Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 22, 2017
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Whet your Whistler

The chefs at BC's Olympic mountain are already putting in world-calibre performances

The emissaries of British Columbia foodiedom are not about to be caught improvising when the world descends on Whistler four years from now for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Already the kitchen brigades of this continent's largest ski paradise are in training.

The beneficiaries, winter or summer, are people who like food along with their outdoor pursuits — be they families in search of a superior pizza or gastronomes who prefer their squash blossoms stuffed with scallops and lime aioli.

Whistler leans towards hip, casual dining with distinct Pacific flavour. The Splitz Grill, for example, reinvents the burger by using Salt Spring Island lamb seasoned with cumin and mint, or Italian sausage with fennel and garlic or, for vegetarians, a lentil burger.

Crêpe Montagne goes Swiss with cheese fondue and raclette, as well as goat cheese crêpes for lunch. Sachi Sushi looks to the Pacific for ahi tuna, sockeye salmon, salmon roe and the weirdly priapic geoduck (pronounced "gooey-duck"). None of this costs very much; because it is a family resort, it accommodates all preferences and pocketbooks.

The prince of inexpensive dining in Whistler is Caramba, a happy restaurant with gleaming wooden floors, chocolate-stucco walls and a wood-fired pizza oven: forget the spit-roasted lamb and vodka-zapped pastas. Après ski or après hike, you may not find a better pizza between here and Sorrento. The thin-crusted Napoletana arrives laden with tomato sauce, cheese, black olives, capers and anchovies — a storm of Southern Italian flavours that gets to the very soul of pizza. For my money, Napoletana is the standard by which all others are judged. Find yourself with an insipid Napoletana, and you know you've been cheated.

At Caramba, the runner-up is the pesto-roasted garlic pizza, with goat cheese and pine nuts. Accompany it with a plummy, mellow Old Vines Zunio Zinfandel from California and you will be certain to have a good time.

Gold-Medal Performances
The new Elements Urban Tapas Parlour is a jazzy room specializing in small plates, an ideal concept for the grazing lifestyle of Whistler-goers. Elements proves as versatile as it is affordable, its menu bounding from beef carpaccio with shaved Asiago through to Thai green curry, at most $7 to $12 per plate. Salmon arrives in a crust of crushed pistachios and medium-rare without you having to beg. Crab Clubhouse brings grilled crostini, topped with pancetta, frisée lettuce, sliced tomatoes and a whole deep-fried soft-shell crab — not what you'd expect. Wines by the glass are just right for this kind of dining, and choices are numerous.

With two restaurants in Vancouver, two in Whistler, a cooking school in Tuscany, a Vancouver hotel in the works and a slew of cookbooks to his credit, Umberto Menghi may have little time for details, but he knows how to delegate. Trattoria di Umberto steams along seamlessly even when he's off leading Canadian gastro-tourists through the piazzas of Sienna or Florence.

Lunch at the Trattoria delivers excellence at a modest tab. "We come down from the mountains," says Vancouver stockbroker, and weekend Whistler resident, Monty Clemens, "and we go to straight to the Trattoria. We split a Caesar and then a pasta, and have a glass of wine apiece. This costs us about the price of a sandwich up there on the peak."

The Trat — terracotta floors, red ochre walls and sculpted Etruscan pigs — brings Tuscany to Whistler. House-baked, crunchy-soft bread, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to dip, is good enough to rank as a first course. Tuna carpaccio is a translucent carpet of fresh fish with a daring green-apple sorbet on the side. Squid salad may resemble bungee cords elsewhere, but not here: the marinated cephalopod shows up grill-marked and fork-tender with a side of roasted peppers and endive. The juicy escalopes in the veal piccata come almost fluffy in its light egg batter, tomato-chili sauce teasing the tastebuds, the accompanying basil spaghetti nestled under a plank of Parmesan cheese. Now we know why Italians regard lunch as the meal of the day.

 

Fifty-Two 80, looking outward into mountains and forest from the Four Seasons Resort Whistler, kicks breakfast up a notch with a "Benny Bar," which riffs on the retro eggs Benedict with superlative ingredients and imaginative execution. The house Benny involves not the usual half-stale English muffin, but a freshly made cake of Dungeness crab in a crust of crisp panko crumbs. The poached egg is soft and flavourful. The hollandaise is light, silky and lemon-infused, the citrus adding zip to the egg and balancing the unctuous panko.

