MagoGuide wishes to extend an olive branch of sorts to the New York Times Travel Section. While we stand by our earlier critiques of what passes for travel writing at a journalistic institution that should know better, we wish to thank Shivani Vora for alerting us to the fifth annual Feast Tofino in time to attend its finale weekend. While Team Mago was initially prepared to dismiss Ms. Vora’s gushing descriptions concerning “the newfound culinary enthusiasm of this tiny seaside haven,” we eventually decided to make Tofino the final stage of an island hopping gastrodition of the San Juan and Vancouver Islands. To our delight and amazement, Team Mago’s culinary fact checking almost fully vindicated the claims in her article.
Note to Monica Drake, NYT Travel Editor: Give Ms. Vora a raise and quit wasting your readers’ time with bucket lists and Twitter posts. Listicles and 140 characters are not and never will be travel writing.
Tofino, a town of less than 2,000 year round residents, is located about halfway up the Pacific coast of Vancouver Island. A surfer/hippie haven since the 1960s, Tofino is frequently described as remote, isolated, end-of-the-world, etc. Since Team Mago hails from off-the-grid Montucky, it seemed fitting that a Polebridge delegation should attend several of Tofino’s food festival highlights. It turns out that Tough City (as the locals style it) is actually easy to get to. Even adhering to MagoGuide’s slow travel strictures, it is only ten hours by car and ferry from Portland, Oregon, and a good hour plus of that time owes to road construction delays. Once Highway 4 is resurfaced (just in time for the high season), Tofino will become another exurb of Victoria.
All the talk of remoteness, laidbackness, ecofriendliness, foodiness, etc. is actually the result of a clever and effective marketing campaign launched by Tofino’s entrepreneurial inhabitants. Their sales pitch is bolstered by the fact that their claims are also by and large true. Tofino lies at the intersection of stunning coniferous rain forest and the best surfing beaches in Canada. Migratory whales kick off their season in March and storm watching extends it deep into autumn and early winter.
Wolf in the Fog
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Rostra rating: 4.5
And underpinning it all is a vibrant boat-to-table culinary scene. Tofino’s gastro incubator is the Pointe at the Wickaninnish Inn, one of five Relais & Châteaux properties in British Columbia. Last June Nicholas Nutting, a five year Pointe alumnus, opened Wolf in the Fog, which was named Canada’s best new restaurant by Air Canada’s enRoute magazine only five months later. Now with less than one year under its belt, Wolf in the Fog was hosting a six course wine pairing collaboration between Chef Nutting and David Hawksworth, one of reigning chefs in the Vancouver gastropolis. Hype, hubris, or the real deal? Team Mago decided that it was a tough job, but someone had to find out.
An inauspicious start would be an understatement concerning events that led up to our first bites. It took the better part of a week to secure tickets on-line. MagoGuide makes reservations on-line all the time, but the various participants of Feast Tofino have not mastered the intricacies of e-commerce via satellite Internet service. Finally, with the help and patience of Wolf in the Fog’s staff, we managed to secure three tickets just before the event sold out.
During my struggles to gain admission, I was perhaps a bit disingenuous with the rest of Team Mago. I declined to mention to Patti and Bobby that my assurances concerning the dress code (“way casual guys, this is Tofino !!”) were somewhat contradicted by information I encountered on the restaurant’s website and Facebook page. Sentences such as “It’s a fancy affair so dress up in your finest duds – let’s get classy!” do not resonate well with my anti-fashionista spouse; and they drive Bobby out the nearest exit in search of a tuxedo rental shop.
There was also a bit of confusion concerning when the festivities were set to begin. Three different sources yielded three different times. Team Mago showed up at the earliest and promptly encountered a black tie optional group primping in front of a pair of photographers on an honest to Addephagia red carpet. Tricked out in our finest Portland grunge, we quickly attracted the attention of an unsmiling master of ceremonies whose name we never did learn. He informed us that the dinner did not start for another half hour, so I quickly shooed my colleagues out of the restaurant in the hopes that our antagonist would assume we were hurrying off to change clothes before dinner.
