Whistler. Coming off this year’s Winter Olympics, the name conjures up images of graceful and powerful athletes wearing skis and riding luges. Even in the height of summer, there’s snow on the slopes and people (mostly young, mostly with snowboards, and mostly texting while riding up the lifts–or so it seems) ascending high above the village, eventually coming down to earth along with fit hikers and ferocious mountain bikers.
Whistler must be one of the fittest places in North America; there’s a lot of beefcake and bodacious bods—healthy people showing off rippling muscles and summer tans.
And then there’s me.
My exercise: hustling from one eatery to another, and then thinking about ways to burn off some calories before inevitably just relaxing or even napping. Some are calorie burners; I, in contrast, am more of a calorie lover.
Not completely, though. In my one previous visit to Whistler, about fifteen years ago, I found myself in a canoe, struggling to row around a lake. And then, afterward, back to my real sport: struggling to find a decent place to eat. A struggle it was. But now, having heard rumblings that the food scene had improved, it was time for a return visit.
In Vancouver, I reluctantly put away my list of dim sum palaces and ramen joints, and skeptically boarded the Rocky Mountaineer to ride the rails to Whistler. While the trip proved that train food is much like plane food (it’s plain food, indeed), the service was stunning, and the scenery spectacular on the sea-to-sky climb.
Leaving urban for countryside, I found myself quickly relaxed, enjoying the views while sipping post-breakfast wine. My only exercise during those three hours: getting up for occasional walks to the open-air Heritage Observation Car when attendants cued us for photo opportunities of Pacific waters, snow-capped mountains, and cascading waterfalls. Little did I realize how making the 74-mile trip by rail, without worry about watching the road, would be such a wonderful experience.
Lunchtime arrival into Whistler meant a chance to drop my bags in my suite at the Westin Resort & Spa, where a fireplace looked like it would be a sweet place to warm up in the winter, and where the kitchen looked tempting–if I didn’t have such a schedule of restaurants to hit.
The feeding frenzy started at Bearfoot Bistro and a look at its extravagant, underground wine cellar. In addition to admiring the huge collection, I found myself learning how to saber champagne. (I opened a bottle using just a glass, and look forward to deploying my new party trick when the next opportunity arises.)
Back upstairs, the chef’s table by the open kitchen was inviting, but summer in Whistler meant sitting outside at a special table by the pool. After sampling some Sevruga caviar and then storming an incredible seafood platter (spot-on fresh, full of local spot prawns, oysters, and Dungeness crab, along with Atlantic lobster—not quite local, but perfectly cooked and oh-so-sweet), I would have been content if the Wagyu short rib with heirloom tomato salad was the finale.
But no. It was time to take a break in the Belvedere Vodka Ice Room, which at -20 degrees Celsius meant wearing a Canada Goose down jacket and hat that the restaurant provided. How cool it was to sidle up to the frozen bar and do a flight of vodkas produced both locally and afar. Best of all, vodka helps push the food down, or so I was told.
A good thing, as it turned out that the kitchen (under Chef Melissa Craig and Pastry Chef Dominic Fortin) was only halfway through the menu. I enjoyed wild Arctic char with tomato panzenella vinaigrette, watercress puree, and crushed fingerlings, followed by “sangria” made with frozen yogurt parfait, macerated berries, muscato d’asti pearls, and lavender.
Nearly four hours after arrival, I prepared to leave, but there was one final show-stopper: nitro ice cream churned tableside, offered with a variety of sundae toppings. I simply had to stay and watch–and, of course, spoon some of that delicious ice cream into my mouth. Eating at Bearfoot is not just a meal, but an experience; I can see why they boast about joie d’vivre at this bistro. And in preparing modern Canadian cuisine with great artistry, they can also boast being Vancouver Magazine’s 2009 winner as “Whistler’s Best Restaurant.”
Laughably late and stuffed silly are the wrong way to go to a massage, but I hustled over to Taman Sari Royal Heritage Spa–the only Javanese spa in North America. Taman sari literally means “beautiful park,” and this turned out to be the ideal place to park myself between big meals. The sounds, smells and sights of this spa were soothing, bringing an immediate sense of peace and relaxation.
I chuckled at the intake form that asked when I ate my last meal (is “still chewing” an acceptable answer?) and whether the therapist should avoid any particular area (my engorged stomach, please), but thoroughly enjoyed the session. The traditional Javanese massage featured continual touch and motion, including many upward strokes to the heart. Stress became history.
