With a schwing and a clunk the glass rim of the bottle pops off, cork and all, and flies through the air in a jet of frothing Champagne. I’m in the wine cellar of Whistler’s Bearfoot Bistro having just learned the ancient and noble art of Sabrage — basically slicing a Champagne bottle’s cork out with a sword — from owner André Saint-Jacques. The evening started with a billowing scientific display of mixology as a bartender utilized liquid nitrogen to create an ice-cold martini. In between there were courses of truffle carbonara, foie gras with brioche and black cod with caviar. In a minute, I’ll don a full-length Canada Goose parka to step inside the restaurant’s Ice Room, a -32C ice block lined freezer for a vodka tasting.
If it all seems a bit over the top, that’s because it is. Gloriously so. If Cirque de Soleil was a restaurant it would be Bearfoot Bistro.
As befits one of the world’s great ski resorts, Whistler has no shortage of exceptional high-end restaurants, but it also has its share of humble, inexpensive places that make splurging on all those luxury ingredients a little easier to swallow.
At Ingrid’s Village Café, for example, you could buy 43 chicken schnitzel sandwiches for the price of one of Bearfoot Bistro’s “Above the Clouds” — Remy Martin Louis XIII cognac, Dom Pérignon and bitter sugar cube — Champagne cocktails. Ingrid’s might be a humble deli, but the quality of its home style cooking: breakfast sandwiches, subs, burgers and that excellent schnitzel sandwich, has made it a village staple since it opened in 1986.
That makes it a year younger than another Whistler budget favourite: Village Sushi. When rumors began circulating last year that the beloved Japanese restaurant might be closing, locals were aghast. Where else could they go for spicy agedashi tofu, tender tako yaki and supple sashimi? Well, several places, actually. Nagomi and Sachi are both fine sushi restaurants, plenty of cities east of the Coast Mountains would be happy to have such spots, but there’s something special about Village Sushi. The place looks a bit like a well-lit open plan office, but the fish is fresh, the menu expansive and it always feels like a party might break out at any second.
The village’s biggest, most extravagant dinner party, however, is thrown just around the corner, at Araxi Restaurant and Oyster Bar. The Araxi Big Guns dinner, held each year during the Cornucopia culinary festival, is a no-holds-barred celebration featuring some of the best wines in the world, curated by the restaurant’s wine director, Jason Kawaguchi, paired with the meticulous cooking of chef James Walt. Krug and caviar, Barbaresco and black truffles, petits fours and vintage Port all make the scene. Araxi is a special treat at any time of year, though, and the emphasis on carefully prepared, locally sourced ingredients along with an award-winning wine list that runs over 11000 labels deep makes splashing out on a big meal there feel like money well spent.
Opportunities to break the bank abound on the mountain, as well. At the top of the Blackcomb Gondola, Christine’s Restaurant offers full-service, fancy pants dining and affords alpine views that are regularly described as: panoramic, breathtaking and gobsmacking. Alright, rarely that last one, but it fits. Elaborately garnished plates: BBQ duck salad with crispy taro, charred shortrib with marinated kale and chocolate Nutella truffles, almost compete with the view for sheer prettiness.
For all of Christine’s charms, it has to be said, appreciating the subtleties of fine dining is a bit of a challenge when you’re wearing ski boots. For that reason, I’d sooner eat in one of the more affordable — that word being relative on a ski hill, of course — quick service mountainside restaurants. The Rendezvous Cafeteria, in the same building as Christine’s, offers a decent rice bowl, generous burritos and solid hamburgers for a reasonable price. A short traverse away, at the top of the Crystal Chair, a cozy log cabin is home to the Crystal Hut where famished ski bums can shred a loaded Belgian waffle or a bowl of Buffalo stew for less than $20.
Going with the cheaper option isn’t always the best route to take in Whistler, though. While the breakfast bowls, sugar waffles and breakfast sandwiches at Portobello Market in the Fairmont Whistler are perfectly fine, they can’t compete with the lavish buffet spread The Wildlflower Restaurant, in that same hotel, puts out for their Alpine Breakfast Buffet. Sure, there’s cereal and sausages, pancakes and pastries, but, what about a carved ham station, platters of smoked fish and made to order omelettes? Check, check and check. I’m not encouraging gluttony here, but at $38 there’s enough food on that buffet that a hungry diner could easily get their money’s worth and more.
A ski vacation is never going to be cheap, but some things, like learning how to slice a Champagne bottle open with a saber, you just can’t put a price on.