Baa! Baa! The white Clun Forest ewe bleats in protest as a rambunctious lamb charges at her teat. Or perhaps she’s bleating at us for trespassing beyond the wire fences at Vancouver Island’s Stone Soup Inn.
How could we resist? Only a few gravel steps removed from the wood-clad inn, this small, fir-shrouded hobby farm teems with long, lean turkeys strutting outside the barn and silently hissing ducks chasing each other around the chicken coop.
But where are the pigs?
“They used to be here,” my friend Pamela says, gesturing toward a trampled garden behind the greenhouse. That’s where three snorting Mulefoot hogs were comfortably ensconced when she visited earlier this summer.
“I’ll bet they’ll be on our dinner plates tonight,” I venture. “No!” the city slicker gasps. Oh, yes they are, as we later discover – brined, braised and slowly roasted.
Farm-to-table dining doesn’t get much more authentic than this. Named one of Canada’s 10 best new restaurants in 2010 by enRoute magazine, the Stone Soup Inn is a charmingly unpretentious bed and breakfast off the beaten track.
Particular diners need not bother. The restaurant is open only Thursday to Saturday, and has no written menu. A surprise five-course pre-fixe changes daily, dependent on the season and whatever chef/proprietor Brock Windsor has foraged or sourced from his garden, forest, local farmers and fishers.
The restaurant will happily accommodate dietary restrictions or aversions requested in advance. But please don’t try substituting baked potatoes for mashed on the fly. Mr. Windsor, his kitchen apprentice and a lovely young server (slash bartender and maître d’) are the only members of an extremely thin staff running this 40-seat, home-style dining room.
Should you stay overnight in one of the inn’s two minimalist guestrooms (decorated in creams, taupes and wall-mounted Cowichan sweaters), you will find Mr. Windsor back in the restaurant early the next morning, serving a hearty farmer’s breakfast (Mulefoot hogs make great bacon). And this is after he has already fed the chickens and nursed the lambs that wouldn’t take to their mothers.
Some might say Mr. Windsor is living the life. But the whole routine of a farmer, forager, innkeeper and regional culinary advocate looks awfully exhausting to me. Which perhaps explains why this former high-end chef – whose impressive resume includes top positions at Sooke Harbour House, Whistler’s Bearfoot Bistro, Brentwood Bay Lodge and a billionaire’s private retreat on James Island – has simplified his cuisine to the disappointing edge of austerity. Simple can be splendid, especially at the height of the summer when lumpy heirloom tomatoes are so concentrated with sun-ripened sweetness they need nothing more than a splash of good olive oil to make you moan out loud.
Mr. Windsor’s first salad course on last Saturday’s tasting menu exploited the Island’s seasonal ripeness to mouth-watering effect. Those juicy heirloom tomatoes – in brilliant jewel tones of ruby, emerald and amethyst – were almost eclipsed by a thinly shaved clump of lightly pickled Early Jersey Wakefield cabbage, a sweet-and-sour medley of sliced beets and transparent apples, and the most bracingly vibrant cucumber-mint salad I’ve tasted since I was a child.
That pure plate of garden-fresh vegetables was perfectly suited for the Stone Soup’s Zen-like dining room, where wild blue hydrangeas brush against unadorned windows lined with mason jars of drying lentils.
The second course – a deeply savoury barley-miso broth fortified with leathery spinach, fava beans and tiny early-season chanterelles – was an earthy, modern-hippie soup that paired brilliantly with the Averill Creek Gewurtztraminer 2010 from an extreme local wine and beer list sourced almost exclusively from Vancouver Island.
The following seafood plate was casually cluttered with a piece of (slightly overcooked) sockeye salmon wrapped in papery crisp skin, an enormous diver scallop (caramelized to the point where its naturally fibrous strings melted into silky tenderness), and wild-sorrel mayonnaise dotted with trailing blackberries, huckleberries and sweet wild strawberries. Garnished with an “almost burnt” cauliflower wedge (as the server honestly described it), this would have been a very good dish if it weren’t for a pile of soft green beans that were definitely overdone.
When cooking simply in a fine-dining restaurant, there isn’t much room for technical error. The ingredients will speak for themselves if handled tenderly.
But when the dining room has only five two-seat tables, I don’t see how a chef of this stature can excuse (without apology) mushy carrots, watery broccoli and flabby fingerlings for the main course. Even the recently slaughtered hog leg – served thick, rosy pink and fatly marbled – was really just a grandma-style Sunday dinner roast. It was sweet and chewy, with no personality save for the crisply scored crackling.
Dessert was fresh picked berries – lovely marionberries (a sturdy hybrid of blackberries and raspberries) – served with unset ice cream and boring hunks of hazelnuts.
Is the Stone Soup Inn still one of the best restaurants in Canada? I wouldn’t say so. My dinner may have been comprised of gorgeous ingredients, but there wasn’t much value added from the kitchen. It certainly didn’t express any of the “elevated” refinement from “a thinking man’s chef” that so impressed the food critic from enRoute magazine.
It was a nice farm meal for a decent price. And for many people, that’s all that matters. But if you’re a foodie looking for revelation, this is not a must-go destination.