But it was the hair and scalp treatment that was most memorable; the spa literature describes it best: “The therapists run their coconut based cream-coated fingers through section after section of hair leaving your head feeling cool, clammy, heavy and ‘gooey’.” Are any of those four adjectives appealing? My head felt like it had been swept through a wok full of curry. But, ultimately, I felt relaxed and light-headed, such that I must have appeared like a drunkard as I stumbled out the door. Miraculously, the bloated feeling was gone.
And also luckily, as I had to head right to dinner at Araxi, the 2010 winner as “Whistler’s Best Restaurant” by Vancouver Magazine. (It’s the restaurant’s tenth time to win the award.) Chef James Walt serves up regional cuisine with a commitment to local, sustainable ingredients. Sometimes simple, yet always stunning.
Take, for example, the knockout course of the night: sweet corn and BC shellfish (Qualicum scallops, Egmont spot prawns and Tofino Dungeness crab) soup with basil tops and baby leek oil. The soup was shockingly simple–a stock made with water, corn (ears and cobs), onion and butter; that’s then cooked with cream, basil, salt and pepper. This is a recipe I’ll be repeating to impress guests.
Other courses included heirloom tomato salad (with buffalo mozzarella, basil sorbet, gazpacho vinaigrette, and nasturtium), crisp wild sockeye salmon (with English peas, summer squash, fava beans, and lavender), and white chocolate-pistachio nougat glace (with blueberries, apricot coulis, and flourless pistachio cake).
Oh…and how can I forget the main course: 72 hour cooked beef shortrib with citrus-pickled carrots, romanesco and radish, as well as carrot puree and ponzu reduction? Good thing the ribs were melt-in-the-mouth delicious, as by now I was tired of chewing, and feeling fortunate that the Westin was just a short walk away. But rest assured: there will be more Whistler adventures in eating and more in the second half of this report, including more vodka, more of Chef Walt, and more short ribs. And something even more outstanding.
Waking up in Whistler, this calorie-lover knew there was a big day of eating ahead.
Just a short walk from my base at the Westin is Lift Coffee Company, with outdoor seating and a morning menu that tempted me with a coddled egg and smoked black cod. I enjoyed this little glass ramekin of comfort food, accompanied by assorted baby lettuces, grilled rye, and puttanesca vinaigrette.
What most made me want to order this dish? “Shaved Montana,” which sounds like a great name for a band, but turned out to be a cheese topping for the salad.
Lift’s comfortable outdoor sofas looked tempting for a post-breakfast nap, but those seats have view of the entry point for my next stop: the Whistler Village Gondola, which would take me up nearly 6,000 feet to connect to my PEAK 2 PEAK Alpine Experience.
Choose your Peak 2 Peak gondola correctly, and not only do you have a 360-degree, panoramic view from as high as 1,430 feet from the valley floor, but you might also have floor windows that allow you to look straight to the ground.
For someone who no longer skis, this 2-and-3/4 mile journey was a great way to get a feel for the majesty of the Olympic venue, and a sense of awe in the marvel of construction of the peak-to-peak cable connection. Completion of Peak 2 Peak broke records for longest unsupported span, highest lift of its kind, and longest continuous lift system on the planet.
There are great hiking, biking, and skiing opportunities at both Whistler and Blackcomb mountains, but for this indoor extremist, a little time taking in the view was enough before descending down the open-air lifts to the Blackcomb base in the Upper Village. (The open-air lifts are thrilling, but while it might be hot down at the base in the summer, you might want a jacket for the rides, and the higher elevation.)
After the exhilarating experience, I was now, appropriately enough, in the Whistler Kids area, watching future outdoor extremists in the making, and in close range of a stroll through the farmers market. The market is open Sundays from June to mid-October and features fresh produce from the nearby Pemberton Valley and beyond, as well as chance to appreciate the work of local artists and musicians. This meant lots of opportunities for sampling just-baked bread, summer fruits and vegetables, chocolates, and more.
But not too much, as my next stop was Sidecut–the newly renamed restaurant at the Four Seasons Resort Whistler. I almost got sidetracked by the wonderful smells of an outdoor barbeque which would have special appeal to families, but instead I had a seat in another outdoor dining area and prepared for a carnival of carnivorous delights. (Diners opting for indoor seating can still enjoy the outdoors, as floor-to-ceiling windows reveal gorgeous views of the surrounding mountains.)
Sidecut is named for the distinctive curved shape of skis, as well as the location of a cut of beef, so it’s no surprise that steak is a specialty of the restaurant. Especially impressive were the choice of custom rubs for the steaks (top-level Canadian beef aged 40 days), which are perfectly cooked using an 1,800 degree infrared grill, along with a presentation of six sauces for each entrée.
