Dining in the Alberta Rockies
The Alberta Rockies have fascinated and inspired artists for decades. Painters and sculptors have made capturing the majestic beauty of the snow-capped alpine ranges their life’s ambition. Even Hollywood filmmakers have used the stunning mountain landscapes as a cinematic backdrop in such films as Dances with Wolves, Legends of the Fall, and Brokeback Mountain. Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Anthony Hopkins, Clint Eastwood, and Brad Pitt are just a few of the famous names that have shared a starring role in numerous films with the magnificent Alberta Rocky Mountains.
Over the past two decades, culinary artists have emerged, transforming the towns of Canmore, Banff, and Lake Louise into more than just destinations for nature lovers, skiers, golfers, and hikers. World-class restaurants, award-winning wine lists, and international wine festivals have attracted wine and food lovers from around the globe.
Historically a mining town nestled amidst the front ranges of the Rockies, Canmore has evolved into an outdoor recreational playground. Less than an hour west of Calgary, the town’s property values have skyrocketed as droves of western Canadian city-dwellers and international investors have built and purchased luxurious vacation homes. The demand for great food and wine followed and the town has delivered with quality and variety.
Quarry Dining Lounge’s (www.quarrydininglounge.com) team of Casey and Andrew Tutt focuses on fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients for its European-with-hints-of-Asian influenced menu. The charcuterie plate with its house-made terrine, pâté, cured meats, cheese and accompaniments is a great opener to share with friends over a glass of Torrontes or Barbera. For mains, the poached steelhead trout and the panko-crusted pickerel were both perfectly cooked with each preparation allowing the freshness of the fish to show through. Completing the dining experience is their small but thoughtfully chosen wine list composed of unique, food friendly selections. If your timing is right, check out Quarry’s popular international dinner series.
The TroUgh (I love the name) boasts “exuberant” flavours using local ingredients influenced by international cuisine. Dishes such as the refreshing summer salad with pink grapefruit, watermelon, crystallized ginger, arugula, mint, and baby basil tossed with honey lime dressing; pan seared, sesame-crusted Nova Scotia scallops with sweet chili lemon glaze and carrot ginger puree; jerk spiced Alberta baby back ribs; and Lebanese “rack o’ lamb” with warm hummus butter, quinoa tabbouleh, mint yogurt, and pomegranate reduction all not only showcase the chefs’ talents, but their knowledge of global flavours as well.
Feel like staying in? Pick up some ready-to-eat crab cakes, elk and buffalo tourtière, and wild boar pâté from the Railway Deli and, if you have access to a barbeque, a selection of the gorgeous cuts of beef, venison, buffalo, elk or lamb from Valbella Gourmet Foods. Stop at Canmore Wine Merchants for a great bottle on your way back to the hotel or condo and have an in-room dining experience superior to any room service.
Another 20 minutes west on the TransCanada Highway is the stunningly scenic town of Banff, home to a multitude of eateries that will both satisfy your hunger for exceptional food and quench your thirst for that extraordinary glass of wine. For wine lovers, the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel has hosted the globally respected Food and Wine Festival for years, attracting top wine producers from around the world. The hotel also boasts an award-winning wine list and elegant dining experience in its Banffshire Club.
There is no questioning the talents of the chef at The Eden in the Rimrock Hotel. The veal sweetbreads were perfectly prepared, the bison strip loin melted in my mouth, and the desserts were among the finest I’ve tasted in recent memory. The wine list is extensive, albeit somewhat boring; filled with the requisite big names but devoid of many interesting, off-the-beaten-track offerings. But we couldn’t help feeling that we had been assaulted by a used car salesman, as our server spent most of the evening trying to upsell us and “add on” to each course. The aggressiveness detracted from the elegant room and delicious food, and at $250-plus per head, this attitude seemed quite out of place.
Bison Mountain Bistro’s rustic and simple room is the perfect setting for its wonderfully flavourful, fresh ingredient based mountain cuisine. This is robust food with character. Sip on a glass of Prosecco at brunch while contemplating the braised bison short rib skillet or duck confit and chèvre Benedict. Or treat yourself at dinner to the venison corndogs, shrimp and crab mini tacos (great Thai curry dressing), or Broek Acres pork chop with bourbon fig jus. Multiple visits are necessary to navigate the plethora of mouth-watering items on this menu.
The always bustling, southwestern-influenced Coyotes is a mandatory breakfast stop for its outstanding Huevos Rancheros — over easy eggs on blue corn tortillas with cheese, avocado, tomato, salsa and black beans; wild berry buttermilk pancakes; and French toast stuffed with cream cheese and berries. Sit up at the counter and watch the speedy line cooks crank out the plates.
A further 45-minute scenic drive west on the Trans Canada, featuring unparalleled vistas of soaring mountains and abundant wildlife, leads to the impossibly beautiful Lake Louise. The majestic Chateau Lake Louise, located within a UNESCO World Heritage Site, sits amidst the mountains on the bank of the pristine lake. The hotel offers numerous dining options, but our favourite was the Swiss-inspired Walliser Stube. In addition to the assortment of delicious fondues and raclette, the menu is filled with traditional European dishes with new world twists. Particularly outstanding were the tender rabbit confit in creamy parsnip velouté; the classic Wiener schnitzel; and the gut-filling mixed grill featuring seared Alberta beef, bison and veal tenderloin, venison sausage, and Tyroler bacon.
Perhaps the finest dining experience in the Rockies belongs to Swiss-born brothers George and Andre Schwarz’s Post Hotel, a member of the prestigious Relais & Châteaux. Beyond the simply prepared but incredibly delicious food; professional and knowledgeable yet comfortably friendly service; and maybe the best wine list in Western Canada, there is an air about this place that attracts wine and food lovers from around the world. They know they are good, but they do it without the pretense and without appearing to try too hard. The Eden, and most other fine dining establishments, should take note.
Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise’s awe-inspiring sceneries have always been a draw for visitors. Their food and wine scene is now as big an attraction as the towns’ alpine-peaked surroundings.