Monday, June 20, 2011

Shellfish, Locals and the Real 100-Mile Menu (Includes review of Crow & Gate Pub)

We were planning to go camping this past weekend, but the threat of rain forced us to a consider an alternate plan, one that might save us from sleeping in a wet tent and yet still able to enjoy the outdoors. With the summer festival season underway, I figured there must be some event somewhere on the Island we could attend. Sure enough, there was and it involved food! Situated at Comox's lovely Marina Park, the BC Shellfish Festival has only been around a few years and first thing we noticed upon arrival on Saturday was the local, regional, relaxed vibe of this outdoor gathering. There was no crowd congestion, no throngs of people jostling for position at the various booths and a whole lot of fun and good eating. Unfortunately, we couldn't make it up for the Friday BCSF Chefs’ Dinner, but there was enough happening Saturday to keep our attention and taste buds busy. Highlights included the chowder competition (free samples of about 8 different quality chowders), the frantic oyster shucking competition and the chef cooking demonstrations. We had the good fortune to sit in on a demo conducted by famous local food icon, Ronald St. Pierre, executive chef at Locals in Courtenay. About midway through his demonstration (Cascadia Sablefish), I turned to my wife and whispered, "we have to go to this guy's restaurant tonight."

I'll admit it, were it not for the Shellfish Festival, I'd see no reason to stop in Courtenay for longer than it took to fill up on gas and grab a quick bite. This year's edition of BCAA's Westworld travel magazine warns travellers that Courtenay is a boring collection of big box stores, and to 'drive straight through' the valley until they reach the countryside again. But as we all know, looks and first appearances can be deceiving. The Comox Valley has a lot going on and has some of the most beautiful rural landscapes on the Island. The nearby mountains of Strathcona Park offer some of the best hiking and skiing anywhere in the province. And I hear the fishing in the region (both saltwater and freshwater) ain't that bad either. Sure, downtown Courtenay and the section of Island Highway through the town don't offer much to thrill the tourist, but go about a kilometre in any direction from that strip, and you begin to see much that does. Renowned Chef Ronald St. Pierre obviously saw the rich bounty of goodness in the region when he and his wife opened their restaurant, Locals, in downtown Courtenay in 2008. The place has since become a regional culinary legend.

If you are suspicious of restaurant claims and mantras related to locally sourced food and 100-mile menus, you have every right to be. It's as much a greenwashing marketing ploy as it is an actual environmental practise. In other words, many claim to do local, but if you probe their menu and ingredients, you find very little is actually from local sources. This is not the case with Locals restaurant. Thanks to its mild climate and extended growing season, the Comox Valley has, arguably, the best overall agricultural conditions in all of Canada and is said to be the envy of many an executive chef elsewhere, who strive toward local sourcing. Chef Ronald St. Pierre has developed close relationships with Valley farmers, assuring a steady supply of seasonal fruits, vegetables, herbs, dairy and meats. With wine from the local Beaufort Vineyard, beer from the local Surgenor Brewing Company and mead from Hornby Island, Locals truly is a homage to, and celebration of bio-regional foods. Of course, there are exceptions, some foods are imported (such as the Alberta beef), but these import ingredients are very much the exception to the rule at Locals.

Having access to great local food sources is all fine and good, one still needs the skill to convert that into a great menu. Chef St. Pierre passes that test in flying colours. There are only a couple places in Vancouver and one place in Victoria that commit, and I mean commit, to a truly local menu, but none of their innovations are as masterful as St. Pierre's. We began our meal with some local beer and divinely delicious Crispy Pork Belly (roasted fennel seed infused Tannadice Farm pork served on celeriac julienne slaw with pickle, garlic scape, and tarragon peppercorn dressing). My wife's main, Seafood Bouillabaisse (seasonal medley of local shellfish, half Dungeness crab, fish, prawns and scallops simmered with French anise essence in a rich tomato saffron broth; served with a traditional garlic citrus aïoli sauce and Comox Valley potatoes), was a spectacular culinary expression of the famous seafood and flavours from this region. My main, AAA Ribeye Steak (charbroiled Premium Alberta beef served with mixed root vegetables pavé, Little Qualicum Cheeseworks Blue Claire cheese and Shiraz reduction jus), was equally amazing. Even our collection of desserts found in the Taster Platter (Frozen Lemon Meringue Soufflé, Dark chocolate truffle terrine, Old fashioned berry tartlet, Chai tea crème brulée) left us in awe. Unlike West Coast cuisine pretenders and sycophants, like Cafe Brio in Victoria, Locals delivers the culinary goods and gives you portions you can sink your hungry teeth into.

The interior decor at Locals is deceptively stylish, given the location of the restaurant (amid a Shopper's Drug Mart strip mall), and the service was first rate. Our only regret upon leaving was learning that they were closed the following day for lunch. We were hoping to get one more visit in before heading back to Victoria. 
Locals on Urbanspoon

On our way back to Victoria the following day we decided to take a lunch detour to one of my favourite pubs on the Island, the Crow & Gate. The first time I went here, it was a discovery by accident after a drive out to Yellow Point Lodge. The second time I went, I got lost in the maze of Cedar backroads, eventually finding my way to the pub. This time, we almost got lost again but our iPhone GPS saved us from another roundabout tour of this rural community. 

This traditional English style pub is a destination lunch spot, not the type of pub you sit down in for hours and drown your sorrows or joys. As such, it does attract a lot of tourists, including bus tours, which kind of detracts from the experience. It's also a pub less about the food and drink and all about the location and ambience. The bucolic rural surroundings do indeed leave you feeling like you're lost in the English countryside and the pub's Tudor-style interior further emphasize that atmosphere. I've had good food here in the past, but my steak & mushroom pie yesterday was disappointing, and the dressing they put on the salad was sickly-sweet. My wife's shrimp sandwich was good, but not memorable. Further, I've always felt that Crow & Gate could do better justice to the Island's excellent microbreweries. I counted a couple of Phillips ales on tap and a single beer from Nanaimo. These negatives aside, for a Sunday afternoon drive in the country, I can think of few better pub lunch spots than this lovely Cedar public house.

  Crow & Gate Pub on Urbanspoon