We went to the Fish Store and Oyster Bar instead and fortified ourselves with cava for whatever lay ahead. Patti quickly quashed my lame attempt to divert attention from my now rather obvious sartorial mendacity by disputing another customer’s instructions to the bartender concerning how to make a proper French 75 cocktail.
“You neglected to tell me that this fancy dinner has a cruise ship theme,” Patti accused.
“I’m sure that those were just employees and local dignitaries getting the obligatory glitz out of the way before the rest of the laid back foodies show up to eat,” I stammered.
It didn’t turn out that way, of course. Team Mago had to run a tux-and-sequined-gown gauntlet to find our table, while avoiding the photographers.
“We’re on the lam,” I informed a young woman armed with a very large SLR, “so we can’t risk our pictures being taken.”
When it was apparent that she was having trouble processing what I told her, Patti stepped in, steered me and Bobby over the red carpet and towards the stairs to the dining room, held up her trusty micro 4/3 camera, and said “No thanks, we brought our own.” The female photo unit seemed to understand that reasoning and let us pass without further attempts to capture our images.
When I gave my name to the list hottie, she uttered “ah yes” in a manner that left me with little doubt that Team Mago constituted the only non-locals among the diners. The obvious stranyeri table we had been allocated confirmed this state of affairs. Have you ever wondered why you often dine with Germans and Chinese in Italy while the locals get the best tables or (usually) a completely separate room? MagoGuide refers to this practice as stranyeri segregation, and it is perfectly understandable since most tourists constitute one-time sales while locals are the essence of a restaurant’s recurring cash flow. In fact, when restaurant staff start treating you like travelers and seat you with the locals, it constitutes a major culinary breakthrough and one well worth multiple visits to achieve. Unfortunately, however, time was not on our side at Wolf in the Fog. As a result, our table was in the far corner of the dining space jammed next to a synthesizer music station.
Then amidst all these auspices of disaster, the tide suddenly turned. A cheerful waiter offered us the choice of gin punch or sparkling rosé. We chose the bubbles and were pleasantly surprised by the bright cherry fruit and dry finish of a non-vintage 100% pinot noir Cuvee de l’Ecusson from Luxemburg.
Then Chef Hawksworth himself, who cut quite a contrasting figure to the coifed and coutured wait staff in his monogramed kitchen apron, approached Bobby and me with a tray of nibbles. I deferentially asked him for a description of his contribution to the evening’s canapé collection and he rattled off its components with the staccato precision of a drill sergeant: buckwheat tapioca cracker with sweet pea smash containing house-made horseradish. It was a very good bite with the cracker supplying a nuanced and crunchy foil for the vegetal honeyed pea mash (not your mum’s mushy peas by a long shot). The chef, however, was unimpressed with Bobby’s observation that the horseradish did not really come through on the palate. He pretty much ignored the critique with a grunt and moved on.
Chef Nutting’s canapés were deployed on the restaurant’s veranda, and they rocked. Steamed gooseneck barnacles, boiled octopus tentacles, and raw scallops wrapped in sage leaves were arranged on a series of carbonized bread chunks made to look like a rocky shore with a broken basil mayonnaise dipping sauce representing a frothy tidal pool.
This was my first introduction to goose neck barnacles. Until recently found only on the Iberian peninsula, these arthropods were sustainably harvested by a First Nations fishery in the difficult and dangerous tidal conditions of Clayoquot Sound. I learned later that Tofino’s gooseneck barnacles are now being shipped directly to various outposts of Daniel Boulud’s restaurant empire. Their taste has been compared to a combination of razor clam and crab and I have to agree. They make excellent and unusual finger food.
The octopus was correctly cooked with just a slightly denser chew than the barnacles, while the scallops were meltingly tender and delicious. Team Mago spent a very pleasant half hour hoovering the seafood while quizzing the locals, who were nice enough to ignore our state of undress and happily provide tips concerning their favorite places to eat and recreate. To be entirely accurate, the sartorial split was about 80/20 with several other couples dressed down to within shouting distance of MagoGuide couture. But, thanks be to Bacchus, my prediction that Team Mago’s vestiary shortcomings would be no impediment to our culinary experience turned out to be true.
