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  • Writer's picturethe_maestro

The River Café – Calgary, Canada

I meant to post this on Monday, while I was waiting for my flight at the Calgary airport, but lost track of time in the lounge and failed to post it. Forgive it's obtrusive and non-chronological placement in the Victory Lap posts!

. . .

The Victory Lap has begun! I write this evening from the airport in beautiful Calgary, Alberta, where I spent yesterday evening, and took a voyage to the stupid-beautiful Banff National Park, about 2 hours east, during the day today. Now awaiting my flight across the pond on my very first Dreamliner!

Not everything went according to plan right off the bat, however, as tends to happen with any great trip! I had hoped to give y'all a look at the brand new Delta Sky Club in Austin, but despite being a Delta Sky Club member and flying on WestJet, a Delta partner airline, I was denied access, so my arrival at the airport 5 hours early was for naught. I still maintain they were wrong about the policy *shrug*. OH WELL!

The Austin airport's new east wing of the Barbara Jordan Terminal has a beautiful open-air terrace next to the Delta Sky Club overlooking the east tarmac and runway 17L/34R. The terminal extension is beautiful and has a lot of space to sit and work, and I had the terrace and indoor area just inside on the mezzanine level (it was HOT out there!) to myself for much of the 5 hours. After snagging a couple of tacos at Peached Tortilla and a Live Oak Pils and settling in to work on my computer, I (almost) found myself saying, "What Sky Club?"

This was my first flight with WestJet, and I found the service and flight to be overall excellent, despite the absolutely abysmal contracted ground crew––growing pains for a new destination for the airline!

We took off to the south and banked northwest so that I caught some beautiful views of the city that was my home for three years and that I have come to love so much. Will miss Austin!

En route to YYC it became apparent that we would land very close to an hour late, which meant I would likely not be able to keep my reservation at Deane House, which closed before I could have arrived in downtown Calgary. Fortunately, its sister restaurant, the River Café, was open an hour later, and I was able to get a table for one on their beautiful patio at the last minute.

The River Café is set within Prince's Island Park in the middle of the Bow River just north of downtown Calgary. The park is accessed via a bridge from the beautiful walking trails on the south side of the river, and has plenty of green space and trails. The Café, opened in a declining facility in the middle of the island in 1991, has evolved from a casual lunch spot to a hyper-local Canadian fine dining establishment that has earned countless accolades in Calgary and across Canada. The goal here is quintessential Canadian and Albertan ingredients, celebrating sustainable, local produce and the bounty of the season.

The restaurant offers a ridiculously inexpensive tasting menu by native Calgarian Matthias Fong, complete with equally reasonably priced wine pairings, often focusing on Canadian wines. The wine list is curated by Sal Howell, one of the most important figures in Canadian (and sustainable) cuisine and oenology.

I found my way across the bridge into the park right before my 9PM reservation, still, you may note, very well-lit (it's pretty far north!). I was greeted by a disarming amount of wildlife, including black squirrels, rabbits (hares?), and scores of Canada geese (including a flock of little goslings!) Later in the evening, I would also be kept company by about 15,000 gigantic mosquitoes. How Canadian.

After being sat out in the perfect fresh Alpine air on the patio, I asked my fabulous server Carly to recommend a cocktail, and she brought a refreshing sangria made of Lillet. The star here was basil, which was so delicious that I might have to start making basil a regular sangria ingredient! Why they would serve me basil with dying spots on the end of the leaves, however, is beyond me.

The first two wines were from the Okanagan in British Columbia, an up-and-coming wine region that has started to blossom as warmer global temperatures shift wine growing regions farther north. The first was a dry and bright Riesling from Wild Goose Cellars, which had much grassier notes than I would expect from a Riesling, albeit with the hint of "petrol funk" typical of the varietal.

