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vancouver island is a beauty of a dining experience

 

Just a drive and a ferry ride away, Vancouver Island inhabits a different, more distilled culinary land than Seattle, a verdant, closer-to-nature version of our citified longings for fresh foods and smooth style. Despite its distance from big population centers, island restaurants and getaways are earning top ranks on gourmet lists, most recently when Saveur magazine rated Vancouver Island as the West Coast's "new epicurean mecca."
On a recent visit to the island's southern half, we tripped over quality meals and snacks even when we weren't actively seeking them out.

At the Duke Point ferry dock, we found organic micro-roasted coffee from Salt Spring Island.

A stop at the grocery store/cafe in the city of Duncan yielded made-from-scratch soups and whole-grain pizza.

In the food-focused town of Tofino, even a casual outdoor shack like The Fin Eatery (1180 Pacific Rim Highway) served up slab "burgers" of grilled ahi topped by a snootful of wasabi dressing, while fries on the side were made from sweet potatoes.

In a storefront establishment at the other end of the shared parking lot, Chocolate Tofino spun a wheel of molten chocolate like a mini-image from Willy Wonka's factory, ready to be formed on site into bars and bark and bites.

Here are looks at five places where we dined -- some famous, some more obscure. All prices listed are in Canadian dollars.

Butchart Gardens

Butchart Gardens provides a lovely setting for the elegance of afternoon tea, serving a $24.75 version daily in its Dining Room restaurant, which is 14 miles north of Victoria on the former Butchart estate.

Our meal gained a leisurely beauty from the flowery view of a private courtyard garden outside the historic building. And it's a convenient stop, provided you're already planning to spring for the garden admission fee, which varies seasonally and currently is $18 for adults. It took the edge off our cravings for scones and dainties and three-tiered servers.

But the food was unremarkable: not bad for a tourist attraction, not good enough to stand apart from the star-shaped fountain and showy rows of dahlias.

Choose from seven house-blended teas. Food included several tiny sandwiches, ranging from a classic but slightly damp crustless cucumber to a hearty little sausage roll. Sweets came in a generous array and included a ginger scone and a fruit tart, but none shone or even demanded that we fight over the final bites. We're not sure what "Devon-style" cream is, but it tasted lighter and less indulgent than the Devonshire cream we loved in London town. One nice touch: A complimentary box of Garden Blend tea arrived with the bill.

Butchart Gardens
800 Benvenuto Ave.
Brentwood Bay, B.C.
250-652-6120

SoBo

SoBo ("Sophisticated Bohemian") got its start as a catering truck parked in a Tofino parking lot, and it has kept its freewheeling spirit even now that it is more comfortably situated down the road in the Tofino Botanical Gardens.

Al fresco lunches come straight from the purple-hued truck, where kerchief-wearing chef Lisa Barber whips up a dilly fish chowder loaded with smoked salmon and surf clams ($7.50); fresh cornbread that's as good as cake, crunchy-crisp on the outside and light and sweet within ($2); "sushi rice tofu pockets," essentially elaborate inaris featuring salmon or mushrooms ($3.50), and crisp, salsa-topped tacos filled with fresh chunks of locally caught fillets ($6).

Dine at picnic tables in the parking lot, admiring the artistically drawn, '60s-style chalkboard menu. (Order one item for a snack, it suggests, two for lunch and three if you're buzzed.) Dinners hold more serious freight. They are served indoors in a full-fledged building adjoining the truck, carrying weightier price tags such as a $26 halibut.

The fish, though, is worth it, served in an unusual creamy carrot sauce that clung like couture. And few campaigns touting the benefits of hemp have convinced us as soundly as SoBo's hemp-seed-crusted chicken appetizer: Cowichan Valley birds whose moist flesh fell apart in flakes as beautifully as cooked fish, sauced in an in-your-face mix of citrus and spice ($9).

SoBo
1084 Pacific Rim Highway
Tofino, B.C.
250-725-2341
www.sobo.ca

Sooke Harbour House

The fame of Sooke Harbour House stretches far beyond Vancouver Island. It has won accolades for years on lists of North America's best inns and restaurants. Owners Sinclair Philip (founder of Slow Food Canada) and Frederique Philip, with chef Edward Tuson, famously focus on ultra-local ingredients, most caught in local waters or picked on local grounds. It's a philosophy that only seems de rigueur today because visionaries like the Philipses spread their inspiration so wide. On this visit, though, our meal ($74.95 prix fixe) didn't come alive until the third course in a four-course dinner. (With two options for each course, we sampled eight dishes in all.)

During early courses, we faced complex, carefully assembled creations that spilled over with elaborate ingredients, jumbling together in an enjoyable but not breathtaking whole. The subtly flavored, carefully plated inventions were stacked, or tied with edible greens, or topped with gels, accompanied by enough emulsions and reductions and sauces we didn't always know how to attack the first bite.

We hit our stride in the form of halibut served with a decoratively astringent sauce of green nasturtium leaves, side by side with a milder, sweeter orange sauce of the same plant's flowers. The flavors were so clear, and the contrast between leaf and flower so marked, it was the sort of eye opener that has made the restaurant's name. Edible flowers often garnish fancy salads, but the taste is generally negligible compared to the eye appeal; this concentrated version was a way to discover "so that's what they're like!"

