Local Heroes

Four chefs from the heart of British Columbia's Vancouver Island dig deep in their own backyards for culinary inspiration.

On the wild west coast of Canada's Vancouver Island, nature is a symphonic presence. Fierce winter storms thump against the glassed-in enclave of Tofino's Wickaninnish Inn, where tourists actually gather to observe them as music plays. Four-century-old cedars soar hundreds of feet above the springy soil, while only a few hundred feet away great gray whales frolic. Abundance is everywhere. Chinook salmon and Dungeness crabs are laughingly common, oysters can grow as large as size-ten shoes, and the fecund climate also breeds dozens of species of wild mushrooms.

Yet until recently a culinary delicacy on the island was likely to mean a Hawaiian pineapple, or shrink-wrapped prosciutto thousands of miles—and many months—removed from its origins in Parma. "When I was growing up here," remarks Charles McDiarmid, 44, who runs The Wickaninnish Inn and owns it with his family, "there were chanterelle mushrooms, shiitakes, every kind you could think of, but nobody would ever think of eating them. No one even knew if you could eat them. It was that far from our minds. As a kid I ate salmon, but no one ate cod. You threw that back as garbage fish."

What makes a local or regional cuisine? Not merely quality ingredients, though it's true that no exceptional food can exist without the raw materials for it. But they must be coupled with someone able to appreciate and interpret the land's largesse. "People used to come here and eat pretty ordinary stuff," states Rodney Butters, who was the che fat The Pointe Restaurant at The Wickaninnish for three years after it opened in 1996. The creativity of chefs such as Butters, Chris Jones of The Aerie, Marcel Kauer of Hastings House (on Salt Spring Island), and Sooke Harbour House's Sinclair Philip has clearly changed the way travelers to Vancouver Island—and even locals—now eat. Never mind that Kauer is Swiss and classically trained in the manner of Escoffier, or that Butters developed his passion for indigenous ingredients in the crowded kitchens of Hong Kong. What these chefs have done with Vancouver Island's seafood, the vegetables that emerge from its lush landscape, and its farm-raised ostrich, quail, and venison, has transformed the island into a singular culinary destination.

Butters, 34, had cooked in Vancouver, at Chateau Whistler (to the north of Vancouver), and in Hong Kong. He arrived in Tofino assuming that a range of local fish and produce would be readily available to him.It wasn't. "It was a huge struggle for a long time," he recalls. "Fortunately, I had established relationships in Vancouver; I spent an awful lot of money on couriers and transport fees getting the stuff that I needed sent up to me."

By the time that Butters turned over his kitchen to his veteran sous-chef, Jim Garraway, in June of last year in preparation for a round-the-world culinary trip, he had purveyors knocking on his door every afternoon peddling top-quality produce. "This restaurant has undoubtedly lifted the level of awareness," Butters says, and Garraway, 33, concurs. "The first year we had one guy coming by with chanterelles and chicken-of-the-woods mushrooms," he says. "Some days he was out there raking them into his basket with mud and pine needles. Now we can say, 'No, those aren't clean enough.' I can choose what I want to buy and who I want to buy it from."

In a short time the reputation of The Pointe and the reincarnated Wickaninnish Inn (the original, a Tofino landmark, lasted 15 years, until 1979) has spread among purveyors as an establishment that rewards those who supply it with the freshest, most interesting ingredients. "People show up not only with mushrooms but with goose barnacles, acorn barnacles," Garraway adds. "We are probably the only place around that buys acorn barnacles. People go out and get them just for us."

Vancouver Island, it should be said, is no San Francisco or Paris, with a compelling restaurant on every second block, but you can now go there and dine on inventive, original food, and you'll have a different experience than you would in Portland, Seattle, or even nearby Vancouver.

"When people travel, they want their food to reflect where they are," states Sinclair Philip, whose Sooke Harbour House, an hour's drive west of Victoria on the island's south coast, pioneered the idea of Vancouver Island cooking two decades ago and remains one of its finest restaurants—in addition to being its most creative. "Local producers and suppliers have gotten better with our support," Philip comments. "The change has been truly incredible. And if we hadn't been here to buy from them, they wouldn't be around to supply The Wickaninnish and The Aerie and all those other places."

Philip's dedication to local ingredients borders on the obsessive. He grows hundreds of species of edible plants and vegetables on the three and a half acres of gardens that surround his restaurant and small hotel, and makes it a point of pride to serve only local items on his dinner table. When asked if he used olive oil or lemon in his cooking, Philip seemed horrified. "Olive oil? Of course not. I'd prefer not even serving orange juice or coffee in the morning," he said. "I have to because otherwise no one would come. But the point is to use only ingredients that come from here."

