Jim Byers photo
The James Hotel in Saskatoon offers fabulous views of the city and the S. Saskatchewan River.
SASKATOON – In May of this year I was pleasantly surprised by new businesses and cool restaurants in Edmonton in my first visit in a couple years.
This time, I made my first ever touch down (pardon the Riders speak) in Saskatoon . And was nearly blown away.
If Edmonton is showing signs of a cool, new vibe, it’s in full flight in Saskatoon, which locals tell me has undergone a sea change. How much of a change?
Enough that I’d put my hotel, The James , up against any hotel I’ve stayed at in the world. And I can’t think of a single restaurant I’d rather dine at than Ayden Kitchen and Bar , where they turn out breathtakingly good food in a restaurant as cool as anything I’ve seen in Toronto or New York.
Chefs Dale MacKay and Nathan Guggenheimer, who’ve worked in some of Canada’s top restaurants, are known for their charcuterie and I sampled some great stuff, as well as a wonderful lemongrass and ginger sausage. But I was more taken with their “regular” dishes. The Mediterranean branzino I had was seared perfectly and served on a bed of seasoned corn. The chicken wings were dusted with Thai spices and dipped in clear Thai sauce that was a perfect balance of sweet and sour and spicy. The Butcher Burger comes with bone marrow, a fried egg (you can skip it) and arugula, plus garlic aioli. It’s outstanding.
Jim Byers photo
The interior design at Ayden Kitchen and Bar is almost as good as the food. Almost.
The pasta might be the best thing you can try. Their pasta chef is a 24-year-old wunderkind who whipped up a silky batch of tagliattelle with local kale, broccolini and house-made sausage, topped with the silkiest pomodoro sauce I’ve ever had.
It’s one thing for these guys to turn out great pasta or terrific fish or amazing meats. But to do ALL of those things at such a high level and to do it in a visually interesting but not over the top kind of way makes it a joy to eat here. A fun and atmospheric interior only adds to the enjoyment.
I had great food, also, at Truffles , which feels like a Parisian or New Orleans bistro and serves perfectly cooked Quebec duck. And I sampled wonderful pork and lamb meatballs at a fun tapas bar in the Broadway area called Duck Duck Goose . It’s a fun spot that looks like a combination German/Swiss chalet and funky basement, and they make great drinks, too. They have a killer dessert of churros (Spanish pastries dusted with sugar and cinnamon) that you dip into melted Belgian chocolate.
I also had smashingly good breakfasts at The James Hotel, which is just across the street from the beautiful park that lines the South Saskatchewan River.
My room at The James was great; with blond wood and off-grey tones. I had a suite with an L-shaped couch and a large TV, plus a view looking out at the church spires and bridges over the river. The bed was all comfortable as all get out and they had a fabulous shower and L’Occitane bath products and a Keurig coffee maker and a nice work space.
But I think it’s the staff and the little things that set this place apart. They’re efficient and friendly without being in your face or too sucky, if you know what I mean. Any time I was coming towards the front door someone would rush out and see if I needed help. I was headed to a performance of Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan one night and was worried about being cold. A worker at the front desk whirled around and opened a cabinet behind them, then handed me a James Hotel plaid blanket that was all rolled up and ready to go. As it turned out, I didn’t need it. But they had thought it through and had them available.
I’m a big breakfast guy, and in this department they get a 10 out of 10. There’s only a small area for food, but they pack it with an egg-cooking station, plenty of fresh fruits and cereals, plus small, bite-size croissants and daily hot servings. A couple times they had omelets available or eggs benedict. Other days there was oatmeal or a caramelized peach French toast or a fabulous vegetarian hash with corn, squash, black beans and other goodies. Every day there was bacon and a sliced sausage of some kind.
I loved the coffee and asked one day what it was. One of the servers rushed into the back room and brought me out a sample packet, as well as a brochure showing me what it was (a special Italian blend roasted by Starbucks but out under a different label for restaurants).
The Saskatoon Farmers Market isn’t nearly the size of the St. Lawrence Market, of course. But it’s got a tremendous variety; local meats and lush produce (deep yellow/orange beets and purple beans are among the treats), plus Vietnamese spring rolls, fine Mexican salsa, local raw chocolates, ginger treats from a woman called The Ginger Lady and even pineapple jam with Chinese five spice mixed in. There’s a truck parked outside called Flavours of India, where you can get two tasty samosas the size of a man’s fist for $5.
Not far away is the throwback Park Café Tavern, where they do a great burger with local bacon (a big slab, not skinny strips from the grocery store – ugh) and cheese and an onion ring. It’s a classic diner that also serves up Monte Cristo sandwiches and other treats in a setting rich with old Coca-Cola signs and plenty of neon. I didn’t get a chance to try one but they say the breakfasts are outstanding.
Brewpubs and distilleries are big news here. At Paddock Wood Brewing Co ., I learned about how lager takes so much longer to make than ale and tasted some fine brews, including a lovely Indian Pale Ale that I’m told is just that, and not a lager disguised as an IPA in the fashion of at least one notable Canadian brewer who shall remain nameless. Owner Steve Cavan is a former professor of Greek mythology who taught a few years at Trent University in Peterborough. Now he makes fantastic beer; about 20 varieties in all.
You also can buy your own hops and malt and yeast at his store or bring an empty “growler” and fill up your bottle directly.
At LB Distilleries (it stands for Lucky Bastards as the owners used the proceeds of a huge lottery win to start their dream business), I taste vodka as smooth as a baby’s bum and also try a honey-pepper vodka that the owners liken to “a kiss followed by a slap.”
It’s great stuff to mix up in your favourite cocktail. Or even to have on its own. They also make a Chai Vodka and a smooth, floral gin that contains Saskatoon berries (a nice nod to local ingredients) and a good, slightly-amber coloured rum.
They also make bitters that come in a small spray container instead of tiny bottles. You just give one push of the sprayer and it’s enough to slightly coat the inside of a cocktail glass. They make a variety of flavours, including anise and a bacon flavoured bitter.
One of the owners, the affable and entertaining Michael Goldney, tells me his Mom likes the spray so much that she puts bacon bitters on her, um, bacon.
MORE ON ULTRA-COOL SASKATOON IN A LATER POST
RITZ-CARLTON UNVEILS A NEW APP
Folks love the Ritz-Carlton hotel chain, which is consistently rated one of the top brands in the world. I’ve stayed at several of their places over the year, including the fabulous Ritz in Kapalua, Maui and the Ritz-Carlton in Hong Kong, where I stayed on the 108 th floor last fall.
The patio at the Ritz-Carlton in Toronto is one of the best in the city.
Now they’ve created an app that “brings the legendary service of the luxury hotel company to the smartphone in your pocket.”
In addition to mobile check-in and check-out, which is always handy for folks on the move, the Ritz-Calrton is launching real-time service requests, food and beverage ordering, The Ritz-Carlton Rewards account review, folio review, and access to exclusive local content, concierge tips (a great benefit for road warriors) and offers at all hotels. The updated app is available for immediate download by visiting www.ritzcarlton.com/app .
On October 1 the app is scheduled to launch a new shareable Travel Poster feature, where guests will be able to curate their own images with special filters, titles and stamps to create retro-style travel posters to capture their memories. They will then be able to share their posters across social media channels, or save them to a personal on-device camera roll, enabling them to store the travel memory forever.