Some friends laughed when we told them we were going to Saskatchewan for a “Regina Culinary Tour.” “Sounds like an oxymoron,” they chortled and, at the time, we couldn’t disagree.
We disagree now.
The flat, usually cold, capital of Saskatchewan is well know for its potash, canola and as the home of the RCMP training centre. The province is the world’s number one producer of lentils, chickpeas and mustard. But we were blown away by Regina’s fine accommodation, the thriving downtown, the extensive park system, the genuine friendliness of the people and, most of all, by the quality of the cuisine.
Our tour was an optional part of the annual convention of Canadian travel writers so we were joined by a half dozen others from across the country. We stayed at the venerable Hotel Saskatchewan, built in 1927 as the 14th grand hotel of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company. Now operated by Radisson, it retains the vaulted ceilings, the marble thresholds and the historic glamour that keeps it a favourite of royalty and celebrities visiting Regina.
The Hotel Saskatchewan has its own celebrity chef. Milton Rebello won the first-ever Regina Gold Medal Plates award last year with a Saskatchewan Lamb and Goat Cheese duo. He followed that honour with a national recognition – the bronze medal at the Canadian Culinary Championships, the first Saskatchewan chef to reach the podium in that prestigious competition. For us he prepared a breakfast bonanza consisting of lentil cinnamon buns, lemon bouchon (flaky pastry filled with lemon curd), eggs Benedict with smoked trout and short ribs braised in rhubarb wine. Totally decadent.
David Burke is a sommelier, entrepreneur and co-owner of the innovative Willow on Wascana, set by the lake in the middle of Regina’s 2300 acre Wascana Park (almost three times the size of New York’s Central Park). He told us that Chef Rebello’s win was no accident. “Ten years ago, we set out to change the culinary landscape of Saskatchewan,” he said. “People are now shocked to discover there’s fine dining in Regina.” David Burke’s secret is summarized in his restaurant’s motto: “Micro-regional, Seasonal, Fresh and Fun.” Almost everything he serves is from Saskatchewan. “Your average restaurant has three, four or five suppliers,” he told us. “Here we have 150 to 200 suppliers.”
At Willow on Wascana we were treated to a delightful salad made with fresh spring greens and fresh filets of Diefenbaker (steelhead) trout, almost as pink and firm as salmon but even more delicious.
More evidence of Regina’s commitment to culinary quality came with a multi-course, multi-hour feast at Fortuna, a restaurant committed to authentic Italian cuisine. Co-owner Pat Fiacco, the former mayor of Regina, hired Certified Italian Master Chef Gianni Poggio to oversee his menu. A native of Rome, Chef Poggio was lured away from the posh Crane Resort in Barbados and brings a passion for the food of his homeland. His specialty is a sublime risotto but his skills are obvious in every course. The Silver Spoon winner showed us how to make gnocchi and ended our feast with perfect panna cotta and house made gelato.
Part of our tour included visits to organic farms that provide the “Farm to Table” ingredients for many Regina restaurants. Both Over the Hill Orchards and Heliotrope Farms are small, family run operations dedicated to getting the most out of the fine soil but often harsh climate of Saskatchewan. Over the Hill specializes in fruit trees, especially delicious tart cherries, developed at the University of Saskatchewan to survive -40 temperatures.
Besides adventures in fine dining, we were treated to a trio of authentic Regina culinary experiences. At the nearby Lajord Hutterite colony, a small conservative commune of Anabaptists who, unlike the Amish, have embraced technology, the women served us fried chicken, meatloaf, broccoli and fruit pies, all products of their fields and barns. We were also invited to an RCMP Regimental Dinner at Depot Training Headquarters. Mountie recruits, who must trot comically at double time when moving among the various buildings, put on white smocks to serve us the kind of Prairie food devoured on the trail decades ago. A delicious bison stew was followed by uninspired (but a treat in former years) canned peaches. But the most unusual meal we enjoyed was Merv’s Pitchfork Fondue. Merv Brandt takes his mobile cooker all over western Canada. On a nickel plated pitchfork he spears up to three dozen ribeye steaks which he plunges into 30 gallons of hot canola oil. In a matter of minutes, the steaks are cooked perfectly and served buffet style with all the trimmings. He told us his cooking method is so efficient he can easily handle parties of 1,000 or more.
Our farewell “treat” at the bustling farmers market in Regina couldn’t be classified as fine dining but it was authentic. Brave souls were offered shooters of whisky and hot sauce along with infamous Prairie Oysters (sometimes known as Cowboy Caviar). These especially tender parts of the bull (you can check the real definition online) are considered a delicacy. But masking them with whiskey shooters is the preferred method to forget about their anatomical source.
Our friends no longer laugh at the concept of fine dining in Regina. It’s now a sophisticated city. But eyebrows are still raised when the subject of Prairie Oysters comes up.
All photographs by John and Sandra Nowlan
Prairie Oysters – a unique treat
Chef Rebello’s Eggs Benedict with Smoked Trout
Merv gets ready to “Pitch In”
Award Winning Chefs at Hotel Saskatchewan
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