Sunday, May 18, 2008

Once you get past the derelict 2nd Avenue area, there's some fine dining to be had

It's a mixed bag for Tourism Prince Rupert and the Chamber of Commerce, with a travel piece penned in the Vancouver Sun this weekend, which found travel writer and apparently satisfied restaurant attendee Joseph Blake impressed with the calibre of the local eateries of the city.

Blake reviewed a number of the city's restaurants during his trip to the city and seems to have been smittened by a number of the local menus that are available. We're not sure how long he was here to examine the offerings of our port city, but he certainly must have gained a few pounds during his stay such is the effusive praise he heaps on a number of the local restaurants.

Less impressed however, was he of the Second Avenue area. Which only the restaurant Rain saved from a totally blistering revue, still describing the area as "downtown Prince Rupert's somewhat derelict Second Avenue." isn't exactly an impression that can be cleaned up with a few Historic Downtown banners.

There were a few flaws in the article, Blake doesn't quite grasp the container industry, suggesting that the Container terminal is a $170-million container port that ships coal and grain to Asia's booming markets. He seems to have over-extended the cruise season to six months, from what is probably at best a four month invasion. And the Mayor won't be pleased with more reports that our population has dipped below 13,000 people. While it's true our numbers may be down, but if we have visitors with an appetite, this is apparently the place to be.

The full review can be found on the Vancouver Sun website, or in the off chance it is lost to the computer gremlins, we've posted it below as well.

Great food at the end of the line
Prince Rupert offers a diverse culinary scene
Joseph Blake
Special to the Sun
Saturday, May 17, 2008

Along the waterfront, canneries for the "mosquito fleet" of small boats that once made Prince Rupert a West Coast centre for salmon and halibut fishing have taken on new life recently.
Built on pilings over the water where in the early 1900s a European immigrant launched his herd of dairy cattle toward shore, the historic buildings on Cow Bay now house a surprising array of thriving, tourist-oriented business, including several great places to eat.

In fact, the sprawling little town of 15,000 supports an amazingly diverse, world-class culinary scene. Who knew?

The population of Prince Rupert peaked at about 18,000 in the 1990s, but catastrophic declines in logging, fishing, and mining industries shrunk the city to less than 13,000 by 2006. Recent major developments of a $13-million terminal for Alaskan cruise ships (bringing a couple of thousand visitors to town twice-weekly for six months each year) and the huge, $170-million container port that ships coal and grain to Asia's booming markets (with a $380-million phase two expansion planned for 2010) are turning the Prince Rupert economy around.

Despite these developments, the town still felt pretty sleepy during my visit last summer. So, it came as a surprise to discover a range of excellent places to eat from unpretentious chowder houses to urbane, late-night dining rooms with extensive martini menus and hip wine lists.

I've eaten sushi from San Francisco to Vancouver, and I've never tasted fresher, more sublime examples of the Japanese specialty than at Prince Rupert's Opa Sushi. I also had a couple of superb meals at Adrienne Johnston's Cow Bay Café and thoroughly enjoyed her synthesis of New Orleans flavours, classical French methods, and Indo-Asian culinary roots.

With its menu of 30 martinis including The Brass Monkey, named for his earlier room on Vancouver's Denman Street, owner-chef Brian Lutz's trendy Rain Dining Lounge seemed like an urban apparition on downtown Prince Rupert's somewhat derelict Second Avenue. Lutz serves a wickedly spicy chicken dish and Queen Charlotte Island crab cakes with basil and Dijon mustard. His regional cuisine is heightened by a smart wine list featuring several small, B.C. wineries including Larch Hills and Bounty Cellars.

Across town, locals poured into Galaxy Gardens for Cantonese specialties and fresh oysters and live lobsters, while at Chef Willy Beudry's Waterfront Restaurant in the Crest Hotel visitors and locals alike feasted on fresh seafood and sizzling Black Angus steaks.

Beaudry has been a fixture at the Crest for over a decade after 20 years working on the ocean and up north. He's cooked on sport fishing vessels and private corporate yachts. He also co-managed 1000 meals/day at the 1988 Winter Olympic Athlete's Village in Canmore, Alberta.

Willy cooked on the SS Thorfin down in Mexico and for commercial fishermen out of Shearwater on the central B.C. coast, as well as what he calls "some mean ass camps in remote locations from the Arctic to the northern Alberta oil patches and fire fighting bases." Willy is just one of the great characters making Prince Rupert a surprising culinary destination.

My culinary adventures in Prince Rupert got a kick-start on the way up the coast from Port Hardy aboard B.C. Ferries' Northern Adventure. The crew was still working out the kinks in the remodeled boat's dining room (where I did enjoy a prime rib dinner with all the trimmings), but out on the rear deck a pair of crewmen were turning out feasts of barbecued salmon and mixed seafood skewers and barbecued baby back ribs with corn bread. For many of us on the cruise up to Prince Rupert, bar steward Paul Dexter and third cook Rourke Ordowsdy were the barbecue heroes of deck 7. Their good humour and smoky expertise set-up the culinary surprises to follow.

