As my friends and I delicately nibbled brown sugar cured Nova Scotia swordfish belly on a bed of the chef’s home grown Swiss chard at a restaurant named Crave Kitchen, it was hard to believe that Regina’s serious food scene is barely seven years old.
Before that, it was all food chains and steak houses. And a liver lover’s club.
But the recent oil and gas boom brought folks with, well, expectations of better food, said Crave executive chef Jonathan Thauberger.
Regina, Saskatchewan, is one of Canada’s prairie towns, sitting north of Montana with 250,000 people. Its compact downtown with mostly low buildings has the physical feel of Tucson but with the energy vibe of Boise.
We’re there on a Wednesday, when the farmer’s market is in full swing. Some 75 booths offer the usual fresh produce with a Saskatchewan flavor … service berry pies, prairie cherry syrup, rows and rows and rows of bright orange carrots.
And spread across an expansive stretch of grass in front of City Hall is what looks like half the city’s populace. It’s moms and kids in strollers, dads with boys playing catch and just about every office worker for blocks around, all sitting in the sun eating fresh bread and fried chicken and whatever.
Bringing me to the two killer food trucks.
Prairie Smoke & Spice has the best pulled pork north of Georgia. Brown sugar in the rub adds a touch of sweetness. You really don’t even need the BBQ sauce, but if you do add it, you’ll notice interesting notes of plum.
The chicken at Beak’s Chicken was, yes, incredible. Owner and cook Paul Rogers brines locally grown chicken pieces in an herb and lemon mixture for 12 hours. Then he cooks them ‘sous vide,’ a process where they are vacuum sealed into packets and slow cooked at a very low temperature for an hour and a half. The pieces are then dipped in batter and fried at the truck for seven minutes.
The result is melt tender chicken in a crackling crisp crust.
Off then to one of the best cooking classes I’ve had. It was at SchoolHaus Culinary Arts, led by Mariana Brito.
We separated into two teams, three on a team. And I FINALLY learned how to handle a chef’s knife (blade tip on the board, fingers holding the blade, quick up and down, being careful not to filet your knuckles).
We prepared five dishes, ranging from a market salad through a ‘pizza’ made with chickpea flour, a steelhead trout tartare, roasted potatoes and Saskatoon berry pie with whole wheat crust. All from scratch. It took us hours and we eventually got to eat it all, but I zeroed in on two things … The carrot top pesto (oh yes do I have carrot tops to spare in my garden) and the tartare.
I could do these at home (forget the pie and the pizza, I’m into simple).
My main issue with most pesto is the olive oil base. All I seem to taste is olive oil. Instead, we used something called camelina oil. Kind of like flax seed oil. It didn’t overwhelm and, instead, let the cilantro, garlic lemon and apple cider vinegar shine through.
I was floored when Mariana asked me to taste the pesto (before we added the cider vinegar) and say what I thought.
“A bit one note. A bit flat,” I said, adding, “I think it needs a touch more acid.”
Which is when she suggested the vinegar. That was it. Perfect. And we added it to the recipe.
The trout tartare was, well, just what a sashimi lover might drool for.
We diced fresh steelhead, marinated the veggies and served it with a homemade mustard sauce.
Crave and Brew
Three hours later, we showed up at Crave . It’s a testimonial to the quality of the place that we managed to down their signature steak tartare (yes, I am a raw fan), an antipasto plate, the aforementioned swordfish belly, mangrove prawns stuffed with a chicken-corn mash and set off with nasturtium flowers, crisp prosciutto wrapped beef cheeks (yes, cows have cheeks and they are delicious). And a creme broulee that was, as they say, to die for.
And there was more. One night we visited Buckwackker, a pub/brewing company that has cornered the market on some exceedingly interesting fermented liquids. And while they do make their own, the most exotic thing on the menu when we visited was a barrel aged agave infused cervesa by Saskatchewan based Prairie Sun Brewery.
A close second, surely, was the “Screamin’ mosquito chili beer blonde ale” infused with Thai red chili peppers. And to finish, I sipped their peach beer, each batch made with 84 pounds of pureed peaches from Oregon. You could really taste the peach.
Bar Manager Grant Frew gave us a tour, letting us sniff wheaty grains of barley, peer into fermentation vats, visit their cold room.
The place opened in 1991 in a renovated early 1900s warehouse and today makes 30 different styles of beer, 800 litres at a time.
But the big excitement comes the first Saturday of each December, when the homemade blackberry mead is released.
“Six thousand bottles sold in an hour and 45 minutes,” Frew said. Each dozen, 23 ounce bottles sold for $150. Fans had stood in line outside for 12 hours. The temperature was minus 50.
When I visited, the countdown board showed 136 days, 13 hours, 49 minutes and 47 seconds to the next batch.
I’ve skipped over lots more … The gourmet breakfast at the Radisson Plaza Hotel Saskatchewan (one of those restored Canadian Pacific Railway hotels fronted with veined Tyndall stone), the eclectic breakfast at Fresh and Sweet where we tasted a caramel and dark chocolate dipped apple topped with Bounty (think Mounds) candy bar chunks. Sadly, we missed the red velvet pancakes. And the bison burger, medium rare, topped with bleu cheese on the lakeside deck of The Willow in Regina’s Gladmer Park.
Plus, there’s plenty we didn’t get to. But after all, there’s only so much you can do in the name of good eating. I’ll just have to come back. – by Yvette Cardozo, RFT Ski & Dive Editor
If You Go
Cooking classes run three hours and cost $75 per person. SchoolHaus Culinary Arts: www.schoolhausculinaryarts.ca
Regina Tourism: www.reginaroc.com
Saskatchewan Tourism: www.sasktourism.com
The Willow: www.willowonwascana.ca/