EASTSOUND, WASHINGTON — Eastsound is an almost alarmingly charming little town tucked along an absurdly lovely Orcas Island bay. This is the San Juan Islands, an archipelago of velvety-fir-outlined beauties a couple hours’ drive and a highly picturesque ferry ride from Seattle. The fabric of the land here is, by and large, a patchwork of rolling fields and mossy woods with houses and barns here and there, some falling down. An eagle will probably be circling overhead at the ferry landing — truly, the prettiness is preposterous — then it’s a winding road to town, with glimpses of sparkling water along the way.
Most summertime visitors to Eastsound stroll slowly around, attempting to absorb the gentle bombardment of quaintness: the flower-lined streets, the cute bungalows housing galleries, treasure-shops, ice creameries or windsockeries. Fortification is found in the burnished pastries and house-smoked-salmon quiche at Brown Bear Baking; up above its gorgeous garden, a rainbow flag flies high after the community defended its presence from anonymous objectors in 2013, with neighboring businesses flying their own in solidarity. Evening entertainment might include a craft cocktail with optional CBD infusion at the jewel-box-like The Barnacle or convivial karaoke at The Lower Tavern.
Eastsound doesn’t seem to have to try to stay weird — here, dogs run for mayor and an all-barefoot band plays Grateful Dead covers on the village green. If you call one of the island’s three cabs — getting your car on the ferry can be difficult during prime summertime — the co-pilot might be a Jack Russell terrier, and the driver might serenade you about the ferry situation (“Folsom Prison Blues” with the lyrics changed to “stuck on Orcas Island …”).
THE EXISTENCE OF A STRANGE, wonderful dual-identity restaurant in Eastsound run by an obsessive local weirdo makes perfect sense, and some people come here just to eat at Hogstone’s Wood Oven and its upscale sister spot, Aelder. Chef Jay Blackinton started cooking when he was a punk-rock 15-year-old, living on Orcas with his grandparents. Having determined that the food system was corrupt, he went vegan, and his grandma wasn’t going to go out of her way to accommodate his fresh ethics. An intense autodidact, then and still, he read deeply and widely to try as hard as he could to make his food taste good. Then he decided that it’d be even more punk — more radically ethical — to go ahead and eat meat, but only if he killed the animal himself after hunting or raising it. “I’ve always been a pretty extreme person,” Blackinton says. “Food has always been like everything for me — the quality of it, the politics of it, the growing of it, the cooking of it.”
Blackinton was a full-time farmer on Orcas when he opened Hogstone’s in 2013, taking over a rustic former pie shop and adding a yardful of picnic tables. His wood-fired pizzas made with artisanal flour and topped with all-local stuff, as well as the beautiful salads and more served alongside them, soon earned him renown on the island and beyond. He got nominated for the James Beard Rising Star Chef of the Year award five years in a row and was named a Food & Wine Best New Chef. Along the way, he started offering a tasting menu, which began at $45, but it was hard to predict how many diners would order it, which could throw the kitchen very much off-kilter (“It would kill us,” he says).
In 2017, Blackinton launched an official second restaurant for the multicourse, prix-fixe crowd, housing Aelder inside while Hogstone’s carried on outdoors. Aelder now runs weekends during the summer months only, costing $150 for a series of a dozen or more dishes, exquisitely plated, exquisitely of the island.
“You’re lucky you got here at all,” Blackinton said to the couple from San Francisco sitting starry-eyed at the Aelder chef’s counter one night not long ago. They were detailing the particulars of the ferry delays earlier that day, which didn’t sound much different from yesterday’s delays. Lucky, indeed: They were freshly engaged, and despite the boats conspiring against them, they’d made it back to the site of their best-ever date to celebrate. They sat mere feet from Blackinton, watching the fascinating show of his painstaking attention to each plate, and he served some of their courses personally. Half of the newly affianced couple kept getting distracted, staring at her supernova of a diamond ring.
It’s funny, people traveling from so far away, incurring lots of carbon-footprint demerits, to taste Blackinton’s conscientiously considered food sourced almost entirely from Orcas. The oysters at Aelder tonight come from 344 yards away, served one per person, lodged among stones; they’re dressed with Blackinton’s nasturtium vinegar and kelp oil, both more subtle than they sound, such that even an oyster purist will find it complementary instead of argumentative. It may be the power of suggestion, but the gem lettuce you’re told was harvested just this morning seems exponentially fresh; served in a crisp, sculpturally geometric wedge with a tarragony dressing, it tastes like lunch for a very fortunate rabbit, with its buttery, crunchy hazelnut-and-rye crumbles an extremely tasty deconstruction of a crouton.
Because it’s just become summertime, edible blossoms may be found on many an Aelder plate, giving the impression that an elf might be helping Blackinton in the kitchen. A snack of morels wear nasturtium-flower party hats, lying on a lily-pad-looking leaf. One-half a raw radish is carefully loaded with local cream infused mildly with chilies, studded with miniature capers made of coriander seeds and dusted thickly with powdered radish leaf; if you’re only going to have one bite of radish, you want it to be this peppery, bitter, sour and exciting.
