Monday, August 13, 2012

Halibut Cove, Alaska

A family of grizzly bears foraging berries by the side of the road, bald eagles soaring overhead, breathtaking glaciers cutting through ancient rock, Mount McKinley’s majestic peak bright white against an immense blue sky—Alaska inspires awe and wonder in its many drop-jawed visitors. And then there’s the fish. Salmon and halibut like you’ve never tasted before, so fresh that it was swimming in the icy waters hours before your meal. A common t-shirt slogan reads "Some people come to Alaska just for the fish," and I believe it.

We recently returned from a two-week family adventure in this amazing state. Preferring the freedom of a car and a flexible itinerary, we struck out on our own instead of going on a cruise or tour like most people do. That’s an understandable method of travel, though, as Alaska can be intimidating. Fortunately Chris had traveled here before, so we arrived with an expert guide ready to take the driver’s seat.

Back to the food—we ate salmon or halibut pretty much on a daily basis and all of it, with the exception of one meal, was excellent. A highlight was the dinner we had on the Kenai Peninsula in Halibut Cove, a fishing village and artists’ colony boasting a population of seventy year round residents. It’s located a short boat ride away from Homer, also known as the Halibut Fishing Capital of the World, no small honor in this state. 

Halibut fishing is serious business in Homer, albeit with a touch of salty humor. Impressive batches of fish are hauled in from the sea on a daily basis, with fishermen and women displaying their catch every evening down on the weathered docks.

Fishing merits this kind of pride here, as the sea can be treacherous. One of the days we went out in a boat, ten foot swells were predicted, which fortunately never materialized.

Accessible only by boat or float plane, the tiny hamlet of Halibut Cove is located on Ismailof Island on the opposite side of Kachemak Bay from Homer. We made the trip across the bay in the “Danny J,” a wooden ferry boat that brought soldiers to Alaska in 1941. 

It was commandeered by Sydney Bishop, a cheerful woman who also happens to be a local artist. Passing curious sea otters, 

bald eagles standing sentry on spruce branches, 

and more of those magnificent white-capped mountains,

we arrived forty-five minutes later in a village that feels worlds away, in a state that already feels worlds away. Hugging the shoreline, a long boardwalk elevated above the water connects homes and businesses; to cross the street, you have to take a boat across the harbor.

Our destination was The Saltry—a restaurant renowned for its slow food, and of course its local fish. To access it, you simply climb the ramp leading up from the dock.

The Saltry has two dining rooms, one indoors and one outside warmed by a wood fire. We opted for the indoor section after our chilly boat ride. One of the owners is a fisherman and the other is an artist; during the long, dark winter, she creates the clay figures that line their section of the boardwalk,

the painted pottery dishes  they serve their meals on, and the colorful tabletops made from pottery that was dropped on the kitchen floor.

The bartender, a young woman with a blond ponytail who minutes before had been first mate on the Danny J, served up refreshments: a local craft brew from Homer Brewing Company for Chris, a glass of Malbec for me, and a rare hot-chocolate-in-the-summer for the girls.

To start, we shared a bowl of the smoked cod fish chowder. It was lighter than all of the other chowders we had enjoyed on our trip—half broth and half cream—with a satisfying smoky depth, enhanced by quality bacon. Fresh herbs and snipped scallion gave it an oniony brightness. I would rate it the best chowder in Alaska, based on my samplings.

Since we were in Halibut Cove after all, Chris and I both had to have the grilled halibut. It broke away from itself as I gently pressed my fork into the flesh, a sure sign of its incomparable freshness. Moist and melting and possessing a depth of flavor from the deep, blue sea, it was a piece of fish to remember. It was served with basil butter, Israeli couscous, a savory tomato jam, and Romanesco broccoli.

Fresh, organic vegetables can be hard to come by in Alaska. Unless you grow your own, they’re mostly flown in from the Lower 48. The Saltry solves this dilemma by maintaining a one-acre organic garden located up the hill out back. All vegetables served in the restaurant are grown in the garden and, like the fish, the freshness is readily apparent.

Isabel, a lover of salmon even in its lesser forms, ordered the salmon. We all agree that we’ve never had salmon like the fresh wild salmon we savored in Alaska, and this one didn’t disappoint. Even after eating what the locals consider to be the best in the state—Copper River Sockeye—the Saltry’s King salmon was a standout.

Rich and meaty and rosy pink, it didn’t need the creamy mustard sauce that accompanied it. Strips of preserved lemon, diced potatoes, and braised leeks and greens added interesting flavor and texture combinations. I think Isabel may never again enjoy the salmon we can get on the east coast after these two weeks of blissed out indulgence.

Faye, who has a taste for spicy Asian dishes, chose the crispy cod with shrimp doused with a Thai chile lime sauce. The fish sat on a bed of fresh slaw and was accompanied by lots of cilantro and jasmine rice, a cooling counterpart to the dish’s heat. We’re fond of the cod caught off the shores of New England, and this Alaskan cod was similar—mild and toothsome and an ideal base for the fiery Thai spices.

We don’t often order dessert, only when we want to linger over an outstanding meal. I’ll admit I was reluctant to leave this place, not only the restaurant, but also this artistic village perched over the water. It didn’t take much convincing for us to order two desserts to share: a silken Callebaut chocolate cheesecake with raspberry sauce,

and tarte tatin, a family favorite with its caramelized apples and buttery pastry.


Thankful that we still had some time before boarding our boat, we wandered the boardwalk, stopping in a few galleries along the way.

We saw the pottery made by our boat captain and purchased a silk screen by a local artist depicting the view from Homer across the bay. As we passed by a small house for rent, we were tempted to change our itinerary and stay for a few nights. But we had things to do and other places to see, so instead we decided to come back some day and stay for a more extended time. 

Who knows if we ever will. But on the boat back to Homer, the long Alaska daylight allowed us to watch Halibut Cove fade from view into the rugged coastline, etching it into memory.


  1. Welcome Back, Sheila. And what a wonderful sharing of a splendid experience. Thank you. I loved your descriptions of each plate. My mouth was watering. I hope you send The Saltry this post! They clearly deserve the accolades.

    1. Thanks Linda. I did send it to The Saltry and they were very appreciative. Looking forward to seeing you sometime soon to catch up!