Last weekend, I had the opportunity to dine at the Willows Inn on Lummi Island. The Willows Inn restaurant has been receiving nonstop accolades ever since Blaine Wetzel took over as head chef in 2010. The New York Times declared it one of ten restaurants worth a plane ride. Chef Wetzel, who is only in his mid-twenties, is widely regarded as a rising star in the American culinary scene. He was trained at the renowned Noma restaurant in Copenhagen which many say is the best restaurant in the world. At Willows Inn, Wetzel has combined his expert training with a near-obsessive focus on local, seasonal ingredients—with very few exceptions, everything served at the restaurant is foraged or grown on the island or very close by. Buzz like this is hard for a food fanatic like me to ignore–it was finally time to give Willows Inn a try.

Lummi Island is located about two hours north of Seattle. To get there, head north on I-5 to the Gooseberry Point ferry dock near Bellingham. For the best views, take scenic Chuckanut Drive (be sure to stop by Taylor Shellfish Farms on the way for a picnic lunch of fresh oysters). A brief but thrilling ride on the Whatcom Chief Ferry takes you across the bay to Lummi Island (note: the ferry is tiny & open to the elements–keep your windows rolled up to avoid getting hit with sea spray!). From the ferry dock, Willows Inn is just a short drive north around the tip of the island. You will be treated along the way to amazing views of the water, mountains and neighboring Orcas Island.

After checking into our suite a few miles down the road, we headed back to the main building for pre-dinner cocktails. The bar at Willows Inn is cozy and cute with limited seating. You can hang out there or do what most people do and take your drinks into the main lobby/living room/social area. Here you will find a crackling fireplace and a fantastic view of the water. Guests mingle with drinks in hand, anxiously waiting to be called in for dinner. The excitement in the air is palpable, and it gains in intensity as the dinner hour approaches. Sipping my Boulevardier Cocktail by the fire, chatting with friends, and looking out on the beautiful scenery–I was already having such a good time, if dinner ended up being a disappointment, I almost wouldn’t have minded. Of course, it wasn’t.

Immediately upon being seated, we were welcomed with champagne flutes of hard cider from nearby Friday Harbor. This cider was unlike any I’d had before—it was incredibly light and effervescent making it a great match for the food we were about to have. Moments later, the snacks started arriving, brought out to the table by the various chefs responsible for cooking the meal. Technically, dinner at the Willows Inn is five courses. However, you are provided with so many additional small bites, that the meal seems never-ending. We were served twenty separate treats throughout the evening. Early highlights included a crisp potato chip topped with homemade sauerkraut and buttery black cod and a kale “toast” with roasted porcini mushrooms and rye bread crumbs. A tiny cube of seared venison heart seasoned with red currant and rose was a delicious surprise. Naturally, given the setting, we were served smoked salmon. As expected, it was the best I’ve ever had—delicate, tender, smoky, and a bit sweet.

Entrees included hearty whole grains dressed in an impossibly green puree evocative of fresh grass in the springtime. This was topped with slices of geoduck which the chef oh-so-casually informed us had been “alive three seconds ago”. A nettle and fiddlehead fern salad was garnished with cheese so fresh that it was practically quivering. My favorite of the entrees was a seared steelhead trout garnished with foraged sea beans and house-pickled capers. The richness of the fish was nicely balanced by the briny sea beans and capers. Desserts were equally exquisite. Sweet and tart rose hip ice cream was followed by a cheese and venison prosciutto plate and a bite-sized caramel with flax seeds. The most exciting dessert was the gin candy! It was like a boozy, piney after dinner mint.

My dinner at the Willows Inn was one of the top five dining experiences of my life. You leave the restaurant with such a strong sense of what the island has to offer. Throughout the entire meal, the forest and the sea are front and center. A meal like this just wouldn’t be the same in the city. There is something about being surrounded by the things that you are eating that makes it taste so much better. As I was exploring the island the next day, I kept having different taste memories from the meal. A whiff of the briny sea reminded me of the pickled oysters with sorrel I’d just had. Stepping over a mound of damp, mossy earth, I couldn’t help but think of the earthy shiitake mushrooms, perfectly grilled and adorned with nothing but sea salt.

