this the second in a series of #VislandGetaway posts to satisfy
your travelling tastebuds without having to leave the Island!
Growing up in Victoria I remember Sooke as a faraway, remote place that I really only visited once in a blue moon to en route to exploring the proper West Coast beaches that can be found beyond. These days Sooke seems closer than ever, but still remote enough — and pristine enough — that when I visit it holds a sense of magic, and peeling back the layers I have realized there is a thriving food community out here that really is worth exploring!
Sooke Fast Facts
- Meaning: from the T'sou-ke First Nation, the name of the Stickleback fish that live in the estuary of the river
- Distance from Victoria: 40 kms
- Approximate Travel time: 45 minutes
- Population: 11, 435
- Major industries: Tourism, Logging, Fishing
- Nearest city: Victoria
- Transportation options:
My visit to Sooke was prompted by a lovely & generous gift certificate I received at Christmas from my colleagues on the local Slow Food board to stay overnight at the Sooke Harbour House. This prompted a mini-moveable feast with my food loving friends to dine in their dining room. (Obligatory disclaimer! I sit on the board with founder of the SHH, Sinclair Phillip, and our Convivium Leader is Brooke, their Sommelier whose partner Oliver is the head chef (you may remember them from my delicious dinner at their Wild Mountain supper club!). So while I harbour (pun unintended) no illusions that I am arms length or as objective on this one as some posts the certificate was given with no request or offer of a blog post).
We took a caravan-style drive out to Sooke on a lazy, sunny Saturday afternoon. Although our stops along the way were mostly stifled by a terrible lack of direction & impromptu "planning" it was definitely a convivial group that arrived at the Sooke Harbour House property in the late afternoon. Our gift certificate included a deluxe room & breakfast the next morning, so we checked in and arranged our things before heading off for a bit of an exploration.
Although I am unclear on exactly what part of the area is meant to be Quimper Park this area seems to be kind of a dedicated historical site in Sooke. Along with the Quimper Park sign, which designates the symbolic landing point of the Spanish in 1790, there are also sign posts dedicated to some of the original settlers of the harbour area.
Whiffin Spit Park
The spit separates and protects the massive Sooke Harbour from the harsh waters of the Juan de Fuca Straight. The long strip of pathway was a decent walk, full of wildlife and local dog walkers. When the tide is out, the surrounding beach on both sides extends quite far, although is pretty rocky. We stopped near the end of the spit to watch an eagle fishing, so that was pretty incredible!
Sooke Harbour House
Sooke Harbour House is one of those institutions of our food scene that has left an undeniable impact on what we consume and how we consume it here on the Island. Their meticulous dedication to supporting locally sourced, ethically produced & socio-historically relevant foods has produced a ripple effect. Although sitting on the Slow Food board with Sinclair, Sooke Harbour House's owner, has cemented into my head the depth of the vision that he has for our food culture it wasn't until this visit I think I truly realized the extent to which his vision has elevated not only our local food scene, but local food on an international scale. Seeing the long wall of publications, citations and commendations they have collected over the years really helped me realize the significance of the level to which they helped to instigate an entire movement, and have helped to make space for a re-emergence of the celebration and consumption of local.
The Passion Flower Room
The Harbour House is definitely a destination restaurant — for the kind of wining and dining you are setting yourself up for you want nothing more than to tuck into a comfortable bed within walking distance of the dining room and to wake up with a luxurious soak in a tub looking out over the Juan de Fuca Straight.
Our dining companions, who had not initially intended to stay over, reconsidered their options after taking a peek in our room and were delighted to discover that the same-day rates were within budget and they were lucky enough that a room was still free for them!
Each of the rooms is decorated with a unique theme and design inspiration by co-owner Fredrique Philip. Our Passion Flower room was full of blossom inspiration, and our friends stayed in the Chef's Study — complete with rolling pin inspired banisters and a fantastic collection of cookbooks.
The grounds of the property are as unique and curiosity-inspiring as the food and accommodations. These fences that separate the main parking area from the front entrance way were made by none other than Renaat Marchand of Wannawafel fame from his days as a woodworker before waffles stole him away. Gardens, chock full of herbs and produce, wrap around the property.
This gorgeous totem pole, each member representing an individual in the Philip family, looks out over the harbour and was carved by Sooke-based Master Carver Carey Newman. It overlooks bluffs down to the beach, and is surrounded by even more edible plants and local art.
Once again, full disclosure: one of our dinner companions was Sooke Harbour House's lovely Sommelier, Brooke Fader, whose own partner-in-food-and-life is none other than their Head Chef, Oliver Kienast. Although Brooke & Oliver met while working at SHH many years ago, one or the other (or both!) have both also worked at pretty much every other delicious restaurant you can name in Victoria. They have only returned to both working at the Harbour House in the last few months, and she was quite excited to come and dine as a guest rather than having to work. Our group have been partaking in their side project of Wild Mountain Dinners, so were excited to see the duo in action with a larger team behind them. Although dining at the Sooke Harbour House was a completely different experience to the highly choreographed presentation of one of their intimate supper club dinners it was no less meticulously prepared and no less delicious.
