Friday, September 19, 2008

Wandering around Ilwaco, Washington

Photo: Chef Larry Piaskowy enjoying the local bounty. King Boletes a.k.a. porcini a.k.a. cepe mushrooms.

Jim's birthday was on Tuesday. To celebrate, we went to Ilwaco, Washington. My friends Larry and Jennifer own the Port Bistro at the Port of Ilwaco so we decided to let Larry cook Jim's birthday dinner and also explore the Long Beach peninsula in southwestern Washington.

Photo: Larry and Jennifer's restaurant, The Port Bistro in Ilwaco, WA

I used to work with Larry at Cowgirl Creamery. He's a chef by trade, having stood behind the stove at places like Indigo in San Francisco. He took several months off to learn more about the world of cheese. An opportunity came up to buy this restaurant and two years ago he and his partner Jennifer packed up a truck and left the wilds of the Bay Area and landed in Ilwaco. Jim's birthday was the first opportunity we've had to see Larry and Jenn in over two years.

The drive was easy and scenic. It took us 2 ½ hours to make it from Dundee to Ilwaco. We passed through miles of farmland, the pine and spruce forests of the Coast Range, and wound up at the Pacific Ocean near Seaside, Oregon. We drove north, hugging the coastline until we hit Astoria, Oregon at the mouth of the mighty Columbia River. A large, green steel bridge spans the river linking Oregon with Washington. Twenty minutes later we were in Ilwaco on the north side of mouth of the Columbia. The port is host to numerous fishing vessels, many anchored due to high fuel costs and a closed salmon season.

Photo: Jim checks out the wetlands at China Beach Retreat.

We stayed in the Lewis and Clark room at the China Beach Retreat, a B&B just outside of town. The room had a view that encompassed the river, marsh, wetlands, and Cape Disappointment. This is the westernmost point on Lewis and Clark's Journey of Discovery. They found a place where the Chinook Indians camped and traded with lots of Europeans via passing ships. Most of the inhabitants had moved inland by the time L&C showed up because winter was approaching and this place gets some fierce rain and winds. Every August there is a big Kite Festival in Long Beach because the wind is so reliable.

The weather was just like San Francisco. It was cold and foggy. When we arrived, we could barely see a quarter mile. It was damp and brisk. We didn't see the sun at all during our visit. We checked in and relaxed until our 7:00 dinner reservation.

The Port Bistro was bustling when we pulled up for dinner. Tuesdays are good nights for them. The tables were filled with locals and visitors. Jennifer greeted us with a big hug and sat us at table overlooking the harbor.

Photo: Clam Chowder at the Port Bistro.

With Larry at the stove and Jenn running the house we were prepared for a fun evening full of great food prepared with love. They didn't let us down. The staff was friendly and efficient. Our meal was superb. We were thrilled to find wild mushrooms incorporated into almost every menu option. Larry has gone to great lengths to find and cultivate close relationships with his food purveyors. He insists on only serving the highest quality ingredients so that he can coax the best flavors out of his dishes. His fish is all local, right off of the boats that you see bobbing in the harbor. The greens come from local growers, the beef comes from a co-op that inspects the restaurant before they agree to sell their beef to that restaurant. He bakes his own bread and makes his own desserts.

Larry makes a mean bowl of clam chowder. He uses fresh, local clams. Not a can in sight. This chowder is rich and explodes with flavor. It has been getting noticed, too. The steak that Larry prepared was perfectly seasoned and so tender that I could cut it with a fork. This steer did not die in vain. Jim's salmon was just as skillfully prepared. They treated us well and Jim had a fantastic birthday dinner. It was a thrill to eat at the Port Bistro.

We had the good fortune to meet Veronica, his mushroom forager. Larry and Jennifer joined us for breakfast on Wednesday at the Shelburne Inn. A woman came out of the kitchen with a basket of Porcini mushrooms. She was going a mile a minute and wanted to show off her morning's work. Larry and I went out to her car to see her efforts.

Photo: Veronica's mushrooms. Soon to be on the menu.

Her Mini was filled with crate of mushrooms. Lobsters, porcini, chanterelles, hedgehogs, hen of the woods, were all to be had, along with a bucket of huckleberries, and a big bag of pickleweed (Salicornia virginica.) I was in love. I want to be like this Gypsy senior citizen when I grow up. She was a riot.

Jim and I went to Jimella's Seafood Market and Community Store upon Larry's recommendation. Jimella and Nanci used to own The Ark (now closed,) a pioneering restaurant focusing on local, Northwest cuisine. Their oysters came from 50 yards away in Willapa Bay. We met Jimella, as Larry said we should. We talked about the local cheesemakers, mutual friends, and their upcoming plans to open their store up for evening dinners.

"No reservations!" she declared. "Just come in and grab a table. If you have to wait, grab a chair." She was fun to talk to. She called a local fellow, also named Larry. He has goats and used to work at Jumpin' Good Goat Dairy. He and his wife want to get licensed and make cheese, too. Nice how folks want to help us network.

Photo: Jimella's Seafood Market

We left Jimella's after eating some great clam chowder and headed up to Leadbetter Point State Park. "Mushroom heaven," Chef Larry declared. He wasn't kidding. There were mushrooms everywhere, growing under every huckleberry bush and Sitka spruce. We wandered along a narrow path and had lots of fun taking pictures and exploring the woods. We had been hiking for about twenty minutes when we both stopped suddenly. "Did you hear that?" Jim asked. "Yes, I did." I said nervously. A low, deep growl came from the bushes directly ahead of us. Hmmm. Bear? Cougar? Bobcat? Angry wood spirits? We turned around and walked quickly back the way we came. We tried to make lots of noise and I whistled Souza marches. Nothing would attack someone whistling a Souza March. No more growling beasts in the bushes, just lots of birds chirping and singing, and distant waves crashing on the shore.

Photo: Hikers proceed with caution.

We managed to catch Jimella's friend Larry later in the afternoon. He was in his garage, sanding part of a spar on a sailboat. He welcomed us with a big smile, and we chatted about goats, cheesemaking, organic gardening, and oyster farming. He was an oysterman for 25 years, providing oysters to many restaurants including the Ark. He also had a U-pick oyster operation. I'd love to pick my own from the oyster beds. You know its fresh! A very interesting guy.

We had another excellent meal at Pelicano, another harbor restaurant in Ilwaco. We had well prepared steaks and salmon and got to watch the boats in the harbor again. The evening wrapped up at the Raven and Finch, a wine bar and café down the block from Pelicano and the Port Bistro. Larry and Jenn joined us, and we sat and chatted over glasses of red wine. It was great seeing them again. Nice to see others following their hearts and living their dreams.

Photo: Larry and Jenn see us off.

Morning came far too quickly. Time to return to the farm. Our animals need us, animals=three cats and one dog. We quietly gathered our things together, ate breakfast, said our goodbyes, picked up a fresh albacore tuna loin from OleBob's Fish Market and returned to Dundee. We were home after lunch. That tuna grilled up nicely for supper.


Dina Emerson said...

Look at LARRY, with his beautiful mushrooms and his sparkling eyes! He looks so happy... what I great guy, It's nice to see him achieving his dream.

Do send him my best!

JackieW said...

Sounds likea great weekend birthday getaway!

Keleigh said...

It's great to see foodies writing about the stellar dining we have here on the Peninsula. We locals live charmed culinary lives, a rare treat for a string of villages with our population. Jenn and Larry have been an incredible addition to the Peninsula community. Larry has a particular way with food that is ...unique and fabulous. I highly recommend the experience.