Sunday, 20 August 2017

A Magical Escape to the Fogo Island Inn

I usually solely blog about restaurants, but after staying at the Fogo Island Inn for 3 magical days, I feel compelled to share my experience.

The Fogo Island Inn is located in Newfoundland, Canada's easternmost province.  There is no doubt that the inn is a travel destination, as it entails a flight to Newfoundland, and then a 4-5 hour drive from the airport (either in Deer Lake or St. John's) to catch the hour-long ferry that brings you to Fogo.  Do not let the travel deter you, it is more than worth it!

Lobster trap view while awaiting the ferry

The Inn has attracted a lot of attention over the past year, being ranked 12th in Travel and Leisure Magazine's 2017 "Top 100 Hotels in the World" list and received the title of Best Hotel Resort in Canada as judged by the magazine's readers.  So how has this tiny island pretty much at the edge of the earth managed to accomplish such a feat?  It all began with Zita Cobb, a native of the island who became a very successful businesswoman and social entrepreneur.  After years on the mainland working in the tech industry, Zita decided that it was time to turn her mind to philanthropic work and give back to her hometown of Fogo.  She founded the Shorefast Foundation in 2003, a charitable organization that uses a new model for cultural and economic resilience for small communities, using Fogo Island as the focus of their work.  Among other things, the Shortfast Foundation laid the foundations for the construction of the Fogo Island Inn, a geotourism initiative, that was built in 2013.  Since then, it has attracted thousands of tourists to the island and worked wonders in putting Fogo and Newfoundland on the world stage map.

Even from afar, it is not hard to understand why the Fogo Island Inn has become such a success story. The architecture is stunning and its location, perched on a foundation of rocks peering out over the Atlantic Ocean, is awe-inspiring.  There is also the appeal of its remoteness, of really being able to "get away from it all" which may be the draw for celebrities like Gwenyth Paltrow and our very own prime minister Justin Trudeau.

Driving up to the Inn
The Inn in all its glory

Under the stilts

Walk on the rocks in front of the Inn 
But I would argue that you cannot even get close to understanding how special the Fogo Island Inn is until you experience it for yourself.  The true charm and wonder of the Inn lies not in the physical structure of the Inn, but in the hospitality that lies between its 4 walls.  The Inn is largely staffed by locals, who take great pride in their island and all it has accomplished.  The sense of authenticity rings true everywhere you turn.

The Inn does not offer extravagant luxury but instead provides guests with a quaint setting that will immediately make you feel like as though you are returning home.  Most of the furniture, including the beautiful quilts, are handmade by locals and the decor is reminiscent of traditional outport Newfoundland with colourful knit cushions and mismatched wallpaper.

Cozy gathering space just outside the movie theatre- great for cards and board games

Service is extremely friendly and honours the warm hospitality that Newfoundland is known for.  You will always find locals who act as "concierges" sitting at a table near the dining room on the main floor who will happily share all of the island's best kept secrets with you and ensure that you have everything you need for your day ahead.  From access to one of the Inn's many vans, to a picnic lunch, to an island tour with one of the locals, everything is included in the cost of your stay and offered with open arms.

The dining space at the Inn where guests enjoy breakfast, lunch and dinner (again, all included in the cost) is simply decorated such that it does not detract from the beauty of the ocean that lies just outside the floor to ceiling window at the front of the room.  Watching the sun set over the ocean at dinner will become one of the unforgettable memories of your stay.  The food focuses on local ingredients, including traditional Newfoundland ingredients like partridgeberries, bakeapples and, of course, cod fish.  The food comes beautifully presented, without being too fussy, and the small menu offers dishes to suit a variety of tastes, from fish and chips to more healthy vegetarian fare.  The menus were a la carte for breakfast and lunch, with a 3 course menu for dinner.  We heard through the grapevine that here is likely to change in the next few months, when there will be the introduction of a tasting menu, and a more informal "crab boil" option that will be offered in a new dining space in a new building that as still under construction during our stay.  Pictured below are selected dishes from our stay, with many omissions such as their infamous fish and chips for lunch, and our family-style shellfish dinner where we were served bottomless plates of fresh crab and lobster!

