Name: River Café
Location: 25 Prince’s Island, Calgary
Cuisine: Contemporary Canadian with emphasis on regionally grown ingredients
Atmosphere: Inviting, yet refined
Drinks on offer: Wine, cocktails and some craft beer
Best bets: Fogo Island shrimp, Benchmark Farms beef tartare, Haida Gwaii halibut, wild rice pudding
Vegetarian friendly? Yes
Additional information: Has a striking patio that is perfect for an al fresco bite or drink any time throughout the week. Also offers brunch on the weekend
As the food industry marks Food Day Canada over the August long weekend – a celebration of Canadian-grown ingredients pioneered by the late culinary icon Anita Stewart – I can think of fewer places more idyllic to have dinner than Calgary’s River Café.
What opened back in 1991 as a humble seasonal café in the heart of Prince’s Island Park grew to become a leader in the local food and sustainability movements. Now, as it celebrates its 30th anniversary, the River Café has managed to stay front-of-mind for industry professionals and food lovers alike as one of the top restaurants in Alberta, if not in all of Canada. The words “local” and “sustainable” are thrown around a lot by all types of businesses in the food service and grocery industries, but few walk the walk like River does.
Proprietor Sal Howell has always been at the helm, but, of course, many chefs have helped steer the culinary direction over the years. In the past few years, the restaurant has seen a bit of fluctuation, with head chef Matthias Fong departing in 2019 and Ross Bowles coming on for a year or so. Now, Scott MacKenzie (formerly of Model Milk) seems to have happily settled into the role and the food feels more dynamic than ever.
A recent dinner here honestly felt and ate like summer incarnate.
In the summertime, the restaurant’s huge windows and south-facing patio provide an open-air-like feeling to the space. It is buzzing with all kinds of people. Folks popping in for a casual drink while strolling through Prince’s Island Park, couples on dates, friends catching up. While the food remains complex and service levels high, there’s a refreshing lack of pretension on the air.
As fresh Canadian produce peaks in availability, the chef has made the most of it in a vibrant endive salad boasting a myriad of textures. A cool creamy base of ricotta – made using cream from Alberta’s Vital Green Farms – is topped with a mix of shaved fennel, pickled radishes, raspberries and celery. All of which is dressed in a bright sumac vinaigrette.
Then there’s the grilled and chilled baby cucumbers topped with a turmeric-infused labneh – again made using Vital Green dairy – wild rice crisps and fried shallots. Peppered with edible flower petals and garden herbs, it was a stimulating little appetizer.
The slightly more indulgent shrimp toast proved to be a fight-for-the-last-bite kind of dish. A generous pile of tender Fogo Island shrimp tossed in a creamy shishito aioli sat atop a crispy slice of brioche, and was finished with a “potato crumb” (think an uber-crispy French fry crushed up and sprinkled).
A dish like this can almost whisk you away to the East Coast – in your mind, anyway.
Another seafood success, albeit a slightly spicy one, is the grilled octopus. Lightly dressed in a house hot sauce made with banana peppers, it was presented beautifully in a circular fashion with house-cured salami, sweet peas, cucumber and thinly shaved onion.
A lovely beef tartare with flax seed lavosh also graces the table and stands out thanks to the pop of pickled canola seeds and the tang of creme fraiche.
With apparently insatiable appetites, we moved onto main dishes of poached halibut and a fire-grilled bison striploin. The latter arrived medium-rare nestled into slices of brined and grilled cabbage, wilted chard and a saskatoon berry jus. It was an ideal plate for the more carnivorous of folks.
The halibut came crusted with minced green onions in a shallow pool of flavourful house-made dashi with tender locally grown shiitakes, radishes, bok choy and scallion oil. A hot broth on a hot summer day needs to exude brightness and this dashi did just that.
I’d happily drink it by the gallon should the opportunity present itself.
A delicious wild rice pudding capped off the night, tasting like what I can only describe as a delicious bowl of sweet and salty, buttery popcorn. Studded with a caramel tuile (of sorts) and crunchy compressed Okanagan peaches, I find myself still thinking about it days later.
Perhaps it’s already time to go back.
By staying true to its hyper-local, seasonal and sustainable mantra year after year, it’s clear that River Café refuses to be anything less than exceptional. Food Day Canada founder Anita Stewart would be proud.
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