Here's what I expected to find when my I went to Vancouver Island for Memorial Day weekend: Pretty vistas. Friendly people. Good wine. Stellar disc golf courses (my husband otherwise wouldn't have joined me for the trip.)
My forecast was pretty accurate, save for the disc golf courses, most of which were populated by abandoned construction equipment and aging ponies. But I completely failed to predict the quality of the food, which was surprisingly excellent. Here, a day's worth of restaurant highlights from the island beyond Victoria.
Mon Petit Choux
My guidebook didn't properly prepare me for the post-industrial gloom of Nanaimo, which might be a topic better suited to a poet than an underpaid travel writer. But if the city's short on waterfront charm, it has a few unique attributes, including a hopping lawn bowling green and the Nanaimo Bar trail, which culminates with a Nanaimo martini at The Modern Cafe. Our server described the syrupy concoction as "easy drinking," which seemed less true with each minute the martini sat mostly untouched on our table.
Other stops along the trail celebrating the city's signature stacked desssert of chocolate, coconut and vanilla custard include counters serving deep-fried Nanaimo bars; Nanaimo bar ice cream; raw, organic, gluten-free Nanaimo bars and Nanaimo bars flush with peanut butter. Amazingly, considering the municipal affection for sushi, which forms the core of every brewpub menu, nobody's yet invented the Nanaimo bar roll.
The best baked goods I encountered were served at Mon Petit Choux, a French-style bakery that doesn't deign to join the city's official Nanaimo Bar itinerary. Or perhaps the organizing committee felt the shop violated the bar's spirit by making it fancy: At Mon Petit Choux, the bar's defined by its statuesque layer of light pastry cream. And for trail followers who can't bear any more chocolate, the bakery also serves accomplished croissants and fruit tarts.
I'm always suspicious of restaurants which swipe recipes from around the globe, which sounds like a better blueprint for a college dining hall than a decent cafe. But Atlas Cafe has done an admirable job of co-opting recipes that showcase the island's impressive produce selection: Carrots, mushrooms and greens show up in quesadillas and soba noodle bowls. The restaurant serves meat, although the wood-floored interior and menu have a decidedly first-wave vegetarian bent: I adored my sloppy enchilada of tofu, black beans, roasted corn, sweet chili yams, red peppers, mixed greens and mozzarella, rolled and baked in a curry tortilla garnished with a zesty tomato sauce and chipotle sour cream.
Dinner Ucluelet, B.C.
The testimonial on the brochure for chef Richard Norwood's eponymous salute to Vancouver Island's bounty comes from an online reviewer, which completely undersells this fantastic restaurant. Norwood opened his restaurant in 2009, after spending almost a decade running the kitchen at a nearby resort. Years in the hotel industry didn't sap Norwood's creativity: Every dish I sampled was clearly devised in response to the local fish and vegetables he'd procured, not a market study or accountant's directive.
Norwoods has the casually sophisticated feel of many excellent restaurants located in small towns where the residents don't want to surrender their off-the-beaten path status, but still crave the occasional Nicoise salad or classical crab bisque. Servers are friendly, and genuinely interested in food and drink: When an impressive cocktail menu buoyed me to ask for a Boulevardier, my server said he didn't know it - but would really appreciate if I'd later tell him about how it's made.
There wasn't a sour note in the symphony of flavors Norwoods presented, but I was most struck by the tuna, which was caught earlier that day. Norwood works with boat captains who call him hours before reaching port to alert him to the contents of their catches, and he develops his menu accordingly. The tuna tasted extraordinarily oceanic, and paired beautifully with a house made nuoc cham that respectfully acknowledged the island's Asian influences. It's little wonder the online reviewer in San Francisco was so impressed.