Sunday, July 06, 2014

Travels with Chili: Whidbey Island Redux

This post was going to be about our trip with a friend to Seattle to celebrate her birthday. Other friends were driving down from Vancouver, BC, and we figured the Emerald City made a nice halfway point. That's until some research revealed that the only hotel rooms available were running about $250 bucks a night, and even if we shared a room with the birthday girl—yes, we've known each other that long—it would still be at least $500 a night to accomodate all of us.

Port Townsend from the Coupeville ferry dock.

Being frugal and also flexible, we started casting about for alternatives. When someone mentioned Whidbey Island, we heartily endorsed the notion, having just been there last fall. Our Canadian comrades quickly found a sweet little house overlooking the Saratoga Passage just outside the quaint mid-island town of Coupeville. With a view over the water, a pebbled beach to walk on and Mt. Baker looming over the scene, the price of $175 a night split five ways seemed like a steal.

View from the deck of our rented house.

I rode up with my friend on Friday, taking a route that avoided the obstructed bowel that is the traverse between Tacoma and Seattle. Instead, we cut off I-5 just before Tacoma, crossed over the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and wound our way up a four-lane scenic highway through Bremerton to Port Townsend. A quick ferry ride across the narrow entrance to the Puget Sound put us ten minutes from Coupeville, the whole trip taking almost exactly the same amount of time as driving from Portland to Mukilteo, north of Seattle, then catching the ferry to the southern end of the island with Coupeville still a 40-minute drive away.

Whidbey Pies & Cafe at Greenbank Farm.

Feeling very clever, we pulled up to the house at almost exactly the same time as the northern half of our group. We quickly unpacked and headed out to the sheltered side deck with our drinks in time to see a stunning sunset reflecting off of Mt. Baker in the distance. Dinner that night was a paella studded with delicate Penn Cove mussels that we'd picked up at Toby's tavern in Coupeville. The mussel version of Kumamoto oysters in their small size and creamy texture, they were not only gorgeous but gave that local, briny kick to the meal.

It took very little arm-twisting to convince the rest of the crew to explore Coupeville proper the next morning then hit Whidbey Pies & Cafe at Greenbank Farm for lunch. (Frankly, I doubt if this crowd heard much more than "pies" and agreed immediately.) That way we could meet Dave, who was driving up that morning from Portland, and we could all have lunch and some well-deserved beers before heading back to our new island "home."

The Oystercatcher's duck breast and confit.

The birthday girl's dinner took place that evening at the Oystercatcher, a casual but well-regarded spot in Coupeville. Longtime owners Joe Scott and Jamie Sastre had only recently sold the restaurant to Tyler and Sara Hansen, which left locals wondering if the change of hands might mean big changes to their beloved dinner house. If our meal there was any indication, the place is in expert hands, with everything made in-house and showing a clear dedication to working with island fisheries, farmers and ranchers.

My beef shoulder with creamed new potatoes and nasturtium butter was meltingly tender and deeply flavorful, though I have to say the whole table agreed that the duck breast and confit leg with roasted potatoes and an intriguing cherry mostarda was the hit of the evening. The 2011 Syncline Grenache was so lovely that we had to order a second bottle, followed by toasts with a couple of older Scotches back at the house to send the birthday girl off to bed.

So while I'm sure the Seattle trip would have been equally nice, the DIY aspect of this adventure, plus the opportunity to simply hang out with friends in a beautiful and relaxing place, made it so much more—and this is the operative word—fun.

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