This little nibble arrived unexpectedly at our table after we were seated — Brooke confessed this was a little bit unprecedented that we were treated to this extra bite before our meal. As loyal fans of the chef we were appreciative of the gesture of appreciation back! The perfect small bite to whet our appetite before the meal ahead of us.
I took advantage of our room and chose to do the wine pairings with our meal, and was extremely glad that I did! Brooke is clearly a master of her craft, and several weeks later when reminiscing about the meal to friends who were not able to join us we agreed that the wine pairings were incredible in the proper symbiotic situation where the flavour of each pairing was enhanced by the wine, and vice versa.
Wild & Cultivated Lettuces, Herbs & Flowers — 2011 Riesling, Kettle Valley
I chose to start my meal with a lighter option, the classic "Sooke Harbour House" salad filled with edible flowers from their garden! No bitter greens or dousing of dressing here, just a lovely mesh of fresh greenery.
Albacore Tuna Carpaccio — 2009 Sassi, Venturi-Schulze
Several of us at the table elected for the tuna carpaccio. The lightly smoked tuna was heavenly, and when combined with a bite of each of the toppings it took on several different dimensions. A relatively simple dish in finished product, but the kind of depth of flavour that wish I understood more about how gastronomic cuisine dishes are developed...
Sweet Cicely Ricotta Gnudi — 2010 Pinot Noir Noble Ridge
Another popular dish at the table! I really enjoy sweet cicely. It isn't a plant I had heard of before my first Wild Mountain dinner, but the delicate flavour is extremely lovely. I was doing some reading up and discovered it is sometimes used as a natural sweetener by people with diabetes, which I thought was interesting.
The gnudi was perfect, like light little pillows of deliciousness just like I can never replicate at home! The carrots were a bit crunchier than my clutzy coordination could handle to cut into bite sized pieces, but somehow I managed in the end. I loved the inclusion of seasonal ingredients like fiddleheads and nettle... we are so lucky to live surrounded by such delicious bounty!
This was my favourite wine of the evening, and again a delectable pairing!
Seasonal Ice Creams: Strawbery, Sour Cream & Roasted Fig Leaf Hazelnut Crunch — Chocolate-dipped Strawberries
not pictured (because this was glass #4): 2013 Saturn (sauvignon blanc), Clos du Soleil, Similkameen Valley
Pastry Chef Matthias Conradi produced some incredible desserts for the final course! The dark chocolate terrine and strawberries three ways were very much enjoyed around the table, but I settled on the seasonal ice creams! They were all incredible, but I loved the slightly savoury nature of the sour cream the best. The final nibble, perfectly in season chocolate dipped strawberries sent the entire table leaning back with the glorious sighs of happily satisfied diners. Who wouldn't be after such a truly, truly luxurious meal!
We stumbled back to our rooms all deliciously full of food & wine but somehow still managed to consume the lion's share of the complimentary port — and rose early and without the hint of a hangover. Perfection.
We were told by the staff who lead us to our room that they have only just started serving hot breakfasts again recently, but I am certainly happy that they were! It was possibly one of the most decadent breakfasts of my life, sitting on the patio over looking the water with a level of sensory pleasure that really can only be achieved by an epic amount of butter. A perfect hash brown & egg was accompanied by a flavourful sausage, wedge of incredible cheese (we think it was the Monterey Jill from Qualicum Cheese works) and a side of heavenly sauce. Even the toast - light and fantastically textured - was consumed (super unusual for me, I'm strictly a 'hold the toast' breakfast orderer!).
Other Sooke Food & Drink:
Stick in the Mud might just be the perfect coffee shop. I've heard about (and witnessed on social media) their enthusiasm and dedication for some time now, but the last few times we've visited it has been a holiday and they've been tragically closed.
Tucked away parallel to the main road near the iconic Mom's cafe they're doing everything right here. They roast their own beans from ethical sources. They train their staff well, and they know exactly where they come from. We also just happened to be there on the day of the opening of their second location, in the lobby of the Best Western hotel (possibly the most surreal looking location in all of Sooke... but delicious coffee none the less!)
Cold Brew Dispensers
I was super impressed with the Cold Brew dispenser machine, complete with "growlers" to allow for easy refillability. I love the smooth, silky taste of Cold Brew, and this was perfection on a warm summer day!
This tiny cinnamon bun fit into the indentation on a saucer for a macchiato cup, which if you ask me is exactly the right size for a cinnamon bun! Despite the occasional craving for a sticky bite of cinnamon-laced pastry I can never justify the amount of gross I will feel after that much breadiness! This tiny one-bite perfection left as all completely satisfied.