Escape from Seattle: A Voracious Journey to Victoria

laurel_point_day_view_500As skeptical as I was about going on a food-related trip to Whistler, I was even more skeptical about making a similar trip to Vancouver Island. I’d been to both places about fifteen years ago, but I figured that Whistler had probably evolved more. The Olympics were there, foreigners hung out there on an ongoing basis, and you could drive there from Vancouver. It’s part of Canada, whereas Victoria is, what, part of England? I always told inquirers that it’s a place you only need to see once. Too prim-and-proper. See the Gardens, enjoy the buskers, maybe have tea…but bring some cartons of Chinese food from Vancouver if you want something good to eat.

And then, recently, I got gifted a bottle of balsamic vinegar from Venturi-Shultze, and told that Vancouver Island is a bounty of good food. One sip of the vinegar, and I was already making plans to give Victoria and environs another chance.

And am I glad I did!

clipper_500It’s an easy trip from Seattle. My partner and I planned on the Victoria Clipper outbound and then a return via a Kenmore Air seaplane in order to experience the trip both ways. Three hours on the boat gave me time to review our itinerary, as the eating would begin almost immediately upon arrival. It was a majestic entry into the harbor, and then just a quick (five-minutes or so) walk to the Inn at Laurel Point, our home-away-from-home in Victoria.

laurel_point_suite_500Before getting into the food, a bit about the hotel. My suite was contemporary and luxurious—with an area available for in-room spa services. The setting is spectacular. Lots of glass meant lots of natural light in the room (and throughout the hotel), and there was a spacious balcony to watch the sunset, as well as both sailplanes and boats arriving and departing. Aura, the hotel restaurant, has gotten lots of accolades for its use of local ingredients and its Japanese/European approach, though this trip I only got to experience the typical breakfast fare.

laurel_point_eve_view_500Commendably, this independent property earned a Four Green Key Eco-Rating, and is the first and only carbon-neutral hotel in British Columbia. (It’s also the first place I’ve seen requesting use of a small towel to pull open the bathroom door—perfect for those with mysophobia or just taking precautions in our Purell-pervasive society.) The Inn at Laurel Point is a wonderful place to stay, and just a short stroll away from all the sights.

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pig_food_500We had reservations for obligatory Afternoon Tea, which meant having to hustle if we wanted to squeeze in a snack beforehand. Which we did, naturally. We dashed over to Pig BBQ Joint, where we not only enjoyed a nicely smoked pulled pork sandwich, but even better baked beans. Turns out they’re made with three types of beans, along with red pepper, onion, celery, BBQ sauce, mustard, and seasonings. This is a hip place to eat.

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empress_trays_500And then it was tea time, an elegant affair in the majestic lobby of the Fairmont Empress Hotel. It’s fun if you’re into finger sandwiches, as you’ll get a multi-level tray with a variety of sandwiches, along with pastries including, of course, the famous freshly baked raisin scones with strawberry jam and Empress cream. Sit back and relax, and imagine you’re in England. Afternoon Tea is an expensive indulgence, so figure out how flush you are before deciding whether this makes the cut. And note that there are other options, including similar service at Butchart Gardens if you’re enjoying time out there.

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silk_road_int_500If, like me, you’re not a milk-and-tea type of person, you might enjoy a contrasting experience: tea tasting at Silk Road. It’s a tea store that also sells organic skin and body care products, with an added feature of a spa on site. (I’ve heard good things about the spa, though I enjoyed a treatment at Sapphire Day Spa instead, which I’ll discuss in another forum.) Silk Road offers a number of educational experiences; in Tea Tasting 101, I learned a lot about a variety of Asian teas. Check their schedule for other options, such as tea and chocolate pairing, and specialized classes, like making tea popsicles.

