer, Carmen Cheng, recently tipped me off to this indulgent baked good and the recommendation did not disappoint.

Fans of Glamorgan Bakery’s signature cheese bun will likely be smitten with this infinitely more cheesy and sizeable Cheese Wheel from Bolo Cakery (located on 53rd Avenue N.W. just off of Crowchild Trail). The dough itself has a notable sweetness, which is reigned in by a touch of salt and plenty of cheddar cheese.

After eating one quarter of this addicting and cheesy loaf in just a few minutes earlier today, it seems fair to say that this is the last delicious thing I will have bought in 2020.

Bow Valley BBQ’s Parkway Vegan Caesar (Canmore, AB)

To be honest, I may have balked at this RTD vegan Caesar cocktail. A few sips into my first Parkway Vegan Caesar–a collaboration between Bow Valley BBW and neighbouring spirits maker, Park Distillery–I was reminded to not judge a beverage's quality by its description. Also available sans vodka, this drink will satisfy any Caesar purist with its robust flavour and punch of acidity.

Now, the real question: how do you garnish a bottled Caesar?

Chef Jo Notkin’s Jewelbox Brownie (Montreal, QC)

The first time I got to try Jo Notkin’s famous brownie was in fall 2019, but that was during a taping of Top Chef Canada season eight and the stakes were higher. When Notkin launched her brownie kits through her business Zoe Ford Catering in the spring, I wondered if they would taste as good as I remembered.

While a few small adjustments were made to make the brownies economically priced, the JewelBox home kit still delivered effortlessly in the taste department thanks to a dense, chocolate studded brownie, caramel sauce and the chef’s signature “jewels” (a mix of candied hazelnuts and orange, cocoa nibs and pumpkin seeds).

The Courtney Room’s Gibson (Victoria, B.C.)

One of the top spots for dinner in all of Vancouver Island, it’s hard to find many faults in an evening at The Courtney Room inside of The Magnolia Hotel in downtown Victoria. The tasting menu here is ever-changing, but regardless, you’ve got to start the night off right and what better way to do that than with a stiff drink?

If you’re not familiar with the pickled onion version of a dirty martini, Courtney Room’s take on a Gibson is the perfect place to have your first sip. The barkeeps here put their subtle spin on the classic drink by way of using Ampersand Gin–produced just outside of Victoria by Ampersand Distilling Company–as well as French vermouth and house-brined pearl onions.

Donna Mac’s beet “pastrami” (Calgary, AB)

Texturally, this dish does not have much in common with pastrami, but what it does offer is a delicious take on beet salad that is anything but predictable.

Chef Laetitia Chrapchynski uses a pastrami spice blend that (I believe) includes coriander, mustard seeds and fennel in a flavourful dressing for strips of near-dehydrated beets that offer up a pleasantly chewy texture. The salad is finished off with pickled saskatoon berries, roasted sunflower seeds and a touch of fresh horseradish.

Hearth’s smoked pike (Saskatoon, SK)

There is much to love about chef Beth Rogers and Thayne Robstad’s interpretation of Prairie cuisine. This year for myself, their culinary approach seemed to perfectly present itself on a beautifully arranged plate of lightly smoked pike, confit diced potatoes, crispy onion, parsley and preserved lemon.

Home Block’s radiatori (Kelowna, B.C.)

Can a stunning lakefront view make food taste better? Possibly.

Does Home Block need the gorgeous view to make its food seem more delicious? Not at all.

This house-made pasta, tossed tenderly with grilled broccolini, smoked castelvetrano olives, roast garlic, house-made ricotta and calabrian chili was truly my culinary highlight of a late summer trip to the Okanagan.

JINBAR’s sweet corn pizza (Calgary, AB)

In a year where global travel ground to a halt come the springtime, I have found myself especially enamoured with food memories.

Biting into this peculiar-sounding, but perfectly prepared pizza–topped with white sauce, sweet corn and garnished with honey-drizzled potato chips–at chef Jinhee Lee’s new eatery JINBAR, transported me back to Seoul. The city offers some of the most unique pizza topping combinations I’ve experienced during my travels.

While I don’t see a trip back to South Korea in my near future, I feel some peace knowing that I can pop into Lee’s spot to allow my taste buds to do the traveling for me.

Nho Saigon’s peanut sate pho (Calgary, AB)

Winter 2021 will be the first time in a handful of years that I won’t be able to make my way overseas to Vietnam. As such, I have been drowning my sorrows in bowlfuls of ever-comforting pho.

