It’s not every day that the halls of learning move into the fields of life, but this is precisely what happened on October 30th, with our field trip to Calgary’s River Cafe. This is the kind of establishment I manage to visit only infrequently. It walks deftly the line between elitism and accessibility, making clever use of an outdoor motif to forge a dining experience that is at one and the same time familiar and rare.
“This is special,” I said to myself as I sat down at the plain wooden table near the fireplace. Blowing the cold off my hands I reflected on my journey there – my walk from the nearby Eau Claire Market, five minutes across the frigid Bow River and along the path to the restaurant’s welcoming sign.
From an economic point of view the River Café is strangely situated because it’s off the proverbial beaten path. It’s one of those places which would probably escape notice altogether if you didn’t know it was there, and you might never know it was there if it weren’t for its good reputation. It thrives despite its location – or perhaps because of it. Restaurant manager, Shelley Smith, explained that the location was chosen to allow patrons time to dedicate themselves to the upcoming experience; walking across the river and along the path under the canopy of huge trees allows the patron time to focus his mind.
As soon as I took my seat I started looking around. First impressions count for a lot, and in no small part because this was a school assignment, I was determined to be hyper-observant. From my space at the plain, wooden table I noted the large picture windows and the amount of light they allowed in. I marveled at the warmth of the room – not only as it emanated from the roaring fireplace, but as it grew naturally from the ambience – from the host of trinkets, ornaments, baubles and knickknacks carefully chosen to inspire sincerity. The ruggedness of the outdoor motif included all manner of boats, mounted fish, and fishing implements, all of which said “Canadian” in all respects. This modified shelving unit by the front door, for example, spoke volumes positioned with the open-concept kitchen in the background. And the breads on display there perhaps foreshadowed the gloriously fresh bread which the restaurant makes on site, every day. I saw no pretense, no gaudiness, and no ‘force’ in the way the room was laid out. Even the music – Acker Bilk, Natalie Cole, Ella Fitzgerald – said ‘relax, and embrace the moment’.
A quick glance at the menu told me I was in for a treat. Our four-course repast would not be outlandish by any means, but it promised some exciting taste experiences. The first of the four courses was the soup. Forno Roasted Carrot Soup – ‘forno’, of course, being Italian for ‘oven’ or ‘fire’. At the right time I noticed the wait staff marshalling quietly by the pick-up area, waiting for all dishes for a particular table to be ready before making their move. This ‘military service’, as Shelley Smith later called it, was deliberately instituted, and its precision was something I had not seen before.
After a most delicious soup course (“can I lick the bowl, or what?”) with the Lemon Preserved Yogurt still dancing on the tip of my tongue, I took a few minutes to watch the kitchen staff. I observed the uniforms – whites with a black cap. I noted the washing staff floating silently around the preparation area. I observed no rancour in the kitchen, no notable stress, although a sudden order for 35 meals plus the regular lunch crowd might be cause for stress in some kitchens. As a matter of fact, at one point I actually saw two of the kitchen staff dancing alongside each other to some imaginary tune. I identified the chef – a larger man, clearly in charge and most knowledgeable – and I decided that the tall young man was the sous-chef. There were also a number of other stations at work which just seemed to be part of a well-oiled machine. Clearly, I thought, this is a house in order. There was no back-room Bourdainian rough-stuff on display here.
The wait staff wore blue jeans and a dark blue shirt as their uniform. They were attentive, deliberate, but not intrusive. There was no ‘tunnel vision’ – that most annoying and mysterious of maladies which affects wait-staff at so many other establishments. There was no deflection of responsibility (‘I’ll send your waiter over’) either – and when I tested this with a request for a replacement beverage, the response was all but instantaneous.
The salad course, also militarily served, was a delightful fusion of unusual, if not unique, ingredients: Noble Farm Duck Prosciutto (aged three weeks on site) with Asian Pear, assorted greens, hazelnut, a sumptuous Burrata cheese (mozzarella stuffed with a locally-made ricotta and cream mix), and the Yukon Birch Syrup as a dressing. Apart from one suspect Arugula leaf I found this eminently satisfying. Everything disappeared anyway, including the slightly suspect leaf, perhaps in deference to if not in celebration of the ruggedness of the surroundings.
The main course was an absolute treat. Frankly, this kind of thing – the Bite Ranch Flat Iron Steak with smoked potato, Brussels Sprouts, Apple, and Chanterelle – mark for me the departure from food and the arrival at cuisine. Such intensity of flavour, not so much plated as artistically presented, makes me want to exclaim passionately. The jus, which is not described in the menu, but which forms a significant part of the flavour experience, was likely a reduction of balsamic vinegar with house flavourings – it was certainly intrinsic to the steak experience, memorable as only an excellent accoutrement can be.
With the smoked puréed potatoes and reduction still working gleefully on my palate, the dessert course was delivered. All I can say is that as a life-long pumpkin critic, I now consider my horizons well and truly broadened. The Sugar Pumpkin Panna Cotta, (once again made in-house), topped with candied pumpkin seeds and a huckleberry compote – a sinfully sweet coulis – was a surprising and memorable conclusion to a most excellent meal. The smooth, cool texture of the pumpkin pudding had me – most literally – closing my eyes to savour the sensations crossing my tongue.
There was for me an almost spiritual connection to the food at River Café, and the service, far from getting in the way, was an enhancement to this.
River Café has most definitely been added to my list of preferred dining locations.