Story by Jody Robbins
Vacay.ca Family Columnist
CALGARY, ALBERTA — Walking onto Prince’s Island Park is like shedding a layer of skin clogged by city stressors. Cradled within this island oasis in the city lies River Café, a sanctuary that exfoliates your anxiety and cleanses your palate.
Here the vibe is warm and woodsy. An open-hearth fieldstone fireplace casts a cozy glow about the rustic furnishings. With an interior evoking an old Rocky Mountain fishing lodge, pale prairie light floods in from the almost floor-to-ceiling windows, affording panoramic views of the park and the dramatic cityscape beyond.
While residing on such a bucolic spot certainly has its charms, it also imposes significant risks, as evidenced during the devastating flood that swept through Calgary in June. Breaching its banks, the Bow River spread itself onto the tiny island, wiping out half the restaurant’s wine cellar as water rose above six feet in the lower level of the building.
Closed 52 days during the prime summer season and sustaining more than $ million in losses, the restaurant faced an uphill battle in reopening. But this leader of Calgary’s culinary scene chose to focus on giving back, raising over $10,000 for Grow Calgary after returning to business in August, ensuring Calgarians in need had access to fresh, local produce.
“We received so much support from the community as a whole, we wanted to give something back,” says proprietor Sal Howell.
Calgarian Peter Strickland was one of the first to rush back to the restaurant when it reopened. “They totally had their act together. Service was attentive, the food is local, and it’s interesting because it changes all the time. It’s exquisite.”
River Café Keeps Things Sizzling with Locals
Best known for igniting the sustainable, local, organic movement in Calgary, River Café offers seasonal menus featuring creative riffs of classic dishes. Fortunately, there are beloved standbys one can count on. Wood-oven-fired flatbread is always a winner, and you’ll regret not devouring the bread basket comprised of heritage grains that are pinchably soft on the inside with just the right amount of toothsome texture to their crust. That reliable quality earned the establishment the No. 22 spot among the 2013 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada, making it one of eight Calgary eateries to land on the list.
So how does a restaurant keep things sizzling with the regulars it’s steadily courted for more than a decade? Anyone in a long-term relationship knows the importance of spicing things up, and River Café understands this better than most restaurants. Offering interactive evenings of culinary collaborations, the restaurant brings in renowned chefs to join forces with executive chef Andrew Winfield. Vancouver’s Tojo took to the kitchen last April, and this fall the restaurant explored the regional cuisine of the Mexican Coastal Pacific by bringing in chef Jose Salas and tequila master Alfredo Sanchez of Four Seasons Resort Punta Mita.
There are many benefits to a cross-pollination of chefs and mixologist, says Howell. “Our kitchen never stays the same. We’re always evolving and are influenced by each other, so working in each other’s kitchens is a tremendous part of the learning process.”
The evening began with hand-crafted tequila cocktails and extraordinary wine pairings by River Café sommelier Bruce Soley. The bar mise en place alone was a work of art, with tropical fruit so bountiful and lush, it was tempting to nosh on it prior to sitting down.
Mercifully, mini explosions of flavour came to guests via sopes studded with chicken, cilantro and queso fresco, plus there were savoury macarons sandwiched together with chevre and dusted with dried strawberries to nibble before the main event.
Short Rib Birria-Style Enchilada Steals the Show
Dinner service began with deconstructed dungeness crab and watermelon gazpacho for the first course, followed by an elk striploin. Accompanied with roasted porcini, parsnips and concord grapes, it was the consummate dish for a crisp autumn night. Though not as tender as beef, the elk was flavourful and cooked to a precise medium rare with little hint of that gamey taste many wild meat dishes tend to emit.
But it was the short rib birria-style enchilada that captured most hearts. Smothered in a rich broxburn adobo sauce and oozing with queso fresco, creme fraiche and napa cabbage, it was savoury and smoky. I took a second bite and a third. Before you knew it, my plate was empty. It was a succulent combination of flavours, worthy of every bite.
And I wasn’t alone in swooning over the evenings offerings. Repeat diner Catherine Monks was equally enamoured. “It just never disappoints. You know your meal here is always going to be wonderful,” she avows.
More than your typical farm-to-table restaurant, these culinary collaborations demonstrate River Café’s commitment to making fine dining appealing and amusing. Those looking for a true taste of place, best dive into this salubrious spot.
MORE ABOUT RIVER CAFE
Address: 25 Prince’s Island Park Calgary, AB (see map below)
Website: www.river-cafe.com. Cuisine: Canadian
Telephone: 403-261-7670. Twitter: @RiverCafeYYC, @ChefWinfieldYYC
2013 Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Rank: 22
Price Range: Main courses range from $28-$49. Click here for the full menu.
You Must Order: Olson’s High Country Bison Striploin ($48), served with smoked potato emulsion, huckleberry and bordelaise jus.