Visionary Chefs

In the middle of nowhere, three restaurants are serving food worth flying, ferrying or hiking for
The journey requires navigating hairpin turns, lurching along in a seaplane or picking a path among mountain peaks. It doesn't faze you at all. You're a knife-and-fork Galahad, and dinner is the Holy Grail; the three out-of-the-way restaurants here are all worthy of a pilgrimage.

What makes these places so special? Glorious settings--a modernist retreat in the foothills of the Australian high country, a white-clapboard inn on a Pacific Northwest shore and a chalet surrounded by the summits of the Catalan Pyrenees--play a large part. Even more compelling are the unique sensibilities of the chefs, who create brilliant food with a regional flourish. A meal at one of these off-the-beaten-track destinations is a total experience, since each offers overnight accommodations and, in some cases, other activities that transform a quest for dinner into an extraordinary culinary vacation. 

AUSTRALIA As if getting to Australia itself wasn't the mother of all schlepps, Victoria's Howqua-Dale Gourmet Retreat is a three-hour drive from Melbourne. That is, if you don't set a course via the Healesville animal sanctuary to visit the wombats or stop off at some Yarra Valley wineries for a tipple or two. 

The striking complex is run by a pair of exceptional women. Marieke Brugman, who presides over the huge glassed-in kitchen, is an art historian turned chef. The equally accomplished Sarah Stegley, who spent two years with a United Nations team in South Africa, plays the roles of sommelier, innkeeper and mistress of chitchat. 

Each weekend they accept 12 guests for a gastronomic marathon that lasts from Friday dinner to Sunday brunch, with everything from cooking classes to fly-fishing in-between. But Brugman's food is the main attraction. Her eclecticism defines the best of modern Australian cooking--a spirited blend of Asian and Mediterranean accents, with a few British puddings thrown in for good measure. On Friday nights, she prepares prized Australian fish, perhaps wild barramundi or blue-eye cod, framed by artful orange-saffron sauce. Soba noodles with seafood and Thai herbs might star at Saturday luncheon served under a Japanese maple tree. For Saturday dinner, an antique table adorned with damask and silver becomes an elegant backdrop for seafood consommé, squab or kangaroo. 

(P.O. Box 379, Mansfield, Victoria 3724; 011-61-3-5777-3503; fax 011-61-3-5777-3896; E-mail: howqua@mansfield.net.au. From $450 per person for two nights, including meals.) 

CANADA Is line-caught sturgeon with lovage-lavender oil and plum-and-scented-geranium compote worth a trek? The devotees who seek out Vancouver Island's Sooke Harbour House certainly think so. After all, where else can you feast on such regional trophies as pink swimming scallops or converse with an innkeeper like Sinclair Philip, who holds a doctorate in political economics and regards the world as an edible landscape? 

Sooke Harbour House and its extravagant gardens look out onto Sooke Bay, the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympic Mountains. This month, the property reopens after a renovation that doubled the number of guest rooms to 26. Getting to the inn can involve a 60-minute seaplane flight from Seattle or a 90-minute ferry ride from Vancouver, plus an hour-long drive either way. 

A meal in the panoramic dining room is a communion with the waters, forests and fields of the Pacific Northwest. Philip scuba-dives for seafood, forages for wild plants and cultivates forgotten native species. The house salad is a bouquet of esoteric flowers and leaves that can include passion flowers or red orach. A kitchen staff of seven, guided by Philip and his wife, Frederique, dream up such dishes as miso-glazed oyster parcels stuffed with mollusks and pickled seaweed. The menu's botanical buzz can be overwhelming, yet the flavors are bright and pristine, emphasizing clear broths and infusions. 

(1528 Whiffen Spit Rd., Sooke, British Columbia VOS 1NO; 800-889-9688; fax 250-642-6988; E-mail: shh@islandnet.com. Dinner for two about $120. Rooms from $125 to $333, breakfast and lunch included.) 

SPAIN A seriously out-of-the-way valley high up in the Catalan Pyrenees might sound like a daunting dining spot. But then, part of the excitement of making the three-hour drive from Barcelona to Casa Irene is looking out the car window at the villages and vistas of the dazzling Vall d'Arán, surrounded by sharp peaks. If you take time to linger, you can ski, camp, fish, hike or simply breathe it all in. 

Casa Irene, which inside looks like a rustic chalet done up in stylish blond wood, is the jewel of Arties--a hamlet filled with buildings topped by traditional sloped slate roofs and 12th-century churches. The restaurant started life as a country canteen in 1974. A Seventies ski boom brought well-heeled crowds to this once-agricultural valley, and the restaurant eventually rose to become a gastronomic mecca that counts the Spanish royal family among its faithful customers. 

Irene España is a meticulous and gracious hostess. Her son, Andres Vidal, who developed his skills with masters like André Daugin and Pierre and Michel Troisgros, is regarded as one of the country's top toques. Although Casa Irene is in Spain, France is only half an hour away, which explains why Vidal feels free to dress up his earthy Catalan mountain flavors (charcuterie, game and stews) in French haute couture--at ready-to-wear prices. 

French patrons swoon at the shower of truffles perfuming a fillet of succulent Pyrenean ox. Their Iberian neighbors opt for the more traditional baked salt cod, offset with a tomato coulis and caramelized garlic. Vidal indulges the local penchant for game-and-fruit combinations with such dishes as venison with raspberry sauce. The menu also includes wild boar stew with chestnut puree. A proper Catalan, Vidal pulls off the unusual regional pairing of meat and seafood in such combinations as veal and crab. His menu maintains a perfect balance of high (lightly smoked hake with caviar cream) and low (stuffed pig's feet with mustard). 

The proprietors of Casa Irene also own an intimate three-star hotel, Valartiés, which is adjacent to the restaurant. It's a great place to crash after overindulging in the desserts, such as honey cream with saffron, and España's famous homemade liqueurs, in flavors like walnut. 

(Major, 4, Arties, Catalonia; 011-3473-64-43-64; fax 011-3473-64-21-74. Set menus at Casa Irene from approximately $30; rooms at Valartiés about $60 per night.) 

Anya von Bremzen is the co-author of Terrific Pacific Cookbook (Workman). Her latest book is Fiesta! A Celebration of Latin Hospitality (Doubleday).

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