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Our last night in Eastsound and there were still so many places to check out! And yet, in spite of my ambitions, Island Time seems to be dictated solely by the whim of it’s proprietors. And so for whatever arcane Island reason beyond my comprehension, very little was actually open on Monday night. In fact the only game in town was LuLu’s Pasta Rustica (which doesn’t appear to have a webpage, so instead here’s a link to the Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce Dining page – you’re welcome). I called for a reservation and was told that they only accepted reservations for parties of six or more. Okay then, I figured we should head down early. I only mention this because, besides one other couple, we were the only people in the restaurant for the entire evening. Way to entice a crowd, LuLu’s.
Upon our arrival, my partner and I were shocked to discover that this quaint, romantic little place was actually the restaurant from our memory! We distinctly remembered the central dining room, with old black and white photographs cluttering the walls from floor to ceiling. But we were positive that we had dined at the Sunflower Café… I inquired with the hostess, who somewhat peevishly admitted that yes, this was the former location of the Sunflower Café. So we weren’t insane! Mystery solved, although there does appear to be quite a bit of epicurean intrigue on this little island.
The meal itself was perfectly serviceable Italian. Spaghetti Bolognese, meatballs, chicken parmesan, bread with the inevitable olive oil and balsamic vinegar dipping sauce. Lots of garlic. Huge portions. Nothing terribly inspired, except for the special. Veal cutlet stuffed with sausage. I hesitated for a moment, and then took the plunge. This would be my first taste of baby cow. Eek.
This is probably the best time to mention that up until last year around this time, I had been a pescetarian for well over a decade. And even prior to that, I wasn’t terribly fond of eating much meat. So I eventually gave it up, not for any radical political reasons or for my health or for anything that I could ever honestly pinpoint. I just woke up one morning and stopped eating chicken. Then last year, I took a trip to Italy, and knew in my heart that I wanted to truly experience the culture, and particularly the cuisine. To my mind, it seemed absurd to explain or impose my bizarre food restrictions in a language I couldn’t even speak. Particularly at certain farm dinners that were being served family-style for multiple people. So I started nibbling on cured meats, maybe a bite of poultry, a piece of cow here and there.
What put me over the edge and probably started this whole culinary adventure was the prosciutto I ate every morning at a villa in Paterno. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted, and I craved it. The realization slowly began to dawn on me… What else have I been missing? And so it began. For the record, I’m currently crazy about pig, coming around on cow, and still haven’t formed an opinion on many of the other meats (lamb and duck in particular never seem to be prepared the same way twice). Chicken bores me.
So, veal. It was actually quite good, nothing outrageous. Lighter in color than beef, and with a consistency that was actually more like a pork chop than a steak. It was also completely overshadowed by the spicy sausage, which was spectacular – coarsely ground, with tons of fennel and garlic and pepper. I ate it right up.
LuLu’s was probably the most pedestrian place we ate at during our stay in Eastsound. And as I mentioned, there were a few other places I had hoped to make it to, but just didn’t seem to be in the cards for this trip. Guess I’ll just have to go back. Which shouldn’t be too hard, since Orcas Island has cemented itself as my very favorite island around these parts.
On our first evening in Eastsound, the crew decided that a trip to the legendary Christina’s would be in order. This was another institution which had pioneered locavore cuisine in the region, and I was curious to see what the island equivalent of Seattle’s primary food trend would have on offer. I was guessing mushrooms.
Another steep flight of stairs later, and we entered the charming second-story dining room, all dark wood and white tablecloths and copper cookware. The space was warm and empty, save for a large party which had rented out a side room for a birthday party. I was unaware of this when we arrived, but apparently earlier this summer the eponymous Christina Orchid had actually sold her restaurant after 28 years and the kitchen was now under the direction of chef Maureen Mullen (of Coastal Kitchen, Dahlia Lounge and Lola). As I had never dined at Christina’s prior to this transition, I had no expectations in either direction.
We started with a small chanterelle & matsutake mushroom pot pie with 6 lilies cream and a parsnip soup with pistachio and thyme. The crust on the pot pie was flaky and delicious, and the creamy mushroom filling was blistering hot. I burned my tongue rapidly spooning the intensely savory stew into my mouth. The parsnip soup was equally successful – a beautiful light green purée, nutty and sweet. A Belgian endive salad with grapefruit and crushed hazelnuts rounded out the first course.
As we transitioned to the main dishes, our server made a valiant effort to find a bottle of wine that would work for all of us – unfortunately, the Petite Sirah that we settled on wound up pairing pretty badly with nearly everything. And so began a bizarre downward spiral with the meal. After a very promising first course, we were all taken aback somewhat by the flaws in the main dishes. To begin with, the prosciutto wrapped monkfish on a barley salad with dried fruits and preserved lemon vinaigrette had been swapped out with ling cod (and no prosciutto). Perhaps the monkfish could have stood up to the sweetness and density of the cold barley grains, but the cod was far too delicate and was easily overwhelmed.
