Category Archives: restaurants

A First Taste of Luc

I’m (kind of) sorry to say that I don’t have any photos of the food to show you from dinner at Luc on Sunday night. Only kind of sorry, because I was having such a great times with friends, enjoying the food and the conversation and getting into the groove of a brand new restaurant…I just got totally distracted anyway. I couldn’t wait to get in there and see what my old pal Thierry Rautureau had cooked up for Luc, his new more casual restaurant just a few paces from celebrated Rover’s restaurant.

What I do have to show for the evening is a copy of the menu complete with a smudge of brown in the top right corner. And I think that tells the story about as well as any photo could. Evidence of the chicken liver mousse with rhubarb gelee that we’d sampled in the first round of the night’s orders. Sorry to have wasted even that tiny smidgen of it on the menu.

Some of us started the evening toasting with one of Luc’s signature cocktails, the Mad Hat’n (think “Mad Hatter takes on Manhattan”), a touch of pear cognac the distinctly soignée twist on the classic. Delightful. From then on it was rosé all the way, an ideal night for it. A lazy, late Sunday supper. A few scatterings of Mother’s Day flowers at a couple tables around the room. Festive and warm and still lingering sun in the sky.

I was prepared to be proud of how well we did sampling our way through the menu. With six good eaters, we had opportunity to try a number of things. Grilled beef skewers with deviled egg topping. Old-school (and wonderful) boeuf bourguignon. Homemade grilled lamb sausages with braised cabbage. Fries with Luc’s aïoli (a dash of harissa added). Sautéed spinach. White bean stew with bacon and arugula. Pork should roast (the daily special for Sundays, served family-style), cheeses, butterscotch crème brûlée. And the chef sent out a grilled whole dorade, simple and delicious, the cavity stuffed with herbs. Oooh, que c’était bon!

Pretty good, huh?

But that’s just a fraction, maybe 1/4, of the menu. Lots of things to look forward to for our next trip. Like grilled asparagus with Champagne mousseline and a grilled beef burger. Saffron couscous with fennel confit and pickled mackerel with potato-onion salad. Whole trout almandine and potato gratin with comté cheese. With an obligatory stop on each evening of the week to try the different daily specials, such as pot-au-feu on Thursdays and leg of lamb on Fridays.

Bravo, chef!! What a great corner of convivial deliciousness you’ve added to the lucky Madison Valley neighborhood, with your jaunty hat gracing that cool retro sign hanging outside the door. What a wonderful tribute to your dad, the original Luc. A tribute that we can all enjoy.

Luc on Urbanspoon

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Dahlia Lounge Nostalgia

I imagine more than a few Champagne corks will be popping over the course of this month as Seattle’s beloved Dahlia Lounge restaurant celebrates its 20th anniversary. Beyond Champagne toasts, they’re celebrating too with lots of fun and prizes throughout the month, check out the goings-on here.

Any restaurant that survives and thrives to hit such landmark milestones is something worth celebrating. (Tip of the hat to Pike Pub & Brewery where our friends Charles and Rose Ann Finkel are also toasting 20 years since they first opened doors of the brewery! Woo-hoo!!) With Dahlia, the anniversary stands out for me for a number of reasons.

Professionally, I’ve been eating at, and writing about, Dahlia Lounge and its

dahliaann1

Tom Douglas and me, March 1993, both much younger then....

 eventual siblings for about 18 of those 20 years. After enough meals to form a solid opinion, I came to the conclusion that–for me–Dahlia stands out as a quintessentially Seattle restaurant. Its colorful, inviting room. The professional but relaxed and friendly service. Carefully prepared food that’s got finesse without ever being fussy. Menus rooted in Northwest ingredients  and seasonality but with Asian and European influences that show Seattle’s got an open palate.

Personally, Dahlia’s been the home to a number of my own celebrations over the years, so I definitely connect with the place by way of deeply fond memories. My husband and I chose Dahlia–then in its original 1914 4th Avenue location–for the “rehearsal dinner” location when we got married in 1993. We had that upstairs area at the back of the restaurant to ourselves, and Tom cooked up the dinner. The menu included spicy cornmeal pan-fried oysters with artichoke remoulade, ginger and garlic

dahliaann2

Hmmmm, looks like a bottle of Bernard Griffin? Nice.

glazed spare ribs, chipotle glazed Alaskan halibut with grilled cornbread salad and pear tart with caramel sauce.

