Monthly Archives: September 2009

Splurge-Worthy Dining

Sure. The definition of “splurge” has changed for many of us in recent months. But still there are, typically, two flavors of dining out. One: the casual “let’s go grab a bite” occasions or getting together with friends at a favorite spot. And two, those dinners out for which there’s prior planning, scouring web sites for critiques and recommendations, making a primesplurge1 Friday night reservation, considering how comfortable you are with how much dinner’s going to run you.

The splurge meal.

Which is what I thought I was going to read about when flipping through the new Gourmet magazine when I spied an article called “Restaurants Worth the Money.” But quickly scanning the piece I saw lots of hot dogs, some diners, bakery/cafés, places touting bao, burgers, pizza. For the Pacific Northwest, the selections include Tilth, Poppy, Dinette. Three places I really love, but I would have expected to find perhaps Rover’s, Canlis, The Herbfarm instead.

splurge2So I flipped back to the article’s intro and found, indeed, the selections were framed as “great places for spending your hard-earned cash. That means everything from casual Thai joints…to fine restaurants where you’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime meal.” Ultimately, a dining guide that crosses different budget thresholds.

And sure, a few of those latter destinations are featured. The French Laundry in the Napa Valley, Alinea in Chicago, Le Bernardin in New York. Of them, I’ve only been to Le Bernardin, stunningly perfect dining experiences each time.

The piece definitely got me thinking about those meals I’ve enjoyed whensplurge3 the high price was–while still not at the “no object” level–not enough to keep me from walking through the door. (By the way, these photos are from random splurge-worthy meals from recent past: Crush, Le Gourmand, WD-50, Dahlia Lounge, Sun Sui Wah, and Rover’s.)

I’ve already mentioned a couple reliable, splurge-worthy destinations in the Seattle area where we have never been disappointed about the (many) dollars we’ve spent there over the years. Rover’s and The Herbfarm. And while the latter is always a prix-fixe dining experience with a luxurious price tag, Rover’s does offer some less-splurgy options, with à la carte selections and that indulgent Friday lunch.

In Las Vegas, we’ve had more than a few splurge meals, which is only natural in Sin City. Bradley Ogden, Okada and Craftsteak are a few favorites. But I almost had a heart attack last December when approaching the restaurant splurge4chosen for my husband’s birthday dinner (which, annual tradition has it, is always celebrated in Vegas). I’d booked us at L’ Atelier de Joël Robuchon, the 1-star Michelin restaurant I’d also visited in its original Paris location. After checking in at the hostess desk, she gestured to her left, saying “Ma’am, we have you booked next door at Joël Robuchon,” the 3-star glam, sparkly luxe room that would cost us about three times the ticket at L’Atelier. I think she could instantly see my anxiety, and said quickly “…but we’re happy to seat you at L’Atelier.”

It took a glass of Champagne to calm my nerves, but our dinner at L’Ateliersplurge5 was out of this world. Like I said earlier, splurge-worthy dining most always comes with advance planning, mentally shifting into gears for the experience (and expense). I do plan that we’ll dine at Joël Robuchon one of these days, and if there’s any place where it can be spur-of-the-moment, Vegas is it. One more royal flush jackpot and we’ll be there with bells on! (My first such jackpot landed us at Nobu and sipping a bottle of Billecart-Salmon rosé Champagne!) I wasn’t quite prepared for the spontaneous splurge on that snowy night in Vegas last year.

splurge6After all, when budgets and bank balances rule the day, we can’t get so swept up in the anticipation of indulgence as to let spending get out of whack. Which is why I very sadly had to cancel one unique dinner reservation for next month. I didn’t watch much of the Top Chef Masters series, but did catch the last two episodes. Rick Bayless’ winning finale menu was amazing, inspiring. Like many viewers, I just stared at the screen thinking “Man, I want some of that!” So when Rick tweeted that he was going to be making the winning menu available at his Chicago restaurant Tompolobampo for a couple of months, I was lickity-split online and booked a table. Then reality slowly crept in. Plane tickets. Hotel rooms. Other random costs of being on the road even for just a couple of days. It was starting to add up to a $1000 prospect, that delicious dinner. A little to hard to justify right now, dang it.