Nho Saigon’s peanut sate takes the addition of peanuts far beyond a sprinkling of crushed, roasted nuts. Instead, expect one of the richest pho broths you’ll have the pleasure of sipping on in this country complimented by plenty of noodles, thinly sliced rare beef (or chicken or prawns if you wish), herbs, sprouts and lime.

This has been a long-time favourite dish of mine in Calgary.

Nowhere *A Restaurant’s tasting menu (Victoria, B.C.)

There is something so charming and approachable about Nowhere. Having only eaten here twice in the past couple of years while visiting Victoria, I have never left feeling anything less than impressed with service that is informative and attentive without pretension and food that is playful and memorable.

Chef/owner Clark Deutscher offers up a tasting menu experience only here and said menus change frequently. On a night in October, I was served eight courses that included dishes like crispy pork shoulder with braised radicchio and truffle and a house-made corn tortilla (using masa created by Maiiz) with pickled corn, “cream” corn croquette and mushrooms.

The list goes on and, yes, I left feeling very full.

The Persian Man’s Persian Roll (Thunder Bay, ON)

The famed pastry of Thunder Bay could be best described as a hybrid of a cinnamon bun and a doughnut. The Persian Roll was first created in the 1940s and is a popular no-frills dessert that sees cinnamon-spiced dough fried and topped with a very sweet raspberry-flavoured icing.

This was another one of the iconic regional creations I was able to try during a cross-country road trip while helping a friend move to Toronto and it comes with a bit of a side story.

With a short window of time in Thunder Bay–arrival late at night and departure very early in the morning–it seemed unlikely we'd get to the bakery during its hours of operation. Luckily, one of our Calgary friends, Seanna Jefferson, became our lifeline and called her aunt who lived just outside of the city who was able to pick up rolls on our behalf and drop them off at our hotel prior to our arrival. They provided sugary sustenance for the next leg of our travels.

Pizza Face’s Mike's Big Pickle pizza (Calgary, AB)

I am of the mindset that pickles–be it cucumbers, onions or otherwise–can make most savoury dishes taste a little bit better, especially ones that are extra creamy and rich.

Pizza Face’s Mike’s Big Pickle pizza perfectly aligns with that mentality, offering a healthy amount of pickle slices along with garlic cream sauce and mozzarella. It’s garnished with some fresh dill so I’ll give it some bonus points for aromatics too.

Pluvio Restaurant’s grilled oyster (Ucluelet, B.C.)

Since being mesmerized by this show-stopping grilled oyster dish by chef Warren Barr of Pluvio in October, I have thought of it often and fondly. In fact, it might just be the best thing I’ve had all year.

Meaty Beach Angel oysters are first cured then grilled. Next, they're chopped up, tossed in an aioli–that Barr makes with his own miso made from pine mushrooms–baked and topped with an onion and mushroom crumble, spruce powder and pickled shimeji mushrooms.

TL;DR - Oysters Rockefeller, but taken with Alice through the looking glass for a Wonderland makeover.

Rain Dog Bar’s sweet apple butter rolls (Calgary, AB)

Apple pie, but make it bun.

This comforting dessert creation by chef Chris Lorenz at Rain Dog Bar is also one of the dishes on this list that doesn’t seem to be available on the takeout menu during lockdown. So let’s hope that once things ease up, we can all flock here for a bite of these warm apple rolls served with dulce de leche and house-made ice cream.

Rosewood Estates Winery’s Nebulous 2019 (Ontario)

Sommelier and wine writer Brit Hart says this wine pairs well with Cheezies and I am inclined to agree.

Probably the punchiest and funkiest Canadian wine I’ve drank all year. After my first taste of this unique Pet-Nat from Rosewood Estates Winery, it was love at first sip. Lucky for me, my neighbourhood wine shop (Bricks Wine Co.) stocks it fairly readily.

Now offered in its 2019 vintage, the natural wine is a blend of gamay and pinot noir grapes and with its notes of anything from summer berries and clay to overripe cheese–I lean to our resident sommelier Brit Hart for these descriptors–it is extremely memorable.

Simon’s Steaks’ empanadas and flank steak (Winnipeg, MB)

Sadly, I didn’t get to spend as much time in Winnipeg throughout 2020 as I normally would have in years past. My one visit was mid-summer and saw the city offering up plenty to do outside, as always. Summers in Winnipeg are quite magical.

No stranger to The Common at The Forks, I especially love their outdoor (licensed) dining area where you can enjoy food from a wide variety of market vendors.