Ten years later, it made sense to celebrate again with Dahlia. Now in its new 4th & Virginia location, we took over that back room and had one of the best nights ever with family and friends, eating and drinking well to toast a decade of married life! Mark Fuller (now making his own waves at Spring Hill in my neighborhood) was in the Dahlia kitchen then and cranked through an amazing menu that included shrimp dumplings, slow roasted sucking pig with fennel relish, salt-roasted ehu (a Hawaiian snapper) and lemon-thyme panna cotta with rhubarb confiture. What a fun and delicious night that was. I’d say that we’ll be celebrating there again in 2013 for our 20th, if not for

dahliaann3

Ten years for Bob and me, twelve for Dahlia Lounge

 our master plan to run off to Vegas and get married again on that occasion!

Dahlia opened in November of 1989, a few months after I’d left Seattle for a spell to attend culinary school in France. But I learned about the opening and the restaurant’s early popularity long distance, my mom a trooper about keeping me up to date with Seattle goings-on by way of newspaper clippings. (She also sent me every single batch of Sunday comics; oh, how I love and miss that lady!) Upon my return a couple years later, I wrote my first national magazine article about Seattle restaurants, for a May 1992 issue of Restaurants and Institutions magazine. By then, I’d had a chance to check out Dahlia Lounge in person, noting that “The free-spiritedness of chef-owner Tom Douglas makes a strong first impression when you walk in the door.” And, later, “Douglas swears that his cooking is simple, but to me, his food is testament to a Northwest culinary attitude that is deliciously refreshing to come home to.”

A couple of decades later, I think those reflections are no less true. Dahlia Lounge, Palace Kitchen, Etta’s, Lola, Serious Pie are all imbued by the free spirit of Douglas, his wife Jackie and the passionate, creative team they work with. And that Northwest culinary attitude? More than ever it’s about consciously chosen ingredients of quality, made to shine without unnecessary flair. Just great food that feeds us well, makes us happy, and makes us glad to call Seattle home.

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Vancouver Island Trip: Part Two

Ok, so where was I? Ah yes, lounging in my Victoria hotel room on a lazy Saturday. This was the view at one point inVIharbor the morning, typically Victoria: incoming float plane and a Black Ball ferry heading in from Port Angeles. Outgoing whale-watching trip (that bright orange boat center)  and a tugboat on some mission or another. It was late morning by the time I was done with that previous post and I was powerful hungry. We quickly headed off for lunch. (Breakfast consisted of hotel room coffee and the few lingering ginger snaps in the car-snack-supplies bag.)

A quick stroll to circumnavigate the harbor, and we were down on a pier joining others at a very popular lunch spot, Red Fish Blue Fish. This place is all about sustainability, down to the converted shipping container in which the tiny, efficient, friendly restaurant is housed. Sunny, a bit of a breeze, it was a good day to visit the no-frills spot with its outdoor-only seating. You can grab a stool at the bar-type seating toward the back of the pier, but we opted for the squat backless chairs along the pier’s edge, one doubling nicely as a table for two. It was a severe temptation to over-order, but we honed selections down to include the Pacific Rim Chowder (fish, coconut milk, redfishcorn, garlic, hints of chipotle), a 1-piece salmon and chips (huge portion! their hand-cut, twice-fried chips are outstanding, as is the homemade tartar sauce) and spicy Pacific fish sloppy joe (small pieces of fish in a light sauce, with aïoli and lemon pickled onions). Notice the wood utensils offered, definitely no effort spared to keep the environmental footprint to a minimum. Can’t wait to return to try the tacones, barbecued oysters and other selections.

A nice stroll back to the hotel to retrieve the car and we were off for the day’s explorations. Never too early to consider gin, one of my favorite subjects (I’m a big believer in the idea that it’s 5:00 somewhere!). So our first stop was Victoria Spirits, makers of Victoria Gin. They’re located out on the Saanich Peninsula to the north of town (where you also find Butchart Gardens and Sydney, with its busy ferry docks from US and mainland Canada). The drive, once we got off Highway 17, was really lovely, winding through the trees, lots of lovely old homes along the way, sometimes opening up to a field where horses graze. At the end of many of the driveways, we saw tables laden with garden fruit, fresh-cut flowers, garlic,VIgin eggs — with honor-system prices noted. So charming!

