Saturday, May 04, 2013

Island Eating on Orcas

Today, sitting at work in Portland, a text comes through on my iPhone.  “Any chance you remember the divey Mexican place we ate at en route to Scottsdale?”

I quickly racked my brain to recall this 3-year-old memory. “Are you thinking of the dive we ate at in Reno on the way to Tahoe?”

“Was it???”

“Totally Reno.”


“God, we’ve been around.”

Audra was on her way to her sister’s bachelorette party in Arizona, where we’d been some years back on a trip to the desert. In those seconds trying to remember that little roadside restaurant, I flashed to a few of the places we’ve traveled together over our 15+ year friendship: Brazil, Maine, Italy, Australia, London, New Zealand, Chicago, Singapore and the Hudson River Valley.

A couple of weeks ago, I traveled to her new home, on the exotic island of Orcas, surrounded by the Salish Sea, north of Seattle, almost in Canada. If this sounds like a mythical place, it feels that way too. Separated from the mainland by deep ocean crossed only by ships, it’s more isolated than anywhere I’ve been in the U.S. -- in a good way.
Each San Juan island seems to have its own character, unique beauty, and food production. That weekend, we ate grass-fed burgers from Lopez, drank gin cocktails with spirits distilled on San Juan, and reveled in a abundance of produce both cultivated and growing wild on Orcas. An afternoon walk to a salty cove revealed a field of wild stinging nettles which we turned into this dreamy green risotto for dinner, topped with local spot prawns.
Audra’s a talented cook, and everything in her well-equipped farmhouse kitchen is made from scratch. Almost everything in her larder is locally grown. She has a huge garden, a flock of hens laying eggs, and a serious hobby of making jams and preserves that is currently evolving into a business.  I got to sample some of these sweet and savory forthcoming products (just you wait), while I was up there, and to cook with her from her garden. One morning, we picked a bunch of lemony sorrel and made this frittata with fresh eggs.
Down the road from her property is Maple Rock Farm, a bountiful organic farm committed to quality and community. Both times I’ve visited, they’ve had an open house, and their outdoor pizza oven’s been fired up and turning out rustic pies adorned with produce grown steps away. The guys from Maple Rock had just opened a small pizza restaurant in town (Eastsound), and we checked that out too. On our visit, the chefs at Hogstone's Wood Oven personally served us Neapolitan-style pizzas topped with local goat cheese, green garlic and greens, complimented by crisp salads of Maple Rock lettuces.

During my stay, another local entrepreneur was in the process of building the town’s first cocktail bar, the Barnacle, in what looked like an old shed down the street. I took one look inside at the old wooden slats on the floor and the bar top made from a thick maple plank with a curvy burl edge and thought,  "this is where I want to hang out." The plan there is of course to utilize local spirits, make bitters in-house, and serve Washington wines on tap. There’s a pretty garden beside the building, next to another great little restaurant, the Kitchen (which also provides food for the bar). Orcas also has its own brewery now.

It seems like these islanders have figured out how to live deliciously in isolation. The rest of us are lucky that the ferries keep running to the mainland, so that we can visit and take little bites of this piece of paradise.