We decided to wait until after lunch to leave for La Conner from Tacoma. The trip of about one hundred miles should take about an hour and forty-five minutes depending upon traffic in Seattle.
La Conner is located in the Skagit Valley. In the springtime the valley floor is covered with tulips. April is generally a month long tulip festival. The Skagit Valley is one of the richest farming areas in the world. Summer produce is abundant and offers plenty of choices for local restaurants. The rich dirt has been deposited there from both forks of the Skagit River since the end of the last ice age. The river continued overflowing its banks until a series of dikes were built during the last century.
For quite some time after the dikes were built, travel in the community was often more easily handled via the waterways the dikes created, rather than roads. Dikes protect the farmlands by forming sloughs, which are muddy or marshy areas. Looking down on the river I had the feeling that it could easily overflow any time soon. It looked high to me, but then what do I know. The sloughs help drain off any flooding from the rivers. The town of La Conner is built upon a narrow inlet (called The Channel) of Puget Sound. La Conner shares a coastline with the San Juan island of Fidalgo, home of Anacortes. Both pleasure boats and fishing boats use the inlet.
The sloughs protect the fields and drain into Puget Sound. Of course with global warming, this could present a problem. Older homes were built well above the ground in anticipation of yearly flooding. Current homes, have not given flooding much concern. The marshy areas are great wildlife habitats. During the winter months thousands and thousands of Trumpeter Swans and Snow Geese fill the harvested fields eating stalks and any leftover crops.
Peg and I enjoyed the country drive from the freeway to La Conner. Instructions to the Queen of the Valley Inn Bed and Breakfast were easy to follow. We drove right past the country inn and went into town first. We put off the joy of meeting our host and making ourselves comfortable. We like to look around a bit and get our bearings.
The Queen of the Valley Inn is located on Chilberg Road, which runs right into town and only stops a few feet from Puget Sound. At the stop sign we turned left and drove through the main business district. The businesses on our right were located directly on the waterfront, while businesses on the left either had a waterview or faced the businesses on the waterfront with their own backs against a rock wall raising well above their own roofs.
At the end of the street we turned left and went uphill and headed towards the historical musuem, but retraced our course when we saw a pack of wild turkeys.
Although named the "official town bird" in 2005, some people complain about the turkeys. Complaints list noise, fecal matter, and ingestion of garden materials as problems. Locals feed the birds dried corn and sunflower seeds. They are fun to watch.
We drove down the street with the turkeys and then around the block and stopped at the Quilt Museum. We looked through the windows, but they were closed on Monday and Tuesday. This was of course our only two days in town. We then walked across the street to the La Conner Civic Garden Club. The Garden Club had a nice walk-in garden area. Besides having wooden benches with brass plaques containing past members names, the garden was well-laid out. A concrete walkway wove itself in an around a planter and fountain. The walkway was itself a canvas for garden artists. Butterflys were depicted in the concrete as well as plants, which had been pressed and drawn into and onto the drying mixture.
Peg and I walked along the back fence and looked down on the main street. A nice little picket fence protects visitors from falling off the rock-faced cliff. Perched above the stores and sidewalks you can see activity. Looking down we were able to see the La Conner Seafood and Prime Rib (maroon awning), which was the restaurant where we were dining that evening.
After enjoying the views and the garden Peg and I drove to the Queen of the Valley Inn Bed and Breakfast to meet our host. Shelly Davis was in the driveway, almost like she was waiting for us. Later we did realize that she anticipated our needs very well, so she could well have sensed we were in the neighborhood. The bed and breakfast has tiaras and crowns sitting around throughout the house. Shelly showed us to our accommodations (The India Room). Each bedroom is named after a one time colony of the British Empire. The India Room has a brass goddess, an elephant tapestry and warm colors depicting the heat of the continent (right down to the marigold orange hand towels). I presented Shelly with a bottle of Bordeaux. I knew she had planned a little gathering that night in the backyard. Peg and I took time to read for a short time before dinner. Shelly has bookshelves filled with reading material.
Peg and I headed back to town. We stopped at a grocery store to buy some batteries and a computer disk. We were told we might have to drive to Anacortes to buy a computer disk. Not true. I walked across the street to La Conner Memories and One Hour Photo. The young clerk said she couldn't help me, but the owner might. She was on the phone. As soon as the owner heard the problem she asked the girl to look for some used disks and then look at their contents. She had the files removed on two of them and gave them to me for free. I asked if I could give her a tip and she said, "I never turn down money." I also asked about internet access and was invited back the next day. "We'll set you up." Time and time again we met such nice people in La Conner. It was such a pleasure to be there.