Not every splurge-worthy meal needs to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Nor does it necessarily need to carry a big price tag, as the Gourmet piece well states. Fact is, we rarely hit the high-end steakhouses in town any more, “indulging” instead at the more relaxed, bustling, wallet-friendly JaK’s in our neighborhood.

Food worth the money, at any price. For those of us who live to eat, I guess the yardstick’s always there, measuring the value, whether it’s a $9 reuben sandwich or a $125 tasting menu. What it is for you, that meal you count on being great, no matter what it costs?


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In a Pittsburgh State of Mind

No, nothing about the G-20 summit here, though that gathering being in Pittsburgh this week gives me an ideal excuse to jump in the time machine and recount highlights from my trip to the city this time (in fact, this week) last year. It’s been on my to-blog list for, um, about 11 1/2 months now. About time!

My husband’s work rarely takes him on the road, and when it does it’s a quick fly-in for a couple days of conference in an often uninspired setting. So me tagging along with him for a trip is a rarity. But last year he was working on a certificate program at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, made four trips to thepittcampus city. Inspired by the fact that (a) I’d never been to the city before and (b) a college pal I hadn’t seen in ages teaches at Pitt, I went along on his September trip.

The first or second day of the trip, I answered my cell phone. The friend on the other end of the line asked “Are you home?” And I knew she meant “Are you home, not at the grocery store, so I can swing by to pick something up?” After I said, “No, I’m in Pittsburgh,” there was puzzled silence on the other end of the line. From the silence I interpreted “so much for picking that thing up” and “what the hell are you doing in Pittsburgh?” But she eventually sprung back to conversation with no mention of my whereabouts.

Honestly, I was a little surprised to be there myself. But what a glorious time we had. Arriving mid week, I had two days mostly solo while Bob was in classes, then we had the weekend to explore a bit before heading home. I’m a serious believer in walking a city to get to know it, so had my sites set one day on doing just that. I picked the Andy Warhol museum as my ultimate goal. We were staying in a Holiday Inn across the street from the glorious Cathedral of Learning tower on the University of Pittsburgh campus. I took my handy city map down to the front desk, planning to confer with someone about my day’s plans. The woman looked up at me blankly when she saw where I’d pointed my finger, saying “I want to walk here, what’s the best route?”

“You can’t walk there,” she said.

“Can’t” as in “there a huge freeway/train station/snake-infested forest you won’t be able to cross”?? Or “can’t” as in “are you crazy? that’s too far to walk!”

Ends up it was the latter, of course. Two and a half miles is nothing, if you’ve got the right shoes and the time. I had both. It was a really nice stroll, I got a taste for some of the city’s character and it felt great to just wander.

pittpink2If not for my nice long walk, I probably wouldn’t have happened upon these firemen, in their pinked-out truck traveling around to spread awareness about breast cancer treatment. The truck’s covered with notes from supporters, it was an awesome thing to see. Particularly hit home as I’d just 2 weeks prior walked the Breast Cancer 3-Day, as is the case again this year! (Another reason 2 1/2 miles doesn’t register as a long walk for me.) Check out the pink coats they even wear, one hanging from the door.

I also meandered around to check out the public art, inspired in part by apittart1 walking tour I’d found on this great site(the Cultural District tour, in particular). This city’s bursting with art. Loved these eyeball sculptures/benches, with that cool bronze fountain in the back (heated water, so it can flow year-round). Across the street I spied the lovely ivy-covered corner nook with the pretty flowering trees. It was a gotcha!! Up close, found them to be art as well, bronze magnolia trees with hand-painted petals.

















pittwarholEventually I made it across the Allegheny River to the Warhol Museum. That was definitely a new tidbit of trivia for me, I had no idea Andy Warhol was born in, and grew up in, Pittsburgh.  Not necessarily a huge Warhol fan, but I always love taking in art museums (particularly modern art) on travels, this was definitely a highlight of the trip! Simple converted warehouse space proved a great multi-story setting for a cool range of exhibits, from simple pencil drawings to floating “Silver Clouds.”

Another day we visited The Strip district, a neighborhood of old shops, many of them food lover destinations. It was late morning, breakfast on the agenda. We considered both Pamela’s Diner (all pink and blue, chrome, a whole retro decor theme going on) and DeLuca’s (old, scruffy, unpolished). DeLuca’s easily won, like jumping down the rabbit hole to another time. The old guy bussing tables muttered to himself unintelligibly as he cleared tables. At the next table, a young guy eating was chastised by a waitress passing by who said “you’re late for work!” Frills? none. Character? yep. But it was a great breakfast,pittstrip perfectly simple, honest, filling, tasty.