Finally members of the wait staff were deployed to herd us away from the canapés and back into the dining room where Mr. I’m-not-going-to-smile-or-tie-my-bowtie arose to welcome us to a meal prepared under the guidance of “the two best chefs in North America.” He went on to explain that Tom Harrow, an international wine expert, had been flown in from London to provide conducted tastings for the wine pairings. The same tiny, evil jet also delivered the evening’s entertainment in the form of the vocal group Elysium III (well, in actuality only two of the trio showed) and saxophonist Julian Smith.
So that explained the synthesizer as well as the small stage on the other side of the dining room. I took all this as a serious setback following those incredible barnacles. The presence of a wine professional usually presages stingy pours at pairing dinners. I am not really sure why this correlation holds, but it does. Perhaps the bean counters reason that paying someone to convince people that they really are drinking the nectar of the gods is more cost effective than splashing out for proper dollops of the really good stuff and then letting the drinkers decide?
Do I need to mention that the addition of Abba and Kenny G tribute acts had cruise ship written all over it? And the ridiculous hype concerning two excellent chefs in their own right hardly presaged a focus on the food (as opposed to celebrity chef personalities) for the evening.
But I was totally wrong, at least about the food and wine. The first thing our friendly and professional server Herman did was reassure us as to the bounty of Dionysius for the evening. Herman, who hails from (non-British) Columbia, made sure we knew from the get-go that there would be as much wine as we could possibly want and a lot more than was good for us.
Tom Harrow, who goes by the nom de vin of WineChap on the Internet, turned out to be a delightful addition to the evening’s festivities. He was witty and blessedly brief in his oenological disquisitions. My only problem with Harrow was generic. I find descriptions of wine I am about to drink the functional equivalent of asking me not to think about a pink elephant. If I know what a wine is supposed to taste like then that is what I taste, so I had to get in a few decent slurps before the WineChap held forth in order to render and record my unbiased assessments. The process made me feel rushed and abetted my general propensity to indulge in a bit more light trapped in a glass than is good for me on such occasions. So all of the wine tasting notes in this review are mine, leavened by Harrow’s wine jargon whenever that served to provide comic relief.
The wine for the first course was a 2012 Robert Weil, Riesling, Trocken, Kiedricher. It opened with a nose of tropical fruit. Then came an evolution to wet slate that segued to citrus followed by a wave of mango with a long half-dry finish. Harrow said that the Weil family vineyards date back to 1860s and that their Riesling was served on the maiden voyage of the Graf Zepplin–cool.
Patti hated it and Bobby thought it a bit sweet, but I found it an excellent pair for Chef Hawksworth’s crab and prawns, fermented finger chili, Meyer lemon, and fennel. He paired shrimp crudo with lump crabmeat that contrasted nicely with the subtle heat of the sauce from the finger chili. Fired shrimp heads were way good, providing a rustic counterweight to an otherwise very refined dish. Herman complemented us on eating these crunchy noggins, as many of the penguins were letting them go to waste. The fennel salad was a nice cleansing touch.
This dish was followed by an intermezzo during which both chefs previewed the rest of the meal. I immediately got the impression that neither maestro wanted to be out of the kitchen for very long. Their remarks were so uninspired and their frustration with being away from the culinary action so palpable that I could barely resist the impulse to stand up and shout “let the chefs be chefs and serve the damn food!” Fortunately it was early days on the very generous pours that Herman was supplying and I decided that discretion was the better part of gluttony.
Eventually the WineChap replaced the food dudes and introduced a South African 2013 Spice Route Chenin Blanc. I got peach and tropical fruit tempered by a mineral spine and a pleasant dollop of new oak. Howard said that this wine was endowed with “bigger shoulders” than the Riesling. I have no idea what that means but I intend to use it in regular conversation for the next six months because it sounds so vague and sophisticated.
Chef Nutting’s albacore tuna, spruce, and porcini mushrooms was the most creative course of the evening, and very Tofino. Sustainable albacore was served seared very rare. The accompanying tempura spruce needles, seaweed of some sort, and porcini slices created a delicious and unusual textural experience. The spruce vinaigrette pulled the whole dish together. The Chenin Blanc paired magnificently, the dish’s spruce notes sauce reinforced by the mineral backbone of the wine.
