May 26, 2017

Banff goes gourmet

Story & Photos By  Joanne Sasvari

We’re on top of the world, or at least pretty darn close to it. All around us, jagged ice-capped mountain peaks gleam in the alpenglow. Below us sprawls the townsite of Banff, tiny amid the endlessly dark forest. It’s breathtaking—quite literally, thanks to the crisp, high-altitude air—and yet comfortingly familiar, Canada’s first national park, one of the country’s most iconic destinations.

But we didn’t take the gondola to the top of Sulphur Mountain just for the view. We’re here for dinner. Yes, really. Banish any thoughts you might have of sad concession food. We’re here at the newly rebranded Sky Bistro, dining on lobster bisque, beef tenderloin, fine wine and even finer views.

Today if you wander around Banff, you can find inspired cuisine of every style and at almost every price point

That’s because, seemingly overnight, Banff has turned into a gourmet destination.

True, you could always dine formally and expensively here at Le Beaujolais and the Banffshire Club, both now closed, as well as Eden, with its gloriously epic tasting menus. But for the most part, the best you could hope for after a day of skiing at Mount Norquay

or hiking one of the park’s many trails was a deliciously cheesy, boozy fondue dinner at The Grizzly House.

Banff, it seemed, was for big spenders and party hounds.

Then something changed. Today if you wander around Banff, you can find inspired cuisine of every style and at almost every price point, from the vegan fare of Nourish Bistro to the global comfort food of Block Kitchen + Bar to the obsessively handcrafted dishes at Juniper Bistro. Even the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity has an elegant destination eatery, the Three Ravens Restaurant & Wine Bar.

Sure, there’s still a handful of chain fast-food joints, but you’re more likely to find funky independents serving up creative food that’s as locally sourced as it can be when you’re cooking inside a national park.

And it’s not just the small restaurants that are turning up the heat in the kitchen. The biggest player in town is the grand Fairmont Banff Springs, locally known as the “Castle,” one of the original Canadian Pacific Railway hotels, with nine food outlets plus banquets, meetings and in-room dining. Since 2013, JW Foster has been the hotel’s executive chef—and one of the biggest forces behind Banff’s changing culinary scene. Many credit him for both elevating the town’s cuisine and making it more accessible.

He knew, for instance, that even when people are dining finely, they want to have fun. And so the hushed Banffshire Club, with its white tablecloths and sombre tartan décor, was transformed into 1888 Chop House, a lively high-end steak house. Grapes Wine Bar has become the hotel’s cosy wine-soaked hangout, where guests enjoy platters of cheese and housemade charcuterie. And although the Waldhaus Pub retains its Bavarian charm, it also serves one of the Bow Valley’s best weekend brunches.

The Castle’s cooks make as much in-house as they can, from butchering the giant tomahawk steaks for 1888 to baking the bread for the Bow Valley Grill buffet and pickling the vegetables for the platters in Grapes. As much as possible is sourced in Alberta. And, rather than keeping all that good food to themselves, the Castle’s cooks sell their bread each Wednesday in summer at the Banff Farmer’s Market.

That’s right—Banff now has a farmer’s market. It was started in 2011 to feature locally grown fresh food, baked goods and crafts. Admittedly, there’s not much that can actually be farmed within a national park, so much of it is grown just outside it.

On the other hand, it’s apparently fine to make excellent gin inside the park. Park Distillery Restaurant + Bar opened here in 2015; the distillery side produces an impressive range of spirits, while the restaurant is a jumping hotspot that specializes in “campfire cooking,” smoky-delicious wood-fired fare like tin-foil trout and spit-roasted prime rib accompanied by craft cocktails and local brews.

Park Distillery is unique in Canada. But then, so is the Sky Bistro atop Sulphur Mountain where, 2,281 metres (7,486 feet) above sea level, chef Terry Carmichael cooks up an homage to Canada with Nova Scotia lobster roll, Montreal smoked meat, confit duck poutine, Alberta beef shortrib and Pacific sockeye salmon.

It seems only fitting. As we celebrate Canada’s 150th birthday, what better way could there be to do it than surrounded by mountains, forests, streams and all the majesty of the true north as we dine on the best this beautiful land can produce? 

If you go

As Canada celebrates its 150th birthday, it’s a good time to visit Banff, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the crown jewel of the national parks system, especially with Parks Canada’s free discovery pass. Learn more at pc.gc.ca.

Getting there:
Banff is a 90-minute drive west of Calgary via the Trans-Canada Highway. If you don’t have a car, take the luxury coach run by Brewster Banff Airport Express. brewster.ca

Staying there:
The Fairmont Banff Springs is a quintessentially Canadian experience, one of the first CPR hotels and still the grandest. fairmont.com/banff-springs/

Dining there:
Banff offers plenty of delicious choice, starting with Grapes Wine Bar, Waldhaus Pub and 1888 Chop House at the Fairmont Banff Springs. Also: Juniper Bistro , Three Ravens Restaurant, Block Kitchen + Bar, Park Distillery Restaurant + Bar  and Sky Bistro at the Banff Gondola. For traditional fondue, The Grizzly House is an old-school classic.

For more information:
One of the best ways to sample what’s cooking in Banff is during the annual Taste for Adventure culinary festival in November. For info on this and everything else, visit banfflakelouise.com.

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