Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Is Willows Inn the best dining experience in North America today?

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Smokehouse

A full 5 Yums Up for me and a spot on my most memorable meal list. From the moment we pulled into the parking lot and were greeted by a fire in the grill and aromatic smoke chugging out of the smokehouse I was engaged in the experience of dining at Willows Inn. A good walk on the beach across the street set our appetites on fire. As the sun set, the chefs visited the grill and smokehouse more and the kitchen and dining room started to glow with light and activity. I was drawn away from the smokehouse to make a quick change before moving to the lobby bar for a drink, a snack and some excellent entertainment from a young man with a guitar, a violin, a ukulele and a great song list. Regular trips to the glass French doors to the kitchen built even more anticipation as I watched the chefs with calm and precision work magic as 6:30 approached. Soon we were all seated in the casually elegant dining room, drinks were poured and a parade of servers and chefs presented each of us with a small lidded cedar box.
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Samish Bay Smoked Mussel
Lift the lid and smoke escaped and we were all in; appearance, aroma and taste. By far the best mussel I have ever eaten and I wanted more, right then. I was soon distracted by tiny crispy crepes rolled around char roe.
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Crispy Crepe with Char Roe
 
The 1st two bites had the whole room humming. Things moved along pretty quickly but with plenty of time to savour the aromas, appearance and taste of each dish.

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Crispy kale with Black Truffles
 Next up was my favourite of the evening; crispy halibut skin stuffed with halibut emulsion and bits of razor clams dusted with seaweed dust. This had everything going for it; incredible presentation, crispy on the outside, creamy on the inside and flavour that made you long for more.
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Crispy Halibut Skins
 
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Spot Prawn poached in it's Roe

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Grilled Shitake Mushrooms


The lightly smoked oysters were so good, they delivered another order to our table.  Don't they look amazing?

Shigoku Oysters




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Black Cod wrapped in Caraflex Cabbage
The Black cod wasn't the most beautiful presentation of the evening but one of the tastiest.  I happen to know from hanging around the smokehouse that the cod was lightly smoked and there was a sliver of very crisp cod skin along the top of the fish before it was wrapped in cabbage.  My second favourite dish of the night.

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Pears Cooked in Embers
Pears cooked in embers was the pescatarian swap for tartare of venison and wild lettuces.

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Parsnip with razor clam sauce

I've eaten and cooked a lot of salmon and this is quite possibly the best smoked salmon I've ever eaten.

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Smoked Sockeye Salmon


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Slices of Persimmon

Things were starting to get a little foggy about now.  We'd chosen the wine pairing option and the pours were generous.  I don't know what the persimmons were in but it was refreshing and lively.
Only one other dish needed to be swapped out for our pescatarian request.  It was pine mushrooms instead of pork chop in juniper with turnips buried in embers. Once again I loved the taste of the fire on the turnip and the mushrooms and juniper were earthy, deep and dark.

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Pine mushroom and juniper with turnip from the embers


There was also roasted sunflower root, caramelized squid and charred radicchio, felicata squash and pine-flavoured cream, flax seed squares and bread from local grains with butter and onion drippings but my final favourite was goat's milk with grasses.  The grasses were in a broth and I was actually reluctant to taste it fearing it might be a bad end to the meal but it was amazing.  So bright it almost sang to me.
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Goat Cheese with Grasses

In all there were 11 courses and 9 snacks or surprises paired with 5 wines and 1 beer.  I made a mistake and ordered a bottle of Capitello Oregon Brut before dinner and also chose the wine pairing option with dinner.  I was drinking bubbly between courses instead of water and it may have had an effect on my judgement toward the end of the meal.  I wasn't the last person in the dining room as I'd intended to be and I regret it immensely.  

I've eaten at a couple of Michelin starred restaurants this year and some of Vancouver's best.  I've had farm to table meals in Spain, Vancouver, Palm Springs and Montreal and this meal is definitely my favourite of the year.

I've booked it for same time next year.

Wine Pairing:
Capitellp Methode Champenoise Oregon Brut
2013 Big Table Farm "Wirtz Vineyard" Edelzqicker, Willamette, Oregon
2011 Maison Bleue "Upland Vineyard" Grenache, Snipes Mountain, Washington
Longsdon Straffe Drieling Tripel, Hood River, Oregon
2011 Gramercy Cellars "Inifo Montoya" Tempranillo, Walla Walla, Washington
2012 Brook "Tehys" Riesling, Eola-Amith Hills, Oregon

I highly recommend Willows Inn.  Book early so you can stay right on property.