Victoria Spirits‘ tasting room is housed on the Winchester Cellars property, a very pretty setting surrounded by trees and garden. Ken Winchester added the gin to the business’ portfolio last year, but he has moved on to new things. The new owners, Brian and Valerie Murray (with a fun-loving bunch of colleagues), carry on the gin tradition, also making a pinot noir eau de vie (loved it! smooth and flavorful). They’ll start work on whiskey later this year, though product won’t be debuted for at least a few years, since it will take an element of aging. And bitters are on the agenda as well! Will look forward to checking in with them again as the months go by.

After a couple judicious sips at Victoria Spirits (while my non-drinking hubby took in the garden surroundings), the next stop was Sea Cider. Just a bit further up the peninsula, almost an apple’s throw from the water, this is one lovely setting for whiling away a good hour of a lovely Saturday afternoon. It’s a new-construction building that looks to have been here for years, though the youthfulness of the apple orchard that spills down toward the water is a give-away that the property’s been in place for just a few years. VIsea2Those trees are able to produce, now, about 30% of the cider-making needs, the rest coming from other sources in British Columbia. Over the years, as the trees mature, the goal will be that Sea Cider will become an “estate” cidery, with all their apple needs coming from this property.

This isn’t a tasting room, per se, where you belly up to the bar and sip little samples of selected products. Instead, the scenario is table-service. Of course, as a first-time visitor looking to take it all in, I couldn’t not order “the long flight,” a generous pour of all nine ciders currently available. My favorites of the ciders were Kings & Spies (made with Kings and Northern Spies apples, brought a bottle home) and Pippins. For an afternoon nibble, we chose the platter for two, a delicious array of things to snack on, including locally made sausages, cured salmon, eggplant salad, and some Moonstruck cheese from Salt Spring Island. Such a pretty, enjoyable setting.VIfox Little surprise they were shooing customers out a bit early that afternoon to get ready for a wedding, a lovely spot to tie the knot.

Sunday morning, and I wanted to venture beyond the hotel for breakfast. A little sleuthing quickly turned up Blue Fox Cafe as a locals’ favorite at this hour of the day, confirmed by the front desk gal who helped us verify where it was on the map. It wasn’t too hard to find Blue Fox, thanks to the small group of folks clustered on the sidewalk in front. It’s a bustling, cozy, colorful little no-reservations place; and they don’t take names on a list, so you just hang out and wait your turn as a pretty regular stream of folks vacate their tables. Our wait was only about 20 minutes; when we left, after noon, the line was at least twice as long.

Bob opted for the lunch side of the menu, a great club sandwich with a generous and flavorful salad alongside.  Huevos Rancheros always jumps out at me from breakfast menus, I went with that for morning sustenance that day. Great staff, friendly and efficient. And they get major gold stars from me for brining a small pitcher of frothed hot milk when I simply asked for milk for my coffee. I can see why this is a Victoria favorite; we’ll surely return on another trip.

VIfeast1Our time on Vancouver Island was capped off in grand style with a Sunday  afternoon at Feast of Fields. I’d been hearing about this annual local-foods indulgence for a number of years, from my friend Mara Jernigan who helped found the event. The fundraiser–in its 12th year–is put on by FarmFolk/CityFolk each September, held on a different Island farm (this year was the only repeat, the event returned to Providence Farm where it had been held in 2003). Check out the cool wine-glass-friendly “plates” on sale for a mere $5: planks of local cedar. Brilliant. And aromatic!

It was one of those perfect mid-September Northwest days: sunny, blue skies, light breeze, warm. About thirty restaurants from various spots in the area were on tap, not to mention a few dozen or more wineries fromVIfeast2 throughout BC. And Victoria Spirits with their gin, some local breweries and a teamonger. No trouble sating ourself with (sometimes return visits for) late summer gazpacho with vodka-pickled Manila clams (Marina Restaurant); blackberry-walnut baklava (Providence Farm); local Red Fife wheat blinis with Cowichan Bay smoked duck (Fairburn Farm); grain fed beef burgers with ale-braised onions (Spinnaker’s Brewpub); pastry cones with wild mushrooms and smoked goats milk crème fraîche (Sooke Harbour House) and even lovely little mini gluten-free wedding cakes (VinCoco Patisserie). Man alive, it was a lovely afternoon of grazing on the farm. So pleased to finally make it to that celebrated event; I highly recommend trying to plan a mid-September trip to the Island to partake.

