Mark and I had a fabulous time in Victoria! We try to get up there once or twice a year, sometimes with friends and sometimes not. My parents gave us a weekend at the WorldMark Resort (thank you mom and dad!) so we made a long weekend out of it and got some much needed relax time together. We stayed in Port Angeles the night before so that walking onto the 8 am ferry would be effortless. (We usually drive up that same morning, and that works fine too, this was a bit more relaxed.) We had a wonderful dinner at Michael’s Dining and it is absolutely worth the trip whether you are going across the strait or coming back home the same night. Their focus on local and sustainable ingredients was music to our ears and the food was truly great!! I love this trend that I am finding in more and more restaurants (is it only because we seek them out? or do you notice this too?) of simple food, simple preparation, yet with the best ingredients in season and around locally, so the result is fantastic!
We have been searching for ‘our place’ in Victoria since we lost a gem of a restaurant a few years ago. There are thousands of restaurants in Victoria and many of them are quite excellent, but we were looking for something special. Before I go on with what we have found, let me tell you what we were comparing it to.
The first few years that we went up there and out to dinner, our favorite restaurant (perhaps in the world) was Pablo’s on Quebec street, not too far from the Worldmark, though we were not staying there when we discovered it. You could never find it unless you got a local to tell you about it, as it was not written up in any tourist guides or magazines. It had been there for many, many years in an old Victorian house-turned-restaurant. It was French cuisine with old-fashioned tableside service, including a phenomenal Caesar salad, and bananas foster. There was always a main course offered as tableside service as well and it was entertainment for everyone in the room. It was a very nice place but not stuffy or formal, we liked to put some slacks on to go, but they would have let us in should we be wearing jeans. The food was infallible and the service warm, friendly and just the right amount of attentive, and the atmosphere was really nice. The best part though was the musician. He was an older gentleman of color and he knew every old standard since the beginning of music. He strolled around with his guitar and crooned beautifully for all diners to enjoy. He took requests (and he knew them all!) and encouraged audience participation. He was as adept at staying back from the tables that wanted privacy as he was at entertaining those of us who were completely drawn in by him. We LOVED him and the restaurant. Pablo’s closed a few years ago and there is now a very modern restaurant in it’s place called ‘Niche’, which I am sure is very good (the owner is the daughter of the Pablo’s owner) and yet I cannot wrap my head around the menu and atmosphere. I have tried, as it is very highly reviewed, but it just isn’t me.
This past weekend we found another place that we can call ‘ours’. It is on Fort Street, up by our favorite breakfast spot The Blue Fox. (Side note: The Blue Fox is one of the places that got me on track to having my own restaurant and I cannot recommend it highly enough!) This new dinner spot is Cafe Brio and it is getting to be very well known, as I found out when I googled it this morning. Everyone in the place seemed to be locals, and the proprietors knew many. We had reservations and it is a darn good thing we did, because even at 7:30 they weren’t ready for us, or for the other diners lining up out the door. We didn’t mind waiting with a cocktail and taking in the ambience, even though there was no room at the bar. The decor was very cozy and almost Bohemian in a toned down, tasteful way. (I love Bohemian decor!)When we were seated and pouring over the menu I was already in heaven.
The menu is divided between ‘The Garden’, ‘The Sea’, and ‘The Farm’. The cuisine was French and Italian by nature, inspired by local ingredients. It was simple food done well, rather than fancy food covered in sauces or stacked into little towers, and that always makes me happy! The best thing about this menu was that it offered every single dish on it in a 1/2 or full portion! We could easily get a couple of things each on the 1/2 portion and not break the bank or our bellies. Then I saw it. The savvy diner’s joy of joys: A tasting menu. For $40 each the chef would choose 3 of his favorite appetizers and 3 of his favorite entrees, offer them up ‘family’ style, and let us go at them. There was not a set tasting menu, it would vary table-to-table, night-to-night. I was smiling in anticipation, but first I had to convince Mark to do it. He has a little trouble giving up control of the menu, but he was SO glad that he did! And so was I…
The first 3 dishes came with house made bread and butter: 4 Penn Cove Oysters on the half shell with mignonette (they were briny and fresh and wonderful! A salad of organic field greens, house pickled beets, a mild bleu cheese and walnuts, with a house vinaigrette (the beets were divine!)And also a house-made country pate with more house-pickled vegetables and two kinds of mustard. This was hands-down the best pate I have ever had. Anywhere. It seemed a tough wine pairing but we went with the house bubbly and it was perfect-especially with the oysters!
The next 3 dishes were: A ceviche of scallops laid atop a bed of radicchio risotto (the ceviche was done with orange, the scallops buttery and melted in my mouth; the radicchio melted into the risotto which softened that perfect, bitter bite and the risotto itself al dente, creamy and perfectly seasoned.) Butter-roasted Sole (it was very light and mild). And Speck (smoky pork) with house made sauerkraut…and there was a caramelly end piece that we got to share as well as a couple of center cuts, so I was in hog-heaven, so to speak! Oh, baby. We enjoyed a BC white wine and a medium bodied French red wine with these courses (yes, two glasses of wine for each of us on the table! and why not??)
For dessert there was a tasting plate already on the menu: crème brulee (it was PERFECT), 1 anise and one chocolate cantucci (little biscotti), and a French truffle and honey sorbet. We shared a cup of coffee, I had grappa (di Barolo!) and Mark enjoyed a Sambuca as well. The yummy noises continued for the nearly 2 hour gustatory tour of the best of Cafe Brio. Since their menu changes seasonally and so does the whim of the chef, we will be indulging when we go back! The portions were small so we were not over-full by any means, but were certainly sated; we had a long walk back anyway. My taste buds are dancing just at the memory of that wonderfully prepared food: there was not a flaw to be found. The service was a bit overwhelmed by the busy-ness of the evening and we hope that when we go back there will be improvement there, but it was not bad service by any standards.
The other places that we fell in love with include John’s Place (I reallywanted lunch, but Saturdays is breakfast until 4; it was fabulous food and funky decor and also had the 1/2 portions (YAY!) offered so it was easy to not over-do it. I definitely want to go back there for other meals and since (crying and whining still!) The Blue Fox was closed for a winter break while we were there, I am glad we found something that we love as much!
Mark wanted pizza while we were there and we found Pizzeria Prima Strada, an authentic Neopolitan pizza place in the Cook St Village with a wood-fired oven that gets over 800 degrees. You know I loved it! They make their own dough, cheese, sauce AND charcuterie! The soprasetta was beyond fabulous! The simple menu was right up our alley and the 45-minute wait did not phase us one bit. The salad was simple and perfect with shaved fennel, red onion and oranges. The dessert menu offered unique and extremely tasty options and of course there was wine. We loved it maybe even more than Pizzeria Fondi in Gig Harbor and it was worth the very long walk to get there, plus we got to see a neighborhood that was new to us.
I mentioned the walking a few times and you know I have not done much of that since I broke my ankle on June 30th. It was tough going but now I know that I can do it and that is actually a huge relief. I was slow and it was annoying, but we walked over 5 miles throughout the weekend PLUS we discovered their bus lines and really got to explore more of the city and outskirts than we usually do. I built up some confidence and now I will be able to get on my treadmill without as much anxiety or trepidation, and I am so glad!!
If you go up to Victoria we have a few other recommendations as well that we would be happy to share, just drop me an email. We would also love to know the places that you love, so we can check them out when next we go back! And if you want to invite us up to your vacation home we are so there! Where is your quick and easy getaway? Tell us about it!