For the most part I prefer to leave writing about food to professionals like M.F.K. Fisher, Marcella Hazan, Lee Chait, regarding food to be more a participant than spectator sport, but, if you are within 200 km of Vancouver, get onto the Victoria ferry and drive 90 km along the west side of Vancouver Island along the breathtaking, but treacherous, Juan de Fuca Strait, to get to Port Renfrew. Why? To eat at the Port Renfrew Hotel. Who would have thought that we would have our finest meal of the trip at this totally unprepossessing, unheralded place?
We hit Vancouver Island mid-morning Friday after the hour and a half ferry ride from Tsawwassen (no that’s not a typo). The scenery through Georgia Bay and approaching is breathtakingly beautiful, enough so that the commercial BC Ferries hire naturalists to lecture during the ride.
On arrival, we spent most of the day settling into the hotel and exploring the tourist city, its waterfront, the shops, the provincial Parliament and the grand Empress Hotel with its spectacular rose gardens.
So in the afternoon, needing a break, we decided to take a drive out to Port Renfrew, along the west coast of the island. We figured that the ride would keep us out a bit late and that we could either eat once we got there depending on what we found, or have a late dinner when we got back.
The drive to Port Renfrew was spectacular, though, tree hugger that I am, I noted with dismay the logging on the island. When we got to, literally, the end of the road, there it was.
The meal began with what may have been the most outstanding dish, the Westcoast Seafood Chowder. This soup seems ubiquitous up here and I actually had a bowl before my oysters at lunch. But something told me, right out of the gate, so to speak, that I needed to try this soup here. Boy, was I right! Unlike the usual potato thickened soups, this had a smooth, delicate natural cream base like you would make at home. The vegetables were fresh and appropriately cooked, the seafood fresh, and more outstanding was the delicate seasoning. Nothing jumped out at you. From this dish, alone, it was clear that the chef was in control of not just his or her ingredients, but his spicing and cooking.
For the main course I decided on the fresh sockeye salmon stir fry with black bean salsa and Asian vegetables over rice, and Sharon had the halibut. My salmon was good, very good. Again, fresh ingredients, delicate cooking and fine spicing. The black bean salsa highlighted the very fresh vegetables cooked just right. Sharon’s halibut was a bit more than that. Halibut overcooked can go dry very quickly. This was succulent. It was set off by an improbable pineapple black bean salsa and a cilantro crème fraiche. The carrots on the side would have been overcooked in other hands, but here they turned out soft and succulent. I’m no fan of halibut, but this was spectacular. At this point we began dropping hints that we would love to chat with this wonder in the kitchen, but no luck. We were able, however, to see into the small kitchen through the door. No one in there looked to be over 25.
We had to try dessert, even though we were both pretty stuffed. Now I don’t much like bananas except when I have a cramp in my quadriceps, but we asked the server what her favorite dessert was and she recommended the banana xango. Oookk. Again, the cook brought the improbable together beautifully, the cinnamon and banana were perfectly balanced and cooked, the flour tortilla delicately crisped and the whole thing was set off spectacularly by a mango lemon sorbet. Even the coffee, plain American style brewed on a Bunn machine, was delicate.
The long drive back was made difficult not by the hour or the length or the food but by the fact that Sharon made me drive her car sanely, but, in the end it was worth going almost two hundred klicks out of the way.