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viet_verm_500While Victoria boasts the oldest Chinatown in Canada, there’s little buzz about anything especially exciting to eat there. Still, it’s an interesting area for strolling, as is Fort Street, where you’ll find the kitchy Dutch Bakery and Coffee Shop, Choux Choux Charcuterie, and Plenty Epicurean Pantry. In general, Asian food in Victoria can’t compare to what’s available in Vancouver. When Red Fish Blue Fish disappointed us by closing early, we settled for a sincere but rather mediocre meal at Le Petit Saigon Vietnamese Restaurant. (The pho was bland, without options for a wide variety of meats, and the lemongrass pork dish was just so-so.)

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foo_food_500Although we appreciated the variety of offerings at Foo Asian Street Food, we were underwowed with the laksa (though we appreciate the use of local fish) and butter chicken, wishing for bolder flavors, and felt that the place was a little overpriced. $11 and $12 respectively for our meals served in Chinese to-go boxes seemed like too much.

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daidoco_tuna_500One Asian place we did like was Daidoco, a Japanese deli that uses locally sourced, organic ingredients. This cute spot is hidden in Nootka Court, right next to Victoria’s Bug Zoo. Satisfying were the tuna-don (using, yes, local tuna, served on rice) and a bowl of greens.

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devour_tart_500I  didn’t want to fill up too much, though, as part two of that day’s lunch was at Devour. The chilled melon soup had intense flavor with a wonderful hint of spicy pepper, while the fresh local fig and blue cheese tart was divine, served up with a superb green salad that had almonds and strawberries. I’ve since sent many people who’ve raved about their experiences here, and I can’t wait to return for a fuller meal.

ulla_menu_500Chinatown was the scene for our favorite dinner in Victoria—at the newly opened Ulla, recommended by the people at Pig BBQ Joint. We originally considered the acclaimed Brasserie L’Ecole, which gets good reviews, but there was a short wait, and we didn’t see anything on the menu that compelled us to stay. Ulla, on the other hand, was ooh-la-la tempting, stylish with flourishes of contemporary art, and with a sense of experimentation in the menu. The restaurant had only recently opened, but the chef agreed to do a tasting menu for us. This meal was a delight to behold, and delicious.

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Salad of heirloom tomatoes, beans, watercress, ricotta, and roasted lemon vinaigrette (bright, bold flavors)

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Beef tartare with roasted pepper, cilantro, creme fraiche, and potato chips (I liked this version of tartare, with its interesting texture)

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Giant Pacific octopus with new potatoes, celery, chives, and watercress (seared then braised, the octopus was tasty, though less chewy than I prefer)

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Lamb sirloin with pea puree, potato gnocchi, chanterelles, and salsa verde (Fabulous flavors in this dish, but I wish the lamb had been simply seared instead of sous vide cooked. In speaking with the chef afterward, he agreed that searing produces a more appealing final product, but said he uses the sous vide method for consistency and general ease of preparation in a busy kitchen. As someone who has explored sous vide cooking at home, I understand this. Still, I’d like my lamb to come to the table cooked at the highest quality that a chef and I know is possible—and I don’t think a simple sear is too demanding.)

Best of all were some breakfast finds. Lady Marmalade, which serves breakfast all day, caught my eye for one particular dish. When in Canada, I feel predisposed to eat poutine, and Lady Marmalade prepares a hashbrown version with aged white cheddar and—get this—miso gravy. Fabulous!

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lady_poutine_500Our favorite discovery, based on a recommendation from Ulla’s owner (who talked about the source of her bread), was Fol Epi. It’s across the Blue Bridge into Vic West. You’ll know you’re there when you see the crowds sitting out on the patio. Wow. Croissants just out of the oven might be the best I’ve had, though I can’t certify that, as I should have waited to try one after it cooled down. And, oh, the sandwiches. We tried a wild sockeye and tomato on wheat, and a smoked albacore tuna on a baguette. The breads were amazing, and the fillers fantastic.  I’m sad that I didn’t try the sweets, but we were taking off on a trip to Cowichan Valley (my next report), where lots more eating awaited us. Besides, it’s good to leave something for next time, and we look forward to returning to Fol Epi and Victoria.