We now had three food and wine data points, enough for a trend. Nutting’s dishes to date had been consistently superior to Hawking’s and whoever chose the wine pairings was batting well north of Ted Williams. We were poised for a dinner that went from strength to strength. That is, until the entertainment started.
I am so pompously judgmental when it comes to food and alcohol that I try very hard not to exhibit such pedantic behavior when it comes to music. So in other circumstances I would have either genuinely enjoyed Julian Smith and Elysium III, or at least been able to consign them to benign whitish noise. But hey, we’re trying to eat here!! Food this serious simply does not deserve classical crossover rock and soprano sax smooth jazz. Mozart and Miles would have been far more appropriate.
Chef Hawksworth described the next course with what I would hazard is characteristic terseness: salmon, oysters, herb purée, rye. The king salmon had been swimming less than 24 hours prior and was perfectly cooked, unctuous and rich, but it needed finishing salt. The rest of the dish did not do the marvelous fish justice. The herb purée was drastically under-seasoned, but it completely muted the integral oyster flavor all the same. The toasted rye bits on top of the salmon also got lost in the shuffle.
The paired wine took a dish trying to claw off a lee shore and drove it back onto the rocks. The 2013 Domain de Terres Dorees Burgundy was the only pairing failure of the evening. It was tired, thin, almost vinegary—just the kind of Burgundy gullible dupes like me shell out non-trivial bucks for in the hopes of finally discovering a “reasonably priced” version of one of the world’s most finicky wines.
Mago tip: With respect to red Burgundy, go big or go to Oregon.
Howard tried his best, but all he could come up with was sour cherry, beetroot, and fennel. Since the WineChap was holding forth only a few feet from Team Mago’s table, I waited until he was done before drawing deeply on my extensive viniferous erudition to engage him in genteel badinange.
“Hey wine dude, what’s up with this diluted grape juice?”
He winced, but came back with a slightly rambling explanation that the choice had been driven by the necessity of finding a wine that could be paired with salmon.
“So real Burgundy, not to mention an Oregon pinot, does not pair with salmon?”
Howard diplomatically agreed with me that this Burgundy was something of a “breakfast wine” as he delicately extricated himself from our squiffy and irreverent table. Now I like wine for breakfast as much as the next dipsomaniac, but we serve big shouldered Cava, sculpted Chablis, or a totally ripped Sicilian red for petit déjeuner in Montucky.
This slight wobble was more than corrected by Chef Nutting, whose next course was Halibut and confit pork, squid ink pasta, tomato, and rosemary jus. A delectable fusion of Hippoglossus stenolepis and Sus domesticus garnished with black pinci pasta, which hails from the same region as the paired Rosso di Montalcino. The crunchy breadcrumbs added another textural layer, while the sauce complemented both proteins. With the possible exception of those gooseneck barnacles, this dish delivered the best flavor of the evening.
WineChap was out for payback as he took up his position next to the Montana hicks from the sticks takin’ pics. If I had any doubts that Howard is a class act, they were dispelled by his argument that red wine in general and the 2012 Fuligni, Ginestreto, Rosso di Montalcino Riserva in particular were suitable pairings for fish. He began by alluding to a classic scene in From Russia with Love wherein James Bond belatedly realizes he is dealing with a SMERSH hit man and that the danger signs have been there all along: “Red wine with fish. Well that should have told me something.”
Now I absolutely love this scene aboard the Orient Express with Bond on the brink of execution by a super villain while an overripe Russian vixen waits impatiently for more sex in the next compartment. Noticing my obvious enjoyment of both the wine and his narrative, the WineChap completed his coup de grace by turning to me and asking, “You know where I’m going with this right?” Then he declaimed while I silently mouthed the riposte delivered by Bond’s nemesis: “You may know the right wines, but you’re the one on your knees.”
