Taking a Bite Out of Banff

Banff’s backdrop of majestic mountains draws people from around the world, but most don’t realize there are culinary treasures to be found there, as well.

A good place to start is the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, styled after a Scottish baronial castle, and its new “Eat the Castle” tour. “This is a history, art and architecture meets food tour,” explained Alberta Food Tours president and CEO Karen Anderson, who led our group. The two-hour indoor expedition cost $175 and my group was also lucky to have the hotel’s executive chef Robert Ash along.

We began at Stock Food & Drink, a breakfast, lunch and snack emporium off the main lobby. Chef Ash stopped in front of the cultivar, a set of temperature-controlled wall cabinets with grow lights and trays of tiny seedlings. “What would you like to try?” he asked. I opted for a tender, thumb-sized sprout of kale. Other trays contained an array of greens including cabbage, peas and sunflowers. The micro-greens are used in all 12 of the hotel’s restaurants and food outlets. Ash shared a bit of culinary data – the hotel sources from 25 farms in the area, there are 25 chefs in the apprentice program, 150 chefs in total and they serve between 1.5 and 2 million meals a year. Sitting at a long table in Stock, we sipped a glass of locally made Grizzly Paw Powder Hound blonde ale and nibbled on a variety of sandwiches including goat cheese and roasted peppers, smoked meat and house-cured bacon and tomato. “Ninety percent of what the hotel serves is made in house including sausages and charcuterie, bread, pastries, pickles and vinegars. We specialize in local, sustainable cuisines, have an in-house butchery, and are part of the Ocean Wise Seafood program,” Ash told us.

As we made our way to the next sampling, Anderson gave us some hotel history. The 754-guestroom pile was the brainchild of Canadian Pacific Railway general manager Cornelius Van Horne. Van Horne finished the railway in five years instead of 10 and had the vision of building hotels so people would want to take the train. He hired Bruce Price, a noted architect from New York to design the first one in Vancouver. They were a series of castle-like edifices that connected the country via the railway route. The Banff Springs Hotel was the second to open in 1888 as a wooden structure (and built backwards by mistake). After a fire in 1926, it was rebuilt the right way around, and this time of stone (Rundle Rock).

At Grapes, on the mezzanine-2 level, we tucked into two boards of charcuterie, smoked trout and cheeses. Grapes’ chef de cuisine Tait Robinson pointed out three variations on the trout – smoked and candied with maple syrup, gravlax and a hot smoked variety with brown sugar and salt. The hot smoked was my favourite. There was also a velvety duck liver pate, elk salami, Canadian camembert with quince jam, and bread and butter pickles. All paired with a light, white Cote du Rhone.

In the 1888 Chop House, we stopped by the bar to sip a blackberry margarita made with Chambord, Don Julio blanco tequila, and lime juice with a pink salt and pepper rim. Next was the beef…a huge tomahawk chop and bison tenderloin that was sliced up family style. In Alberta, a province of cattle ranchers, they know how to do red meat.

The regular tours usually end with a do-it-yourself profiterole-making session, but Chef Ash, who told us he was partial to sweets, did something special for our little group. Poached pears dipped in dark chocolate, apple beignets with caramel sauce and ice cream, New York-style cheesecake, cake pops, candied apple pops and a chocolate mousse made up this sugary banquet.

Alberta is known for its beef and an excellent spot to sample slabs of locally raised red meat is Chuck’s Steakhouse, on Banff Ave. My friends and I opted for the Taste of Alberta platter with slices of waygu, grass-fed tenderloin and a prime cut. Our server told us Benchmark Angus Ranch, outside of Calgary, provided all their top menu items.

Park Distillery Restaurant and Bar, located on Banff Ave., is the only distillery in a national park in Canada and offers tours and tastings. Dylan Liebe, the bartender, laid out a flight of gins and vodkas, plus an unaged, clear rye. The gin used typical botanicals – juniper, coriander, lemon peel, orange peel, angelica, orris root, licorice and cinnamon – but added a top note of spruce tips. My favourite spirit was the vanilla flavoured vodka…very smooth.

Sky Bistro Duck Wings

Taking the gondola to the top of Sulfur Mountain, I decided to have a bite in Sky Bistro. At 7,500 feet, the views were stupendous – the generous outdoor wooden walkways and scanning platforms part of the site’s $25 million renovation two years ago. Anthony Mason, the restaurant’s senior sous chef, suggested starting with the duck wings.  These were huge and could have easily made a meal. A toasty, butternut squash sandwich and fries with aioli followed. Then it was time to walk it off.

Gondola Banff View
Gondola Banff View

Mountains, wildlife and skiing might be the first things that come to mind, but Banff also boasts an esteemed arts community. The Banff Centre for the Arts sits on 42 acres and features a gallery, workshops, lodging and fine dining at Three Ravens restaurant. Executive Chef Sebastian Tessier divulged the secret to his venue’s rave reviews. “We source Alberta ingredients and are conscious about sustainability because the food just tastes better,” he explained. Dinner started with smoked Alberta trout and local winter greens, first course was pork tenderloin with roasted organic parsnips and the main was juniper rubbed elk tenderloin, on braised Alberta beef cheek, with local brown butter ricotta gnocchi. With just a sliver of room left, I dipped my spoon into a delicious Saskatoon berry compote with yogurt ice cream. Heavenly.

Driving a little outside town the next day, we decided to stop in at Juniper Bistro for brunch. My friend tucked into a Juniper Benny with eggs, bannock, buffalo mozzarella and braised rabbit, while I enjoyed a tangy shakshuka with tomatoes, onions, eggs and touch of aromatic za’atar. Our delicious food was matched with stunning mountain views.

Juniper Shakshuka
Juniper Shakshuka

On my last night in town, I ate at Sleeping Buffalo Lodge &Restaurant, a property belonging to Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts (CRMR). Brad Royale, CRMR’s wine director, joined us for dinner and brought a collection of older vintages. Our starter of tuna poke with wasabi foam was washed down with a 2003 Tahbilk Marsanne from Australia, soft and easy with a slight tang of mineral. Pulled duck confit came next with a double smoked bacon butternut squash risotto, paired with a 2006 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia from Spain. Our main dish was bison short ribs (from CRMR’s game ranch south of Calgary) with potato and celery root puree. The meat was flavourful and fell off the bone and the 2004 Domaine de la Janese Chateauneuf du Pape Vielles Vignes paired well with the heavy meat. I can never resist dessert, and happily dug into the triple chocolate mousse with bourbon berries and raspberry black pepper sorbet. It was delightful with a 2005 Quinta Do Noval Silval Port from Portugal

In summary, yes, Banff offers mountain adventure, but the quality of its culinary offerings can easily make the summit of any foodie’s destination list.

Photos Provided by the Author

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