OK. Now we’re talkin’. This is what I came for – local seafood that could only be fresher if we dove to the bottom of the ocean to eat it.
I should have listened to Jennifer in the first place. Not Jennifer, my wife, to whom. I listen all the time. But Jennifer the concierge at the Fairmont Empress Hotel in Victoria BC. When she learned we were planning a drive up island for the afternoon, she suggested a stop at The Masthead Restaurant in Cowichan Bay for dinner.
A quick drive through Cowichan Bay – maybe three blocks long – showed an army of restaurants and water oriented retail and rental shops standing pertly side by side.
We arrived at the restaurant about 15 minutes early and took a stroll on the wharf. The temperature was in the 80’s; the crab boats were tied up for a night’s slumber; the mountain across the bay on Saltspring Island wore a coat of deep green pine trees; the water was smooth and calm and glistening in the early evening sunlight. All was peaceful.
The Masthead Restaurant stands at the foot of the wharf. I usually shun offers to eat out doors. I don’t like sharing my meals with flies, worrying about diving sea gulls by the shore, putting up with other people’s tobacco smoke, or mixing the aromas of passing buses, trucks and cars with the smells of the food. The indoor dining area at The Masthead looked inviting – snappy white table cloths, sparkling glass ware, crystal candle holders and a view of the bay out the large windows. But the hostess assured us smoking was not permitted on the deck. I noticed two of the dining room tables were set for parties of eight. At my urging, we opted for outside. It turned out to be a fine decision. The noise level in the dining room rose continuously as the two parties of eight and two other tables of six drained bottle after bottle of local wine. By contrast, the diners on the deck were content to just look at the view, eat their food and breathe the fresh air. Except for one guy in the corner who insisted on reading the menu out loud to the other three people in his party.
But let’s get back to what we came for. The Dungeness crab set before me had been in the water six hours earlier. The boat that brought it to shore was tied up 50 yards from where we sat. It had unloaded the day’s catch between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. At 7:15 p.m. I was eating the sweet, tender, silky white meat. I had crab this fresh only once before. That was at a place called the Crab Pot up on the west side of Vancouver Island at Tofino. I don’t think that restaurant is there any more. Since then, I’ve had to get by on an occasional super market, previously frozen crab which shouldn’t be allowed to share the family name with what I was eating at The Masthead.
That’s the problem with eating really great, fresh, local food. It ruins you for the run of the mill stuff that’s available the rest of the time. On a trip through Maine in 1996, we ate lobster at a place called Nunan’s Lobster Hut on the outskirts of Kennebunkport. The lobsters came out of the water just hours before they were served to us. It was years before I could face ordering a lobster anywhere else. Same thing happened after the crab at Tofino and I suppose it will happen again now.
Crab wasn’t the only thing on the menu at The Masthead. Other fish included wild BC sockeye salmon and local halibut. Every item on the menu was identified as to how far from the restaurant the main ingredients were sourced. The crab was caught within five miles of where we sat. The duck was raised within five miles of the restaurant. So did the greens and goat cheese for the pappardella pasta and the rib eye steak. The salmon, halibut and bison flat iron steak came from within 200 miles of the restaurant.
The Masthead building was constructed in 1863 as a hotel. Cowichan Bay has been a fishing and logging area for nearly its entire 150 plus years. The area figured prominently in the history of both Britain and Spain. The British Navy participated in the defeat of the slave trade right outside Cowichan Bay.
Chapter Seven – July 15, 2010 – A FOOD LOVER’S TREK tracks the travels of Table Talk editor Larry Levine and his wife Jennifer as they make their way by auto, ferry, plane and train from Los Angeles to Fairbanks Alaska and back. A new chapter will be published every day as long as they can connect with the Internet. You can read the earlier chapters by clicking on Food Lover’s Trek above.