Not all the best food on the island comes from such fundamentalist kitchens. But the concept of a cuisine firmly rooted in local foodstuffs appears to have taken hold. Not once in more than a dozen meals at Vancouver Island's finest restaurants did I encounter rice, pasta, or pizza. And other markers of international cuisine were few. "I never bought into the fusion thing," says Butters. "Why would you want to take beautiful chanterelle mushrooms from here and add soy sauce?"

If the chanterelles are good enough, you wouldn't. And it was just those indigenous ingredients, frequently served simply but also in baroque combinations, that captivated me during my visit. After a Wickaninnish dinner that featured grilled rock scallops, smoked quail breast, crisply fried prawns, and ling cod crusted with wild mushrooms, all from local sources, I was inspired to see exactly where the food came from.

I discovered Garraway the next morning, working in a tiny basement office outside the Wickaninnish pantry. He said he was cooking Dungeness crab that night, and pointed to a scrap of paper thumbtacked to the wall with the name "Mac" and a telephone number scrawled on it. "That's our crab guy," he said. "We call him if there are any problems. Otherwise he just leaves them for us."

Twenty minutes later I was standing beside Garraway on the edge of a small dock, watching him unlock the steel-and-mesh contraption that guards the drop-off box for The Pointe's crab order. He retrieved about half a dozen, some of which were as large as a Frisbee, from the plastic cage. Then he resubmerged it in the water and locked it inside the steel. I chose a crab as my own and ate it that evening. It tasted sweeter than lobster meat, and I didn't need the pesto butter served as an accompaniment. In place of the innards Garraway used a stuffing of yam fries, asparagus, and bell peppers, as if to symbolically domesticate this wild sea creature. Or perhaps the restaurant's visitors, about half of whom come from Vancouver or Victoria, are not yet accustomed to eating those delicate parts.

But Garraway wasn't content to simply boil me up a crab; he wanted to flex his culinary muscles. Before it arrived at my windowside table I'd already eaten ostrich from the island's Comox Valley, crusted with pepper and sliced as carpaccio, though more thickly than I'd had carpaccio before, and served with roasted pumpkin seeds and sun-dried sour cherries. And Garraway's first course used a method of presentation Butters had brought to Tofino: an overturned wine glass with one component of a dish (in this instance a scallop wrapped in wild-boar prosciutto and topped with sevruga caviar—all on a tiny bed of fried fennel) perched on the stem and the other (sun-dried tomatoes and grilled artichoke with a bell pepper purée) beneath the bell. The meal worked splendidly paired with a Meritage from Ontario's Inniskillin winery.

When I came down for breakfast the following morning, Sinatra was playing on the sound system, fresh blackberry-apple was the juice of the day, and the skies had cleared to a brilliant blue. I ordered sausage made from local venison and stared out at the Pacific. "This is how far we've come," said McDiarmid when he saw me. "When the original Wickaninnish opened, the lounge got the good views because that was what was important then. Guests would spend all night in the bar. The restaurant was basically a place to get in, get a meal, and get out."

The best restaurants on Vancouver Island are all located in hotels, which isn't surprising when you consider the economics of establishing a culinary outpost miles from any other. The profit margin on a restaurant such as The Pointe tends to be minimal, especially since the kitchen is willing to pay above the going rate to get the best ingredients. It works best as a way to draw attention—and overnight and weekend visitors—to the hotel, which in this case is a handsome, 46-room wooden structure set on a scenic cove.

The Wickaninnish, like The Aerie and Hastings House, is a member of Relais & Châteaux, which insists on fine cuisine as a component of any property. And in an out-of-the-way place like Tofino, that cuisine is likely to drive much of the tourism. "My ultimate goal is to have people call the restaurant and say they're making a special trip to eat there, and do we know anywhere nearby to stay?" says McDiarmid.

At Sooke Harbour House, the inn and food are inexorably intertwined, and its 28 suites, each individually designed, are far more interesting than accommodations at The Wickaninnish. (My room at Sooke was a multilevel apartment of more than 1,000 square feet, with a spiral staircase leading to a loft,a sunken living room, and a balcony that afforded a spectacular view of the water.) A highlight for some guests is the late-afternoon posting of the evening menu. That the kitchen, which is run as a tag-team operation under Philip's loose supervision, must wait until nearly teatime to construct the night's menu is a tribute to just how fresh the ingredients are.