After the Feast, we settled in at Fairburn Farm for a last night of the trip. Powerhouse Mara was busy at the event for a couple more hours, we sat out on the big porch with another couple from Seattle, shooting the breeze, talking about life and travels and food. Dinner was simple and delicious, family-style pasta with a perfect bolognese-style sauce. And sleep was blissfully sound. Breakfast the next morning was temporarily interrupted by VIbuff2the chance to watch the farm’s herd of water buffalo parading from the field up to the milking barn. We walked up later to visit with some of the young’uns who are still housed in the barn until old enough to join the others. Before long, we were off, heading back to Nanaimo for the ferry trip back to the “real world” on the mainland.

This trip to Vancouver Island had been a long time in coming, more than a few years had slipped by since our last visit–and countless short-lived efforts to work it into the schedule. It was a full and wonderful time. We packed a lot into those five days, maybe a bit too much. For such a relaxing, unwind-inducing place, we didn’t do a whole lot of relaxing and unwinding. But next time. It won’t be five or six more year. And we’ve already got a list going of things to do that trip that didn’t fit into this itinerary.

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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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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.

VItrail

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!

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A Market Basket Cook-Off

What a phenomenal Saturday morning it was yesterday. It was such an honor to be asked to judge the Ready Set Go…Cook (friendly) competition at the University District Farmers Market, an annual affair that pits two Seattle chefs against each other using their pick of items from market vendors. My cohorts on the judging panel were Joe Gruber, Executive Director of the University District Food Bank and Joane McIntyre from Rents Due Ranch, a longtime market vendor. We were introduced by Mayor Greg Nickels who had moments earlier been part of a ceremony celebrating the city’s purchase of the University Heights building and property, under a banner that touted “celebrating community and supporting local farmers.” It’s a phenomenal step forward in helping ensure that at least one of our city’s neighborhood farmers markets has a permanent home to count on for years to come.

One proviso for the cook-off was that each dish–serving four–should come in at or below a $10 cost. An new this year was the added challenge to integrate pantry items provided by the nearby University District Food Bank, in an effort to show shoppers how well you can eat without having to bust your budget on expensive gourmet products.

The two contenders yesterday were Rachel Yang, chef/co-owner of Joule restaurant in Wallingford and Juli Guillemette, a just-recently-departed sous chef at BOKA downtown (she’s headed off on a road trip adventure back to Vermont where her family has a dairy farm–best wishes for that Juli!). Here’s how each provisioned their kitchens for the cook-off, best as I could note.

Rachel’s market products included fennel, small Asian eggplants, zucchini and yellow squash, hazelnuts, eggs, zucchini blossoms, purslane, honey, goat yogurt and (coolest product of all) zucchini stalks, which included crunchy stalks, tender tendrils and leaves. From the Food Bank pantry she used vinegar, cider, rice, mandarin oranges, and …. Spam!!

Juli’s choices from the market stalls included purslane, Walla Walla sweet onions, green beans, tomatoes, peaches, cucumbers, garlic, oregano, basil, and chicken livers. And from the Food Bank pantry she opted for flour, vinegar, tuna, oil, and maybe one or two other items I missed.

Oh, and each chef was allowed to bring a secret ingredient.

Juli presented her dishes first. She noted a love for meat and fruit combinations, pairing the chicken livers with peaches. The peach halves were lightly sugared and caramelized cut-side down in a cast iron pan (she’d have grilled them if that had been an option). Then cut in pieces, the peaches were partnered with chopped basil and sautéed Walla Walla sweets tocookoff3accompany the crispy pan-fried chicken livers. Her secret ingredient went to use here as a simple sauce: exquisite aged balsamic vinegar. I’m not, unfortunately, a fan of meat-meets-fruit, but do really like chicken livers. And I appreciated the creativity of this combination, particularly given the more savory basil and onion elements.

The second dish Juli served was a twist on salade niçoise, with the tuna, tomatoes, blanched green beans, cucumber and purslane, topped with a vinaigrette that included minced garlic and fresh oregano.  What’s not to love, great fresh bright flavors, quite summery, and nice to show how much you can dress up an inexpensive can of tuna.

