The perfect Latin American hideaway

Blue House Cafe is the proverbial Latin hideaway and a natural date night. Tucked into residential northwest Calgary this small and cozy spot serves a variety of South American dishes but is well known for its steaks and seafood.

The place is a quaint mismatched clutter of South American travel images and tubular brass chairs. As a romantic touch Latin guitarist Oscar Villalobas serenades from the tiny stage Thursday through Saturday evenings.

Our double-date party of four is the first to arrive on a chilly Sunday evening but by meal’s end the larger of the restaurant’s two seating areas are full. Service is quick and knowledgeable. Our waiter is new and defers to chef and menu-creator Chad Van Loon to answer our trickier questions.

We start with shrimp ceviche ($11.95) which is served in a shallow bowl on chopped lettuce onion and peppers. The plump shrimps are pasted with a unique grainy sauce containing red and green peppers tomato cilantro and cumin as well as Blue House’s 14-spice “secret sauce.” If I served sauce this good I’d keep the recipe a secret too.

Equally attractive in its presentation is the lentil soup ($6.95). Not to be outdone by the ceviche the soup is also excellent. Tomato celery and garlic contribute to its deep-orange sauciness and disguise its lentil base. The very thick broth hides coarse chunks of potato and chorizo sausage.

As guitarist Villalobos takes the stage we order a bottle of Miguel Torres 2008 Reserve ($35) a Chilean red wine that’s full-bodied enough to stand up to hearty spicy flavours.

As our main dishes arrive I’m quickly slipped a sample of the bandeja Colombiana ($28.95) a traditional Columbian dish. Both of our guests have ordered this spiced charbroiled loin steak smothered in a tomato pepper and onion sauce (a criolla explains Van Loon) that’s finished with rosemary cilantro and lime. It’s served with bacon strips on a bed of lima beans that make a delectable combination with the outer char of the meat.

The mariscos de guava ($25.95) is a mixed seafood dish with rice and vegetables on the side. Though not attractively plated — it’s in one of those oblong lasagna dishes — its broth is fragrant fresh and uniquely tasty. Made with guava cilantro and cream it overflows with clams and mussels in the shell prawns scallops and calamari. One of the mussels hasn’t opened which is an oversight but not a big deal.

I’ve ordered the cazuela de cordero ($26.95) a Columbian lamb casserole prepared with a coffee-vermouth broth and served with rice and mixed vegetables on the side. Again the presentation doesn’t match the contemporary splash of the food. Stew-like the dish is thick with well-cooked lamb cubes (loin or leg is used in this dish) sliced peppers and mushrooms. The dark yellow sauce has a bright bite that is neither coffee — which we’re told brings out the flavour of the lamb — nor vermouth but its own brand of magnificent.

House-made desserts finish our meal: torta mil hojas ($6.75) and the evening’s dessert special oven-baked plantain in banana coconut cream ($6.75). We’re warned the plantain will take about 10 minutes to bake but we’re not bothered as we’re enjoying the music and conversation.

The torta is a wedge of thin pastry layers dressed with caramel and whipped cream. A very ubiquitous South American dessert known as 1000-layer cake and although it’s a little hard to carve with a fork its flaky tasty layers moisten up with the whipped cream.

The plantain is also a bit of work to cut but is also an appealing treat. Served in a boat the banana-like slices soak in a dish of rich banana cream with whipped cream topping. Though tough to cut with a spoon the plantain is perfectly chewable. Long after the desert is gone I continue to scrape away at the empty dish for any remaining banana-cream molecules.

Our visit confirms Blue House is an ideal date spot and as such the two weeks prior to Valentine’s Day are its busiest of the year so I would suggest reserving early. With a warm intimate atmosphere and some of the city’s best Latin American cuisine romance is on the menu. Incidentally Blue House will feature a host of new dishes come mid-February.