FOOD: River Cree Casino hosts heirloom tomato festival

One imagines the heirloom tomato fetishists keeping the sacred seeds of the precious Brandywine Lollypop safe in lockets around their necks, only sharing their fruits with a select few of their privileged fellow heirloom tomato enthusiasts on special occasions.

You’d think they were growing marijuana.

The humble fruit – right, tomato is a fruit – has become a cult object in the pantheon of organic food worship in recent years. There are now hundreds of varieties of heirloom tomatoes in all shapes, colours and sizes, each with their own pedigree and complicated protocol for growing and harvesting – but you don’t need to know that.

Do they taste better than Superstore tomatoes? They sure do. Heirloom tomatoes are so good they apparently go with anything – even chocolate. At a recent media preview for the River Cree Casino and Resort’s five-course Heirloom Tomato Festival dinner at Sage restaurant on June 20, we were served a chocolate tart with a thin slice of giant tomato plopped on top of it. It was pronounced delicious by all. Then again, we’d had a lot of free wine by this point. The dessert is the last dish of five that all contain – imagine the referee for the Iron Chef unveiling the secret ingredient –heirloom tomatoes in varying quantities. Never mind that they have to be flown in from California at this time of year.

The meal starts with an “amuse bouche” – lapsing into a French a sure sign you’re in for fine dining – consisting of red grape tomatoes steeped in vodka and lined up on a bed of celery salt. You couldn’t taste the vodka, yet there is hint of fermentation to go with the tart crispness of these tiny premium fruits. Vodka, incidentally, has enjoyed a similar explosion of prestige and variety that would’ve been unheard of 20 years ago.

Delicately fried calamari was a welcome appetizer, served with a spicy tomato chipotle dipping sauce – heirloom tomato chipotle dipping sauce, one supposes. Next up was a single jumbo shrimp partially immersed in fresh tomato gazpacho. I’m not much of a fan of the cold soup thing, but this one – made with the aid of liquid nitrogen – was superb, sort of a frozen flavour flash of herbs and fresh tomatoes.

Of course it wouldn’t be an heirloom tomato festival without a tomato salad. This one features orange, purple and red tomatoes, soft goat cheese and what appeared to be yellow flower petals, all drizzled in a garlicky vinaigrette. Chef Christophe Ithurritze rattled off the types of tomatoes used, but it didn’t register. The only complaint was that there wasn’t enough of it. The media people also gobbled up the homemade gnocchi in (heirloom) yellow tomato cream sauce, along with a bonus appetizer of the homemade flatbread topped with fresh tomatoes, tangy arugula lettuce and a tender beef carpaccio.

The main course – roast halibut accompanied by with a corn-lobster ragu – was excellent, though the evening’s featured ingredient by now had been relegated to a supporting role.

It’s a challenge to plan a five-course meal around this one misunderstood vegetable – fruit – that has such a polarized following. Some people don’t care for tomatoes. But those who do should relish the chance to try the best – even if that chocolate tart would’ve been just as good without it.

The Heirloom Tomato Festival happens Wednesday, June 20 at the River Cree Resort and Casino, for $55 per person. Call 780.484.2121 for reservations.