Dining at Sky Bistro atop the Sulphur Mountain summit, reached by the Banff Gondola – an incomparable view matched by an incomparable culinary experience © Karen Rubin/goingplacesfarandnear.com
By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, goingplacesfarandnear.com
On our first evening in Banff to sample Pursuit Collection’s tourism and hospitality services, we dine at Farm & Fire, one of Banff’s newest restaurants. It is a delightful open, woody dining room within Elk & Avenue Hotel (originally the Banff International Hotel), also a Pursuit Collection property.
Farm & Fire was launched in June of 2020, with a menu designed by Chef Scott Hergott, who has been recognized for his award-winning culinary innovation at the Banff Gondola’s Sky Bistro (which we later get to enjoy). Farm & Fire specializes in wood-fired and slow-roasted selections, reflecting Hergott’s farm-to-table philosophy and his commitment to sustainability. Ingredients are sourced from local purveyors (a list of who to thank is posted) and you can look into the open kitchen to watch the artful preparations.
The bursts of flavor combinations are exciting and original – you can’t really pin down a specific cuisine – and the preparations and presentations are as pleasing to the eye as the palate. The selections are served as shared plates, family style, which creates a communal experience (amazing how much conversation happens over what to order and everyone’s reaction to sampling each).
I get my first taste of bannock and immediately become addicted. This is an indigenous fried bread with a delightful doughy texture, somewhere between a donut and a doughy roll, and delectable (not bland) flavor, that Farm & Fire serves with three different seasoned butters.
My next discovery is Chef Hergott’s Lion’s Mane Mushrooms that are indescribably delicious.
We get to meet Chef Hergott, now the executive chef for Pursuit Collection, at a tasting lunch in the Mount Royal Hotel’s Cascade lounge, to preview the new seasonal menu for Brazen, Pursuit’s new restaurant at the historic hotel, built in 1908 and taken over by the Brewsters in 1912, the tourism enterprise that was acquired by Pursuit Collection in 2014.
Of Farm & Fire, Chef Hergott says, “It is Canadian produce and ideas but the flavors are original – small plates with big flavors.”
Each of Pursuit’s restaurants are chef-centric, he says, which means the chefs come up with their own recipes, as we will soon find out. Brazen (in a space that was once the saloon) is “out there” offering bold choices that pay homage to the mountaineers, adventurers and founders of Banff (the menu even features their photos and bios).
The culinary concept behind Brazen, which opened in June 2022, is “eat who you are.” This is only the third menu being introduced at Brazen and we get to sample such items as Ramen Eggs (with Nori, sesame, wasabi peas); duck croquettes Dijonaise (truffle, Dijon Aioli, arugula and mushroom), bison (Tandoori roasted with watercress, red curry corn puree), Edible Earth (hummus with toasted rye crumb, Kalamata olive, roasted beet, pickled carrot, watercress); fried artichoke (dill, smoked tofu cream); ginger beef (certified Angus with blistered shishitos, onions, ginger syrup).
Small plates include pork belly (with carrot ginger puree, pickled mustard and sour maple) and salmon gravlax (strawberry gel, crème fraiche, cucumber, beet chips, dill). The smoked beef tartare is prepared with cognac, egg yoke, pickled onion and truffle oil and lit on fire as it is served “to add pizzazz” as we find out at dinner.
The desserts are incredible: Strawberry Fields is made with coconut cream, strawberry sorbet, mint oil, and strawberry rhubarb compote, then fashioned like a trompe d’oeil to look like cigarettes in an ash tray; crème brulee made with coffee, cookie crumble and white chocolate; and Pavlova made with white chocolate, whipped cream and blueberry. So culinary artistry that is also fun.
“There are no handcuffs on our chefs to develop recipes,” Chef Scott says. He challenges his chefs to try something they never had before, or, conversely, harken back to childhood. “We want the chefs to be intentional about their food creations, have a story, don’t just create a dish, always create with a twist.”
“Our secret advantage is that our staff comes from all over the world – 30 countries are represented. We listen to the flavors from their home.” He encourages his chefs to write a menu from their experience and their colleagues’ past. “Then it is about how they make it their own.”
About the Lions Mane mushrooms which I so enjoyed at Farm & Fire, he says, “Let the food do the work. No more than 5 points on plate.”
There are two special challenges Chef Scott faces: there are more than 60 restaurants within this tiny (walkable) town, and the strict sustainability rules of existing within a national park, especially in stocking the Sky Bistro atop Sulphur Mountain, reached by the Banff Gondola.
“The weight of a product is restricted in the park. We spent 60-70 hours looking at compostable cups. We look at sustainability when purchasing from suppliers. Food waste is composted. We recycle spent cooking oil for fuel. Everything that goes up the mountain has to come down. We have to keep track of the propane tanks.”
We get to experience Sky Bistro, quite literally “elevated dining” and not just for the spectacular view (from farm to summit,” Chef Scott says), along with the marvelous ride up the Banff Gondola and the whole series of experiences at the summit.
Rising up to 7,486 feet to the Sulphur Mountain summit, the Banff Gondola is Banff’s number one attraction for good reason. It’s not just the incomparable, breathtaking view of six stunning mountain ranges and the sweep of the Bow Valley from the summit, but the delightful eateries including the superb Sky Bistro, engaging exhibits, “Night Rising” (a creative sound-and-light happening), and for me, the chance to scamper down and up a half-mile long boardwalk along the peak to another peak to see the intriguingly named Cosmic Ray Station.
