On any given day in March, Yellowknife’s SnowKing Castle could be hosting an art show, a music concert, a course on building ice castles, a wedding, a movie screening, or a gourmet nine-course dinner. This is no cold comfort. This is a gem that you’ll only find in a winter-loving place.
In Yellowknife, NWT, winters are long. By March 1, it is still very much winter, but the days are longer, and the sun feels warmer. And that’s when those of us that prefer winter that’s sunny and relatively warm come out to play.
One of the best winter places to play is during the annual SnowKing Winter Festival. For the past 24 years, the SnowKing and his crew have been building a castle on Great Slave Lake, one of the world’s largest lakes. The castle is made entirely out of ice and snow, and is redesigned every year. This year’s design focussed on fish. It’s absolutely a labour of love. At the end of March, when the festival is over, the castle is knocked down. One more reason why March attracts so many visitors to Yellowknife.
And so it was that 40 hearty and parka-clothed diners gathered one chilly (minus 21 C) evening in March at the SnowKing Castle for a special gourmet dinner. The dinner was prepared by Chef Niki Mckenzie, one of the brilliant and innovative chefs to find her way to the Yellowknife culinary scene. Niki arrived from New Zealand. Not only was she the chef, but she also helped carve this year’s castle.
Chef Niki and her partner Jared Bihun call themselves #86ykEATS, and pursue a laudable, if difficult vision for their food creations: “Northern influence meets unique and imaginative dining.” Niki had wanted to host a dinner at the SnowKing castle for years, and this night it finally came to pass.
There are challenges to cooking in a snow castle. Chef Niki and her partner Jared Bihun prepared a sumptuous nine-course dinner using only a barbeque, a couple of burners and a sous vide. And what a dinner. This was a nine-course affair, where the guests did not know what the next course was until it was served. While Niki worked on finishing touches, Jared explained that as chefs, their vision was to focus on local products, including foraged ingredients and those that would not normally be used in the kitchen. This goes not just for this night in the SnowKing’s Castle, but every day, and every meal.
Multi-course meals are typically tasting affairs, with little nibbles of each course. This was not that! After the welcome snack of whitefish jerky with cultured butter and celtic salt, each course was substantial, and delicious and each seemed more unique and imaginative then the last.
We started with cod liver pate, whitefish terrine and burnt lime candy trout. That was followed with burnt squash, sprouted grain salad, fermented honey garlic, fermented pomegranate and squash caramel. The highlight of the evening, though, was the oxtail tortellini, in a morel and black garlic tea, treated with parsley oil and sesame oil. The tortellini rivalled what you might find in an Italian chef’s kitchen.
Then came a bread course of sourdough, with Chef’s take on pemmican (a traditional aboriginal food) and caviar, with coney belly bacon and coney gravlax. All of this was accompanied with trout skin chicharon.
Chef Niki followed with a birch braised duck leg, along with a smoked split pea puree served with pickled spruce tips, blackened coffee carrots and beet gastrique. This dish would have made a hearty meal all on its own.
And when we thought we could eat no more, came dessert. Not one but two. The first dessert was a northern sky semifreddo on juniper shortbread. And finally a goodbye “snack” of a cookie smore with a hickory smoked marshmallow. This was served with Mayan xocolati – hot chocolate.
By the end of this feast fit for a king, appropriately served inside a castle, we were stuffed beyond belief. But our feet were starting to get cold. With a floor of a frozen lake, it was bound to happen. As we waddled off into the chilly night, and back onto land, all of us agreed that #86ykEATS certainly lived up to their promise this night: Northern influence meets unique and imaginative dining.