I recently spent four days in and around Canmore, an absolutely breathtaking town that seems to me has most definitely emerged from the shadow of big brother Banff. I went dogsledding on a frozen lake and visited a wolf dog sanctuary and rode the gondola up Sulphur Mountain in Banff and soaked my bones in Banff’s Upper Hot Springs and had a great massage at Solara Resort and Spa, a comfortable, newish property with huge rooms and a good location close to downtown.
It was all great. But what really impressed me was the breadth and quality of the food in all the places I visited. It was all top-notch; interesting and varied and extremely high quality and beautifully presented.
At The Trough in downtown Canmore, I had some of the best lamb of my life and a wonderful Caesar Salad with Meyer lemon infusion (I LOVE Meyer lemons; my dad has a Meyer lemon tree in his backyard in California and they’re awesome) and crisp potato chips instead of croutons. They also basil (not sure that’s a good idea, to be honest) and local, double-smoked bacon. I’m not sure I’d do it the same way, but it’s edgy and cool and shows the kind of risks folks are taking in food in Alberta these days.
I also had great tapas at a place called, oddly enough, Tapas, where I was lucky enough to dine with Canadian Olympian Sara Renner; a very dynamic and wonderful person and ambassador for Canmore. And wonderful appetizers and incredible service at Sage. Not to mention a very good elk burger at Grizzly Paw Brewpub in Canmore with feta and onions, perfect fries, and a fabulous Powder Hound Pilsner.
As excellent as those were, I think I have to single out two places in particular, with wildly divergent styles and atmospheres. The first is the absolutely remarkable Junction House Café and Spice Market outside Canmore. It’s a small restaurant set amidst a collection of gas stations and small hotels at the side of the Trans-Canada Highway south of Canmore, in an area called Dead Man’s Flats.
It looks from the outside like a casual diner sort of place. But the second you walk in and smell the powerful and intoxicating aroma of curry you know you’re not in Kansas anymore.
The place is run by Dawn and Russell Donald. She’s a trained chef who worked in hospitality for years and he’s an Englishman whose ancestors hail from India and Myanmar (Burma) and who learned about curries by sneaking into his grandmother’s kitchen.
(His great grandfather was in the British Army in India and also lived in Buffalo, New York for a while and fought for the Union in the U.S. Civil War, but that’s another story.)
They make very good beef samosas, and I heard folks at the next table rave about their butter chicken. But I thought their veggie samosas were the kicker; a crisp shell surrounding potatoes and peas and other bits and just spicy enough to make you reach for the water without calling for outside assistance.
They also sell spice kits with the curry powder Russell has designed after years of experience, and they even give you the recipe on the back and a list of the ingredients you’ll need at the grocery store to make that perfect meal, and how clever is that?
I wandered in to use the washroom and was struck by the cactus motif. There also was a small glass next to the sink that was filled with coffee grounds.
Dawn explained the coffee grounds act like a potpourri by absorbing odours, which I didn’t know. The grounds are not there for people to brew their own cup of Joe while they use the John. Just so you know.
She also told me there are cacti in the washrooms as the restaurant used to be a Mexican joint.
“A junction is a meeting place and the restaurant is called the Junction House, so it kinda works,” she tells me with a smile.
On top of all that, Russell and Dawn own a dogsledding company called Mad Dogs and Englishmen, doing tours in the beautiful wilderness outside Canmore. I joined Russell for a 90-minute ride across a frozen lake when I was there, and it was glorious.
It’s a wonderful place to stop for coffee or dinner, but hours are limited so check their website before you try to stop in: www.thejunctionhouse.ca.
The other fave spot of mine came on the last night of my trip. I wimped out of a dinner at Crazyweed, the renowned food spot in Canmore, as I didn’t want to drive on slightly snowy roads in the dark after a glass of wine. So instead of staying in Canmore I drove back to Calgary before dark and stopped in at Charcut Roast House, a place I’d heard about for years and that’s part of the Le Germain Hotel.
I was utterly blown away by the place. Mind you, they knew I was coming and gave me the visiting travel writer treatment. But there was still more than enough to go on that I can highly recommend it without reservation, so to speak.
I was able to sit at the charcuterie bar and watch the guys slice paper-thin bits of pig head mortadella with pistachios and truffles, plus prosciutto and other tasty bits.
“Wow,” I told one of the workers. “Almost as good as Shopsy’s.”
Luckily, he laughed.
The website says they serve “locak, chef-driven, urban-rustic cuisine.” And that sounds about right.
I tasted an incredible arugula and tuna conserva with shaved celery and lemon preserves; rich and slightly oily (in a good way) and tart and utterly unlike anything I’d ever had in another restaurant.
I also had lamb ham like pastrami and aged pancetta topped with arugula and balsamic vinegar that was deeply tasty. Oh, they also let me try the tender and sweet local prime rib and duck fat fried poutine with cheese curds and truffle gravy that set my diet back 11 years but was as tasty as can be. And an astonishingly good dessert called “raspberry cheesecake in a jar; a vanilla bean cheesecake mousse layered with toasted graham crumbs.” Ooh-la-la good.
I don’t think Ontario folks hear nearly enough about the quality of the food out here, so it was great to give so many places a try. Look for more in a coming issue of Toronto Star Travel.