Life is art and art is life.
At least that’s how it is for restaurateurs/innkeepers Frederique and Sinclair Philip, owners for the iconic Sooke Harbour House on Vancouver Island. Stroll their sculpture- and art-laden grounds and gardens, visit their gallery of carvings, paintings, glass, and ceramic pieces by local artists, or eat in their restaurant where food is edible art and you realize that, above all, Frederique and Sinclair believe in making life an expression of beauty.
More than 30 years ago, the Phillips, then young and completely inexperienced in hospitality, purchased the 1929 Sooke Harbour House. The two-story, clapboard farmhouse perched on a hill overlooking magnificent Whiffen Spit Beach, had been housing guests since its inception. However, under Frederique and Sinclair’s deliberate and passionate stewardship, Sooke Harbour House has become one of the most recognized and celebrated inns and restaurants in Canada.
The Phillips are on a mission: to bring their guests the best in local, seasonal, organic, and wild foods. They don’t serve ingredients like rice, coconut milk, or pineapple that have to travel hundreds or even thousands of miles. They rely on the rich bounty of the local land and water. Fish and shellfish they serve, such as oysters, crab, and scallops are ultra-fresh and often caught just hours before being served. The meats and fowl they offer are organically raised from area producers. Their vegetables and fruits often come from their own on-site garden or from their farm just a stone’s throw from the restaurant. They also don’t serve foods that have been grown with toxic chemicals or that have been genetically altered.
“We want to help people reconnect with the land and with the food they eat,” says Frederique. “Many people have lost the understanding of how good food sustains us and builds our health.”
To ensure their offerings reflect only the freshest ingredients, the menu at Sooke Harbour House changes every day. In fact, the dinner menu isn’t finalized by the chef until 5 p.m.. That way, the chef can take advantage of a load of fresh peaches or some newly-foraged wild mushrooms that arrive at the restaurant’s door. It also ensures that the kitchen staff fully engage their creativity, something that guarantees the food is artful.
At Harbour House, the Phillips’ artful attention to detail includes the creating the perfect ambience. For them, the dining environment is nearly as important as the food. Intimate, cloth-covered tables overlooking their gardens and spectacular water views inspire diners. Large chandeliers lit by real candles cast a dreamy firelight over the dining room.
“The candles mean we have to paint every couple of years,” says Frederique. Then she shrugs. “But so what? It’s important.”
A Meal to Remember
Realfoodtraveler editor Anne Weaver and I recently had the pleasure of dining at Sooke Harbour House and both of us agreed that it was one of the most extraordinary and memorable meals we’ve ever eaten. On the advice of our host, Frederique, we turned ourselves over to Chef Robin Jackson for a gastronomic adventure of the freshest ingredients from the sea and from local farmers and foragers and from the 200 edible herbs, greens, edible flowers and vegetables from Sooke Harbour House’s own garden and farm. Each dish was paired with a wine from their celebrated cellar that has earned the Wine SpectatorGrand Award every year since 2000.
Each dish was as beautiful as it was delicious, a precious jewel for the eyes and for the palate. We began our amazing culinary journey simply with a bowl of rich and creamy roasted onion and chanterelle mushroom soup. It was topped with a few leaves of radicchio (a red leaf Italian chicory), a drizzle of mint crème fraich, and a small cherry bocconcini (tiny mozzarella ball) that became delightfully stringy and gooey as it melted in the soup. This was paired with a taste of NV Brute Blue Mountain, that gave a clean, invigorating start to the meal.
Next came a lovely trio: sliced smoked duck breast that was both juicy and succulent, a tiny wedge of creamy Salt Spring Island Blue Juliette goat cheese, and a Rillette (a meat preparation similar to paté) of truffled apple duck confit that was rich. This dish, like those that followed, included wisps of other delectable flavors – cherry tomatoes, pickled green beans, crispy parsnips, toasted sunflower oil, roasted fig leaf, and parsley vinaigrette. The result was layers of flavors, oftentimes surprising, but always delicious. This course came with a red wine from Blue Mountain, a 2009 Gamay Noir, that has notes of black currant that deepened the flavors of the food.
It was followed by a perfectly cooked and crispy pan fried rough eye rockfish. This mild white fish came over a baby fingerling and a smoked sablefish and grilled red onion hash. Other vegetables, all cooked al dente, included baby bok choy and a buttered kale, studded with rich and smoky house-cured Chorizo and heirloom tomato vinaigrette. The 2010 Blue Mountain Sauvignon Blanc is a complex and fresh-tasting wine with citrusy flavors that paired perfectly with the fish.
Our meat dish was roasted lamb sirloin, medallions of tender, medium rare lamb served in a smoky stew of chickpeas, ham, and tomatoes with caramelized onion and beet emulsion. There were dots of basil mint pistou, a scattering of garden fresh French filet beans, housemade yogurt, and tiny cubes of roasted beets and a salad of wild herbs. The mix of flavors created by the vegetables and dollops of different sauces created a delectable and exciting combination of flavors.
We ended our meal with a celebration of ripe peaches – a silky peach mousse, a tiny peach tartlette with a chocolate base, a poached peach, peach puree, and cold, refreshing peach sorbet.
Real Bottom Line: If you want a meal to remember, a meal of a lifetime, get yourself to Sooke Harbour House. You won’t be sorry. — Story by Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor; Photos by
Anne Weaver, RFT Editor
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