Yeah, Banff is a tourist trap, a town lined with German and Russian and Japanese people buying stuffed moose dolls from overpriced gift shops. But it’s also beautiful, and an easy getaway for prairie folks who want a weekend of mountains, rivers and the finest food the Rockies has to offer.
The BEST restaurant in Banff for exciting, innovative fine dining is The Bison, located on the less-busy Bear Street. With a menu that showcases rustic local ingredients and a very refined palate, it’s the best dinner spot in town for a gastrophile with a few bucks to throw around.
As my wife and I often do, we chose to eat a series of appetizers as opposed to mains for our anniversary dinner. Why taste two things when you can taste four?
First up, and setting the bar impossibly high, was a crispy pork belly and parsnip soup, drizzled with birch syrup and finished with fried sage. It’s as good a soup as I’ve ever had: incredible rich and creamy, with perfect balancing notes from the syrup and the herbs. And the pork, my god, the pork. Smoky, a bit sweet, and wonderfully textured with a crispy skin and melt-in-your-mouth meat, it was absolutely to die for.
Next was a skillet of corn chowder, prawns, chorizo grits, charred jalapeno and crispy bacon. This was also very rich but in a homey, comfortable way, particularly for someone who just spent time in Texas. The grits were actually formed into patties and fried, which I’ve never tasted before and was a textural surprise. But holy shit, the jalapeno definitely retained its heat, and I almost choked on my first big bite of it.
Next was a braised bison ravioli, topped with two diver scallops, herbs, roasted garlic and brown butter sauce. This was definitely another major highlight of the meal. Each bite was an amazing balance of savoury braised meat and a perfectly cooked and seasoned scallop, bound by the homemade noodle. Very decadent, yet the brown butter sauce was surprisingly restrained, which kept the dish from being overwhelming.
Finally, a ground elk tourtiere with red pepper relish and caramelized pear. The ground meat beneath the pastry was seasoned with sweet Moroccan-style spices, which provided a nice flavour detour from all the other heavy-hitting French/American dishes.
Finally for dessert we had sampling of homemade ice creams, the three flavours of the evening being honey basil, dark chocolate cinnamon, and chai tea, all served in crispy little cones. Perfect!
Now, as if the Bison wasn’t amazing enough already, directly below it is its sister restaurant, the Bear Street Tavern, which is a far more casual atmosphere and promises simply PIZZA AND BEER. But just because the food is more casual, it doesn’t mean they take it - or the farm-to-table philosophy - any less seriously than they do upstairs.
Caesars at the Tavern come garnished with a piece of tender smoked bison, wrapped around a piece of bocconcini. Not much more I need to say about that.
If there’s one thing the Tavern does, it delivers on the advertised promise of “ridiculously good pizza.” Wood-fired and on a thin, homemade crust, it’s the pub pizza you’ve always wanted but never quite get. The pie we ate was “The Godfather,” topped with prosciutto, olives, roast garlic, grana padano and fresh arugula. The best.
On another trip to the Tavern we decided to try some of the other dishes on the menu, which is small but full of refined pub classics. The caesar salad, which I NEVER normally order, was fantastic: topped with a beautiful flower of crispy pancetta and dressed with a pink peppercorn dressing and balsamic drizzle, it’s certainly not the standard soggy salad that accompanies bad take-out pizza.
Finally, the pork belly mac ‘n’ cheese, with whole chunks of crunchy cauliflower, aged white cheddar and a bacon cream sauce. Not the “heart-smart” option, but needless to say, it was divine. And HEAVY.
And here is me, very, very happy.