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fol_epi_trio_500(And special thanks to the nice folks at Victoria Clipper for squeezing us on a boat to return to Seattle. Kenmore Air canceled its flights due to bad weather, so while I await my chance to fly on a seaplane for the first time, we were grateful to get home in time for work the next day.)

Pig BBQ Joint on Urbanspoon

Pig BBQ Joint on Urbanspoon

Fairmont Empress on Urbanspoon

Le Petit Saigon on Urbanspoon

Foo Food on Urbanspoon

Daidoco on Urbanspoon

Devour on Urbanspoon

Ulla Restaurant on Urbanspoon

Lady Marmalade on Urbanspoon

Fol Epi on Urbanspoon

Tags:

#Victoria

12 Responses to “Escape from Seattle: A Voracious Journey to Victoria”

  1. December 14, 2010 at 5:42 pm #

    Jay,

    I’m really impressed with your obvious vetting of Victoria’s restaurant scene before making the trip. I take issue with your positive review of Pig BBQ Joint, which I find to be among the city’s most overrated eateries – dreadfully bad BBQ sauce, in my opinion. Otherwise, you offer a fair cross section of gastro-Victoria.

    As a native Victoria resident, I’m a bit more jaded about the local scene (or lack thereof) than the average visitor. An interesting anecdote: When Anthony Bourdain did his swing through the Pacific Northwest, he did lots of coverage in Vancouver, but when he crossed over to Victoria, he bypassed the city entirely, going only to Sooke Harbour House. I’m not at all surprised by this. Aside from the historic afternoon tea at the Empress, Victoria doesn’t have the deep culinary roots of a Vancouver or Seattle or San Francisco. All the interesting things happening in the food scene in Victoria are relatively new (and few) innovations. You hit on a few of these. I love Devour and Foo for delicious quick lunches. Others I would highlight: Cafe Ceylon boasts the city’s finest, most skilled Asian (Sri Lankan) chef. And Peter Zambri is doing some amazing things with regional Italian at his new Atrium location.

    Best,
    YRS

    PS: Try a splash of that Venturi-Schultz balsamic vinegar on some vanilla ice cream some time. Amazing combination.

  2. admin
    December 15, 2010 at 10:07 am #

    YRS, thanks for the comments, and for suggestions I’ll keep in mind for next time. Interesting you didn’t like Pig. I agree that the sauce could be better. But I liked the meat, and especially the beans. In contrast, I’m not a big fan of Foo.

  3. kera
    December 27, 2010 at 2:46 pm #

    glad to know your trip changed your tune about food in victoria… it’s been a gastronomic leader in canada for over 20 years!!!

    hope you’ll be back soon.

  4. Nadege Dumont
    January 13, 2011 at 7:54 pm #

    Fol Epi has the BEST croissants in town.. they are just like in France; flaky, buttery, so perfect you can’t stop at one.. and I should know because born & raised in France, I grew up on that stuff!!!

  5. admin
    January 13, 2011 at 8:10 pm #

    Kera and Nadege, can’t wait to return. Especially to Fol Epi!

  6. January 22, 2011 at 10:29 am #

    Lovely photos and very well written review of our lovely city and its restaurants. Thank you. Alastair

  7. Ben Gehmlich
    February 25, 2011 at 10:39 am #

    Excellent article Jay. My wife and I especially loved the stunning photography. Beautiful.
    I must confess though that I am slightly (actually, totally) stunned at the comment that Victoria has been a gastronomic leader for 20 years. While Victoria does have a few very good eateries, I have found living here to be “eating out” challenged. Especially if you want vietnamese, lebanese, or sushi. Seriously baffling that a city on the ocean cannot have good fresh sushi….
    Anyways, thanks for the reviews of Detour and Pig. I have been negligent on trying them out, but after seeing your pictures, I am getting changed and heading over to one of them for lunch today. Hmm, which one….

