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Casual dining in a rustic, family-friendly setting

Every now and then, I get an urge to head out to French Beach to clamber around the driftwood and rocks for a couple of hours. My friend Vicki thought it sounded like a good idea and joined me on my most recent visit.

Every now and then, I get an urge to head out to French Beach to clamber around the driftwood and rocks for a couple of hours. My friend Vicki thought it sounded like a good idea and joined me on my most recent visit.

Part of the tradition means grabbing a bite to eat in Sooke on the way back to Victoria. This used to mean a stop at Mom's Café, but on my last couple of visits, I have found that the food isn't as good as it used to be, not to mention the hit-and-miss quality of the service. Fortunately, there is a great alternative nearby.

The Stone Pipe Grill was located in nearby Cooper's Cove and was once named the Stone Pipe Landing. Today, it occupies a corner in an unassuming strip mall in "downtown" Sooke. Inside, it is rustic, family-friendly and a good spot for casual dining.

If you visited the original incarnation, you will be pleased to know that the new menu offers plenty of choice and that some old favourites such as Pad Thai remain and are still worth ordering. But things have changed under the ownership of Patrick Irwin, whose own paintings act as a pleasant consolation prize for the mesmerizing water views of the former location and illustrate his respect for the local community. The current menu is smaller but appealing, making use of fresh, local ingredients wherever possible.

A bowl of chowder seemed like a good idea, especially as theirs is packed with shrimp, halibut, haddock, clams and scallops, and served with garlic bread that you actually want to eat. The problem with soup as an appetizer for me, though, is that it fills me up and my job requires me to write about at least a couple of courses.

The Painted Dessert Salad, composed of chopped romaine, avocado, pine nuts, grilled red pepper and Parmesan cheese tossed with chipotle dressing sweetened with a touch of maple syrup, was intriguing just because of the mental picture it created, as were mussels bathed in tomato sauce with wine and basil. In the end, we each selected prawn dishes -- mine simmered with cream, garlic and a good dose of chipotle peppers, and Vicki's lightly breaded with coconut and paired with a creamy dipping sauce spiked with fresh lime and fresh herbs.

They were good value at just under $10 and I would order both again.

Hand-crafted burgers have a good reputation here, as do steaks, but we weren't in the mood for either. Vicki was drawn to ginger fried beef, but agreed that a stir fry outside of an Asian restaurant can be disastrous, though when this dish arrived at the next table, we had to admit it looked pretty good.

She chose chicken Marsala, which came with a mound of mashed potatoes and various vegetables which weren't terribly hot. There was a decent amount of tender chicken and though the sauce wasn't the rich colour I would expect for this dish, it tasted better than it looked. My choice of grilled filet of halibut was nicely handled, finished with a blend of sesame oil, green onions and cilantro, and served on a bed of rice noodles with slivers of vegetables and wasabi-spiked mayonnaise.

Portions and prices will make most people happy, but there were a couple of gripes. Our main courses took far too long and while I don't mind waiting when things are busy, I do mind when it has been 45 minutes and no one has bothered to say anything and I have to ask what is going on. Outside of this and a ridiculous push to get us to try dessert (why is it that when you are clearly stuffed, someone always suggests you try the cheesecake?) service was good if a little too perky, though this is preferable to the automaton alternative.

WINE OF THE WEEK

There's nothing like a glass of good red Bordeaux on a cool evening to fool you into thinking that you like this time of year, but they can be costly. Fortunately, wines from nearby Cahors can make excellent and affordable alternatives. At just under $20, Croix du Mayne Cahors is a power-packed blend of Malbec and Merlot with notes of raspberry, cherry and a touch of smoke. Robust tannins and a spicy finish make this wine an excellent choice with prime rib or rack of lamb.

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