Chef and co-owner Justin Leboe has turned Model Milk into one of Canada’s best new restaurants

When we were thinking about restaurants to feature in The Dairy issue, the first thing that popped to mind was Model Milk. While not a “dairy” centric restaurant, the name, in and of itself, is the perfect fit.

The building was home to the Model Milk Company established in 1932 and held the first heat pasteurized system in Western Canada. Although hard to picture now, cows used to be led into the building to be milked. The name “Model Milk” was carved in relief into the stone at the top of the building and can still be seen today. I mentioned this to a friend, and he said one of his favourite childhood memories was climbing a set of stairs on the east side of the building to enjoy its famous milkshakes and ice cream cones.

Even with its deep-rooted history in the city, when the restaurant first opened almost a year and a half ago, I would often hear people say, “Where is that?” or at best, “You know, it is the old Victoria’s restaurant on 17th Ave.” While I am too young to remember the ice cream and milkshakes, I do have many fond memories of the building, from Sunday brunch with friends at Victoria’s (which is actually next door), to spending every Saturday, for the better part of a decade, dancing in side-by-side nightclubs Detour and Arena.

So that’s why it was weird walking into Model Milk for the first time; I had never actually seen it in the light of day. Who knew that there was a huge skylight in the middle of the space? And yet, it still kind of looks the same. When you enter the space, there is a bar in the entry level, where there used to be a coffee counter. Up half a flight of stairs, the dance floor is now the main dining area, where yes, the huge skylight fills the room with sunshine. The stairs leading up to the upper level and the balcony are still where they had always been, but re-built in black steel with matching handrails. The back bar has been replaced with a new modern open kitchen; no longer the place to see drag queens lip-synching their hearts out, but now setting the stage for culinary delights.

The restaurant was designed to look unpolished and unpretentious, with concrete floors, exposed brick walls and just a hint of detail. Iconic Jieldé industrial lamps wrap around old pieces of barn wood to create a chandelier over the long communal dining table in the centre of the room. This unique table has a large steel beam as a base, with tabletops that slide along and can be added or removed as needed. Above the bar, old milk containers have been turned into pendant lights. The furniture is a mix of old and new, including barn wood type dining chairs, reclaimed cast iron table bases and original woodshop work tables from a school in England. An old sign from a Strasbourg wine shop is set within wood paneling with upholstered bench seating below it.

Recently named number two in enRoute’s ‘Canada’s Best New Restaurants 2012’, Model Milk was one of only two restaurants outside of Toronto and Montreal to receive this recognition, the other being Borgo, also in Calgary.

The idea for the restaurant had milled around in Chef and co-owner Justin Leboe’s head for the past 10 years. Having come from a fine dining background, Leboe says he was never quite comfortable in this world; his philosophy is that food and dining should be fun, without the pretense. Like a dinner party at someone’s home, with “food that you can eat at home, but at a level that you do not typically make at home.” A place where he would want to hang out on his day off: super-casual with well-executed food that is not on everyone else’s menu; where fried chicken and foie gras can coexist. He wants people to walk away and say, “I can’t remember the last time I had that much fun eating.” So that is exactly what my dining companions and I set out to do.

Model Milk’s menu is certainly not large, but it has lots to choose from. I was told they used to change the menu almost every week (hence current iteration number 47), but soon realized that, as their reputation grew, people would come specifically to try dishes that they had read about or that someone had recommended to them. “A menu should not be about a chef’s ego,” says Leboe, “the question is not what do I want to cook today, it is what do I want to eat today.” So as Model Milk seems to have hit its stride, many of the most popular dishes, such as the Fricassee of Calamari, the Burger and Broek Acres Pig now stay on the menu. After trying the perfectly cooked Calamari, I understand why it is so popular. I am convinced you could serve it to someone without telling them what it is and they would think it was pasta.

We also tried the BC Side Stripe Prawn Rolls, which were nothing like what we thought they would be. Instead, they had a surprising presentation, not resembling a roll at all, with fresh prawns and mayo stuffed in toasted thick brioche. They were simple and unexpected, and really tasted delicious.

But soon I discovered a new favourite, an ingredient I had never had before – grits. Okay actually, I have had grits once before and they were so horrible I had never wanted to try them again. They tasted nothing like the delicious, creamy, lemony, risotto-like, ground corn in Model Milk’s Shrimp and Grits. Three large prawns sat on top of the dish, along with a soft fried egg with a runny yolk that we mixed into the grits. It was so good, I practically licked the bowl.

Lastly, we tried a large piece of homemade apple pie and ice cream. What made it unique was that the crust had aged white cheddar in it, as well as in the brown sugar streusel topping. I had never had this before, although I know that people often put cheddar cheese on warm apple pie. The cheese flavour was subtle but added an interesting twist to an old favourite.

Model Milk is a place where you can come and enjoy the food and the atmosphere any night of the week. “After all,” says Leboe, “there are more Tuesdays in a year than there are anniversaries.”

Model Milk is at 308 17 Ave SW, modelmilk.ca, @ModelMilkBistro

Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel

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