The sun sets over Drayton Harbor, casting its brilliant orange hues in blinding arcs across the water. Eric Truglas, standing in his small herb garden, shades his eyes as he looks out over the pier, and smiles slightly to himself.
“Look at my office,” he said. “Where else can you get that? I’m here, and I don’t want to go anywhere else.”
Truglas, a native of France and a Michelin-rated chef, was named culinary director at Semiahmoo last year, after cooking at some of the most prestigious venues in the U.S. for more than 25 years. Under his supervision, the resort completely renovated its flagship restaurants, Pierside Kitchen and Packer’s Oyster Bar, which officially reopened on May 16. The renovations were more than just cosmetic; Truglas designed an entirely new menu, informed with his particular culinary philosophy, which makes the community at large an essential part of the experience.
Truglas believes strongly in a farm-to-table philosophy, using the freshest local ingredients he can get to make the best dishes he can imagine. This philosophy derived partly from his childhood in France, and he’s happy to see that Americans are coming to embrace his style of cooking.
“When I was growing up, we either went down to the fresh food market or we grew our own vegetables in the garden,” Truglas
said. “Everyone should have a garden in their backyard. Unfortunately, Americans back in the ’50s became obsessed with processed food, and that’s been the standard here for so long; but Americans are finally starting to move away from that.”
Nearly all of the ingredients used in the restaurants are produced right here in Whatcom County. Fresh beans from Everson, seafood from Drayton Harbor, cheese from Birch Bay and herbs from Truglas’ very own herb garden, located not 50 feet from his kitchen, exemplify the restaurant’s locally-minded cuisine. The menu changes with the seasons, ensuring that freezer-burned fruits from halfway across the planet will never make it to a guest’s plate.
At a media dinner on July 9, the press sampled fresh oysters that came, quite literally, from right around the corner.
“Just on the other side of that old cannery, that’s where we have our oyster farm,” said Mark Seymour, co-owner of the Drayton Harbor Oyster Company, indicating an old building just to the east of our table out on the sun-dappled pier. “This is about as fresh as it gets.”
Seymour grew up in Bellingham, but trained as a fisheries biologist in California before joining up with his father, Steve, to farm oysters in Blaine. The pair has ambitious plans for their business, including eventually opening their own storefront on the end of Marine Drive, where guests will shuck their own oysters off the end of the pier.
As much as Truglas’ culinary philosophy informs the direction the new restaurants have taken, he credits his exceptional staff for the restaurants’ success.
“We have some of the best and most promising talent in the Northwest working right here,” Truglas said. Many of the chefs
working at the resort, such as chef Andrew Cross and pastry chef Kristie George, are recent graduates from Bellingham Technical College’s culinary arts program.
One of Semiahmoo’s best new additions is D.J. Riemer, the new mixologist at Packer’s Oyster Bar. With years of restaurant experience and a playful, enthusiastic attitude towards his creations, Riemer has his own simple philosophy when it comes to serving drinks.
“My old mentor once told me that you can never make a martini that a customer will like more than the one they can make at home,” Riemer said. “But, if you can make someone smile and have a good time while they endure yours, then you’ve done your job as a bartender.”
This simple philosophy has informed Riemer’s recipes, which is why he tries to have fun with every drink he designs. For example, Packer’s summer cocktail menu features nothing but drinks named after Tom Waits songs, such as the popular “Hoist That Rag,” a basil-infused vodka mixed with cucumber juice and seasoned with rosemary. This fall, Riemer will debut a suite of new drinks named after “X-Men” characters.
On July 9, Riemer unveiled the “Cyclops,” a delicious, autumnal fusion of Barbadian rums and orange bitters with a bourbon-infused cherry on top. And of course, all of the spices, produce and bitters come directly from Whatcom County, either purchased at the Bellingham Farmers Market or grown in Riemer’s own personal garden.
Riemer keeps his cocktails moderately priced, as a way of encouraging his guests to try something new without too much risk.
“I like to offer drinks you can’t get anywhere else,” Riemer said. “If a customer’s not familiar with the ingredients, I want them to feel approachable.”
The new position at Semiahmoo also gives Truglas a chance to work with his old partner Roy Breiman, now the corporate
culinary director for Coastal Hotels. Breiman has worked at a number of prestigious restaurants around the country, often alongside Truglas.
“Our goal is to create a vibrant, current and sustainable menu that makes people want to come back,” Breiman said.
If the dishes served at the media dinner were any indication, Breiman’s goal shouldn’t be difficult to reach. The dishes served up at Pierside Kitchen were consistently delicious, innovative and surprising. Some of the dishes, such as the beef carpaccio with fava beans and citrus vinaigrette, were elegant gourmet creations you’d find in the best French restaurants. Others, such as the red beet sorbet with balsamic reduction, defied expectations by configuring classic ingredients in new ways. Some, like the ingeniously simple salmon, seasoned only with olive oil and salt, let the quality of the locally sourced food speak for itself.
With only about 10 weeks of business under their belt, Truglas and the staff are already extremely pleased with the way the restaurants have been received. The night of the media dinner, both Packer’s and Pierside were swarming with people, with many taking seats near the bars to watch the professionals at work, either mixing drinks with dramatic aplomb or stoking the fires on Pierside’s top-of-the-line Woodstone pizza oven.
“The restaurants have been wildly successful,” said restaurant outlets manager Amberleigh Brownson. “We’ve only been open about two months, but word is getting out about us.”