This neighborhood used to house produce wholesalers in decades past, today far more retail businesses in place, though the food roots show still with many shops in the neighborhood. In the “old school” department is Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, a culinary dreamland of the Italian variety, one of those times I wish I had a kitchen to go back to with armloads of pasta, marinated artichokes, cheese, meats, etc. Fun to just walk through and breath it all in though. (Note DeLuca’s in the photo, the low green building in the background.)

More mod was Mon Aimee Chocolat, another aromatherapeutic spot in the Strip. Not only a great selection of chocolates in general, but an admirable array from around the world, favorites from England, Germany, Canada, and a good 20 other countries. And it was nice to see treats from Seattle’s chocolate doyenne, Fran, prominently displayed as well!

pittgardenDining? Yeah, we did some of that too! Lunch one day was with a local food writer friend at the Café at The Frick, on the lovely Frick family estate with its gardens and museum space. Wandering through the Victorian greenhouse, we’d met up with Miriam Manion, head of Grow Pittsburgh, a non-profit group promoting urban agriculture.  Lunch was lovely, looking out over the gardens. The chef braised some lamb belly that he was curing for pastrami, serving it with just-picked hot chiles from the greenhouse next door.

Another favorite meal was at Eleven, though my pitiful notes from that trip didn’t get beyond “housemade maraschino cherries for the CK Manhattan” in regards to that meal. Sheesh. Maybe I had 2 Manhattans and just forgot to write any more…..  I loved the mod/dark room, great service, one of those all-around great meal experiences. 

But the best meal of the trip was with my dear friend Eric. Super close pals inpitteric college, we’d lost track over the years, until he sent an out-of-the-blue email a couple years ago. I so appreciated reconnecting, particularly over his wonderful dinner of Indian cuisine, sipping too many gin and tonics, listening to Matt Bianco, pretending we were back in college again.

Made getting up the next morning something of a fuzzy prospect, but off we went to hit the highway and cover some Pennsylvania countryside. Our visit to Fallingwater was amazing, inspiring. Appreciated even more so after reading Loving Frank, which gave me a better understanding about Frank Lloyd Wright’s background and genius. This drive and visit delightfully capped off a wonderful few days of exploration in a part of the country new to me. So glad to be the tag-along for once!

Actually, just occurred to me that I’m returning to Pennsylvania on Wednesday next week. This time the eastern edge of the state, visiting another friend in the countryside, before hitting a conference in Philadelphia. So perhaps more missives on the Keystone State before long.

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Luscious Lamb

I was chatting with the butcher at my neighborhood grocery store about lamb on a recent visit. I wanted to do a simple braise-stew but time was short, didn’t want to fiddle with trimming shoulder (blade) meat from the bone, nor rely on leaner leg steaks that are less unctuous for braising. He told me that some English customers mentioned they braise the whole bone-in shoulder steaks and later just lift out the bones when the meat’s all delightfully tender. (He also told me that he’s never tried the prep, since he doesn’t like lamb. How’s that possible? And a butcher, to boot?!) Bingo!! I now have a new favorite quickie dinner plan in my repertoire.

That afternoon I salt-and-pepper seasoned the lamb and browned the steaks in a deep sauté pan. Out came the steaks, in went some chopped onion and garlic to sauté,  with a couple bay leaves (could also add other herbs or veg on hand; diced carrot and/or fennel bulb would be tasty). I squeezed in juice from a small lemon, then tossed in the rind too. A generous pinch of salt and pepper as well.

I added the lamb back to the pan with whatever juices collected on the plate, and added a generous swig of  dry vermouth (dry white wine good too), popped on the lid and got back to work for a couple hours while the meat slowly braised over low heat. Later, I drained and rinsed a can of chickpeas and scattered them into the pan. I then left the lid a bit to one side, so some of the liquid evaporated, thickening the cooking liquids a bit. By the time the bones were easy to lift out with a pair of tongs, the meat is also tender enough to break into large pieces if you like, for a more stew-like presentation. Or lift out the steaks in whole pieces and serve plated with the reduced braising ingredients spooned over. Painless, easy, and delicious!

