Tasting Tofino

It’s worth making the journey to the edge of the world to sample all the delicious things in B.C.’s foodiest village. 

Tasting Tofino - YAM Jan/Feb 2024
Photo By: Jeremy Koreski.

By Joanne Sasvari

If you are thinking of making the trek to Tofino this winter — and you really should, because the off-season is the best season here — you’d better pack the stretchy pants. You should probably also start planning what and where you’re going to eat, because there are just so darn many delicious choices in this fishing village that’s as famous for its food scene as its surf culture and breathtaking natural beauty.

There are, of course, all the chowders and crab boils you’d expect to find on Vancouver Island’s west coast. But there are also perfectly laminated croissants, fat little panko-crusted oysters, towering stacks of albacore tuna tartare, handmade chocolates stuffed with local blackberry buttercream, the most delicate Korean dumplings you’ve ever tasted and some of the finest high-end dining in the province. And that’s just for starters.

Hungry yet? Us, too.

Tasty Beginnings

Somewhere along the winding bends of Highway 4, the rain eased off, the clouds parted and by the time we were rolling slowly up Osprey Lane to the Wickaninnish Inn, the sunshine was gleaming through the towering trees and sparkling over the waves rolling restlessly along Chesterman Beach.

The Inn is not just one of the most storied resort hotels in the province, a Relais & Châteaux property that is regularly recognized among the world’s best by the likes of Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure. It is also the birthplace of this coast’s renowned culinary scene and is still the region’s premier dining destination.

Tasting Tofino - YAM Jan/Feb 2024
At the Wickaninnish Inn, chef Clayton Fontaine elevates local ingredients to exquisite new heights. Photo By: Jeremy Koreski.

Before 1996, diners-out in Tofino could find little more than the excellent fish ‘n’ chips at The Schooner (which, remarkably, has been operating from its berth on Campbell Street since 1949) or fresh Dungeness crab at the cozy shack on the edge of town. 

Then the Wickaninnish Inn flung open its hand-carved doors, chef Rob Butters cooked up his West Coast-style bouillabaisse and visitors started coming to Tofino just for the food.

In the nearly 30 years since, the Inn has been renowned for attracting top culinary talents like Warren Barr, now running Pluvio Restaurant + Rooms in Ucluelet, or Nick Nutting, who is foraging and cooking at Tofino’s Wolf in the Fog, just two of the dozens of great independent restaurants that have followed the Wick’s lead. 

The latest chef to take over the Inn’s demanding kitchen is Clayton Fontaine, who previously cooked at some of Canada’s most highly regarded restaurants, places like Canoe in Toronto and Model Milk in Calgary. He has brought a meticulous, flavourful expressiveness to the plate. Think plump, almost architectural tortellini stuffed with Port Alberni-raised venison and bathed in savoury mushroom dashi or charcoal-grilled sablefish garnished prettily with seaweed chips from local NAAS Foods.

“I think a lot of it for me is obviously what Vancouver Island has, and what the coast has, and educating people about that bounty,” Fontaine says. “We get very small seasons of very niche things. It’s a challenge, and it’s lots of fun.”

Bounty from the Sea

But before Fontaine can assemble that beautiful sablefish dish, Stevie Dennis has to head out to his seaweed farm in Clayoquot Sound. Dennis is the co-founder and owner of NAAS Foods, an Ahousaht member of the Keltsmaht First Nation and the best kind of storyteller to find behind the wheel of a fishing boat.

Tasting Tofino - YAM Jan/Feb 2024
Stevie Dennis, owner of NAAS Foods, has shifted his focus to sustainable seaweed farming and processing. Photo By: Joanne Sasvari.

“There’s so much you can do with kelp,” he says as we arc through the glass-smooth water. “The thing with the kelp on the B.C. coast is it’s supposed to be the richest and highest quality kelp in the world. It ticks all the boxes of being sustainable and eco-friendly and versatile.”

Dennis comes from a family of commercial fishers, and his team processes fish caught by sports fishers and sells local halibut, salmon, crab, oysters and prawns. But recently they’ve shifted their focus to harvesting, farming and processing seaweed. (The umami-rich NAAS Foods kelp seasonings are a must for professional and home cooks alike.) He sees limitless opportunity in seaweed and, besides, it lets him do his favourite thing. 

“Any day on the water is a good day,” he says with a laugh. “The kelp forests are just beautiful. It’s wild, the amount of sea life in the forests. We have very, very healthy water here.” 

World of Flavours

Back on dry land, we head down to the very end of Tofino’s main road, to the shipping container that houses Ouest Artisan Patisserie. Here Jessyca Fulsom and pastry chef Stephen Nason offer some of the prettiest French pastries we’ve ever seen. We manage to grab the very last, shatteringly flaky chocolate-almond croissant, and leave behind only crumbs.

Tasting Tofino - YAM Jan/Feb 2024
At Jeju, discover fresh, fragrant Korean flavours in the steamed pork dumplings and KFC lettuce wraps. Photo By: Joanne Sasvari.

Then, as a soft rain starts to fall, we meander past Tofino’s galleries and cafés, surf shops and whale-watching operations, and stumble into one of the best meals of our lives.

Jeju is a tiny, family-run Korean restaurant, the first in Tofino. In summer, crowds lined up for hours to try chef and co-owner Dylan (Yunyoung) Kim’s profoundly flavourful food. On a wintry Wednesday, though, we stroll right in and feast on tangy, yuzu-marinated scallops, crispy seaweed spring rolls, crunchy “KFC” (Korean fried chicken) in lettuce wraps and dumplings with whisper-thin wrappers hugging savoury pork filling. We follow that with japchae, chewy noodles tossed with a rainbow of vegetables, as well as chili-infused soup, bibimbap that is all the things and the dish we’re still dreaming about, fall-apart-tender baby back ribs with a garlicky barbecue sauce slow-cooked to a caramel lacquer.

All vivid colour and flavour, it’s as perfect a counterpoint to the grey day as the Kim family’s warm hospitality. We are replete.

Shelter from the Storm

Yet we still manage one more stop on our way back to the Inn, at the new Shelter, which has risen from the ashes since its original location burned to the ground a year ago. Now relocated to the shuttered, and completely transformed, 1909 Kitchen/Hatch Pub at Tofino Resort + Marina, it combines a casual pub and slightly fancier restaurant with a new café, event space and acres and acres of patio seating with spectacular views overlooking Clayoquot Sound. 

“One of the intentions with the space was to create a more elevated dining experience,” says Matty Kane, Shelter’s executive chef and chief operating officer. Beyond adding breakfast in the café, he’s not planning to change the culinary offerings much — after all, Shelter developed its loyal following for a reason. “But the wine menu is changing substantially. We have a massive cage now so we have thousands of bottles.”

We make a note to self: Plan a speedy return. 

After all, we didn’t have time to try the housemade charcuterie at Picnic, the craft beers at Tuff City Brewing, the pork carnitas at Tacofino, the boat-to-bowl takeout at Wildside Grill — those oysters! —  and so, so many other things. But we’ll be back soon, and we’ll bring our appetites, and those stretchy pants, with us.

If You Go

The Wickaninnish Inn, perched dramatically above Chesterman Beach, is still the destination resort on this coast, a Relais & Châteaux property with all the elevated service and attention to detail that entails. wickinn.com

But there are also dozens of other accommodation options; to find those, as well as places to dine, beaches for surfing and other travel information, visit the Tourism Tofino website. tourismtofino.com