Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Cookbooks: Araxi by James Walt

There has never been a better time for a cookbook from and about Araxi, the well known restaurant at Whistler, British Columbia, established in 1981 and a local and even international favorite ever since.

A couple of things will be certain to fix the eyes of the world on Whistler for the next year or so. For starters, the portions of the 2010 Winter Olympics that demand snow will take place at Whistler, just a couple of hours by car from the host city of Vancouver.

From a foodie perspective, though, the patronage and smiling eye of famed chef and television personality Gordon Ramsay is more important still. Ramsay, who has not only called Araxi the best restaurant in Canada, has also been named as the reward for the current season of Hell’s Kitchen, the US-based reality series that sees Ramsay harassing a clutch of would-be chefs. The winner will be created head chef at Araxi under executive chef James Walt.

While the flood of interest from various angles might cause a happy bounce in Araxi’s bottom line, I suspect that none of these shenanigans will effect the food served at the restaurant in a negative way. Araxi has been a long-time favorite of mine. Like a lot of people, I love Araxi for all the things it is. World class food in a stunning location. In my memory, the menu has always been reflective of the seasons and the locale and some of the meals I’ve enjoyed there number among the most memorable of my life: beautiful food, beautifully presented and evocative of the season in which the meal was consumed.

Naturally, then, I met the announcement of an Araxi cookbook with some excitement. Though Araxi (Douglas & McIntyre) is not quite what I expected, it’s certainly not been a disappointment. The introduction might be interesting to those who are unfamiliar with either Whistler or Araxi, but no one who has eaten at the restaurant will need to be told about Chef James Walt’s locavore leanings or how well the cellar has been built and maintained. Moody black and white photos set the tone. Chef pensive, then laughing. Sparkling glassware. Artistically arranged corks. They’re good photos but, by this point, we’ve seen it all before.

The business part of Araxi is divided into three seasons: Summer, Harvest and Winter. Each of these seasonal sections offers its own introduction (more moody black and white images) and its own detailed table of contents. And then, finally, we begin.

Some of the recipes are dead simple -- Butternut Squash Soup with Pumpkin Seed Oil; Chilled English Pea and Mint Soup. Some would require all the attention of a home chef with moderate kitchen skill -- Herb-crusted Halibut with Pea Purée and Coriander Vinaigrette; Loin of Lamb with Summer Squash and Sweet Peppers. And a good many seem to be intended for the accomplished home chef to spend hours slaving over lovingly -- Saddle of Rabbit with Buttered Noodles, Carrots and Mustard Sauce; Black Forest Cake with Brandied-Cherry Ice Cream.

Stunningly photographed, well-designed, produced and even printed, I think Araxi is also meant to be one of those cookbooks you moon over and, certainly, if you’re the type who does like to do that sort of cookbook dreaming, you could not pick one better. From beginning to end, a terrific job has been done on Araxi. It’s the perfect two-dimensional representation of a truly great restaurant.



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