Dining at the Willows Inn is not cheap. You also have to factor in the cost of a ferry trip and a room on the island (believe me; you won’t want to have to drive back to Seattle after this meal). I could try and tell you that it is worth every penny, but that really depends on who you are and how far you are willing to go for a great meal. To my mind, the adventure and the meal is worth the cost, but it’s not something I’ll be able to do again any time soon. If you are looking to treat yourself to something unique and local and don’t mind splurging, then dinner at Willows Inn is worth checking out. When I strike it rich one day, I know where I’ll be celebrating!

I’ve become really interested in Chinese food over the past few months. Perhaps it is due to the recent explosion of Chinese restaurants opening up in my neighborhood, or maybe it’s because I’ve started fully embracing meat as part of my diet and am now free to enjoy all of China’s wonderful meat-based dishes. Whatever the reason, this is a cuisine that’s really hitting it’s peak with me right now. It is also one I haven’t explored much beyond simple stir-fries and noodle dishes, most of which weren’t very authentic anyway.

My fascination with Chinese food started earlier this year when I sampled the Gua Bao (pork belly buns) at Chino’s, a new Taiwanese-Mexican joint that opened up down the street from me. Gua Bao are steamed buns filled with braised pork belly and topped with pickled mustard greens and chopped peanuts. They are a perfect food in my book: sweet, savory, rich, crunchy, and a bit sour thanks to the mustard greens. I could happily eat these every day for the rest of my life. Chino’s also offers other interesting Chinese dishes such as Zha Jiang Mian (rice noodles with minced pork and hot bean paste), 1,000-Year-Old Egg with Tofu, and Pig’s Ear Salad (which I haven’t been brave enough to try…yet).

Inspired by the new and exciting and food I’d sampled at Chino’s, I decided to try my hand at Hong Shao Rou (Red-Braised Pork), a traditional dish from the Hunan province of China. For this dish, I braised pork belly for several hours in a mixture of dark & light soy sauce, caramelized sugar, Chinese rice wine, ginger, cinnamon, and star anise. The aroma of the braising liquid as it was cooking was incredible. Pork belly can be overwhelmingly fatty and, although my Hong Shao Rou tasted fantastic, I actually found it to be unbearably rich as a standalone dish. On the other hand, a little bit tucked into a steamed bun for Gua Bao or (as I did with my leftovers) inside a toasted baguette with carrot and daikon pickles for bahn mi, and this dish goes from too rich to absolutely perfect.

This week, I decided to try another famous Chinese dish: Mapo Tofu. Mapo Tofu is a casual, everyday dish from the Sichuan province that is known for being especially spicy. It is easy to make but will require a trip to your local Asian grocery store for some specialty ingredients. To make this dish, you need fermented Chinese black beans, chili bean paste (also called hot bean paste) and Sichuan peppercorns. If you’ve never had Sichuan peppercorns before, be forewarned: eat enough of them and your mouth will go numb. I picked some up during my lunch break from work and then nibbled on a few once I got back to my desk. They start off with a deceptively mild peppery flavor, but that soon gives way to a tingly numbing sensation. It’s a strange feeling but one that is somewhat addictive. After the numbness had died down, I couldn’t resist grabbing a few more peppercorns to chew on.

Once you have the necessary ingredients, Mapo Tofu is exceedingly easy to prepare. Simply brown some ground beef or pork in a hot wok, stir-fry your various flavorings, add stock and tofu, simmer until thickened, and garnish with chopped scallions and ground Sichuan peppercorns to taste. The result is a very spicy, highly flavorful dish. Depending on how much Sichuan pepper you add at the end, you will either experience a mild tingly sensation or a full-on mouth assault. Since I love spicy foods, I brashly added 2 heaping teaspoons of pepper to my dish. It felt slightly more like a trip to the dentist than dinner–Sichuan pepper may be one of those things you need to slowly become accustomed to (once again, however, after the numbness was over, I found myself craving more). I made a second batch of Mapo Tofu a few days later using less pepper, and it was perfect. If you love spicy dishes, you won’t want to miss this one. I wonder what new, exciting (and possibly tingly!) Chinese dish I’ll discover next?

