Neighbourhood eateries are always best when they become hubs for people in the area to come together, eat, drink and have good conversation. Downtown restaurants and pubs don’t often achieve that sort of atmosphere, but once you venture a little further from the city’s core, you’ll find places that marry together good quality food and neighbourly experience, like The Block.

Photo by Ingrid Kuenzel

Husband and wife team, Kai and Norma Jean Salimäki, met years ago when Catch first opened, and since then have helped many well-known establishments in Calgary open their doors, including Vin Room and Notable. After more than a decade of watching other restaurateurs and chefs succeed with their own endeavours, they – along with Kai’s brother, Timo Salimäki – decided it was time to stake their claim in the restaurant world.

“I felt it was time that we could. After opening many restaurants for a lot of other people, this was going to be a great family venture.” explains Kai Salimäki. “I got to have the opportunity to have my wife working with me and my brother working with me.”

The Block is on 4th Street and 23rd Avenue NW, across the street from Calgary’s oldest McDonald’s. It’s a short drive from downtown, which may leave it off some people’s radars, but when you ask the Salimäkis, you’ll find they’re more than happy here.

“It was actually this specific location that made it happen for us,” says Norma Jean. “After working at Notable and seeing other restaurants succeed on the ‘outskirts’ of downtown, we felt the community here and the long-standing clientele in the area… was perfect.”

On one side of the restaurant, the lounge is set up with a long bar, high-top tables, and screens to watch sports. It’s a fitting place to meet for casual drinks with friends, and share snacks like The Block’s signature roasted cauliflower croquettes or the house-made salmon gravlax on rye crisps.

On the restaurant side, it’s a completely different vibe. There’s a deep ocean blue colour on the walls, banquet seating wrapped around the room, and wood accents, like a refinished barn door hanging just behind the long communal table on which “The Block” is branded into the wood. Norma Jean worked closely with a designer to bring a comfortable mood to the space.

“I brought the designer to all of the restaurants that I felt were sultry, but also felt at home in,” she explains. “That’s why she mixed the old wood-feel with the stormy ocean colours, and we have that seashell sort of print on the chairs. To me, I think the guest should always feel like the prettiest thing in the room and our interior does that. It’s a back drop for people to look and feel good in here.”

The Block’s menu takes comfort foods and pub classics, and elevates them to another level. Approachable home-style food, but with a chef’s touch. And as Norma Jean is quite the wine expert, the restaurant also boasts a surprisingly extensive wine list, which any of the service staff will be happy to help you pair alongside your food.

The sweet potato perogies are made daily and served with crème fraîche, fried sage and brown butter that just might be better than the ones your grandma makes. Then there’s a tuna melt that’s anything but typical, made with confit albacore tuna topped with aged cheddar, tomato and a fennel slaw.

Aside from comforting plates, burgers, pastas et al, you’ll find odes to East Coast cuisine on Chef Salimäki’s menu with his Halifax donair – he’ll tell you that a good sweet sauce is the key – and the lobster pot pie. It’s big bowl of maritime flavours with poached lobster, cod and vegetables in shellfish gravy, topped off with golden puff pastry. “You’ll find a lot of tie-ins with the maritimeshere! My dad is a lobster fisherman,” says the chef.

Chatting with the Salamäkis, it’s easy to tell that they are big on their family heritage, and that filters into their food here as well. For example, the salmon gravlax, butterscotch pie and the chocolate biscuit cake are all inspired by recipes that have been passed down in the family for generations.

“As an 18 year old, they gave me this family cookbook and said, ‘Here you go, here are all of the recipes.’ It’s been in every kitchen of mine since I started working in the industry. The book has always been a big inspiration for me,” says the chef.

With the husband leading the kitchen and the wife running the front of house alongside brother, Timo, you might be surprised to find out that the Salamäkis have three little ones at home. Clearly, there’s a lot of juggling to do between home-life and the restaurant, but it’s that family connection that fuels the business for them.

“It is difficult,” admits Norma Jean when asked how they balance raising a family and running The Block. “But seriously, I feel like I want to show people that they can have a passionate career in this industry and have the balance. At the end of the day, it’s dinner and drinks. It’s not [life or death] here.”

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