Winter on Orcas Island


Orcas Island has been one of our favorite local spots to vacation. Our family used to camp regularly in the summers at Moran State Park, memories that our daughters still hold today. Lately, with the kids now grown and having their own families, my wife and I have been going to Orcas during off-seasons to avoid crowds. In the summer months, taking the ferry can be an exercise in frustration. Still, I’ll never tire of ferrying through the San Juan Islands.

ferry-to-orcas

We had never gone there in February and are not apt to again. It isn’t that we won’t appreciate the slower pace or minimal number of tourists but that many recreational activities and attractions are not available or open for the year. When we arrived on Sunday, the weather was still frosty outside. The higher elevations, like Turtleback Mountain, were covered in snow. I thought it would be spectacular to get a 360-degree view of the San Juans all covered in white from atop Mount Constitution, but as I suspected, the entrance was closed. And, when Monday rolled around, it snowed—quite a lot. In the town of Eastsound, Orcas’ hub and commercial center, which is a little above sea level, 8″ or so of fluff accumulated, more higher up. And the nights dipped below freezing. Lucky for us, one of our favorite bookstores, Darvill’s, was open for business.

Restaurants, we discovered, are spottily open, at this time of year typically closed for two days of the week. We did appreciate that they must’ve arranged among themselves to stagger the closures on different days to always have a restaurant or two for tourists’ sake.

For a small town, Eastsound has a number of very good restaurants and cafés. With not much else to do, we still did manage to eat quite well.

The Lower Tavern

This is always a fun place, a local watering hole, to get a decent burger, other kinds of sandwiches and tavern food, plus an impressive selection of beers from around the country and world. It’s also a good place to catch a sporting event on one of their big screen TVs.

Southwest burger. Bacon, crispy and flavorful though it was, unnecessarily cluttered the burger. The patty was tasty and the mild chiles flavorful, but the avocado mash was messy (☆☆½). I’ve enjoyed unembellished burgers here more.

Fried clams. We love fried clams, but many of the smaller pieces tend to be fried batter bits. A problem also is when the batter is too crunchy, like it was here (☆☆½). Larger clam strips and a lighter batter make for a better experience.

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Hogstone’s Wood Oven

Although Hogstone’s has been doing business for four years, it’s remarkable that we have never noticed it before. The reason, we decided, is that it’s situated just outside the main commercial Eastsound business district and on the ‘other side’ of Main Street, in a building that used to be a real estate office. Our inattention might have gone on indefinitely if not for reading that Jay Blackinton had been named a semi-finalist for Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation for three years running (2015-2017), an incredible recognition for a chef whose place is so tiny that 25-30 people would be sitting cheek-by-jowl and whose cooking skills were self-taught. Almost all the produce is Orcas-grown, shellfish dug from its beaches, mushrooms foraged from its forests, pigs raised on Blackinton’s own farm, goat cheese from Myers Creamery.

We had to grab a spot on the Sunday of our arrival, for Hogstone operates only on weekends in the winter.

Bitter green salad was sprinkled with toasted fermented barley ground to a coarse powder and underlain with an aioli-like emulsion with the subtlest of clam flavor (☆☆☆½).

Smoked tomato pizza. More impressive was a Neopolitan-style thin-crust pizza topped with smoked tomato sauce, goat cheese and leek, a simple yet intensely flavorful pie (☆☆☆☆).

The waitress clued us in on a tasting menu, available on most nights, that would be irresistible in the late summer-early fall months when produce is more bountiful. The roaring wood-burning stove is used not only to make superb pizzas but to add smoky complexity to other ingredients, like the aforementioned tomatoes and barley.

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Rose’s Bakery Cafe

Breakfast is the most difficult meal to get in Eastsound during the winter months. Monday morning was no exception with Brown Bear Bakery closed for a short break (I was looking forward to their croque monsieur) and New Leaf Café not even offering it until later in the year. The front desk at the latter directed us to Rose’s Bakery Café.

Baked Eggs. Rose’s baked breads have always been outstanding. That includes their baguette, which was featured in a breakfast item topped with slices of Serrano ham. The two free-range organic eggs were a bit hard-cooked. (☆☆☆)

Crispy Polenta and Poached Egg. The last time I had crispy polenta was at the Brooklyn Diner in NYC, a sort of substitute for country-style potatoes. The cubed polenta kept their appealing crispiness under a tasty tomato sauce. So, it was a disappointment that Rose’s polenta cakes began to soften while immersed in a red chile sauce. Still, I was impressed with the flavors, perfectly cooked chard and poached egg. (☆☆☆)

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In later months, Rose’s operates a food and wine shop next door from where we’ve more than once gotten deli items to take back to our room for a simple meal of charcuterie, cheese, baguette, olives and wine.

Deli items purchased from Rose's Store (April 2016)

Deli items purchased from Rose’s Store (April 2016)

New Leaf Café

New Leaf is the restaurant attached to the Outlook Inn. I’ve never been disappointed by meals here, both breakfasts (in season) and dinners. One thing going for New Leaf is the fantastic view of the sound from almost any table.

Marlin carpaccio. It was a shame to mess up the beautiful presentation, impossibly thin, diaphanous slices of raw marlin arranged like flower petals. They were simply dressed with capers, olive oil and parsley to let the sweetness of the faultlessly fresh fish shine through. (☆☆☆☆)

Steamed clams. It was a choice between steamed mussels or clams. We chose clams, tiny Manilas in a bread-dunking-worthy broth. (☆☆☆)

Smoked salmon pasta. The first time I ever had this dish was at 1904, a restaurant in downtown Seattle (long since shuttered). I’m not a big fan of cream sauces, but the fresh linguine with smoked salmon, Scotch whiskey, cream and Parmesan were a match made in heaven. Here was its reincarnation on New Leaf’s menu, which left my wife and me no choice but to order it. Their version was not quite as good as we recalled 1904’s, missing some undefinable quality (possibly distorted by memory embellishment), but it was a worthy contender, excellent in its own right, one which we’d have no problem ordering again. (☆☆☆½)

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Enzo’s Caffé

We walked past Enzo’s Caffé yesterday after breakfast at Rose’s and made sure it would be open on Tuesday morning. I occasionally have a hankering for lox and bagels. When I saw it in the form of a breakfast sandwich at Enzo’s, I succumbed—wonderfully realized in a convenient portable format, the seeded bagel lightly toasted for crispiness. I was afraid that the heat might’ve cooked the salmon, but it was perfect (☆☆☆½). My wife also enjoyed her Black Forest ham bagel sandwich with egg and cheddar, accented with mustard. The lox sandwich was so good that I returned to Enzo’s after an outing to Orcas Island Artworks to get another as grab-‘n-go to have for lunch before boarding the ferry back to Anacortes.

Nova lox and Black Forest ham bagel sandwiches

Nova lox and Black Forest ham bagel sandwiches

We’ll have to time our visits more thoughtfully next time, but we never have to worry about not eating well on Orcas Island.

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