When it was announced last year that the Toronto-based restaurant group Oliver & Bonacini secured the food-and-beverage contract for Saskatoon's Remai Modern Art Gallery of Saskatchewan, not everyone was thrilled.
The skepticism seemed warranted. Why was an Ontario company moving in to run a Prairie-themed restaurant rather than giving local restaurateurs an opportunity to showcase their food in what will likely become a world-renowned gallery?
Before diving into Remai Modern's eatery, Shift, it's important to point out that whoever runs a restaurant in a place such as the Remai must also operate the entire food-and-beverage program for the museum. To run an extensive catering program while also running a sit-down concept is extremely difficult. Oliver & Bonacini already does this for the Royal Ontario Museum, Big Rock Brewery's Toronto location and more.
With all eyes on the museum and its restaurant, many people – myself included – were interested to see how it would play out.
Since opening last October, the restaurant has now cemented itself as a dining destination in the city.
Co-executive chefs Jonathan Harris and Suyeon Myeong relocated from Ontario last year and, without having any sort of experience with Saskatchewan or Prairie cooking in general, did their homework. They've done a magnificent job of taking elements of Canadian Prairie comfort food and transforming them into an engrossing menu.
The seared squid and cucumber salad by Ms. Myeong feels like a re-envisioned classic cucumber and sour cream salad that's typical of many Saskatchewan family dinners. Japanese yam noodles, compressed and grilled cucumber and the squid take things a bit out-of-the-box in the most delicious way here.
Serving perogies in Saskatoon is a bold move. With a large Ukrainian population in the province adding to its vibrant heritage, most people can sniff out a bad perogy from a mile away. Luckily, the Shift perogies are appropriately doughy, pleasantly buttered up and are tossed with big bacon lardons before being plated on sour cream (of course) and finished with bonito flakes for a little extra umami.
The sprouted grain salad ("seeds, roots and shoots bowl") with both roasted and shaved root vegetables such as celeriac and carrots, whipped goat cheese and sour-cherry preserve is a beautiful homage to Saskatchewan producers in both presentation and taste.
Diefenbaker trout, a prairie protein staple, gets a welcomed makeover –blackened and served with a tart sumac aioli – as does another local favourite, pickerel, which is gently grilled, but still perfectly tender and resting on a mixture of confit tomatoes, chickpeas, olives and hazelnuts.
Other main courses here are mostly meat-heavy, save a mediocre and somewhat out-of-place tofu scallopini.
After several visits, the roasted pork shoulder has become a personal favourite. A big chunk of pork shoulder sitting atop a pile of mustard spaetzle and topped with tangy chunks of apple that have been pickled and then candied.
The only real major downside to Shift is its drink menu. The bartenders don't seem to have a problem making a classic cocktail, such as a properly shaken whisky sour. Well-balanced and finished with a stylish bitters-drip design, it's just as polished looking as something you'd be served at a serious cocktail bar in larger city centres. On the other side, some signature cocktails use severely out-of-season flavours, as well as Smirnoff vodka. Saskatchewan has a handful of distilleries now and to see them represented only in a Caesar is unfortunate.
The beer menus follows suit, boasting only one true microbrew from 9 Mile Legacy Brewing. Again, Saskatchewan has no shortage of microbreweries worth showcasing.
The wine list is almost disturbing in its quality; most of the menu reads like the bottom shelf of a local liquor store. Other local contemporary restaurants boast infinitely better selections.
All of these drink menu grumbles slowly fade away after a spoonful or two of chef Harris's inspired take on rice pudding. Described as "little bits" on the menu, the satisfyingly warm and creamy pudding – a blend of white rice and Saskatchewan wild rice – is dotted with little surprise pockets of dark chocolate and preserved sour cherries before being bruléed. There is nothing I'd rather eat on a blustery winter day in Saskatoon, looking out onto the snowy white banks and frozen Saskatchewan River.