BANFF – There's a bright new restaurant on Banff Avenue shining a light on an emerging creative prowess in the mountain town's hospitality scene.
The Radiant officially opened its doors at the beginning of June and while the launch of Banff's newest eatery coincided with a public health crisis, Chef and co-owner Ryan De Alwis isn't one to shy away from a challenge.
"There were some benefits – this is like a pillowy soft open for us," De Alwis said with a laugh. "The learning curve has been very steep for us, but it is like a rollercoaster in the best possible way."
The first week saw the restaurant offer only cold delivery and hot takeout. But the limitations reinforced for the chef and team that The Radiant is more than a menu, but a combination of the food with the space created inside the historic Harmon building, and the decision was made to then open the doors for dine-in service.
"The menu wasn't designed to be put in takeout containers; it was really meant to be enjoyed in the space," De Alwis said, adding The Radiant isn't trying to be an average restaurant, even in these unprecedented times.
"I think restaurant is a loaded word in our particular industry with certain people because, I feel like calling The Radiant a restaurant is falling very short of what we envision for this space. We are a restaurant; we are a parlour; we are a lounge; we are a stage; we are a vehicle for artists to express themselves; we are a space where everyone is welcome."
That philosophy of inclusiveness can be found in the attention to detail in order to create a remarkable experience for each guest. An experience curated by artists in the kitchen, behind the bar and those who designed the space.
"You will see [our core values] seep into the smaller facets of the restaurant in terms of our menu, our philosophy and our approach," De Alwis said. "We do things differently here and we are here to make statements with everything we do."
Pasty Chef Anna-Engel Lebiadowski has embraced the creative challenge offered to her at The Radiant. She said her role creating the desserts, bread, crackers and other accoutrements for the menu has allowed her to blend her creativity with meticulousness and a love of food science.
"It feels like a family and like you are home when you are here," she said.
With the Black Lives Matter vigil and march in Banff planned for the same weekend as The Radiant opened its doors, Lebiadowski challenged guests to a food for thought dessert – a re-imagined vanilla cake.
"From the outside, this white vanilla cake is our vision of the world today," read Lebiadowski's conversation starter that accompanied the charcoal black cake served with icing on the side. "It's the American dream: perfect society, happy-comfortable, social environment we idealize. Underneath its surface, though, is the foundation of oppression we have fed into over years of systemically repetitive history.
"You thought you were getting that vanilla cake, think again. In a world where vanilla-ism dominates, we lose the virtues of every other equally valuable flavour."
For De Alwis, in the kitchen "iron certainly sharpens iron" and he isn't interested in playing it safe. The team has a lot fun, but when it comes to ingredients "we take ourselves very seriously." All ingredients are thoughtfully sourced or created, all the way down to a smoked fire-roasted tomato that must be prepared days in advance for the base of several sauces on the menu.
The kitchen is encouraged to be adventurous and the vision is to have the "most prolific larder" anyone has ever seen.
"We do not have the luxury of just being good from day one," he said. "We have to be great from day one and that is the goal – to be great every single day. So when someone comes here for the first time, they are completely blown away and they are not going to take a chance spending money anywhere else."
Co-owners, as well as husband and wife, Sebastian Hutchings and B Watson developed the space and its art-deco-inspired style. Hutchings' family has owned and managed the building dating back to his great-grandfather and photographer Byron Harmon who built it in 1909.
"The Radiant has been, for my wife and I, a project we have been working on for many years," Hutchings said. "I really wanted to bring the Harmons Building back to the way it used to be, which was focused around arts and culture and was also a vehicle for my great-grandfather to sell his work.
"I really wanted to have a sense of place and belonging that made sense to the building itself and the businesses."
The building has undergone a complete renovation, with work beginning last year and coinciding with its 110th anniversary. The Banff Yoga Practice studio and the Sideshow Gallery were opened, as well as renovation along the laneway have transformed what many locals still call Harmony Lane for its tea room established in the 1920s.
Hutchings said the renovation for The Radiant created a ambiance that combines the historic space with a modern, beautiful and inviting esthetic. Sitting inside the parlour, he said it feels like it has always been there looking out onto Banff Avenue.
Watson hand-picked the finishings with a vision to create an art-deco and Victorian tea-room inspired, early 20th century western Canadian space.
"In designing the space, we created two spaces in one," Hutchings added. "I think the way it has come out, it hits all those marks for us and we are really thrilled with it."
Huge windows fill the parlour-style entrance from Banff Avenue. Golden accessories shine beside natural wood bench seating and bright white patterned wallpaper create a spacious and distinct area from The Radiant's lounge inside. Nestled behind dark wooden doorways, the mood is darker in the lounge with a stage, emerald green custom booth seating and bar area.
Christian and Dagny Dubois round out the ownership group with expertise in real estate and Dagny crafting the wine list and working with brewers and distillers to source high quality libations.
For De Alwis, what the ownership team has put together is more than a restaurant. It is also about breaking down the barriers typically found in the industry between the front and back of house – to present a single unified vision.
The team is encouraged to use The Radiant as a vehicle for creative expression through food and drink. For De Alwis, things are done differently to achieve the vision the owners have to be exciting, inventive, experimental, audacious and unapologetic in its pursuit of creating an amazing culinary experience.
As a chef, De Alwis has also taken an unconventional route in the industry. He had no formal culinary training when he started out, having been a journalist and editor for a small town community newspaper prior to his arrival eight years ago in Banff. That experience prepared him to work in a high-pressure and busy environment driven by deadlines and getting the details right.
He has worked at a number of Banff restaurants since, including Block Kitchen + Bar, Wild Bill's, Saltlik and Paintbox Lodge.
With a menu "built to be shared," one of the biggest obstacles has been restrictions and the reluctance to share food. Once those restrictions are lifted, he said people will be able to experience the full vision of the menu.
Indulgent, elevated comfort food – over the top and audacious – are how he describes the flavours on the menu. Like the tandoori chicken and waffles, the epitome of The Radiant's food philosophy.
"We are not doing fancy food here, we want people to come in hungry," De Alwis said. "We want people to have to go to the gym the next day to work off the calories."
Crispy and light pakora waffles, made with chickpea flour, cabbage, green onion and carrot, are doused in curried honey and served with chicken dredged in potato starch and fried then tossed in tandoori oil. A little bit of Thai basil sour cream and seared halloumi cheese finishes off the plate.
"What we are trying to achieve with the esthetic is something similar to the [Persistence of Memory] by Salvador Dali," De Alwis said.
The Radiant is located at 111 Banff Ave. Visit its website for more information.