Bearded chefs busy at work and the background buzz of relaxed conversations provide my first impressions of Ayden Kitchen and Bar in downtown Saskatoon, in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan.
As I’m shown to my table – under a high ceiling hung with spherical, wrought iron sculptures – I glance over at the well-lit open kitchen. I’ve been informed that this place is widely regarded as one the hippest spots in Saskatoon for dining and drinking cocktails. Dale MacKay, a Saskatoon native and the winner of the 2011 series of Top Chef Canada, opened Ayden Kitchen and Bar in November 2013. It’s located within a roomy, 113 year old heritage building.
I sneak a peek into the bar, where the antlered head of a 206 point buck stares out from the white tiled wall. Mixologist Christopher Cho is busy at work. He prepares cocktails that are delivered to a group of women sitting at a high-backed, purple banquette in the adjacent room.
This part of Canada has a reputation for its steaks, so unless one of the specials of the day grabs my attention, I already know what I’m going to order; the restaurant’s signature dish, silver rib eye served with twice baked potato and an arugula (rocket) salad.
First though, I share a sausage platter, consisting of three succulent, intensely flavoured sausages served with vegetables and crisp slaw on a wooden board. My favourite of the three is flavoured with lemongrass.
Sharing means I also have opportunities to sample the crispy coated chicken wings and dip into the charcuterie plate, the work of Nathan Guggenheimer, Ayden Kitchen’s executive chef and butcher.
My steak, tender and with a textured edge, comes served on a wooden board.
“It’s the one dish we’ve never changed since we opened and probably won’t. It’s one of those things that you want it there for the people who just want to come and have a nice steak. You don’t want to screw around with it too much or put anything on top; just a little bit of pepper corn and butter. People want to say they’ve had a steak, especially in Saskatchewan, right?” says MacKay with a smile.
I’m intrigued as to how he’s prepared the potato.
“We bake them in salt, just to release the moisture out of the potato. We scoop them out and then we actually fry the skin, so it’s nice and crispy, season inside, take the insides of the potato and mix them with roast garlic, lemon zest, olive oil, crispy shallots, basil, salt and some Gruyere cheese. That’s it,” he says, making it sound easy.
“I’ve always done quite formal fine-dining. Actually, I lived in England for about three years and worked for Gordon Ramsay back then, before he got quite famous. When I decided to come and open this up it had to be financially feasible. Getting people to come in three or four times a week rather than once a month or once a year is part of that,” says MacKay, who defines his concept as “refined rustic” dining.
“We’ve got everything from chicken wings, which are one of my favourite things on the menu, to much more refined desserts and soufflés, so it’s a nice blend. We’re not trying to be everything for everyone, we’re just cooking things the way we like to cook. I like the fact you can have chicken wings or popcorn prawns or sausage platter right beside a beautiful beef dish and they still fit together; it’s just because of the flavours,” he explains with relaxed confidence.
“We do everything in house, even the burgers. We grind the meat every day, fresh. Once we run out we run out. We bake our own buns. We make all of our sausage with no additives and no preservatives. The charcuterie is all made in house. The only thing we don’t do is the prosciutto, just because I’ve tried it a few times and it didn’t work out. Maybe you need a cave or need to be Italian; I don’t know,” he says laughing.
“Everything else, we do in house, which takes a bit of time.” MacKay usually arrives between 6.00 and 7.00am to bake ciabatta, buns, hoagies and sourdough bread for the day ahead.
MacKay and Guggenheimer work with farmers from close to Saskatoon to source their meat, preparing it down in the vast, cellar kitchen that’s the same size as the restaurant.
I ask about the sharp facial hair displayed by the chefs, suspecting there might be a competition as to whose is best.
“This is the beard basket of Canada, right? We’re Saskatchewan! I had one for so long and shaved it off recently and looked foolish. My jaw just shrunk, I think, when I had a beard, so I grew it back,” he says jokingly.
“We wanted to be super casual. I don’t wear a chef’s jacket any more. We keep it super chilled. We want it to be the place you come twice a week for lunch and dinner three times. It should be a fun place to go. Yet in Saskatoon this is somewhat of a formal place,” he says, surprising me as the vibe here strikes me as essentially laid-back.
“We’re one of the more, I wouldn’t say expensive places, but we have the cool factor and it’s exciting,” he adds.
Judging by the buzz around me it seems plenty of Saskatoon’s residents agree.
Ayden Kitchen and Bar is at 265 3rd Avenue in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada. Reserve online or by calling (+1) 306 954 2590. See the restaurant’s website for opening hours and to take a look at the menu.
Find out more about attractions and events in the city via Tourism Saskatoon’s website.