Like many other restaurants in Calgary, Cleaver, a beautiful Irish-influenced restaurant in downtown Calgary, has a Caesar on its menu. Unlike other restaurants, Cleaver lists its Caesar in the “bar snacks” section of its menu. It’s called a Caesar Stack and it’s a horseradish-based mix served with a chicken wing and drum – brined, sous vide, then fried – mini corndog, jalapeno waffle from zero and a slider, with bacon, on a homemade brioche. Each is impaled on a skewer and arranged in a fan with the care of a florist. Calling one of them a “topping” is like calling Madonna a cabaret singer.
Cleaver is run by Barbara Spain, a Dublin native who studied at Ireland’s famous Ballymaloe Cookery, a school located on a farm known, among other things, for its butchery program. Once you learn that, the show really comes into its own.
Caesar is to Calgary what highball whiskey is to Tokyo: you can find one almost anywhere you go and many bartenders or, in the case of Cleaver, chefs like to put their own spin on it. It’s ubiquitous because it’s Canada’s official national drink and, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia, over 400 million Caesars are consumed across the country each year. But it was in Calgary that she was born.
First, a quick aside for the uninitiated: a Caesar is often described as a Bloody Mary with clamato or clam juice, but it’s much more complex than that. Most bartenders employ one of two types: Mott’s and the more upscale Walter Caesar, a pre-seasoned clamato that identifies itself as “all-natural.” Small batch. Proudly Canadian. Everyone clings to their opinion of what is best.
The drink was invented by Walter Chell, bartender at Owl’s Nest, the restaurant at the Calgary Inn, which is now the site of a Westin. In 1969, when the inn opened its Italian restaurant, the good bartender was tasked with offering a drink to accompany pasta alle vongole, a dish of spaghetti made with white wine and fresh clams. According to legend and Michael Cameron, the hotel’s operations manager, who has access to the records, Chell created the mix using hand-crushed oysters, an obvious connection to the dish, tomato juice (a pairing natural) and Worcestershire sauce. At the Westin’s newly renovated seasonal Owl Patio & Bar, visitors can order the drink in its original form.
According to the story, he was simply called a Caesar until an Englishman said to Chell, “He’s a damn good Caesar.” “It’s just a Caesar – like it’s just hockey, not ice hockey,” she informed me. And the American lens through which I saw Canada was instantly shattered.
The widespread and enduring popularity might surprise anyone who is not Canadian. After all, it’s rare to find even a Bloody Mary on the cocktail menus of fancy restaurants or craft cocktail bars around the world, unless you’re whipping up brunch.
It’s also worth noting that all of the iconic tomato-based foods, from marinara sauce to gazpacho to salsa, are a bit of a historical anomaly. Past societies have not looked kindly on the tomato. In the 1700s, in fact, it was called the “poison apple” because European upper-class lords and ladies died after eating it. But we finally discovered that the killer was the pewter plates: the tomatoes would leach out the toxic lead.
Eventually, of course, with the widespread acceptance of scientific theory, it was established that the tomato was not poisonous. This was a correction for the level of shifting tectonic plates. And Canadians couldn’t be happier.
A bartender’s personal imprint on the drink is often a matter of global influence. Just as pocket foods have their own cultural interpretations (see: dumplings, ravioli, empanadas, pierogis, English pastries, etc.), so does Caesar.
Park by Sidewalk Citizen is an airy restaurant on the edge of Central Memorial Park, on the outskirts of downtown. It is known for its large vaulted ceiling solarium, with cathedral shaped windows, fig tree, lemon tree, hanging plants everywhere. The menu here is inspired by Israeli street food and the Caesar is too. Made with smoky habanero hot sauce, it’s rimmed with the traditional za’atar spice blend and topped with a grilled shishito pepper. In fact, it goes so well with the food here that I almost asked for a spoon. This would make a perfect sauce for the baked feta and charred eggplant dish.
