I don’t eat a lot of red meat at home, but when in Rome…or I should say, Alberta, I do. Striking out from the delicious Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, I was determined to see what else the mountain town had to offer. If you want to know where the beef is on Banff Ave., go to Chuck’s Steakhouse. Shortly after sidling past the meat cooler and sitting down, our server showed us a wooden board with different types of beef on the menu, from waygu to prime cut. Our group’s choice was to share the Taste of Alberta platter with slices of waygu, grass-fed tenderloin and a prime cut. This was casual fine dining and we learned that not only did Benchmark Angus Ranch provide all their top menu items, but the third generation of Muntons, who owned the operation, was sitting a table down from us. Good to know they approved. We did, too. Chef Tomas Bustara even agreed to pose for a picture.
The next day, a spirited prelude to lunch was had a Park Distillery. Located on Banff Ave., the main drag, it is the only distillery in a national park in Canada. 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 at top note of spruce tips. My favourite spirit was the vanilla flavoured vodka…very smooth. They also do pre-made, bottled cocktails that are barrel aged in ex-bourbon casks for six months, available in their little off-sales shop. The Distillers Series included a Negroni, Glacier Manhatten and Martinez. I was most intrigued with their Observation Peak (not pre-mixed), a cross between an Old Fashioned and a Manhattan that Liebe made with rye whisky, dark rum, dry Curaçao, amaro Montenegro, a touch of syrup and then, after whipping out a blow torch, he topped with a smoking cedar square. Now that’s campfire!
Just a tad wobbly, we headed up the gondola to the top of Sulfur Mountain and Sky Bistro. At 7,500 feet, the views were stupendous – the generous outdoor wooden walkways and scanning scanning platforms put a shine on the $25 million renovation done two years ago. Anthony Mason, the restaurant’s senior sous chef, greeted us with a big smile and suggested we start lunch with the duck wings. Easy to make a meal out of. Butternut squash salad, and fries and aioli followed, washed down with a smooth Liquidity Vignoner. Tanya Otis, a public relations consultant with the destination told us Sky Bistro does regular wine-ticketed events that take over whole bistro. Costs are $149 for seven courses, paired with wine. Sounds like a good deal. “In the summer they use the terrace above for a sunset festival called Mountain Top Yoga with beer and champagne. Nice way to ease into downward dog.
I had been to the Banff Centre for the Arts more than 20 years ago, and it sure looks different now. Twenty per cent government funded, this unique university facility sits on 42 acres and features an art gallery with visiting exhibits and commissioned work. Artists of all genres come to work in studios, take part in workshops and spend time getting creative. Along with their lodgings, there are 217 guest rooms open to public. There’s no need to go off campus to eat, especially if you are looking for fine dining. Three Ravens opened nine years ago and Executive Chef Sebastian Tessier is proud to source mostly from local farmers. “We strive to source seasonal foods that thrive in the Canadian climate. We source Alberta ingredients and are conscious about sustainability because the food just tastes better,” he explains. We started with smoked Alberta trout, with local winter greens, smoked aioli, beet chips, and Banff Centre grown sunflower shoots (from their cultivar). First course was pork tenderloin, roasted organic parsnips, charred organic red cabbage, topped with a bacon and stout jus. The main was juniper rubbed elk tenderloin, on braised Alberta beef cheek, with local brown butter ricotta gnocchi, sautéed oyster mushrooms, and maple glazed organic carrots. With just a sliver of room left, I dipped my spoon into a delicious Saskatoon berry compote with yogurt ice cream and FallenTimber mead reduction. Our paired wines were all from British Columbia, Tinhorn Creek Chardonnay, Stoneboat pinot noir and Gray Monk cabernet sauvignon.
Believe it or not, I was hungry the next day and brunch was at Juniper Bistro. My friend Elizabeth tucked into a Juniper Benny with bannock, buffalo mozzarella and braised rabbit while I enjoyed a tangy Shakshuka with tomatoes, onions, eggs and touch of za’atar. Our food was matched royally with stunning mountain views.
My final meal (before falling into a deep food coma) was at Sleeping Buffalo Lodge &Restaurant, a property belonging to the Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts family. It was a Chef’s table event, a series that is held on Fridays in the winter. Although I was staying at the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, our kind host Brad Royale, Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts’ wine director, told me ticketed guests receive 40 per cent of their room rate when they attend. Brad rolled out the red carpet for us, pulling all sorts of older vintages from his cellar. Accompanying our starter of tuna poke, with scallions, cucumber, roast sesame, crispy won ton, avocado, and wasabi foam we had a 2003 Tahbilk Marsanne, 1927 Vines (Victoria, Australia). Soft and easy with a slight tang of mineral, it set off the tuna beautifully. Pulled duck confit came next with a double smoked bacon butternut squash risotto, baby heirloom tomatoes and arugula. It was paired with a 2006 R. Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia (Rioja, Spain) that was hearty enough to offset the richness of the duck. Our main dish was bison short ribs with potato and celery root puree, roasted baby beets and morel mushroom thyme glaze. I was eager to try the bison, since it was from Canadian Rocky Mountain Resorts game ranch south of Calgary and I wasn’t disappointed. The meat was flavourful and falling off the bone. The wine was a 2004 Domaine de la Janese Chateauneuf du Pape Vielles Vignes (Rhone Valley, France). Of substantial body, it paired well with the heavy meat. I can never resist dessert, even when full, so I dug into the triple chocolate mousse with bourbon berries and raspberry black pepper sorbet. Wow. Rich and creamy and delightful with a 2005 Quinta Do Noval Silval Port (Douro Valley, Portugal).
In summary, yes, Banff offers mountain adventure, but the quality of its culinary offerings can easily make the summit of any foodie’s priority destination list. And me? I’m ready for a juice cleanse.
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