Story by Kathleen Kenna
Vacay.ca Senior Writer
VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — Dining at the best seat in the house at Salmon n’ Bannock Bistro is a quintessential Canadian experience.
First, you’re under a canoe. It’s a traditional Haida craft hanging from the ceiling, graced by original First Nations art on all the walls.
Second, you’re sampling the best of the Pacific northwest, from organic greens to wild sockeye salmon.
And third, almost everything is served with bannock, an aboriginal bread served from savoury to sweet.
If there is anything more First Nations at table in Canada, I haven’t found it.
This is the only aboriginal restaurant in British Columbia that features fine dining, year-round. (There are a few First Nations cafes and culinary schools in the province.)
I’ve lived on the Pacific coast for 12 years, and dined at dozens of seafood places — from fish shacks to five-star restaurants — and have not found a comparable place for wild salmon.
Chef Brodie Swanson serves wild sockeye simply, for every course except dessert, while bannock is featured at every course, including dessert.
SALMON EVERY WAY YOU LIKE IT
There are salmon chips, curls of crisp salmon skin used to scoop salmon mousse, a silky mix of barbecued salmon and cream cheese.
Appetizers include pickled salmon and lox rolls ($10) — smoked salmon wrapped around herbed cream cheese — and “Indian candy” ($8), the First Nations’ specialty of smoked, sweetened salmon. Best to order the salmon sampler ($12) to share each around the table, with bannock.
A new “amuse bouche” is pure West Coast: Salmon skin chips with toasted seaweed.
The Salmon n’ Bannock Burger ($16), of course, is wild sockeye on a bannock bun, with caper mayo and fennel slaw. The salmon isn’t ground, as it is in many places, and retains its light texture on a hearty bun.
The specialty is the wild sockeye filet with dill cream sauce ($20) and Ojibway wild rice, combining the best of the west with the best of the First Nations in the east.
Another specialty is bison, as smoked bison carpaccio ($12), or ground, for a smoky cheeseburger ($16).
The chef has fun with bannock, shaping into a “bannockette” for a wild boar sausage ($14). Topped with double-smoked cheddar, it’s an only-in-the-west treat.
Game from the north (cured Arctic muskox shaved into a proscuitto) and west (mixed game chorizo, deer stew, elk roast, braised deer shank) ensures most of Canada’s regions are represented on plates here.
Swanson aims for wild, local and sustainable as much as possible, so diners might get a lesson on sustainability while being introduced to BC’s spot prawns.
It’s the side flourishes that speak to Swanson’s creativity, from blueberry chutney to cedar jelly.
And more bannock. Bannock bites with cinnamon sugar, bannock bread with cranberries and hazelnuts, and the ever-popular berry bread bannock pudding ($7.50). It boasts fluffy bannock, layered with Saskatoon or other berries, in season.
Canadians are “closet bannock lovers,” co-owner Inez Cook says, half-jokingly, since many have First Nations roots. She’s Nuxalt, from BC, and is an Air Canada airline attendant, along with business partner Remi Caudron, who is French-Canadian.
When asked why so many international visitors seek out Salmon n’ Bannock for authentic First Nations cuisine, Cook says Canadians still seem timid about trying original foods.
“I think they’re embarrassed they don’t know much about it,” she says.
Both Caudron and Cook say the emphasis on First Nations at the 2010 Winter Olympics has spurred interest among Canadians and overseas visitors.
Cook says she was motivated to open Salmon n’ Bannock after seeing made-in-China aboriginal knockoffs being sold by major retailers in Vancouver.
She and Caudron are ambitious about sharing First Nations cuisine, arts and culture, sponsoring artists and musicians at their intimate bistro. They aim to open more First Nations restaurants across Canada.
They’re on their way: Salmon n’ Bannock just celebrated its second anniversary by winning first place in food and beverage at the 2012 Aboriginal Tourism BC Awards and it placed on the inaugural Vacay.ca Top 50 Restaurants in Canada List.