Escape from Seattle: Whistler for the Calorie Lover (Part 1)
While Jay will surely address the Seattle food scene, summer and fall are excellent times for excursions, so he’ll also spotlight some accessible food and fun in an “Escape from Seattle” series.
Whistler. Coming off this year’s Winter Olympics, the name conjures up images of graceful and powerful athletes wearing skis and riding luges. Even in the height of summer, there’s snow on the slopes and people (mostly young, mostly with snowboards, and mostly texting while riding up the lifts–or so it seems) ascending high above the village, eventually coming down to earth along with fit hikers and ferocious mountain bikers.
Whistler must be one of the fittest places in North America; there’s a lot of beefcake and bodacious bods—healthy people showing off rippling muscles and summer tans.
And then there’s me.
My exercise: hustling from one eatery to another, and then thinking about ways to burn off some calories before inevitably just relaxing or even napping. Some are calorie burners; I, in contrast, am more of a calorie lover.
Not completely, though. In my one previous visit to Whistler, about fifteen years ago, I found myself in a canoe, struggling to row around a lake. And then, afterward, back to my real sport: struggling to find a decent place to eat. A struggle it was. But now, having heard rumblings that the food scene had improved, it was time for a return visit.
In Vancouver, I reluctantly put away my list of dim sum palaces and ramen joints, and skeptically boarded the Rocky Mountaineer to ride the rails to Whistler. While the trip proved that train food is much like plane food (it’s plain food, indeed), the service was stunning, and the scenery spectacular on the sea-to-sky climb.
Leaving urban for countryside, I found myself quickly relaxed, enjoying the views while sipping post-breakfast wine. My only exercise during those three hours: getting up for occasional walks to the open-air Heritage Observation Car when attendants cued us for photo opportunities of Pacific waters, snow-capped mountains, and cascading waterfalls. Little did I realize how making the 74-mile trip by rail, without worry about watching the road, would be such a wonderful experience.
Lunchtime arrival into Whistler meant a chance to drop my bags in my suite at the Westin Resort & Spa, where a fireplace looked like it would be a sweet place to warm up in the winter, and where the kitchen looked tempting–if I didn’t have such a schedule of restaurants to hit.
The feeding frenzy started at Bearfoot Bistro and a look at its extravagant, underground wine cellar. In addition to admiring the huge collection, I found myself learning how to saber champagne. (I opened a bottle using just a glass, and look forward to deploying my new party trick when the next opportunity arises.)
Back upstairs, the chef’s table by the open kitchen was inviting, but summer in Whistler meant sitting outside at a special table by the pool. After sampling some Sevruga caviar and then storming an incredible seafood platter (spot-on fresh, full of local spot prawns, oysters, and Dungeness crab, along with Atlantic lobster—not quite local, but perfectly cooked and oh-so-sweet), I would have been content if the Wagyu short rib with heirloom tomato salad was the finale.
But no. It was time to take a break in the Belvedere Vodka Ice Room, which at -20 degrees Celsius meant wearing a Canada Goose down jacket and hat that the restaurant provided. How cool it was to sidle up to the frozen bar and do a flight of vodkas produced both locally and afar. Best of all, vodka helps push the food down, or so I was told.
A good thing, as it turned out that the kitchen (under Chef Melissa Craig and Pastry Chef Dominic Fortin) was only halfway through the menu. I enjoyed wild Arctic char with tomato panzenella vinaigrette, watercress puree, and crushed fingerlings, followed by “sangria” made with frozen yogurt parfait, macerated berries, muscato d’asti pearls, and lavender.
Nearly four hours after arrival, I prepared to leave, but there was one final show-stopper: nitro ice cream churned tableside, offered with a variety of sundae toppings. I simply had to stay and watch–and, of course, spoon some of that delicious ice cream into my mouth. Eating at Bearfoot is not just a meal, but an experience; I can see why they boast about joie d’vivre at this bistro. And in preparing modern Canadian cuisine with great artistry, they can also boast being Vancouver Magazine’s 2009 winner as “Whistler’s Best Restaurant.”
Laughably late and stuffed silly are the wrong way to go to a massage, but I hustled over to Taman Sari Royal Heritage Spa–the only Javanese spa in North America. Taman sari literally means “beautiful park,” and this turned out to be the ideal place to park myself between big meals. The sounds, smells and sights of this spa were soothing, bringing an immediate sense of peace and relaxation.
I chuckled at the intake form that asked when I ate my last meal (is “still chewing” an acceptable answer?) and whether the therapist should avoid any particular area (my engorged stomach, please), but thoroughly enjoyed the session. The traditional Javanese massage featured continual touch and motion, including many upward strokes to the heart. Stress became history.
But it was the hair and scalp treatment that was most memorable; the spa literature describes it best: “The therapists run their coconut based cream-coated fingers through section after section of hair leaving your head feeling cool, clammy, heavy and ‘gooey’.” Are any of those four adjectives appealing? My head felt like it had been swept through a wok full of curry. But, ultimately, I felt relaxed and light-headed, such that I must have appeared like a drunkard as I stumbled out the door. Miraculously, the bloated feeling was gone.
And also luckily, as I had to head right to dinner at Araxi, the 2010 winner as “Whistler’s Best Restaurant” by Vancouver Magazine. (It’s the restaurant’s tenth time to win the award.) Chef James Walt serves up regional cuisine with a commitment to local, sustainable ingredients. Sometimes simple, yet always stunning.
Take, for example, the knockout course of the night: sweet corn and BC shellfish (Qualicum scallops, Egmont spot prawns and Tofino Dungeness crab) soup with basil tops and baby leek oil. The soup was shockingly simple–a stock made with water, corn (ears and cobs), onion and butter; that’s then cooked with cream, basil, salt and pepper. This is a recipe I’ll be repeating to impress guests.
Other courses included heirloom tomato salad (with buffalo mozzarella, basil sorbet, gazpacho vinaigrette, and nasturtium), crisp wild sockeye salmon (with English peas, summer squash, fava beans, and lavender), and white chocolate-pistachio nougat glace (with blueberries, apricot coulis, and flourless pistachio cake).
Oh…and how can I forget the main course: 72 hour cooked beef shortrib with citrus-pickled carrots, romanesco and radish, as well as carrot puree and ponzu reduction? Good thing the ribs were melt-in-the-mouth delicious, as by now I was tired of chewing, and feeling fortunate that the Westin was just a short walk away. But rest assured: there will be more Whistler adventures in eating and more in the second half of this report, including more vodka, more of Chef Walt, and more short ribs. And something even more outstanding.