First on deck for the tasting menu was soup; this was a potato and mushroom-based bisque combined with tons of watercress pistou, which (of course) came from local farms in Alberta. Within the bright green soup was a piece of camembert from local cheesemaker Poplar Grove that had been soaked in camelina (flax) oil, which gave the cheese a nutty quality, and garnished with tarragon. The soup was good on its own, but the camembert, which had melted slightly with the heat of the soup, made this dish a winner. The peppery watercress spoke nicely as a counterpoint to the rich creaminess of the soup’s base and melted cheese.

To pair with the next Okanagan wine, an unmemorable sauv blanc/semillon blend, I was served a plate of chilled snow crab, which comes from Fogo Island in Newfoundland, uninhabited until only recently and considered one of the best places for crab fishing in Canada. The crab was served alongside peas and pea shoots (y’all know my love for pea shoots) as well as sake kasu (the flavorful lees from sake milling), a slightly sweet cedar jelly, spruce shoots, and sorrel. While the wine didn’t wow me and wasn’t my favorite pairing (although it did pick up the watercress from the previous dish), the crab was incredible, and the addition of alpine elements like cedar jelly and spruce tips contributed to the dish’s wild Canadian soul.

A creamy, strawberry-driven rosé from northern Italy followed, alongside one of the great specialties of British Columbia, sockeye salmon. Sockeye is usually not my favorite salmon, since it tends to be almost aggressively lean and thus is difficult to cook with desirable tenderness––I tend to prefer the lighter, fattier salmon from places like the Faroe Islands and New Zealand. While this salmon wasn’t quite as moist as I like it (likely precisely because it was sockeye), the flesh was flavorful and the skin perfectly crisp, brushed with a bit of mustard seed and minced shallot. Parsnip was the primary accompaniment to the salmon, with tender, sweet roasted parsnips and a purée of parsnips and dehydrated scallop. Pieces of dehydrated scallop, which initially sounded unappealing but ended up being delicious, almost like a scallop jerky, were peppered about the plate, and a handful of lovely local fiddleheads from local farms to finish the dish.

A vegetarian dish was to follow, paired by a youthful and funky gamay from the Okanagan. The centerpiece was celery root marinated in mushroom broth. The star, however, was asparagus from Edgar farms just up the road, which was wood grilled. I have never had asparagus like this. The celery root was a distraction from the asparagus garnish! Just give me a massive plate. The wood grill gave it a pine-driven essence and some incredible smoke while maintaining the vegetable’s slight crunch. A local grain, red fife, formed a sort of mushroom risotto, and a paste of oats and pine mushrooms added sweetness and umami at once.

Alberta is famous for its beef, and it was apparent from driving from the airport through fields that bovines are abundant (and grass-fed). So naturally, Alberta beef tenderloin formed the final savory course, cooked to a lovely mid-rare. The purée that formed the leaves of a flower stalk was made of wild onions and stinging nettle, which was vegetal and tangy, and a first for me. Mountain oyster mushrooms were below the beef and a slightly-too-heavy beef jus above. The plate was finished with some beautiful edible flowers. Paired with a young but approachable St-Estèphe, this dish was a definite hit.

Dessert was next, and I was hoping to sample some Canadian ice wine, but instead was served a tasty dessert red from Italy. This was paired with a chocolate cake crafted by a local chocolatier and served with sea buckthorn (tangy and slightly bitter berries) and tangerine gels, and a sorbet of sea buckthorn, tangerine, and marigold sorbet. Stellar, and another new flavor (sea buckthorn) offered by Canada!

Following a little final snack of honeycomb crisp and delightful conversation with Carly, I made my way to the East Village area of Calgary to crash for the night before heading up to Banff the next morning. I’m looking forward to telling you a bit about that visit in my post celebrating my 787 flight over the Atlantic!

This place was just what the doctor ordered. For such a celebrated wine program, however, I will admit my disappointment with the quality of some of the pairings. I feel like a tasting menu should give you the chance to show off higher-quality wines that pair well consistently, and while I was glad of the opportunity to taste some Canadian wine, it did seem they were offering some wines that were sort of cheap and uninspired. With a menu this stellar and unique, an equally interesting wine pairing goes a long way!

Up next: a primer on Italian red wine, an overview of our time in Florence, and

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