I do really love lamb, the flavor and versatility of the various cuts is just out of this world. Which is why I’m so looking forward to being a judge at the Lamb Jam later in October, a lamb-pa-loosa with Seattle area chefs cooking up their best lamb dishes to wow us judges. Bring it on! You can attend and get a sample of their lamb craft as well, tickets just $30.

I don’t recall much lamb in the kitchen when I was growing up, but the lamb file in my file drawer is pretty full, including a typed ring-bound San Juan Islands Lamb Cookbook with a few dozen recipes compiled by the San Juan County Lamb and Wool Producers, dated summer 1987. (Wool brings up a whole other story, for another time perhaps, but it was a winter trip to Lopez Island and a holiday bazaar with yarn spun from Lopez sheep that turned me into a mad knitter!)

Lamb certainly figured in many of the recipes in the school repertoire at La Varenne, my favorite being navarin d’agneau, a rich stew with lots of vegetables we all worked to perfect knowing it might show up on one of the practical exams. A friend in Pittsburgh shared this link to an article about Julia Child’s connection with a local lamb farmer and their favorite Julia-inspired roasted leg of lamb recipe. From that simplicity to the more elaborate Lebanese kibbi preparation with ground lamb, bulghur, spices and pine nuts, I don’t think I’ve met a lamb dish I didn’t like.

Braised lamb shanks are a sure favorite around this house. They shine in simple preparation, braised with wine and/or broth, aromatic vegetables, herbs, subtle flavors that emphasize the lamb character. But then again, one of the most memorable recipes from years of testing restaurant recipes is the Coconut Curried Lamb Shanks from Luau Polynesian Lounge, contributed to the Best Places Seattle Cookbook I did with Kathy Casey back in 2001. It’s got a lot of bold flavors, both in the braising liquids and in the coconut-ginger salsa that accompanies the shanks for serving. But man, was it delicious! I haven’t made this for a while, but may have to whip it up again soon.


Coconut Curried Lamb Shanks (from Luau Polynesian Lounge)


4 lamb shanks (about 1 lb each)

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 can (14 oz) unsweetened coconut milk

1/4 cup soy sauce

1/4 cup Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

3 tablespoons honey

2 tablespoons red curry paste

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

1 tablespoon coriander seeds

5 star anise


Coconut Ginger Salsa

1 cup freshly grated coconut

3 tablespoons chopped pickled ginger

2 tablespoons minced lemongrass

1 tablespoon chopped cilantro

1/2 habanero chile, cored, seeded, and minced (or to taste)

Juice of 1 lime

Salt and freshly ground black pepper


Preheat the oven to 325°F.

For the salsa, combine the coconut, ginger, lemongrass, cilantro, chile, and lime juice with salt and pepper to taste. Stir to mix well and set aside.

Season the lamb shanks well with salt and pepper. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot, such as a Dutch oven, over medium-high heat. Add 2 of the shanks and brown them well on all sides, about 5 minutes total. Set them aside on a plate and brown the remaining 2 shanks. Return the first shanks to the pan (with any juices that have collected on the plate) and add the coconut milk, soy sauce, fish sauce, honey, red curry paste, cilantro, coriander seeds, and star anise. Add cold water just to cover the shanks and bring to a boil over high heat. Cover the pot and braise the lamb shanks in the oven until very tender, about 3 hours.

Transfer the lamb shanks to a platter and cover with foil to keep warm. Skim the fat from the surface of the braising liquid, then strain the liquid through a sieve. Return the liquid to the pot and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the liquid until slightly thickened, about 15 minutes. Taste for seasoning, adding salt or pepper to taste. Pour some of the cooking liquids over the lamb shanks and spoon the coconut-ginger salsa alongside.

Makes 4 servings


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Vancouver Island Trip: Part One

Which presumes I’ll actually get to the Part Two portion at some point…. I’ll do my best. But with a quiet Saturday morning sitting in my lovely large room at Inn at Laurel Point in Victoria, with the cry of seagulls and hum of float planes outside, I wanted to get at least part of the trip covered before returning to the real world early next week.

This may be a terrible comparison to make, but it just occurred to me that The Wickininnish Inn in Tofino on Vancouver Island was something like my “Disneyland” of adulthood. As a kid growing up in Seattle, it seemed everyone I knew had been to Disneyland but me. Whine whine. Of course it meant expectations built up greatly over the years, imagining it to be a magical, mystical place like none else on Earth. Finally, my dad and I made a trip down to Disneyland when I was in high school. And guess what? I loved it, lived up to pretty much all expectations. And I happily make return trips to get on Splash Mountain and Pirates of the Caribbean as many times as I can.

