Wine and food should taste like where they came from, say Bar Von der Fels owners
'We just ask you what you like, and recommend a wine based on that'
Thomas Dahlgren and Will Trow believe it should be easier — and more affordable — to get out and drink a good glass of wine. It was this idea that inspired them to open a small wine bar, Bar Von der Fels, this past summer.
"We take pride in the quality of our least expensive wine," Dahlgren says.
Trow and Dahlgren — both sommeliers who previously worked at Metrovino and Dahlgren still does — got a great deal on a small downtown space on First Street S.W. in a strip of old, underused storefronts that have in the past been occupied by salons, tattoo parlours and hookah bars.
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Their space was most recently an architecture office and before that an antique store.
When they took it over, it was an empty shell. They did all the painting and interior design themselves, even building shelves in the space between the bar and kitchen.
With a handful of tables down the length of one wall, there's also room to stand or sit in the front window.
They have a kitchen the size of a small walk-in closet and plenty of comfy seats at the bar, which is the best vantage point if you're in the mood to chat.
"We offer really, really good-value wines. You can always come here and get a glass for $7 that's actually worth drinking," Dahlgren says.
"You can do anything from that to a 1980s first-growth Bordeaux for a really affordable price."
They generally have two reds and two whites available for $10 glass or less, or 10 bottles of each for $50 or less, all the time — it's always happy hour.
No wines-by-the-glass list
The current list has about 150 selections, but they anticipate it increasing by about 75 in the coming weeks.
"We never have a list of wines by the glass," Dahlgren says.
"We decide what we want to pour day of, or mid-service, depending on what people are drinking. We just ask you what you like, and recommend a wine based on that."
There's an element of learning here, too.
Each time a glass is poured, there's the opportunity to talk to Dahlgren and Trow about their well-curated picks.
"We knew the concept exists and works out east," says Trow, who recently moved to Calgary from Montreal.
"And we knew it would work well here. A lot of restaurants have great wine lists, but they often have the same focus: a lot of big reds, not a lot of easy drinking wines. If you count the sparkling, there's more white than red on our list."
With their friends at Proof just down the street, they offer limited cocktails. They'll do a Negroni, a really good gin and tonic, and a classic Martini. They also have four or five local beers on the list.
'They realize we know what we're doing'
"We have a lot that are high acidity, moderate alcohol, wines that are conducive to drinking and eating," Dahlgren says.
"When we ask someone what they want, and find the right wine for them, people get more comfortable. They realize we know what we're doing."
In the kitchen, their friend Nick Berenyi — whom Dahlgren met while they attended Alberta College of Art and Design together and who previously cooked at Ox & Angela — has come up with a wonderful seasonal, contemporary menu that fits with their wine list.
"The space is tiny, so we have to keep the menu very concise," Berenyi says.
"But we're happy with that. We don't need any more, we're very happy with what we have."
Walking in the door, one of the first things you notice is a bowl of fresh quince on the table beside their shiny red slicer, where they cut cured meats from Empire Provisions, including their inaugural culatello.
"We try to source the best ingredients we can from as close to where we are," Berenyi says.
"And treat them with the utmost respect. There's minimal manipulation. We want things to taste like what they are and we just cook with the seasons."
The menu includes wine-friendly nibbles, like Sidewalk Citizen sourdough, beef tartare and Castelvetrano olives they marinate themselves in vermouth and sumac, as well as more unique items, like a walnut-apple ensaïmada (a coiled, filled pastry with roots in Mallorca, Spain) with comté cream.
They're also very much a dinner destination, with more substantial dishes like ricotta gnocchi, Ewe-nique Farms lamb loin and an off-menu family-style Brant Lake Wagyu ribeye they've dry-aged themselves for 30 days.
"Call ahead with your group size and I'll recommend a size of steak," Berenyi says.
Customers put at ease at the door
Six dollars an ounce will buy your steak as well as sides: roasted potatoes, wild mushrooms and braised greens.
"You just come in, Dahlgren and Trow will sort out the wine, and we take care of the rest," he said.
The friends are quick to put customers at ease when they come in the door.
"People are still intimidated by wine," Berenyi says, "but just watching Trow and Dahlgren interact with them, they quickly get comfortable and realize these guys are not here to intimidate or talk down to them."
Open from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., and later if things are going well, they hope to draw an after-work crowd and appeal to theatre goers and others in the food industry just getting off shift.
"The whole combo is a dream," a recent visitor posted on their Facebook page.
Wines should taste like where they came from
"Feels like Centre Georges Pompidou should be around the corner, aka some wonderful spot you discover in Paris and rave to your friends about."
The bar's name, Von Der Fels, translates from German to "from the rock."
"We chose it because it reflects the idea that wines should taste like where it came from," Dalhgren explains.
"And food should do the same."