The Vermillion Room
Location: 405 Spray Ave, Banff, Alta.
Atmosphere: A fairly luxurious-looking, but comfortable setting for lunch or dinner.
Drinks on offer: Wine, cocktails and some beer.
Best bets: Petit plateau, steak tartare, classique pissaladière, côte de boeuf, pain perdue
Vegetarian friendly? Not overly, but the restaurant appears happy to modify certain dishes for guests.
Despite being surrounded by majestic snow-dusted peaks of the Rocky Mountains, dining in one of the world’s most iconic mountain towns is rarely a memorable experience.
That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy spending time in Banff. I have no qualms about a Tex-Mex mishmash meal studded with big pints of beer and the odd shot or two of tequila with friends at the casual Magpie and Stump or having a cocktail at Park Distillery, but let’s face it: A great dinner in the heart of Banff is near impossible to find.
It’s hard to say why exactly that is. It’s equally hard not to compare the dining scene in the country’s other similarly famous mountain destination, Whistler, which boasts concepts such as the contemporary Italian eatery Il Caminetto, the delicious Spanish eatery Bar Oso and the earnestly locally-minded Alta Bistro.
All hope is not lost, though, as you can find satisfying fare on the perimeter of town inside hotel properties such as Buffalo Mountain Lodge, The Rimrock Resort Hotel or the Fairmont Banff Springs.
Having The Vermillion Room open up in the former Bow Valley Grill space inside the latter last May was truly a breath of fresh – yet classically French – air in an otherwise mediocre food town. Like many Fairmont properties in recent years, the Banff Springs recognized the need for a bit of reinvention when it came to some of its dining options (of which it has nine).
This striking brasserie concept comes with plenty of oohs and awws upon entering, courtesy of the Calgary-based Frank Architecture and Interiors (Bridgette Bar, Pigeonhole). Cushy, polished brass-framed bar seats sit facing out to a snowy terrace and mountain views while rust-coloured leather seating around the nicely segmented dining room all make for an ideal seat around dark-stained wood table tops.
After sitting down for dinner with friends on a particularly snowy winter evening in a somewhat quiet dining room, we encountered a most-welcoming server, Daniel, who turned out to be one of the best servers I have had at a restaurant in Alberta in recent memory.
He calmly moved around the table taking drink orders and providing recommendations without hesitation. Dish descriptions and preparations rolled off the tongue as though he had been serving French cuisine to patrons all his life, and perhaps he had.
The restaurant’s chef de cuisine, Ryan Watson, primarily sticks to classic preparations of French dishes here. Of course, subtle nods to locality are present and include things such as cuts of Alberta beef (naturally), braised Alberta bison in a satisfactory bourguignon as well as lentils and Prairie grains served “en papillote” with tender sablefish and a bright citrus-infused beurre blanc.
Going out of the box isn’t necessary when this kind of cooking is involved, simply solid technique and proper seasoning. Watson’s tartare is pleasant tasting, especially with the addition of smoked onion intermingled in beef, caper and Dijon mixture and presented with house kettle chips. Drizzles of aioli underneath the tartare add a nice richness to what I feel is the only appropriate way to begin a meal at a French brasserie.
We move happily along to a generously stocked chilled seafood tower that offers up a lobster tail, clams, crab legs, prawns, mussels, oysters and their expected accoutrements. A frenzy of shell-cracking and oyster slurping ensues at the table, making for an admittedly uncouth juxtaposition to our refined surroundings. C’est la vie!
A classic dish that originated in Nice called pissaladière was a foreign listing on Vermillion’s menu. Perhaps summed up best as a French version of pizza that opts for puff pastry as a base, the buttery, flaky “classique” variation came topped with sweetly caramelized onions, salty black olives, parsley and a sprinkling of lemon zest. It was an unexpected sleeper hit during dinner and given its scarcity on menus in Western Canada, I highly recommend ordering it should you have the chance.
Not surprisingly, the côte de boeuf is the true showstopper of the evening. A 36-ounce, bone-in rib-eye lands on the table, cooked to a lovely medium-rare, generously salted, surrounded by orange-glazed beets, béarnaise, red wine jus and what I can only describe as the most heavenly bowl of boulangère potatoes. A truly carnivorous platter.
A robust French dinner such as this doesn’t always leave much room for dessert, but a snowy evening in the mountains begs for a warm, sweet finish. Somewhat misleadingly titled as “pain perdu” (i.e. French toast), a near-perfect cube of bread pudding, golden brown and caramelized on top is placed in front of us sitting in a warm pool of lightly salted caramel sauce.