For those branching out beyond steak, Sidecut offers double-cut Sterling pork chops, BC Fallow venison loin, bone-in braised bison short ribs, and more. And for those who prefer surf over turf, the choices of locally sourced seafood are also superb. The wine selection is extensive, the desserts are extravagant, and best of all, the Four Seasons’ service and style are stunning. I wanted to linger here, but stomach stuffed, it was on to the next stop (but not before making arrangements to return).
Recall that, according to my friends in British Columbia, vodka helps push the food down, clearing the way for more. With a promising grand finale dinner ahead, it seemed appropriate to first visit Pemberton Distillery. Using locally grown organic potatoes (Pemberton is rife with potatoes) and pure mountain water, master distiller Tyler Schramm slowly produces authentic sipping vodka that showcases the uniqueness of the raw ingredients, resulting in a velvet smooth finish.
His first vodka hit the market one year ago, and in producing just 1,200 bottles per month (compared to Smirnoff’s 10,000 liters per hour), the care is reflected in the rich character of the final product. (Mark your calendars for 2015, as single malt whisky production has started this year, with the whisky set to age in oak casks for at least five years.)
Just a short drive away is North Arm Farm, site of the Outstanding in the Field dinner, my most anticipated meal of the getaway. Outstanding in the Field dinners epitomize the farm-to-table experience by putting the table on the farm.
These feasts unite farmers, culinary artisans and producers, chefs, winemakers, and diners at coast-to-coast events throughout the year, typically starting with a tour of the farm and ending with a spectacular meal prepared by a local, celebrity chef.
For the second straight year, James Walt did the honors, and based on my meal the previous evening at Araxi, I knew it would be a good one. But this good?
I never imagined that service for 160 people with unique cooking challenges could be of such high quality. (I loved sneaking over to the food prep area to watch Walt gently coax the best out of his cooks. Calmly and gracefully, he’d tell his team to “make it perfect,” and perfect it was.)
crab wrapped in a thin egg crepe with gazpacho
North Arm flowers and herbs with garlic scapes
Leggiero Chardonnay 2009
North Arm Farm Squash Blossom
stuffed with Salt Spring Island Moonstruck cheese
cherry tomato vinaigrette and grape must
Vivace Pinot Grigio 2009
Ballotine of Wild Sockeye Salmon
Sturdy’s sweet peas, salmon caviar and peppermint
Root Down organic greens and basil
Lastellina Merlot Rosato 2009
Pemberton Meadows Beef Fillet
with crisp beef cheeks and shortrib and North Arm horseradish
salsa verde with North Arm beets and globe carrots
Maestoso Merlot 2007
Duo of North Arm Berries + Oliver Cherries
Valrhona chocolate mousse cakes, brandied cherries
almond crusted choux buns with marinated berries
Moscato d’Osoyoos 2009
I didn’t think it possible to improve upon the short rib dish of the previous evening, but this was simply stellar. Crispy, fat-enhanced meat…amazing. And made better by the most colorful vegetables, fresh from the farm. Might I mention that the host farmers at North Arm are Jordan and Trish Sturdy, and that Jordan also happens to be the mayor of Pemberton?
I sat across from Jordan and enjoyed the conversation at the table, but I couldn’t stop surveying the scene around me: the bounty of the farm, the beautiful flowers in the fields, and the backdrop of the Garibaldi Range, with snow-capped Mount Currie, over 8,500 feet high, just in front of me.
This was perhaps the most majestic setting I’ve ever had for a meal. Time your trip right, and you can enjoy it, too, as early word is that Outstanding in the Field will return to Pemberton next year. You might be dinner for some mosquitoes, but it’s worth it for the magnificent dinner you’ll experience.
Still full from the previous day’s food, I woke early the next morning for a final stroll through Whistler. I walked with some early-birds hitting the slopes for skiing and snowboarding, but soon parted ways and found myself back at the Four Seasons.
What better way to wrap up my stay in Whistler than with a Sea-to-Sky Signature Massage at the Spa at Four Seasons Resort Whistler?
In contrast to the previous day’s treament, which was deeper and tension-relieving, this was more relaxing—also using long (in this case, Lomi Lomi) strokes, along with warm oils. As much as I wanted to stay and enjoy the tranquility of the relaxation room afterward, I felt invigorated and inspired to move on to my next meals. It was time to take the calorie count to Vancouver.
(Spa photo courtesy of Four Seasons Resort Whistler)
Note: This was originally posted at The Sunbreak in two parts on August 4 and August 16.