Story by Adrian Brijbassi
WHISTLER, BRITISH COLUMBIA — “They don’t have fish like this in France,” David Scholefield says midway through a dinner at Araxi that celebrated the 17th anniversary of Cornucopia, Whistler’s food and drink festival. He was referencing a wild Pacific salmon, smoked by executive chef James Walt’s team and served in a velvety oyster broth. “They can make the delicious velouté and they know the techniques, but they don’t have fish like this.”
Scholefield, a wine advisor who works with Haywire Winery in the Okanagan Valley, was among the 120 diners who were treated on Friday to an exquisite meal for Araxi’s Big Guns dinner, an annual feast that is “wine forward.” That means Araxi‘s Samantha Rahn, named the sommelier of the year at the 2013 Vancouver International Wine Festival, indulges in the chance to lead the menu. Rahn chooses the wines and Walt pairs dishes to go with them. It is a turnabout the sommelier relishes.
“I get to do this one night a year and we’ve been planning it for weeks. But James’ food is so easy to work with,” says Rahn, whose choices for Big Guns — named because of the high calibre of wines served on the night — ranged from Australia riesling to French Burgundy to gems from North America’s west coast.
While the evening was meant to highlight the wines, Araxi is the 25th-ranked restaurant in Canada, according to Vacay.ca’s 2013 guide to dining in the nation, because of Walt’s food. Not surprisingly, it stole the show.
A spinach and ricotta ravioli was lavished with black, white and alba truffles, and prepared with a soft egg in the centre. The egg yolk swam out of the ravioli, drenching the truffles, softening the pasta, punctuating Walt’s reputation as one of the nation’s finest chefs.
Although the world is full of fine Italian and French cooking, Araxi stands out for what Scholefield noted: The quality of the produce in British Columbia and the abilities of its executive chef. When I spoke with Walt a few months ago, he raved about the improvements in the sustainability practices in the west coast. Whether it’s the increase in line-caught salmon, the advent of the Vancouver Aquarium’s OceanWise seafood program or organic farming in the Pemberton Valley, British Columbia has become a leading territory for the local food movement, which Walt embraces as much as any chef in the country.
“It’s never been easier for me to create a locally sourced menu,” he told me. “As a chef, you really are spoiled here. The Pemberton Valley is 10 minutes away and has so much of what we use in the kitchen essentially right in our backyard.”
The pairing of wine and cuisine was best displayed in a duck breast matched with a 2005 Louis Jadot Burgundy. By itself, the big, bold red was overly smoky. But it was a flavour that complemented the duck so well the smokiness faded upon the first bite.
The seven-course dinner was part of the first weekend of Cornucopia events in Whistler, which has developed this culinary-focused offering to fill hotels and businesses prior to the opening of the busy ski season, scheduled for November 28.
More About Cornucopia
Dates: November 7-17, 2013
Notable Events: Chefs table luncheons, a night market that features tastes of Shanghai and Shinjuku, and a celebration of Mexican cuisine are among the many, many fantastic events scheduled during this year’s festival. Numerous seminars are also offered, including cocktail mixing and wine education. Visit the Cornucopia website for full details.
More About Araxi
Location: 4222 Village Square, Whistler, BC (see map below)
Reservations: 604-932-4540 or book online through OpenTable.com. During Cornucopia, the restaurant will have several special events and wine dinners.
Menu price range: Dinner entrees range from $23.50 to $43.50. Executive chef James Walt is a leader in providing vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices that are just as carefully prepared as the primary menu options.
You must order: If the spinach ravioli with truffles and soft egg is ever on the menu, definitely order it. Of the current menu, the Yarrow Meadow Duck Breast ($29.50) is a delicious choice. It comes roasted with spices and rosemary, sesame, soy and green onion vinaigrette, with a crisp parmesan polenta.
Vacay.ca Top Restaurants in Canada Rank: No. 25 in 2013; No. 12 in 2012