Mapo Tofu

3 tbsp peanut oil
6 oz ground pork or beef
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp fermented black beans, rinsed and minced
2 1/2 tbsp chili bean paste
1 cup chicken stock or water
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp soy sauce
1 lb soft or medium tofu, drained and cut into cubes
1 tbsp cornstarch mixed with 2 tbsp cold water
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 to 2 tsp ground toasted Sichuan pepper*

Heat a wok over high heat, then add the oil. Brown the pork or beef in the hot oil, breaking it up into small bits. Turn the heat down to medium, add the garlic and black beans, and stir-fry for 30 to 60 seconds. Add the chili bean paste and stir-fry for another 30 to 60 seconds. Stir in the stock or water, sugar and soy sauce. Add the tofu cubes. Mix gently to avoid breaking up the tofu too much. Simmer for a few minutes, then add the cornstarch mixture and cook until the sauce has thickened (this should happen right away). Sprinkle with the scallions and Sichuan pepper, to taste.

Makes 3 to 4 servings

*Sichuan peppercorns are typically toasted before being ground. Heat the peppercorns in a dry wok over medium heat, stirring often, until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Allow to cool, then grind in a spice grinder or using a mortar and pestle.

Robert and I just returned from another wonderful trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. We had some outstanding fall weather while we were there—sunny and warm nearly every day. The wonderful October days were perfect for zipping around town in Robert’s mom’s beautifully restored 1972 VW Bug. We took advantage of the nice weather by taking a side trip to see the ancient cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument. They are awe-inspiring, and I highly recommend a visit if you are ever in the area. As usual, there was plenty of delicious food to be had in Santa Fe. One night in particular stands out with dinner at The Shed followed by cocktails at the Secreto Bar & Loggia.

Nestled among downtown Santa Fe’s historic buildings, The Shed has been open since 1953. This Santa Fe landmark is well-regarded by locals and visitors alike. Despite its reputation for excellence, The Shed is not at all fancy—just as fleece wouldn’t be out of place in most Seattle restaurants, blue jeans and boots are the requisite attire when dining at The Shed. It is an utterly charming restaurant. The vibrant, hand-painted wooden sign at the entryway and a series of small, quiet rooms connected by extremely low doorways gives the place a funky, casual vibe (just be sure to watch your head!)

The Shed’s menu consists of New Mexico standbys such as tacos, burritos and blue corn enchiladas. Of course, since this is New Mexico, you can order anything on the menu red, green or “Christmas-style” (for the uninitiated, that means with red chili, green chili or a little of each). Since I can’t go to The Shed on any old weekend, I was happy to see that they offer combo plates which allow you to sample several different items. I ordered one red enchilada (The Shed’s specialty) and one turkey sausage taco smothered in green chili. I am not lying when I say that this was the best enchilada I have ever had! Most enchiladas are made with a milder, tomato-y red sauce but The Shed’s red is all about the chili—smoky and spicy and perfect! The green was amazing too, and my taco was literally drowning in it. I would have licked my plate clean. Fortunately, The Shed provides each table with garlic bread for sopping up the chili—it may not be traditional, but you certainly don’t want any of that delicious chili to go to waste.

After dinner, we headed across the plaza to the Secreto Bar & Loggia at the St. Francis Hotel. There, we met up with Robert’s friend Natalie of The Liquid Muse. Natalie is a cocktail authority so we trusted that she had directed us to the hippest sipping spot in Santa Fe. As expected, we were in good hands with expert mixologist Chris Milligan behind the bar. Serious mixologists are popping up all over Seattle these days, but I did not anticipate finding one in Santa Fe! We grabbed a couple of seats at the bar and chatted with Chris about our favorite liquors and flavors. He worked his mixologist magic and produced a series of amazing cocktails suited exactly to my tastes.

