Sooke Harbour House, located on the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, is a long-standing Canadian institution, offering both hotel accommodations and west coast cuisine while drawing inspiration from the area and the first settlers of the land, the T’Souke First Nations people. Their stringent dedication to the foraging, cultivation and utilization of seasonal biota in their cuisine has quite simply been done for the past 35 years. Every plant on the property is edible, and every ingredient used comes from within a small radius from the property. This self-imposed restriction has challenged the staff in such a way that has naturally yielded a culinary expression of the region.
During our visit in May, we opted to go with their Gastronomic Adventure tasting menu. Surprisingly, much of what was used in the tasting are ingredients I would not often find in the majority of restaurants around the area. There were no salmon, geoducks, oysters, or spot prawns that are so prevalent in Pacific Northwest establishments. And though some of these items were offered in their a la carte menu, I appreciated their departure from the familiar in the tasting.
For example, the second course was composed primarily of grilled spot shrimp. Shying away from the omnipresent spot prawn was a breath of fresh air. The shrimp were grilled to perfection and just the way I enjoy having them, treading the line of raw and cooked. Compounded by the smoky and burnt flavour from the grill, crispy wild lettuce, creamy golden beet puree and a hit of colour from the arugula flowers, I really enjoyed this plate. S describes its visual as a little feminine due to its use of vibrant colours, but in terms of flavour we both agreed this was the highlight of the evening.
After the spot shrimp, I was expecting more seafood as that is usually what comes to mind when it comes to Pacific Northwest cuisine. But I was quite surprised by Sooke Harbour House’s equal affinity for meat-based dishes.
As the elk torchon was placed before me, I immediately assumed it would be dry and overdone because of its somewhat burnt looking exterior. But as I cut through it with my fork, I found a mix of berries in the torchon that made eating it in its entirety more succulent than dry. The plate was accompanied by the always delicious morel mushrooms, a creamy leek ragout, acidic micro greens, chives flowers and chive oil. I have never had elk quite this good before.
The grilled bison that followed was just as much of a surprise. I’ve had bison numerous times before, but its low fat content has always left an extremely overdone hunk of meat in front of me. At Sooke Harbour House, the medium rare bison steak was nicely sweet and succulent. Accompanied by marinated kale, toasted hazelnut, celery root salad, pickled potato – that gave it a nice crunch – and a side of earthy truffled eggs, made me realize how good a bison dish could be when put in the right hands.
Overall, dishes on the Gastronomic Adventure menu were compounded by a hefty sum of ingredients. When you restrict yourself to ingredients only offered by the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, certain unadulterated flavours are simply not available on its own. But when many of these ingredients are mixed together in certain ways, specific flavours can be developed, and that is exactly what is done at Sooke Harbour House.
This is epitomized by the lingcod dish. There was a lot going on in there. Crusted by toasted dill and sunflower seeds, and accompanied by a barely noticeable spot shrimp, lemon balm toast, a Chemainus crayfish sauce, leek saute, easter egg radish, smoked sole salad, carrot crisp and a stinging nettle emulsion, I honestly could not decipher each of the aforementioned ingredients on the plate. All I could do is enjoy it in its entirety. When eaten by itself, the lingcod lacked seasoning, but the crayfish sauce added what was missing. The lemon balm toast soaked up the surrounding sauce and added a crunchy consistency and overall creaminess.
Simple is not a word I would use to describe many of the dishes at Sooke, such as the lingcod, but somehow the copious amounts of ingredients all work together to complement the well executed protein.
Aside from the cuisine, everything else about Sooke Harbour House expresses the region. Service is casual, relaxed and extremely welcoming. The staff simply want you to sit back, relax and enjoy the view because if you let it, time will stand still for you here. Even the inn itself could be seen as stuck in time, organic and cozy, reminding me of my grandmother’s house.
But though it is quite easy to sit back, relax and take it all in here, if you live on the west coast of North America, thoughts of the “big one” are always on the back your mind. Being at one of the west-most points of Canada, the fear only grew, and I could only hope that nothing would happen during our stay. Evidently, my prayers were answered as I am able to write this blog post. However, if the view from Sooke Harbour House and the memory of this meal was the last thing on my mind, then there are few better ways to go out.
To view pictures of our meal in its entirety, click through the photo set below. If you are using a mobile device, please click here for compatibility.
Thanks for reading,
C & S