“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question?” the retired American gentleman sitting next to me with his wife at Terre Rouge in Charlottetown asked me tactfully. “Why are you here by yourself in PEI? Are you a diplomat?”
Perhaps, he wondered why this single Asian woman could order a glass of sauvignon blanc with near perfect accent. Perhaps, he was surprised I was about to finish a super-sized plate of charcuterie. Feeling naughty, I said, “Well, I am a wild horse. I like running around with no strings attached…for food!”
Joking aside, that was exactly what drew me to Prince Edward Island – Canada’s smallest yet tastiest province. Years ago, as I was travelling in the Maritimes, I made a stopover for a day. Bad weather. Bad impression. Like a first date went wrong, there was little interest for a revisit. Yet, many of my foodie friends keep telling me how great the Island is – the famous Malpeque oysters, the lobster dinner and its natural produce. Not to mention, the headquarters for Canada’s best ice-cream – COWS Creamery – is right here.
Feeling inadequate as a self-proclaimed foodie, I convinced myself that everyone deserved a second chance as I was planning my summer getaway. Soon after, I found myself driving around the Island from east to west, north to south, searching for yumminess that would not only bring joy but also inspire.
Feeding Frenzy at Lighthouses
One thing I never imagined before my road trip was to fall in love….with lighthouses. I came for food. Visiting lighthouses was just a side show. Why would anyone be excited about a tower with lamps and lenses? Love is really hard to explain until you get close to it.
The landscape around each lighthouse is unique and usually stunningly breathtaking. Located mostly along steep and dangerous coastlines, most lighthouses evoke a sense of raw boldness for those who dare. No wonder it is not hard to find a café or a restaurant nearby the popular ones.
However, no restaurant meals can compare with having a picnic right beside a lighthouse. The sounds of waves and squawking seabirds are your live band. Or, you can enjoy a gorgeous panoramic sunset view as your dessert. My top choices are: Wood Islands Lighthouse and Souris Historic Lighthouse. It is one-of-a-kind foodie experience.
Taste of the Sea
Like lighthouses, the Malpeque Oyster is a historic symbol for PEI. Its harvest is closely linked with the ups and downs of the fishing industry. It earned its fame as the world’s tastiest oysters as early as 1900 at the World’s Fair in Paris!
It is certainly NOT an option to miss it. And, there is no better way to shuck your way into the sea’s freshest flavours than getting close to its origin.
Seafood restaurants are everywhere on the Island. However, only a handful will grow and nurture the oysters on their own oyster beds. Carr’s Oysters Bar at Stanley Bridge is one of them. Served in half-shells, you can choose to taste the oysters in two ways: raw or Rockefeller.
My two cents: This particular brand of oysters carries a salty sweet scent of the ocean. It is best to engage your taste buds in its purest form. Unless you really hate the feeling of sliminess, simply go raw – or not having it at all.
While the Malpeque Oyster is a staple, there are many more to explore in PEI. In fact, some of the best flavours are hidden in less-known communities along the scenic drives. Yes, these small towns may not have much for sightseeing. Yet, if you are willing to take a detour, some unexpected awesomeness may be awaiting you.
One of the characteristics of being the only pub in Tyne Valley is that the servers can easily call out the names of their customers. That was why I attracted a few curious stares as I entered The Landing Oyster House and Pub. I arrived here for an early supper in early June. The eatery was half-full and so was my stomach. Not feeling particularly hungry, I just ordered half-a-dozen raw oyster and a lobster roll. Safe bet. Good but not a blown off.
As I was about to get my check, a cozy conversation next to me got my attention. “Mom, you’ve got to try this carrot cake,” a middle-aged son told his elderly mom gently while he cut the slice into small bite-size pieces. Misunderstanding my interest, my server tried hard to sell it. “That’s Granny’s Carrot Cake. It was Erica’s grandmother’s recipe (Erica is the pub owner).”
Although my rational mind kept saying “it was just a carrot cake”, my subconscious self was pushing me to succumb to the temptation. Frankly, the slice did look old-fashioned – plain and simple with a shiny icing. The pound cake itself was moist and fluffy. It was the taste that ruled though. I could not really figure out all the flavours – it was a secret recipe for a reason. The aftertaste embodied a subtle warm spiciness amid the sweetness, having the power to tap into old memory. It actually reminded me of my own granny. Truly heart-warming for a traveller on the road.
Road trip is empowering. You can go almost anywhere if you desire. The limit is really where the road ends. In PEI, that may happen quite often. The good news is: you can usually find a nice seaside restaurant with a great view at these end points.
Clam Diggers Beach House & Restaurant in Georgetown won my heart in this category. The restaurant is connected to a board walk leading to the Confederation Trail while its patio is a great spot to view the sunset. You can totally forget the hustle and bustle of daily life here. If that is not good enough, order the Ocean Fresh Chowder.
Seafood chowder is the choice of soup on the Island. Before I got here, I already tried half a dozen. The one served at Clam Diggers was simply exceptional and mind-blowing. The base was creamy and smooth. Every spoonful was a unique experience infused with flavours from a variety of luxurious seafood – scallops, mussels, salmon…a true winner.
The other winning dish on my 7-day quest for yumminess came from The Pearl. This eatery was an actual big winner of local awards. A hidden gem, literally, in the middle of nowhere. I would have missed it, if not for my GPS. The building looked more like a country farm house than a fancy restaurant.
Everything inside the restaurant – from the curtains to furniture, from decors to painting – was rustically homely, reflecting a strong personality. So was the food and plating. The pebbles and seashells underneath the Raspberry Point oysters, the aromatic blue cheese buried inside the blueberry pound cake….it all seemed casually natural. But, the orchestrated presentation and harmonious tastefulness in every course told me the chef left nothing to chance.
Oh, yes, where was the main course? Surprise. Surprise. It was a rather unusual choice. No lobsters. No fresh daily catch. The winning pick was actually a Braised Pock Hock. Why? It was because I found out the award-winning kitchen was now run by German Chef Uwe Wedekind. Pork hock and German chef seemed to be a no-brainer. And, it did not disappoint. The meat was entrenched with rich-spiced flavours, readily to be torn off. The black lentil risotto echoed well with the rustic theme while the sheep milk gouda helped restore the balance with an aging sweetness. The plate was simply abundantly fulfilling.
The Finale – The Feast
Speaking of abundance, no one can really leave PEI without a visit to FireWorks at The Inn at Bay Fortune. The restaurant is run by Canada’s celebrity chef Michael Smith. And, if you are lucky, Chef Michael will be there to explain the concept of the signature dinner party “The Feast”.
The dinner is a real thrill, even for the locals. Whenever I mentioned my reservation in a casual conversation, it was always greeted with envy or admiration. The 4-hour dinner, preluded with a walk-around of the restaurant’s oyster bar and herb gardens, was filled with twists and turns. Everyone had a personalized table setting. The menu was tailored-made, featuring the catch of the day.
“How can the lobster meat stay juicy and taste so fresh?” I asked one of the chefs after I tasted the lobster tail. The answer: the lobster was caught and cooked immediate in SEA WATER on the boat, just enough to tear the meat off the shell. Then, the chopped lobster meat was seasoned and cooked under high heat in the “fireworks”. There you went: ultimate freshness.
That was just one of the many courses served that night. I seriously lost count of the wow moments. It was literally non-stop eating in a room filled with chatter and laughter. On that joyful note, an amazing culinary journey in Prince Edward Island reluctantly had to come to an end.