Aura at Nita Lake Lodge in Whistler

Whistler is like a second home for me, I grew up flying down its slopes and was raised on the what little great food was available there in 1989. Not to sound too much like an old-timer, but when people ask me for a restaurant recommendation in Whistler, both the places I suggest have been open since the mid-80s, Sushi Village and the Rimrock. Now I have a third suggestion. Though I’ve been there a tiny fraction (okay, the once) of the times I’ve been to the others, I’m inspired and hopeful about the ambitious, innovative and yet totally fitting menu that Aura, at the new and already under new management restaurant at the Nita Lake Lodge.

Like so many restaurants, Aura had an off-season prix-fixe menu that was a great value. We ended up there because my father had been previously for cocktails and snacks on the porch and was impressed, meanwhile the Rimrock was closed for a private party and the Bearfoot Bistro (another place I’d heard good things about and is not affordable in-season) couldn’t be bothered to answer their phone. I mentioned on Twitter that we would be checking out Aura, and the restaurant wrote back, excited. I mention this only because some of the treatment we got is (most likely) not normal. After talking with the manager I learned that he and the chef had previously worked together at the famed Wickaninnish Inn in Tofino. It made sense that the adventurous yet locally focused food had a history in Tofino, as between the Wick Inn and Sooke Harbour House, that’s what the town is building a name around.

You can see for yourself that the menu is ambitious and creative. While I was sad that they didn’t have the chicken oysters in savory oatmeal while I was there, I enjoyed my appetizer which was the a duck confit agnolotti afloat in a mushroom broth so rich that  Robin Hood would have been eying it. The pasta on the agnolotti was rolled thicker than ideal, but it held up to the broth because of this, and once opened, the soup was further enhanced by the meat. My dad had a seafood ceviche trio that was fresh and bright, accompanied by angostura bitters foam (mandatory eye roll for foam), compressed watermelon (hitting food trend nail on head) and my favorite part, the granulated local honey. The sweet of the honey and fruit matched up well with the seafood, but it was the texture of the granulated honey that I thought made the dish, that little bit of crunchy sweetness with the soft seafood.

After our appetizers and our ridiculously cheaply priced and good cocktails, the chef came out to say hello. He mentioned that he was doing all his charcuterie in house. I know that my face lit up. I love cured meat like a fat kid loves…well, cured meat. He very kindly brought us a charcuterie sampler which was accompanied by a lovely fruit beer (not my usual style, but it paired perfectly). My favorite from the platter was the veal cheek pastrami, though the pickled tongue was also delicious.

As part of the off-season, prix-fixe, $41, 3 course menu (in season, the chef told us, there would be more options, but it would be more expensive), we got the previously mentioned appetizers, as well as mains and a dessert. The amuse bouche was a nice touch, though not overly memorable. For our mains, my dad’s tongue twister of a dish was charred arctic char with swiss chard (hardy har har). A perfectly cooked piece of fish with lovely accompaniments but my braised veal with buttermilk spaetzle was unbelievably good. My dad refused to believe that such flavor came from simply grilled and braised meat could be so good and was asking for what spices were used. I just continued to fork off pieces of meat. Did I mention the amount of meat on this dish could have fed a family of four? We finished up with dessert–or in my case a cheese plate of local varieties, which was nice, as I had never tried any of them before.

Overall, the meal was an incredible deal and while I will definitely be back for the prix-fixe menu for as long as it remains such a good value (three courses including an entree big enough for leftovers for $41). Most of all, though, the $7-10 cocktails and the charcuterie plate really stood out for me, which means I think I know where I’m going drinking next time I’m up in Whistler. As is often the case with ambitious chefs, I worry that the crowd willing to put down the cash for the food will be too stodgy for the creativity it offers and that by the time I return in the next off-season for a second helping, the chef will have been stifled. All I can do for now is keep my fingers crossed and plan my next meal.