Our next stop was Nasty Jack's Antiques. Peg bought a nice vase for a friend who is getting older. I wheeled and dealed and ended up with a rooftop taxi sign from Liverpool. I'm sure this is from the cab that John Lennon was thinking about when he wrote, "Newspaper taxis appear on the shore. Waiting to take you away." in Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
I put the sign on top of my Impala, but couldn't get the light to work. I was worried I might need more money for our adventure in La Conner. I was right to be worried.
We finished shopping early and stopped in at the restaurant to see if we could move our reservation up half an hour. We were tired otherwise we would not have asked for this imposition. Shelly had arranged dinner for us as well as an interview with the new general manager, Farrokh Larijani.
We were welcomed warmly and taken to a table by the window. Our server was Laura. If the weather had been warmer, we would have been offered the opportunity of dining outside on the deck. After dinner we photographed the channel and the waterside view of La Conner Seafood and Prime Rib House from the Rainbow Bridge.
There are two interesting pieces of information about La Conner. First, when the Rainbow Bridge was built in 1935 the people enjoyed the orange primer coat of paint so much, that they demanded that color for the final coat of paint. It is the only orange bridge in Washington State. Second, Louisa Ann Conner was the first white woman in town and she ran the trading goods store. The town is named after her: L.A. Conner.
Farrokh Larijani, the general manager, stopped by and introduced himself and then came back a few minutes later to join us. The restaurant, sometimes referred to as Seafood Prime or sometimes just Prime by townspeople was established in 1987. A fire in 1992 destroyed it. The volunteer fire department contained the fire and saved the rest of downtown La Conner, however. Residents are very proud of their fire department. The restaurant was rebuilt and has been a vibrant part of La Conner ever since.
One of the joys of interviewing chefs and restaurant managers is reviewing their meandering journey that finds them at their current restaurant. Farrokh received his initial training at the Portland Culinary Institute. He's worked in a number of restaurants and came from Anchorage to La Conner via a newspaper ad. He had been looking for his own restaurant. The Prime is it. He's brand new to La Conner and lives in Anacortas.
Originally from Iran of Persian descent Farrokh moved to the Seattle/Edmonds area when he was 13. His children have never been to Iran, but Farrokh has visited twice. We asked about being recognized as an American there. We laughed when he said he's tried to bargain in the markets and bazaars there, but they just look at him as if to say, "Just give me your money, you don't know how to do this."
Farrokh has plans to expand the menu and make it his own, while maintaining a Pacific Rim fusion of tastes. We asked for dinner recommendations.
We chose two recommendations. One recommendation was for the appetizer: Firecracker Prawns. The prawns were wonderful. In addition to the coconut coating, pieces of almond added a nice aroma as well as an extra nuttiness. The dipping sauce was unusual. Actually, what was unusual was that Peg tried it. She carefully avoided the hot peppers, but really enjoyed the freshness and crunchiness of the fruits and vegetables in it. In addition Peg and I shared a salad and the clam chowder. She ordered the Blau Oysters for her entre.
The other recommendation was for the Prime Rib. It had not crossed my mind to order the prime rib before the recommendation by Farrokh. The last few times I've ordered prime rib I was horribly disappointed. To show you how badly disappointed I've been, the best prime rib in recent memory was served at the Weatherly Inn, an assisted living facility in Tacoma, which catered the wedding of daugher of our friends Rob and Vickie Erb about four years ago. I am so glad Farrokh recommended the Prime Rib and so glad I ordered it. It was cooked just like I asked (medium rare) and wonderful. The outside had a nice little salty crunch and the flavor was perfect. Cloves of garlic were cooked in the roast itself. Peg had two or three pieces of the beef, while I had one whole oyster. Without the recommendation I would have ordered the oysters and been very happy. As it was, over the next couple of days Peg mentioned both the oysters and the prime rib and how perfect they were. I agreed each time. Next time we visit La Conner, it might take a while to make a decision for dinner, however.
Peg and I declined desert and returned to the Queen of the Valley Inn. Just as we arrived another couple drove up. They were friends of Shelly and her husband Chris. Cindy and David Tracey are owners of Katy's Inn, another bed and breakfast in La Conner. Cindy and Dave are both members of the La Conner Rotary Club. Being a fellow Rotarian, they had invited me to their meeting, but dinner at the La Conner Seafood and Prime Rib House was my first choice. Chris got the fire going and served wine. It was a wonderful evening although a little cool. The fire kept the chill off, and the wine warmed our insides as did the company.
When the Davis's bought their bed and breakfast the backyard was a mess. It wasn't until they cleared away junk and began blowing off the mulch that they realized they had patio. The fire pit and patio is a great gathering place for sharing experiences.
During a lull in converation, I said, "I've got to ask. What's with the longhorn cattle I saw while driving to La Conner?" Dave said, "Yeah, what's with that?" I said, "No, you're the local. I'm asking you." We all laughed. It turned out that the cattle had just been brought in a few weeks before and no one knew anything.