I ordered seared scallops and spot prawns with chorizo in a saffron broth. The scallops were perfectly prepared, but the saffron was excessive and overpowering. More annoying, the spot prawns were served in shell which caused me no small amount of grief and mess trying to remove the slippery carapaces with a fork and my now yellow-tinted fingers. And finally, although some may count me lucky, I was completely taken aback (and somewhat squicked out) to discover as I peeled the legs off of the prawns that these particular crustaceans were bursting with roe. I’d never encountered anything like that before, and wasn’t entirely sure what to think. On top of all of this, an unnecessary side cup of red pepper rouille accompanied the already over-seasoned bouillabaisse.
Another garnish also served badly – this time a Moroccan spice butter melted over filet mignon, with an utterly superfluous poached duck egg. At least I had the choice of skipping the rouille, but the spiced butter had completely suffused the steak and distracted from the flavor. All of the main courses came with a sprinkling of tiny, colorful edible petals which I thought was a nice artistic touch, but a little bit futile in light of the overall execution.
Much better was an inspired slice of vanilla cheesecake with a fantastic sweet & sour crab apple compote that called to mind the earlier successes of the evening. Some called for coffee, and we debated on an after dinner drink. Our server (who throughout our meal had been at turns pushy and ingratiating) was adamant that we try a flight of Amaro, an Italian digestif that I’d never heard of before. We hesitated, but decided to go for it. And then, just as quickly as the evening had crashed, Christina’s was redeemed. This was due entirely to the spontaneous tableside manifestation of chef Mullen, who came out from the kitchen to personally walk us through the flight. She spoke passionately and with knowledge on the different varietals, spinning yarns of her studies in Italy and her quest to popularize this little-known after dinner drink. The chef was charming and down-to-earth, and did a great job of repairing what otherwise would have been a pretty ambivalent experience. For what it’s worth, the Amaro tasted like a cross between Chartreuse and Jägermeister, not unpleasant if you enjoy that kind of thing (I do). It was a unique discovery, and a thought-provoking way to end the evening.
Overall, it was a pretty inconsistent meal, but there were enough highlights to warrant another visit. Although, to be honest, I’m still trying to get over those prawns.
It was decided recently that a brief retreat from the howling political pundits and tanking markets would very likely bolster the defense of psyche and release the tension of muscle. The prescription: an extended weekend escape to the islands of San Juan, specifically La Isla Orca. As luck would have it, this flight from civilization somehow managed to correspond with the most breathtaking Autumn weather I have ever experienced in the Puget Sound. The ferry ride from Anacortes up through the islands was magical and relaxing (notwithstanding the Galley clerk who, upon my request for a glass of Merlot, responded “Is that red or white?”).
Upon arriving at our destination in Eastsound, the primary hamlet on Orcas Island, our party decided the best way to kick off a therapeutic regimen would clearly be via the consumption of pizza. And surprisingly, some previous mining of the Chowhound message boards had revealed that the ratio of restaurant to citizen in Eastsound is approximately one to one. There is a shocking amount of decent food in this little town.
And so one steep flight of stairs later, we were at Portofino Pizzeria, a quaint and casual neighborhood hangout. The walls were covered with a floor-to-ceiling mural depicting the bright, colorful houses of the northwest Italian Riviera, and the windows were thick with condensation. Despite my lingering reservations about island cuisine, and my general feelings about pizza in the region, I was pleasantly surprised by how GOOD this particular pizza actually turned out. The vegetables and mozzarella were fresh and the pan baked crust was crispy and flavorful. We ordered a half-and-half of the San Marino (with shrimp, basil and red onions) and the Portofino Special (the works – pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, olives, peppers, onions). We devoured every slice. The best part: a delicious patina of olive oil in lieu of marinara. The worst part: chianti dispensed from a rehoboam with a tap stuck in the neck. The service was slow, but for once I could actually see myself embracing island time. There was nowhere to rush off to, nowhere to be. It was a rare moment, just slowing down and eating a slice of pizza with friends and family.
The next morning, we sought out some early morning sustenance before setting off to tour the rest of the island. Destination: The Sunflower Café. My partner and I vaguely remembered having a fantastic dinner at the Sunflower Café on a previous visit to Orcas years and years ago, but were profoundly confused upon entering the rustic farmhouse for breakfast – this was certainly not the place we recalled, and they were only open for breakfast and lunch anyway. An island mystery! Or perhaps just faulty memory? Stay tuned!
The tiny café was ridiculously warm, bordering on uncomfortable (a trend we noticed in nearly every establishment on the island). But the food smelled great, so we got in line. The farmhouse was tricked out for Halloween and overrun with hippies and artists and artist-hippies. It was an order-at-the-counter, bus-your-own-table joint, just as slow and relaxed as Portofino had been. I ordered a croissant sandwich with bacon and eggs – the croissant was flaky and buttery, and the local organic eggs were fluffy and warm. Aces. The bagels were made in-house, and were a little dry and dense for my taste, but the side of Sunflower Potatoes was inspired – diced white potatoes and yams, roasted and seasoned with thyme, curry(!), onions and garlic. It was a nice repast, and I once again marveled at my great luck. We headed out into the brilliant sunshine and crisp morning air, all smiles.