It’s been 35 years since The Sooke Harbour House opened on the tip of Whiffen Spit overlooking the Juan de Fuca Straights, a mere hour or so from our province’s capital. Owner and slow food proponent Sinclair Philip and celebrity chef Edward Tucson built North America-wide cred by sourcing local, sustainable foods and focusing on clean unobtrusive flavours decades before it became the standard. The Inn has won boatloads of awards (both as a hotel and as a restaurant) and been profiled by every food, drink and travel publication you can think of.
That was then, and this is now. The majority of praise for the South Island institution has grown a tad quiet as of late. Chef Tucson moved onto other projects years ago and according to the spiteful whispers that prickle at the edges of our industry, when he left a lot of the Inn’s hard-won reputation left with him.
Neither Crystal nor I had ever been to the Inn during its halcyon age, but we had always kept it in mind as a sort-of “bucket list” type destination. Someday we’d try it, how could we not?
“Someday” happened a month or so ago when we realized that neither of us would be able to take time off in the foreseeable future for a proper vacation. Work was just too important and too all-consuming right now. So instead of a week, we took a weekend in Sooke to see if the legendary Inn could still deliver the goods.
First thing we learned: The off-season is definitely the time to go. Prices are much more reasonable, the dining room isn’t as packed (allowing you to actually hear your date’s opinion on your wardrobe choices) and you’ll have the large beachside estate and funky interior to wonder ‘round all to yourselves.
The paintings, sculptures, library and various ephemera that pack every square inch of the Inn’s hallways and lounges are enough to captivate a couple ‘o highway-weary nomads for most of an afternoon. It’s a cool vibe, like The Kingfisher meets the HBI; a bizarre combination of modern hotel, hippie farming commune, and dilapidated fishing shack. Every floor has a bend or curve that seems to lead to Narnia.
The rooms are spacious, comfortable and rustic. Ours had a hot tub and a big ‘ol stone fireplace, both we kept going for most of the night. *laughs* No ipod dock, which was a bummer, but a plate of homemade cookies and a decanter of port by the bedside made me smile.
Enough lounging, we’re here to eat!
The dining room is equally spacious, and equally strangely decorated. Stuffed crabs line the walls while stuffed seagulls pitch and wheel overhead. The candelabras give the whole scene a Young Frankenstein feel and make it somewhat hard to read the menu.
That’s okay! ‘Cause the menu is Table d’hôte, so there’s little need to scrutinize. Just buckle up and let the food come at you! Four courses for $80 was pricey, but the optional flight of wines paired with the food was only $40 and was one of the best parts of the meal!
The food was good, pretty and (as advertised) local as all get out.
Crystal’s Saltspring Island Manila Clams and Mussels were killer! The classic combination of bacon and potato confit with the shellfish got windmill-kicked over the top with the addition of a tamari-dashi broth reminiscent of good ramen. It was deeply comforting stuff on such a cold night, with just enough elegance to merit sitting beside the tall stemware.
The real rock star of our evening was the bread and pastry chef Matthias Conradi. This guy made the meal! In fact, the bread and dessert courses were so stellar that they (along with all the well-chosen and reasonably-priced glasses of wine) kept us in high spirits on our weekend getaway.
First is the bread, which unfortunately we had to request twice before it actually reached our table. When it did, it was a flavour explosion of savoury, seedy goodness. The crust had the perfect amount of crunch, while the innards where soft and pillowy. The distinctive whiplash flavour and aroma of caraway (my favourite spice!) permeated every bite. Total win!
I had a Quince soufflé for dessert that was the essence of delicacy. Subtle, sweet and crispy on top, it had the right amount of crunch as you drop the spoon in. *laughs* Which, of course, is the best part! The soufflé was accompanied by a gorgeous vanilla bean ice cream and candy bar nibs that crunched little miniature Wonderbars.
Crystal chose the dark chocolate ganache with tonka bean ice cream for dessert. The chocolate was perfectly balanced with just a hint of bitterness from the nutmeg-like tonka bean and wild huckleberries brought the sizzle. The Venturi Schulze Brandenburg No 3 dessert wine that accompanied Crystal’s ganache may very well have been the best wine pair I’ve ever sampled! What a finish!
The next day we nabbed a couple packs of exotic seeds from the gift shop, retrieved the ring I left at the table the night before (did I mention the service was great!? I take back the bread thing I said…) and headed off to Vic for our annual Mountain Equipment Co-Op run.
We left Sooke with ambivalent feelings about our stay. It was straight up expensive, even for the off season. The room was great, dessert was amazing, but the bulk of the meal was just okay. I ‘dunno how I feel about the experience overall, even as I type this weeks later. Three central questions still swirl about the Inn like a tornado of indecision:
Do I recommend it to other eager eaters? Yes, if you have wads of cash.
Would we go back? Probably not, it’s been scratched off the bucket list.
Is it the Mecca of local gastronomy that it once was? I have no idea… Like I said, I wasn’t even in BC back then.
Not the most helpful review eh? *Laughs*