|It’s entrenched lore that every Frenchman wakes up thinking: “And what will I eat today?” British Columbians are apt to be more specific: They think plump beach-run oysters with lingering aftertastes of fresh cucumber; Dungeness crab of incredible sweetness; organic duck in the crispy-skinned confit of a lifetime; lamb raised in the salt-air meadows of the Gulf Islands; and the voluptuous fruits, berries and wines of the Okanagan Valley.
Four years to go until the 2010 Winter Olympics, and British Columbia is already looking to the gold for tickling palates. “Fresh,” “pure” and “organic” are mantras for an adventurous generation of homegrown chefs who look no farther than their own backyards for prime ingredients.
Vancouver’s dining scene is widely acknowledged as daring and provocative. C, situated on False Creek, is among the most dedicated fish restaurants in Canada’s history, its menu a catalogue of Pacific swimmers from Kushi oysters to sablefish (a.k.a., black cod) and Queen Charlotte halibut.
C boasts equal dedication to quality; it was the founding restaurant of the Vancouver Aquarium’s Ocean Wise Program that helps restaurants and their customers make environmentally friendly seafood choices. Executive chef Robert Clark has de-constructed seafood supply lines, working directly with fishermen to ensure both quality and sustainability.
Long the glamour girl of Vancouver hotel restaurants, the Metropolitan Hotel’s Diva at the Met has embraced B.C. foods, romancing local product and wines in an energetic open kitchen under executive chef Ray Henry.
In Henry’s universe, the sweetness of Dungeness crab provides the base for a 21st century salad of poached mango, grapefruit and lime coulis, with a cumin crisp tossed in for crunch. Diva’s signature dish, Alaskan black cod, takes the smoked delicacy through the roof.
As Vancouver Magazine’s “Restaurant of the Year” in 2005, West is a lofty forum for local David Hawksworth’s powerful contemporary cooking. Hawksworth revels in B.C.’s bounty of 86 kinds of fresh fish. And he touts the local pine mushroom as second only to foie gras in the euphoria department.
Recently, he was curing wild salmon in beets and citrus — a riff on sweet-and-sour — and gilding his gastro-lily with crispy fried oysters and lemon butter. Among Hawksworth’s desserts is a flag-waver: tart of Okanagan golden delicious apples and candied walnuts, sided with maple syrup ice cream and an apple chip.
Across the Georgia Strait on Vancouver Island, Victoria, the once-staid B.C. capital, has bounced to life with everything from 5-stars to fish-and-chippers, and the highest per-capita number of restaurants in Canada. At the Arbutus Grille at Brentwood Bay Lodge & Spa, chef Scott Dickson interweaves B.C.’s best ingredients to fashion memorable, stylistic dishes.
Think local foraged mushrooms, succulent kiwi salad and organic vegetables from the Saanich Peninsula, mingled with offerings such as tamari-roasted sablefish, braised lamb cheeks with Bing cherry demi-glaze and crispy skinned rockfish.
Dock 503 sits among masts and sails at the Van Isle Marina, 20 minutes from Victoria. Helmed by chef Michael Minshull, this quaint locale showcases the young maestro’s flair for invention and passion for following the harvest: His sesame-dusted Chinook salmon pavé (mousse) seduces with silken consistency, while maple-glazed Fraser Valley quail coupled with grilled baby romaine and green pea, and basil velouté is sure to kick-start even the most jaded palate.
Sweets lovers are done proud: Minshull brings to the table warm gingerbread French toast, a bittersweet “B-52” soufflé and a rich, decadent milk-chocolate fondue.
If the B.C. wilderness used to come to the kitchen, the kitchen is now going to the wilderness. At Clayoquot Wilderness Resort on Clayoquot Sound (located on the Island’s west coast), chef Tim May dreams up dishes such as Clayoquot Dungeness crab stew in Okanagan pale ale broth with wild rice and scallion fritters.
