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.


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. Continue reading

Dinner at Sazio’s (Eastsound, Orcas Island, WA)

Ever since the closure of La Famiglia many years ago, Orcas Island didn’t have a good Italian restaurant to go to. Portofino hardly qualifies since it’s mainly a pizza joint. That all changed when Bill Patterson purchased Chimayo and opened Sazio di Notte. His plan was to convert Chimayo, a favorite Southwest restaurant among locals, to a full-time Italian restaurant, but because of pleas from the residents, the restaurant now has a dual personality: Chimayo for lunch (en la dia), Sazio for dinner (di notte).

The restaurant prides itself on using fresh ingredients, including organic produce, and meats sourced from the island, which would include pork, lamb and goat. Judging from the menu, I would guess that the emphasis is on Northern Italian cuisine.

Our meal started out with a very fine dinner salad, actually an inventive variation of a Caesar without the anchovies, the olive oil infused with garlic and a little kick from jalapeño chiles. The salad is then crowned with finely shredded Parmesan. This, it turns out, was a favorite at Chimayo and has crossed over to Sazio.

Dinner salad, a reimagined Caesar

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Dinner at Chiladas (Eastsound, WA)

The venerable Bilbo’s Festivo, a popular and long-time Mexican restaurant in Eastsound, is now Chiladas, after having gone through several ownership changes. The current one is Bilbo’s original owner. While the menu has changed and aims higher than standard Tex-Mex fare that mostly (though not entirely) made up its previous menu. Now, the entrees represent a broader range of Mexican cooking with more traditional and Northwest ingredients. The interior is still as festive as it ever was. On a nice day, with the sun shining through the windows, you’d swear you were down south.

The carne adobada came with marinated pork tenderloin medallions, grilled to perfection over mesquite coals, served with a very nice achiote-flavored potato mash, braised chard (tart with vinegar) and pickled onions.

Carne adobada

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Dinner at Allium (Eastsound, WA)—CLOSED

Chef Lisa Nakamura has impressive credentials, having served under Thomas Keller (The French Laundry) and Jerry Traunfeld (The Herbfarm). When the opportunity arose to take over Christina’s, the venerable and highly regarded restaurant on Orcas Island, with a stunning view overlooking East Sound, she jumped at the chance and opened Allium this year. You always wonder if a restaurant of this ambition can make a successful commercial run of it when it’s so far removed from major urban areas where the well-heeled live who would be the most likely customers. After all, taking the ferry or coming across on your own boat is not a simple night out.

We decided to have dinner here. It was a dreary day but the warmth of the restaurant’s ambience and the spectacular view of the water quickly erased glum thoughts of the weather.

The Gnocchi with Shiitake in Roasted Garlic, Cream and Butter sauce was incredibly delicious. Soft gnocchi pillows were bathed in a creamy sauce worth lapping up with plenty of bread if you don’t scoop it directly with a spoon into your mouth first.

Gnocchi with shiitake in roasted garlic, cream and butter sauce

Not nearly as impressive were the roasted vegetables that weren’t adequately seasoned and the mediocre tarragon onion chutney didn’t add much.

Roasted seasonal vegies with tarragon onion chutney

Were it not for the over-roasted fingerling potatoes, the pan-fried scallops would have been a terrific entrée. Scallops and chanterelle mushrooms go so well together.

Pan-seared scallops with roasted fingerlings, cherry tomatoes and chanterelles

Were these missteps ones of a restaurant just starting out? The pedigree and the potential are there. Only time will tell.

Update: Allium is no longer in operation.

Chimayo’s (Eastsound, WA)

Located at the rear of a building of shops, Chimayo’s is difficult to find. We happened across it a few years ago when strolling through the complex. We probably weren’t the first, but it’s easy to mistake it as a Mexican restaurant, when in fact the emphasis is on Southwest cooking. For me, and I gather for lots of other people, Mexican/Southwest restaurants and islands are made for each other. They both are about relaxation, conviviality and an informality and unpretentiousness about the food that suits the island personality.

The upper West Coast of North America is famous for its Dungeness crab, so it isn’t surprising that it makes an appearance in many restaurants in the Northwest. Bilbo’s offers its superb crab enchiladas, listing it as a special because of its seasonal availability. Here, too, at Chimayo’s was its own version, a little more non-traditional with its Bechamel sauce sparingly squirted on top. The crab was fresh and sweet, a worthy entrée, though Bilbo’s version is our preference. The side of the cilantro-flecked rice was blandly unsalted and the black beans somewhat thick.

Tasty crab enchilada with bechamel, rice and beans

An interesting cumin-infused vinaigrette was mixed in a salad of romaine, diced tomatoes, corn, black beans, pumpkin seeds and shredded Cheddar, topped with curls of carrots and guacamole. Tortilla chips and pico de gallo were served on the side.

Nice salad tossed with cumin vinaigrette and topped with guac and shredded carrots

We’ve had pretty good luck with food here. The locals also like it a lot.

123 N. Beach Road
Eastsound, WA 98245