From about noon onward, you will catch Philip, 53, wandering the hotel, which is set on a bit of land called Whiffen Spit that extends into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Today, he has a staff of full-time gardeners to supervise the acreage he once tended himself, but that does not stop him from fretting over his herbs and plants as if they were his children. (He has four of those, too, all of whom work on the property.) With his black pullover shirt and sports jacket and his neat, round glasses he could be a character out of Frasier, yet he is a karate black belt, a deep-sea diver, and an extraordinarily inventive chef, when he isn't busy telling someone about his garden.

He met his wife, Fredérique, in Grenoble, France, while they were getting economics degrees, and in 1979 they moved to Whiffen Spit and bought a tiny bed-and-breakfast that had existed on the site for decades. Gradually, organically, it has grown into a luxury inn, with the last addition of 15 rooms taking place only last year. This has made competition for space in the modest-sized dining room even more fierce, and on the night I ate there—with the Philips—I sat down to wait on a comfortable couch with a glass of wine at 8 p.m., and didn't actually put food in my mouth until 9:30.

I had worked up an appetite all afternoon talking to purveyors who pulled into the driveway in vans, trucks, or, in one case, on a motorcycle, looking to sell the fruits of their labors to Sooke's kitchen. John Stephen, a retired fishery officer, was one of them. At 54, Stephen runs a small chicken farm nearby to augment his government pension and delivers 17 dozen eggs to Sooke Harbour House, at $3.50 per dozen (in Canadian dollars, which are worth about 67 percent of U.S.), almost every day of the year. Never mind that Stephen's eggs are available from the farmstand up the road for $3.25. The extra cost is insurance that Stephen will make Sooke his first stop, and that he'll remain in business. "If I didn't have Sooke I wouldn't do this," he comments. "The prices that I get from other places aren't worth the work."

While I was talking to Stephen, Michel Jansen-Reynaud rolled in with mushrooms for sale. He has been mycologically inclined, for fun and profit, for 25 years, the first five of them in the pre-Sooke Dark Ages. "Before, I didn't have the opportunity to sell the very best mushrooms, except to a very few private customers," remarked Jansen-Reynaud, who is renowned among foragers in the southern part of the island for once finding 54 varieties of edible fungi within a three-hour span. "Cauliflower mushrooms, lobster mushrooms, angel wings, anything different and interesting—no one wanted them." Now plenty of places do, but Sooke's long-standing support has earned his loyalty. "When I find something unusual I bring it right here," he says.

Visiting a vegetable grower off Kangaroo Road, on the way to Victoria, I heard much the same story. John and Lorraine Buchanan run the Parry Bay Sheep Farm and grow peas, beans, squash, and other staples for Philip, who does not have the acreage to cultivate the vegetables he uses in such high volume. "I wouldn't even be doing this if Sooke hadn't called me," says Lorraine Buchanan. "I don't even know how they got my name, except that we used to have a vegetable stand. They ask me to grow heritage squash, things like that—varieties that aren't that easy to locate. If I come across something unusual in a seed catalog, I know they'll buy it."

If the Buchanans show up with a particularly large load of a certain vegetable, they know Sooke's kitchen will make every effort to purchase all of it, then adjust its menus accordingly. That's what makes the fare at Sooke so unusual: It isn't based merely on local cuisine but on what's growing particularly well that week or even that day, as evidenced by who shows up at the door and what they're selling.

Or else by what's abundant at the moment in Philip's garden, which manages to be decorative and astonishingly productive at the same time. A natural-born collector—witness the 10,000-bottle wine cellar, including a dazzling array of Bordeaux first-growths—he treats the patches of cultivated land that appear to take up every possible square foot of room between his hotel and the road as his prized possessions. I limited myself to touring less than half the gardens (even that took an hour), accompanying Philip as he rattled off names and descriptions of many of the 400 varieties of plants and edible flowers he grows, from quince to kale to cumin to far, far beyond.

Philip's criteria for which plants to grow are rather nebulous. They need not have originated in the region—as with his tufts of lemon grass—but they should thrive here and make sense as a component of a regional cuisine. He is working closely with Nancy Turner, an ethnobotanist from the University of Victoria, to determine precisely what the island's original inhabitants, called the First Peoples or First Nations, ate hundreds of years ago—or more accurately, what they could and should have been eating. "A lot of the plants that can besaid to be indigenous to this area weren't used by them at all," Philip says ruefully.

