The Willow on Wascana is the only restaurant by the shore of Lake Wascana, within a 44 acre park of the same name, in the Canadian city of Regina. Peeking through the restaurant’s venetian blinds I catch a view of the grand Legislative Assembly of Saskatchewan building.
The tables on the patio would be a good place for a bite to eat or a cold beer on a sunny day but today the sky is unseasonally overcast. I head inside, where brass and wood rotating fans hang from the ceiling.
Atlantic Canada and New England are well be known for their seafood chowders but here it’s land chowder – made with wild boar belly and leek – that stands out, for me, among the starters.
Rather than going from the menu for my choice of main course I order the chef’s special; potato hash topped with two fried eggs. The fresh flavours of raw tomato and crisp onion burst through, adding a crispness to the texture of the pleasantly spicy but simple dish.
“Usually we do fine-dining with casual, upper-level comfort food,” explains head chef Tim Davies, aged 32, who left Banff, Alberta, at 18 to travel to Europe and work in kitchens in England and Spain. A six course tasting menu is offered during evening sittings, in addition to dishes such as steak frites and maple cherry pork.
“We change our menu seasonally. This year our winter lasted longer so we skipped the spring menu and went straight into the summer menu. Then we get a crazy flash flood, from rain, and a lot of our suppliers lost almost 50 per cent of their vegetables and crops, so we’re struggling trying to keep up with them,” he says.
“When I started running this place, four years after I started working here, I found there wasn’t many places in Regina where I could find things I wanted to eat. So I started making things I wanted to eat for other people…but mostly so I could eat them. It took off from there. Every couple of months we change our menu and it’s focused on things I like eating,” explains Davies, in a matter-of-fact way.
Regional produce features highly among the ingredients used by Davies and his team: “In summertime we go 95 to 98 per cent local produce. Yearly it’s all local proteins; so we have local meat suppliers all year round. We’ve outsourced a couple of standard ingredients that are grown locally. We have a mushroom supplier who grows indoors, so we get them year round. We’ve recently started replacing our olive oil with camelina oil, which is grown here, so we have that all year round. And we have a guy in Saskatoon who grows our spouts all year round. We try and keep 80 per cent of our dishes local.”
So, have I tried his signature dishes?
It transpires that the land chowder is very popular.
“That’s been on our menu since the day we opened. The presentation changes but the menu never does. We’ve had threatening letters that if it’s ever taken off the menu that someone will burn the restaurant down, so I’m not allowed to change it,” says Davies, laughing about an epistle expressing deep admiration for his chowder.
“Our most popular dish at present is our mushroom gnocchi; it’s on the night-time menu. It’s a creamy truffle sauce with our handmade gnocchi and some black garlic puree. That’s been on our past three menus, with different variations,” he adds.
The Willow on Wascana wins accolades for its cuisine yet also provides a learning environment for young chefs.
“We do a lot of pasta work. We’re a learning kitchen, so everything is from scratch. We have wild boar burger; we get whole wild boars and butcher them down. Half gets made into Mexican pulled pork for pizzas and tacos. The other half is used in the burgers,” he explains, mentioning that bison, whole lamb and whole chickens are also worked in the kitchen.
The Willow on Wascana opens for lunch and dinner sittings.
The Willow on Wascana is at 3000 Wascana Drive, P.O. Box 1031, Regina, S4P 3B2, tel., +1 306 585 3663 and stocks fine wines, selected by sommelier David Burke. See the menu on the restaurant’s website, where you can check opening times and make an online reservation.
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