Saturday, October 01, 2011

Singular Expression

If there's a nautical gene in the pool, I've definitely got it. As a kid, Flipper was my favorite show, not because I envied the adventures of the two boys who befriended the marine mammal, but because I wanted to be the dolphin swimming free in the ocean. (I was much too young to know the facts of captive, trained dolphins back then.)

So when I got a chance to go up to Vancouver Island to do a story for NW Palate magazine about Edible Canada's gourmet kayaking weekend, I couldn't clear my calendar fast enough. The trip was a tour of the waterways near Ladysmith, BC, wide stretches of flat water that are home to seals, fish and jellyfish. But first I had to get there.

My first stop was a night at the Stone Soup Inn just north of Duncan in Lake Cowichan, BC, a bed and breakfast as well as a restaurant. I pulled into the driveway just as owner Brock Windsor and his wife, Ayako, were unloading their van stuffed with produce from area farms. The perfume from several tiny cantaloupes poured out the open van door, and cases of heirloom tomatoes glowed in its dark interior, along with beets, lettuces and herbs still dripping with morning dew.

Stone Soup is also a working farm, with chickens, turkeys, pigs and a large vegetable garden that supplies the restaurant with eggs and produce. And Brock loves to head out with his backpack to forage for mushrooms and other wild edibles, and has relationships with local farmers for specialty crops that he can't grow himself. But ask to see a menu and he'll tell you there is no such thing here. He serves is whatever is fresh and available in five course "surprise" tasting menu for $65 with a wine pairing of BC wines for an additional $35.

The night I was there I was the only guest, but Brock insisted on giving me the whole enchilada, even saying it was fun to cook for just one person. So despite my protests I was seated at a corner table, and Rachel, his able kitchen and dining room assistant, started me off with a 2010 Averill Creek Pinot Gris and a salad of iceberg lettuce, a new variety from France that Brock had found, tossed with nasturtiums, shiso, Vidalia onions, slivers of poached Qualicum oysters and lemon cucumbers from Rachel’s garden.

It could have been awkward sitting there by myself, but Rachel was fun to talk to and Brock would come out of the kitchen to tell me about each course. The second wine was a 2010 Rocky Creek Ortega from Cowichan Bay, white-gold with a pink cast, with a big flowery nose and a sweetness that worked well with the acidity of the next course, a single slice of a very large yellow-red Pineapple tomato with a few roasted hazelnuts, black cherry tomatoes and a sheep sorrel-chive mayonnaise. It was served in a very warm pasta bowl, which heated up the tomato, a nice touch.

The next wine was a 2009 Blue Grouse Pinot Gris from Duncan, a white with a nose like blue cheese. It came with a super-fresh chunk of seared skin-on salmon from nearby Port Alberni that was served on a combination of green runner beans and roasted apricot, fig and Nodding onion with a little fresh tarragon (top photo). Can you say crazy delicious?

The entrée, God help me, started with a red, a rich, juicy ’08 Garry Oaks Zeta from Salt Spring Island. It complimented a loin of pork from one of the pigs Brock had just slaughtered, very lucky pigs that are fed the same food he serves in the restaurant (i.e. kitchen scraps). It came with a transparent applesauce (“The way my mother made it.”), roasted cauliflower, his garden carrots, a luscious ham broth from the roasting of the loin, beets, potatoes and a side of chanterelles that he and his son had picked.

If you can believe it, I was still upright for the dessert, which commenced with an ’09 Averill Creek Cowichan Black made from blackberries, a perfect accompaniment to a molded chocolate mousse that stood in the middle of a rosemary-infused caramel sauce, berry coulis and a pingpong ball-sized globe of blueberry sorbet. Fan-freaking-tastic.

It's amazing I didn't need to be rolled up to my room, but I have to say I slept soundly till morning, eventually making my way downstairs to find my corner table set with toast and coffee. I poured a cup and wandered into the kitchen to find Brock busy prepping for the night's dinner. After declining anything other than a very basic breakfast, I did agree to try a poached pullet egg and some of his house-smoked bacon. Do I need to say it was terrific?

We talked as he cooked, and I was even more impressed with his dedication to serving absolutely fresh food sourced as locally as possible, preparing it very simply to let its flavor shine. The people of the Cowichan are lucky to have him cooking there, and I only wish his inn was closer so we could become regulars at his table.

Details: Stone Soup Inn, 6755 Cowichan Lake Rd., Lake Cowichan, BC. 250-749-3848.

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