With it, superfluously but happily, come home fries; these are organic potatoes from Jordan Sturdy's Pemberton farm. Eat slowly and think about every bite, and how each one makes the the last bite taste even better.

Scott Baechler, former chef at Diva at the Met, Vancouver's best hotel restaurant, sports the exec chef toque at Whistler. He's found himself among a fellowship of bright young chefs with an organic passion. BC's organic movement is the strongest in the land; local restaurants support it with the same enthusiasm they save for Okanagan wines.

Baechler buys from Jordan Sturdy. His kitchen boasts not only sensational spuds, but organic Jerusalem artichokes (which are neither from Jerusalem nor artichokes, but tubers discovered by explorer Samuel de Champlain on the shores of the St. Lawrence), Swiss chard, purple carrots, fava beans, black salsify and "crones," which Sturdy describes as "Chinese artichokes."

Culinary Summit
Whistler's most effervescent restaurant is André St. Jacques' Bearfoot Bistro. For almost a decade, it's been hailed in Canada and the US as one of the best restaurants in North America. Bring a fat wallet and start at St. Jacques' glam, pewter Champagne bar where flutes of legendary bubblies chill in ice holes over colour-changing disco lights.

If you're drinking Champagne, St. Jacques will also escort you to his celebrated wine cellar — which garnered notoriety last year when thieves ran off with 65 bottles of vintage Bordeaux worth $200,000 — for a "sabering." Revered by wine industry show-offs, this is the Napoleonic ritual in which some wine-bibbing swashbuckler beheads a bottle of bubbly with a single swing of a sword.

The impish St. Jacques, who has great fun demystifying the ritual, not only tells you how it is done, he hands you a sword and a bottle and has you decapitate it yourself: it's quite a rush.

St. Jacques' chef is 26-year-old, BC-born Melissa Craig, and she's a whirlwind: her three-way salmon is a ménage à trois of tartare with salsify chips, lox enlivened with mandarin orange and hot-smoked salmon with Sevruga caviar. She sears tuna with a fennel crust and serves it with anchoyade, the anchovy version of tapenade. She stuffs squash blossoms with scallops and drizzles them with lime aioli — so simple, so beautiful. Her notion of a sandwich is Dungeness crabmeat stuffed between two slices of fried brioche and sided with addictive little shallot rings. There is also wild Arctic caribou loin that melts on the end of a fork.

Yet Vancouver Magazine's Gold Glass Award for best Whistler restaurant went to Araxi for the sixth consecutive year. Around for a startling 25 years, it's one of the Toptable group, along with Vancouver's CinCin, Blue Water Café and West. West is the same magazine's choice for Vancouver's best restaurant and was recently named one of the 10 best restaurants in the world by Britain's Sunday Independent.

Araxi's chef is Andrew Richardson, who was sous chef under West wunderkind David Hawksworth as well as at Vancouver Island's vaunted Sooke Harbour House. Richardson prefers invention to imitation. His fish and seafood dishes get huge respect. Regulars favour seafood towers, up to three skyscraping tiers of oysters, prawns, smoked salmon, crab roll, marinated tuna, halibut ceviche, Nova Scotia lobster and whatever else may be available, given the week.

On the other hand, Richardson may start you off with Cortes Island oysters, sweet and creamy, drizzled with ponzu and dabbed with tobiko flying-fish eggs. He takes the tangerine-hued flesh of wild sockeye salmon and leaves it just the way it is, except for a gossamer dressing of mustard, olive oil, lemon and chives. His Queen Charlotte halibut arrives in a crust of basil, arugula and Gruyére, with a side of eggplant-artichoke purée.

When he turns to meat, it's confit of lamb shoulder, the flesh juicy in a haze of roast garlic, rosemary and thyme, with rösti potatoes and grilled eggplant along for the ride. If you make it to dessert — and medals should be handed out if you do — the marriage of molten chocolate and house-made chocolate ice cream is the most sensuous of finishes.

All this might lead some of us to push for a Cuisine category in the 2010 winter frolics. But — cuisine's an art, not a sport. On the other hand, eating is definitely a sport. So, who wants to sign the petition first?

 

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