You know – I recently came up with this sort of Venn Diagram of how to classify restaurants. The factors to consider would be Art, Craft, and Commerce. So, a place like Earl’s or Kirin Chinese Restaurants would be Craft and Commerce; consistently well made food to be sold at a good clip. I think of the recent local spurt of pop up restaurants and collaborations as the intersection of Art and Commerce – where ideas are being hashed out in the hot house of a pre-sold audience. Where all three intersect; Art, Craft, and Commerce you get big guns like Bauhaus, West, and Hawksworth.
Where the intersection is Art and Craft – things can get very very interesting. The potential for failure is not just high – but the most embarrassing. Art and Craft can easily slip into Pretension and Incompetence. Earnestness is the most daring high wire act one can take on in our ironic age.
To be honest, I had no idea what I would experience as I sailed towards Galiano Island. Pilgrimme had seemingly come out of nowhere to win Enroute Magazine’s 2015 Best New Restaurant in Canada – probably the most important award a new restaurant could win in the country. It certainly popped the Vancouver-centric bubble of most local diners.
I was really charmed by the lack of guile as we approached the restaurant. The atmosphere was warm, friendly, and that most difficult of all quality to nail down, authentic.
I lived in the Bay Area and have made the overnight trip to the French Laundry a few times – and I thought it was awesome, but there is a heightened preciousness in Yountville that feels unreal and Disneyesque. There was none of that at Pilgrimme. It really did feel like a house in the woods that you wandered into – because that’s exactly what it was! Ha!
This trip took place in very late November – a time chosen purposely to see what Chef Jesse McCleery and his lovely partner in crime, Leanne Lalonde would do with a limited palette of ingredients. Well, the food was really really lovely – very loyal to the local landscape without tipping into dogma.
Some of our party were trying to limit the amount of gluten they were consuming for health reasons. They were not trying to make a big deal about it – and amazingly the menu was already attuned to those needs simply because the ingredients were so local.
Brightness and richness were brought to the fore through the use of pickling and fermentation – flavors that felt unencumbered and natural. It’s always a funny thing to notice how much olive oil and lemon have so completely taken over modern food. We take for granted the strong grassy back notes and the mouth coating richness of EVOO, even with home cooked Chinese food, that the lack of it is startling. The clean clarity of the food resetting you palate to a more local state.
And there is real depth and technique in the cooking here. It’s not just stuff that’s pickled and shaved onto a plate. There is balance and precision to the simplicity. We had steak of Galiano Island beef that was meltingly gorgeously tender – the bullwhip kelp jus bringing a gentle umami backbone and structure to the dish. And let’s be honest – Galiano Island is awesome, but it is not famous for it’s beef, so there was some real technique going on.
The meal’s narrative finished with a steamed parsnip cake – totally in step with all of the other courses. As a diner who grew up with the ideal finish being a slumped pile of ice cream, chocolate sauce, and cake – the new fashion for lean and smart desserts can leave me yearning for more. But the gorgeous pine jellies were superlative. Soft placid sweetness shot through with pine that transported you to the middle of the forest – fresh and clear.
Art and Craft is a funny thing for a guy like me, who is ruled by Commerce. I went to business school and have traveled and worked all around the world. I’ve been relentless about experiencing the BEST and poured money into acquisition. Part of me doesn’t understand why Jesse and Leanne don’t open some sort of crazy expensive money making machine and be the the toast of the town. They could really conquer a big city if they wanted to… and yet… they have made a lovely special place on a island that is an overnight trip from the nearest big city. A place that defines itself, that is no less ambitious or full of rigor, but the focus is about self expression and integrity. I guess that’s Art – I wish I was capable of producing it, but I am happy to experience it.
I’ll be heading back in late May, and I am excited to see what will await us when late spring bounty is in full bloom, and the ripeness of summer is just making itself known.
I know it’s going to be good.