In the mid ’90s, when my interest in restaurants was just coming into focus, my fingers would routinely flip through Zagat’s New York City guide, the New York Times dining section and an increasingly well worn copy of Roadfood, combing for places to someday experience, no matter how far-fetched. At about that time, a national magazine – it may have been Esquire or GQ – published a listing of 10 restaurants worth flying around the world to try. One of the restaurants they singled out was Sooke Harbour House, situated on the water in far-flung Vancouver Island, featuring a litany of hyper local herbs, flowers and produce. That was the one restaurant that sounded like it might truly be worth the trouble. About 15 years later, fate intervened, and my dream restaurant suddenly stood before me.
The building dates to 1929, making it one of the area’s oldest B&Bs. Frederique Philip and husband Sinclair took control of the property in 1979 and gradually increased the size, scope and ambition of the dining and guest experience. She’s from Cannes and met Sinclair after he visited France in 1967. When the couple moved to Sooke, they initially lived in the basement, now the wine cellar, intent on growing a garden and keeping ingredients local. As she said, “It’s the only way.”
Sooke Harbour House resides next to Whiffin Spit Park – a rocky, driftwood lined beach with a gravel path that juts into Sooke Harbour – a spit named for a clerk on the Royal Navy’s vessel Herald, which surveyed the waters in 1846. A plaque said the Standfast Bible Students established a colony on Whiffin Spit Road in 1923, and the Muir brothers – Robert, Michael and John, Jr. – started a steam sawmill in 1855, using the boiler from a wrecked vessel called Major Tompkins.
Frederique Philip was kind enough to host and join me for dinner at the restaurant. An eccentric, ingratiating sommelier named Brian Storen paired our dishes with British Columbia wines, beginning with Starling Lane Celebration. The dry, refreshing Brut mixed Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes and hailed from Methode Champenoise, Victoria.
Executive chef Robin Jackson and longtime head gardener Byron Cook work together to ensure guests receive the best local ingredients of the season. We started with delicate Quadra Island “Sea Angel” Oysters on the half shell with a pear, daikon and shallot vinaigrette, and a complementary salad of fresh-picked greens and spicy nasturtium flowers.
Earlier in the day, Chef Jackson afforded me the opportunity to visit the kitchen and watch the beginning stages of a stinging nettle soup. Luckily, that was a dish he included on our tasting menu. It morphed into a surprisingly light potato leek soup flecked with stinging nettles, with a sweet, central grilled scallop, chickweed and chile oil with crunchy sunflower seeds.
Storen had a funny way of describing the 2009 Rosato, a Pinot Noir Rose from Venturi Schultze in Cobble Hill. He said the rose exhibited strawberry up front and a finishing “slap of a baby dragon’s tail,” the result of tapping into the wetpan from glacial melt. Even with a description right out of science fiction, it was still possible to follow what he meant after tasting the glass, sweetness up front, and a little bite at the end.
Chef Jackson plated the lean, tender square of braised Fraser Valley bison short rib amidst a field of vegetation, including sweet, tiny roasted onions, crisp spears of Grand Fir grilled Cobble Hill asparagus, tiny clusters of Moonstruck Blossoms Blue cheese, microgreens, punchy pickled mustard seeds, a brilliant yellow poached guinea fowl egg, and waffled potato chips, aka gauffrettes.
Storen next poured Meyer Family Vineyards 2009 Tribute series, a Kenny McLean Chardonnay from Naramata. He said that with this bright wine, and with any wine, “To me, wine is information. It’s not just about somatics.”
The main seafood course may have been my favorite of the meal, with myriad ingredients from the sea and land, including a flaky fillet of nasturtium and semolina crusted lingcod, carrot cream, Dungeness crab and arugula salad with pea shoot flowers, cilantro oil, baby Bok choy and butter Ragley Farm Kale, a large carrot and Little Qualicum Raclette cheese pierogi with delicate skins and a smoked salmon and grain mustard bisque.
Chef Jackson continued to impress with his crisp skinned Fraser Valley duck breast, which he plated on a long porcelain platter with a sage, morel and Tamari meat stock reduction and a wealth of surprises. The rosy meat joined pickled gooseberry, coiled BC fiddlehead ferns, roasted carrots, morels, purple potato strands, braised purple cabbage, a savory square of spiced chickpea and Yukon Gold Potato roesti.
To stand up to the duck course, Storen paired two Pinot Noirs, including a 2008 Quails’ Gate Family Reserve Pinot Noir from Okanagan Valley and 2008 Venturi Schultz, Rosso, Pinot Noir / Zweigelt from Cobble Hill. One of the things that stood out about Storen was how he challenged us in a way that got us thinking about flavor combinations, and didn’t put us on the defensive. For instance, he asked which pairing we liked better with the duck. At this point in the meal, when we’d already experienced a lot of flavors, it allowed me to refresh and refocus. My preference was the 2008 Venturi Schultz, which he later said offers “more paints on the palate,” though he pointed out that the 2009 Quails’ Gate would work too, saying, “Convention says here.”
They rotate the menu so often that there’s no such thing as a Sooke Harbour House signature dish, though Chef Jackson said the bread comes close. They bake sourdough with red fife and seaweed, using no yeast or sugar and a three-day proof.
One culinary product, along with wine, that speaks volumes about the region, is its cheeses. We received a plate of local queso and accompaniments, including Hillary’s Cheese Company (Cowichan Bay) Sacre Bleu, Moonstruck Cheese (Saltspring Island) White Grace ash ripened Camembert (cow), Raclette, Hillary’s brie and Juliette (goat), plated with tart sliced green apple, roasted pumpkin seeds and hazelnuts, apricots and seaweed crackers.
With our cheese, we received a pour of sweet but not cloying 2007 Venturi Schultz, Brandenburg #3, a Cobble Hill wine named for a Bach concerto, reduced and aged for two years.
The showstopper was a dessert platter decorated and flavored with property-grown herbs, including a savory ramekin of rosemary creme brulee garnished with lavender; a gazelnut chocolate gianduja square on a dark chocolate sponge cake, glazed with espresso ganache; an East Sooke Gardens strawberry and mint salad, presented on a shortbread base and Fruitsage anglaise in dark chocolate cage; rosemary, gooseberry, rhubarb and black currant sorbet plated with crunchy candied rhubarb in a chocolate shell, with a base of candied red gooseberries. They garnished the entire porcelain “boat” with flower petals and candied chanterelles, which were simultaneously sweet, savory and chewy.
Tugwell Creek mead maker and beekeeper Bob Liptrot joined us for dessert, so Brian Storen poured some 2007 Tugwell Creek Vintage Sac Mead, a fortified, fermented honey beverage that complemented dessert well.
To commemorate a memorable meal, Frederique Philip posed in the lobby of the hotel after our meal. There aren’t many meals that can meet almost 20 years of expectations and anticipation, but my visit to Sooke Harbour House was by no means the culmination of my interest in the establishment. If anything, the experience spurred a desire to return even more in the future.
Note: My meal and stay at Sooke Harbour House was complimentary, as part of a tour hosted by Tourism Victoria.