They're used by Philip, to be sure, and by his kitchen. The meal I had that night was like nothing I, or anyone else, had ever eaten. "These dishes, served in this way, will never be exactly duplicated," intoned Philip—and that's not always a bad thing, by the way. Both an elderflower-poached halibut with goat cheese and a grilled sturgeon with tuberous begonia, yellow-pepper cream, and plum sauce offered several flavors too many and should be gracefully retired after a single appearance. Similarly, I had grown weary of edible flowers by the third course.

But the dishes that worked, most notably the albacore tuna poached in duck fat, with a yellow tomato and begonia sweet-and-sour sauce and a side dish of fresh eggplant, seemed the culinary equivalent of Impressionism. The flavors did more than meld or match; they worked together to suggest a larger whole. I'm not sure that whole was Vancouver Island, but at the time I didn't care.

Philip, who usually seems so absorbed in the property, appeared blissfully unaware of what was going on in his kitchen. "Of tonight's meal, the only thing I'd ever had before was the cheese," he said when it had ended, as we enjoyed the last of a 1976 Eyrie Vineyards South Block Reserve Pinot Noir from Oregon, attempting to wash away the taste of the white-beet savory sorbet served as the last course. "That's the way it should be—every meal should be totally different. It all depends on what's good, what's fresh."

What Philip is to gardens, Chris Jones is to purveyors. From his station as executive chef at The Aerie he cultivated them lovingly, occasionally zigzagging through the Cowichan Valley on an off-day to make visits, see what was growing, suggest what else might be useful.

Together Jones, Philip, and several others here formed a group called the Island Chefs Collaborative. "Our mission statement says 'No' to imported foodstuffs; it supports local foods," Jones told me. "If a guest asks me for tomatoes in March or April, I have to tell him that I don't have a single tomato in my kitchen. Now, you might say that you can get a tomato any time of year these days, and that's true, but they won't taste as good as the ones that are grown here taste in season. So I don't want them."

Jones left The Aerie in March after four years and is now cooking at The Bearfoot Bistro in the ski resort of Whistler, British Columbia. He continues to use many of his former Cowichan Valley suppliers at his new job, getting heirloom tomatoes, venison steaks, and mushrooms delivered by messenger service. That's how far the island has come.

The Aerie's new chef, Christophe Letard, inherited Jones' zeal for finding and using the finest ingredients. "He basically left me a network of forty growers," says Letard, 33, who arrived at The Aerie in May 1999 and served as sous-chef for nearly a year. "On top of that, he opened many doors during the time he was here. He was so interested in using the best purveyors that every day I get calls about various kinds of products because people know The Aerie has supported that in the past. I haven't had time to get out and establish the same kind of relationships with the purveyors that Chris had, but I haven't had to because he did that work for me."

Raised on a farm in Normandy, Letard has worked at a series of properties in France, England, and Canada—including, remarkably, six members of Relais & Châteaux—picking up a technique here, an ingredient there. "My parents were farmers, so I feel very comfortable working with local growers," he notes. "That's what I know from my childhood: fresh carrots and leeks in the garden, fresh cream, butter, cheese. But then you get to larger restaurants and you use larger suppliers. It's not as interesting, but sometimes it's necessary. Here this network of local suppliers brings me back fifteen years to the way I used to work. It's very exciting."

Letard gathers interested guests in The Aerie's lounge every afternoon to discuss that day's fixed-price tasting menu. Invariably, several couples wander in not knowing what to expect. Letard will arrive with, say, a few clams, a fillet of salmon, fat white asparagus fresh from the garden, and some blackberry purée, and within minutes he'll have the guests talking to him, and to each other, about the food. When they arrive at dinner that night, they not only recognize familiar faces but ingredients as well. "Oh, look, there's that heirloom potato Christophe was talking about," they will say. Or: "I'll have the venison that's supposed to be so sweet."

Austrian hotelier and chef Leo Schuster and his wife, Maria, conceived of The Aerie in the late 1980s as a Mediterranean-style idyll constructed around views of the San Juan Islands to the east and the lights of Washington State to the south. Maria then decorated it in a style that might be described as Late Zsa Zsa Gabor. The largely indigenous food is at odds with the decor of the hotel, which is silk flowers to Sooke's fresh roses. Silk flowers were, in fact, on the nightstand in my room, and my bookcase came complete with several Harlequin Romance novels. The room is like a Disneyland version of a honeymooners' suite, with lace on the canopy bed and a Jacuzzi by the window. (Leo and Maria divorced several years ago, and the property is presently being run by her son from her first marriage, Markus Griesser.)

