Walking the brisk pace that gets from the Kensington Riverside Inn to the River Café, Sal Howell points to the river banks, then to the bridge belly overhead, explaining how, just a year ago, the surging water was lapping up against the stone. Hard to conceive of that, given how high the water had to have risen. “And this was not the hardest hit area of our community,” she says quietly. Still, arriving at her restaurant on Calgary’s Prince’s Island, the damage basically all gone, the restaurant restored to its idyllic setting, flowers, herbs, tress, and the steady, unthreatening riverflow just nearby, Howell still has a clear sense of relief, that things have returned to normal.
And what a normal it is. The River Café was established in 1991, as an open-air café, and by 1995, a fully enclosed restaurant had been born, complete with an expansive, welcoming bar, and a fieldstone fireplace. Seated at the table most proximate to the fireplace, Sal Howell allows for a little reminiscence, but is more interested in the present, and the future. “The idea at the beginning was to have a restaurant that spoke of the region it is in. Easier said than done. We had to work hard to source producers, farmers, ranchers, who were operating sustainable, organic, non-chemical operations.” This was all well before the present day craze, welcomed by most, for sustainable agriculture appearing on restaurants menus. Chef Andrew Winfield brings out a plate of house-cured sea urchin burrata, and explains, “We spend a lot of time sourcing things. Some is sent in to us, but most often over the years we have gone out to find it.” The results are splendid. The burrata is shaved over fresh local heritage greens and house made buffalo mozzarella, and is, in a word, fantastic, just as Howell said it would be.
The seafood, due to both Winfield and Howell’s relationships with suppliers on the West Coast, is superb, coming from such places as Haida Gwaii. Meats and vegetables come from a wide array of specific locales, almost all of them identified on the menu, a practise begun long ago, and sustained to this day. Thus, Lois Lake (trout), Highwood Crossing (canola), Bow Island (strawberries), Edgar Farm (asparagus) and Gull Valley (tomatoes) all have pride of place. This is highly seasonal cooking. Chef Andrew Winfield says, “We see that as a challenge, certainly, but an extremely pleasant one. It reminds me of how respectful we need to be of our foods, and how important it is to sustain great sources. You can only have asparagus in late spring early summer, right? The rest of the year, it just doesn’t taste like asparagus.”
Vivid flavours are what the River Café is all about. Rock crab and chilled asparagus soup rises to another level altogether with its adornments of lemon oil, Espelette crème fraiche, and River Garden pansies. Olson’s High Country Bison striploin becomes a rave-up, with Highwood Crossing canola potato, smoked leek, Hakurai turnip, pecan gremolata, and horseradish emulsion.
It all comes with friendly but crisp service, wines, overseen by sommelier and cellar manager Bruce Soley, from a monumental and award-winning list (re-built, bottle by bottle, case by case, since the great flood claimed almost all of the cellar’s treasures), in a high-ceilinged, welcoming room. The gracious founder and host says ,“After the flood, many restaurateurs called me, offering to help us replace wines, get us back on our feet. It is amazing to me, that we are here tonight, able to give our guests what they expect, almost as if nothing happened.” Howell did not only work on her own property during the flood, but organized and was hands on in an overall assistance program, as Calgary began its slow struggle toward post-flood normalcy, and it says a lot about her.
The dining experience at River Café has been at a consistently high level for so many years, it might be tempting, understandable even, to take it somewhat for granted. But after a flood that threatened to actually wipe it all out, the restaurant now stands as a vivid and welcome reminder to enjoy the moment, and take nothing at all for granted. It makes that birch-marinated sablefish or Spragg Farm rib chop taste even better, if that’s possible.