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Café to Café

Three Delicious Days in Victoria

By Jay Friedman

When I made my first-ever visit to Victoria about 20 years ago, the restaurant scene wasn't worth the journey. I found plenty of pretty flowers, but just ordinary food-at best. Fast forward to today, and the food scene has changed dramatically. As it should. There's superb seafood in the nearby waters, produce from local farms, and foraging to be found in the local area. Drink-wise, there are great places for tea and coffee, a burgeoning brewery scene, and lots of local wines. Given all the excellent options, here's an ambitious itinerary for three meals each of three days in Victoria, with some bonus culinary items and things to do.


Butchart's sunken garden

Day 1

If you're arriving on the Victoria Clipper and immediately hungry (or if you're already in town), make your way to Saltchuck Pie Company. Specializing in hot, savory hand pies made in the Australian/New Zealand tradition, the menu changes daily (I enjoyed one with steak, caramelized onions, and blue cheese), though there are mainstays available as early as 9 a.m., plus some sweet pies, typically seasonal like blackberry-rhubarb.

Saltchuck steak pie

Consider your sugar selection, though, as just two blocks away is Parachute Ice Cream. This boutique scoop shop serves up ice cream made with coconut milk for the dairy-free, cow milk for those seeking familiarity, and even buffalo milk for the more adventurous. Flavors change frequently; one of the best is brown butter brownie. If you want ice cream for later, buy some in Parachute's unique pint jars.

To counter any sugar crash, nearby is Bows & Arrows Coffee Roasters. Here I learned that the company's goal isn't to chase acidity, but instead to provide sweet, crowd-pleasing cups of coffee. Purchase a pour-over to sample on-site, relax in the roasting room, and buy some beans to take home.

Save room, though, as lunch is at Part and Parcel. If you're already running out of stomach space, choose one of the interesting salads. A heartier appetite affords the opportunity to try out a sandwich or perhaps one of the "etc." plates, like the quince and date-braised lamb neck I loved-complete with panisse, olives, delicata squash, and endive. Pretty plating and friendly people make this a popular place.

Your afternoon is free for exploration of downtown Victoria. If the weather is nice, the inner harbor area offers water views, entertainment from buskers, and good people-watching. A stroll up Government Street allows stops at shops, both touristy and non. When you reach Chinatown-the oldest in North America-meander the side streets and don't miss out on the unique Fan Tan Alley. Return south to Fort Street, home of many shops for food and drink lovers, including Choux Choux Charcuterie, Hilary's Cheese Company, and Terroir Tea Merchant.

Dinner tonight is at Saveur. You can order a la carte, but better to try the chef's tasting menus. Two diners can order both the "regular" and the vegetarian menus, giving you 10 plates to taste if you're willing to share. The food is French-inspired using local products, with a fine dining feel including modern flourishes. The chef lets the ingredients shine (often showcasing one ingredient prepared different ways), as in the corn soup with pickled chanterelles, brioche, black garlic, and corn powder. As you're having a tasting menu, expect a sweet finish, like local blackberries with cardamom almond coconut sauce, blackberry coulis, chilled white chocolate soufflé, and blackberry sorbet.

Corn soup

Day 2

Your day starts with a choice. If, like me, you're staying in the Hotel Rialto, you'll have a coupon that entitles you to a daily breakfast treat and beverage at Cafe Veneto. Or you can apply the coupon as a $3 credit toward a hot meal, combinable with a $10 per full day restaurant credit (also good at Veneto Tapa Lounge) if you decline housekeeping services in their "Go Green, Get Green" program.

If you want to get out of the hotel for a full-fledged meal, head to Jam Cafe for their popular all-day breakfast. (But go early. By 8:20 on the Saturday morning I went, every table had filled.) Jam is a fun spot for some interesting twists on typical egg and batter breakfast dishes. For example, the fried chicken French toast is a deliciously savory version, as it comes with tomatoes, pickled cabbage, green onions, Tabasco honey, and jalapeño sour cream.

