People from Toronto won’t believe it, but Saskatoon punches above its weight in the dojo of the culinary arts. For a small city in the middle of nowhere, we have a number of world-class restaurants.
One of the best spots in town recently got an upgrade — Hearth Restaurant.
Chefs Thayne Robstad and Beth Rogers traveled and worked in kitchens outside of the province. In 2018, back in Saskatoon, they launched Hearth in the former, former Crazy Cactus location on Melrose. They were an immediate hit with the foodie crowd, not because they were some boujee joint, but because they executed simple fare without pretension, often with a Saskatchewan bent.
At the beginning of this year, they took a leap to the space at the Remai Modern Art Gallery. It’s a bright, open room, looking out on the river. The previous restaurant had been a letdown — bland corporate food with too many frozen, processed items. We sadly wrote it off after a couple of disastrous visits.
But I’ve been to the new Hearth a few times now and it’s been stellar. I know they were hyper conscious of how much more volume they had to do in the new digs; there are more seats and they also agreed to take on catering. But their attention to detail made their transition wonderfully smooth (well, from a customer perspective, anyway).
I’ve gone for a lunch with a co-worker (where I had the best BLT I’ve ever eaten; nothing fancy, just super fresh, quality ingredients). And I’ve had one dinner with my wife as well as a second sit down with my wife and another couple. Rather than go through a blow-by-blow of each dinner, let me just talk about all the things we’ve eaten:
Both times I had dinner, I started with the Oaxaca (waa-haa-kuh) Martini, which I am officially obsessed with. It looks clear like vodka or water but it contains cocoa butter vodka, dry vermouth, chili mezcal, and chili chocolate. It’s a rich, boozy chocolate flavour with a chili kick.
We usually start with the fish fry, a riff on the quintessentially Saskatchewan shore lunch; beer battered pike, crispy pickerel wing, smoked trout cake, with tartar sauce. It’s a really great appetizer plate to share — light but delicious. I’d wager you could also order a salad or something and eat it as a light entrée.
We shared a few mains, including the polenta and sausage. Grilled sausage, cheddar polenta, pork jus, prunes, herbs — simple, but hearty and packed with flavour.
We also had the peas & carrots, which was actually a carrot tortellini with buttered peas, herbs, and smoky bread crumbs. It was rich and flavourful and the peas were vibrant and garden fresh.
We’ve also tried the pork dish; Grilled coppa, fried torn potatoes, crispy green veggies of all kinds, labneh, and pork jus. Coppa is among the butcher cuts gaining traction among some chefs. It’s an extension of the loin that runs through the pork shoulder, best used as charcuterie or slow roasting because it has a lot of fat (To quote my friends at Pine View Farms: fat = flavour!).
I couldn’t resist trying the beef dish, which was a grilled striploin, short rib, crispy potato hash, roasted mushrooms, pickles, sour cream, mustard, and dill. The beef was the star of the plate, but the potatoes were divine as well.
I didn’t taste this, but a friend also ordered the chicken dish, which she enjoyed. It was a chicken ballotine w/ tomato, fennel, soubise, kalamatta olives, herbs, sourdough croutons. The term ballotine comes from the French word balle, meaning a package or bundle. So, a ballotine is meat presented in a bundle.
The service at Hearth is top notch. We’ve had several allergies in our parties (my wife can’t eat dairy and another friend will immediately die if she even thinks too hard about nuts). The server walked through the menu with us and showed us what substitutions the kitchen could make and how we could be accommodated. You could tell she was trained to do this and knew the menu. Treating customers like this puts the “hospitality” in hospitality industry.
Here’s an anecdote that illustrates their classy service and proves that I’m a dummy (or that I should slow down on the martinis). After the dinner with my wife, I paid a portion of the bill with a gift card. Then I paid the rest with my debit card. So, when I typed in 20% for the tip, I totally forgot that I’d have to compensate for the gift card balance not being part of the total in calculating the tip.
Which means, I stiffed the server about $15. Whoops! I didn’t realize until I got home and my wife saw the receipt and pointed out what a dummy I am (she gets too much pleasure out of doing that). The next morning, I brought a crisp $20 bill back to the restaurant in an envelope with the server’s name on it.
But here’s the rub — the server clearly saw that I had stiffed her and she acted like it hadn’t happened, smiling and having a conversation with us. That, my friends, is great service.
Of course, great service is important, but the food is everything. And every single thing I’ve tasted at Hearth is a beautiful hybrid of upscale dining and technique meeting down-to-Earth unpretentiousness.
Robstad and Rogers are creating something beautiful; rustic, yet forward thinking prairie flavours, that we haven’t seen done this well since the halcyon days of The Hollows (run by Chefs Christie Peters and Kyle Michael, who also own Primal Pasta and Pop Wine Bar, two of my other favourite spots in town). These chefs are all doing amazing work, standing on the shoulders of our grandmothers to explore the potential of what refined, 21st century Saskatchewan dining can be.