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If you think fine dining is nonexistent north of 60, think again. The Wheelhouse Restaurant in Whitehorse is wowing locals and visitors alike with unique Yukon cuisine and rich historical ambiance. For owner Art Webster, a long-time Yukoner originally from Toronto, the restaurant has enabled an indulgence in his passions for food, tourism and history. Executive Chef Rob Luxemburger, who also hails from Toronto, was first inspired by his mother’s Hungarian cuisine, and developed his culinary skills in Lake Louise, Kelowna and Revelstoke before going north in 2013. He has created a menu which reflects his locavorian commitment to using as many fresh, natural and locally sourced foods and beverages as possible. The combination is delicious, with an authenticity and panache which is memorable.
My husband and I know Art and so were predisposed to enjoy our dinner. More important, friends who had eaten there before had recommended it highly. For an appetizer, I chose the Spinach Salad with fresh basil, goat cheese, grape tomatoes, pickled beets and birch-glazed pecans, with a caramelized shallot vinaigrette. The birch glaze is made from Uncle Berwyn’s Yukon Birch Syrup; the dressing was tasty with just the right zest. Bill chose Charr and Halibut Cakes with preserved lemon aioli, supplied by Icy Waters Arctic Charr, for perfect freshness. For our main courses, we both had Birch Syrup and Beer Braised Bison Short Ribs served with barley and wild mushroom risotto, arugula and baby carrots. The dish was rich and tasty, with very tender meat, an interesting risotto, and vegetables done just right. We later learned that the spring edition of International Taste and Travel Magazine had featured this particular recipe. For dessert, I had Red Wine Poached Pear with crème anglaise and autumn spiced walnuts, a delectable treat with a portion more than ample for sharing.
The full menu is available at The Wheelhouse website. The distinctive northern flavours are particularly appealing. One can try appetizers such as Yukon Red Amber Ale Soup, Cheddar and Jalapeño Cheesecake made with red pepper and fireweed jelly, Pan Seared Scallops with a birch-balsamic reduction, and a shared plate of Beet, Horseradish and Citrus-Cured Arctic Charr Gravlax, with apple, pickled beet and goat cheese salad. For entrées, there are northern specials with an updated touch: Grilled Arctic Charr with quinoa, spinach, grape tomatoes, asparagus and lemon-herb butter; Wild Mushroom Gnocchi with green peas, grape tomatoes, goat cheese, balsamic reduction; Elk Fettuccine with braised elk meatballs, marinara sauce, spinach and parmesan. Desserts include Apple and Pecan Strudel with birch caramel and candied pecans, Bean North Coffee Crème Brûlée and a sharing plate of “Tastes of the Yukon:” chocolate espresso stout tart, cheesecake with low bush cranberry sauce, birch syrup pecan pie, and chocolate low bush cranberry truffles. The wine list is well matched and reasonable in price. Dinner for two including drinks, taxes and gratuities was within the range one might spend for a similar quality meal in Toronto or Vancouver.
The ambience of the restaurant reflects the sternwheelers working the Yukon River from Whitehorse to Dawson City after the completion of the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway from Skagway to Whitehorse in 1900. That year, 23 sternwheelers operated by several companies plied the 740-km upper Yukon River carrying passengers and supplies to the Klondike. Within a short period, the WP & YR Railway formed a river division, the British Yukon Navigation Company, that had a fleet of more than 50 boats and gained a monopoly on the river. Until 1955, when a road was finally put through to Dawson City, the sternwheelers and shipyards were prominent in the Whitehorse economy. Skilled workers lived in squatter communities near the river, their numbers totalling about a third of the lower Whitehorse town population. The decor of the Wheelhouse has archival photographs, period furnishings and artifacts from the era of the sternwheelers and is intended as a lasting tribute to those who worked in the industry.
Walking back downtown, along the Millennium Trail by the river, was one of the delights of our all-too-short Whitehorse visit. Immediately outside the restaurant, we watched a fly fisherman having some success in the Yukon River. The Trail parallels the Waterfront Trolley, which passes through a beautiful city park, beside the Kwanlin Dün Cultural Centre, the MacBride Museum, the Waterfront Wharf, the White Pass Train Depot to the S.S. Klondike National Historic Site. Such a walk in the evening sun and clear cool air was excellent exercise after a wonderful dinner.