Vancouver Island – A Foodies Mecca
A second visit to restaurants can often be a ‘let down’…. especially when the first time was so extraordinary. So it was with a bit of trepidation that my wife Sue and I set off from Victoria to visit Sooke Harbour House. My fears were multiplied because for years I’d been telling Sue about my original visit to Sooke. "Fantastic” was a word that best summed up that first experience.
Normally a trip to Sooke is less than one hour west from Victoria. It took us six. We took a looping northerly route visiting two must see wineries on our way. First, we drove up Highway #1 to Cobble Hill where we dropped in at Venturi Schulze Winery. We were not there for the wine (by the way, they do a fine job with wine). No, it was their vinegar we were after… their ancient method balsamic vinegar, that is. Aged for eleven years in wood barrels, following traditional methods all the way through the process. The result is intoxicating despite the lack of alcohol. I never knew I’d ever describe vinegar as an "elixir”. It’s so good you can just drink it! (It’s great on ice cream too.)
Driving a bit further north to Duncan our second stop was the Averill Creek Winery. Perched on the side of a hill the view alone almost justified the trip. Our mission was to taste their signature wine, 100% pinot noir. The owner, retired physician Andy Johnson, has a passion for this particular grape variety. Fortunately that passion translates into the glass. I was so impressed that I bought a case of the 2009. As Sue often reminds me, I’m like a kid in a candy store when visiting wineries (bookstores too). Averill Creek makes other good wines but you mustgo for the pinot noir! It’s terroir driven and typical of Burgundian reds. Say hello to Andy when you’re there – we found him in the winery pressing this year’s grape harvest. He’s a great guy.
Now it was time to focus on our main destination, Sooke Harbour House. The folks at the winery said we could take the logging road from Duncan to Port Renfrew rather than going back to Victoria. "It’s paved all the way now” we were assured. Well, it was paved but it was quite curvy and the many one lane bridges kept us on our driving toes. The scenery, however, was spectacular.
At 4 p.m. we pulled into Sooke Harbour House and met up with Jill Winstanley, gardener. Yes, gardener. The restaurant (there’s a lovely hotel and spa also) actually employs four gardeners! The property is an edible landscape where over 200 delicious herbs, greens, edible flowers and vegetables are grown. Jill had Sue and I tasting things we never imagined were fit for human consumption: Oxeye daisies, Fuischa berries, sweet cicely, young shoots from day lilies! We spent over an hour with Jill trying dozens of plants and flowers experiencing an amazing array of flavours. She was the perfect host – very knowledgeable, unassuming and very friendly. Jill even confirmed our reservation with the front office. We quickly dropped into the kitchen to speak with chef Oliver Kiensast who was busy prepping for dinner. He had started as an apprentice years ago, then left, came back as sous chef for a while, then left, and finally returning as the Executive Chef. Our anticipation for the dinner was now being teased by all the chopping and simmering we saw in progress.
We were the first table to be seated in the dining room. Host John gave us a perfect table overlooking Whiffen Spit Beach. What came next was pure sensual pleasure. We both chose the tasting menu consisting of four courses. Sue began with the ‘Wild & Cultivated Lettuces, Herbs & Flowers with a Fruit Sage, Maple and White Wine Vinaigrette’. The presentation was gorgeous. I had local Sea Angel Oysters which were very tasty. The second course for me was ‘Duck Confit & Smoked Breast with Moonstruck Ash ripened Camembert, Quince and Mustard Shoot Salad.’ Sue had the seared Albacore Tuna loin. Both dishes teased our palates and left room for the main course. I opted for a vegetarian offering of ‘Chantrelle Mushrooms with Wild Rice accompanied by fresh, fresh Tomatoes, Swiss Chard, Acorn Squash and Hazelnut Brown Butter’ and Sue had the grilled lamb sirloin that included a ‘Fir Needle Lamb Stock Reduction’ with leek oil and watercress. We finished the meal with dessert and local fortified wine in front of a roaring fireplace. Perfect.
As you may have guessed, we enjoyed the food. (It actually surpassed my first visit.) However, the overall ambience of the inn almost stole the show. From the attentive yet unobtrusive service by our server Mara to the well-chosen music to the original art everywhere, we were transported to another dimension… satiated and relaxed. Next time, we’re staying at Sooke Harbour House, for dinner, breakfast, garden strolls, ocean walks, dinner again… and so on.
Trio for Beer Lovers
While staying in Victoria make sure you visit Spinnakers, Swans and Canoe brew pubs. You’ll rarely find better beers, or food, in a gastro pub anywhere else in Canada. Cheers!