The evening's alternate main dish, tender lamb shoulder in a dense sauce of chanterelles, goat milk and goat cheese curd, was as intense and richly delicious as we could have wanted.

In the end, while food needs to stand or fall on its own, our meal would have been easier to navigate if our servers could have provided extra details about the dishes. Questions were generally met with a recitation of the same description as appeared on the menu.

As we realized the following day, we would have been far better informed if we had visited the hotel's two-acre "edible gardens" before dinner. When a gardener watering the grounds offered a sample leaf from a patch of oxeye daisies, bitter as a strong salad green, it illuminated the previous night's cauliflower soup served with a block of tomato gel and a teensy apple-daisy-raisin-fritter. Suddenly, we could recognize and isolate the flower's sharp taste. The gardener further expanded our palates with samples of grassy chickweed, of sorrel-like red begonia flowers, of sugar-sweet flowers from a honeydew melon sage. It made us hungry to try dinner another day.

Also make note of Sooke Harbour's stunning wine list, including more than 2,500 selections that range from affordable glasses from local vintners to a Sotheby's-quality list of rarities.

Sooke Harbour House
1528 Whiffen Spit Road
Sooke, B.C.
250-642-3421
www.sookeharbourhouse.com

The Udder Guy's

The planet's best ice cream still comes from Woodside Farm Creamery in my hometown of Hockessin, Del., but finally there's a close runner-up.

It's The Udder Guy's Ice Cream Parlor in Cowichan Bay, a community better known for its free-range chickens and organic produce than for its dessert parlors. Udder Guy's, though, produces as logical an end product for island cows as artisan cheese, and its high-quality desserts ($3.28/single, $4.39/double) are about what you'd imagine would happen when Slow Food principles are applied to churned cream.

The amazingly pure coconut ice cream, our server cheerily told us, is made from real coconuts husked and roasted at the Udder Guy's factory in nearby Duncan, while the blackberries in the rich, sweet wild blackberry selection are wild berries picked in British Columbia. Licorice retains the dull brown color of its natural state, rather than relying on black dyes, and grape ice cream is made from wine grapes, giving it an intensely natural flavor that's as different from the usual grape dessert as Manischewitz is from a Bordeaux grand cru. (A spoonful of the grape was enough; a whole dish would have been overkill.) Ginger ice cream is studded with soft pieces of freshly candied ginger root, and the lemon ice cream includes organic lemon zest, again cooked and candied in the company's own factory.

The final product is rich, but doesn't have the ultra-fat feel of, say, Ben & Jerry's. Flavors are cleaner and clearer, providing lush, additive-free taste. Don't imagine that the extra care makes Udder Guy's in the least precious or refined; this stuff is as double-cone worthy as a pint of Chubby Hubby. Take-home ice cream also is available at selected island grocery stores. Probably the closest to Seattle are the Fairways in Victoria.

The Udder Guy's Ice Cream Parlor
1759 Cowichan Bay Road
Cowichan Bay, B.C.
250-954-5555
www.udderguysicecream.com

The Pointe Restaurant

I've never seen a restaurant wear the triple crown of fine food, service and ambience with the same good taste as The Pointe Restaurant at Tofino's rustic-deluxe treasure, the Wickaninnish Inn. Seattle's Canlis is the closest comparison, mostly in that Pointe staffers are Canlis-like in their omniscience, often greeting new diners by name as they reach the entrance.

Chef Andrew Springett's menu is locally influenced, but not shackled to the local-seasonal ropes; an outlier such as chicken mole risotto may show up as readily as a trio of heirloom island tomatoes. Food includes the modern fine-dining trends of foams and gels, but dishes are simpler, with more direct flavors, than Sooke Harbour's inventions. Springett and his colleagues still challenge themselves and the staff, though, with dishes such as a heavy-sounding, ethereal-tasting toffee apple souffle that would collapse if not delivered to the appropriate table two or three minutes after it leaves the oven.

Particular standouts during our meals included a Dungeness crab salad with coriander tuille, accomplishing a balance and punch rarely seen with the mild crustacean. Crabmeat flavor starred in the dish, despite the kick of a blood-orange sauce. Smooth butternut squash soup hit Halloween double notes of seasonality and creativity with a "cinnamon marshmallow" melting in the center.

The pleasure of the food is amplified by the other senses the restaurant pampers via the panorama of waves crashing on the rocks outside the wraparound windows, the room's big cedar beams, the warm glow of its lighting, and most of all by the spot-on service.

We'd love to see how the Wick's staff training program was developed. It evidently covers every fine point, from correct table service to such intimate expertise with the wine list that there's no need to call for a separate sommelier. Our server on one evening, Ana, managed the neat trick of making us feel our table was her sole assignment for the evening, so much so that we were almost surprised to see her tending to others as we enjoyed our final bites.

The Pointe Restaurant
Wickaninnish Inn
100 Osprey Lane
Tofino, B.C.
250-725-3106
www.wickinn.com


P-I restaurant critic Rebekah Denn can be reached at 206-448-8190 or rebekahdenn [at] seattlepi [dot] com.

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