Completed by the National Research Council in 1956 in preparation for International Geophysical Year (1957-58), 66 countries and a dozen scientific disciplines cooperated on the project. There were 99 cosmic ray stations worldwide (nine in Canada) in operation during IGY. But because of Sulphur Mountain’s high elevation (7,486 ft), this one was the most important Canadian station. It was closed in 1978 and the building dismantled in 1981.
The Cosmic Ray station’s purpose was to study the Earth, its atmosphere and the edges of outer space. Cosmic ray research offered the chance to learn about supernovae, the origin of the stars, the relationship between energy and matter and the nature of our own solar system (I wouldn’t be surprised if it also monitored Soviet satellites.) Canada’s was important because Earth’s north magnet pole is in Canada, and the atmosphere is thinnest at higher elevations.
Back inside the state of the art building, there are fascinating exhibits to discover.
Justifiably winning the title “best rooftop restaurant in all of Canada” and the accolade, “dining sanctuary in the sky”, Sky Bistro is the most perfect place to dine as the sun is setting. The views are spectacular from the walls of windows inside, but I dash out to the observation areas. It is such perfection that I would bet there are marriage proposals just about every evening, as there is this evening.
The culinary experience pairs the grandeur of the Rocky Mountains with a distinctly Canadian menu that features the flavors of Canada through regionally sourced meats, produce and ingredients. (Check out the menu, https://www.banffjaspercollection.com/dining/sky-bistro/our-menu/; also reserve in advance.)
At darkness, “Night Rise” takes over – a sound and light show that still is respectful of animals affected by light pollution as well as First Nations peoples who were the original inhabitants – so even the colors have to be appropriate, and it cuts off at a relatively early hour, 10 pm when the gondola closes. There are igloos and fire pits, and sensors that make color and sound based on your own movement.
Mount Royal Hotel
Each day and night it is so pleasant to return to the Mount Royal Hotel.
One of the oldest hotels in Banff, a gold plaque outside the Mount Royal hotel says, “established in 1908. Re-imagined in 2018. Always at the heart of this community.”
The hotel was acquired by the Brewsters in 1912. It is delightfully situated so it is walking distance to absolutely everything (including the convenient buses to ski areas and that take you to Lake Louise, 45 minutes away, where private cars are not allowed and there are no lodgings).
The hotel cherishes its history, but actually, what guests experience is brand new from 2018. In the hotel’s museum we learn about the hotel had to be rebuilt twice due to fire – the most recent on Christmas 2016.
The 133-room hotel – its five-stories grandfathered in a town that limits buildings to three – was gut renovated in just 18 months after the fire (no casualties and the guests were immediately accommodated at Pursuit Collection’s other hotel, the 164-room Elk & Avenue; the damage was mainly from the water that froze instantly in minus 20 degree temperature.) First responders, including the man who would become Pursuit’s Executive Chef, Scott Hergott, spent six hours dousing the fire. Scott even went back into the structure to recover a guest’s ring.
We wander through each of the four wings of the hotel: the 1960s wing which was rebuilt after a 1967 fire by WG Milne (see some of those dramatic photos in the 2nd floor museum); a 1940s wing with works by Banff’s renowned cowboy artist Charlie Biel, who also did the relief outside the building.
The second floor has a delightful, roomy library, a small museum commemorating the Mount Royal’s history, and a place where coffee and tea are served in the morning. (You get an idea of what the Brewsters’ first livery transportation was like by the statuette in the lobby.)
The hotel’s 5th floor offers a lovely, expansive Cascade Lounge (opens at 10 am and at 4 pm serves beer, wine and cocktails), while outside are two hot tubs with gorgeous views of the mountain peaks.
The exterior of the hotel pays homage to its history and heritage as well, and as you walk along Banff Avenue, the town’s first street (designed in 1886 by Superintendent George Stewart), you see many of the original structures.
Befitting a town built on tourism, they really know how to cater to visitors – there are wonderful signs, markers, historic plaques (there are 48) and descriptions (there are 179 sites listed on its Inventory of Historic Resources including 25 Landmarks and Legends) that immerse you in the experience (https://banff.ca/113/History-and-Heritage).
The historic markers not only show respect and preserve the accomplishment of those who came before, but are welcoming and inviting to visitors, getting us to linger longer and appreciate more – mosey into this café, that ice cream shop, this teahouse or that gallery.
They make it easy and pleasant to get around. There is a free skiers bus and in summer, they turn the main street (Banff Avenue) into a pedestrian mall.
Pursuit Collection, part of Viad Corp., is an attractions and hospitality company that offers world-class attractions, distinctive lodges and engaging tours in national parks and renowned global travel destinations, including a growing collection of FlyOver flight ride attractions in Vancouver, Reykjavik, Las Vegas with new ones expected to open in 2024 in Chicago and Toronto (pursuitcollection.com). To book Pursuit Collection’s Banff and Jasper experiences, https://www.banffjaspercollection.com/.
Next: Pioneering Spirit Continues to Inspire Visitors to Banff, Canada
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