Most people are familiar with these seasonal “dine around” promotions: marketing packages aimed at getting people into restaurants in the slow season. Now in its 4th season, Dine Around Comox Valley, engages many of my region’s restaurants in that kind of exercise. But I don’t think “cheap seats” or even the special 3-course menues that #DineAroundCV is about, are good enough reasons to visit my region. I think this undersells what we have.
I’m working with local growers, the farmers market, and restauranteurs to focus on the region’s strengths. My argument is that #DineAroundCV should be about what we’re doing that few can compare to.
This is Lisa. She works at Atlas Cafe, recognized as one of the Island’s best places to eat. Why? Because of service. Because of atmosphere. But above all, because of the consistently great flavours that come from the kitchen (which prides itself on a strong connection to local suppliers).
Why visit and dine in the Comox Valley in February and March?
Indeed: Why? Because restaurants here are serving fresh, flavour, and even in February it can be like spring on this “easternmost of the Hawaiian Islands” (as someone recently said to me). We’re growing, harvesting, and preparing good food from the Island, lots of it from the greater Comox Valley – Campbell River region. Because it’s local, it’s fresh, and the flavours are outstanding (especially when compared to what gets trucked in from Mexico, Cali, or even the Fraser Valley). And, with direct flight connections to winter-bound markets east of the Rockies… eat well after a day of golfing or skiing. Where else in Canada?
I was recently invited along with several out-of-town writers and a photographer to preview this year’s #DineAroundCV. Nice to be part of the junket. Nice to see how outsiders experience what I sometimes take for granted. Nice to see that all of the venues we visited were using lots of local. Here’s a snapshot of what we found.
From Bisque to Atlas, and several points in between
We started with drinks and appetizers at Bisque Restaurant, just a short walk from two of the hotels featured in this year’s #DineAroundCV tourist promo. This is a quiet, unassuming spot with a loyal following built on Chef Steve Dodd‘s attention to what’s fresh, what’s local. Our appetizer samples were all about local seafood, including in-house smoked salmon, local clams, Fanny Bay oysters. I loved the outsider on the menu: a duck pate accompanied by Natural Pastures‘ Comox brie.
The amuse boche at Bisque in Courtenay: Delicate phyllo cups filled with fresh cucumber and hand-peeled local shrimp.
Local clams with Comox Valley Tannadice Farms‘ chorizo and roasted plum tomatos, peppers, and fennel at Bisque.
Our movable feast next moved to the Blackfin Pub, an eatery blessed with one of the best views in the region: looking out over the docks, Comox Bay, with the Island’s Beaufort Range in the background (yes, snow on those February hills, but lots of bulbs coming up all over Comox).
Best ever seafood chowder? Probably. And rich with local fare, at Blackfin Pub in Comox.
Another wonderful surprise at the Blackfin: the sesame crusted rice “cake” dressed with fresh, hand-peeled prawns, a light salsa, on a bed of seasonal winter greens. The fresh was great. But it was the rice/sesame/crusty thing that will definitely inspire a return visit this #DineAroundCV.
Third stop on our pre- #DineAroundCV tour was an old and familiar favourite of mine: Union Street Grill. Why a favourite? Because owners Mark and Danielle Duncan not only deliver great food values every day of the year in downtown Courtenay, they’re also consistently choosing local product (see the Island brews below) and reinvesting in their community. And, they’ve been doing it for 19 years in the same location. Lots of changes. And a few favourites that either stay on the menu or find their way back again.
A flight of Island beers and my portion of our table’s large Grilled Caesar salad – a house speciality that’s highly recommended at Union Street Grill.
Lots of local meat on the menu at Union Street, but also lots of vegetarian fare, inlcuding this tasty roasted squash lasagne – a #DineAroundCV menu item featuring layers of Pattison Farms‘ squash, fresh Prontissima Pasta noodles, Natural Pastures’ Comox brie. Note: Union Street has an extensive “gluten free” menu as well.
Vancouver photographer, and our the documenter of our moveable feast, Christine McAvoy takes a moment to enjoy herself. It wasn’t all hard work and no play on our exhaustive evening of previewing good food and drink in the Comox Valley. (Was it the Island brews, or was it her naturally playful character? Or perhaps the relaxed atmosphere afforded by enjoying good Comox Valley food in an esteemed downtown Courtenay venue?)
By then it was time to pile back into the tour bus and head to Locals for dessert. My signal to break company as the tango telegraph was calling and that, perhaps before food, is my passion. What I heard from fellow travellers Michelle, Christine, and Rebecca later, however, meant that I picked up the trail again for a must-visit dessert date the following night. Chef Ronald St. Pierre holds court in the kitchen Locals. He’s built a strong following and broad respect for what he does: working very closely with local suppliers to create a 12-month menu that sings the praises of what is possible on Vancouver Island.
A busy first night for this year’s #DineAroundCV at Locals in downtown Courtenay.
And what’s for dessert at Locals during #DineAroundCV? Two choices the night I visited. Either “Jamies Favourite Cake” – white chocolate with Matcha green tea Bavarian mousse cake, served with pear liquor creme Anglaise. Or (in the background) coconut lime panna cotta, served with a Comox Valley “bumbleberry” sauce.
The morning after…
The next day a couple of us gathered at Atlas Cafe for breakfast. The icing on the cake for anyone visiting our region, breakfast at Atlas is about lots of great local flavours. It also has a young Executive Chef committed to local food (he collaborates on the Edible Valley Podcast featuring long-form interviews with Comox Valley “local food heroes”), and consistently among the best service and food I’ve experienced on the Island, perhaps all of BC (see my recent video interview with Chef Jon Frazier about their 2013 #DineAroundCV menu).
But Atlas is in good company. There are a number of good places to finish (or start) your tour of the Valley’s local food culinary venues – many on the #DineAroundCV list. After our breakfast, and after her tour of the Valley’s Natural Pastures Cheese Company, I escorted Vancouver writer Michelle Hopkins to what I consider to be one of the Island’s most interesting “food precincts” – the three blocks of Dunsmuir Avenue stretching from the Cumberland Grind up to the Waverley Hotel, with many food stops in between. But that’s another story.
The short version of this post? Come, visit my region. We’ve got lots of great food, not just during #DineAroundCV (which features 3-course menues at $17, $27, and $37 price points at various venues), but for all 12 months of the year. We’ve got a few nice places to stay. And, because we are the “easternmost of the Hawaiian Island,” you can choose skiing or golfing for much of the fall, winter, and early spring seasons. Me, I’m in the garden already.
21 February 2013
- Mid-Island Food News for February(urbandiner.ca)