Despite the rococo backdrop, Letard dishes up deceptively simple meals, to my taste some of the best food on the island. His kitchen juxtaposes various flavors and textures, fresh fish and fresh meat, fresh and preserved fruit, without the pyrotechnics of Sooke's garden but with a firm sense of the architecture of a meal. The menu leads the palate—and the mind—first one place and then another, dashing left and tacking right but always keeping an eye on the finish line.

The tasting menu Letard served me began with an amuse bouche of truffle-scented oyster mushrooms and a celery-root chip. Next came a piece of seared Yellow Island Chinook salmon, served with a light salad of white and green asparagus and a daringly sweet rhubarb-raspberry relish. Such sweetness at the start of a meal will often dull whatever follows, but a cream-free vichyssoise with spinach and tangy chard hit just the right notes, both soothing and invigorating. It segued into a medley of steamed scallops, clams, and halibut in a puddle of ginger broth. This wasn't quite a second successive soup, but the essence of ginger (which had eclipsed all traces of the broth's beet and black tea components) worked well spooned over the scallops or used as a dipping sauce for a forkful of halibut.

After an apple granita, Letard produced a main course of local ostrich marinated in a sweet cedar syrup. It was augmented by fiddlehead ferns collected by a local priest, a traditional French crique (a seldom seen cross between a blintz and potato pancake), and a dollop of blueberry preserves. The dish came together perfectly (although the ostrich was overcooked) and left room for no more than a few bites of Salt Spring Island blue cheese wrapped in what amounted to a walnut-and-cranberry spring roll, and then a few strawberries marinated in balsamic vinegar and served with orange sorbet. I counted a fruit component in five of the eight courses, but the fruit played such a different role in each that it was thematic, not repetitious.

I had finished the better part of a bottle of Araujo Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa's Eisele Vineyard in place of the suggested wine pairings with my meal (I'd had enough British Columbia wine by then to get the idea), so I cleared my head with a stroll under the stars. Had I not had to return to the faux Italian marble columns in my suite, the evening would have been perfect.

Hastings House, the final hotel I visited, is on Salt Spring Island, the largest of the Gulf Islands. A bit like Nantucket, but without the upscale trappings, it's a picturesque two-hour car-ferry trip from Vancouver Island, and it has been a summer tourist haven since shortly after World War II.

In 1937 Barbara and Warren Hastings arrived from England and built, across a deep inlet from the town of Ganges, a Tudor-style cottage to resemble their former home. As the property changed hands the cottage became a compound set around a green lawn amidst old-growth forest. It gained Relais & Châteaux membership in 1986 and has been owned since 1997 by Bonny O'Connor and Jerry Parks, a Seattle couple who'd visited the property as guests for years.

Salt Spring Island has its own microclimate and is known for two things in the way of food: unusually sweet lamb and the cheese of David Wood. I was familiar with Wood's products from each of my previous stops. Once a Toronto food icon with a specialty gourmet shop, the Scottish-born Wood dropped out of Canada's version of the rat race to become a shepherd on Salt Spring, learned to make cheese in his kitchen by trial and error, and today produces several exquisite types from goat and sheep's milk in a laboratory attached to his house.

"We depend on the hotels for exposure," Wood said. "In truth, they don't buy all that much cheese, but they give us a high profile. People will buy it in the store because they know it's used at The Aerie or Sooke Harbour House."

They'll also buy it if they've ever tasted it. He makes soft goat's-milk cheese—occasionally pressed with basil or sun-dried tomato—that has the texture of the finest mozzarella, and a Canadian version of Camembert from goat's milk. But the best to my taste is his sheep's-milk cheese, aged for as long as six months, until it's just hard enough to cut with a cheese slicer. It tastes like hazelnuts and vanilla.

Wood's cheeses are the centerpiece of the midafternoon fireside tea service featured at Hastings House, which makes me think of old, colonial Canada. There's a tour group of elderly women at the hotel—they have crowded me out of the traditional buildings like The Farmhouse, The Manor, and The Barn, relegating me to the new wing of seven rustic but comfortable suites at the top of a steep hill—and they seem to personify a British Canada of crumpets and perfect manners and overcooked roast beef that I hadn't seen for years in the Canadian west, not even at Victoria's dowager hotel, The Empress.

This isn't always the Hastings House clientele, but it is typical, and that puts exceptional pressure on chef Marcel Kauer. He must produce food innovative enough for gourmet travelers, yet also must cater to visitors looking for a simpler Canada from the days of Lester B. Pearson, a six-team National Hockey League, and well-cooked whitefish with baked potatoes.