I started off with a cocktail based on rum and house-made falernum. Falernum is a spiced rum made with any number of ingredients but most commonly with almond, vanilla, allspice, clove and lime. Quality falernum isn’t readily available in stores so many bartenders make their own. It lends a spicy, sweet flavor to drinks and the cocktail Chris made for me was no exception. It was a perfect drink for sipping by the fire on a chilly evening—a little reminder that the holidays are not far off.

As intrigued as I was by the house-made falernum, it doesn’t compare to my level of curiosity upon spying a bottle labeled “choke shrub.” Robert’s mom makes choke cherry jam every year so I knew that choke cherries were a popular fruit in New Mexico. But what on earth is a shrub? Well, it turns out that a shrub is a tart and sweet vinegar-based syrup made most often using fresh berries. Noting my interest, Chris whipped up another cocktail for me using anejo tequila, choke shrub, mole bitters and fresh sage leaves. It sounds odd, but it was really delicious. Fittingly, it tasted like the desert! This drink is actually going to be featured in an upcoming edition of New Mexico Magazine as part of their holiday drinks special. How exciting, getting a sneak peek at a new cocktail! If you ever find yourself in Santa Fe and love creative, well-prepared cocktails as much as I do, be sure to visit Chris at the Secreto. As we stumbled out into the cold autumn night, with the smell of piñon in the air all around us and a stomach full of spicy chili and amazing cocktails, I couldn’t imagine being any happier.

Wednesday night, we attended FareStart’s 6th Annual Guest Chef on the Waterfront – a food & wine extravaganza in support of FareStart. FareStart is a non-profit organization in Seattle whose mission is to help homeless and disadvantaged men and women obtain the skills necessary to find employment in the food service industry. Their intensive 16-week culinary program combines on-the-job training with classroom instruction and job placement services. FareStart provides meals to childcare centers and homeless shelters around the Seattle area every day of the year, an endeavor that provides students with valuable training opportunities. Hands-on training also occurs at the FareStart Restaurant located at 7th & Virginia in downtown Seattle. The FareStart Restaurant offers students the chance to prepare meals for hungry workers and downtown shoppers. The restaurant is open every weekday for lunch. On Thursday evenings, the restaurant hosts Guest Chef Night where one of Seattle’s premier chefs heads into the FareStart kitchen and works directly with the students to produce a delicious meal for a restaurant full of diners. The wait staff on Guest Chef Night is comprised of volunteers from local businesses (my company participated in this twice and had a blast each time). Guest Chef Night is a popular event; reservations are strongly recommended.

Another highly anticipated FareStart event is their annual Guest Chef on the Waterfront, a celebration featuring the local chefs and restaurants that support them throughout the year. Some have referred to it as the foodie event of the summer. Guest Chef at the Waterfront brings together over 70 of the region’s best chefs, breweries and wineries. This year’s participating restaurants included relative newcomers Tilikum Place Cafe, Urbane and Cantinetta as well as old Seattle standbys such as Ivar’s and Salty’s on Alki. Beverage purveyors ranged from Caffé Vita Coffee Roasting Co. to DrySoda to Georgetown Brewing Company. Of course, there was also wine. Lots and lots of wine courtesy of the Rhone Rangers, non-profit organization dedicated to promoting American Rhone varietal wines. As with the FareStart restaurant, all proceeds from Guest Chef on the Waterfront directly benefit FareStart’s job training and placement programs. Helping the community with delicious food and drink is a cause I can get behind!

Guest Chef on the Waterfront is held on Seattle’s Pier 66. The weather was absolutely perfect this year; it was so nice just to be on the pier looking out over the water and mountains. The best part of all, however, was the wonderful food and wine! Food and beverage stands were set up in long rows inside Bell Harbor’s Elliott Hall with even more stands located outside on the sunny pier. Upon entering the building, you are given a tray and an empty wine glass and are set free to start eating and drinking. The place was packed! It was pretty challenging getting to some of the food. There was very little room to move, and people were bumping into each other right and left. I’m pretty sure everyone in attendance either spilled food or was spilled upon at some point during the night. After a while, things seemed to ease up, and I was able to sit back and enjoy some delicious nibbles.