Ok. So the Wick is nothing at all like Disneyland, though it did prove to be a magical, mystical place that very much lived up to the expectations I’d built up over the years. And actually, I could probably be making my second trip down Splash Mountain in the same time it would take me to get from home to Tofino. We left the house at 6:oo am on Wednesday morning (not usually a great way to start a vacation, when the hub says “well, this is the same time I’d be getting up if I was going to work”!) and parked our car at the Wick just before 5:00 that afternoon. I very much wanted to have a car on this trip, rather than taking the Clipper boat trip or a Kenmore Air float plane ride to Victoria.

This trip was about exploring the island, getting off the beaten path just a bit (more so on my next trip, so many parks and other visits we didn’t get to). So it meant taking a ferry, we chose the BC Ferries option out of Tsawwassen, about halfway between the border and Vancouver, BC. Prices out roughly the same ($72 Can) as the Anacortes/Sydney option on Washington State Ferries, with far more sailings each day to choose from. And just a change of scenery, if nothing else. Nice thing too was the option to sail direct to Nanaimo, farther up-island than the Sydney landing near Victoria, so our drive time on landing was shorter–a mere three hours instead of about five. As if to welcome us on this adventure, a large pod of orcas cavorted around the ferry just as we were leaving the dock. Glorious!!

Once landing in Nanaimo, we were still in for a lot of driving. Lovely scenery

as promised, goats on the roof

as promised, goats on the roof

 along the way, incredibly lush forests, windy roads slipping past lakes, inlets, vistas of mist-covered mountains. Some parts of Highway 4 merit the “narrow windy roads for the next 12 km” signage, and do they mean it! Actually, it reminded me of being on a roller coaster, so maybe there is something to that Disneyland-Tofino connection.

Along the way, we’d been alerted to the Old Country Market in Coombs, a touristy stop to be sure but a fun one that proved just right for lunch en route. Their famous gimmick is that their grass-covered roof is home to goats. Yes, goats on the roof. Which I guess is better than bats in the bellfry? Lunch was so-so, convenient, friendly, easy. The store sells everything from housemade baked goods (including a chocolate-chocolate chunk baguette!!) to gifty items. Broke up the long day in just the right fashion.


an optional wooded trail to the beach from The Wick

Onward toward Tofino. Just as we’d boarded the ferry around 10:00 am it began to rain, as if we were leaving mainland’s late summer and taking a quick trip to autumn on the island. Rain followed us off and on all day, a taste of the rugged weather that the west coast of the island is famous for. A little Peter Gabriel helped my intrepid driver power through that last stretch. It was bliss to pull in and unload, the warm greeting at the door, unfussy, genuine,  natural. Just like pretty much everything about the Wick. Relais & Chateau-fancy, yes, but the “fancy” doesn’t mask in any way the natural beauty of the place. It just means ultra-comfy beds, lovely big bathtub, beautiful native art, creative local menu, top-shelf service and a determination to make the customer feel relaxed and well cared for.

I couldn’t NOT make an appointment for their Ancient Cedars Spa, felt it was the least I owed myself after the 60 miles of walking I did for the Breast Cancer 3-Day last weekend (BTW, the Seattle walk alone raised $5.5 million!!). After spending a little too much time considering all my options, I chose the West Coast Sacred Sea, 2 hours of bliss that included sea salt scrub, an amazing 144-jet bath, a light massage and wrap (with a big piece of kelp laid on my back for rejuvenation). All that’s great, but I’d have paid a hundred bucks just for the foot and scalp massage that’s included. Mmmmmm. Human again!!

The Wick lived up to its reputation as storm-watching central. It sits on a

surf's up on Chesterman Beach, with The Wick in the background

surf's up on Chesterman Beach, with The Wick in the background

 rocky outcrop to one side of a cove, anchored at the other edge by the accessible-at-low-tide Frank Island. Pretty much all daylight hours while we were there, surfers (sometimes dozens of them) were bobbing in the water waiting for just the right wave. Um. No thanks. It was great to watch from the beach though, we managed to catch an hour of just light spitting of rain for a really refreshing walk out to Frank and back. With surfing on the list, it makes Tofino a destination with a delightfully odd range of activities to choose from. Rainforest exploration, beach hiking, bear watching, whale watching, surfing, spa-ing, eating well, kayaking, golfing (yes they golf in all weather, one local told me “there’s no bad weather, just bad clothes” — so dress right and anything’s game!).