Team Mago heartily agreed with Howard that this was a classy young red sporting a fresh leather nose and gobs of black fruit underpinned by Tuscan terroir. He also said something about “old Catholic church” but I don’t know what that tastes like, so I can neither confirm nor deny. I can certify, however, that there is no such thing as white Chianti, which is what the maladroit waiter in the train’s dining car tried to steer the hit man toward when he ordered red Chianti with his Dover sole. This was the gist of a conversation with the WineChap, who I found hiding from Elysium III and that evil soprano sax in the men’s room (along with the freakin’ DJ!) during the intermezzo between savory courses and dessert.
Wolf in the Fog’s pastry chef Joel Ashmore supplied the final dish of the evening in the form of rhubarb, dolce de leche, hazelnut, and strawberry sorbet. It was an excellent light dessert after a lot of food and way, way too much vino. The sorbet stood out both on the plate and on the palate. The pairing was from Loupiac, which is across the river from Sauternes and Barsac. The 100% Semillon 2000 Chateau di Ricaud was another great pairing that supplied an orange and apricot nose followed by honey and nectarine fruit without the intensely cloying noble rot that makes big sauternes unsuitable for most desserts (in my humble opinion).
Once the last course had been cleared there was nothing to shield us from Elysium III and slow death by track synching, unless you counted assisted soprano saxicide. I did my best to persuade the DJ to swap in a track of The Band’s “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes,” but while he was clearly taken with the notion, he was also constrained by the need to earn. So Team Mago scuttled off into the night like rats deserting a sinking cruise ship.
Much, much later the next day, Team Mago attended a reunion of sorts at the Dockside Festival, wherein many of Tofino’s eateries set up booths to showcase the local seafood. Hung over and suffering from a classical crossover “Feel Like Making Love” earwig, I still managed to eat my body weight in raw Clayoquot oysters and sautéed goose neck barnacles, all washed down with local microbrews. On my way to the taps for a refill I ran into an enervated Chef Nutting serving up a tasty (albeit a bit diluted) Asian-themed salmon ceviche served on bok choy leaves. While the dish was not of the same caliber as his efforts of the previous night, his stamina and dedication could not fail to impress.
Then I noticed that, while the music was far better than the previous night, the synthesizer and the DJ were the same. I asked him what he thought of Elysium III, since neither piece of classical crossover eye candy was in attendance. He was very generous, observing that they possessed lovely voices and should simply have sung a cappella rather than track synched to symphonic versions of The Air that I Breathe, etc. Amen and amen. Neither of us, however, had the stomach to delve into a musical fix for Kenny Wannabe and his soprano sax.
Next I literally ran into Herman while trying to eat a rustic clam and muscle stew. He immediately recognized me; it was not hard, I still sported the same rumpled (and now newly stained) togs. We had a great chat over a beer, during which he filled us in on what happened after we staggered past Elysium III shouting “sanctuary, sanctuary!!” around 10:30PM. The entertainment lasted until past midnight when the tux crowd decamped and management opened the bar to the staff. Herman said that the after-party party lasted until 4:30AM.
No wonder Chef Nutting looked like he had been rode hard and put away wet. But his dedication to his craft was fully on display then and during the previous evening. In general, I thought Nutting’s food blew Hawksworth’s away. To be fair, it was an away game for Hawksworth and the real pressure was on Nutting to defend his recent awards and to showcase Tofino’s maritime bounty. However, MagoGuide is currently planning a Vancouver foray and I think that we may well decide to give Chef Hawksworth’s lunch and dinner offerings a miss in favor of his bar or breakfast menus. Based on his dishes at the pairing dinner and a perusal of his eponymous restaurant’s web site, his fine dining fare strikes me as more technique than ingredient-driven and just a touch too haute for MagoGuide’s sweet spot.
Herman was also at pains to assure us that dinner at Wolf in the Fog was normally nothing like the previous evening’s banquet. “If you go tonight, everyone will be dressed like you,” he assured me, “including all the staff.” While we did not have time for another meal at Wolf in the Fog on this particular trip, I am very interested in returning (hopefully during storm season) to sample Chef Nutting’s regular offerings and find out what music he chooses to accompany his food. Wolf in the Fog is on a great culinary trajectory anchored by a superb location on the edge of the North American continent. Again, thank you Ms. Vora and bravo Chef Nutting!