Lots of Whistler fine dining establishments have gotten on board with the whole "eating local" concept, sourcing the bulk of their produce - and even some of their meat - from farms in the Sea to Sky region. And while it's fantastic to see people making an effort to sustain our local food economy and environment, a little niggling voice in my head makes me wonder if some are simply paying lip service to a popular culinary trend.
So I must admit, when I read through the online description of Aura, the newly rebranded restaurant at Nita Lake Lodge - "Organic, sustainable, European. Unforgettable. What is old is new again" - I had my doubts. But their new Executive Chef, Tim Cuff, changed all that when he nonchalantly led me up to the see incredible rooftop garden that they've been quietly cultivating during the spring and summer months.
With beds full of fresh, lush herbs and veggies - and more to come next year, Cuff tells me - these guys have taken "eating local" to the next level. Moving their farm one floor up from the restaurant means that staff can go up every morning to do a mini-harvest for the day. It doesn't get much fresher than that.
It's clear from my conversation with Cuff that he means business when it comes to sourcing his products. With an impressive CV that includes stints at Teatro, Wickaninnish Inn and West, his decision to take on the position at Nita Lake Lodge hinged on whether or not the new owner/management would give the rooftop garden the go-ahead. I'm so glad they did.
To get a true sense of Cuff's culinary style, we opted to let him lead the way rather than ordering a la carte, selecting the five-course menu for $65. (A quick aside: Cuff said that about 80 per cent of the produce used in our meal came from the rooftop garden, and next summer he hopes to get that number up to around 100 per cent.)
The meal started with an amuse bouche of golden beet soup served cold, which was tart, bright and delicious - a great way to whet our appetites. The first course, a dainty, delicately arranged dish of trout and stuffed salmon served with zucchini and goat cheese, arrived shortly after we finished sipping up the last little bit of the soup. While the presentation was quite precise and deliberate - just shy of fussy - there was certainly no loss of flavour. Each little bundle nestled on the rectangular plate burst with flavour and texture. That seems to be one of the chef's strengths: he never neglects the element of texture.
Next, we were on to the incredibly rich Walla Walla onion soup. Our lovely server, Lisa, carefully poured the thick liquid over a few thin medallions of succulent rabbit loin, a spot-on pairing with the sweetness of the onion. I was shocked to hear that this incredibly rich soup was, in fact, simply a reduction of the Walla Walla sautéed with a bit of olive oil and cooked low and slow, seasoned with salt and pepper. No cream, no butter, no way!
I'm not sure if it was the comforting warmth of the soup or the glass of wine, but I was in a bit of a sleepy state by the time our third course arrived: seared halibut wrapped in veal tongue, served in heirloom tomato water with slivers of green beans and tempura garlic chives. Again, Cuff married elements of taste and texture: the sweet, refreshing flavours of the fish and heirloom tomato contrasted with the salty, crisp veal tongue, while the tempura battered chives added an extra little crunch.
Next up was the red wine marinated veal tenderloin served with carrots, parsley root puree, beets and emerald green kale. This was probably the most blatant showcase of the region's renowned root veggies; each perfectly cooked (nothing overdone) and artfully presented alongside a portion of melt-in-your-mouth meat. This is the kind of dish that serves as a reminder of why you aren't a vegetarian; the veal is just that good.
Last but not least was dessert, a simple and sweet hazelnut financier served with grilled apples and vanilla chantilly cream. While many chefs may have been tempted to close their menu with a decadent chocolate dish, this was the perfect finish to Cuff's rustic yet refined approach to truly eating local.