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restaurants

photo: Darrol Hofmeister
photo: Darrol Hofmeister

Something Different

A new gastropub boldly eschews the tyranny of menus

by Aidan Morgan

SLOW FOOD PUB & SPORTS BAR
2124 ALBERT ST.
751-0000

I'm working on a theory about Regina diners and why they let bistros die while they squirt money into franchise restaurants and fast food joints. It's all about the safe bet.

Chain places don't offer great food, but they're so predictable it's like playing a recording of a meal: the same flavours and textures, note for note. Sure, it's lousy food that sort of jabs at your pleasure centers like a mugger on Vicodin, but you know it's going to be lousy. In fact, you're banking on that lousiness to get you through the lousy experience of eating that meal.

When McDonald's hands you a cold Big Mac - as happened to me once on the outskirts of Weyburn - it's not a disappointment or an insult. It's so shocking it's like the world just tilted off its axis.

That's how reliable those places are.

On the other side of the equation, inconsistency rules at a distressing number of independent Regina restaurants. A sublime meal one week may be merely passable the next. Too often, it's a gamble - great at a casino but not much fun at a restaurant.

Inconsistency complicates the whole business of going to restaurants. Who wants to go out when you don't know what kind of service you'll get or whether your favourite dish will be worth biting into?

But there's a different kind of restaurant out there, one that makes inconsistency a selling point instead of a flaw and favours surprise over predictability. The kind of place that offers you something that you didn't know you loved until it was on your fork (or your spoon - I don't judge you, depraved spoon fanciers).

Restaurants like that are tough to find and they rarely last long. But the Slow Food Pub may have figured out a way to make it work.

Slow Food belongs to that category called "gastropubs", which must be one of the ugliest words ever to crawl into our vocabulary. Gastropubs emerged in the UK about 20 years ago, when pub owners began offering high-end food to bolster a flagging customer base.

Despite my initial skepticism, Slow Food Pub is kind of genius. The décor, which initially struck me as pretty ugly, with its wide-open space and flat panel TV screens mounted high on the walls, won me over halfway through my first pint of their Just Got Canned Cream Ale ($5). "Dude," I could almost hear the place saying, "I'm a sports bar, not a fine dining establishment." Somehow, that's okay.

Slow Food adheres to the 'slow food' philosophy, a movement that emphasizes fresh ingredients and direct relationships with local producers. This also means that the kitchen does 'nose-to-tail' dining, which means you can end up eating more parts of an animal than you ever thought possible. Tongue and kidney are as likely to appear on the clipboard as chop or brisket.

There's no printed menu. Instead, the day's offerings are affixed to clipboards and strung above the bar. When the kitchen runs out of the ingredients for a given dish, the clipboard disappears. On my first visit, I felt like trying the baked pretzel ($4) but I waited too long. By the time I made up my mind, the clipboard was gone and my table went severely underpretzeled.

Without a baked pretzel, I was forced to drown my sorrows in their mead, which looks like pearls in vinegar, tastes like a honey-infused champagne cocktail (thanks to my friend Lisa for the apt description) and delivers a good hard kick with 13.5% alcohol. For obvious reasons, the brewer urged me to savour the drink and not to knock it back like light beer.

For a main course, I ordered the smoked pork chop with garlic mashed potatoes ($14), which was thick, extremely flavourful and nicely tender. The chop sat atop an intimidating heap of mashed potatoes. The garlic flavour was pleasingly strong without overwhelming the potatoes, and the consistency was just uneven enough to let you know that they'd been prepared in the kitchen.

My only complaint about the dish was that it seemed incomplete, despite the portion size - maybe a streak or two of asparagus or other vegetable would have rounded it out. I ended up ordering the mixed greens salad with house dressing ($9) to persuade myself that I had eaten an entire meal. I think I recognized the dressing from La Bodega, which is no surprise - Adam Sperling owns both establishments.

My friend had the Slow burger with fries ($12). A good burger seems like a make-or-break item for a pub and this one was excellent, with bacon, cheese, jalapeno, romaine lettuce and a toasted house-baked bun. I'm guessing that the fries were cooked in rendered beef tallow instead of vegetable oil. There's also a veggie burger for $12, which I didn't try. (They also offered vegetable stir-fry for $12).

On my second visit, I tried a glass of their Tu Vieja Mexican-style beer ($5), which my server compared to a Corona but tasted a good deal richer, and the pork tacos ($12). What can I say? I loved the pork tacos, which came with huge dollops of chunky guacamole. The flavour was delicious and hard to figure out, with some of the smokiness I detected in the chop I'd had the time before, the sweaty crunch of jalapenos and a dark taste of kidney or some other internal. Imagine an Earls appetizer a year or so after a global apocalypse, and you'd be close.

It struck me that this was food for grown-ups: not only for people with adult tastes, but people who grew up before our palates become accustomed to watery chicken breasts and bland slabs of steak. The flavours were strong and unusual, and I'm going back as soon as I can.

I have no idea what's going to be on the menu, and that's the way I like it.

Slow Food is open Monday to Saturday 11:00 a.m.-2:00 a.m., and Sunday from noon-2:00 a.m.