Food was served in small portions – just a few perfect bites allowing you to sample many different things. This being Seattle, the dishes were weighted heavily towards seafood. Ceviche was a popular choice. I sampled two: a spicy Moroccan-inspired scallop ceviche and a mixed seafood ceviche in a bloody mary marinade (complete with bloody mary style garnishes of olives and spicy peppers). Lemongrass-scented salmon vichyssoise, halibut cheeks with corn salsa and swordfish with kimchi were among the other seafood dishes I tried. Robert particularly enjoyed 2100 Bistro‘s miniature lamb patty served atop Vietnamese rice noodles. Urbane‘s corn dog also received high praise from our group. Like the food, wine was served in tiny samples. I excitedly tried several varietals I hadn’t had before including Marsanne, Mourvedre and Roussanne. After filling up on dinner and drinks, it was time for dessert. I don’t normally do dessert, but there was no way I was going to pass up fried-to-order nutella-stuffed beignets. The line for beignets was long but worth it. They were incredible! Guest Chef at the Waterfront may be over for this year, but I encourage you to check out lunch or Guest Chef Night at FareStart – it’s good for the students, the community, and your belly!

I often daydream about what it would be like to have every possible ethnicity is represented in my neighborhood’s restaurant scene. That may never happen, but we just got one step closer with the grand opening of Guanaco’s Pupuseria on Broadway. I love pupusas so this news is quite exciting. Pupusas are El Salvador’s most notable dish. They are thick handmade tortillas stuffed with a variety of fillings ranging from chicharrón (ground pork) to refried beans to cheese with loroco (a tropical vine flower). Most commonly, pupusas are made using corn masa although some regions in El Salvador use rice flour. They are traditionally served with curtido, a lightly fermented cabbage slaw. I personally love having them for breakfast with refried beans, scrambled eggs, hot sauce and sour cream.

My primary experience with pupusas thus far has been at Salvadorean Bakery in Seattle’s White Center neighborhood. Their pupusas are dense and hearty. By contrast, the pupusas at Guanaco’s are very soft and practically overflowing with fillings. The thin, slightly charred exterior of the tortilla is just strong enough to hold in the soft, melty center. While I prefer the denser pupusas at Salvadorean Bakery, Guanaco’s pupusas are tasty and I’m certainly not going to complain about cheap pupusas a few blocks from my apartment! In addition to pupusas, there are plenty of other tempting items on the menu including fried plantains, yucca fritters, baby corn tamales, dessert empanadas and pastelitos (fried corn flour pockets filled with beef, onion and carrot). Everything at Guanaco’s is super cheap so there is no excuse not to try something new with each visit.

Guanaco’s is located at 219 Broadway E. Suite 14 (inside the Alley Mall).

Robert and I had a fantastic dinner last night at Anchovies & Olives. Halfway through, we had already declared it the best meal of the year! Like many dining establishments, Anchovies & Olives was doing a special prix fixe menu for New Year’s Eve – five courses at $75 per person. That’s not cheap, but in this case it ended up being worth every penny. Each course came with a choice between two different dishes. We decided to keep it simple and order one of each to share. Might as well sample everything, right? Highlights for me included the tiny kusshi oysters topped with green apple ice, the hamachi crudo (raw yellowtail served with blood oranges, shaved beets and horseradish) and the seared arctic char with trumpet mushrooms and braised radicchio. Robert enjoyed the escolar crudo which came topped with spicy coppa, persimmon and arugula. Our favorite dish of all, however, was the squid ink spaghetti with sea urchin, mussels and bread crumbs. The pasta – made fresh in house – had a wonderful firm, chewy texture. Combine that with super-sweet mussels and perfectly crunchy fried bread crumbs and you end up with one truly unforgettable dish. Talk about closing out 2009 on a high note!

