River Cafe is one of those institutions that every Calgarian, and in fact every visitor in Calgary, needs to go to at least once in their lives. Consistently ranked over the years as best restaurant to bring out of town guests, and placing 5th overall for Best Restaurant in Calgary, River Cafe is a reliably amazing spot serving up what I’ve coined as “Prairie Haute Cuisine”, using ingredients and cooking styles found only on the Canadian Prairies and near the Rockies.
Situated on Prince’s Island, in the heart of Prince’s Island Park, walking up to River Cafe somehow manages to evoke the feeling that you’re strolling through the woods to Grandmother’s cottage (fewer wolves and huntsman, sadly). One feature to note as you walk up are the surrounding planter gardens, teeming with freshly grown ingredients used by the culinary team in all their dishes. The building itself has a woodsy, Canadian cabin on a lake vibe, complete with antler chandeliers and snowshoes mounted to the walls. If you’re here in the summer (and if the weather actually cooperates enough for your evening to be warm), you must book your dinner out here early enough to snag a table out on the patio, where views of downtown, the bow river, and passersby in the park abound.
This was my second visit to River Cafe, with my parents who had never been before. Once seated, we were immediately offered still or sparkling water, followed by some very knowledgeable help choosing the wine from the restaurant’s own sommelier. From there we began by ordering a starter to share, the red lentil hummous with canola seed flatbread, roasted garlic, and preserved tomato. The hummous was delicious, with a tangy note from tomato, added depth from cumin, and topped with young pea vines from their garden. Needless to say this is a new recipe I’ll be attempting to replicate at home.
For our mains, my stepmom ordered the Bowden Farms chicken breast, with spring carrot sformato, english peas, citrus marinated carrot, chanterelle mushrooms, and brie de meaux. She absolutely loved it, noting the chicken was perfectly cooked, moist, and something coating the skin that prompted her to eat even that, health conscious as she usually is. My stepmom has commented several times since our visit that her dish was simply outstanding.
My dad ordered the Haida Gwaii halibut, with hotchkiss string beans, fire morels, english peas, buttermilk butter emulsion, and ramiro oil. The halibut was possibly prepared sous-vide, cooked to perfection. He commented that all other elements on the plate perfectly complimented his dish, and the garnish made the whole plate very aesthetically pleasing. Although perhaps the best testament to a dish is the completely empty plate at the end, which his was.
Being the good Albertan that I am, and having suffered a marked lack of beef while in Seattle, I went for the naturally raised beef on the menu, which isn’t described in much further detail on the menu other than that; each day, the kitchen team selects the cut and size of each portion, and you pay a market price per ounce. On this day, it was a 6 ounce tenderloin, served with Okanagan peach, corn sauteed with fresh greens, grilled new potato, lovage butter, and a bourbon sabayon. So, basically everything edible that could ever make me happy. This dish didn’t let down one bit; the beef was cooked to absolute perfection (again, perhaps sous vide finished with a quick sear?), and the peaches, corn, and potatoes added the perfect summery elements. If I had died on the way home after that dinner, I would have died completely happy.
Usually at a place like this I would have selected a dessert for all of us to share, but we were so beyond full we couldn’t even imagine eating another bite. But, all in all, our experience here was perfect. The service deserves it’s own honourable mention – the servers were knowledgeable and friendly without being overbearing, finding that ideal balance between being there, without being invasive. As for price, it is a bit on the expensive side (expect to spend up to $100 per person if sharing a bottle of wine, a starter, and then ordering one of the mains), but here you clearly get great value for your money, with high quality ingredients and fantastic service. I always tell people it’s totally worth it to forego a few nights out at Earls or Milestones, and instead save that money for fewer, but much, much, better, meals at places like this.
As I said above, if you call yourself a Calgarian, or even if you’re simply passing through, you absolutely must eat here at least once in your life.
River Cafe, 25 Prince’s Island Park Calgary, AB