July 27, 2014

The Churchill, Downtown Victoria

The Garrick's Head empire has expanded.  Or at least mutated.  The Ledge, an upstairs bar and eatery above the Bedford Regency has closed, and it's liquor licence been moved into the space once occupied by a coffee shop next to the hotel reception.

The bar looks good, using the long narrow space effectively, filling one side with a gorgeous long wooden bar.  The other side is a series of small booths, with a couple of larger tables at the back.  Above the back wall is the chalk board of beers, though this due to be replaced with an electronic list above the bar soon.  The bar features about fifty taps and a lot of decent brand label liquors.  And Fireball, which is a bit odd, given it seems to be going for a more traditional cocktail/beer bar than a trendy bro-bar serving Coors and Shooters.

But, none the less, the fifty taps are impressive, and have a rich variety of interest kegs and local standards.  The down side to the chalk board is it only has the breweries on it right now, and not the beers themselves.  Our server was quizzed and questioned on what was on offer, and passed that test.  As there's going to be some high turn over, and it's only been open 2 weeks, quite impressive.  Also impressed she knew enough of the beers to make recommendations when asked.

Any bar playing the Pixies is going to get an extra mark, and I'll double it because though I could recognize the tracks being played, I could also talk to my friends sitting next to me without screaming like Black Francis.  I hope they keep the volume just as it is.

There are 4 huge high definition TVs above the bar, each showing the same feed from 'armchair tourist', a channel dedicated to showing serene pictures from around the world. By around the world, I mean Salts Spring Island, Victoria and parts of Scotland. The bar has them playing in black and white, which gives a nice relaxed vibe, and they aren't too distracting.  Unless you are me, who insists on looking up every clip on the website to find out where the highland cows being shown are actually from.  The Scottish Highlands, of course.

So, beer. And whisky.  I've been twice, and had a great variety of beer.  They've had the Driftwood Gose-uh, a speciality wheat beer, slightly soured and very refreshing. I also enjoyed the Green Flash palate wrecker, a hugely hoppy, strong beer. Bittered to just before the point of stupidity.  The server recommended the Tofino 'Reign in Blonde', and this went down a treat.  Tofino Brewing is building a fine selection of session-able, tasty brews.

On the whisky front, there's not a huge selection, but they've covered the selection well, with a mix of peaty drams and lighter, spicier ones.  The Aberlour 12 is good value for a Speyside single malt, and much enjoyed by my friend, who came back again for my second trip of the week, just to get a double to relax over.  I had to get the Laphroaig Quarter cask.  Big woody, peaty flavour that gets in your face, and then massages itself into your skull as you drink it over and relax into the chat with your friends. They serve it how you want, with ice on the side, neat or any other way.

The cocktails, I'm told, weren't bad.  Nothing exceptional, but served right, and fast.  I don't think it'll beat out Clive's any time soon, but it's not trying to.  It is a little more relaxed, but counter points the Garrick's by going for a more refined approach to the décor and beer lists.  A bar you go to to meet your friends, and not new people.  For two's and four's to sit in a booth and chat, or at the bar for a sharpener. Not for ten's and twelve's at a long table.  We did get seven in one of the booth tables, but that was a squeeze.

My friends also ordered some sharing platters.  The calamari was excellent.  Al dente, retaining it's bite and flavour, but with a crispy coating that was not oily or over powering.  The five layer dip looked expensive, but was served with a whole packet of toasted pita breads.  I was surprised (though I shouldn't have been thinking about the logistics) that it all came from the Garrick's kitchen, given that I've not thought the food that side was worth the time.  Maybe it was the plating, a good day for the chef or just what was ordered.

So, all-in-all, I've had two relaxed bar nights in there, and been very happy with it.  It's moved to the top of my list of places to meet and drink.  I even whispered in hushed tones that it might even be as good as the best days of Solomon's for range and atmosphere. But with faster service.  I think I need a few more trips to decide...

Churchill on Urbanspoon

July 20, 2014

Ferris' Oyster Bar and Grill, Downtown Victoria

My old foodie friend was in town, and after some discussion, we settled on a visit to Ferris's to catch up. Her new beau and her old friend were also in attendance, and we got ourselves settled into an outside booth.

The booth has big high backed benches, which make it look private from the passing walk through, but all open to the rest of the diners along that wall.  Feels like walking into a super small dining room too eat with strangers.  That will suit some people, but those wanting their own booth area are best to go inside, where there's a couple of booths that are nicely hidden away for whatever secret schemes you have planned.

