Hayloft, Airdrie

Fine food without the “frou-frou”

Hayloft in Airdrie serves up fine dining for the people

Hayloft, AirdrieA century-old door greets every guest who comes to Hayloft in Airdrie. Its gorgeous wood panels and inlaid glass diamonds have been lovingly restored by restaurant owner Hoan Nguyen (pronounced Haan Nuwin).

And like everything in this charming eatery, there’s a story behind it.

“When I bought it, it was covered in six layers of white paint,” says Nguyen (who also goes by James).

It took him two weeks of painstaking work to sand down and detail the 1900s door, which came from a home in Crescent Heights. The seller had tried to restore it herself, but soon gave up.

Not Nguyen.

“It was blood, sweat and tears – quite literally,” he says with a weary laugh.

The former teacher from Calgary has filled his new space with local treasures: a vintage record player; a bar built from an old barn door; an Empire oven scavenged from a butcher shop in Crossfield.

Renowned Calgary food critic John Gilchrist describes the look as “nouveau agrarian.” Others call it “barnyard chic” or “refined rustic” with its loft ceilings, exposed wood beams and industrial lighting.

Decor aside, Gilchrist gives the food his blessing, declaring that Hayloft is “worth the trek” to Airdrie, even for a discerning Calgary clientele.

No stranger to serving Calgary’s “men in suits,” Executive Chef Jason Barton-Browne can throw it down with the best of them.

Take an entrée like seared tuna. Barton-Browne pairs succulent slices of albacore tuna with grilled apricots and diced summer squash. It’s then delicately arranged on a plate piped with green swirls of mint pea purée.

At a recent Sunday brunch, two poached eggs jiggle delightfully as the server lowers a plate of eggs benny onto the table. They are cloaked in a glistening hollandaise, and perched perfectly on locally sourced bacon and a fresh-baked buttermilk biscuit. A side of hand-cut hash browns and homemade ketchup complete the offering.

Hayloft, Airdrie

Barton-Browne is a heavy-hitter from Calgary’s competitive culinary scene. Starting as a butcher at River Café, he went on to the Boxwood Café and worked his way up to being head chef at Teatro, one of Calgary’s top fine dining spots.

How did Nguyen manage to lure him away to Airdrie?

“It was easier than he thought,” says Barton-Browne. The former globetrotting chef now has a little daughter and lives on a farm in Crossfield, where his wife is a passionate beekeeper.

He loves having free rein over the kitchen, which embodies his guiding principles of “guest experience, quality ingredients and social responsibility.”

Take something as simple as a plate of fish-and-chips.

“We choose ling cod, which is sustainable,” Barton-Browne explains. The potatoes are organic and come from Strathmore. “It would be a lot easier to buy fries [from a wholesale distributor], instead of peeling, blanching, frying – all that takes time and effort. And in a restaurant, time is money.”

Barton-Browne’s Bolognese alone takes three days to make, so it’s no can of Catelli.

He sources as much meat and produce from local farms and families – including Casey’s Heirloom Tomatoes of Airdrie (run by a teacher at George McDougall), pork from Bear and the Flower Farm in Irricana, and greens from Blue Mountain Biodynamic Farms in Carstairs.

The breads, pastries, pasta – all are made in house. While Barton-Browne no longer spends five to seven minutes on plating (as he did at Teatro), every dish is beautifully and thoughtfully presented.

The challenge is to serve high-end food in Airdrie without the eye-watering Calgary prices.

“No more corporate accounts. It’s people coming who most likely had to pay a babysitter,” says Nguyen.

“So we’re all about the good food – just not froufrou-ey,” he adds.

“From cowboy hats to baseball caps, we want everyone to feel comfortable here.”

Hayloft backs onto 8th Street, a block south of Sobeys, with access from the inner courtyard of the condo complex. It’s open for lunch and dinner every day but Monday, with brunch service on weekends.

Recipe: Beef Bolognese Base

2.5 kg              beef chuck roll (or any other type of tough cut for braising meat)
1/2                 onion, halved and grilled
1                      carrot, peeled and cut in half
1                      bay leaf
200g               bacon
½ (100 g)      onion, brunoise (finely diced)
1 (100 g)       carrot, peeled and brunoise
1(80 g)           celery, brunoise
1                      star anise
250 mL           red wine
1 large can     organic whole tomato, lightly blitzed
25 g                basil, chiffonade (long thin strips)


Step 1:
Cut the whole beef chuck in half. One half will be ground; the other half will be braised.
The half that will be braised should have more sinew in it. Cut that half into 10-cm cubes. Season with salt and pepper. Sear the meat in a Dutch oven, deglaze with water. Place the grilled onion, carrot, bay leaf, seared meat and enough water to cover in pan. Cook overnight in conventional oven at 250 F, covered.
When meat is completely braised, chill in fridge for 24 hours.
The next day, scrape off the fat cap, and remove the vegetables from the liquid. Pick through meat, removing excess fat and sinew. Reserve the meat and liquid for Step 3

Step 2:
The second half of the beef should be cleaned of excess sinew and silverskin. Cut the meat into 3-cm x 3-cm x10-cm strips. Grind with the bacon. Alternatively, you could buy a lean ground package of beef, and chop the bacon finely.
Sear the beef/bacon in batches with a generous amount of olive oil in a large pot, until golden brown
After the meat is browned, sweat off the brunoise vegetables with star anise. Deglaze with red wine (remember to scrape off the caramelized bits with the wine in the pot), and reduce ‘au sec’ – until dry. Reserve the browned meat, vegetables and reduced wine.

Step 3:
Place the braised meat, seared ground meat, brunoise vegetables and star anise, crushed tomatoes, and braising liquid in an uncovered large pot. Every half hour or so, stir the Bolognese to mix in the caramelized top.  Continue to cook/reduce until there is no liquid left.  This will take approximately 6 hours.
Let cool for 45 minutes and add basil.
Season with salt and pepper to your taste.

Serve with your favourite pasta shape.  At Hayloft, we use our homemade fresh tagliatelle noodles with a topping of rasped Parmesan cheese.

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