The Top Six Dishes I ate in Seattle this year

I’ll be honest, this started out as a top 5 list, but I had six dishes that truly stood out in my mind that I ate this year. I eat out a decent amount and I don’t always write about them–especially if the rest of the meal was distinctly underwhelming, as was the case in at least one of them. I like just picking a dish because I’m not judging the whole restaurant experience (another of these dishes was served with a side of horrifically bad service), nor am I needing to make extensive commentary. The only point of this is to give props to the creativity and skills of the chefs and restaurants around the city. They tend to lean towards newer restaurants, if for no other reason then that’s where I found innovative, taste-bud shocking (in the best way possible) flavors.

6. The pork belly I had at the wine dinner at Monsoon. This is the only one I have a picture of, but given that it stared out from my blog for altogether too long when it was first posted, I’m not going to add it over here as well. Scroll down to the bottom and read the description of my desire to swim in cabernet grape reduction to fully understand the lusciousness of this dish.

5. The Lamb’s Tongue Salad at Bastille. I noted this when I went as unbelievable. I clearly remembered it a month ago when I started this list. And still, as I try to jog my memory with other ingredients, what stands out is the surprisingly tender, beautiful meat, not generally what shines in a salad. This lamb tongue was delightful, great flavor, I could have eaten it as part of a much heavier main, yet the genius of the dish was that it was surrounded with a green, I believe dandelion, tiny chanterelle mushroom buttons and a few other lovely, light ingredients.

4. Springhill’s Smoked Oysters–okay, technically on the menu I believe the dish was under charcuterie and is titled “Sorpressata,” but while the sausage is lovely, it is not the star of the dish. No, the house-made sausage is clearly well made and delicious, but let’s talk about the true star of the show, the house alder smoked oysters. You know the smoked oysters that come in the can? I love those, but this is like comparing a Funyun to a beautifully crisp, freshly fried piece of shallot, like you’d get atop a fine French salad. The plate is rounded out with potato cracklins–which truly do conjure up the middle ground between fried pig skin and a potato chip. The red pepper sauce is the weakest individual component of the plate, but the whole dish works well together and each component matches the others so well. This dish, on its own, has brought me back to Springhill over and over.

3. Kimchi Quesadilla at Marination Mobile. After much deliberation, I chose the Kimchi Quesadilla as the dish I’d use form Marination. Really this Hawaiian taco truck has a few things I’d consider putting on this list, but the quesadilla was the first dish I had there and the one that blew my mind–after that first bite, I expected the unexpected and delicious. But the first time I saw the pinkish squiggles of sauce over my flour tortillas and bit in to the tangy bite of kimchi combined with tender soft pork, that was when I knew that this was something different. The Spam sliders might have changed my mind on a whole type of food, the spam musubi cemented that, but it was the kimchi quesadilla that floored me with possibilities.

2. Sometimes I think that hoping for new and innovative dim sum dishes in Seattle is a little like hoping for the Mariner’s to be in the World Series–Ain’t never gonna happen. So imagine my surprise when, in conversation with one of the men at Tea Garden, he mentioned that in addition to the pork stuffed taro balls, they also had ones with scallops inside. The first time we had this dish they were fresh out of the frier, and the scallop so perfectly cooked that it very nearly melted, spreading its sweet flavor throughout the crispy outside, the soft taro, one huge, delicious, if searingly hot bite. We returned and were able to order them a second time, but have since struck out twice and had them served less well prepared once. Was this moment of amazingness but a dim sum mirage? Here’s to hoping not!

1. Speaking of dishes that sometimes seem like a mirage, given the speed that B and I can demolish it, the not-on-the-menu (but nearly always available) Hamachi Collar with Bagna Cauda at Anchovies and Olives certainly qualifies. We were first offered this after two of the five dishes we asked for were sold out, but from then on we knew to ask for it by name every time. I get heartbroken when they’ve sold out of them for the evening. Collar is one of those cuts that Americans stay away from, most likely for its difficulty to eat. But when this chunk of fish lands on your table, you’ll abandon niceties and soon dig in with your fingers, if for no reason than after that flaky, tender fish is long gone, you can lick the anchovy and garlic spiked oil from your fingers and reminisce about the dish.