I told my server I was American and asked her if she drank Caesars on a night out with friends. It was my first meal in town and I was still trying to understand the ubiquity of the drink. “I love the Caesars,” she confirmed. So did one of the gentlemen at the next table, who had gone out with four friends to celebrate one of their retirements. His friends were drinking beer and white wine and he was sipping the house Caesar. When they finished their dinner, I asked if the Caesar was his favorite drink. Only before dinner, he said. “It’s a perfect drink when you’re hungry. I usually show up to dinner hungry.
The next afternoon, I had lunch at Native Tongues, a downtown taqueria with tiled walls and a beautiful wooden bar stocked with tequilas and mezcals. Instead of vodka, the Caesar here is made with mezcal, which gives it a smoky flex. And it’s a very logical variation because it nods to Michelada, the essential Mexican beer and tomato juice. But enough people in Mexico prefer it with Clamato that the country ranks among the largest Clamato markets in the world. Mott’s built a social media campaign on the trend, with the hashtag #clamatomichelada
There’s regular hot sauce and lime in a Michelada, and sometimes there’s tequila, so in essence, a Caesar at Native Tongues is just a Michelada without the beer.
One place where Caesar makes a little less sense – in the most enchanting way – is Sukiyaki House, an upscale sushi restaurant where I sat at the counter and watched a team of sushi chefs prepare toro. and Hamachi sashimi. There is a long list of sakes and a shorter cocktail list. It wasn’t exactly a surprise to find a Caesar here. What was amazing was the recipe.
Judith, the manager, said she thinks of Caesars as tomato soup for breakfast. She therefore mixes the Canadian tradition with the Japanese tradition of soups, which often involve a dashi (broth) of kombu (kelp) or katsuobushi (simmered, smoked and fermented). skipjack tuna.) The result? A wasabi sake, infused with kombu and katsuobushi. This reinvented dashi has a strong saline flavor, a nice complement to clamato. They add Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco and olive brine, toss it with vodka, top it with a mixture of celery salt, seaweed flakes and a mixture of shichimi pepper, then top it off all with a garlic-stuffed olive and a steamed and vinegared shrimp. You’d be forgiven if you thought it would be a frenetic cacophony of flavors, but despite everything going on in the glass, East meets West harmoniously.
Also amazing: Vegan Street’s clamato-free Caesar, where bonito flakes are used to give the drink its familiar saltiness.
Distillers are also on board. And not afterwards. With the astronomical increase in the number of distilleries in recent years, it’s rare to go to a city and not find one nearby. Calgary’s Eau Claire Distillery is located about 40 miles south of downtown, and they’re so serious about Caesar that they make it a number of different ways. Four variations are offered in the flight served in their vintage-inspired tasting room. There’s one made with gin, one with vodka, one with single malt alcohol (it’s not whiskey because it’s not aged long enough to legally qualify) and one with dill pickle vodka, which they historically made as a seasonal offering, but are now produced year-round because they use it in their newly introduced canned Caesar. Each spirit is blended with Walters, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauces. If I had ever had any doubts about the versatility of the tomato, it was wiped out on the spot.
On my last morning in town, I stopped at the Hawthorn, the fancy restaurant at the posh Fairmont, and saw exactly why the Caesar deserves its place in the classic cocktail canon. Most people shake their cocktail, but bartender Mario Hernandez takes it a step further. He throws the drink, bartender lingo for pouring the mixture from one shaker can to another, one held above the other, creating an arcing current.
“When you toss a cocktail, it gives it air. It enhances and releases aromas,” Mario said. Indeed, it also brought out the flavor of many additional ingredients: balsamic vinegar, fire bitters. “hell, onion powder. This particular Caesar comes highly recommended by bartenders elsewhere I’ve spoken with. But when I got there, I noticed it wasn’t listed on the menu. I I figured they probably didn’t anymore. Mario quickly fixed my issue.
“We don’t have it on the list because everyone knows you can get one here,” he said. “Or anywhere.”