Story by Adrian Brijbassi
SASKATOON, SASKATCHEWAN — Perhaps there is no greater endorsement of Saskatoon and its rise in stature as a destination than what prodigal son Dale MacKay has chosen to do. MacKay was the first winner of Top Chef Canada, he had established himself among Daniel Boulud‘s successful brigade of proteges, and he was living in Vancouver, a city in proximity to many of the exceptional products coveted by cooks. A chef with MacKay’s achievements would have no shortage of choices, in Vancouver or anywhere else.
MacKay, though, opted for Saskatoon. Not only that, he managed to convince some of his closest and most talented friends to join him. Nathan Guggenheimer, a British Columbian who was chef de cuisine at Boulud’s DB Bistro in Vancouver while MacKay was heading up Lumiere, helps run the kitchen as executive chef. Christopher Cho, who has teamed with MacKay in the past and was previously at CHARCUT in Calgary, is the general manager and mixologist. Another kitchen crew member from Vancouver, Jesse Zuber, is the head chef. Desserts are divine and prepared by Zuber and Stacey Coates, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.
It all adds up to one of the best restaurants in Canada — and there are many reasons why you could make a case that it is No. 1. Ayden Kitchen & Bar is that good.
Housed in a converted diner, Ayden is a huge 3,100-square-foot restaurant, with an equally sized kitchen beneath its wood floors. It is in the subterranean space that MacKay and Guggenheimer work their magic for the Ayden menu.
“This is even bigger than Daniel’s kitchens,” MacKay says, recalling time spent at his mentor’s enterprises. When he speaks about his own kitchen, MacKay beams. Chefs, sous chefs and pastry chefs have stations where they can spread out and concoct. A tall meat grinder churns out the hamburgers that have already become a thing of legend in Saskatoon, even though Ayden is less than six months old.
The Classic Butcher Burger ($25) is thick with Canadian prime ribeye beef, aged for more than 14 days, and blended with some fresh beef brisket to add plumpness before it’s grounded with garlic and rosemary. The chefs then sprinkle in pieces of bone marrow (yes, bone marrow) and top it with a fried egg. It is ridiculous and ridiculously good.
“We cook it medium rare, or not past medium. We know it’s completely safe at medium rare because we know exactly where the beef comes from. You cook it passed medium, it starts to come apart. So if someone wants it cooked any more than that, we recommend they order something else,” MacKay says with an artist’s zeal for perfection.
With a grin and chuckle that’s a touch diabolical, he adds: “It’s not a burger for the faint of heart, that’s for sure. If you’re watching your weight or are concerned about your cholesterol, you should stay completely clear of it.”
The eight-ounce burger is an indulgence of protein and calories. It is also a symbol, in a way, of today’s Saskatoon. This is comfort food, but created with the exuberance of youth and the confidence of craftsmen who know financial opportunity is in front of them. In recent years, Saskatoon has been one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities. Sparked by a boom in agriculture and natural resources, the city is flush with cash. Citizens are eager for flavours and experiences that can match their level of discretionary spending. When they’re on the menu, the butcher burgers go fast.
“What Dale is doing is really impressive. They’re insisting on top-quality ingredients and people in Saskatoon are ready to pay what they’re asking,” says Cary Bowman, a proprietor of Lucky Bastard Distillery, a boutique spirit maker who supplies Ayden and other restaurants in the city.
Aficionados will appreciate the artful presentation, foodies will talk up the Brussel Sprouts Salad ($13) that will actually make you a fan of brussel sprouts, and people who don’t care about anything else beyond how the food on their plate tastes and that there’s enough of it will be more than satisfied. When I visited earlier this month, the place was packed and more groups were coming in. “It’s always like this,” says Cho. “I’ve never been in a city where people eat out in large groups as much as I’ve seen here. It’s a very communal place.”
Ayden, named after MacKay’s son, isn’t cheap (dinner prices are what you would find in Toronto or Calgary). And neither is it elite. The decor is bistro-welcoming, the ambience is cozy and casual. There’s a bust of a 210-point deer above the bar. “I’ve been offered $3,000 for it,” MacKay says, gazing at the hunting trophy that was delivered by one of his business partners.
Saskatoon Shines Thanks to Top Chef Winner
Of all the restaurants in Canada, Ayden reminds me of a mix of Model Milk, the bustling Calgary restaurant that serves casual food done extraordinarily well, and Raymonds, the flawless and elegant enterprise in St. John’s, Newfoundland & Labrador that will serve cod cheeks and game and do it in a laid-back atmosphere, complete with a moose head above the bar.
“People absolutely appreciate what Dale’s done. He could have gone anywhere but the fact he decided to come back to his hometown says something about him and about what’s happening in Saskatoon,” says Tom Brown, owner of Tom B’s Wild Cuisine, a catering company and food outlet located at the Saskatoon Farmers’ Market. “There are a lot of people who are really passionate about food in this town, so I think he’s in the right place and he’s come back at the right time.”
The restaurant seats more than 100 people and serves lunch and dinner with a focus on seasonal ingredients. Ayden also produces its own charcuterie, pates and sausages. MacKay and Guggenheimer share space on the menu, each bringing their distinctive vision to the restaurant. Guggenheimer’s dishes are hearty staples like Lamb Cassoulet while MacKay demonstrates the technical skill that saw him shine at Lumiere under Boulud and outcompete CHARCUT’s Connie Desousa for the Top Chef Canada prize in 2011.
At the time, MacKay was opening ensemble, a wonderful but short-lived restaurant in Vancouver’s expensive West End. The financial drag proved onerous and when ensemble closed in 2012, he set his eyes on home.
“I wanted to come back to Saskatoon a long time ago but there were commitments in Vancouver,” MacKay says. “This has been a dream for a long time.”
Having his compatriots along for the ride is crucial, too. Guggenheimer says this year’s brutal winter was a testament to the dedication Ayden’s workers have to the project. Despite the frigid, record-setting chill, staffers and the public kept coming in.
“When it was minus-60 last weekend, we were giving Dale a hard time, for sure,” jokes Guggenheimer, who is from Pitt Meadows, a suburb of Vancouver, where temperatures rarely fall below freezing. “But we are passionate about what we’re doing. It’s not easy finding an opportunity to do something like this and to do it with people who you get along with so well.”
MORE ABOUT AYDEN KITCHEN BAR
Address: 265 3rd Avenue, Saskatoon, SK (see map below)
Reservations: Telephone: 1-306-954-2590, or book online here.
Hours of Operation: Dinner 5:30-close, Monday-Saturday; Lunch: 11:30 am-2 pm, Monday-Friday.
Menu Price Range: Dinner entrees range from $17-$36; lunch is reasonably prices at $11-$16.
You Must Order: The Classic Butcher Burger ($25), if it’s on the menu when you visit, but don’t forget the Souffle ($13) for dessert. It’s airy, textured, utterly delightful and no doubt addictive given the volume of orders that are sold.