You could say inhabitants of the Long Beach Peninsula, on Washington's southwest coast, are obsessed with mushrooms. After all, how many...
You could say inhabitants of the Long Beach Peninsula, on Washington’s southwest coast, are obsessed with mushrooms. After all, how many food festivals do you know of like the peninsula’s Wild Mushroom Festival (Oct. 15-Nov. 15) that last an entire month?
You could also say they are oyster-mad, since you could make a weekend-long oyster pub crawl down the entire, 28-mile length of this salty finger, swallowing highbrow sesame-crusted oysters with apple fennel slaw at Pauly’s Bistro in southernmost Ilwaco, then knocking back an oyster shooter fresh from the oyster beds at Oysterville Sea Farms in, yes, Oysterville, and never eat in the same, brine-y place twice. You might most accurately say this place is food-crazed, since the rule of fork here seems to be one eatery for every dozen peninsula inhabitants. In all likelihood, you will say nothing, since your mouth will be full.
It is as if peninsula food purveyors are trying to make up for the events of 1805. That’s when Lewis and Clark arrived in November at the turnabout point of their frontier journey. They complained in their journal of horrible cold and wet and hunger, but it was the want of a good meal that seems to have most oppressed them. Even their Christmas dinner, they said, “concisted of pore Elk, so much Spoiled that we eate it thro’ mear necessity, Some Spoiled pounded fish and a fiew roots.”
Were the debilitated explorers as blind to the region’s bounty as they were to their need for spell check? Even within our food-rich state, this is an exceptionally fertile place. There is the immense, clean estuary of Willapa Bay on the inside of the peninsula, where 20 percent of our nation’s oysters are farmed. At the south end of this finger of land, the Columbia River meets the Pacific, where crab, salmon and sturgeon are harvested, and, farther out, whitefish and tuna.
Eating your way
up the beach
If you hurry you can make it to the mouth-puckering 83rd annual Cranberrian Fair at the Ilwaco Heritage Museum tomorrow through Sunday. Cranberry harvesting will be happening on the Long Beach Peninsula at this time, and the fair will feature cranberry-food specialties, along with music, dance, art and crafts. Admission with purchase of a Cranberrian Fair button, $5, with hourly shuttle to the Cranberry Museum (with gift shop) and Demonstration Farm (open April to January, 10 a.m.-5 p.m., at 2907 Pioneer Road in Long Beach). See the funbeach.com Web site for more information, or contact Ilwaco Heritage Museum: 360-642-3446.
Wild mushrooms are harvested here all year, but rains bring out the best. During the Wild Mushroom Festival Oct. 15-Nov. 15, treats include five-course mushroom-infused meals at local restaurants, a medieval wild mushroom feast, winemaker’s dinners and a lecture on local mushrooms by forager Veronica Williams. See funbeach.com or call 800-451-2542 for more information.
Fall is too late for the summer Jazz and Oyster Festival in Oysterville, but lovers of this bivalve know they are actually best eaten in fall, when they are no longer procreating and can fatten up. Almost every Long Beach Peninsula eatery serves oysters, and you can also buy your own.
In Nahcotta, on the North End, try Larry Warnburg’s cottage operation. Watch for the stand (and oyster shell piles) on your right as you drive north. (No phone, limited hours).
At slightly larger Oysterville Sea Farms, farther north in Oysterville, order a dozen, a bushel, oyster cocktails, smoked oysters and a line of (as yet oyster-free) granolas and baked goods. www.oysterville.net or 800-CRANBERRY.
In Ilwaco, locals flock the casual Imperial Schooner Restaurant for their hand-dipped fish and chips, but the big night is Thursday, when you can get a la carte oysters cooked to order in any one of five ways. Open 11 a.m.-8 p.m. daily at the Port of Ilwaco. 360-642-8667.
Digging for sweet, meaty razor clams is a rite of passage for shellfish-loving Northwesterners. Open season is usually short and this autumn’s first dig is Oct. 15-17 on evening tides. Long Beach is a major digging spot. Additional planned dates: Nov. 12-14 and Dec. 30-Jan. 1. For rules and details on digging times, see http://wdfw.wa.gov/fish/shelfish.
The limit is 15 clams, and you must take the first 15 you find, regardless of size or condition. A shellfish/seaweed license is required, available at some sporting-goods stores, or ordered online (order a week in advance) at http://fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov. If you can’t make it to the dig, look for the delicacy in dishes at local restaurants.
You can dress up and leave the kids at home, but even the most upscale peninsula restaurant can handle casual clothing and children. Be sure to call in advance for open hours; many of these restaurants are closed 2-3 days a week in fall and winter. Save room for dessert — these restaurants seem to put a lot of thought into the meal’s end:
The Ark in Nahcotta has a gorgeous view over Willapa Bay. The new owners are retaining much of the menu that made the old Ark a destination. www.arkrestaurant.com, 360-665-4133.