Dave and Cindy called it a night and then Chris did too. We talked with Shelly for another ten minutes and then it was time to retire. Shelly and Cindy were meeting the next day to discuss their Tulip Valley Bed and Breakfast Association and Peg and I were invited. We thought it might be fun. Sleep came easily. Tuesday morning brought Dutch Babies for breakfast. These eggy pancakes are baked like a souffle. When they are taken out of the oven, they deflate and are ready to eat. With a little syrup and bacon they were absolutely wonderful, but then they would have been wonderful by themselves. I would classify Shelly's choices of recipes as comfort food. I was happy with everything and I am willing to bet that most of her guests at the inn are members of the "clean plate club."
Along with the Dutch Babies there was coffee, orange juice and fresh fruit and yogurt. Breakfast is served in the colorful Gathering Room. It's a window pane enclosed porch that takes full advantage of the morning sun. Joining us for breakfast was a young couple (John and Magdala) from Toronto who were in the area to visit the husband's sister who lives in a convent in the nearby community of Stanwood. The couple's children were adorable. The four of them had the entire third floor and they were worried about making noise. We rarely heard anything other than occasional footsteps.
As we all ate breakfast Shelly played the piano to entertain us. The first selection was What a Wonderful World. Now, who could argue with that . . . especially after eating Dutch Babies and bacon. After the young couple left, Peg and Shelly and I talked about music. She had a favorite CD and was flabbergasted that we not only had heard of the group, but had heard of them as individuals as well. The group is called the Four Bitchin' Babes and contains Julie Gold, one of my favorite song writers. She wrote From a Distance which was a giant hit for Bette Midler, and a simple love song that is my personal favorite I Think I'll Go to Heaven.
I think I'll go to Heaven
Sail on into the night
Watching your face till morning
Setting my soul to right
Maybe I am too simple
Maybe I am too wise
Maybe I'll go to Heaven
Heaven is in your eyes
By mid-morning Peg and I were ready to go shopping. We drove the mile or so to downtown La Conner and parked on the main street. The collection of shops and museums is excellent in La Conner. The Museum of Northwest Art contains works by some of the best known names in modern art from Mark Toby to Morris Graves and Dale Chihuly.
There are shops that specailize in glass art, some in wood, and some in statues and more. Throughout the town you will also find works by Pacific Northwest Native Americans and their motifs. I really liked the Spirit Wheel, not only because it was donated by the local Rotary club, but because it had a nice natural wood feeling to it. Just across the Rainbow Bridge on the island of Fidalgo is a Native American cemetary with totem poles and other Indian artwork.
After shopping we drove about two blocks to Katy's Inn Bed and Breakfast where we met with Shelly, Cindy Tracey (from the fire pit gathering the night before), and Peter Goldfarb who owns the The White Swan Guest House. We listened to their problems and concerns, made some suggestions, and ate their sandwiches. It seemed like a fair exchange. After the meeting Peg and I drove to Anacortes, which is a much larger town than La Conner and just a little further out into the San Juans. We visited a used book store and stopped for lunch at the Calico Cupboard, which was a disappointment. Although Peg enjoyed the restaurant decorations and calligraphy on the walls, "A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand," and "Life's two best comforts, good food and a hug," we found the food lacking. We headed back to our bed for an afternoon nap.
Our bed was comfortable and had a reading lamp on both sides of the bed. In addition, the ceiling lights hung down towards the end of the bed. This means the bedroom was condusive to book reading. That is always good. After our nap we cleaned up a bit for dinner and then drove to The Dulce Plate. Outside in the garden/patio area a small waterfall/fountain and pond greets visitors. On warmer days lunch of dinner outside would be wonderful. I can imagine a nice bowl of gazpacho, some bread with tooth, and a glass of Spanish wine . . . I'm there.
The Dulce Plate is a Mediterranean restaurant combining the tastes of the countries along the Mediterranean Sea with the fresh produce and meats of the Skagit Valley. What I found amazing was their Amuse Bouche and Tapas offerings. Amuse Bouche literally means to amuse the mouth. It's a bite to eat before the meal begins, but offering a little taste of intrigue that catches your attention. Tapas bars are where we ate for over a week in Spain. Tapas are snacks to get you through the afternoon and early evening until you're ready to eat your evening meal at ten. Since we don't like to eat past seven, tapas was what we ate.
When I return to La Conner I will be stopping in and ordering several offerings off the appetizer menu. The Buttered Cucumber with slices of cucumber sauteed in butter with fresh mint and lemon juice is calling to me. Also, the Oysters with Cava Dressing with Samish oysters pan fried with jamon (Spanish ham), red onion, sherry vinegar and Spanish Cava wine.
