VANCOUVER, BRITISH COLUMBIA -- I just returned from a two-week journey to British Columbia that I didn't anticipate being a mind-blowing culinary tour. Prior to arriving, I believed my trip would centre on developing content around new hotels and outdoor adventures. Turns out the food stole my focus -- and any notions I had of going on a diet. It wasn't until I flipped through my notes that I truly realized what a sensational culinary sojourn I completed.
1. The Bearfoot Bistro, Whistler
Even if the food wasn't so good, the Bearfoot would be a recommended place to visit. It has the largest wine cellar in British Columbia, with 17,000 bottles, that is an attraction in itself. Another highlight is the chance for guests to sabre a bottle of Champagne (it entails uncorking the bottle by slicing through its neck with a sword or dagger). Gimmicky? Perhaps, but it's great fun and a complement to luxurious cuisine that also has hints of playfulness. Albacore tuna, in a delicious miso emulsion, comes with brilliant beads of tapioca, while smoked duck accompanies colourful beets from nearby Pemberton. (Chef Melissa Craig was in Spain when I visited. I hope to interview her for an upcoming feature on the restaurant when she returns.)
2. Oru, Vancouver
A fabulous restaurant in the opulent Fairmont Pacific Rim Hotel, Oru serves pan-Asian cuisine that doesn't shy away from taking chances. The lovely bento box ($28) includes a Dungeness crab California roll, scallop and lobster temari sushis, seaweed salad, sashimi of steelhead and albacore, sweet soy sable inari, and miso soup. (Be warned: The music is much louder than it should be in this elegant space.)
3. Longtail Kitchen, New Westminster
Chef Angus An (Maenam in Vancouver's Kitsilano neighbourhood) has opened a stellar Thai eatery focused on low-price cuisine and one of the most unique dinner-service experiences you'll enjoy in Canada. Watch for my article on Longtail Kitchen tomorrow on Vacay.ca.
4. Pidgin, Vancouver
A new star in Gastown, Pidgin serves Japanese-inspired cuisine utilizing chef Makoto Ono's skillful French techniques. Dishes range from eye-opening (sous-vide octopus served with baked potato mousse) to delightfully satisfying (mushrooms with sugar snap peas and soy yuzu brown butter) to magnificently creative (a half duck accompanied with carrot cake puree). I'll write more next week on Pidgin, including some thoughts on its location that has been a source of controversy.
5. Hawksworth, Vancouver
The fact this could be the best restaurant in Canada and only ranks fifth on my list should be enough evidence of the quality of British Columbia's cuisine. My palate's bias is toward Asian flavours, otherwise David Hawksworth's eponymous restaurant would certainly be at the top here. (By the way, eliminating individual bias is the No. 1 reason why Vacay.ca's Top 50 Restaurants in Canada Guide has a public voting component and a range of judges from different regions and backgrounds.) Hawksworth's blend of flavours is perfect, the food divine, the service impeccable. An immaculate dining experience in a beautiful room at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia.
Read more about the Rosewood Hotel Georgia on Vacay.ca
6. Vij's Rangoli, Vancouver
A small-plate eatery next door to the world-renowned restaurant owned and operated by Vikram Vij, Rangoli is a must for any visitor to Vancouver. It's dishes are $15.50 or less and are made by the same Punjab team of chefs who turn out the entrees at Vij's. (FYI --Vacay.ca has a big announcement involving Vij's coming up next week. Check back for that update.)
Read more about Vij's (the 2012 top restaurant in Canada) in Vacay.ca
7. Bel Cafe, Vancouver
David Hawksworth's cafe, also at the Rosewood Hotel Georgia, serves sandwiches, macarons and terrific coffee. I only had one dish and it was a sensation: Grilled Chicken Banh Mi. It featured lemongrass-flavoured chicken on a toasted baguette with jalapeños and cilantro. And cost only $10.60. It satiated my desire for Asian tastes that I didn't get at Hawksworth and was my last bite on a delightful culinary journey. One of those sandwiches you can't wait to enjoy again.
