Banff food scene goes off

By Michelle Pentz Glave   Canadian Tourism Commission

Ryan Rivard puts passion on the plate at The Bison.

Ryan and Camilla Rivard’s baby is one year old. It’s not the bouncing, bundled kind, though. The couple’s dear one is a bison. Or, to be more specific, The Bison Mountain Bistro and General Store, a white hot restaurant and gourmet grocery named after two 6,000-year-old skulls discovered on the site during excavation. Set in cowtown gone glam Banff, AB, the 74-seat eatery is clearly a labour of love, and you can taste the passion in every bite.
“Banff is finally growing up as far as cuisine goes,” says Rivard, a former chef and cheesemonger. “It’s hard to do local, but it’s getting easier.”

That may be because the Bison’s continental divide coordinates allow Rivard to pluck the best comestibles from both the Pacific and the Prairies—such as Alberta beef, charcuterie and extra virgin canola oil, British Columbia hedgehog mushrooms and Saskatchewan bison. In the general store, which channels epicurean goodies à la Dean and Deluca, you’ll find Denman Island (BC) chocolates, Raincoast Crisps, house grainy mustard and smoked tomato ketchup, bison jerky, BC fireweed honey, dried cherries and Okanagan pears, duck liver paté, Kicking Horse Coffee, plus a gleaming counter packed with specialty cheeses along the lines of Sylvan Star’s Grizzly Gouda—a dry, rich, naturally hickory smoked, 14 month old stunner.

At the toney, eco savvy Bistro, there’s a woven Native blanket here, a recycled antique tin roof tile bar (salvaged from Calgary’s fabled Mescalero) there, high open beam ceilings and polished concrete floors. The smell of roasting hazelnuts and organic loaves baking on a stone hearth wafts from the adjacent Wild Flour—“Banff’s artisan bakery café,” where pastries evoke precious jewels in dough. It’s relaxed yet carefully choreographed, with just the right mix of reclaimed Douglas fir, no flush composting toilets, local rusted iron sculptures and tasteful beeswax paintings.

Executive chef Grant Parry whips up haute “Rocky Mountain comfort food,” which in his kitchen spells pan seared BC scallops; Merguez corndogs with lamb sausage, preserved peach aioli and banana curry mustard; roast Chicken Supreme with buttermilk mashed potatoes, root vegetable confit and anise jus; lavender s’mores of house made marshmallow and flourless chocolate cake; and, of course, bison “ox tail” and bison burgers with Saskatoon berry chutney. Low key sommelier Rob Kinch proudly pours value driven boutique treasures—an off dry Niagara (ON) Cave Spring Cellars Riesling with honey nectar nose, a Bordeaux style Osoyoos (BC) Inniskillin Dark Horse Vineyard Meritage.

Rivard sweats the details. He knows all about the Strathmore, AB family that cultivates his delicate, pink centred Poplar Bluff potatoes (“cool soil makes more intense colour and flavour”). When his design team presented an early sketch of the restaurant’s bison logo, he asked them to straighten the animal’s back to mirror Mount Rundell, the distinctive peak looming over the diner’s sunny deck. He’ll remember your name after he’s met you just once. And nothing gets him going quite like a great raw milk cheese.

Take Sylvan Star Dairy in Red Deer, AB, crafter of Dutch style flavoured farmhouse Gouda. John Schalkwyk, a second generation cheese man, nurtures a milking herd of 100 cows and produces 500 kilos of cheese a day—roughly what an industrial operation might crank out in an hour. Schalkwyk molds his wedges by hand and ages them in a musty climate controlled storeroom. He likes to show pictures of the old country. And his mild, two month old Gouda has elevated Rivard’s smoked bison wood fired pizza to signature status.

“It’s full of character. It’s unique, flavourful cheese with heart,” says Rivard of the Sylvan Lake offering. “And John makes cheese with his hands. On a farm. The old fashioned way. It’s who I want to support.”

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