Owner and chef Brian Tolbert CEC, prepared a brand new menu. His wife Deborah hadn't even tasted many of the items, yet. Peg ordered the Salmon Bisque, while I had Dulce's Gazpacho, which was refreshing and with just the right amount of zing. The bisque was excellent. For the entre, Peg ordered the Baby Lamb Filets with Apricot Glaze. She was worried about the glaze containing horseradish. She was afraid it would be overpowering. It wasn't. It worked well with the lamb AND the Yukon Gold Potatoes. I ordered the Mussels with Spicy Gremolata Sauce Over Noodles. The mussels were plated beautifully. It was amost a shame to eat them. I also ordered a small plate of polenta, which I really enjoyed both by itself and mixed with the juices from the mussels and noodles.
Chef Brian sat down with us and talked about his dreams and his past. He began working in an Italian family restaurant in Philadelphia when he was fourteen. He was on his own and wanted to make sure he had food every day. He graduated from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and did his extern-ship at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City and then worked many different places before some professional wrestlers tore up his place one night. He had to throw them out . . . and he did. He traveled the world as an amateur, and wrestled professionally with the AWA circuit in the USA. He wore black and was the bad guy. But as the years went by and his body started to fall apart he decided to go back into the restaurant business. He sharpened his knives and culinary skills at the Scottsdale Culinary Institute and again started traveling as jobs opened up. When his wife wanted to return to her roots in La Conner, Chef Brian left his position as Executive Chef at the Oklahoma City Hilton Hotel. They bought their restaurant, The Dulce Plate, and have been working and living there (upstairs) for four years. Deborah fixes breakfast and Brian cooks everything else. Be sure to visit their website. Periodically, they have events and wine dinners where patrons may taste pairings and enjoy a special evening. Chef Brian is quickly becoming a part of the La Conner community. He is currently a part time Culinary Instructor at Skagit Valley Community College and assists in coaching the La Conner High School Wrestling Team in addition to operating The Dulce Plate.
Peg and I turned down desert, but Chef Brian wouldn't hear of it. Peg had the Chocolate Midnight (a combination almost like mousse and flourless cake), while I had the White Knight a custard so thick it was almost gelato. I wolfed mine down before I realized I hadn't photographed it. It was beautiful and tasted even better.
We drove back to the Queen of the Valley. I went upstairs to our room to read and sleep . . . mostly to sleep. Peg stayed downstairs and read for a couple of hours. Wednesday morning I was up early as I usually am. No one else was stirring. I dressed and drove downtown. On my own I admired the art along the main street. Some of the shops have courtyards filled with art or quiet settings for comtemplation. I stood and thought, "I think I need some coffee." At the end of the street the Calico Cupboard was just opening their doors. I decided to give them a second chance. Just as in Anacortes, the servers and greeters were friendly. I ordered coffee with biscuits and gravey. The coffee was good and the biscuits were okay. Since I always compare biscuits to my own or those of my wife, it is not surprising that other people's biscuits always come up short. The gravey was good and the red potatoes used in the hashbrowns were cooked exactly perfect. I'm glad I gave the small chain a second chance. I didn't eat all of my biscuits and gravey, knowing that I would have a "second" breakfast as soon as I drove back "home."
Shelly greeted me in the parking lot of the B&B and said, "I made some donut muffins just for you." Inwardly I groaned. I went inside and sat down at the dining room table with a mug of coffee and a plate of donut muffins. I began writing. Sure, I could have eaten just one, but eating two seemed the more polite thing to do. After all, they had been rolled in butter and sugar . . . and they were still warm. Besides, this had to see me through until breakfast. Peg came down the stairs and I knew then it was time for breakfast. Outwardly I groaned.
Breakfast was fresh cantelope and watermellon balls with a dallop of sour cream sprinkled with brown sugar. Shelly cooked perfect scrambled eggs made wonderful by the addition of local mushrooms. A good bed and breakfast just like a good restaurant takes advantage of local produce. We joked that the sausage was delivered by a local distributor of Jimmy Dean.
Before we checked into the Queen of the Valley Inn Bed and Breakfast we knew that Shelly and her husband Chris (who works a regular job) had been the subject of a reality show on the Fine Living Networks. They changed their lives by leaving Southern California and moving to the Pacific Northwest and creating their own version of a bed and breakfast. With Shelly's attitude, attention to detail and her outright friendliness, they can't help but be a success. She was a one-woman chamber of commerce. She made suggestions and gave us brochures. As a recent convert to the community of La Conner she has thrown herself into spreading the word about the local joys . . . the Smelt Festival . . . the Local Arts Festival . . . Whale Watching . . . the Bald Eagle Tour . . . so many things to do . . . so many fun things to do . . . and so many more great people to meet in La Conner.
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