I love a bargain. So when a friendly Club Intrawest sales agent approached me at the base of Blackcomb Mountain offering a three-night suite for $199 and a free Kindle eBook reader in exchange for going on a time-share tour, I was obviously intrigued. Who would have guessed that only one year after the Olympic Games, Whistler businesses would be peddling cut-rate prices and Mexican resort-style promotions?
While this may be a horrible season for the ski-resort operators, it's a great time for tourists. If you're heading up to the mountains with the kids for March Break - the forecast calls for 75 centimetres of fresh powder this weekend - there are many surprisingly affordable restaurant meals to be found.
Nochi Pan Asian Bistro in the Pan Pacific Village Centre hotel is one of several casual restaurants that opened this winter, and it has much to offer.
The menu, which spans Japan, Malaysia, Vietnam and China, specializes in tasting platters that are plentiful, easy to share and provide good value. Until the end of the season, you can order a heavily discounted platter with three items and a pitcher of cocktails for only $30 (regularly priced at $45).
The bar features an extensive sake collection and some tantalizing Asian-inflected drinks, such as the lychee and kaffir lime sparkling-wine bellini or a pitcher of shiso sangria mixed with plum wine, mango and grapefruit vodka and lots of fresh fruit (although the latter could certainly use more shiso leaf - I didn't taste any).
Families are very welcome. There's a children's menu, with fried rice and stir-fried noodles, alongside grilled cheese and chicken fingers for the fussy eaters. The miniature green-tea dessert cones, filled with mango gelato and chocolate-mint sorbetto, are apparently a big hit with the little ones (as they were with our table of adults). And if you're a guest of the hotel, the tykes eat (and ski) for free in March.
Yet Nochi doesn't feel like a typical family restaurant. The atmosphere is convivial, but relaxing. The lighting is dim, with splashes of red. The décor is clean and minimalist. There's a tinkling waterfall by the entrance. The pale wood walls are hung with textured mats and the windows are partly covered in bamboo screening so diners don't have to watch the après shenanigans in the adjacent outdoor hot tub.
It's one of those rare rooms that strikes a comfortable balance, making it suitable not just for families, but also for large groups, casual dates and tiara-wearing stagette parties (like the one that rolled in the night we were there).
The floor staff is exceptionally friendly and knowledgeable. Tammy, our attentive server, made us feel right at home and steered us well with our selections. And the kitchen crew, headed up by chef Tane Maxwell, is obviously talented.
My main criticism is that some of the dishes are overly sweet. The menu, as a whole, seems to be catering to timid palates. And some of the original recipes are just plain weird.
Take the lychee lollipops stuffed with goat cheese, for instance. The sweet-and-sour balls - battered in tempura, lightly deep-fried, skewered on sticks and served in a pink beetroot aioli with balsamic glaze - demonstrate everything that can possibly go wrong with fusion cuisine.
Mr. Maxwell is from New Zealand and has worked with Jamie Philips, a well-known Kiwi chef who once won a parmesan cooking contest with a trio that included cheese fritters and balsamic craisins (dried cranberries), whipped cheese with chive pistachio pesto and a cheese-and-port ice-cream sandwich. So I can see where he gets his inspiration. And perhaps goat cheese and lychee lollipops would be eagerly lapped up down under. But they were cacophonously disgusting to me.
The Nochi House laksa, on the other hand, was a very pleasant rendition of the traditional Malaysian soup, with a tight balance of spicy curry, salty fish sauce and sweet coconut milk.
The Thai fish cakes were moist and fishy (no filler here) with a very pronounced coriander flavour, but the nam prik dipping sauce had no depth. It was made with too much lime and not enough fish sauce.
This wasn't a one-off problem. Again and again, weak side dips spoiled a dish's well-executed central component.
Szechwan-coated squid, rolled and crosscut to look like pineapples, were tender with a nice golden crisp and fiery bite. Shame about the cloyingly sweet chili sauce. The shichimi-coated beef strip-loin steak was grilled to juicy, pink perfection with a spicy, blackened crust. But again, the syrupy hoisin jus with chili jam, served on top of an already sweet red-pepper salad, was a saccharine overkill.
All those extra spoonfuls of sugar may appeal to New Zealanders, but I don't know if it's going to go down well with locals. Here on the West Coast, we have very high standards for Asian food and our tastes lean more toward authentic flavours. Although Nochi has lots to recommend, the sweetness leaves a slightly bitter taste.
Nochi Pan Asian Bistro: 4320 Sundial Crescent, Whistler, B.C., 604-966-5500