To thank me for working some magic on one of his old tax returns, Robert took me out for dinner at Harvest Vine. Harvest Vine is a popular tapas restaurant located in the Madison Valley neighborhood. Opened in 1998 as a small gourmet take out and wine shop, Harvest Vine quickly grew into a full scale restaurant that has had critics and patrons singing its praises ever since. Tapas restaurants are so prevalent these days, but few do it as well and as authentically as Harvest Vine. The menu features a unique blend of seasonal local produce and traditional Basque ingredients imported from Spain and France. The tapas may vary with the seasons, but one thing never changes – every dish at Harvest Vine exemplifies their passion for creativity and commitment to excellence.

The first thing you notice upon entering Harvest Vine is the lively atmosphere, largely due to the open kitchen. The main dining area is tiny, with barely enough room for three tall tables and virtually no waiting area (and there are always people waiting.) Most of the seating is at a counter directly overlooking the kitchen. There is also a separate dining area downstairs which is much more spacious and quiet but not nearly as fun. Most people would argue that a seat at the counter is the best seat in the house. Service is friendly and entirely unpretentious – in fact, our server was kind of gruff (but in a very charming way!)

We started off our meal the best way possible: a bottle of Rioja and a cheese plate. After that, our tapas came out slowly, one at a time. Highlights of the meal included red chard sautéed with marcona almonds and red grapes and grilled squid served with braised pork cheek and pimentón. The pork cheek was cooked in an ultra-rich red wine sauce which actually paired surprisingly well with the squid – the squid was so deeply charred that it actually needed a bold accompaniment. We also enjoyed that evening’s venison special. Harvest Vine recently got their hands on a whole deer, and the chefs have been making their way through it by featuring different cuts each night. Our dish was a seared venison loin, thinly sliced and served over greens with yet another incredible rich sauce. Thank goodness Harvest Vine gives you plenty of bread for sopping up all of the amazing sauces!

Overall, it was a delicious meal. The food was of the highest quality and was presented beautifully. I particularly appreciated the pace at which Harvest Vine serves their tapas. I’m pretty sure they don’t even queue up your next dish until you have completely finished the one before. Some people may find this tedious, but I love that it allows you to really linger over your meal. It’s nice to not feel rushed. Besides, if you are sitting upstairs, there is plenty of activity to keep you entertained while you await your next dish. The downside is that this style of eating allows you to drink copious amounts of wine without even realizing it! If you like tapas, or are simply a fan of well-prepared, interesting food, be sure to check out Harvest Vine (and try to snag a seat at the counter!)

Harvest Vine is located at 2701 East Madison and is open 7 nights a week from 5pm to 10pm

Food trucks have started popping up all over Seattle thanks to recent efforts by the mayor and local health officials to relax some of the city’s strict regulations on street food. The latest – and certainly the most elaborate – addition to the group is Maximus Minimus (a.k.a. “the mobile pig.”) Owned by the same people behind Beecher’s Handmade Cheese, the focus at Maximus Minimus is on pork. Specifically, they are boasting “the best pulled-pork sandwich you’ve ever had.” Current plans are to keep the “pigstream” parked at 2nd & Pike downtown during lunchtime. At night, it will be roaming the streets of Seattle looking for the hottest spot in town. If you want to track where it will be next, you can follow their updates on twitter:

The other day, my friend and I snuck away from work and headed down to Maximus Minimus for lunch. The line was long but moved pretty quickly – things seemed fairly well-organized considering that they had only been in business for three days. The menu is limited: sandwiches, chips, slaw and drinks. You can add Beecher’s Flagship cheese to any sandwich. Sandwiches and slaw can each be ordered “maximus” (spicy) or “minimus” (sweet and tangy.) Between the two of us, my friend and I managed to order everything on the menu. I opted for a maximus vegetarian sandwich, chips and hibiscus nectar, and my friend had the pulled pork sandwich, slaw and ginger lemonade.

