Escape from Seattle: A Voracious Journey to Victoria
As skeptical as I was about going on a food-related trip to Whistler, I was even more skeptical about making a similar trip to Vancouver Island.
I’d been to both places about fifteen years ago, but I figured that Whistler had probably evolved more. The Olympics were there, foreigners hung out there on an ongoing basis, and you could drive there from Vancouver.
It’s part of Canada, whereas Victoria is, what, part of England? I always told inquirers that it’s a place you only need to see once. Too prim-and-proper. See the Gardens, enjoy the buskers, maybe have tea…but bring some cartons of Chinese food from Vancouver if you want something good to eat.
And then, recently, I got gifted a bottle of balsamic vinegar from Venturi-Shultze, and told that Vancouver Island is a bounty of good food. One sip of the vinegar, and I was already making plans to give Victoria and environs another chance.
And am I glad I did!
It’s an easy trip from Seattle. My partner and I planned on the Victoria Clipper outbound and then a return via a Kenmore Air seaplane in order to experience the trip both ways. Three hours on the boat gave me time to review our itinerary, as the eating would begin almost immediately upon arrival. It was a majestic entry into the harbor, and then just a quick (five-minutes or so) walk to the Inn at Laurel Point, our home-away-from-home in Victoria.
Before getting into the food, a bit about the hotel. My suite was contemporary and luxurious—with an area available for in-room spa services. The setting is spectacular. Lots of glass meant lots of natural light in the room (and throughout the hotel), and there was a spacious balcony to watch the sunset, as well as both sailplanes and boats arriving and departing. Aura, the hotel restaurant, has gotten lots of accolades for its use of local ingredients and its Japanese/European approach, though this trip I only got to experience the typical breakfast fare.
Commendably, this independent property earned a Four Green Key Eco-Rating, and is the first and only carbon-neutral hotel in British Columbia. (It’s also the first place I’ve seen requesting use of a small towel to pull open the bathroom door—perfect for those with mysophobia or just taking precautions in our Purell-pervasive society.) The Inn at Laurel Point is a wonderful place to stay, and just a short stroll away from all the sights.
We had reservations for obligatory Afternoon Tea, which meant having to hustle if we wanted to squeeze in a snack beforehand. Which we did, naturally. We dashed over to Pig BBQ Joint, where we not only enjoyed a nicely smoked pulled pork sandwich, but even better baked beans. Turns out they’re made with three types of beans, along with red pepper, onion, celery, BBQ sauce, mustard, and seasonings. This is a hip place to eat.
And then it was tea time, an elegant affair in the majestic lobby of the Fairmont Empress Hotel. It’s fun if you’re into finger sandwiches, as you’ll get a multi-level tray with a variety of sandwiches, along with pastries including, of course, the famous freshly baked raisin scones with strawberry jam and Empress cream. Sit back and relax, and imagine you’re in England. Afternoon Tea is an expensive indulgence, so figure out how flush you are before deciding whether this makes the cut. And note that there are other options, including similar service at Butchart Gardens if you’re enjoying time out there.
If, like me, you’re not a milk-and-tea type of person, you might enjoy a contrasting experience: tea tasting at Silk Road. It’s a tea store that also sells organic skin and body care products, with an added feature of a spa on site. (I’ve heard good things about the spa, though I enjoyed a treatment at Sapphire Day Spa instead, which I’ll discuss in another forum.) Silk Road offers a number of educational experiences; in Tea Tasting 101, I learned a lot about a variety of Asian teas. Check their schedule for other options, such as tea and chocolate pairing, and specialized classes, like making tea popsicles.
While Victoria boasts the oldest Chinatown in Canada, there’s little buzz about anything especially exciting to eat there. Still, it’s an interesting area for strolling, as is Fort Street, where you’ll find the kitchy Dutch Bakery and Coffee Shop, Choux Choux Charcuterie, and Plenty Epicurean Pantry. In general, Asian food in Victoria can’t compare to what’s available in Vancouver. When Red Fish Blue Fish disappointed us by closing early, we settled for a sincere but rather mediocre meal at Le Petit Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant. (The pho was bland, without options for a wide variety of meats, and the lemongrass pork dish was just so-so.)
Although we appreciated the variety of offerings at Foo Asian Street Food, we were underwowed with the laksa (though we appreciate the use of local fish) and butter chicken, wishing for bolder flavors, and felt that the place was a little overpriced. $11 and $12 respectively for our meals served in Chinese to-go boxes seemed like too much.
One Asian place we did like was Daidoco, a Japanese deli that uses locally sourced, organic ingredients. This cute spot is hidden in Nootka Court, right next to Victoria’s Bug Zoo. Satisfying were the tuna-don (using, yes, local tuna, served on rice) and a bowl of greens.
I didn’t want to fill up too much, though, as part two of that day’s lunch was at Devour. The chilled melon soup had intense flavor with a wonderful hint of spicy pepper, while the fresh local fig and blue cheese tart was divine, served up with a superb green salad that had almonds and strawberries. I’ve since sent many people who’ve raved about their experiences here, and I can’t wait to return for a fuller meal.
Chinatown was the scene for our favorite dinner in Victoria—at the newly opened Ulla, recommended by the people at Pig BBQ Joint. We originally considered the acclaimed Brasserie L’Ecole, which gets good reviews, but there was a short wait, and we didn’t see anything on the menu that compelled us to stay. Ulla, on the other hand, was ooh-la-la tempting, stylish with flourishes of contemporary art, and with a sense of experimentation in the menu. The restaurant had only recently opened, but the chef agreed to do a tasting menu for us. This meal was a sight to behold, and delicious.
Salad of heirloom tomatoes, beans, watercress, ricotta, and roasted lemon vinaigrette (bright, bold flavors)
Beef tartare with roasted pepper, cilantro, creme fraiche, and potato chips (I liked this version of tartare, with its interesting texture)
Giant Pacific octopus with new potatoes, celery, chives, and watercress (seared then braised, the octopus was tasty, though less chewy than I prefer)
Lamb sirloin with pea puree, potato gnocchi, chanterelles, and salsa verde (fabulous flavors in this dish, but I wish the lamb had been simply seared instead of sous vide cooked…the chef agreed, saying he did it for convenience)
Best of all were some breakfast finds. Lady Marmalade, which serves breakfast all day, caught my eye for one particular dish. When in Canada, I feel predisposed to eat poutine, and Lady Marmalade prepares a hashbrown version with aged white cheddar and—get this—miso gravy. Fabulous!
Our favorite discovery, based on a recommendation from Ulla’s owner (who talked about the source of her bread), was Fol Epi. It’s across the Blue Bridge into Vic West. You’ll know you’re there when you see the crowds sitting out on the patio. Wow. Croissants just out of the oven might be the best I’ve had, though I can’t certify that, as I should have waited to try one after it cooled down. And, oh, the sandwiches. We tried a wild sockeye and tomato on wheat, and a smoked albacore tuna on a baguette. The breads were amazing, and the fillers fantastic. I’m sad that I didn’t try the sweets, but we were taking off on a trip to Cowichan Valley (my next report), where lots more eating awaited us. Besides, it’s good to leave something for next time, and we look forward to returning to Fol Epi and Victoria.
(And special thanks to the nice folks at Victoria Clipper for squeezing us on a boat to return to Seattle. Kenmore Air canceled its flights due to bad weather, so while I await my chance to fly on a seaplane for the first time, we were grateful to get home in time for work the next day.)