  8. Ben Gehmlich
    February 25, 2011 at 10:42 am #

    And Fol Epi has the most amazing bread and a pretty good stolen too. Even my set-in-his-tastebud-ways german father liked it. My favourite on the list. Try the butter tarts, mmmm

  9. Jay
    February 25, 2011 at 11:26 am #

    Thanks for your comments, Ben. I do think there’s been a more recent awakening to good food in Victoria, and if the demand is there, the scene can get even better.

    Devour and Pig are very different. Devour would be more enduring to me, and more compelling for return visits. But let me know what you think!

  10. Jim
    April 1, 2011 at 12:49 pm #

    What a great review! Thanks for sharing!

    You should know that PIG has added a new location in the Atrium at Yates & Blanshard, with an expanded menu.

    Brasserie l’ecole has a line, but you can usually sit and eat at the bar, which is a lot more interactive and fun, anyway. The bartender there waits at Zambri’s during the day – and that is another place you should visit, also newly relocated to a great space in the Atrium.

    I kinda have to agree with you on Foo.

    Lots of other great places remain for you to discover! Come back soon.

  11. Milene
    October 13, 2011 at 10:32 am #

    Hello!
    I really appreciate your detailed reviews and photos! I will most definitely check out more of your reviews from here on out.
    I’m excited to try Ulla and Fol Epi when I’m home for a visit next week!!!!
    I grew up in Victoria, relocated to Kelowna 3 years ago and it seems the restaurant scene has exploded in Vic since I left.
    Locals you are taking it for granted!!! For such a small City there is a fantastic selection of eateries with a variety of awesome unique bites!
    Yes there are voids ie: Indian, Persian/middle eastern, Chinese….but the glass is definitely 3/4 full!
    There are a few favourite secret spots that I encourage you to try on your next visit:
    1 – best Pho in town is at Pho Vy (on Fort a couple doors in from Blanchard)…its not beautiful, but it is some of the best Pho I’ve ever had! I miss it very much!
    2 – Hernandez – authentic El Salvadore(ian?) food – a must try….it’s hidden downstairs of the KPMG building (big sign up top) which is located on Yates street and View Street (you can cut-through from one side to the other) between Blanchard and Douglas…trust me you will not be disapointed!
    3 – Red fish blue fish (try try try as hard as you can to make it when they’re open :)
    4 – Chez Michel Restaurant (okay I am biased as it is my fathers restaurant)…but I assure you it is the most authentic french food you will get your hands on…I’ve had french food all in amazing restaurants all over the place (in France a lot….I used to live there, Vancouver tried them all, Toronto, San Fransisco….etc…) you will NOT be disapointed…its not right downtown so you will need a cab, but its Victoria so its only about 4 km’s out of the downtown core.
    5 – Ottavio Cafe/Bakery – it’s in Oak Bay (as is Chez Michel) so you will need to cab/drive…but its well worth it, best paninis ever…I love paninis and order them everywhere all the time and I never love them as much as the ones at Ottavio…also there home made gelato is awesome! And their cofffee (illy)….and well pretty much everything there..
    5 – Pizzeria Prima Strada – Oh my this place is sooooo good (if you like wood fire brick oven pizza)….they import their floor from Italy to ensure a truly authentic crust….
    6 – Mole – I usually reserve this one for breakfast, everything is home made, organic, hearty and full of flavour (on Johnson just south of Government)
    These are listed in no particular order…just some of my faves that I try and visit everytime I’m home!!! (literally I plan an itinerary around various restaurant hours so I can maximize my eating out opportunities)
    PS – if you’re ever planning a trip out to the Okanagan please feel free to drop me a line and I’d be happy to share with you some of our favourites from Kelowna to Oliver.
    Bon Apetit! :)

  12. Jay
    October 13, 2011 at 1:06 pm #

    Thanks for all of these great suggestions! I will try to check some out next time I’m in Victoria. And certainly hope to make it to the Okanagan someday…

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