Colourful Vista Lounge
On a recent trip to Saskatoon I found a city full of hidden, and not so hidden, treasures. This was my first visit to the place where Joni Mitchell grew up and I loved it. The fastest growing city in Canada (at almost 300,000, it has beat the capital of Regina) had a lot going on. The burgeoning food scene was sizzling and I could see why so many young hipsters were flocking back home after sojourns in other cities. Warm and welcoming, it was also super affordable.
As soon as I hit town I made a beeline to one of the city’s best Chinese/Vietnamese restaurants. The Odd Couple opened four years ago and is owned and operated by Andy Yuen, his wife Rachel and Andy’s parents Sam and Jane. In the heart of trendy Riversdale, the restaurant has become something of an Asian Cheers, with locals stopping by a few times a week to check on the daily specials including vegan and vegetarian options. To drink, I ordered the watermelon mint refresher which was cool, not too sweet and perfect for a hot afternoon. They also offered custom-made suds from 9 Mile, a nano-brewery across the street and these included flavourings of Szechwan pepper, lemongrass and ginger. Lunch was chicken satay soup with a rich, tomato broth, crisp Chinese greens, moist chicken and a sprinkle of peanuts. Very tasty. Dessert, which I hardly had any room for, was an Asian-style apple pie – a sort of apple-stuffed spring roll served with toasted coconut ice cream.
Andy, a former engineer for a uranium mining company, decided to follow in his dad’s footsteps and open a restaurant when uranium tanked. “I worked with the mining company as a cost estimator for nine years but then the market for uranium went down after the Fukushima nuclear disaster,” he told me. Andy’s dad had operated a take-out restaurant in in the small town of Warman, Sask., so a restaurant was a logical choice. “I wanted to do something a little different, change the perception of Asian food here.” The creative menu delivers a fusion approach with dishes such as bacon fried rice with barbequed pork and Asian mango avocado salad. Andy is especially proud of brunch with Asian sausage and sweet potato pot stickers. “We close up and go to Hong Kong for a month every winter. A few years ago I brought back a waffle maker and now we also serve chicken and waffles for brunch.” This family run spot is a real gem. When asked about the high quality of food and success of the place, Andy notes, “Working with your parents and wife is never easy, but they are the people who care the most about making it the best.”
Located in the Remai Modern, Shift is one of the newest names in the Saskatoon restaurant scene. As part of the Oliver and Bonacini restaurant group, Shift chef Jonathan Cullens, originally from Montreal, works with the seasons and the farmers to craft Canadian favourites like chicken pot pie, tourtière and prairie staples such as perogies. Other great things I tasted were the mac and cheese (gruyere, cheddar, brie, goat cheese and curds), and the desserts – deconstructed cheesecake, lemon tart and strawberry shortcake with ginger ice cream. Cullens, who had a restaurant in Chelsea, Que., was wooed by Oliver and Bonacini to come to Saskatoon and he’s glad he did. “The quality of life is much nicer here. Plus, this is the nicest place I’ve ever worked.”
One thing I found interesting on the menu was chickpea fries. Saskatchewan is the world’s largest exporter of pulse (legumes) in the world. Who knew? Apparently their chickpeas even get shipped to India. Aviva Kohen, with Saskatoon Tourism, also told me Saskatchewan contains 44 per cent of the farmland in the country. Another agro tidbit? The province is the world’s largest exporter of mustard seed. You’ll even taste it in products from Dijon, France.
This new restaurant in the Exhibition area of town had just opened. “We specialize in fresh and foraged food from the Saskatoon area,” chef Thayne Robstad explained. Robstad and his wife Beth Rogers have come up with a creative, hyper local menu including borscht panna cotta (“An homage to the Eastern European settlers and my grandmother,” say Robstad.) There was also morel and chanterelle mushrooms in creamy cheese sauce, Northern Pike ceviche, pickerel fins (done like wings with dipping tartar sauce), green pea gnocchi and a peanut butter cookie sandwich with raspberry ice cream for dessert. Wow. After working in Toronto restaurants, Robstad and Rogers returned home and opened a catering business for a number of years. But they really needed the restaurant to showcase their ingredient forward prairie cooking, as well as Rogers’ crockery collection.
Ayden Kitchen & Bar
This is where I got to try the famous Diefenbaker Trout. It was smoked and pickled, mixed with dill and served with hearty multigrain bread. Heavenly. Ayden Kitchen & Bar was the first of Canada’s original top chef winner (2013) Dale Mackay’s restaurant collection. His other restaurants are Little Grouse on the Prairie, Sticks and Stones and, in Regina, Avenue. The drinks were great, too thanks to general manager/ mixologist Christopher Cho’s inventive, hand-crafted cocktail menu.Dessert? Tiny madelines with chocolate dipping sauce.
We started the morning with a walk along a portion of the 80km of riverside trails and then headed to the neighbourhood of Riversdale. Once a rather sketchy part of town, Aviva told me the recent renaissance has been nothing short of amazing. “With new local creative businesses opening their doors, arts groups setting up shop, and an eclectic mix of people, there is something for everyone,” she explained. We stopped by Drift Café (Vista Lounge is the rooftop option here) to pick up a coffee, then continued to the Saskatoon Farmer’s Market where vendors stood behind tables heaped with produce (morels!), baked goods, preserves and more. I was particularly interested in the seabuckthorn stall and picked up a cup of delicious gelato infused with the nutrition-packed berries.
The Hollows, an uber foodie hangout, was housed in a former Chinese restaurant called the Golden Dragon. The owner, Christie Peters, and her staff, do everything the traditional way – forage, butcher, brine, cure, and smoke –as well as embrace modern cooking techniques. They even make their own soap with fat from the animals they butcher. I had avocado toast with pickled eggs and I also took some shots of the other brunch offerings including breakfast poutine!
Little Grouse (on the Prairie)
From the team that brought Ayden Kitchen & Bar to Saskatoon, Little Grouse on the Prairie opened its doors in February 2016. Its focus is scratch-made pasta using local flour and ingredients. Serving an alla famiglia style dinners, head chef (and Dale MacKay protégé) Jesse Zuber was able to show off his favourite dishes while we got to tingle our taste buds.
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