Just back from a week and a half in British Columbia and am still feeling slightly stunned by the sheer histrionics of that landscape. The cliché is true: this is the most SPECTACULAR of our provinces, dazzling the eyes and stirring the soul, with its snow-capped mountains, deep blue-green inlets and enormous, darkly brooding evergreens. Moreover, I had a week and a half of brilliant sunshine — no rain at all — which led my BC relatives to murmur anxiety-ridden comments, fearful that Vancouver Island was soon to become an arid desert plain.
Anyway, enough of the weather report. I determined to do some eating in between checking out the local art galleries, shopping on Vancouver’s fashionable South Granville Street and visiting with a family that I really don’t see often enough, and I can report that the city’s restaurant scene is lively and brimming with ideas. I suppose that one thinks of seafood most readily in Vancouver and I tried the wild salmon, a beautiful piece of fresh halibut lightly coated with panko crumbs (so delicious), and something called “spot prawns.” (Don’t call them “spotted prawns”, as I did, revealing my southern Ontario gaucherie.)
Now spot prawns taste a lot better than they look in the wild. They are one of the major commercial species of shrimp found on the west coast of Canada — about 65 percent of the harvest coming from the waters between Vancouver Island and the mainland. This is their harvest season — it starts in May and lasts from 6 to 8 weeks. They are carefully and sustainably managed and harvested with baited traps which have minimal impact on ocean habitat.
Over 90 percent of BC’s spot prawns are frozen at sea, packed and exported across the Pacific to be eaten in Japan and Asia. The other 10 percent are devoured locally and I tried them at a restaurant in Vancouver called West. The restaurant was serving them in a variety of ways that day; I ate mine in a tempura batter, my sister-in-law had them in a risotto. And I can confirm that they are of a good size, tender, juicy and as mild and sweet as fresh shellfish ought to be.
The restaurant itself inspires accolades. I seldom travel anywhere without doing some restaurant research and West was high on my list of “restaurants to try in Vancouver.” I found it entirely by chance, however, as I was walking down the street chatting to my niece. A woman, walking past, overheard me mention the name, turned around and said to us, “Oh, you must try West, it’s wonderful, you’ll love it and it’s just down the street.” (Vancouverites seem to be like that.) So we followed her advice and enjoyed a cheerful and flawlessly served meal in another “spectacular” setting.
West is devoted to serving contemporary regional cuisine and executive Chef Quang Dang prides himself on sourcing regional producers. The restaurant’s interior is all eye-candy: one entire wall contains beautifully crafted, temperature-controlled wooden cubicles for wine and overlooks a long cherrywood bar; on the ceiling, a silvery Werner Forster installation floats, all light and motion; the tabletops are etched stone and the leather chairs are Mario Bellini designs from New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The menu, not surprisingly, reflects a very west coast ambience: lots of organic greens, west coast oysters, Haida Gwaii sablefish, wild BC salmon, Cape Scott halibut, rare albacore tuna, prepared in ways that evoke the chef’s Scottish and Vietnamese background. And that random lady on the street? She just happened to be the restaurant’s award winning bar manager, Sabrine Dhaliwal, who turned up later to do a photo shoot and to offer us free cocktails!
But the biggest surprise of my visit occurred when we abandoned the urban fleshpots of Vancouver to stay on Vancouver Island where my in-law’s have retired. Much time was spent lounging on the patio (more sunshine), sipping wine and watching the deer nibble at the cedar hedges. One day, however, we roused ourselves enough to take a tour of the island’s wineries — which was a complete revelation to me. I had known about the Okanagan wineries but (silly me!) I had no idea that there were vineyards and wineries on Vancouver Island. I found out that the first commercial vineyards were started in the Cowichan Valley in 1970; the first winery opened in 1992 and today there are more than 80 wineries in the region. We enjoyed a picnic lunch on the flower bedecked terrace of the Averill Creek Vineyard. Averill Creek is known for its pinot noir, but I really loved a fruity, not so sweet gewürtztraminer.
Alright — back in Hamilton and back to reality. Check out our exciting new Go Cooking summer sessions that will be posted here bright and early on Saturday, June 20th.
Here’s a recipe from a cookbook I bought on Granville Street.
Arctic Char à la Provencal
4 medium to large tomatoes peeled, seeded, in 1/2 in dice
4 tsp capers
1 heaping tsp chopped garlic
3 fillets anchovy, chopped
1 bunch basil, coarsely chopped
1/2 cup plus 1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
6 fillets Arctic char, 4 oz each
1) Toss tomatoes with a little salt in a bowl.
2) Remove two thin slices of lemon. Cut into small wedges that include the rind. Squeeze the rest of the juice from the lemon over tomatoes.
3) Add lemon wedges, capers, garlic, anchovies, basil and half cup of the oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set tomato sauce aside.
4) Score the fish skin to prevent curling, then season with salt and pepper. Heat the rest of the oil in a large frying pan on medium high heat. Add fish skin side down and sear for 3 minutes or until skin is crisp. Flip over fish and cook for about 3 minutes until just opaque in the centre.
5) Place the tomato sauce in a clean frying pan on medium heat and cook until warm.
6) To serve, place a fillet of Arctic char on each warmed plate, top with sauce and serve with pasta or rice.