After checking into Andree's Bed and Breakfast on a cliff overlooking Prince Rupert's unique Sunken Garden below the 1923-built Provincial Courthouse, we walked down to Cow Bay past the Pacific Mariners' Memorial Park with its small, restored fishing vessel from Rupert's sister city, Owase, Japan.

We spent a couple of hours in the Museum of Northern B.C. absorbing the well-curated displays of Tsimshian history and culture and lolled on the nearby docks watching boats unload their catch of crabs, salmon, and halibut as gulls swooped above the boardwalk and eagles shrieked from towering trees across the street.

At Cowpucinno's Coffee House, with its décor of camp, black-on-white cow spots and rough plank floor, we settled into a well-worn couch for delicious, strong coffee and even tastier enormous muffins, and owner-baker Judson Rowse's Sex in the Pan, a cream cheese layered cake with pecans, chocolate and vanilla. Rouse cooked on fish boats for a decade before opening Cowpucinno's, and besides keeping long hours on Cow Bay (7 a.m. to 10 a.m.) he also runs a scaled-down operation at the town's ferry terminal.

Rolling along on a caffeine and sugar high, we stumbled down the road to Dolly's Fish Market, a tiny seafood store that also serves red-and-white chowder at a handful of Spartan tables. Yum!

A step up, but still proudly blue collar dining can be had at Smiles Seafood Café, a local landmark since 1934. Try their halibut cheeks and fish and chips. Breakers Pub is another spot for local colour on Cow Bay. You can eat and drink on their waterfront patio (I had a couple of days without rain last July.), watch sports on the big screen television, or challenge the locals at the busy pool table. Try their chocolate lava cheesecake.

La Cucina is another local favourite with the town's only wood-burning oven and homemade pasta dishes. Their lasagna is delicious, but be sure you don't miss Adreienne Johnson's cooking at Cow Bay Café. I could eat her Jamaican jerk pork tenderloin for lunch and dinner. Her versions of southern favourites like Creole crab cakes, bread pudding, and chocolate pecan pie were New Orleans-inspired heaven on a plate. Cow Bay Café offers several outstanding vegetarian dishes too.

Across the street and upstairs in a rustic, 40-seat restaurant carved out of a turn of the century commercial fishing net loft, John and Kristi Farrell run Opa, a Japanese sushi restaurant started by Kristi's brother-in-law, Yoshi Nakamura, in 1998. Nakamura came to Prince Rupert to make sushi with the plentiful, local, wild salmon, and his restaurant is a diamond in the rough.

Opa's plank floors still show splatters of century-old tar from the large antique pot that still is a centerpiece to a heritage look given a modern treatment in 2005 by local furniture designer Paul Cope. Fishing nets were once spun and tarred in this gigantic pot for long-term wear in saltwater. Tokyo-bred chef Hirotaka Kikuchi's eye-catching dishes are even more unique than the heritage room. Dancing Eel slinks on your plate, a delicately balanced picture of barbecued eel, crab, masago and avocado. Kamikaze and Rising Sun Make Rolls mix albacore tuna or wild sockeye salmon with crunchy tempura and spicy mayo.

The Opa Maki Roll combines scallop, crab, tempura, cucumber and spicy mayo wrapped in sockeye. It's a meal in itself, but everything was so fresh and delicately balanced that I ordered salmon and albacore sashimi and paired it with a few of the restaurant's icy sakes from Japan. Try the Yoshi No Gawa Sake or one of Opa's sake cocktails like Asian Blonde (sake, plum wine and orange) or Dan-dans (sho chu Japanese vodka with lemon, orange and grapefruit squeezed fresh at the table).

After a feast at Opa and a couple of Dan-dans I had to pinch myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming, but it was no dream. There is great food at the end of the line in Prince Rupert.
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B.C. Ferries Northern Adventure-Inside Passage from Port Hardy to Prince Rupert 1-888-223-3779

Andree's Bed & Breakfast 315 4th Ave. East 1-250-624-3666
Crest Hotel 222 1sr Ave. West 1-800-663-8150
Waterfront Restaurant in the Crest 250-624-6771
Opa Sushi 34 Cow Bay Rd. 250-627-4560
Cow Bay Café 205 Cow Bay Rd. 250-627-1212
Rain Dining Lounge 737 2nd Ave 250-627-8272
La Cucina 427 3rd Ave. West 250-627-1212
Galaxy Gardens 844 3rs Ave. West 250-627-3122
Smiles Seafood Café 113 Cow Bay Rd. 250-624-3072
Breakers Pub 117 George Hills Way 250-624-5990
Dolly's Fish Market 7 Cow Bay Rd. 250-624-6090
Cowpuccino's Coffee House 25 Cow Bay Rd. 250-627-1395

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