Lunch view
Dinner view
Welcome bites- tea with buns, butter and molasses

Breakfast- Fish cakes and poached eggs

Lunch- beans, stewed strawberries and egg

Lunch- fish and brewis

Lunch- local cod and nettle spaetzle

Dinner appetizer- cod tongues on a potato nest

Dinner starter- salted herring and rhubarb

Dinner appetizer- seafood roll
Dinner appetizer- beet tart

Dinner entree- lentils and seitan
Traditional Newfoundland pudding- Figgy Duff

Sample dinner menu
Make sure that you take some time during your stay to explore the island.  From beautiful hikes, to scenic drives, to cod jigging in the ocean, you will not be bored.  And, if all you want to do is relax, you will be very content to sit in your room staring out at the ocean.

The magic of the Fogo Island Inn must be experienced to be truly understood and I feel so fortunate to have visited such a magical place with my family.  A little piece of my heart remains at the Inn, waiting for my return.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

The Search for Perfection at Chicago's Grace

Reservation required?  YES- Make sure you book this 3-star well in advance (give yourself at least a month or two) to snag a seat at in this small, intimate space.

Atmosphere: Grace is on the more formal end of the Michelin star establishments we have dined at, with most men in jackets (with or without tie) and many women in long gowns.  The colour scheme is neutral (beige, white, black) and furnishings are very simple with 2-seater booths on one side and generously-spaced circular tables filling the rest of the small room.  The semi-open kitchen is right at the back, and if you are lucky you might be offered a tour at the conclusion of your meal.

Service: Despite the very formal decor, the service is very approachable.  Both our server and sommelier were very open to chatting about the food, entertaining our questions and making our evening very enjoyable.  Having said that, the service was executed like clock work, with our dishes being placed on the table in perfect synchrony, our water and wine glasses]s being filled at all times, and very precise spacing between dishes.

Food: There are two choices at Grace, the "Flora" (vegetable) and "Fauna" (meat/seafood) tasting menus.  There are also wine pairings available, which I would highly recommend.  The pairings are not excessive in quantity (about 2.5-3 glasses total) with a nice variety of styles and vintages.  The tasting menus offer about 10-12 courses, starting with a few bites, then some lighter dishes, followed by a couple more substantial savoury dishes, then ending with 3 sweet dishes.  We left feeling full but not overstuffed.   Grace does not do "showy" food (no liquid nitrogen to be found here) but the dishes are anything but boring.  Chef Duffy is a master with using complex flavours and textures such that every single bite offers a new surprise.  There are flavours from multiple different backgrounds (thai, italian, french) and his use of herbs and spices is ingenious.  I was very impressed with the creativity behind the food and the spectacular presentation.

Pre-dinner "bites" plated on honeycomb

Various breads with salted butter and herb butter:


Heart of palm- ginger, mint, coriander

Salsify- jasmine, trout roe, shiso

Asparagus- osetra caviar, potato, spring onion

English pea, ricotta, olive oil, lavender

Carrot- green strawberry, hazelnut, amaranth

Australian Black Truffle- sweet corn, pecorino, parsley

Blood Orange- vanilla, tangerine lace (both menus)

Strawberry- sunflower, elderlflower, verbana

Chocolate- grapefruit, chartreuse, celery heart


Guinea Hen- ramp, radish, chive blossom

Alaskan King Crab- sudachi, cucumber, lemon mint 

Bay Scallops- white poppy, romaine, nasturtium

Pork- gnudi, porcini, spinach

Squab- beet, fig, endive

Miyazaki Beef- grains, hon shimeji, kaffir lime

Huckleberry- honey, fenugreek, basil

Cashew- cocao, creme fraiche, hoja santa

Melon "bursts"

Chocolate caramels (a little gift for our anniversary)

Overall Verdict?
Grace is a truly special place.  It combines traditional formality with the congenial, approachable service that diners have come to appreciate.  The experience is rounded out with creative and thought-provoking food inspired by flavours from around the world.  It is clear that Chef Duffy sets very high standards for his work and expects the same from those who work with him.  It was an honour to dine at an establishment that strives for such perfection for its guests.

Grace Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato