Idyllic location in Prince’s Island Park, gastronomy using regional and seasonal ingredients, knowledgeable servers and passionate chefs – all paramount in the excellence that is River Cafe.
It’s difficult not to be romanced by River Cafe’s rich narrative of growth and evolution during its 23 years of existence. From concrete concession stand to world class dining experience, this gradual transformation is woven into the very fabric of the restaurant always progressing in its dedication and commitment to sustainability. A landmark in Calgary culture, River Cafe abounds in what it takes to be a mainstay in fine dining.
In its early years, River Cafe was a summer-only operation resting in the middle of an island located in the middle of the Bow River, serving only a small selection of snacks for park goers. Over the next few years, owner Sal Howell, envisioned an all-season restaurant with a culinary experience and aesthetic decor connecting it to the landscape. It would be the epicentre of culinary philosophy rooted in marrying cuisine to the land and region.
Before the days of door to door grocery delivery, the chef and owner would make the 50km journey together to the Millarville market, packing their vehicles with regional supplies for the week ahead. This connection to the land prompted River Cafe, in the early 90s, to go so far as include the farmer’s name on the menu for guests, practising a “farm to table” approach years before it became trendy.
As the ‘100 Mile Diet’ became popular in the early 2000s, the General Manager at the time and now handling communications for the restaurant, Kristi Peters-Snider, was pursuing a Master’s degree in Carbon Footprints. She was curious to explore the footprint of the local food system, and through her research, discovered it was almost exactly the same as the more conventional approach of sourcing food from anywhere. This discovery lead River Cafe to educate their farmers and ranchers, reassessing the business of local food in southern Alberta. Consolidating deliveries from the Lethbridge areas and upgrading vehicles were just some of the changes that resulted from and proved River Cafe’s dedication.
More recently, in 2009, the restaurant received it’s LEAF levels 1,2, and 3 eco audit certification which recognizes leaders in environmentally accountable food service in areas such as energy, water, and waste. Furthering this commitment during the past six months, River has embarked on a zero waste initiative, a tough undertaking for restaurants but according to Peters-Snider, “it’s how we want to operate.”
Settling into the wood hued log-like chairs at River Cafe, its reflection of the park outside is undeniable. With a rustic elegance and working wood stone-face fireplace, the decor combines the comforts of a cabin with charm and absolute class. Adorned with wicker ornaments and snowshoes, the overhanging canoe comes as no surprise as the appearance of woven leather embellishes the light fixtures. Sitting beside the crackling fireplace, we were warmed at our spacious table in preparation for the bounty that was to come.
The Chef, Andrew Winfield, began by tempting us with an irresistible amuse-bouche. Ricotta gnudi – cousin to its more well-known Italian dumpling, gnocchi – with parsnip, young greens shoots, hazelnuts and porcini puree were delicately placed atop the plate offering a creamy sweetness as the textures and flavours danced together impeccably. River is also proud to house and serve a sourdough culture that has survived two floods and is more than 15 years old. It now circulates Calgary’s restaurant scene, as over the years, each chef takes a piece to the next restaurant they call home.
The first course of smoked albacore tuna and wild boar prosciutto was when all talking took a pause, the clear sign of a delicious dish. The citrus gel, roasted pumpkin seeds and sliced honey crisp apples decorating the meats were the perfect complement. All areas of the palate were satisfied as the smoke of the tuna, sweetness of apple, tartness from microgreens and citrus gel as well as saltiness of prosciutto coated our mouths and every morsel disappeared more quickly than the one before.
Next up was a Lake Eerie pickerel with fennel confit, delicata squash and wilted swiss chard. Sitting below the chard was a bank of faro surrounded by an olive tapenade and microgreens adding a subtle dash of fresh greenery. The delicate flavour of the pickerel wasn’t overpowering in the slightest with a seasonal vegetable choice that emulated the warmth needed on a cold winter day. The dense faro offset the fish as the tapenade was absolutely to die for. From the plating tothe flavour combination, the entire course was extremely thoughtful and deliberate.
Much to our surprise, another course arrived, this time showcasing a local red meat. The inventive dish starred corned lamb from Driveview Farms, a local provider of quality lamb and beef, with a blueberry mostardo and cider roasted parsnip. Strewn beneath were a bed of french lentils, sauerkraut and Brussels sprouts leaves. The touch of sweet blueberry was unique, lightening the unmistakeable flavour in the quality cut of lamb. As french lentils are heartier and hold their shape better than green or red lentils, it was a great texture combination with the soft Brussels. A generous meal, this dish would be an excellent choice when comfort and warmth are what you’re seeking.
To cap off an unbelievable lunch, we each enjoyed a chocolate truffle. Fair trade, organic, smooth and rich, it was chocolate unmasked. Reaching the end of the meal there was absolutely nothing lacking. Grabbing our coats to exit into the outside world we were hardly out the door before planning our return to the heartbeat of local cuisine, River Cafe.
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