Oh, speaking of eating well. We did. First night, after that long haul, we were so very happy to “stay in” and eat at The Pointe restaurant, perched out on the edge of the rocks overlooking the beach and some nearby islands. Total bliss of a dining room setting, I’d say one of the most beautiful in the world. To be honest, the menu was wonderful, the dishes themselves didn’t always live up to quite what we’d expected. I started with a whole scallop that was wrapped in a Dungeness crab mousse and lightly battered for a decadent fritter, served with a rich seafood bisque as a sauce (kind of a disappearing sauce, like that poivre sauce on a recent episode of Top Chef, I really wish there had been more). My main course of black cod had a ginger-tamarind glaze (outrageously delicious), Bob reveled in his seemingly simple roasted local chicken, served with white beans and artichokes and a rosemary jus he raved about (clearly sauces are winners here!).

The next night, we went into town. Tofino proper is at the very end of this peninsula, about 800 year-round inhabitants though peak of summer tens of thousands of visitors might pass through. Ugh. DON’T come up here in

Truly the end of the road!

Truly the end of the road!

 summer! We met with a number of RVs en route as it was, mid-week in September. To really appreciate the beauty and serenity that’s possible here, I highly recommend a shoulder season for getting up here.

Sobo came highly recommended. In 2003 it was named one of Canada’s top new restaurants for that year. Not bad for an operation that began in a purple catering truck! (A longtime customer at the next table was wearing an early Sobo t-shirt, which said on the back something to the effect of “the second most exciting thing to do in a parking lot.”) I’d hoped to make it to Sooke Harbour House on this trip for a visit with my old pal Sinclair Philip, but it just didn’t work out. Ended up he was in Tofino as well for a couple of days and joined us for dinner. What a treat that was, this man has meant so much to the culinary inspirations of Vancouver Island. I had the honor of writing a profile of him for Time magazine in Canada a number of years ago when they celebrated ten people from the country’s hospitality industry who have contributed the most to Canada’s culinary culture. He’s become a manic mushroomer of late, tromping through the woods with the vigor he had early on for donning that wet suit to dive for sea treats just off the Whiffen Spit where the inn sits. Sobo owners Lisa (chef, a Texan transplant) and Artie (front of the house host-par-excellance) Ahier in fact cite their time with Sinclair years back as inspiration for setting down roots on the island and following their passions here. Dinner was lovely, local halibut and shrimp ceviche to start, oysters both raw (with wasabi butter) and roasted (with bacon), a salad of duck confit with beets, caught-that-day halibut simply served with carrot-ginger sauce. Everything wonderful, simple, delicious, pure and of-the-season.

We tried to pack as much as we could into the time in Tofino. My top recommendation would be to not stay just 2 nights as we did. It’s a trek to get out there, a remote outpost you may not get to again for a few years. Make the most of the trip and plan on 4 or 5 nights to take in as much of the region as you can, while scheduling some down time to sit by the fire a read a book, distracted occasionally by staring into the roaring surf. The Wick is pricey, to be sure, so maybe you split thing up, start with a couple nights at one of the many other inns/hotels/B&Bs in the area, then cap things off with a couple luxe nights at the Wick.

Quick breakfast Friday morning, then it was time to hit the trail heading south to Victoria for a couple nights. We were sent off with the stormy grey skies, which cleared and became full blue and sunny by the time we arrived at Venturi Schulze winery in the Cowichan Valley for a visit with such gracious people as Giordano and Marilyn Venturi. The

Pinot noir about ready to harvest

Pinot noir about ready to harvest

island’s first estate winery, this high-end wine is made–amazingly–with nothing but grapes that are grown on the 15 acres right there on their property. Rightfully famous for their sparkling wine, it’s what was poured for the traditional bubbly beginning for The Herbfarm dinner last month; Ron Zimmerman was clearly happy that this spot on Vancouver Island fell within the 100-mile radius he’d established for that fully local meal. Venturi Schulze has also gained quite a reputation for their balsamic vinegar. Giordano hails from the Modena region of Italy, the motherland of balsamico. It’s in his blood, clearly a great passion, something he takes very seriously. After having visited their vinegary, I much better appreciate the $50 price tag on one of their bottles; I feel very fortunate to have a bottle on

Vinegar patiently aging at Venturi Schulze

Vinegar patiently aging at Venturi Schulze

 my shelf at home, given me on a previous trip to the island. A couple of hours later, after sipping everything from their celebrated brut sparkling wine to a sample of the verjus they began making last year, it was off to the final stop of the day before we trekked on to Victoria.

