From October to April, the Queen of Nanaimo typically departs Tsawwassen Terminal for Galiano Island only twice a day, so you had better not miss your ferry. The good news is this easy sailing across the Strait of Georgia takes less than an hour. Once you disembark at Sturdies Bay and trundle off the clunking ramp, stop at the information booth on the side of the road. That dishevelled guy out front might look like a scary hitchhiker, but those are actually maps he is holding aloft to shield against the drizzle and you are going to need one, especially if it’s dark.
Veer left at the first crossroad, then left again toward Montague Harbour. The 15-minute drive will ascend a gentle hill and wind around cedar-shrouded curves. Watch out for deer crouched in the ferns, hypnotized by headlights and ready to dart. Stop. Back up. See that small cluster of cars in the shadows? This must be it, given that you haven’t seen any other vehicles (parked or moving) since you passed Hummingbird Pub.
Creeping down the gravel driveway, you spy a timber cabin nestled in the woods, the windows lit up like a fairy tale with softly glowing lanterns. Yes, this is Pilgrimme. And you have travelled all this way in the damp dead of a coastal winter because: a) it’s been really hard to secure a reservation since the 25-seat hobbit’s lair in the middle of nowhere placed third on enRoute Magazine’s list of 10 best new restaurants in Canada for 2015; b) the excited chatter among your foodie friends grew even louder after chef and co-owner Jesse McCleery won the B.C. round of the Gold Medal Plates in October; and c) of all the little burger shacks, bistros and picturesque inns dotted across the Gulf Islands offering good-enough meals, there are none that cook with more commitment to the surrounding forests, farms and ocean.
Inside the cozy cottage, a laid-back server dressed in denim and flannel leads you to a small table tucked under a serpentine sculpture of driftwood hung on the wall. Janis Joplin wails in the background as the stereo and dim lights flicker. The back of the bar is lined with mason jars of bull kelp, beets and nectarines fermenting in apple-cider vinegar. The funky witch’s pantry is merely a makeshift partition to screen the kitchen from the dining room. The real pickle emporium – shelves upon shelves of house-made preserves – is stored in the staff lodgings on the second storey, where the restaurant owners also lived up until last month.
Mr. McCleery and his partner, Pilgrimme co-owner Leanne Lalonde, met while working at the Rosewood’s King Pacific Lodge, a floating resort in the Great Bear Rainforest. That was where the chef (whose résumé also includes Clayoquot Wilderness Resort on Vancouver Island, Oyama Sausage Co. in Vancouver and Café Brio in Victoria) developed his local food philosophy.
Even at this time of year, when the farmer’s fields are largely dormant and the fishermen’s catch is lean, about 85 per cent of the food served – half-a-dozen daily specials, in addition to a lengthy regular menu – is harvested from the bounty of this 60-square-kilometre island.
Begin by nibbling on some marinated olives tossed with finely chopped pine needles (there actually is a guy on Galiano who grows olives, but the chef only gets about 10 a year, so these are imported, proving that, although extreme, he isn’t unwaveringly dogmatic) and warm potato sourdough bread, which releases a sweetly yeasty puff of steam when you tear into the crusty rounds.
You’re going to want to save some of that bread for the Humboldt squid, which is ribboned into thin fettuccini-style noodles when frozen, lightly poached in smoked water and finished in warm butter. It’s served in a dark and earthy yet exquisitely balanced and silken rich, caraway-scented soup made from kvass (fermented rye-bread broth) fortified with caramelized shiitake, onion sofrito and dried plums. The bowl is topped with charred sprouted broccoli from a farmer down the road and crackly green wafers of dehydrated seaweed that the chef collected on a local beach at the bottom of a cliff, which he descended by rope. “Yeah, not a lot of people go there,” he later explains nonchalantly.
Don’t be squeamish about the lamb-heart tartare. The ruby-red raw meat (also raised on the island) is fresh, pure, cold, clean and not the least bit gamey. Blended with bitter chopped parsley stems and served under a powdery snowdrift of cured and grated sea urchin, it is one of the best dishes on the menu.
There will be many complimentary small bites delivered to your table throughout the evening: a wrinkly fermented plum sprinkled with crystallized ginger and bee pollen; a prickly puffball of dehydrated reindeer lichen dusted with porcini powder and a side of kefir cream; a charred pickled beet accompanied by a creamy quenelle of hazelnut butter; a fudgy slice of delicata squash spread with a black, sticky smear of intensely fishy garum – a condiment from Ancient Rome, fermented in a stew of herring bones and guts for about 45 days before being reduced to caramel.
Now would be the time to order a beer. Although there are many enticing wines on the all-B.C. beverage list, you’re going to need some carbonization to scrub the palate after so many eye-squintingly sour flavours. And there are more to come.
Extraordinarily lean Metchosin pork belly, which takes five days of curing, resting and smoking to prepare, comes with fermented green plums, charred leeks, pears preserved in vinegar and a glossy, pork-pear jus. The large sharing plate (most dishes are served family-style) could definitely use a neutral starch for a bite of relief. As could the joltingly acidic Galiano potatoes, which are sliced paper-thin and poached in kelp oil, then served under an incredibly salty swamp of chum roe, charred buttermilk and pickled bull kelp.
By the time you finish dessert – fizzy cherry bombs fermenting from the inside out, dark chocolate truffles filled with caramelized sake lees and crystallized pine-gel sours – you might be gasping for water and feeling like you just ate a pound of MSG.
The overwhelming preponderance of fermented flavours is partly a consequence of the barren winter season. The chef says he incorporates more freshness during the fertile summer months. But he also says he’d like to move toward smaller-sized tasting menus with fewer components on each plate – which would be a very wise decision.
So, if you’ve been feeling guilty about not yet making the pilgrimage to Pilgrimme, take heart in knowing that it is still a work-in-progress and will likely only get better. In the meantime, there really isn’t any other chef in the province who has given himself over so completely to the Pacific Northwest. His menu is an adventurous microcosm of the region. And for passionate foodies, it is certainly worth the trip.Report Typo/Error