There seem to be an awful lot of young chefs on Vancouver Island these days who are living the dream of having their own restaurant. Maybe it’s because they can actually afford the lease rates or real estate prices. Maybe it’s the lifestyle here on the Island. Maybe it’s the cornucopia of fresh, local, organic ingredients that are so readily available. More than likely it’s all three of those factors and a whole lot more. Whatever the reasons for this sudden flush of good luck for lovers of wonderful food, these gutsy young entrepreneurs seem to just keep popping out of the woodwork, pleasing palates all up and down the Island.
Not least among some of the more recent additions to the dining scene is Sarah Wallbank, the driving force behind riso restaurant in the tiny east coast hamlet of Lantzville. I’m not sure how a blip on the map with fewer than 4,000 souls calling it home got so lucky, but it’s a happy occurrence for anyone on the Island who loves good food in a beautiful environment. Island residents and visitors who have ever taken the time to venture off Highway 19 just north of Nanaimo may have experienced the riso location in its former life, when it was the darkish Black Dog Pub. The changes in the place wrought by Sarah and her husband Takashi Ohya are not just startling – they are downright beautiful. The space, which seats about 40, has been transformed into a light, bright contemporary environment featuring lots of blond wood, varied seating arrangements and soft jazz music. There is also a patio that is put to use during the fine weather, expanding the seating options and giving patrons the opportunity of an al fresco dining experience.
The amalgamation of the enchanting surroundings and wonderful made-from-scratch food has combined since late 2011 to draw a large number of fans. This place is fast becoming a destination for foodies, and rightfully so.
Sarah’s culinary background is an eclectic mix of good old home cooking, formal schooling and practical experience. The many pizzas on the menu have evolved as a result of a trip to Naples, where she worked in a Michelin-recognized restaurant with three generations of chefs to learn the art of producing authentic Nepolitana pizzas. She has been a pastry chef, and has worked as an instructor in that field at Vancouver Island University’s culinary arts program. Her signature Torrone Semi-freddo, a decadent dessert involving roasted almonds, crack caramel, Cointreau apricots and pistachio cream is, hands down, the best end to a meal that I have ever enjoyed. It’s so good in fact, that I most definitely am not sharing with my husband next time.
While authentic Italian pizza is one of the stars on the frequently-changing menu, there are other delicious offerings for diners who may prefer not to go in that direction. I enjoyed a tender chicken breast stuffed with fresh spinach and fontina while my husband ordered the pizza of the day featuring roast chicken, roasted poblano peppers and fontina cheese. Both dishes were flavourful and filling. Between us we also enjoyed a roasted potato soup and truffle fries – skinny fries finished with shaved parmesan, garlic, parsley and truffle oil. The truffle fries were an especially unique and delightful taste treat. There are several other main dishes on offer on the menu – all of them leaving us keen to return to riso for brunch, lunch or dinner. I just hope that darned Semi-freddo dessert is available no matter what time of day we are there!
Further information on riso is available at the restaurant’s website:
riso is located at 7217 Lantzville Road, Lantzville – just a hop, skip and jump north of Nanaimo
Lat. 49.25082462583496 Long. -124.0764194726944
N 49 15.049 W 124 04.585