We returned to the north east on Wednesday, starting out with breakfast at one of K's favourites, Back To Eden Bakery. It wasn't difficult to see why she was so fond of it - its cute vintage look, not to mention the entirely vegan and gluten-free goods, was just K's style. And their food was excellent on anyone's terms. We shared a smoked tempeh, mozzarella and fig scone (US$3.50 ~ AU$3.70), an asparagus-kale cashew tart (US$6 ~AU$6.40) and a lemon coconut cream pie (US$6.50 ~ AU$6.90). These wonderful morsels had me hatching plans for my own oven, though I can barely hope to bake as well as the pros at Back To Eden.
We wandered North East Alberta for a while, poking our noses into shops and galleries, taking note of other cafes, bars and restaurants we wanted to try later.
One of them was Salt & Straw, an icecreamery that came recommended by our walking tour guide Erik. He boasted about their extensive and imaginative flavours, with new limited edition options popping up every season. The staff were enthusiastic about what they were selling - natural, organic and local-as-possible ingredients - and were generous with the free taste tests. I didn't notice any vegan-friendly labelling, but these are folks you could quiz (you'd surely be half a chance with the fruit flavours). Michael ordered a waffle cone of one of their cocktail series specials, rhubarb and saffron in champagne, while I tried a cup of their oddball pear and blue cheese icecream (US$3.95 ~ AU$4.20 each). These were dense, smooth custards with carefully rendered flavours; no wonder we saw queues out the door every subsequent stroll past the shop.
And stroll we did, for a while longer, before getting on a bus back toward our accommodation.
We made a stop along the way at Blossoming Lotus for a late lunch. This was not the hippy-dippy Asian-fusion cafe I was expecting from that name. Instead we experienced refined, understated decor and a menu of thoughtfully composed salads, bowls, sandwiches and tacos, all vegan. Michael ordered the Whiskey Ginger BBQ Sandwich and was somehow served up the BBQ Bowl (US$12 ~ AU$12.80). He didn't demur; it held tasty helpings of whiskey ginger bbq soycurls, potato salad, mac and cheese, and green apple slaw. I imagined the Cobb Salad (US$13 ~ AU$13.90) would be a modest choice yet was delivered an enormous platter of food, what seemed like an entire shredded lettuce topped with (left to right) impressively crispy coconut bacon, fresh beetroot strips, sliced cucumber, some underwhelming 'pecan chorizo', surely an entire tomato, half an avocado and a tub of caper ranch dressing. I did my darnedest.
We took another easy afternoon (a bit of a Portland pattern) and returned to NE Alberta for a dinner reservation at Natural Selection. As you might imagine, this is a restaurant focused on seasonal plant-based ingredients and they tend towards European styles of preparation. It's cosy yet upbeat, and not too formal. The kitchen offers two alternative dishes across each of four courses, at least one of which is vegan and gluten-free; with two of us at the table we were able to sample all eight plates (at US$45 ~ AU$48pp).
They started us off with a small but complex amuse bouche of beetroot and pear cubes and watermelon radish in a vinaigrette, garnished with shallots and beetroot soil.
For the first course, there was a velvetty asparagus, leek and potato soup garnished with parsnip, chives and lemon oil. It was just barely outdone by a dish of chestnut pasta with rapini, garlic, chilli, raisins and parmesan - I loved their light hand on the dressing and generous use of fresh greens, proving that pasta can be light and summery.
Next, salads. The left plate combined butter lettuce and apricots with pickled strawberries, snap peas and pistachio cream. On the right we had a more astringent mix of lettuces and icicle radish with orange, dried fig, fennel and fried olives.
The main dishes were warmer and heftier, though they still had their fine dining flourishes. Michael preferred the wild rice and beetroot (pictured left) with mushrooms, cider, fennel and a thick parsnip puree. I was more taken by the peas and carrots, though the confit carrots were tough to get a knife through - a bit of mint really lifted the pea puree.
A small serve of lemon ginger cinnamon granita perked me up no end. Given how well these ingredients work in pairs, I shouldn't have been so surprised that they were a great trio.
The lychee gelee dessert (pictured right) was always going to be a hard sell for me, but some strawberries set it right. (While I'm not afraid of basil in a dessert, the granita and deep-fried leaf here didn't help me out.) The cherry and cornmeal upside down cake (pictured left) was more predictably our style, served with a stunning orange and balsamic icecream.
This was a good meal in a splendid restaurant; I was glad to eat such a variety of fresh produce. Not all of the fancy accents and nth ingredients enhanced my enjoyment but there were a couple of memorable moments - the chestnut pasta, lemon granita and orange icecream among them.