I’m not going to go on ad nauseum about the annus horribilis that was 2016.
Bad stuff happened. To a lot of us.
Thankfully, good stuff happened too.
Unsurprisingly, for me, that was mostly around eating and traveling and eating while traveling – which, when combined with pretty dresses and patent shoes makes for a very happy Gwendolyn.
There was a month-long trip to the West Coast to visit Tofino and check out good eats there (more on that in an upcoming post), time in Victoria with my best friend and my family, a junket to Cranbrook and Fernie where I ate some amazing Indian food in a very unexpected place, a special trip to San Francisco to celebrate a milestone birthday for a friend, and, of course, an epic return to Japan to see the country I fell in love with when I lived there oh-so-many years ago.
Along the way I ate untold bowls of ramen, found new restaurants to love and dishes that have caused severe cravings for repeat visits.
The year had its tough moments, no doubt, but it was often damn tasty.
Here, in no order, are the best things I ate in 2016. (Part I because, wow, apparently there was more than I initially remembered.)
I can’t wait to see what 2017 brings.
So, Part I:
The main benefit of what I jokingly called ‘funemployment’ was that it made it easy to take off from Calgary. There is some delight in not having to clear vacation days with a boss or trying to manage making 15 days off last across an entire year. I had two weddings out on the coast, about three weeks apart, in the spring and decided to do a road trip out, seeing old friends, exploring some favourite spots and eating lots of delicious things.
Tofino is one of my favourite places in the entire world. (Kyoto is too, and what a blessed year to be able to go to both of these spots.)
There were two nights at the famed Wickaninnish Inn that sits on my favourite beach at the western edge of Canada. The days were spent exploring tide pools and walking the long expanse of sand on Chesterman Beach, grabbing lunch at Tacofino (oh those tacos, so damn good) and generally poking around.
On one of the nights, we were hosted by the hotel to dine at The Pointe restaurant, sampling some of the incredible dishes created by executive chef Warren Barr. Among them, a delicate dish of cured steelhead trout with vanilla-poached rhubarb. The rich fish was neatly balanced by the tangy rhubarb.
It was like dinner and a show as eagles swooped past the stretch of windows looking for their own meal and the grey surf broke into white spray against the rocks.
Slightly south, on Cox Bay sits Long Beach Lodge.
When not poking around that beach and the rocky outcropping that borders it to the north, a delicious afternoon was spent in the Great Room, the lodge’s restaurant-lounge hybrid. Cosy and welcoming, guests are invited to grab a board game and settle in for cocktails and snacks, which we happily did, spending a couple of hours battling over Scrabble while eating the lodge’s hot wings (which executive chef Ian Riddick was kind enough to share the recipe for, so those will be happening in my kitchen this year) and sipping Gin & Basil Caesars. When the calendar flipped to 2016, I had only had one Caesar in my life. Now I seem obsessed. And with these ones, it’s no wonder; the basil gives it a nice freshness and the lemon brightens it all up. I couldn’t get enough.
Victoria will always feel like home to me. I did my undergrad at UVic and make it back at least twice a year to see my best friend, Kirsten. Now that my parents have moved to a quiet spot on the ocean about an hour outside of the city, there’s even more reason to make trips to the coast.
Kirsten and I have our rituals; there is always a lunch at Blue Fox for their Moroccan Chicken Sandwich (with a side of their green apple barbecue sauce for dipping fries in for me), there are pedicures at Sapphire Day Spa, there is a stop at Red Fish, Blue Fish if I’m there in the months when it’s open, a visit to Stage Wine Bar (where the gnocchi is a must-order) and there is shopping.
Since we are always racing against a limited amount of time, we rarely stray from the favourites.
When I was there in the spring, though, we decided to take a chance on somewhere we hadn’t been before but that had been highly recommended: Mo:Le.
It was a drizzly morning and there was a bit of a wait, so we started with lattes at Mo:Le’s sister coffee shop next door. The great part is then you can take your drink with you when your table is ready.
The menu is a melting pot, with Mexican influences married with flavours from neighbouring Chinatown. It’s an unexpected mix. And it works perfectly.
I couldn’t initially decide on what to order, but, with a helpful server offering her opinion when asked, I went with the Chinatown Ciabatta, a breakfast sandwich with eggs scrambled with cream cheese, that sweet Chinese sausage usually reserved for dim sum-type dishes and a spicy chilli bean sauce.
On my next visit, I was insistent the itinerary include a stop at Mo:Le. It’s now just become part of the ritual.
Also? Order the Caesar.
During that same road trip, I met my former mentor for lunch at Longtail Kitchen in Westminster Quay. This spot had been featured on You Gotta Eat Here, so I was already curious about it. I let Shelley handle the ordering; there wouldn’t have been a way for me to narrow down the choices. Pad thai, curry, wings (clearly, I have some things I must always order) and a flatbread-pancake hybrid with peanut sauce. There were no bad choices on that menu.
No list of my best eats would be complete without a burger, as any of you know me could guess. The one from ‘Camp Upstairs’ – a little bar with an incredibly limited menu that sits above Vancouver’s Campagnolo – may initially seem not that noteworthy.
It’s no frills, for sure, but no frills are needed when something is so expertly made. And these are somewhat cult-like as the bar only makes a limited number per night.
The standard version of the so-called Dirty Burger comes with a beef patty, melted American cheese, lettuce tomato and a couple of pickle coins.
Mine also had fried onions, deeply dark at the edges with that slight sweetness from caramelization.
This burger is sincerely beefy and juicy with a requisite crust on the patty that adds a gorgeous flavour.
My friend and I split a colossal plate of fries and paired the meal with a perfect Boulevardier, sipping and sharing fries while swapping stories.
A perfect night.
Stay tuned for Part II, coming later this week, when I cover some Calgary favourites and the best ramen I’ve ever had. Spoiler alert: I had it in Japan.