As we continue our tour of Victoria, capital of British Columbia, a bit of history. The spit of land referred to as Cook's Landing by the founders of Victoria's Fort Vancouver, and known today as Laurel Point, was a sacred spot for the Island's Lekwungen-speaking First People: a burial ground and a gathering place for the great ceremonial potlaches that defined the culture and spirit of those indigenous tribes (Coast Salish, Songhee, Esquimault).
For the past 30 years, Laurel Point has been the site of a luxury hotel facing the Inner Harbour ("247 steps from downtown"), built as a Delta property, then taken over by the Arsens family. an elegant brick ziggurat that contrasted sharply with the formal, colonial Victorian architecture of the Houses of Parliament and the mighty Empress. Twenty years ago, the gifted architect Arthur Ericksen (Vancouver's Law Courts, Tacoma's Museum of Glass) added a silvery-blue, glass-enclosed wing that looks like an ocean liner pulling out of the harbor. The rooms and public spaces were completely renovated last year, and the newly christened Inn at Laurel Point is positioning itself as an all-inclusive resort. (And we do mean inclusive: the website has a page promoting Laurel Point as LGBT-friendly.)
As befits a four-star property, there's an upscale restaurant (with a great view and an unwieldy name), Aura Waterfront Restaurant + Patio. The point of "aura," of course, is to recognize the historical significance of the location. "We wanted to call it Spirit or Spirits," says the hotel's manager, Scott Hoadley, "but the liquor board said no."
Exec Chef Brad Horen, the Canadian Culinary Federation's Chef of the Year in 2007, has a commitment to fresh-fresh-fresh, Oceanwise, organic. Before he joined Aura, he led a culinary team from Alberta to four gold medals and second-place overall at the World Culinary Olympics. Now that he's on Vancouver Island, he's got a far bigger market basket (seafood, produce, wine) to play with. A playful variation on surf-n-turf, for example: duck breast, duck consommé and a spot prawn. A risotto of wild chanterelles with a rich hazelnut brown butter. Or take that old Italian standby, pasta alle vongole, spaghetti with clams. At Aura, it turns out to be house-made gramigna (pasta curlicues, literally "weeds," nothing like factory-produced macaroni), the clams and mussels from local waters ("We know the name of the boat, they tell you"), and the tomatoes from Sun Wing Farms. It's our first exposure to Canada's newfound culinary self-awareness, of local pride in a job well done.
The wine list highlights 14 "local" wineries within a 45-minute drive and makes a "day trip" allowance for another 17. Shunted aside as Off-Island or worse are almost 100 wines from distant corners (Okanagan) of British Columbia. Not even Salt Spring Island qualifies as "local" by this Draconian standard, which might hurt the feelings of Gulf Island farmers. By every other standard, Salt Spring counts as "Up-Island."
We get to the cheese. Now, Jonathan Kaufman at Seattle Weekly complained recently that the servers didn't know squat about the fine cheeses served at Terrence Brennan's Artisanal Table in Bellevue. Too bad he didn't come along to Victoria, where the menu and staff give you a lot more information than Mr. Brennan sees fit. "White Grace," for example, a cow's milk cheese from Moonstruck Cheese on Salt Spring Island, or a chèvre from Farmhouse Natural Cheeses in Agassiz, BC: (You expect the servers at Aura to say "We know the name of the goat.") Accompanied by one of BC's most luscious wines, the baroquely named Brandenburg #3, from Venturi-Schultze. More about this winery in a future post. For the moment, it's getting late.
A note for diners staying at the hotel: there's no spa onsite, but don't worry: Molton Brown amenities in the rooms, along with a unique, $49 in-room spa experience: a "bath butler" to draw your perfumed bath, a drink (sweet wine) and treats (fruit, sweets, slightly risqué reading material). Just toddle off to your room and get soaked.