Not far down the highway we came to Merridale Cider, a somewhat remote spot up a couple side roads, which opened into a most inviting setting lush with apple orchards that this time of year are packed with fruit. Yet another friendly, generous host here in Janet Docherty who owns Merridale with her lawyer-turned-cider-master husband Rick Pipes.

Apple trees just outside the restaurant patio

Apple trees just outside the restaurant patio

They currently make 9 different ciders with apples grown on their property (plus some from a couple orchards they have in the Okanagan Valley on the mainland). I particularly loved those that fell in the middle of the dry-to-sweet spectrum, the Champagne Style Sommerset and the Traditional Cider. Nice acid balance, a touch of fruit, moderate sparkle — they’d be amazing beverages with food. A couple of years ago, Rick added “distiller” to his job description, they now make apple and blackberry eau de vie, as well as pommeau (they call it Pomme Oh!) which blends cider with some of the eau de vie, also made in a blackberry version (Mure Oh!). The restaurant here is a perfect oasis for a bite while travelling and tasting your way through the Cowichan Valley. I only wish it had been Sunday evening, when they fire up the wood oven out on the patio and serve pizzas. Plaquards around the property, both in the cellar and

Merridale distilled treats

Merridale distilled treats

 throughout the orchards, allow guests to take a self-guided tour to learn about the cider making process and history of the place.

Finally, at about our wits’ end with traffic and being on the road, we pulled into the driveway of the Inn at Laurel Point, right on the harbor in Victoria, at about 6:00 last night. Their new addition, the Erickson Wing, houses their most contemporary rooms, with lush bedding, stylish decor, beautiful pieces of artwork (which make me slightly nervous, worried I’ll knock over one of the lovely pieces!). They even have a “bath butler” service, going beyond the upscale Molton Brown amenities already sitting at the edge of the tub. The “butler” will deliver to the room more specialized bath accoutrements (ginseng to boost circulation, sea elements to detox and relax) paired with a nibble and something to drink. I take slight issue with the fact that all the pairings are sweet (late harvest pinot with toffee, pommeau with pâté de fruits) — why not a nice piece of blue cheese with cabernet??? I suppose I can create that myself, though, later today!

So, I guess I had a great night’s sleep, since I’ve powered through such a long recap this morning. Thanks for bearing

Panzanella at Zambri's

Panzanella at Zambri's

with me. It had been another long, lovely day, capped off with an amazingly perfect dinner at Zambri’s last night. No reservations taken, but our “30 to 40 minute wait” proved to be less than 20 minutes. I started with perfect panzanella and a lovely cocktail of prosecco, Campari and grapefruit liqueur, then I continued with halibut (cheek and fillet, poached) with tomato, olive, and rapini sauces. Bob had a stracciatella, an “Italian egg drop soup” as it was described. The rich chicken-and-pork broth had generous amounts of lacy beaten egg (with minced parsley added) dropped in to cook in the hot broth just before serving. His tenderloin was outstanding, with a rich blue cheese sauce and perfect polenta alongside. Happy, happy, joy, joy. Such a meal! The restaurant was a nice walk from the hotel, it gave us a chance to take in the city, get some fresh air, and get in the mood for our more urban couple days at the south tip of the island.

When I get to Part Two, it will include today’s visit to the maker of Victoria Gin, and another cider maker that’s on the

Victoria's Parliament Buildings by night

Victoria's Parliament Buildings by night

 Saanich Peninsula, Sea Cider. Tomorrow, we attend the delicious annual event Feast of Fields and stay at Fairburn Farm, where my great friend Mara Jernigan has created quite an astonishing culinary destination that goes all out to sing the praises of the foods of Vancouver Island. Can’t wait!


Filed under Northwest treasures, restaurants, spirits, travel