Ferris' have oysters, as you'd expect from the name, and though I didn't try the raw ones this time around, in the past I've always found them quivery fresh. That combination of sea flavour, the mouth feel of the raw slithering mass, and tones of cucumber and fish and something else.  I understand many people find the idea of eating that slimy flesh akin to swallowing a huge mouthful of snot, going green at the idea.  I find them something that sparks the appetite and semi solid flesh going down the throat stimulates the nerves there in a way other food just doesn't.

What I have never liked is the baked oyster.  This seems to turns the freshness into something like mushy leather, and the anatomy gets more exposed and more alien looking.  The flavours in the sauces over power the taste I like oysters, and overall it is the opposite experience from a fresh shucked bi-valve.  And, of course, other will disagree with me, and tell me the cooked oyster is a wonderful beast, and how on earth can I eat them raw.  Two of my companions elected for a cooked oyster... one baked texas style with Tequila and Tabasco, and the other breaded in the Ferris Burger. The baked one got the thumbs up from my foodie friend.

The oyster burger went down well, I was told. Everything on the burgers came out as I expect from them. Ferris does fine burgers, big flavour and big toppings.  Fresh patties in a good bun, and more fries than one human should safely consume. The heaping of yam fries didn't get finished, and they did look a bit over cooked and dry. Tasted okay, though.  There was also a bottle of red wine shared that probably took up some room.

The fries with my Chicken Burrito were also a bit dry, and while I ate them, they did seem better with a dipping sauce.  The curry dipping sauce was combination of subtle Indian spicing and cilantro. I'd guess at Garam Masala as the main spice blend.  The burrito itself was moist and full of tender meat and beans that complimented each other very well. This was a big portion of food, too, but not at the expense of being cheap on the quality.  The salsa had a bit of bite, balanced by the sour cream to smooth things out.  I'd probably get this over the cheese burger in future, which is praise, as the cheese burger is one of the finest in town (Pink Bicycle probably edge it out now as the best I've had).

Conversation flowed between us, and despite being in between two other groups, there's was little overflow of hearing what the groups near us were talking about.  So we could cover mayoral elections writing books and trips to Tofino. My friends' friend is helping Lisa Helps run for Mayor of Victoria. This is my contribution to a campaign I can't vote on for the double reasons of not living in the city itself and not being eligible to vote in this country.

We left with full bellies (in my case very full) and took a walk around the downtown core in search of desert. ReBar closes at 9 on a Sunday, Pags was playing Jazz and Pescatores was uninspiring, so we ended up with ice cream from Soda Shoppe on Government, and walk around the gardens at the Legislature.  Well, my friends did.  I drank iced tea lest I exploded.

Ferris' Oyster Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

July 13, 2014

Blue Crab Seafood House, Victoria

"It's another Blue Crab Power play!"  Words that anyone whose seen the local hockey team will recognize.  Long term sponsors of the Salmon Kings and the Royals, the Blue Crab tag line and logo would get it's air play most games.  Along with a $50 voucher on occasion for "one lucky fan".  As most of the sponsors of the hockey team were blue collar places or mass brands (Tom Horton's, Co-op Gas stations, the 5th Street Grill), I'd always imagined the Blue Crab to be a harbour side fish and chip joint.

Until we went in one day for brunch, I realized it was a bit more high end, based in a pretty good hotel (the Coast, Victoria).

So, when my Mum wanted a good Halibut dish for her birthday, it was between here and Pescatores.  And Pescatores didn't promise Halibut.  So, I booked over the phone for us, my best friend and the Brunette of my Acquaintance.  I would have used Open Table, but for some reason, it couldn't find a table for five, while they could over the phone.  We ended up being just four in the end anyways, but was odd that the magic of the internet didn't work.

We got there perfectly on time and were seated a little away from the one of the big windows, but raised up above the diners closer to the view.  We still could see the harbour and all the activity, but the perfect window able got taken by four ladies who sadly seemed to find the view on their mobile phones more entertaining than a working docks at dusk.  The large picture windows allow lots of natural light in, and open up the space.  It's otherwise decorated in a muted set of earth and wood tones.  Without the harbour, it'd be a kind of dull utilitarian place.

Service was quick, smart and efficient, with a chalk board list of specials brought to our table on a big stand.   No excuse for missing the chef's creation.  I went for the house chowder with steak and prawn special for the main course.  And a pint of IPA to keep the taste buds working.  The chowder was a little bland for my taste.  There was not much to it, with the clams and bacon being muted, and the soup base not having a rich mouth feel that makes a great chowder.  Beautifully presented though, in a deep white bowl.

Two orders of the crab cakes also came to the table.  These are a house speciality.  And I got to steal a forkful.  These are good, with a rich crab taste, a slight sweetness of the sea, and crispness of the covering.  Served on a long thing white plate, these looked good as well.  For comparison, Mum tried the crab cakes at the Keg a few days later.  Nothing like as good.

