Anyone reading this who has either heard about, or been fortunate enough to visit the Tree River in Nunavut, is likely of the view that this little piece of heaven on earth is justifiably famous for both its breathtaking natural beauty and the world’s biggest Arctic Char.
And while those are certainly stone cold facts, this year you can add one more to the list, because it currently boasts some of the finest cooking north of the South Pole. That’s right – cooking – and during this years pilgrimage to the Tree, we were simply blown away by the amazing food created by Chef Robin Maharag.
No stranger to the kitchen having plied his trade in such places as Earl’s, the Prairie Oyster Café, the Fort Gary Hotel, and his own place called the Dead Fish Café located in Winnipeg’s Osborne Village, he decided to use two years of banked vacation, pack up his knives and head north – way north!
Not only did Robin transform both local ingredients – including fresh Arctic Char and edible flora – and those provided to him by Plummer’s Great Bear Lake Lodge, he took it a step further and transformed the outpost “cookhouse” into an open concept kitchen thereby giving guests the opportunity to interact directly with him while he worked his magic.
He named his newly reconfigured eatery the Tree River Bistro. (see sign above)
Once we arrived, stowed away our gear, and were briefed on the daily routine by camp manager Shane Newberry (who also knew his way around the kitchen, and the onsite smoker), Robin served up homemade turkey club sandwiches, complimented by an outstanding curried lentil soup.
That soup featured such a variety and depth of complex flavours that I couldn’t help muttering to myself about just how good it was throughout the entire meal. Unfortunately the club was stacked about a mile high, and as a result I only managed to put away a single bowl.
Following a fabulous afternoon of fishing, and while watching “Pike Mike” fillet a Char that would no doubt be transformed into something special, Robin served the first of three appetizers he would prepare today – a house made Margarita flatbread.
Next up was a piece of perfectly cooked Arctic Char that had been lightly seasoned and baked with lemon butter. This was followed by a beautifully arranged plate of Char Sashimi, accompanied by three sauces, including a house made Wasabi.
As luck would have it our Chef du Cuisine was only getting warmed up, and it was now time for the main event.
Dîner à la Rivière des Arbre
Arctic Char Sashimi
Baked Arctic Char w/Lemon Butter
Almond Crusted Bone-In Beef Tenderloin w/Whipped Goat Cheese Butter, Fire Grilled Vegetables, Balsamic Reduction and Tomato Bruschetta Salsa
Toasted Coconut Dolce du Leche w/Coconut-Cinnamon “Arctic Sea Ice” Ice Cream
House Brewed Peach Iced Tea w/Fresh Orange and Ginger
No shit – I’m not making any of this up.
But before moving on, a word about the “Arctic Sea Ice” ice cream.
Turns out that Robin brought along his ice cream maker, and the previous evening, both he and Shane boated down river to the Arctic Ocean, and while watching the seals play on and around the ice, decided to bring back a couple of pieces and use it to make ice cream.
Now I really HATE coconut – but man, that ice cream was over the top. Sweet, salty and creamy, with fortunately – for me anyway – just a hint of coconut flavour.
At most outpost camps and lodges, breakfast tends to be a set menu, featuring fairly standard breakfast fare – but not at the Tree River Bistro.
Breakfast was served a la carte with choices ranging from the usual suspects to custom made omelettes, frittatas, and something I had never tried, a triple decker version of a “Denver” sandwich.
This consisted of a Denver or Western omelette (ham, onion, green pepper, and scrambled eggs) with bacon and cheese thrown in for good measure.
And if that wasn’t more than enough, he also tossed about a pound of crispy, oven-roasted potatoes onto the plate as well.
I could barley get out of my chair.
Lunch featured a delicious roasted tomato soup, but being still pretty much full from breakfast, the best I could do was a single bowl accompanied by one of the homemade rolls he had whipped up while we were out fishing.
Just as we were finishing, Shane offered us a piece of cherry wood smoke Char, which despite being full of soup and a roll, I couldn’t resist trying.
So I’m willing to bet that by now your wondering just what Robin served up for dinner this evening.
Drum roll please…
Dîner à la Rivière des Arbre – Journée Deux
Vietnamese Style Arctic Char Spring Rolls
Salad of Mixed Greens w/Fresh Herbs, Apple and Goat Cheese
Oven Roasted Turkey
Rice Pilaf w/Apple & Apricot
Roasted Root Vegetables
“KFC” Style Gravy
Dark Chocolate Cake w/Caramel – Ginger Sauce & Whipped Cream
In terms of the “KFC” Gravy, it was NOTHING like the crap they serve at the Colonel’s, but rather was Robin showing off his whimsical side and having a bit of fun. Needless to say it was excellent – sorry Colonel!
For breakfast he prepared me a goat cheese and tomato frittata with fresh herbs. Yum…
When lunch came around, he was preparing wraps of some kind, but as my digestive system was still attempting to deal with breakfast, it was all I could do to sample a very small portion of a rustic style pâté, featuring mesquite smoked char that Robin and Shane had concocted – well maybe not that small.
This guy clearly has a passion for cooking, and his amazing food, plating, and overall attention to detail would not have been out of place in any restaurant, anywhere – including fortunately for us – the outer rim of the continent.
And just when I thought the Tree River experience couldn’t get any better.