The alpine landscape of Mt. Washington drew me to the Comox Valley in the east coast of Vancouver Island. Seeking to recover from an arduous day of snow shoeing and cross-country skiing, I found my way to a restaurant called Locals in downtown Courtenay.
Crossing the threshold, I was enveloped in a warm fragrant world. Framed photographs of local food and farms graced the walls. Wonderful
aromas wafted in the air. And the cheerful chatter of diners filled the room. I sensed
that my tired body was about to be rejuvenated.
My server, Jessie, a cheerful blonde lady guided me through the menu, explaining Locals' philosophy of obtaining everything from local growers and at the highest quality. Luckily, this philosophy is not difficult to implement for the Comox River estuary is one of the most fertile growing areas in British Columbia, and the adjacent waters provide a wealth of sea food from halibut to scallops to oysters. The partnership between Locals and local producers was reflected in the menu, which included a list of more than 25 nearby
suppliers such as Christine's Quackery, Island Bison, Nature Springs Wasabi
and Whaletown Bay Oysters. A locavore at heart, I was happy already.
For starters, I was tempted by the Cortes Island Mussels seductively simmered in anise infused cream. But instead, with nudging from Jessie, I selected the local shrimp and crab stack.
Jessie first brought me a complimentary taster of lox salmon with lemon aioli and baby sprouts on a cracker - a nice surprise and a tasty introduction to the meal. Locals offers much more than the average eatery, I realized. There
was greater attention to detail and the unexpected extras made the dining experience special. I loved the lox surprise and also appreciated the candle and small pot of blooming primulas on my table. As well, the brown multi-grain bread was warm and served with a spread of chick peas, carrots and shallots instead of butter.
The appetizer arrived, an attractive "tower" of local baby shrimp and crab pieces layered with
short-grained sticky rice. Sprouts, wasabe aioli and pickled ginger topped the arrangement while basil and chilli-oil drizzle formed sensuous curves on the plate. I felt guilty destroying this work of art, but my starving body demanded it. The appetizer had undertones of Sushi and the crab chunks were generous and fresh like they had been plucked from the sea that afternoon. Paired with the fruity, citrus flavour and crisp finish of an Averill Creek Pinot Grigio, this was heaven.
The aches and pains of a day on the slopes subsided when Jessie placed the main dish before me: Island Bison Tournedos, a charbroiled local bison tenderloin wrapped in double-smoked bacon and served on braised French lentils with caramelized onion and lavender confit along with a potpourri of roasted vegetables including carrots, onion, broccoli and asparagus. I have a predilection to game meat and the bison didn't disappoint. It was tender and lean with a full rich dense flavour. The star of the show, however, was the thick bacon, its succulent smoky flavour a perfect complement to the lean bison. The dish had the perky invigorating freshness that only locally sourced foods can deliver.
I was contentedly sipping an Alderlea Vineyards Marechal Foch, when the chef, Ronald St. Pierre, emerged from the kitchen, replete with a tall white chef's hat and a mischievous sense of humour. He described how he prepares his favourite dish of scallops - local, of course - and, with mouth watering, I silently vowed to return.
Desert presented too many tempting options, so I took the easy road and picked Jessie's favourite, a chocolate truffle cake. She was right! The cake consisted of Vegan dark mocha chocolate with a cashew-honey crust and topped with a blackberry-currant port-style wine and macerated berry sauce. The cake tasted like rich, chocolate truffle with a hint of Grand Marnier. I savoured each forkful as though it were a gift from above.
Fully recovered, I said good bye to this iconic restaurant where the food travels less distance than many of its customers.
Chef Ronald St. Pierre Interviewed At Locals
Hans Tammemagi has written two travel books: Exploring Niagara - The Complete Guide to Niagara Falls & Vicinity and Exploring the Hill - A Guide to Canada's Parliament Past & Present. He is the environment columnist for the Vancouver sun.