On the other hand, Kauer and his staff have a far simpler routine than at most kitchens. He cooks one meal a day for a single seating. There are no walk-ins; anyone without a reservation by 5 p.m. won't be eating in the heavy-beamed room in the main lodge that night. Service starts at 7 p.m. (an hour later in summer) with a cold appetizer that is already on the table when you arrive, and continues with four more courses. Compared to dining rooms that must serve a multifarious menu and kitchens that juggle dozens of dishes simultaneously, optimizing the food at Hastings House should be a simple matter.

But Kauer is also dedicated to giving consumers whatever they want, whenever they want it. "If you want something served a different way, or something else entirely, you'll get it," he says. "Who am I to tell you how to eat?" When I tell him that Chris Jones barred tomatoes from his kitchen out of season he smiles.

He has just set out a fruit plate for the tea service that includes pineapple slices and carved bits of mango, and he feels no remorse. "Right now there's nothing growing around here but pears and apples," he says. "If you spend five hundred bucks a night here, you want more than just pears and apples."

Kauer changes his menu daily, the only constant being Salt Spring Island lamb, in one or another preparation, as an entrée choice every day of the year. He tracks the length of guests' stays, making certain that anyone who visits for a week, for example, will have seven different cold appetizers, seven soups, and so forth. He buys from local purveyors but doesn't mind shopping at the local supermarket. "Seasonal comes first for me," he says, "but there's only so much around."

During my week of restaurant eating, Kauer was the chef I met with the most formal training. He attended cooking school, apprenticed in the Swiss town of Wetzikon, then cooked for two years in the Swiss Army, learning to make coffee from barley if the coffee beans ran out. He carries a European sensibility that never lets him forget that creativity must begin with proper preparation. But unlike European practice, he disdains a rigid menu and loves to vary his flavors. "I learned what they do there, then came here and learned what they do here," he says. "I just kind of combine it."

The night I ate at Hastings, Kauer's menu featured a winter-leek-and-celeriac timbale, an apple bisque with onions, and marinated sea bass with carrot-and-raisin salad and a scallion vinaigrette. I chose the Salt Spring Island lamb as my main course, and it was milder yet sweeter than most lamb, but the great success of the night was the sea bass, which tasted unmistakably of soy and miso. When I asked Kauer about the marinade he confirmed that it was the theoretically forbidden soy sauce. And then it occurred to me that sea bass wasn't likely to be found naturally in the cold waters off Vancouver Island in October, and I asked him where he'd discovered it.

"Chile," he said, shrugging and breaking into another smile. "But did you like it?"

Did I like it? I thought of Sinclair Philip, working with ethnobotanists to ensure local authenticity, of Rodney Butters, prohibiting condiments with his fresh chanterelles, and of Chris Jones, logging hundreds of kilometers in search of the perfect artichoke. But then I returned to the sea bass I had just eaten, which had a candied sweetness in the marinade that undercut its slightly salty flavor, and realized that my satisfaction was in no way diminished by its far-off origins.

Philosophically it could have been a difficult question, but in the end, food is not so much about philosophy as about enjoyment. We see, we smell, we taste. The fewer preconceived notions we bring to the table the better. This sea bass was not what I had come to Vancouver Island for, but it was terrific.

"I did like it," I said to Kauer, as I pushed my chair back from the table. "I liked it very much."

Vancouver Island lies just west of the British Columbia mainland, with Victoria, the province capital, at the island's southeastern tip—60 miles from the city of Vancouver. The island is 280 miles long and is divided into six regions. All of the properties detailed in our story are in the mid-to-southern regions of the island. The Aerie: Box 108, Malahat, B.C., V0R 2L0; 250-743-7115; fax 250-743-4766; www.-aerie.bc.ca. Hastings House: 160 Upper Ganges Road, Salt Spring Island, B.C., V8K 2S2; 800-661-9255 or 250-537-2362; fax 250-537-5333; www.hastingshouse.com. Sooke Harbour House: 1528 Whiffen Spit Road, Sooke, B.C., V0S 1N0; 800-889-9688 or 250-642-3421; fax 250-642-6988; www.sookeharbourhouse.com. The Wickaninnish Inn: Osprey Lane at Chesterman Beach, Box 250, Tofino, B.C., V0R 2Z0; 800-333-4604 or 250-725-3100; fax 250-725-3110; www.wickinn.com.

Bruce Schoenfeld, a Colorado-based journalist, writes about food, wine, and sports.