The Depot in Seaview is housed in a historic train depot and has outstanding food. 1208 38th Place; www.depotrestaurantdining.com, 360-642-7880.
Imperial Schooner in Ilwaco Harbor Village is casual, open every day and features oyster night on Thursdays. 360-642-8667.
42nd Street Café in Seaview is one of the few restaurants open for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Offers free-range and organic meats, and the occasional New Orleans hat-tip, like crab beignets. 4201 Pacific Highway; www.42ndStreetCafe.com, 360-642-2323.
Moby Dick on Willapa Bay serves a small but special menu and oysters grown on-site. 25814 Sandridge Road; www.mobydickhotel.com, 360-665-4690.
Pauly’s Bistro in Ilwaco Harbor Village was named Restaurant of the Year by The Daily Astorian. Great dockside atmosphere. www.portofilwaco.com/paulys, 360-642-8447.
Rebecca’s Canoe Room in Ilwaco Harbor Village has hearty lunches with gourmet flourishes. http://portofilwaco.com/canoe.html, 360-642-4899.
The Sanctuary in Chinook is known for its atmosphere (a 1906 church, complete with pews) and Scandinavian-influenced cooking. 794 Highway 101; www.sanctuaryrestaurant.com, 360-777-8380.
Shoalwater Restaurant and The Heron and Beaver Pub in Seaview share an extensive gourmet menu, with everything from sandwiches to filet mignon, a remarkable wine list and killer desserts. The restaurant is more formal, the pub cozy and English style. 45th and Pacific Highway; www.shoalwater.com, 360-642-4142.
Dawn Jump’s Jumpin’ Good Goat Cheeses are on the menu at The Depot, Pauly’s Bistro and the Moby Dick. Some of her cheeses can be purchased at Okie’s Sentry Market in Ocean Park and Sid’s Market in Seaview.
Peninsula lodging choices are many and diverse. The funbeach.com Web site offers plenty of suggestions. A few are well-suited to food lovers:
Klipsan Beach Cottages in Klipsan Beach are simple, fully furnished beachside cottages with kitchens for do-it-yourself cooking. 22617 Pacific Highway; www.klipsanbeachcottages.com, 360-665-4888.
Shelburne Inn is a grand Victorian stuffed with antiques. Stand-out breakfasts with lodging. Try the garden suites on the ground floor. 4415 Pacific Highway, in Seaview, 800-INN-1896. These owners also run the China Beach Retreat in Ilwaco (360-642-5660, www.chinabeachretreat.com), just steps from Cape Disappointment State Park and Lewis and Clark festivities, with mesmerizing tideland views.
The Moby Dick Hotel in Nahcotta will put you up after you’ve feasted in the hotel dining room. Includes breakfast and use of a bayside sauna. www.mobydickhotel.com, 360-665-4543.
Long Beach Coffee Roasters in Long Beach is a beacon in the ocean fog. They roast and blend more than 20 varieties of beans in-house, and the results are ambrosial. Wi-Fi available. 811 Pacific Ave. S.; www.longbeachcoffee.com, 360-642-2334.
Long Beach Peninsula Visitors Bureau, www.funbeach.com or 800-451-2542
In well-guarded patches of forest in the nearby Willapa Hills, foragers find 30 or more delectable varieties of wild mushrooms, including the golden bonanza of chanterelles. There are at least a dozen types of wild berries, and one, the cranberry, that is widely cultivated in bogs down the peninsula’s squishy center. Dozens of people make a modest living off locally-grown food, from the fisherpeople at Ilwaco Harbor, to legendary mushroom forager Veronica Williams, to my waiter at the 3-year-old Depot Restaurant in Seaview, who sells “microgreens” from his organic garden.
There’s Dawn Jump, of the diminutive, year-old, Jumpin’ Good Goat Dairy in Ocean Park, the area’s only commercial cheesemaker. When Jump hangs cloth bags of the goat milk to separate curds from whey in her backyard dairy, she makes sure to prop a window open, insisting the sea air lends the cheese flavor.
Plenty to choose from
It’s a remarkable culinary culture, but it’s just a more elaborate, international version of the eating that’s gone on for years. It includes many of the ingredients Native American tribes were using when Lewis and Clark shivered into town. And locals have known about the sweetness of Dungeness crab and the earthy scent of morels before they were ever considered part of a regional “cuisine.”
David Campiche, who has owned Seaview’s Shelburne Inn with his wife, Laurie Anderson, for 25 years, and grew up here, describes a 1950s childhood ripe with food-gathering adventures. He learned mushroom hunting from a partly-blind man who walked barefoot in the woods to feel for chanterelles with his toes, and gathered 5-gallon bags of blackberries for his mother, who was a master baker.
