DINER: On Occasionally Turning Left For Ucluelet Instead Of Always Right For Tofino

by Andrew Morrison | We like Tofino. It’s sort of been our escape of choice since forever. We have a habit of spending two or three days camping and getting proper filthy along the beach at Bella Pacifica and then – with sand in every crevasse and our clothes reeking of wood smoke – getting cleaned up for a few days at the world renowned Wickaninnish Inn. It’s a refreshing, invigorating way of taking time off, and it’s not all that much of a journey, especially if you love taking BC Ferries and driving on curvy roads through breathtaking scenery for a couple of hours and a half.

When you arrive, the town has just about everything one could want. There are several kickass restaurants, chief among them The Pointe, Sobo (with whom we have just finished a cookbook for Random House), Tacofino, Spotted Bear, and Shelter. The town has a thing for fresh, local, high quality ingredients, one that we have watched grow over the years from an inherent affection to a proud passion. We get our daily coffee and beer fixes at The Tofitian and the Tofino Brewing Company (latter home to growlers galore and a fantastic little half-pipe for whenever the town’s sweet little skatepark suffers the rain), and very quickly forget our cell phones (Rogers’ service is a 20th century joke in these parts anyway).

All this is to say that we almost always turn right to Tofino when Highway 4 hits the Pacific Ocean, and very seldom left. If we were to turn left, we’d quickly end up in the village of Ucluelet, which – despite a few visits and on account of our own ignorance – has always seemed like the lesser of two awesomes. But since we’re in Tofino for nearly a month of every year with seldom a day of that spent in Ucluelet, we decided on our most recent trip up that it was only right to go left.

Ucluelet might not have the vast expanses of sandy surf beaches like Tofino, but it’s nevertheless comparable in other ways. It has a similarly small population at just under 2,000, basically the same mid 30′s median age, the same love affair with food and drink (albeit with far fewer outlets), a much more challenging skatepark (that bowl section is gnarly!), and accommodations that run the gamut from rustic to world class. We’d been hearing great things about Black Rock Oceanfront Resort, and so made the place our home base for a few days. The accommodations were top drawer, reminding us plenty of those offered at The Wickaninnish Inn. Everything that we sat on or laid down upon was bosom plush, and our suite came with the extra-auditory benefit of a vast seascape crashing into rocks directly in front of us. The only thing that struck as odd about the place was that it wasn’t busy. Granted, we arrived mid-week on out of season dates, but the occupancy appeared to be a little on the light side; a testament, perhaps, to Tofino’s greater appeal.

Because we had so much work to do with the cookbook, we kept to the suite for much of the time, with chef Lisa Ahier of Sobo commuting to us daily from Tofino instead of the other way around. That meant no time indulging in the spa and only an hour a day of shoreline exploration (some interesting finds, including the skeleton of a former sea lion who’d misplaced his skull). We only took breaks to eat, and let me tell you, when you’re dissecting and perfecting recipes for a cookbook all day and night, hunger is often, urgent, and so very debilitating.

We checked out a couple of places in town, namely Ukee Dogs and Hank’s. At the former – a tiny counter service joint with a few picnic tables out front – it was all about comfort foods and Foggy Bean espresso. I’m sure they offered a token salad or two (probably with bacon), but the focus was squarely on big ass hot dogs of varying stripe and decadence. The chalkboard menus were painted onto surfboards and told of daunting wonders, everything from pizza smokies loaded with jalapenos to “logger dogs” filled with banana peppers and onions. They even had a Mac & Cheese dog (and probably a couple of defibrillators under the counter). The latter, Hank’s, was equally a little more refined but equally indulgent, plus they had a liquor license, which is to say I liked it more. The owners, Francois Pilon and Clark Deutscher, are irrepressible beer and BBQ fetishists, smoking their meats in house and offering a good representation of local pours, including a proper cask ale or two. I fell for their pork ribs – so tender and flavourful; some of the best I’d ever had on the island. Our one major regret is that we never were able to slow down enough to take in a proper supper at the well reviewed Norwoods. Alas, next time…

Most of our eating was done at Black Rock, either in the Float Lounge with it’s uncannily pretty bar (its back and ceiling is shaped like a cresting wave) or in the main dining room, which is called Fetch. Both are fronted by the ocean and both get plenty of natural light, but Fetch looks and feels a little more formal and juts out onto the rocks just a little further and so affords better views. It also has a large patio, upon which was what appeared to be a fire pit for outdoor grilling (alas, it wasn’t quite patio weather yet). The lounge suited us well because it offered late night drinks and bites. They plate a really good burger, but food-wise, Fetch was the main attraction.

Chef Louise Pickles and her crew are killing it in Fetch’s kitchen, and that’s saying something considering how hard it is to staff the place. It’s hard enough to attract competent, dedicated kitchen staff in Tofino, let alone Ucluelet (sidebar: if any Vancouver cooks are looking for a different experience and some serious surf, send your resumes to any restaurant hereabouts). I’d heard nothing but really good things about Pickles from a few food writer colleagues and quite a few local chefs (including Lisa, who adores her), but the truth of it was that I’m a doubting arsehole sometimes, made apprehensive by the same ignorance that had always caused me to turn right instead of the left.

I knew Pickles’ bio – that she had been trained at Vancouver’s Pacific Institute of Culinary Arts, toiled at Diva At The Met and the shockingly good Sonora Resort (chef Terry Pichor is amazing), and had been part of Fetch’s opening crew under then executive chef Andrew Springett – but it wasn’t until I tucked into one of her basil-licked organic chicken dumplings (maintaining its heat in an intensely flavoured, freshly foraged mushroom consomme) that I appreciated what that meant. It was the same story with the perfectly cooked Coho filet (fresh from “Pacific Provider”) that came resting hot on a warm ragu of mushrooms (twas the season) and toasted quinoa, the lot sauced with quince vinaigrette and decorated with sauteed kale and baby carrots. The technique and presentation were faultless. Even the least sophisticated dish on the menu – a freshly cut pappardelle pasta loaded with slow cooked beef chuck flats from Two Rivers, impactful shards of red pepper, little bombs of confit garlic, and thick slivers of Parmesan cheese – seemed of an elevated elegance, as if every forkful was a sentence in a convincing explanation of how utterly ridiculous it is to ever prejudge the ability of an unknown kitchen. There were fresh oysters that night (from Outlandish, naturally), too, and some sort of chocolate banana pile of deliciousness to close, but what stayed with me (and remains with me) was the lightning strike of that chicken dumpling in the hot consomme. Pow! So good. Also of note were the new offerings from sushi chef Kevin Kimoto. We actually arrived at Black Rock on the day before his rolls were introduced to the menu, so we were happy to be guinea pigs (with a heavy emphasis on “pigs”). His panko-crusted, tempura-battered “blow hole roll” of spicy tuna, tobiko roe, and fruit salsa was outstanding!

We didn’t leave Black Rock all that happy, which is to say that we weren’t happy to leave Black Rock. Or Ucluelet, for that matter. It didn’t have as many varied attractions as Tofino and none of the spark a spliff and stretch your legs beaches, but it shared the same chilled out, down to earth Islander ethos that defines in part what it means to be British Columbian. We left fully aware that our work had cruelly kept us from properly exploring the small town’s immediate environs, but we’re past that already, happy in the knowledge that there will be a next time.

So the next time you come to the highway junction, give it more than just a thought. Give it a day. Better yet, give it two or three or four. And consider doing it sooner rather than later, as the region’s annual food festival, Feast, is underway from now until the end of the month, and every eatery that I’ve mentioned in this story – even the ones in Tofino – are totally on board.

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