A decade ago, going to the Pacific Rim for a Summer trip was a relatively simple affair. The most daunting part was navigating the winding, single-lane roller coaster of a road across the island. Once you and your family had arrived it was a simple matter of finding some parking at Big Beach and figuring out which gas station in Tofino had the best ice cream.
Now vacationing along the Pacific Rim is a vastly more complicated affair: The road is still shit, but instead of fearing the local yahoo’s pickup truck swerving into you it’s the endless parade of tourists ineptly driving monolithic motor homes or luxury sedans that keep your knuckles white. The vast expanse of beaches are choked with people and downtown Tofino is like the sweltering crush of Robson Street in Van compressed into four square blocks… Good luck finding any ice cream amongst the Patagonia vendors and gourmet Ramen joints.
So when my wife and I wanted to prowl the Rim this past spring, we avoided all the holiday weekends and settled on a mid-week escape not in the circus of Tofino but amongst the equally beautiful and more laid-back surroundings of Ucluelet. “All of the beauty, less of the people.” Go ahead Ucluelet Tourism Bureau, you can have that one for free.
Now as most of you dear readers know I plan our trips with dinner first and foremost in mind, so you’ve probably already spied the problem in our itinerary: It’s a forty minute drive from our hotel in Uke down the Pacific Rim highway to Tofino where all the sexy, award winning restaurants live.
So if we really wanted to enjoy ourselves, have a couple cocktails and not worry about another long drive home we’d be paying some taxi driver a fortune! No way, we were staying in Uke, so we ate in Uke! *laughs*
It was a great choice! Only a ten minute walk from our hotel, just past the Evelyn May, the coffee ‘n board game shop and the sketchiest beer and wine store you’ve ever seen is Ucluelet’s best and brightest culinary spot; Norwoods Restaurant.
We popped in early and nabbed a duce at the back of the smallish dining room, ogling Chef Richard Norwood’s beautiful little open kitchen as we passed by. The dinner service hadn’t quite begun so we didn’t get much of a show aside from the sous-chef grilling some beautiful looking octopus appys… Nice! I made a mental note to order that.
Service was exceptional from the jump. A bit of chat with the bartender/hostess was enough to basically plan out our entire meal and drinks, start to finish and all her suggestions were on point. The drinks alone, mysterious on paper, became understandable (and delicious sounding) the way she sold ‘em. And when they arrived, Crystal swooned. And she is absolutely the harshest cocktail critic I’ve ever know.
Her drink was a masterpiece of subtle, sparkling flavours: gin based (I think) with chartreuse playing rhythm guitar and providing incredible colour finished with bubbles and lots of fresh fennel. It was such a wonderful, refreshing start and the polar opposite of what I ordered! *laughs* ‘Cause I’m a fancy gent I went for a Manhattan with house-made cherry cordial which was definitely heavier and boozier than Crystal’s drink, but no less expertly made.
We opted to start with the seafood taster which was a brilliant collection of little bites plucked from the appetizer menu and scaled down enough so that they wouldn’t kill our momentum. There was a lot of quality on display: The octopus that I was eyeballing on the way in was tender and meaty while still being all charred and crispy on the edges. The oysters were bracingly fresh. The lingcod nanban was right up my sticky, Japanese comfort-food alley. The tuna was a little too sweet… but that’s a minor quibble.
The big surprise was the mussels! They were smoked and served cold, marinated in kimchee. One bite of those delicious little morsels and I was having one of those full-blown “I can’t believe I never thought of that!” moments that keep cooks like me coming back to great restaurants for inspiration. Even now, weeks later this dish is making me dream up new and inventive mussel and kimchee recipes that I can’t wait to bust out in the autumn when shellfish get good again.
Despite duck and fresh lingcod on the entree menu both crystal and I were in a red meat mood, so steak it was. Our little fillet mignons were perfectly cooked and accompanied by posse of grilled spring vegetables and a slightly-sweet pan jus. It was a lovely plate done very bistro-style.
Dessert came in taster form as well and featured three mini versions of the house specials plus a daily-made scoop of ice cream. The mini-cheesecake and brownie were both excellent and Crystal really loved the itty-bitty waffle cone with pistachio mousse… The ice cream was a very unfortunate mashing of flavours involving curry and quite a bit of chillies that got a shrug from Crystal, me, our server and even the chef. *laughs*
We were able to thank the chef and sous chef on the way out for such a great dinner and rolled out into the early evening, hitting the beach for a wander before returning to our hotel. Ah, the joy of staying in town!
So yeah, next time you and your family are headed to the Rim and you can’t decide where to stay, choose Ucluelet and eat at Norwoods. Trust me, it’s going to be a much more relaxed experience all around and the food is just as good as down the road.