Last week at the Vancouver Folk Festival, my dinner was pulled bison on bannock from Salmon’n’Bannock catering. The meal was so far above what I expected that yesterday, when my editor flew into town, I suggested going to the restaurant of the same name. The result was the most memorable meal I’ve had this year.
Salmon’n’Bannock is a small restaurant on Broadway specializing in First Nations cuisine. Its walls are decorated with Northwest Coast and Woodlands prints of decent but not outstanding quality, and the front of the house is staffed with women dressed in black who provide friendly but unobtrusive service.
What makes Salmon’n’Bannock stand out is its approach to the food. Other First Nations restaurants that have come and gone in Vancouver usually took what might be called the hearty approach, serving thick steaks of game and plenty of greasy (but delicious fry bread). In contrast, Salmon’n’Bannock interprets its roots in terms of light, modern cuisine, and does so with considerable success.
For instance, its cured muskox appetizer is not a slab of meat, but a few slivers of meat with blueberry chutney, served on bannock crackers with a few salad greens. Similarly, the salmon platter for two – which I did not eat, but saw delivered to a nearby table – consists of samples of salmon prepared in four different ways (Indian candy, lox roll, salmon mousse, and pickled sockeye), all of which look unexpectedly delicate.
As might be expected, the restaurant focuses on local sea food, especially salmon and halibut. However, the menu also includes extensive samplings of game from across Canada, including bison, muskox, deer and wild boar. Wild rice, sweet potatoes, and salad greens make most of the garnishes.
My main course was bacon-crusted halibut, served with a garlic cream sauce. At any time, halibut is my favorite fish, its taste being far lighter and more delicate than any variety of salmon, but this was by far the best I had tasted anywhere. The flesh was soft and white, and its subtle taste was emphasized by the juice of the bacon and its fat. From the enjoyment my editor took in the sockeye with creamy dill sauce, I suspect I would have liked it almost as much.
Both the halibut and the salmon were served with a selection of zucchini and carrots, and, at our option with large portions of wild rice. The vegetables seemed a bit of an afterthought, but that seemed excusable, considering that the fish were the main attraction of both dishes, both by intent and execution.
We washed dinner down with alcoholic strawberry and rhubarb cider, and finished a fresh berry pie served with ice-cream that left me wanting to sample more of the menu on a second, or even a third or fourth visit.
If Salmon’n’Bannock has a fault, it is that, instead of cooking traditional dishes, it is more likely to take traditional ingredients and combine them in what – judging from their distribution across North America – could not have been traditional ways.
At times, this choice was probably just as well – I expect, for instance, that most modern diners would prefer to eat the halibut with bacon rather than a pot of grease prepared with their auntie’s special recipe. But I wouldn’t have minded an option for fry bread, even though the baked bannock was almost as tasty. Next time, too, I plan to try the Nuxalk salmon soup, the only traditional dish on the menu.
However, for lovers of fish and game, such faults are minor. I can’t think of another casual restaurant in Vancouver (or any restaurant, period) whose fish I enjoyed so much. So far as I’m concerned, the Salmon’n’Bannock is the place I’ll be taking visitors for the next little while. In fact, I don’t think I’ll wait for my next visitors for my next step in eating through the menu.