For the main course, my steak was done to a lovely medium rare.  Pink under the grilled exterior with a little red liquid.  The vegetables were cooked in a rich a cream sauce, which went perfectly well with the steak.  The full cooked prawns tasted fresh and clean. This surf and turf combo worked.  The Halibut was a big chunk of white meat, sitting on a pea risotto.  Cooked just long enough to get to the flaky stage, but not long enough to dry out, or lose that slightly quivering consistency.  The small piece I tried had a nice little crust on it as well which mingled well with the earthy taste of the risotto.

The conversation continued on into the desserts.  Here, I filled up with a croissant pudding (bread pudding, but with the flaky, buttery taste of a croissant) and kept my self awake with a big cup of coffee.  Not the world's best coffee, but a decent mug full to finish the meal with.  I also tried a small piece of the crème Brulee, which was vanilla'd just before the point of over kill.

Service was fast, attentive and efficient.  Started of a little standoffish, but our server seemed to relax (or get less busy) as the meal went on, and made a little small talk with us as we left.  Every one left happy and Mum got a good birthday meal.  So, not a blue collar diner, but well worth visiting for a high end meal out.

It's a shame the hotel uses Blue Cab for the taxi service.  I'm strange in that I like my driver to see amber lights as a chance to stop, not a challenge to out race before they go red (he lost that race twice, but happily no-one started off too quickly in the other direction).

Blue Crab Seafood House on Urbanspoon

July 06, 2014

Eagle Wing Whale Watching, Fisherman's Wharf

Orcas! Whales! Dolphins! Oh my!

I think there's a least a half dozen operators in Victoria that promise to take you out to see the whales and dolphins that swim around in the Salish Sea.  I have heard little about the reputation of each, knowing only what I've seen myself on the Prince of Whales, several years ago, and MacKays of Port McNeill.  Both had let me see whales from a large covered ship, and the trip in Port McNeill is a favourite memory of my mother's and also mine.  So if you are up there, use them.

But down here, each of the companies seem to tell you they are the best, they guarantee whales and that, if you'd only come with us, it'll be a magical experience.  I can't find a comprehensive review of them all head-to-head (if someone has the $600 or so it'd cost me to go out on consecutive days, I'll volunteer to do one).

But, my mother had been out with Eagle Wing Tours four years ago, and while we were on Fisherman's Wharf a couple of weeks back, we saw that there'd been sightings of the J and L pods around the San Juan islands that morning.  This was useful to know, as Mum sponsored the orca Rhapsody of the J-Pod at Christmas. This sponsorship help pay for research and to protect the southern island resident orcas.  Mum, she likes orcas.  So we signed up for that afternoon's tour, heading out in a fast 'scarab' boat... a long, narrow aluminium hulled boat.

The staff gave us the complete run down before we left, of what we might see, and how to be safe on the boat.  Also, we were kitted up in a survival jacket and over trousers to keep us warm in the wind.  Eagle Wind were keen to stress how they are carbon neutral and supportive of the research programmes, as well as their experience (something like 30 years worth of doing this job and working as marine biologists).  All very good, but without being out there to see them in action, talk is just talk.

We got seated at the front (the worst place for rough seas, but the best place to stay out of the wind and spray), and off we meandered out of the harbour.  Gentle, easy ride, we could watch the kayakers and the cruise ships and.... warp speed enabled!  This boat carved up the miles, around Trial Island, and up towards Sidney.  The whales, according to the radio links with the other boats in the area, were going through Active Pass.  Three groups were headed north, two from L-Pod with J-Pod in the lead.  All the boats in the business seem to stay in touch to help each other find the whales for their paying customers.  So, I guess if they are out there, someone will know where to find them. The limits of most of the smaller boats like the Zodiacs is about the edge of the Pass, but the captain here said this boat would take us to Tsawwassen if needed.

45 minutes or so of flying along and we slow down into the entrance of the pass, dodging around a BC ferry or two.  Up ahead, two other tour boats are drifting with engines off, a sign that there are whales nearby. We were treated to the pod rising for breaths out of the water every minute or so.  One or two smaller calves, their mothers and a large male (seen easily due to the large fins).  They even cut underneath the boat, rising just a few metres of to the side of us, unexpectedly to all.  The boats try to keep a respectful distance away from the animals, but the orcas seem to consider the boats just a small speck on the ceiling of their world.

We left the back group behind and headed to the north end of the whale convoy, where J-pod was.  And we got a display.  One orca was breaching; leaping out and crashing down on its side.  The crew's biologist suggested it may be for fun, or to scratch an itch or stretch out a little after a slower travelling cycle. He reckoned he sees this behaviour half the time they come through the pass.