Small Wonders of Summer Part 1: Padron Peppers

Pancetta Wrapped Padron Peppers

Pancetta Wrapped Padron Peppers

“What about a pepper could be that great?” I remember thinking, years ago, as I read Calvin Trillin’s piece on trying to get Padron peppers in the U.S. Well, Calvin, I’m sorry, I should never have doubted your impeccable taste espoused with such riotous wit. I have had Padrons a few different ways now, but this was the epitome of taste perfection. Nope, pure, Spanish, olive oil roasted with sea salt, you’ve been bested, but by an oh-so-worthy opponent: wrapping in delicious pork products.

Having found these fine specimens of capsicum, burn-inducing beauties at the Portland Farmer’s Market, I had no real plan for them. Stopping in to Laurelhurst Market for a little meat-buying, I had no plan for the pancetta I bought either. Then, like I was getting hit on the head with a hammer: Wrap peppers in pancetta. I had already eaten dinner that night, but I decided to test one. I took the thinly sliced pork product, its beautiful round spiral twirling easily around the pepper and placed it in the hot cast iron skillet. Seconds later as oil splattered willy-nilly, I nudged it, flipping it over. The browning made for crisp perfection, while the pepper retained but a shadow of its former crunch, leaving only its often formidable flavor, in the form of intense spice. Luckily the silky fat of the pancetta cooled my tongue. Ahh, Calvin, you may have lead me to the edge of the lake of snack perfection, but I have taught that snack drink in that cool, porcine water.

San Francisco Picnic

IMGP4464Now that my situation has been rectified, I must admit that I was committing a grave mistake by failing to visit San Francisco in the last 14 years. In the coming days, I do promise to attempt a deeper delve into the food I consumed while actually on my visit, but right now I’m already floating down memory lane by eating the fabulous foods that I brought back with me. Thanks to the luxury of traveling with a small insulated tote, I was able to return from my short trip laden with the fabulous products which I did not have time to eat while there.

The pimentos de padron, you’ll see, the bright green at the top of the picture, I picked up on Saturday morning, during our stroll through the Ferry Plaza Farmers’ Market. It was early, it was the first stand. Upon spotting them, I remembered a passage from either Calvin Trillin or Jeffrey Steingarten (I can’t remember at the moment) about the wonders of these. I immediately bought them. I worried, then, that I was going to pick up hundreds of other products in the course of my walk, but in fact I managed to hold out until we made it to the permanent stores inside the building. Frying them up in olive oil and sprinkling salt atop, I prepared them in the traditional fashion and immediately understand the love these created. In any bite, a game of mystery is involved–will it be violently spicy or a gentle burn–the flavor wavering between faint (allowing the olive oil to come to the front) and strong, almost resembling a slightly spicy green bell pepper. These epitomize the Spanish style to me, allowing for simple preparation of a fabulous ingrediant.

Moving to Italy and to meat, at Boccalone we sampled $3.50 Meat Cones. As much as I love prosciutto, I found myself enthralled by the slightly different texture and flavor of the prosciutto cotto (meat product in upper right hand corner of white plate) and needed to buy that. The Coppa di Testa is in the lower left–also known as head cheese, and when properly prepared (as this was) a delightful melange of textures and flavors. The final product I picked up there was one which is much enamored by bloggers and I’d heard rave reviews about. In the upper left hand corner you can see the Nduja, a wonderfully spiced salami that is actually spreadable. The texture is so unexpected with the flavor that it makes for a strange experience to eat, yet is delicious at the same time as arousing curiousities of the tongue.