The vegetarian sandwich consists of barley, roasted mixed vegetables and currants bathed in maximus or minimus barbecue sauce. It was flavorful and the barley had a nice texture, but I was disappointed that the bun wasn’t toasted. The maximus sauce was not especially spicy. I later learned that you can order your maximus sauce with extra “hurt” if you like things really spicy. The sandwich was very messy which I don’t mind too much if I’m sitting at a table with plenty of napkins and a sink nearby – when you are hunkered down on the steps of Benaroya Hall, trying to eat your lunch while simultaneously keeping your napkin from blowing away in the wind, a messy sandwich might not be for everyone. The chips are a mix of potatoes, carrots, beets and green beans topped with fried chilies. They were an excellent surprise. The crisp and herb-rich slaw was equally tasty. I am a sucker for unusual drinks so I particularly liked the hibiscus nectar. My friend enjoyed his pork sandwich, but agreed with me that the bun should have been toasted.

My total for lunch came to $12.50; the sandwich alone was a hefty $7.50. This may not seem like much for a downtown lunch, but this is street food! To my mind, the whole point of street food is that you get really yummy food for really cheap. Without the additional overhead of tables and a waitstaff, street food should be cheaper than restaurant food. Or, if you are going to charge higher prices, the food had better be mind-blowingly good (my lunch was merely decent.) I think it’s great that Seattle is starting to get a street food scene, and I love that Maximus Minimus has, for now at least, transformed this sketchy corner into a jovial community scene at lunch time (patrons in line were downright giddy at the prospect of ordering food from a big, shiny pig.) I just hope that some of the upcoming food vendors plan on offering better deals (I’m looking at you, Marination Mobile!)

Upon arriving in Victoria, Robert and I immediately made a beeline for Red Fish Blue Fish. After our exhilarating seaplane ride, we were hungry for lunch and I had heard that this was the place to go for fish & chips.

Red Fish Blue Fish is located on the waterfront just north of Victoria’s famous Inner Harbor. This friendly fish & chips joint is operated out of an old shipping container which has been outfitted with a tiny kitchen and a couple of windows where you order and pick up your food. The seating is all outdoors and consists of two counters with tall stools and a handful of low stools scattered about on the nearby pier. If all of the stools are taken, people are content to plop themselves down anywhere on the dock, the nearby rocks or even the street.

Many seafood restaurants are supporting sustainable seafood efforts these days, and Red Fish Blue Fish is no exception. Their seafood comes from British Columbian waters and it is 100% Ocean Wise (Ocean Wise is a Vancouver Aquarium conservation program created to help restaurants and consumers make ocean-friendly choices.) All of the food at Red Fish Blue Fish is served in earth-friendly recyclable packaging right down to the compost-able wooden utensils. They don’t even have a trash can on site!

The menu at Red Fish Blue Fish appears simple at first glance: fish & chips, fish sandwiches and fish tacos (called “tacones.”) Take a closer look, however, and you notice some pretty unique touches. Standard fish & chips offerings such as battered and fried cod are offset by less common choices including BBQ Salmon, grilled oysters and seared albacore tuna. Inventive side dishes range from curry chips to tempura pickles to mushy edamame (their twist on mushy peas.) Fish tacones are topped not only with the expected cabbage slaw but also lemon-pickled onions and pea shoots. How often do you see pea shoots used as the greens?

Our first day in town, we ordered two tempura cod tacones with sweet-smoked chili adobo sauce and a half order of fries. I knew the tacones would be good, but these went above and beyond my expectations. The presentation was beautiful first and foremost. The fish was crisp and light and the vegetables were fresh and crunchy. Robert particularly appreciated the fact that the tortilla itself was grilled. The fries were equally delicious, and a half order turned out to be plenty for the two of us. The next day, we tried the seared albacore tuna tacones which came with a spot prawn mayo instead of the adobo sauce. The tuna had a very clean taste with just a whisper of smokiness from the grill. It was bit chilly that day so we added a cup of chowder to our order. The chowder at Red Fish Blue Fish is sweet and spicy – nothing like the bland, floury tasting chowders you normally get in seafood restaurants. In fact, it reminded me a lot of my own Bolivian Corn Chowder.

