Tofino, a culinary destination? Where the f**k is Tofino? It’s certainly what I wondered back in 2014 when one of this small town’s eateries, The Wolf in the Fog, won best new restaurant in Canada. And not by some little local media outlet but by the very influential Air Canada magazine, enRoute.
Tofino is on the far west coast of Vancouver Island on the far west coast of Canada. In 1912 they distinguished themselves as the town at the end of the road. An actual road wasn’t built until 1959. Only loggers were allowed to use it during the week. Yet, this spot has been inhabited for more than 5000 years according to archaeological data. The Spanish led by Captain Juan Perez arrived in 1774; British Captain James Cook in 1778. Fur trading was huge in the 19thcentury. The Chinese paid top dollar for the native black otter pelts until the adorable creatures were hunted to extinction. For all this activity, the town wasn’t established until 1909. It was never very big, there are less that 2000 permanent residents today.
So how can Tofino support an award-winning restaurant? It doesn’t hurt that 750,000 to 1 million tourists visit annually. And it can seem like they are all trying to get a table at The Wolf. For good reason. The food is sophisticated and polished. Chef Nick Nutting helms a top-notch team. His cooking is influenced by carefully sourced local ingredients, but his inspiration seems to come from everywhere. Grilled squid and pork jowl on a green papaya ,cucumber and basil salad with a coconut dressing showed strong Thai influence. While the pork belly with tamarind and tomato curry would have fit perfectly on an Indian menu. Both were unusual and divine.
Four years after The Wolf burst on to the Canadian culinary scene there is a new kid on the block. 1909 Kitchen is determined the give this Grande Dame a run for the money. Chef Paul Moran began his career at West Restaurant in Vancouver but after 4 years the greater world beckoned. He honed his skills in Dubai and France before returning to Canada. In 2013 he was the inaugural winner of the $10,000 Hawksworth Young Chef Scholarship. He is forager extraordinaire. The barnacles he served recently were magic; the scarily fresh and yummy sea urchins were served still in the shell. Seafood doesn’t get better.
Reservations at The Wolf are hard to get. They do take walk in; be prepared to wait. It is well worth it. Chef Nutting’s octopus salad was a dream dish. Chunks of smoky tender octopus combined perfectly with the al dente lentils in a mildly spicy green harissa sauce. My favorite of the evening. Green soul is the menu name of the daily vegetarian option. Our night it was an unusual take on a traditional grilled cheese sandwich. It did have two pieces of bread with cheese between them but was then covered with barely cooked vegetables and a béchamel sauce. It was rich, delicious, complicated and had to be eaten with a knife, fork and spoon.
At 1909 we sat outside under heaters watching the boats come and go in the marina and eagles flying overhead. The food is lighter and simpler but no less delicious. The vibe is a bit more spontaneous than The Wolf. But this is a surf town, no one dresses up and nothing is formal. The albacore tuna on white radish tacos is a must order. Super clean and fresh; buttery tuna contrasting perfectly with the crunchy radish. They recommend sharing all dishes, but this is one to keep for yourself. Chef Moran is a master of the wood burning stove. I rarely want pizza when I’m out but the Taleggio white pie with bacon, caramelized onions and parmesan was so good. I ordered an extra to take back to my room and ate it cold the next day. It did not disappoint.
Tada! Tofino dinners solved. But where to stay. For a posh experience nothing beats the Wickaninnish Inn situated right on the beach. I chose to stay at the Tofino Resort & Marino instead. I wanted to be able to walk into town and it is much cheaper. The rooms have all been redone in the past few months and have a simple Scandinavian feel; the beds are great! The wolf is a 6-minute walk. 1909 is at the bottom of the driveway (they are owned by the same people).
A last tip… have breakfast at 1909. The egg dishes are incredible, huge and great value. I had the crispy chickpea fritters which were basically eggs benedict without the bread and ham. Ate every last morsel and was full all day.