After breakfast, pick up a rental car to drive to The Butchart Gardens. Allow a couple of hours, as the various gardens are spectacular, and well worth seeing in all seasons. Hopefully all the walking will work up your appetite, as you're now ready to motor on to The Roost Farm Centre in North Saanich. Roost is a vineyard (see if there's ginger wine available, it's amazing!), farm, market, bakery, and bistro-and now the site of a pizza restaurant. This place mills its own wheat, so take advantage of some delicious sandwiches (meat loaf and smoked meat are good choices) as well as desserts like cookies, cakes, and pies.

Roost Farm smoked meat

Explore the area, and you'll find wineries and distilleries, nice walks, water views, and fresh eggs for sale via honor system. But return to Victoria in time for service at The Teahouse at Abkhazi Garden. The garden itself offers a short but lovely (to use Victorian vernacular) stroll, and the teahouse is a perfect place to relax. At Afternoon Tea, the Royal Abkhazi black tea is an ideal match for traditional treats that include currant scones with jam and Devonshire cream, smoked salmon profiteroles, and Eccles cake with warming spices.

After tea, relax at the hotel, then take a short walk to Agrius for dinner. This restaurant is a recent outgrowth of Fol Epi bakery (get a smoked albacore tuna sandwich for your departure from Victoria), so bread service is an essential part of your dinner experience. Like Saveur, Agrius is a French-inspired "contemporary regional restaurant" that offers a tasting menu, but tonight you're ordering a la carte to suit your appetite. One must-order item: beef tartare, its large chunks mixed with turnips. (They sometimes offer lamb tartare instead.) Fish is also well-prepared, like the roasted steelhead trout with turnip cakes, pickled cippolini onions, sauerkraut, and collard greens.

Agrius beef tartare

Day 3

After two days of big meals, you might want something more cleansing to start your final day. That means breakfast at Nourish. Set in a heritage Victorian home (check out the study and special occasion room upstairs), the space is warm and inviting. Start with a warming drink like the beef bone broth, bold and bracing-and brazenly spiced up with some chili oil. There are many enticingly healthy items on the menu. Try the "Rad Thai" turnip noodles with bok choy, red onion, carrots, radish, soft herbs, sesame, and chili almond sauce. It's nice with an addition of chicken.

As you're nearby, now is a good time to explore the Royal BC Museum with its exhibits showcasing the natural and human history of the province and beyond. While you're there, watch a move at the onsite theater, featuring the largest IMAX screen in the province.

For lunch, find your way to Fishhook. This is the new restaurant from the Red Fish Blue Fish chef, who pledges a commitment to sustainable seafood and a quest for Indo-French flavors. Some come for his twist on French tartines, while others say his curries are the best Indian food in town. If available, get the Humboldt squid toast with harissa dressing, crispy shallots and red chili honey-and don't overlook a side order of daily pickles.

Fishhook squid toast

Your afternoon is free to catch up on anything you've missed in Victoria. Maybe walk through one of the interesting neighborhoods. If you find yourself in "Funky Fernwood," stop for an afternoon perk-up at Fernwood Coffee Company. They roast in the back of the Parsonage Cafe, and instead of a hot coffee, treat yourself to a cold, refreshing Coffee Cream Soda.

Dinner tonight is at OLO, previously known as Ulla. Same location and same chef, but a slightly more casual concept and a warmer environment. Dishes are delightful, often with elements of pickling and smoking and fermenting, so order several to share. Highlights of the recent menu include harukei turnip and apple salad (with wild rice, fried kale, seaweed, and sunflower dressing), alder-smoked salmon (with beets-"candied" and dehydrated to a wonderful texture-plus crème fraiche, nasturtium, pickled onion, and rye cracker), and an earthy and hearty porcini gemelli pasta with foraged mushrooms.

My meal at OLO was the favorite during my recent trip to Victoria. But every meal was delicious, and a reminder of how far things have come in 20 years. The dining scene is creative, and while it continues to evolve, it's now safe to say that eating is reason enough to take the journey to Victoria.

OLO turnip and apple salad

Thanks to Tourism Victoria for assistance with transportation (smooth sailing on the Victoria Clipper), hotel, and a few meals related to this trip. They are an excellent resource for anyone who wants assistance with trip planning to this part of Vancouver Island.

December 2016

Jay Friedman is a freelance food writer and full-time sex educator, with most of his work (well, at least the food part) compiled at . His quest to find exquisite food is never ending.

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