For the majority of us who weren’t raised in the culture of “club membership”, the whole idea can seem elitist and off-putting. I’m proud to say that I come from a long line of peasant stock. Hearty, tough and self-reliant, my ancestors lived well on not that much, stood up for equality and fought for fair treatment for farmers — farmers who weren’t members of any club, except perhaps Wheat Pools and Co-ops.
But rather than getting into a discussion of post-colonial class structure or my own personal derision for “old boys’ club”-style thinking, I’m going to talk about the food — because whether we like it or not, some of the best chefs in Saskatoon work at members-only clubs. So if you care about food, you might want to figure out how to snag an invite to eat at one of their restaurants, regardless your opinion of memberships and dress codes.
Both of the two remaining membership-oriented clubs in our vicinity, The Saskatoon Club and the Riverside Country Club, are worth dressing up for. You may want to go as a guest of a member a couple of times before you decide whether the food and ambiance is also worth the membership fees ($1,100/year for Saskatoon Club, plus a similarly steep one-time initiation fee, or $5,000/year for Riverside plus a $3,000 initiation fee — which includes access to the golf course).
I dined as a guest at Riverside a couple of months ago, enjoying the hospitality and skills of Executive Chef Darren Craddock, an import from Ontario who married a Saskatchewan girl. He’s also worked at Michelin-rated restaurants in Britain, and won gold at Gold Medal Plates in 2012.
We sampled some brilliant flavours that night, thoughtfully matched to some excellent wine. And the view! It isn’t called Riverside for nothing, offering a majestic vantage point river that can’t be found in any other restaurant in Saskatoon.
What topped the evening for me was a seared rare tuna with a citrus chili crust, finished with a Margherita sorbet. The contrast of spicy chili and an icy lime sorbet on fresh fish sent my endorphins into a tailspin. When that was followed by the most comforting dish of gnocchi with foraged morel mushrooms (picked by the chef, right on the property!) and garden peas, I just wanted to curl up next to a fireplace and savour it all night.
I also couldn’t stop eating the broiled rib-eye, which was covered in a sauce enriched with bone marrow. Then they served up a homemade ice cream alongside a flourless chocolate cake. The cake was just fine, but the ice cream — steeped with toasted popcorn and topped with fleur de sel — was a revelation. My brain was wrestling with the concept of ice cream and popcorn sharing the same physical space, but my mouth didn’t care about the concept: it just loved the execution.
On a more recent visit I went for lunch, and was immediately tempted by the steak sandwich: top sirloin, topped with Cambozola, garlic mushrooms, fried onions, and fresh sprouts.
I’m not often tempted by a steak sandwich on a menu, because we make great steaks at home; this one I would happily order again, as I thoroughly enjoyed every bite. I also loved that it was served open faced on a slice of Earthbound Bakery bread (a loose interpretation of “sandwich”, which was fine by me. There were some other nice touches, like fried capers (my favourite garnish) on the Caesar salad.
My husband couldn’t resist the Reuben sandwich, and I’ve never heard such groans of pleasure related to a sandwich ever before. I stole a bite (at risk of getting stabbed with a fork) and could see why he was enjoying it so much. It was a truly great Reuben — lots of mustard, warm all the way through and meltingly tender, from the pretzel bun to the long-cooked corned beef.
I can’t say I’m going to take up golf anytime soon, but I’ll certainly be looking for a chance to attend events where Craddock is in the kitchen — and hey, if anyone is a member, or knows one, please introduce me so I have a legitimate “in”.
Chef Anthony McCarthy, Executive Chef at The Saskatoon Club, has something of a similar story: he also married a Saskatchewan girl, and he’s also a Gold Medal Plates (2011) winner. His menu also shows off lots of local and seasonal ingredients, like Northern Lake pickerel and Pine View Farms chicken. In his back pocket, he also has a sous chef from Italy who makes his own charcuterie, and a pastry chef who rocks the desserts.
I sampled the charcuterie and the pickerel at a recent lunch, as well as a couple of salads. The pickerel was served with crispy skin (seriously, people! Crispy fish skin is worth pushing back the “yuck” factor. Done right, it’s delicious!) with local lentil risotto, and finished with lemon, anchovy and caper butter. I whiled away most of an afternoon picking at the charcuterie platter, enjoying pickled chanterelles and cauliflower alongside housemade cured pork loin, pork neck and spicy soppressata salami.
Dessert was a delightful collection of a mini-crème brulée, a tiny apple tartlet, and a dome of sacher torte — a chocolatey layered mousse cake.
The menu is studded with interesting touches, like seabuckthorn puree with scallops, pickled chanterelles in an Asian shrimp salad and wild blueberry ketchup on a bison burger. McCarthy doesn’t just use local ingredients; he coaxes them into higher incarnations of themselves.
Now this whole club scene might make you think you’ll never have access to these chefs, but McCarthy and Craddock ran the show at the Saskatoon Food Council’s local food celebration in August, which was open to the public, and they cater events regularly. Keep a look out for any chance to attend an event where they’re cooking. And using my “one degree of Saskatchewan” rule, chances are you know someone who knows someone who is a member of one of these clubs. Do something nice for them, and then get them to invite you to lunch or dinner. You won’t regret it.
Also keep an eye on the occasional public event held at The Saskatoon Club — on Oct. 27, for example, McCarthy is hosting celebrity chefs Connie DeSousa and John Jackson of Charcut Roast House in Calgary for a dinner. It’s not cheap ($160), but think what you’d spend on gas to drive to Calgary to go to Charcut. From that perspective, it’s a bargain to enjoy the cooking of world class chefs visiting from other cities.