Pam Grant Victoria Times Colonist

From Cowichan Bay, with love – great dining


They say that if you do what you love to earn a living, you never work a day in your life. Masthead restaurant owner/manager Luke Harms might agree with this premise, if I ask about it at the end of one of the many 14 hour days he regularly puts in at this Cowichan Bay restaurant.

Set in a building built in 1863 as the Columbia Hotel, the exterior has survived largely intact. A door under the eaves on the second floor opens not to a stairway but a perilous drop to the boardwalk below and there is no record that it has ever been any other way. I always look up before I walk in, just in case.

It’s less than an hour from Victoria now, but this was one of many roadhouses that provided comfort to travelers heading north on the island, when a journey from the capital to Cowichan Bay took a full day in good weather. When the railway was built a few years later and business fell off somewhat, the owner had the foresight to take advantage of the local fishing industry by turning the main floor of the hotel into a machine and tackle shop and a building a small shipyard on the water. It survives today as a picturesque marina.

Sit in the casually elegant restaurant today (or on the deck in the summer if you can get a table) and gaze past the assortment of boats and float homes to a view that has captivated the likes of Bing Crosby, Bob Hope and John Wayne, whose boat was regularly anchored in the waters here during the 1970’s. After a lengthy career that has included stints at the Deep Cove Chalet and the Aerie resort, where he met wife Denise (who also puts in lengthy hours at the Masthead), Harms took the reins in late 2004, putting his own stamp on the place. As Jim, my friend and regular Masthead customer, said recently, “If you haven’t been lately, you better go back”. He’s absolutely right. Luke and Denise head an enthusiastic — but not overbearing — crew that knows its stuff. What a pleasure to eat great food and to be able to ask questions about it that don’t often result in the all-too-common response of “I don’t know, but I’ll see if I can find out.”

Chef Matthew Horn and sous chef Starla Allen fashion well-thought-out dishes from local poultry, game, seafood and produce (organic and free range wherever possible), complemented by a wine list that reflects Harms’ knowledge and respect for local products. Notable, half of the varietals on the list are not available for wale anywhere else, including the vineyards they came from. Harms has also amassed an excellent list of single malt whiskies and digestifs, including no less that five kinds of Calvados.

I like to drop in here on my way back to Victoria and I have had a few opportunities to do so this summer. The tree course table d’ hote at $29.95 is exceptionally good value. Begin with a salad of local lettuces, goat’s cheese and sunflower seeds dressed with a pleasantly sharp apple dicer vinaigrette and follow up, as I did recently, with steamed filet of Coho salmon, enhanced by cured tomato buerre blanc and tender asparagus; or indulge in linguine tossed with fresh herbs, shallots, clams, roasted garlic and extra virgin olive oil; or you might try roasted chicken breast from Valley Farms, scented with rosemary and garnished with crisp, double smoked bacon. Finish with rhubarb and strawberry semi-freddo and rasberry sorbet, sprinkled with fresh berries.

The à la carte menu provides many other tempting choices. The Masthead’s chowder ($8) is justifiably popular, made with house-smoked salmon, fresh seafood and vegetables in a creamy broth that will have you using the last of your bread. I also loved the lightly seared weathervane scallops ($12) served with champagne and mascarpone risoto and buerre noisette, gilded with truffles — one of the rare times in recent dining experience that these earthly morsels have been used appropriately. If you are dining à-deux, share the Caesar salad, prepared table-side.

There is a nightly vegetarian option available and plenty of meat and game. One evening, I happily devoured what the menu calls the Masthead “Man Steak” ($25) a nicely aged Alberta rib eye, served with a rich green peppercorn sauce and pomme frites that, while good would be more correctly be described as shoe string potatoes. Most recent entreé was a mouthwatering, slow roasted sirloin of venison from Walchester Farms Venison ($27) served with an unadulterated demi-glaze sautéed wild mushrooms, gnocchi. If you would rather have seafood, indulge in steamed Dungeness crab ($28) served with aioli and drawn butter or fresh halibut ($26) served with butter poached mushrooms, grilled pea and asparagus butter sauce. All entrées are served with the steaming hot “Pot au Feu” vegetables –never fewer than five types in my experience — and duck potatoes, finished with chicken stock and fresh herbs.

Savour assorted local cheeses, served with fresh fruits and nut bread or a rice lemon tart with caramelized citrus salad to finish your meal. Maybe they can reopen a few hotel rooms upstairs.