After an exhilarating day of fishing and horseback riding, guests make their way to the Bistro Tent for something in the line of sprightly little oysters from Fanny Bay, blackened Pacific scallops with bitter greens and Swiss chard, and tender and succulent island duck breast sizzling from the pan.
Way north, at the luxurious King Pacific Lodge, a Rosewood Resort that floats on the shores of Princess Royal Island in the heart of the Great Bear Rainforest, guests indulge in a host of guided outdoor adventures such as hiking, kayaking, wildlife viewing and fishing. The cuisine at King Pacific Lodge entices many to forgo the great outdoors altogether.
Guests at the lodge share stories over sumptuous meals such as local spot prawn consommé; sake and soy-marinated sablefish blanketed with dashi (a fish or vegetable-based soup stock considered fundamental in a Japanese kitchen) and small shimeji mushrooms; and Cowichan Valley duck paired with an apple and celeriac tart, green beans and preserved cherry jus. And don’t forget dessert. Apricot frangipane tarts, black-tea ice cream and spiced merlot prove the perfect denouement.
In the Okanagan Valley, wine-country cooking takes a step closer to Napa and Sonoma with Kelowna’s Fresco, with chef Rod Butters, who created the acclaimed kitchen at Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn. With Butters at the stoves and a steaming open kitchen for guests to catch the action, Fresco is a mark of Okanagan’s coming of age.
Salt-rubbed duck breast, roasted rare, and Dungeness crab cakes with shaved fennel are staples on a menu that rarely stands still. A favorite Butters dessert is chocolate mashed-potato brioche — yes, mashed potato — with burnt almond caramel sauce and raspberry compote.
In the southern reaches of the Okanagan, near the city of Penticton, foodies gravitate to the smartly restored Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa. Built in 1908, the inn boasts a dining room with 12-foot-high (3.6 m) ceilings, gleaming fir floors, historical photographs and soft lights that make for rustic intimacy.
Gravad laks (raw, thinly sliced, cured salmon seasoned with dill) gets an upgrade with sockeye salmon and Dijon mustard – perked mayo, and a comforting lamb shank comes braised in brandy, with fresh Oregon truffles. And if that’s not enough to tempt the palate, executive chef Thomas Render ups the ante with a monumental rack of veal chop brimming with garlic shoots that’s sure to tickle the taste buds.
Then there’s Whistler, gearing up for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Whistler Village eateries run the gamut from bistro to resort-style. Araxi has taken Vancouver Magazine’s Gold for “Best Restaurant in Whistler” six years in a row. Little wonder: The restaurant is committed when it offers 13 varieties of oysters, from briny Pearl Bays to buttery Washington State Kumamotos. Chef Andrew Richardson’s nuanced show-stoppers abound, from wild red tuna to Fraser Valley fowl nestled in ponzu, a citrus-based sauce with ginger, chiles and lemongrass.
Yet the aristocrat among Whistler restaurants is the Bearfoot Bistro, which garnered unwanted fame in February 2005 when thieves ran off with 65 bottles of vintage Bordeaux worth CAD $200,000 (US$ 175,000).
But restaurateur Andre St. Jacques soldiers on, dispensing vintage champagnes and Iranian caviar to a certain set, while ministering to the rest of us with 26-year-old chef Melissa Craig’s dazzling fennel-crusted yellowfin tuna, tamari-marinated black cod and wild arctic caribou loin.
For almost a decade, it’s been hailed throughout Canada and the United States as one of the best restaurants in North America. Imagine the table Bearfoot Bistro will be setting for visitors in 2010.
If You Go
4222 Village Square
Arbutus Bar & Grille, Victoria
849 Verdier Ave.
Bearfoot Bistro, Whistler
4121 Village Green
2-1600 Howe St.
Clayoquot Wilderness Resorts & Spa, Campbell River
Diva at the Met, Vancouver
645 Howe St.
Dock 503, Sydney
2320 Harbour Rd.
1560 Water St.
King Pacific Lodge, Princess Royal Island
604-987-5452 or 888-592-5464
Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa, Naramata
3625 First St.
2881 Granville Street
Tourism British Columbia