The best of the succession of many small dishes, like that half-radish, make you feel glad to be alive right this very minute, grateful to be on this island that’s giving Blackinton its gifts. My favorite might have been the ridiculously tiny, first-of-the-season fava beans brightly nestled with baby strawberries, all softly fresh and sweet but with a tang Blackinton says came from leftover chili brine. Or grilled Manila clams with a rich green garlic emulsion under a blanket of bolted fava shoots and catmint flowers — a super-delicious meeting of garden and shore. Or a pad of smoked beet-bits, “various pickles,” sea beans and a layer of cultured cream, almost too smoky-sour-tart but, then, not.
Not everything is perfect. Blackinton changes the menu constantly — he has to, based on what the island provides and, it seems, because of his own restless, endlessly creative mind. I did not enjoy a snack of caramelized onion cream served on a Cairnspring Mills’ wheat cracker, which turned out to be so hard as to seem a potential dental threat. A precious strip of local prime rib, which Blackinton mournfully explained was the last from a ranch that fell victim to Orcas politics, was overcooked, a minor tragedy under the circumstances. The dessert called “Grilled Milk Ice Cream, Chewy Berries” tasted as overwrought as it sounds, the ice cream redolent with a peaty smokiness and the berries indeed chewy, all underpinned by an unpleasantly sandy-textured crumble.
Along the way, if you’re so inclined, your server can offer a friendly education in natural wine — a pairing costs $95. Maybe there’s a sparkling one from Catalonia, Spain, made from the cava grape Xarel-lo, aged in a bomb shelter until appley-toasty, just slightly effervescent and the prettiest pale gold. Or a Chilean orange wine, smelling like kombucha and tasting a bit like it too, with a distinctly tangy-alive note that grows on you.
Along the way, there’s also an entire pizza. Puncturing both the prix-fixe pomp and portions-so-small refrain, it’s brought out to the table in a pizza box, with a tallboy of Rainier to be drunk out of fine Gabriel-Glas stemware. Maybe it’s also a smidgen of braggadocio, that the humble pie gets a place at this table, but if so, it’s entirely earned, for Blackinton’s pizza is all that. He’s hesitant to pigeonhole it, saying it’s got “a sort of Naples-style feel to it, but it’s not that at all.” It’s got both bubbly-crackly bites and chewy bites, with the outside crust-edges extremely tender. His minimalist, pristine toppings might include hen of the woods mushrooms, whatever alliums are popping that day, just-clipped herbs, cheese made from the output of Orcas’ happy cows and goats. It’s pizza you’d be so happy to get on any occasion.
OUTSIDE, AT HOGSTONE’S, the pizza lands on your picnic table, costing $16 to $26, big enough to share if you order a few other dishes, which range from $9 to $26. Blackinton says the amount of menu overlap varies, depending on sourcing and staffing — it takes a lot of time to shell miniature fava beans, so something like that is Aelder-only. Morels had appeared outside at Hogstone’s the previous night in a different form, a whole herd of them standing up together, ember-roasted and each topped with a minuscule blossom, for $18. We were wildly happy to have a dish of Dungeness crab served in its shell with nasturtium aioli, chili-oil breadcrumbs and a fluttering blanket of nasturtium petals show up both nights ($26 at Hogstone’s).
But as several other things repeated or near-repeated at Aelder — and as that dinner stretched to four hours — we began to maybe wish we were back in the yard. “You made it!” our server said at the end, as if we’d won some endurance sport. The service, it should be said, proved thoughtful, knowledgeable and all-around great in both settings.
Hogstone’s the more-for-your-money proposition by far. My back-of-the-napkin calculations (the napkins outside are paper) would indicate that for the price of two Aelder set menus, you could eat everything on the Hogstone menu — that’s about a dozen plates, each portioned far larger than Aelder’s, plus five pizzas and four desserts, probably enough to feed four people on two subsequent nights. Aelder also lacked a crackle of energy: The not-large dining room, simply decorated with things found around the island, was half-empty, which Blackinton says is intentional, due to kitchen and staffing constraints. They can only shell so many itty-bitty favas.
Blackinton himself admits Aelder is “not quite right” in its current configuration. The dual-restaurant setup only supports running Aelder on summertime weekends. The two places share one bathroom, meaning outdoor Hogstone’s patrons come and go through the middle of Aelder’s dining room. Blackinton says his standards overall are higher now. “Basically, Aelder needs its own space,” he says. “That’s the next phase.” He needs — his verb — Aelder to be the best that it can be, and he says that it will be changing, rethought and rebuilt, after its 2019 season ends in September. “I really want to build, basically, a culinary compound,” he says. “We’ve got so many insane plans — we’ll see what can actually happen.”
The newly betrothed couple swooning at the chef’s counter did not notice anything amiss. And now they’ll have bragging rights for dining at Aelder in its original incarnation — back at the beginning, in all its oddball island beauty. To anyone else who wants to say they’ve been along for the ride, Blackinton says, “You better hurry up and get up here.”
Aelder and Hogstone’s Wood Oven: 460 Main St., Eastsound, WA; 360-376-4647; hogstone.com; reservations required at Aelder, which will serve its 2019 season through September, and strongly recommended for Hogstone’s.