Oh, Victoria. Please forgive me for neglecting you so long. It's been almost 18 months since I last visited your fair shores. True, there have not been any major developments since Zambri's relocated and enRoute magazine named Ulla one of Canada's 10 best new restaurants. But your casual lunch scene is constantly evolving and your cocktail bars still hit surprisingly high. Of all the new eateries, specialty shops and beverage trends, these are the most notable.
The Whole Beast
2032 Oak Bay Ave., Victoria; 250-590-7675. thewholebeast.caOoh, that smell. A heady aroma of garlic, fatty porcine, fennel and chili, it wallops the nostrils and follows us all the way back to Vancouver, wafting from our hotel mini-fridge and saturating our beach blankets. The coarse-ground salami and barbecue char sui pork belly taste even better a week later, when the oiliness has dried out and the skins have shrivelled. Kudos to Cory Pelan, who left a comfortable position as head chef at La Piola to follow his passion for butchering and curing southern European cold meats. His microbiological flora (the free-flowing bacteria that turn a cave or cooler into an artisan cellar) are growing very nicely. These meats are impressive, much better than you'd expect from a young, year-old salumeria.Feys+Hobbs Canteen
2249 Oak Bay Ave., Victoria; 250-590-5761. feysandhobbs.com
If you need additional picnic supplies to go with Whole Beast's cured meat, head down the street to Canteen. The Oak Bay specialty food shop, operated by the locally renowned catering company Feys+Hobbs, opened last February. Along with fresh daily dishes and frozen entrees, the shop's shelves are lined with gourmet sweets and savouries. We picked up some house-brand drunken olives (brined with so much vermouth you could drop one in a shot of gin to create an instant martini), a chunky artichoke roast-pepper dip and divine lavender lemonade. Island View beach, here we come.
Veneto Tapa Lounge
1450 Douglas St., Victoria; 250-383-7310.venetodining.com
What's your poison? Can't decide? At this snazzy downtown boîte in the Hotel Rialto, you can "spin the wheel" and let the bartenders fashion an original cocktail to your tastes. There isn't an actual wheel to spin. And the lounge isn't exactly new (although the boutique hotel's luxury rooms were just recently renovated). But these relatively new $10 custom creations are so much fun that they now account for about 80 per cent of the drinks ordered each night. All you do is pick a spirit (whisky, for example) and flavour profile (bitter-sweet) and the friendly mixologists will shake up a bourbon highball with fig compote, black-walnut bitters and a barbaresco float – or something similar – on the fly.
Big Wheel Burger
341 Cook St., Victoria; 250-381-0050. bigwheelburger.com
Ready for the 100-mile burger? Big Wheel has recently begun rolling out "fast food with a conscience." Brought to Cook Street Village by the owners of Zambri's and Pig BBQ Joint, it's no surprise that these juicy, flat-top-grilled burgers are bursting with wholesome flavour. The five-ounce patties are ground every morning from a mix of naturally raised Two Rivers chuck and brisket. Sandwiched between squishy, locally baked egg-bread buns and good old American cheese, they go down swell with a real-milk milkshake or pint of Phillips Phoenix Gold lager. Simple. Pure. Addictive.
The Clay Pigeon
1002 Blanshard St., Victoria; 250-590-6657.I wanted to love this new locals' favourite. But to me, this upscale café (or down-market diner) represents everything that's good – and bad – about the Victoria restaurant scene. The tiny kitchen makes a valiant attempt at pushing new trends forward (crispy pig ears, bison-tongue reuben sandwiches) and playfully reviving old classics (curried devilled eggs and escargot). But the food is neither here nor there. The kale Caesar salad is too kid-friendly (no bite or acidity), a fanned-out, thinly sliced beet salad with sharp-edged pistachios is too much of the same bland thing. And those slivered pig's ears are as tough as rawhide. I understand that the restaurant doesn't want to be pretentious. But when the server disappears several times over the course of a meal without replenishing empty glasses or clearing finished plates, it's just plain annoying.Ferris' Oyster Bar & Grill
536 Yates St., Victoria; 250-360-1824. ferrisoysterbar.com
The upstairs oyster bar is an extension of the venerable downstairs Ferris Grill. I've been meaning to check it out for a couple of years. By mistake, I first went to the Oyster Bar across from the Fairmont Empress Hotel. It would be hard to imagine two restaurants more diametrically opposed. Whereas the latter is cheesy and touristy with shockingly slow service, the former is warm and inviting. Wrapped in exposed brick walls, dark hardwood floors and tall cathedral windows, it's the kind of place that makes you want to linger by the bar and order another glass of thirst-quenching verdejo while nibbling house-smoked oysters and Galician sardines. I'd definitely go back.