Sunday, June 5, 2011

Saturday's Grace Period: Arrival and Dinner at Orcas

 After a successful shuttle drive to the Anacortes Ferry Saturday afternoon, I boarded the board to make it to Orcas Island. All my fellow passengers wanted to do was stand on the deck and look out at the emerald green vegetal-smelling water rippling beneath us, the brilliant blue sky above, and the hawks and seagulls circling the ship. But I felt myself getting more and more nervous with our approach. I suddenly felt wildly unprepared to show up on the island. Who did I think I was, encroaching on this way of life? This isn't just a quaint tourist town where you get to sip a cocktail as you look out over the water--this is a real community, where people raise families and tend to their crops and try to get by. The woman that drove me up on the shuttle to Anacortes had told me about her flailing nursery business and vegetable garden. With the unusual long rainy season that they'd had to for the last two summers, she had to take a second job for the Bellair Shuttle company. "I miss my garden," she said, "but if it's not growing anything, I have to make money somewhere else."

And suddenly here we were, at the Orcas Ferry station. I trudged up the ferry dock and quickly passed my bike money to a woman in a grey and pink flowered shirt, who handed me my new bike, a rickety but charming looking red bike with a metal basket. A few seconds later, Mary-Ann pulls up with her SUV, and we shove the bike into the trunk and turn back on to the road to head to the inn. During the drive, Mary Ann tells me that the season is just getting under way, and that her two young kids are running around the property. Just that morning, her daughter took the SAT to qualify for a talented youth program at Johns Hopkins. She's 13 years old. Mary-Ann is that kind of fantastic looking middle-aged woman, whose face is marked with lines and sun, but looks so healthy and energetic, I have a hard time of placing her age--anywhere between 30 and 35 seems reasonable. But it's amusing how young she looks, given that Geddes, who's in his mid-40s, looks to me like he's almost 60. I will soon be told never to tell him this.
 We pull up to the Inn, and suddenly it's far more beautiful, and finite, than I'd ever imagined. It's a series of 8 2-story buildings, each one holding a few guest rooms, and surrounded by grass and trees and sparkling blue water, backed up by mountains and hillsides. It's romantic, lush, and maybe a single acre. So much beauty in such a small space...

 Mary-Ann shows me to the cabin, in which I'll be staying in the loft space. I'm greeted by the unmistakable scent of dead animal.
"As you can imagine, we get a few critters from the outdoors," Mary-Ann joked, "and so one of them decided to make his final resting place in the wall." I make a mental note to buy some incense. Sandalwood might do the trick.
My loft, meanwhile, is charming--at its very highest, I can just stand up straight. But hopefully I'll be spending most of my time outside. There are adirondack chairs scattered all over the property, and I'm already envisioning hours sitting outside by the pond and the chive blossoms. I make a second note to buy more sunscreen.

Once I unload my bags, Geddes sweeps me through the kitchen for a brief introduction to the staff--Annie, ruddy-faced and ready for the dining hour to begin, gives me a hug. I'm inundated with names, none of which stick--I catch an Amanda, a Matt, and a few others I don't quite register. It's a much tinier kitchen than I'd imagined...the chef tossing together a salad at the counter is right next to Ani as she whips a pastry cream into submission. It's sweaty, wild, and it looks like fun. I'm excited, but a little bit intimidated by what looks to be a close-knit group. Will they mind me in their midst?

Thankfully Geddes encourages me to take a load off and grab dinner at the bar, where Krista, the lovely Emma Stone-lookalike bartender, pours me a crisp cold glass of Pinot Grigio. I start looking over the menu, and immediately find myself daunted.
 There are terms I appreciate, but haven't quite mastered--mignonette, Weathervane scallops, herb jus, herb farro. I want to know what constitutes sweet herbs versus savory. I want someone to walk me around the kitchen and tell me what's what. Unfortunately I have to wait two days for this tutorial, so for now I'm only supposed to decide what to eat...which is hard enough.

Beside me sits a regular who leans over, whispering "Get the black cod special. I've already had two." I can't tell from Krista's reaction if his familiarity is welcome or not, but over the next two hours, I see her joke with him as he puts away more and more food. (I count a salad, a place of what looks like pork loin, a dozen oysters, and at least three glasses of wine.) He's having a great time, and I promise him a bite of my appetizer, a creamy dish of house-made pappardelle with sea urchin and tender mussels. The sea urchin is in tiny chunks, but it's got the texture of homemade hummus, smooth and grainy at the same time, and I roll it around on my tongue to make each morsel last. I suddenly know how my kittens feel about their oceanfish appetizers.

As Krista sets down my dish, a red-faced woman appears in the barroom doorway, which leads out to the patio. Her lips are pressed together, as though she might scream, but her eyes are wide with excitement. Krista looks up, her eyes bright and curious. The woman holds up her left hand, which bears a sparkling ring, and mouths silently, "He proposed."

"When?" Krista mouths back, grinning.

"Just now," the woman mouths back, and then scurries over to the hallway where Krista gives her an enormous hug out of eyesight. I'm so happy for this woman, but I also can see that Krista's earned the right to give her that hug, to be that excited and joyous, and to get to share that moment with her. I whisper "congratulations" as she heads back out to the patio to rejoin her now-fiance. I think of Nick, at home and far away, and suddenly miss him desperately.

A young couple enters the bar, and they're immediately recognized as locals. They soon introduce themselves--Karen, a young Indian woman working at Maple Rock Farm, and her boyfriend Quinn, who grew up on the Island--and start wondering about what wine to order. Karen's hankering for the lightest red wine available, and I recommend the Zinfandel, which is sweet enough to complement my entree, a neat little slab of seared Mangalitsa pork belly on a bed of strawberries and rhubarb in a strawberry balsamic sauce.
We get to chatting, and on my second glass of wine, I start to wax poetic about the virtues of the island in comparison to New York. I don't normally hate on New York this much, but suddenly I'm acutely aware of how obnoxious I might seem coming here, a big city dweller swooping in to have a "break" in an island kitchen. Thankfully, Karen and Quinn don't seem to mind. Karen's from Vancouver, but she says she doesn't miss the city at all when she's on this island. And it doesn't hurt that being a local here means that Annie sends out four desserts for us to share--a chocolate cashew tart (bitter chocolate and sea salty cashew, a perfect combination), a lemon semifreddo sliced so thick it looks like cheesecake, a rhubarb cobbler with candied ginger and vanilla ice cream, and finally the dessert special, a baked Alaska-looking thing on top of a citrusy shortbread. I want to lick the plate, but I hold back so the other two can get their fair share. There are, after all, several more items on the menu that I'll need to sample, and master...
I think about lingering at the bar until the staff breaks for the night, but even at 9pm, the restaurant's technical closing time, the patrons look like they're far from ready to leave. Sipping their drinks, savoring the last few hours of island sunlight, they look as contented as any diners I've ever seen. Moreover, they seem not at all worried about when they'll have to settle up the bill. They look sedate, relaxed, totally willing to wait a few more minutes or to order another slice of chevre cheesecake. And that same sedation knows me out cold as I stumble into my cabin, up the rickety stairs, and duck my head below the ceiling into a deep, untroubled, still-a-little-jetlagged sleep.

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