Is it possible the most singular restaurant in B.C. is on a Gulf Island?

When Jesse McCleery and Leanne Lalonde opened a little restaurant on Galiano—the most accessible but least populous of the Southern Gulf Islands—something magical happened. People came to the door bearing gifts: basil, apples, hazelnuts, corn. Everyone was rooting for them to make a go of it. Who, on a sleepy island an hour from the B.C. mainland, wouldn’t want more dining options?

True, you could always eat fairly well here—surprisingly well, actually, for a place with a winter population of only 1,250 or so (and perhaps 10 times that in summer). The Hummingbird Pub has good burgers, Wild 1 is a roadside stop for tom yum soup and pad thai and the Flying Black Dog food truck has decent wraps (if weird hours—closed Sundays in peak summer season?). The corporate retreats and wedding parties at Bodega Ridge are well looked after, and the Galiano Inn offers pizza on the patio in summer and a dining room year-round.

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`SheloraSheldon-pilgrimme13 (Photo: Shelora Sheldan.)

But there’s never been a buzzy restaurant—a place you can’t wait to tell your friends about. Now, thanks to Pilgrimme, Salish Sea sailors redo their itineraries. Pender Islanders catch the early ferry over, the late ferry home. Mainlanders come—by car, kayak, bicycle, float plane—to sample McCleery’s deeply personal, inventive cooking.

What’s the draw? The restaurant is tucked among cedars not far from Montague Harbour in the space that used to house La Berengerie, a charming but predictable little French place that ran its course. Pilgrimme is anything but predictable. The menu is built around what McCleery (who did a stage at René Redzepi’s acclaimed Noma in Copenhagen) finds in the woods, on the seashore and in local gardens.

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His dishes seem both ancient and of the moment. Local potatoes—slow-cooked in whey, buttermilk, smoked and pickled bull kelp—are a revelation. Dabs of delicate herring roe and burnt yogurt brighten charred kale shoots. And who else would pair seared albacore with preserved eggplant, beetroot, apple and cultured cream? Each plate is an elegant but unpretentious composition; flavours and textures work together as harmoniously as a string quartet. McCleery has a rare gift.

Small wonder that Pilgrimme has attracted glowing reviews, that it now shows up on many “best of” and “recommended” lists (enRoute’s Best New Restaurants in Canada, for instance)—and that Galiano residents who love great food keep bringing offerings to the door.

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