Rachel followed with her first of two dishes. The halved baby eggplant and cookoff2pieces of fennel bulb had been marinated (honey-soy) and cooked in a grill pan, served with a salad of purslane and mandarin oranges, a sauce of yogurt and honey with chopped fennel fronds alongside. Delicious.

For me, the star dish of the day was Rachel’s second, a zucchini congee. Congee is, as Rachel simply put it, a rice porridge, typically savory. She noted that giving the time constraints of the competition, cooking the rice congee-style was a quicker option. The long grain rice soaked in cold water for maybe 20 minutes, then she whirled it in the blender with water for a bit, tossed it all in a saucepan to cook. Later she added grated zucchini, sliced zucchini stalks and zucchini leaves. For a finishing touch, she sautéed diced yellow squash and Spam to spoon over.

Rachel put her secret ingredient–soy sauce–to unique use, curing egg yolks from the beginning of the competition (about 1 hour before serving). A cured raw egg yolk was then added to the center of each bowl just before serving, which then oozed deliciously into the congee as you eat it. The lastcookoff1 of many flourishes in this dish was a small piece of lightly fried zucchini blossom on top, a lovely crisp contrast to the silky rich texture of the dish. Wow.

Both chefs did such a great job, really got into the spirit of the challenge and into the pleasure of sharing their favorite ingredients and techniques with the crowd. But Rachel prevailed to take away the coveted blue ribbon first prize for this year’s Ready Set, Go…Cook!

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Drinking Well: Sambar

It was the perfect refuge for a hot summer’s evening. Eight of us gathered onsambar5 the cool, shaded garden patio of Sambar in Ballard for drinks, some snacks and some wonderful quality time catching up with friends. Few places make me quite so happy, eating and drinking so well in such a lovely, calm, engaging setting.

Sambar is the younger, hip sibling of the beloved Le Gourmand restaurant next door. Chef/owner Bruce Naftaly first opened the doors at Le Gourmand in 1985, helping set the stage for the delicious melding of “eat local” and “fine dining” that was just a twinkle in a few chefs’ eyes back then. From day one, Bruce was noting on his menus the sources of ingredients he used, whether it was plums from a backyard tree in the neighborhood or grape sambar6pressings from Chinook winery that he used in a sauce. There are a lot of stars in Seattle’s current culinary firmament. But Bruce was among the first to wrench Seattle’s fine dining scene out of the Continental motif and into a celebration of local bounty. In fact, one of the earlier articles I wrote while food editor of Seattle Magazine was one for the January 2000 issue, challenged to pick a chef worthy of millennial props. I chose Chef Naftaly.

Bruce and his wife/chef/partner Sara opened Sambar five or six years ago, adjoining Le Gourmand, with a mod, colorful, contemporary decor in contrast to the (then) pretty sort of Monet-style French motif of the elder (since updated to be clean, bright, white, with cool mirrors and artful puppets on the wall). The cocktail menu is outstanding, distinctive, taking best advantage of premium and seasonal ingredients. On this recent visit, with so many of us around the table, we had occasion to sample a number from the current list. I startedsambar4with a cocktail of gin, Dubbonet rouge, grapefruit juice and a touch of cardamom; outstanding, Ravana I think it was called. Others tried La Rose (Hendricks gin, rose syrup, Champagne and rose petals), Celeste (light rum, rosemary, cassis, lemon, Champagne) and the Vercour (Hangar One Citron, yellow Chartreuse, lemon, jasmine blossoms).

We nibbled too, of course. The swiss chard gratin was out of this world, with garlic and a rich cheesy sauce. Mussels simple and perfect, “just like Paris,” said one of my friends. Another had passed on sampling the mussels, figuring they were pretty basic and not far from what she could make at home. But we prodded her to give one a try and her eyebrows involuntarily rose while taking in the glorious sambar2flavors. I waited a bit too long to take a picture, but this tells how much we loved them! Extra bread, please, to sop up those amazing cooking juices. And frites! Can’t come to Sambar with out an order (or two, or three) of the great frites.

Couldn’t have been a more perfect Friday evening out in Sambar’s garden with the gals. Come winter, we may just have to do it again, buoyed against the grey and chill by the color and dynamism Sambar holds inside as well.

Sambar on Urbanspoon

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