The next stop was the Cowgirl Creamery. It was a good thing there were not more shelves in this store I could simply pull stuff off of, because I could not help myself here. I wanted it all. I started with a taste of Burrata, an extra creamy cheese, like soft mozzarella. This is my favorite new cheese–the white lump in the lower right hand corner. Moving counter-clockwise the next cheese is the Cowgirl Creamery’s own Red Hawk. My own cheese preferences tend to run soft and stinky, and this was a perfect cheese for me, the epitome of both of those! Next is the Inverness, also by Cowgirl, and this, while soft and stinky, was also a much more refined cheese, which was nice–you can only take so much stink at once. Wait, did I really say that? Because I’ll need to back track that for the next two cheeses, the Sottocenere and the Truffle Tremor. I had tried the Truffle Tremor at an event about a year ago and hadn’t seen it around much, so when I saw it, I decided to get some. “You like truffle cheese?” my friend and host for the weekend asked. I nodded. “That’s kid stuff, try this” and she requested the Sottocenere to taste. It is a totally different cheese, a totally different flavor. I must admit the harder cheese, more earthy truffle of the Sottocenere was appealing, while the soft stink of the Truffle Tremor tugged at my cheese loving heart strings. I had to have them both.

Just in case our little hedonistic San Francisco picnic was not yet complete, in the center of the plate is a bowl of Ryan Farr’s 4505 Chicharrones. I had heard of these and wanted to try them, but hadn’t by Sunday night and we were returning Monday morning. Luckily he happened to be cooking at the Cochon 555 event we were at on Sunday night. He was serving up tacos with chicharrones in place of tortillas, and man, were they delicious (as were his corndogs, ‘rolled face’ and really everything else hand the other 5 chefs made). But again, my host doth protest “These aren’t the real chicharrones” she said, “we have to get the normal spicing, this is different,” and working her magical ways on the gorgeous and friendly (and exceedingly nice) Ryan Farr, she charmed him right out of a hidden stash of those chicharrones.

“You know what my favorite part of the meal was?” B asked me as we finished. He had not been in San Francisco with me, and yes, I was curious. “The crackers that you made to go with everything” Ah, yes, folks, he’s a charmer. But really he should thank Alton Brown for the recipe–I took out the seeds and tilted it a little more heavily toward whole wheat flour, since I was using the amazing Bluebird Farms stuff. See, we’ve got good stuff here too!

Whipped Lardo: How to Make my Holy Grail

Whipped Lardo

Whipped lardo is simply heavenly. A heavenly spread that was my holy grail of recipes. I’d eaten it at an underground restaurant type of meal and it stuck in my mind. Stuck so hard as one of the best bites I’d ever eaten that I scoured the internet, up, down and every which-way, without gaining even the first inkling of any idea how to make the dish. So it was taste and test time. For the last year I’ve made more attempts than I want to count, all equally failed, to recreate this dish.

It had been called ‘Whipped Lardo’ when I ate it, so yes, I began by making my own lardo. Good, yes, but was it making whipped lardo? No. So I kept going, rendering lard and whipping it, curing back fat right and left. Finally I had to give up. There was just no way I could figure it out without just a little hint from its creator.

Fate must have intervened, because a few weeks ago I took up a friend on an offer to attend that same underground restaurant type of meal. The cook was different, but luck would have it that the chef who made the whipped lardo, the wonderful and pretty darn cute Joel Cox, would be joining us in eating the dinner. So, fast forward to the car ride home, I’ve had a few glasses of wine and I finally feel courageous enough to ask “Joel, please tell me how you made that whipped lardo!”

And like a little child trying desperately to watch the beauty of the bubbles while also catching them in their hands, I listened as he told me the secret I had been missing. You grind the fat directly in the meat grinder. No actual lardo used, nor is there actual whipping. He told me the rest of the recipe, though I have to admit to having been so stuck on this part of the recipe that I only vaguely heard ingredients, so I improvised when I made it. He also explained that he had learned this recipe from the great Dario Cecchini, who you may have heard about in the book ‘Heat’ or seen on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations.

So what is the whipped lardo like? Like butter on overdrive, like meat in cream form, like flavor that is at once so simple and so complex that you must have another bite to figure out which one it is.

