The small neighborhoods, or villages, that dot Victoria are one of the city's hidden charms. Some are more interesting than others, James Bay Village in particular feels like an open air home for the elderly and the boring, but with a range of independent businesses and often unique architecture they all have their own appeal. Fernwood Village always seems peaceful, rather than boring and at midday that's a welcome change from downtown and the rush of Blackberry-wielding power suits who pull down six figures but have all the social graces of water buffalo.
The Fernwood Inn sits right at the corner of Fernwood and Gladstone, one-time terminus for the BCER streetcar line. That was, of course, in the days before municipal planners everywhere got a hard-on for buses and started tearing up streetcar tracks like they were parking tickets. The Fernwood Inn is a big place and with its pleasant yellow paint job and half-timbered exterior it’s hard to miss. From the look of it I gather that the architect wanted “mock Tudor” but decided mocking was altogether too much effort and settled for “bathroom-wall sketch of Tudor making it with a horse.” While that statement implies I don’t like the building nothing could be further from the truth – I think it’s one of the nicer-looking places around town. It is a difficult thing, to be loved by me.
The restaurant was quiet when Nicky & I arrived, the lunch rush had passed and only a few tables were full. The sign told us to seat ourselves and so we found a booth on the right side of the restaurant. The interior of the Fernwood Inn is cheerful and bright, owed in equal measures to a colour palette chosen by someone on Prozac’s good side and an abundance of large windows. Shortly after we were seated a waiter, Callum, stopped by to bring us menus and take our drink order. A glance at said menu showed the prices to be about standard for Victoria pubs, with burgers in the $11-15 range. For an appetizer we chose the “Proper Poutine” ($10), described as “local fresh cheese curds, melted with our rich, roasted duck and chicken gravy all on a pile of crisp fries.”
Poutine is a larded-up wallop to your stomach whose salty allure overruns your taste buds like the Catholics at Montsegur; the best poutine will render you bloated and immobile, your blood-pressure so high that tinnitus makes your eardrums sing with the mosquito whine of Hell’s choir. Fernwood Inn’s “Proper Poutine” was entirely too proper - rather than overrunning Montsegur it was content to leave a flaming bag at the doorstep. The chicken & duck gravy was thin and though Nicky said she liked the “subtle flavour” I found it so subtle as to be nonexistent. In its defense the cheese curds were quite good and the dish was hot enough that they began to melt around the fries, making the thing a big cheesy mess, which worked in its favour. Not a poor first course but not something I care to order again.
The “Polenta & Prawn Skillet with chorizo sausage & fresh goat cheese with watercress & tomato” ($13) was another story - it made an impression from the moment it landed at the table, so hot I think it burned the fingerprints off Callum’s hand. I don’t often eat polenta, mostly because it actually takes effort to prepare, and this skillet, with a firm, but still fluffy square of polenta in the center surrounded by creamy goat cheese, made me realize I have been missing out. There was more prawn & chorizo than expected and the tomatoes were grilled, which was a nice touch.
My one quibble is that the chef chose not to remove the tails of the prawns before cooking and serving them. This may pitifully minor but try removing the tail from shrimp so hot it could have been fished from the seas of the sun and you will understand. I know absolutely nothing about watercress other than it looks like the lean, hard George to broccoli’s hulking simpleton Lenny and its presence at the table failed to enlighten me. It sat on top of the skillet looking, for all the world, like an upended bag of lawn clippings, and though I ate every stalk, or frond, or whatever, I am hard pressed to tell you anything significant about the experience. Of the skillet itself I can say that it was a rich, filling dish I would gladly order again.
I can’t quite pin down why I want to go back to the Fernwood Inn. Don’t get me wrong, our table service, courtesy of Callum, was first-rate and the food was well-made but those are not the things that seem to draw me back. Maybe it’s the cheeriness of the decor or the vast windows that allow me to keep an eye out for both parking wardens and that most irrefutable proof of God’s love – women in yoga pants, I don’t know. Whatever it is, it makes the Fernwood Inn seem like a comfortable place to enjoy a beer and a bite as the world strolls past.
There are a lot of things that make Victoria special – the beauty of the Inner Harbour on a summer’s night, the way Mayor Fortin & his staff are patiently waiting for the Rapture to thin out the Colwood Crawl so they don’t have to admit to being wrong about the railroad. You can add afternoons at the Fernwood Inn to that list.