A casual dinner with friends saw a smattering of empanadas and flank steak with chimichurri from Simon’s Steaks. Perhaps it was a combination of gorgeous weather, quality time with friends and well-seasoned food, but everything here tasted so wonderful that day.

Stumbletown Distilling’s Negroni (Saskatoon, SK)

Despite being somewhat of a Negroni purist, I found myself quickly enamoured with this variation on the theme made at Saskatoon's Stumbletown Distilling using their own spirits.

A combination of three of Stumbletown’s spirits: Pink IPA Gin, Mate Amaro and a rhubarb vermouth (of sorts) proved to be the perfect trifecta in a glass finished off with an appropriately large ice cube and orange zest.

Not today, Campari. Not today.

Sukiyaki House’s Chirashi platter (Calgary, AB)

Photo by Dong Kim.

What was probably the most beautiful takeout meal I have experienced since the onset of the pandemic, Sukiyaki House brings its A-game when it comes to Chirashi. Translating to "scattered", this type of presentation sees sushi components playfully arranged on top of a large bed of rice. The result is a vibrant meal in a box that is far more filling than what meets the eye.

Couple the Chirashi's good looks with Sukiyaki's reputation for quality seafood and high level sushi technique and you've got yourself on heck of meal.

To Me Vietnamese Sub’s coconut curry banh mi (Calgary, AB)

When I first drove by this teeny-and I mean teeny–Vietnamese drive-thru in Calgary, I was excited.

When I drove through for the first time, I was even more excited for the price point ($6 banh mi and $5 salad rolls).

When I ate a coconut curry banh mi for the first time, I was elated.

Since that first taste, I’ve gone back to To Me plenty of times and have fallen in love with this delicious take on a banh mi, slathered in Laughing Cow Cheese (a staple in Vietnam), filled with tofu–or chicken or beef, but I find tofu soaks up the sauce better–followed by the standard banh mi fixings and finished off with a ladling of a rich, salty coconut curry sauce.


V Burger’s Lil’ Cheezburger (Calgary, AB)

I’m praising vegan fast-food, it must be 2020!

Jokes aside, V Burger came out of the gates guns a’ blazin’ and haven’t ceased impressing Calgarians since the summer. Being a plant-based version of McDonald’s and/or Dairy Queen–my words, not theirs–is certainly no easy feat, but this fun spot rises to the occasion.

If you’re looking for a fast-food fix you will find it here and I find myself especially enamoured by their “cheeseburger” that looks strikingly similar to what you might find at McDonald’s and tastes shockingly similar. In this context, I consider that a good thing.

Calgary is not known for being forward-thinking when it comes to vegan cuisine, so go try this burger for yourself and see what all the fuss is about.

Vendome’s broccoli and halloumi “Caesar” (Calgary, AB)

This cozy, yet refined cafe in the city’s Sunnyside neighbourhood has been a favourite of mine for years in terms of having a low key cup of coffee and light bite in the morning. Vendome has seen a re-imaging this year, becoming more of a “proper” sit-down eatery, likely to fall better in line with the other Teatro Group concepts in terms of experience.

Calling this roasted broccoli and halloumi dish a Caesar salad is definitely a bit of a stretch, but I do appreciate the use of quotations in its listing on the menu. It’s mix of textures from the el dente broccoli, squeaky halloumi and the cloud of shaved Grana Padano on top coupled with a tangy dressing makes this salad one for the books.

Von Der Fels’ wild squid (Calgary, AB)

Photo by Carmen Cheng.

Leave it to Von Der Fels to serve up one of my most memorable plates of food for 2020 with a hot and cold sensation like no other. This creative dish sees squid served in an aguachile-style (think ceviche) with a tart haskap berry vinagrette of sorts along with a salad of tomato, cucumber and herbs. Beside the aguachile sits two generous pieces of braised and fried squid with a light, but crispy batter.

It's not often you get the sensations of piping hot and refreshingly cold on one plate, it's a fun one for the senses...and supremely satiating too.

Westlake Grill’s steak sandwich (Red Deer, AB)

Following a recommendation from fellow food writer Twyla Campbell, I popped into Westlake Grill–which is the restaurant located on-site at Heritage Ranch. I’ve never felt quite as Albertan as I did when pulling off the highway en route back to Calgary from Edmonton in search of a carnivorous lunch.

Thinly shaved Alberta prime rib came piled high along with sauteed onions on a toasted slice of house-made sourdough and doused in a rich pan jus. Truly the steak sandwich that a carnivore's dreams are made of.