We have been encouraged to be boisterous.
And how can we not be, now that we’ve finished our cocktails and mingled outside, casting looks over the jagged Rockies and Vermilion Lakes from The Juniper Hotel’s perch just off the road up to Mount Norquay, and then be led in to sit at two long tables stretching the width of the Bistro dining room in anticipation of a five-course dinner featuring one of Vancouver’s top chefs?
This is the third collaboration dinner in the Juniper Bistro’s dining series and the restaurant’s manager, Chris Irving, and his staff are sharing the kitchen with Angus An, a Vancouver-based chef well known for his restaurants Longtail Kitchen (which made my list of best eats last year) and Maenam, among others.
(For more about the dining series, upcoming chefs and why Irving started it, I’ve got the scoop on The YYScene.)
There is one focal point for the dinner.
“Life is short, prawns are seasonal,” An announced at the beginning to cheers and laughs.
Spot prawns, the coveted shellfish, has a short, six-week season of availability so they remain a sustainable fishery. They are considered Oceanwise because of this and the opening of spot prawn season on Canada’s West Coast is greeted with a lot of joy.
Fifty pounds of them were brought in fresh and turned into a series of dishes that played to An’s strengths, featuring the Thai flavours he is known for. Maenam serves up modern Thai dining, while Longtail Kitchen has a more street-food focus.
Bold flavours – sweet and sour, salty, spicy – were showcased throughout the night. Punches of heat from chili jam, citrus notes from galangal and even smoky notes, for a Tom Yum soup, that came from grilling the prawns.
The mood was jovial as we nestled in our seats, next to friends and strangers. Since the appetizers –kaffir and lemongrass roasted cashews, pad thai spring rolls and Thai green curry fish cakes – were set out family style, it was a good way to break the ice.
We were able to nibble and chat while occasionally peeking into the open kitchen to see the flurry of cooking happening there.
The first plates to come out were of a spot prawn ceviche, aromatically spiked with lime leaves, lemongrass and some crisp spot prawn crackers to add crunch. Conversations lulled as we took the first bites and then roared back up again as people talked about the dish.
An, Irving and the rest of the kitchen staff spent the day making every course from scratch, weaving a culinary journey around Thailand. Between courses, An would explain some of the techniques and ingredients used in the dishes. Like that the deep earthy flavour that underpinned that soup came from using every part of the prawn, including the head and innards in the stock.
The soup, poured tableside, was aromatic and deeply flavoured.
But it was the seafood curry with roasted sablefish, mussels and spot prawns, coloured and perfumed with turmeric, that made me wish for a second helping. The fish was perfectly cooked, the curry warming and full-bodied.
It’s likely to make my list for the best things I ate in 2017.
We lingered over dessert. Irving’s goal of creating these dinners in part to serve as a catalyst for conversation and potentially to spark new friendships succeeded as those of us sitting at one end of the table exchanged phone numbers with suggestions we connect again soon.
And after it all, I was able to tumble into the king-size bed in my hotel room, only a few steps from the Bistro. The perfect commute.
In fact, I was a few minutes late to the cocktail portion of the dinner as I couldn’t stop myself from throwing open the outside door of my room to look out at the view over the Banff townsite and sharp-tipped slope of Mount Rundle.
Set outside the main town of Banff, across the Trans-Canada Highway, The Juniper enjoys a totally different perspective on the area (especially for a non-skier like me who hasn’t been up to Norquay).
In the morning, I am loathe to leave, lying in bed with the curtains open to enjoy the view for as long as I can.
When it comes time to check out, I load up my car but find I’m still not ready to abandon the calm beauty of Banff for Calgary’s bustle, so I head into town to grab a pastry and tea from Wild Flour Bakery on Bear Street and then drove along the road that winds next to the Vermilion Lakes, stopping by one of the docks that juts out from the shore. Tea warming my hands, I sat on the dock, bobbing in the slight waves kicked up from the strong winds.
Thank you to Chris Irving for inviting me to come to the Maenam collaboration dinner and The Juniper for hosting me.
Future dining series events include a night with Chef Ned Bell in October and Top Chef Canada alum Todd Perrin in November. Dates to be determined. Find more information about upcoming events and book your own night at The Juniper at thejuniper.com.