Eat on friends.  Cathy Moore

Friday, November 21, 2014

Jamaica Inn Blows my Mind

Jamaica Inn Ocho Rios is simply fantastic.  A boutique hotel with only 53 suites and villas nestled around a perfect crescent shaped beach, it's comfortable, elegant and casual at the same time. I was most impressed with the staff who were so proud of their tenure and keenly aware of your every need.  The inn has been owned by the Morrow family for over 50 years and Eric Morrow goes out of his way to meet new arrivals.

Jamaica Inn is all about gracious service.  Breakfast can be eaten in open air dining rooms or delivered to your room.  Every morning it's quite a sight to see all the young men moving quickly and gracefully through the resort with huge trays balanced on their heads.  Complimentary afternoon tea is served buffet style and there is always someone there to describe and serve what's on offer. I'm not a fan of strangers touching the food I eat so I especially appreciated the service. Before dinner, there are complimentary hot and cold appetizers in the bar as well as bowls of home made crisps and ridiculously addictive coconut chips.  Dinner is served under the stars with a live band playing.  The atmosphere is magic and the food and selection exceptionally good.  The menu rotates every 14 days so there's no chance to get bored.

The wine list  included a fine selection from the US as well as impressive old world offerings.  The wines were served at a good temperature, a somewhat difficult task when room temperature is about 30 Celsius.  I also really liked the fine wine glasses. Many resorts skimp on this and I don't care if you call me a wine snob, the glass matters.

Many guests at Jamaica Inn are regular annual visitors, it's the kind of place that you confirm next year on departure.  I think that says it all.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Craving smoked marlin yam balls from the Round Hill Hotel, Jamaica

Round Hill Lobby at Night

Eating with Cathy

Dining at the Round Hill in Montego Bay Jamaica is a pleasant surprise.  I didn't expect to find a place in the Caribbean so passionate about their food, but a conversation with Billy who proudly heads up the organic gardens is enlightening. His enthusiasm for the project is infectious.  The hotel sources as much as possible from its own gardens and maintains a special relationship with other organic farms on the island to supply the rest.  Salads are super-fresh and dressings are bright with herbs from the garden. 

Breakfast can be served on your private veranda or eaten on the terrace overlooking the sea.  All of the breads and pastries are made in-house.  The “akai and salt fish” is delicious.  Full of deep umami flavours, it harkens back to the beloved “fish and brews” of my childhood Newfoundland.
Smoked Marlin Yam Balls
The very best dinner was the farm-to-table menu on Thursday night.  The theme reminds guests of the hotel’s eat-local commitment.  The star dish is the very special smoked marlin and yam balls.  The grilled snapper from the regular menu is possibly the best I've  eaten; and the coconut rice and beans aren't to be missed.  Calaloo is a popular dish of bitter greens with onions and grated carrots that grows on you over time. (I can envision Jamaican mom’s fighting the good fight with their children over this spinach-like dish.)

If you are lucky enough to stay at the Round Hill Hotel in Jamaica, the food will be a pleasant part of your stay. 

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Prince Edward County, Ontario gets another jewel in the Drake, Devonshire

Eating with Cathy

Chevre Chaud Factor:  Sadly none but Chicken Fried Oysters filled the gap

There are many good dining options in Prince Edward County and the Drake Devonshire had a good buzz going all the while it was being developed.  A beautiful and lovingly restored property on the lake in Wellington, the dining room is casual, comfortable, lively and fun.  We'd  booked 7 of us in for dinner on a Monday night and expected it to be quiet but it had a happy atmosphere going.
Pommes Frites Drake Devonshire

As I often say "you can't be my favourite restaurant if you can't get fries and a glass of bubbly on the table in under 5 minutes". A couple of cast iron bowls of Pommes Frites with rosemary salt were delicious but the drink service was slow and I ended up passing on the bubbly because the fries were gone before our drink order was taken.

Chicken Fried Oysters
I can no more pass up fried oysters than I can a chevre chaud so the Chicken Fried Oysters - Fanny Bays, kimchi mayo, celeriac and pumpkin seed remoulade were an easy choice for me.  Sadly the oyster arrived overcooked but were quickly replaced and proved to be very tasty on top of the outstanding celeriac salad.

Popcorn Shrimp




Pan Seared Pickerel
The Popcorn Shrimp with maple mustard vinaigrette and watercress salad was a popular dish and good value. Perfectly cooked large shrimp, the watercress salad more of a garnish than a salad but I bet these will be the most popular item on the menu.  Delicious.



Most of our table ordered Pickerel.  We all love pickerel and order it whenever it's on a menu.  This one, served on a mushroom, walnut and barley risotto was exceptionally good.


The Drake is still finding it's legs, there were a few small issues, but they were cheerfully managed and I'm confident that a little time will see them resolved.  I would recommend making reservations well in advance.