Last week, my old friend Cam invited me and Mike to Sage restaurant at River Cree Casino and Resort. Cam, Mike, and I all went to high school together. Throughout the years, we’ve bumped into one another and enjoyed how much and how little changes, and this was another long-overdue opportunity to reconnect. (I am starting to appreciate these friendships more and more. It can be years between conversations, yet we just pick up where we last left off. Edmonton is very much like a village that way for those of us who have been here all or most of our lives.)
Anyway, back to Sage restaurant at River Cree. Cam put us on the list for the media preview of the Mushroom Festival. (The Mushroom Festival officially happens this week, January 24, and it’s only $60 per person.) Mike even got dressed up – sort of, in his own cheeky way. And we drove through the blizzard and ridiculous cold that is Edmonton in January to celebrate mushrooms. I’m so glad we did.
First, we hadn’t been out to dine at Sage since Christophe Ithurrize had been lured away from Las Vegas over three years ago. Ithurrize is a French chef, of Basque blood. Good cooking should be encoded in his DNA. He’d also spent a decade+ with chefs in Las Vegas, where I assumed he’d have acquired some flair for the dramatic. I had high hopes for this mushroom feast.
Second, I love the idea of menus built around a seasonal ingredient. It happens all the time in Europe. I can recall the exact flavours of an asparagus menu at a restaurant in Berne, Switzerland — tender, white asparagus with a vinegary Béarnaise, velvety asparagus soup, etc. — and that was over 20 years ago. Menus built around a specific's vegetable perfection are few and far between in Canada. Rod Butters, chef/owner at RauDZ Regional Table in Kelowna, creates tomato menus each summer when the Okanagan farms can hardly keep up with the production. And Dana Ewart and Cameron Smith of Joy Road build their “cuisine de terroir” and their al fresco vineyard dinners largely around is sprouting or fruiting that very week in the Okanagan. These meals always end up being more than the sum of their parts.
I knew we were off to a good start when chef Ithurrize brought out the platter with the 12 different mushrooms we’d be eating, in one form or another, that night. As the meal progressed, I realized why I was loved these types of meals. A typical dinner actually makes no sense: a random soup or a random salad, some starch and protein, and then a topper of gluttony at the end. But a meal like Ithurrize and his second-in-command Robbie Oram were creating was like going to an gallery opening of a favorite local artist. So much more interesting given the constraints and context.
Ithurrize, Oram, and the rest of the kitchen at Sage came out to take a bow at the end. We applauded not so much because it was an extraordinarily good meal (it was), but because it was an extraordinary idea. Five courses in honour of a food that peaks in darkness and chill of winter. Strangers gathered around a table who become friends throughout a meal. This was exactly what we should be celebrating, especially in a place like Edmonton, on a -25 Celsius night like it was.