The breeching happened every time the orca came up for breath, which was about every 2-3 minutes.  A little calm, some fins would pop up, the majority orcas would snort and suck in breath so close you could hear it. Then this huge beast would leap, and splash down.  A sight that makes you hold your breath.  It sounds like hyperbole, but to me, it's just wonderful to see.  I guess you could see some poor, captured 'killer' whale do this at Seaworld down in the States.  Or you could see it in the wild (luck, but the best experiences happen by chance, and not because they are fed to you).

There was a UVic researcher, Valerie Shore, on the boat who is also a professional wildlife photographer. Her guess, from the markings, that it was Rhapsody making the leaps.  A show, specially for my mum.  It was awesome to see the whales close, and in the quiet of the Georgia Strait.

The crew kept us to fed with knowledge between the surfacing of the animals, explaining the habits and lives of these mammals, with a clear care for their environment, imploring us to try and do a small bit to keep the rivers clean, so the salmon runs are large.  These beasts needs a colossal amount of fish per day, and there's a worry that the declining fish stocks will have a long term effect on the orca population.

The trip back was much the same as the trip up, speeding down past the Sidney.  Those not quite so sheltered behind the wind shield looked a little chilly. Those who'd refused the hat and gloves probably regretted that decision.  And as we rounded Gonzalez Point, the wind and waves got up, and the boat started to skip between the peaks.  This made for a much more jolting ride than on the way out.  And a couple of big splashes probably woke those up at the back with a sea-salt spray.  Good for the skin, I'm sure.  All part of the deal, and not unexpected from the briefing we'd been given.

Two things to note on the scarab : there's no hot drinks service, but there hot chocolate available on your return to warm you up.  There is a toilet, but I'm pretty sure you'd not want to be in there while travelling... right at the front it's likely to be a rough ride.

We got back after being out for close to three and half hours, and travelling over 100 km.  Well worth the time.  Eagle Wing seem to be a bit more expensive than other trips, but their extended range in this case meant we got to see the Orcas, and for a long time.  Also, the knowledge and passion for the job was clear. Eagle Wind seem to win the top tour company on tripadvisor.com (over hearing their radio conversations, they are keen to keep this as well), so definitely a bar to measure the others against.

June 29, 2014

17 Mile House, Sooke

It's vacation time for me, as my mother is in town.  That means lots of sight seeing and lots of eating out.  Which means plenty of blog entries coming up.  If I can remember all the good and bad things about places I have been.

One place is easy.  The 17 Mile House, on Sooke Road.  My mum, the Brunette of my acquaintance and I retired there for a repast after doing a few odd chores in the Brunette's vegetable patch. Mum and I had earlier having circumnavigated the lower end of the island via Duncan, Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew.  The road between Lake Cowichan and Port Renfrew is fun sort of drive, quiet and narrow, with sweeping turns, narrow bridges and lots of logging trucks.  Makes it interesting to zip down in a fun to drive car.  Which I have.  There's also a big old spruce tree (the Harris Creek Spruce) and the Harris Creek Gorge that are nice places to stop and get in some nature.

But on to the pub.  The 17 Mile House has existed for over 120 years.  Which in Canada is a very long time for a place to be around.  The building was a stopping off point for hunters and sportsmen heading out to the wild west coast of the island.  Now it serves drivers from Sooke and Langford in search of a pub rather than a glittering new music bar.

The furnishings and fittings include an original tiled floor, a large square bar in the middle of the building, and lots of little snugs and nooks to hide away in.  And conspire on how to catch the giant salmon that you just KNOW is out there.

Or you can go into the garden, and grab some sun.  Which we did, in full view of the horseshoes pitch and the volley ball court.  No-one playing either on our visit.  Instead it was a quite backyard with about two other groups in there minding their own business.  So the Brunette and my mother got to chatting over a beer (a Shock Top Belgian White and Guinness) as they'd never met before.

I drank a diet coke, and got to the ordering.  A west coast club with fries, promising smoked salmon and prawns and some lemon pepper cream cheese.  The Brunette ordered the same, while mum indulged her love of fresh Pacific Halibut.

The sandwich was grand, a piled high triple stacked affair with well smoked salmon with plenty of flavour and the sea-touched saltiness of the shrimp going great with the cheese.  The fries were thin cut, and crispy.  Not the grandest in the world, but the sort of fry that you don't notice until they've all been eaten.  You'll not send these fries back for retraining.  But they won't be making the valedictory speech at potato school.

The Halibut was adjudged to be full of flavour, being cooked in a Cajun spice mix.  British Halibut seems to be mushy and bland, while the good stuff out here has a firmness to the flesh that makes it a joy to eat.

So success all around.  Cold beer, hot food, good service, old-style pub.  Go there if on your way out to Sooke, or beyond.

17 Mile House on Urbanspoon