I feel like I finally got to know Araxi for the first time at a press dinner tasting menu last week.
Araxi has always felt like one of those big wigs. Untouchable, intimidating, incomprehensible: the awards, the magazine accolades, the talented staff, the showmanship — everything is what you would expect from a big city restaurant with a menu that continually serves first experiences time after time, whether it is a vegetable I need to Google to identify or drinking a 25-year-old wine amongst the city’s finest food critics.
I’ve walked by this Whistler equivalent to the Taj Mahal, walking down the Village Stroll in the late evening numerous times, looking through the windows into the warm, elegant setting that always seems so far from reality, from Whistler.
But amongst the company of local writers, I was finally able to ground this never-never land in a menu playing in international and local ingredients, lifting the glittering veil to reveal an executive chef who notices the crate of strawberries in the back of his car are so freshly picked from the Pemberton farms he drops in on regularly that the berries are still warm from the early afternoon sun.
Executive chef James Walt’s career may include the prestigious appointment as executive chef to the Canadian Embassy in Rome, and he has received three invites to the celebrated James Beard House in New York City, but all of his talent and fanfare is grounded in his love to showcase fresh ingredients simply.
Each course plated the familiar with the unfamiliar. The tuna trio starter showcased a familiar tasty spicy red tuna roll whose heat crept up on you like the morning sun. But then the course switched up standards with a tuna gomaee instead of spinach and a tuna tataki rolled in crab rather than seaweed — the dish foreshadowed the creative takes on the familiar that would carry on right to the petits fours finale of still-cold coconut gelato enveloped in a hard dark chocolate shell. Divine.
Even the vegetables were like stumbling upon a unicorn for the first time — at least the tomatoes in the buffalo mozzarella salad were. Russo bruno tomatoes as rich in flavour and colour as mahogany was a meaty mix of sweet and tart complementing the delicate, but potent buffalo-milk-made cheese. Another sophisticated vegetable accompanied the salad trio, a buttery, toasty heart of palm with sauce vierge (think high-end salsa). No one at the table could identify the palm vegetable. It was like asking what Rice Crispies are made of.
Too surreal to see the reality plated right in front of you, the expedition carried on and while I always pass on seafood to dive into game meat of any kind when fine dining, the salmon course showed the error of my ways. It never tasted so good to be so wrong. The tomato-mozzarella salad paired with the 2003 Dr. Pauly Bergweiler Riesling sent my heart racing with its robust attitude, but it was the understated personality of the salmon with gnocchi, alder smoked bacon, spring peas and crones that really sang. If I were to identify Walt with one dish, this would be it.
Pemberton was everywhere, from the firm, sweet spring peas to the unusual crones (root vegetable) with such a unique texture. There was nothing pretentious about the dish, but it was like a triple zero grade diamond: understated, but sparkling with quality and rareness. The handmade truffle ricotta gnocchi made this dish any girl’s best friend.
The rich lamb course also shared hope-diamond company. The pan-seared polenta kept the table guessing what sort of cheese made it so extraordinary; the unique texture of the wild asparagus imported from France instigated comparison conversations; and while restaurant director and sommelier Steve Edwards swears by a pinot noir coupling with lamb, his choice of the 2003 Chateau la Longua Bordeaus didn’t overpower the tender lamb and delicate morel mushrooms.
Unassuming local charm won over overstated again in the dessert courses. While the chocolate petits fours satisfied what I consider the sixth food group of life, North Arm Farm’s rhubarb prepared as a shortbread tart with vanilla ice cream locked and sealed the Araxi experience as showcasing greatness in the discreet rather than the ornate.
The subtle nuances allowed me to look beneath the glossy, involved setting that once intimidated to discover the depth of character and heart of the food, finally bringing the multi-faceted Araxi home for me.