On the Malahat, a 25-kilometre stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway on Vancouver Island that peaks at 365 metres, is a destination restaurant that almost didn’t make it. Now it is poised to be one of Canada’s most celebrated eateries. 

Those familiar with The Aerie — a bed and breakfast about 30 minutes from Victoria, the capital of B.C. — know that it sat empty for years before springing back to life in 2016, thanks to the Gain Group, an investment company looking to plant roots in the province. After extensive renovations — the spa was relocated from the main building to Villa Vista, which now allows visitors to take in the sweeping views over Saanich Inlet, and the speakeasy-themed Senna Bar & Lounge was added underneath the main restaurant — it was renamed Villa Eyrie Resort. And in three short years, the resort has been welcomed into the elite group of Small Luxury Hotels of the World, an honour it shares with only one other Canadian property. 

Along with the transformation of the resort came the evolution of the dining experience. This past spring the restaurant, formerly The Summit, was renamed Alpina, and with the new identity came a new chef, Mario Gross. Trained in Michelin-starred kitchens, Gross has built an impressive team — acclaimed pastry chef Matthias Conradi from Tofino’s Wickaninnish Inn; sous chef Andreas Wechselberger from the James Beard House in New York’s Greenwich Village; and front-of-house pro Ryan Bissell. 

“We are extremely lucky to have put together a culinary powerhouse that is like no other,” enthuses Bissell, who is also Alpina’s director of food and beverage. “Between [all of] us, there is 100 years of experience and talent.” 

German-born Gross apprenticed, at the young age of 19, at Relais & Châteaux Hotel Dollenberg in the Black Forest region, in Baden-Württemberg. From there, he did
stints at Der Alpenhof, a hotel near Munich, and at the iconic Waldhotel Sonnora in the German countryside. While the latter hotel’s dining room has held three Michelin stars for 18 consecutive years, having been part of the Alpenhof kitchen team and receiving one star in its inaugural year is what Gross is most proud of. “I wasn’t head chef, but it was amazing to be part of [earning that Michelin star],” he says. 

In 2016 Gross and his wife moved to Edmonton, so she could pursue her career. He worked at Hardware Grill, a local hot spot, and ran a catering business before landing the job at Alpina and relocating farther west. And despite the initial language barrier (Villa Eyrie had to hire an interpreter for the job interview), the resort knew they had a culinary star considering their offer. 

Bissell himself has a solid background in the culinary field. He ran a private catering service for three years, worked as a chef at several dining venues, including Araxi Restaurant & Oyster Bar and Bearfoot Bistro in Whistler, and has been on the board of directors at the Chefs’ Table Society of British Columbia for 10 years. 

“We needed to change everything [at the restaurant] — from the plates to the look of the dining room — and provide the best B.C. wines and local ingredients,” says Bissell. And, of course, that goes for the name too. Alpina is a wordplay on “alpine,” apropos to its location and also to where the culinary team members hail from. “I am from Whistler, Mario is from the Bavarian region of Germany, Matthias is from the foothills of the Alps,” Bissell notes. “And we’re up in the mountains here.” 

For his part, chef Gross is intent on cooking with the West Coast ingredients he loves, such as spot prawns and morels, and welcomes whatever is available from local purveyors and producers. The restaurant’s supply of eggs comes from his neighbours, Lockwood Farms, which maintains a greenhouse to grow nasturtiums exclusively for Alpina. Bissell cites other excellent local sources for ingredients. “Duncan Farmers Market is the best in Canada year-round, and Cowichan Valley is the best growing region in B.C.” 

To dine at Alpina is an exercise in restraint to not order everything on the menu. The albacore tuna crudo and the wild B.C. morel risotto both make for exceptional starters. And deciding whether to go for honey-crusted duck breast or the slow-braised short ribs that melt in your mouth presents a dilemma. Wine tasting here is a delight, thanks to an excellent wine-preservation vacuum system that permits by-the-glass options for each of the 150 B.C. varietals available on-site, such as the fruity and spicy MacIntyre Ardua, a merlot-cabernet blend. For dessert, the savoury goat’s milk cheesecake, which blurs the lines between a cheese course and a sweet finish to the meal, is ideal for the appreciative but undecided diner. 

After a year of being onboard Alpina, Bissell is proud of the restaurant’s success, in terms of both the elevated guest experience and financial gains. Not surprisingly, there are plans to open another restaurant-bar and to add 50 more suites to the hotel. 

“This restaurant will always be a destination,” says Bissell from Alpina’s dining room, with its postcard-pretty view of Saanich Inlet. “If you are in Langford [on Vancouver Island], you can be downtown in 30 minutes or you can be here in 15. People don’t know about us yet, but they will.” 

By Catherine Dunwoody, Photos: courtesy of Villa Eyrie Resort and Catherine Dunwoody  – *This article originally appeared in INSIGHT: The Art of Living | Fall 2019


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