Whipped Lardo

1/3 lb of pork back fat or leaf lard (Joel said back fat, I used leaf)
1 small clove of garlic, mashed into a paste
1 teaspoon of Sherry Vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
Salt, pepper, rosemary to taste

Grind the fat through the smallest setting on your meat grinder. Add the garlic and vinegar and begin massaging air into it. As you work with the meat, folding in air using a motion like a back rub or milking a cow, it will get softer and softer. Add in salt and pepper and rosemary and begin to taste. It will need a decent amount of salt to bring out the full flavors, though go more sparsely on the pepper and rosemary for that big pig flavor. When you’re done, spread it on a cracker or piece of bread and enjoy.

The Unveiling: Duck Confit Hash

Duck Confit

Duck Confit

Breaking through the snow white layer of soft fat, feeling the aged meat, seeing the beautiful colors of charcuterie. There is something magical about digging out a homemade duck confit. The long hours of preparing the food are behind you, the easy part is ahead. No more waiting for the perfect time, no, now you get to unveil your handy work and again expose the duck to air.

This particular confit sat about in fridge for the last six months, since a kindly gentlemen had allowed us to kill 3 of his male ducks and to preserve for him. I describe the whole making (in fact, of this exact batch of confit) over here, if you are interested.

As per usual, I hadn’t thought of what to do with the confit, knowing it would make a poor presentation since it was all pulled off the bone. It looked, as I tore through the protective coating of beautiful, creamy fat, like meat in a hash. And the magic was born. I put a pot of quinoa on the stove, blanched some brussels sprouts and chopped some onions. I dropped the confit in to the saute pan first to allow the fat to become liquid and let it sit until everything was crisped up, then added the mushrooms and sprouts for a little slipe and slide in the duck confit fat. Yeah, that is how vegetables are meant to be dealt with.

Duck Confit Hash over Quinoa

Duck Confit Hash over Quinoa

The Easiest Duck Confit

Runner ducks are not fat ducks. Nobody’s making foie gras here. But a man I met, Gene, had a bunch of runner ducks, and he did not need the guys. They don’t lay eggs, you see. They are, though, not fat ducks. Still, I wanted to make duck confit! So I traipsed down to our local Mexican market and bought an enormous tub of lard. Excellent.
Salted Duck Parts
Salted Duck Parts

 The first step of duck confit is optional. Last time I skipped this step and it worked fine, this time, because I was sharing this with Gene and wasn’t sure when he would use his, I did it. If you bury the parts you are confiting (these are legs and wings) in salt and store in the fridge over night, the whole thing will last longer.

Once you have rinsed the salt off and patted the parts good and dry, place them in a pan and cover completely with lard. A lot of lard. More lard than you want to think about (you’ll be able to reuse almost all of it…I think I’ll be making tamales with most of mine). Then set it on the stove over pretty low heat, while setting your oven to preheat to basically its lowest temp. Mine is 170…you could go anywhere from there up to 210. Once all the lard has melted and you are sure that all your duck parts are completely submerged, take it off the stove and put it in the oven. Forget about it for NINE long hours. This is great for a cold autumn day, as it keeps your house cozy, warm and smelling like duck.

Duck parts in lard

Duck parts in lard

When you pull them out, they’ll look something like this. Let them cool for a little while. Once they are at a touchable temperature (it doesn’t take very long), you have two choices. Like we did last time, you can leave them on the bone and pour in enough fat to cover them. This requires more fat because the bone takes up a lot of space. It does, however, make for a pretty presentation for the legs. Less so for the wings. Because we had so much meat, I decided to pull it off the bones this time. It basically falls off, it can be easily done with a fork. I put mine into a ramekin and really packed it in so I could use less lard to seal it.

Duck Confit, ready to store

Duck Confit, ready to store

So here it is, all packed in. Next I just pour over enough of the cooking lard so that it is completely sealed, then I let it mature in the fridge for a few weeks.

Next time I am short on food for dinner, I bust this out and make something totally mind blowing.