Red Fish Blue Fish was an unexpected highlight of our vacation. Not only is their food delicious, the waterfront setting is pretty unbeatable. It provides an excellent vantage point from which to watch the busy harbor traffic. We tried to go back on our third and final day in town, but they were closed. What a shame! Seattle could really use a place like this (Pike Street Fish Fry doesn’t compare.) Finally, as if our experience at Red Fish Blue Fish wasn’t good enough already, as we were sitting on the dock one day savoring the last few bites of food, we saw an otter climbing around on the rocks looking for scraps – so cool!

Robert and I just returned from a weekend trip to Victoria, British Columbia. We took the seaplane from Seattle which was amazing! Viewing our beautiful Pacific Northwest from the sky is a unique treat. One moment we were waiting for our plane at Kenmore Air’s Lake Union terminal, an hour later we were checking into our hotel in Victoria. How’s that for convenience? Our hotel, the centrally located Magnolia, was also pretty fantastic. However, my favorite part of any vacation is eating!

Highest on my list of restaurants to try was Cafe Brio. Cafe Brio is known as Victoria’s “foodie” restaurant so of course I had to check it out! It is located in a very unassuming area of town, just far enough away from downtown as to not be completely overrun with tourists. The setting is casual and comfortable. Customer service is impeccable - the staff is friendly and clearly very proud of the food being served. Cafe Brio is a bit pricey but well worth the expense if you like exceptional food and a unique dining experience.

Cafe Brio’s menu is distinctive in several ways. A special fixed price menu is offered during the early seating (5:30 to 6:15.) This $29 meal includes appetizer, entrée and dessert and is a great value. Cafe Brio also has a relatively lengthy charcuterie menu. All of the charcuterie is made in house, and the menu typically features eight to ten items ranging from salami to summer sausage to pates. The meat cellar was reportedly stuffed to the gills with fresh batches of charcuterie the day were there, and our waitress was quite excited about it. Fixed price meals and house made charcuterie aside, my favorite thing about the menu at Cafe Brio is that every dish can be ordered in small or large sizes. You can go tapas styles and order a bunch of small plates to share or you can stick with a more traditional appetizer and entree approach.

Robert and I love sharing food so we decided to order a selection of small dishes. We couldn’t pass up the house made charcuterie so we started off with gin & pancetta-smoked venison summer sausage. It was smoky and spicy and not at all greasy. Delicious! This was followed by a mixed greens salad topped with poached apples and the creamiest blue cheese I’ve ever tasted (undoubtedly a local cheese.) Other dishes included made-to-order chickpea tortellini served with braised greens and a delectable red pepper broth, the “contorni” plate – seasonal vegetables prepared four different ways, pan-roasted sablefish with scallop fritters, roasted squash, nettles and a red wine emulsion, and grilled pork loin served with a sausage and potato ragout and boudin noir puree. The meal as a whole was fantastic – my favorites were the venison summer sausage, the chickpea tortellini and the vegetable plate. We paired our meal with some of British Columbia’s finest: Quails’ Gate Winery’s Pinot Noir for me and, for Robert, the Driftwood Farmhand – a lovely saison style brew that was all the rage around town during our visit.

While we were enjoying our meal, we learned that the table next to us was from Homes & Living, a magazine devoted to life in Central Vancouver Island. They were preparing to do a story on Victoria and Cafe Brio as part of their “weekend getaway” series. The getaway stories always feature an awesome island destination, a hot new car, fancy accommodations and an exquisite restaurant (the kind of lavish lifestyle readers of such magazines drool over.) The car of choice for this month’s story was a new 2010 Hyundai Genesis Coupe! The team made a big production out of trying to get a perfect photo of the restaurant with the car parked out front, providing us with plenty of entertainment in the process. Robert enjoyed getting a sneak peek at the new car while I was content to swoon over the delicious food in front of me – a perfect night out in Victoria for the two of us!

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