“She probably threw them out,” he laughs. “There was just more than she could use.”
Their Christmas dinners included crab bisque and caviar from local white sturgeon.
And the eating continues. On the day I visit, Campiche has already been smoking oysters and later will go mushroom-gathering. “I’m fanatical for freshness,” he says. “For us,” says Anderson, “it’s ‘what’s good today?’ “
Dan Driscoll, owner of Oysterville Sea Farms a few miles up the peninsula, agrees. “The main difference between here and the city is that connection with the initial source of food,” he says. Especially so for his product, which is best eaten within a couple of days of harvest. Does he cook oysters regularly himself? Depends on what you mean by regular.
“I haven’t had any since Sunday,” he says, on Thursday. “I take that back — on Monday I had smoked oyster spread.”
Ark drew raves
Despite the bounty here, it wasn’t until the 1980s that a restaurant opened in the area that gained wider recognition. The Ark, then owned by chefs Nanci Main and Jimella Lucas, drew the attention of influential Oregon chef and food writer James Beard, who penned raves about cooking that emphasized fresh, local ingredients. The Ark was sold last year to new owners, and Main and Lucas moved on to a food consulting business. But in their shadow, restaurants have multiplied like wild porcini in the region’s damp abundance.
“There’s more good eating per capita on this little spit of land than anywhere else I know,” says Tony Kischner. He and his wife, Ann, own the Shoalwater Restaurant and the Heron and Beaver Pub, both housed in the Shelburne Inn. Twenty-five years ago the couple took over from Main and Lucas, who were moving on to the Ark, after Kischner gave up a big Seattle restaurant job. They’ve been written about in The New York Times and Bon Appetit. At dinner in the 110-year-old dining room with its pink tablecloths, lace curtains and oil paintings of local landscapes, people eat fresh-caught sturgeon and wild mushroom lasagna.
Over in the busy pub, there are more single-malt Scotch options than people to drink them. For years the Shoalwater formed a fine-dining triumvirate on the peninsula with The Ark and The Sanctuary, a Norwegian-influenced eatery housed in a former church in Chinook. These days, the old venerables have competition from more recent upstarts such as Pauly’s, Rebecca’s Canoe Room (also on Ilwaco Harbor), the Moby Dick in Nahcotta and The Depot, just blocks away. There are also the farm stands, oyster stands, sandwich shops and huckleberry patches for free-range grazing, and the multiplying bed-and-breakfasts that stuff their clients every morning, leaving them unfeedable for hours.
Food connoisseur’s delight
It’s a ludicrous glut of food, considering only a few thousand people live on the peninsula full-time, easily outnumbered nine months out of the year by coyotes, great blue herons and black bears. The economy is shaky, and most local incomes are working-class. You can still buy a beach bungalow for less than $100,000.
According to former Portland chef Michael Lalewicz, this affordability is one reason budding restaurateurs try their luck.
“I looked at the Oregon Coast, but I couldn’t afford it,” he says, as he hands me a spoonful of perfect, homemade strawberry sorbet he serves at The Depot, his 3-year old restaurant in Seaview’s 100-year old train depot. Trains haven’t come here for years. (Just, it seems, people who like to shake things up in sauté pans.)
One of the best places to sit in this dining room is at the bar, a cozy remnant of the building’s years as a tavern, where you can see Lalewicz at work in the open kitchen. Waiters breeze by with tickets and silky bowls of clam chowder made from razor and littleneck clams, a recipe that makes average versions taste like Elmer’s glue. His wife, manager Nancy Gorshe, says it would be tough to go back to the city. “Michael can’t even eat oysters in Portland anymore. They’re older than ours!”
Many establishments trying their luck are banking on the fact that the Lewis and Clark bicentennial this year is the biggest event to hit the peninsula in decades, centered on the November arrival of the explorers. It features exhibitions, re-enactments, a Thanksgiving celebration and the groundbreaking for a sculpture by Maya Lin at Cape Disappointment State Park, outside Ilwaco. This little fishing village renovated streets and increased development in the harbor in preparation for the events. Other towns have followed suit.
If the turnout is low, it’s possible not every restaurant will survive. But for now it’s an eater’s market, a place where visitors come for a quiet stretch of sand, and return with journals much happier than Lewis and Clark’s:
“Ate too much crab fettuccine for dinner. Fried oysters sit heavy in the stomach. Morning beach walk in order.”
Seattle writer Maria Dolan travels to the Long Beach Peninsula several times a year to eat well and build sandcastles. She is a regular contributor to Northwest Weekend.