8. Catalano, Victoria
Inspired by the cuisine of Spain and Italy, chef Aaron Lawrence opened this restaurant in the Magnolia Hotel in April to serve cicchetti, the Italian form of tapas plates. These share plates are larger than most. The pappardelle ($22) with braised short ribs, porcini mushrooms and pancetta is fantastic, as is the spinach and ricotta gnudi ($18), which really will take you to Venice, if only for a moment.
9. La Pentola della Quercia, Vancouver
The same team behind La Quercia, a tiny eatery in Kitsilano with rave reviews, is responsible for this new gem in the revamped Opus Hotel in Yaletown. The burrata cheese I had for lunch was flown in from Italy while the local trout was beautifully prepared and plated.
10. Blue Water Cafe and Raw Bar, Vancouver
A Yaletown favourite that I always enjoyed when Vancouver was my home, Blue Water is one of the city's top spots for decadent seafood, including an accomplished sushi bar. The Seafood Tower ($78) came loaded with sashimi, chilled lobster, jellyfish and those spot prawns that are in season.
11. Lift Bar and Grill, Vancouver
Home to arguably the best view in the city, Lift proved it has more than good looks. The salmon and tuna roll ($12) at lunch was outstanding and the chai milk and fruit dessert was a fun take on a milkshake ($8).
12. Basil's Subs, Vancouver
The generous guys who run Rossellen Suites in the west end of Vancouver treated me to sandwiches at this popular new sub shop. Basil's makes six kinds of subs, all costing $7.95. The version I tried, which was BBQ pulled beef, was everything you want in a great sandwich: overloaded with meat, saucy and tempting enough to order two.
13. The Living Room, Squamish
Congratulations to chef Ryan Liebrecht for bringing high-calibre fine dining to Squamish, a town halfway between Vancouver and Whistler that is making significant strides toward becoming a destination of its own on the Sea to Sky Highway. The cuisine at the Living Room is superb and some selections are adventurous enough (beef carpaccio, pumpkin gnocchi, elk loin marinated in blackberry and port) that hard-to-win-over foodies will likely start tweeting in a frenzy when they have a taste.
14. Burdock & Co., Vancouver
Chef Andrea Carlson is all about organic, healthy cuisine, and this restaurant's namesake makes that clear. Burdock is a root vegetable and earthy flavours are what diners will enjoy at this homey establishment on South Main Street.
15. Sushi Village, Whistler
Owner Mikito Homma started this local favourite in 1986 and Whistler hasn't been the same since. A fun place, Sushi Village is filled with happy customers and cheery sushi chefs, including the talented Hideki Kobayashi, who is in charge of the kitchen. The sockeye salmon sashimi ($23) melts on your tongue.
16. Raincity Grill, Vancouver
A choice spot for culinary treats and people watching near English Bay, Raincity Grill is known for its brunches, which include a Crab Benedict ($20) that should be on your to-eat list.
17. Wildflower, Whistler
More crab for breakfast, this time at the gorgeous Fairmont Chateau Whistler and in the form of a Crab Cake Benedict ($22) with a marvellous Hollandaise sauce.
18. Redfish, Bluefish, Victoria
The lineups are usually at least 25 deep at this casual street-food favourite on the waterfront. Have your pick of seafood treats, but don't pass up on the fish tacos (as little as $5 for one).
19. The Snug Pub, Victoria (Oak Bay)
Reputedly the first pub in Victoria, this recently re-opened bar in the beautiful Oak Bay Beach Hotel is filled with history and lore. And good flatbread pizza, too.
20. Willie's Bakery and Cafe, Victoria
All-day breakfast and lunch at this outstanding spot. You'll get Huevos Rancheros ($12.95) and numerous styles of Eggs Benedict ($12.95 and up).
Should you ever catch me complaining about work or life, please smack me with a reminder of this list. What a trip! Proof British Columbia's majesty and grandeur extends beyond the mountains and the sea.