They met in 2015 while he was the head chef at a restaurant in Auckland, New Zealand. She, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of Canada, had interned in a small Québec town on the St. Lawrence River. Together, Will and Milena travelled and worked their way through restaurants in Denmark, Austria and Switzerland before moving to Canada in 2018.
But their biggest journey was just starting. Looking for the right place to settle down and open their own restaurant, the couple drove from Prince Edward Island to Vancouver Island. “We wanted to explore it all, from one island on the East Coast to one island on the West Coast,” says Milena.
In July 2020 Milena Ficza and Will Cook opened De L’Ile Restaurant and Bakery in Qualicum Beach. The name De L’Ile, is French for “of the island,” says Milena. De L’Ile’s menu changes frequently to reflect what’s in season and freshest. “We use local and organic products as much as possible.” Open Tuesday through Saturday, the bakery hours are 10 AM to 2 PM, and the restaurant hours are 5 to 9 PM.
Both Will and Milena love to bake. Milena, who hails from PEI, spent a year in France after her culinary training, perfecting her pastry skills. De L’Ile offers a fairly limited range of bread and pastries, says Milena, because they prepare everything in-house, daily.
“We have a stone grinding mill. We mill the grain fresh every day for our sourdough because it produces a better flavour.” And all of you bakers out there will appreciate this. “We don’t use a [mechanical] laminator to fold the butter between the sheets of pastry. It’s all done by hand, by the two of us.” Hence the sign that says the bakery is open until 2 PM, “or until we sell out!”
The bakery typically offers rustic sourdough loaves, soft pretzels, butter croissants, Danish pastries filled with custard and topped with “berries that we’ve picked ourselves” or preserved apricots or peaches, and a savoury Danish with cheese and onions. Their devotion to local products is clear. ”We get our [organic] grains from Nootka Rose Milling in Metchosin and from True Grain in Courtenay,” says Milena.
Lately, the star of the bakery line-up seems to be the Coffee Kombucha Knot. Rather than throwing out the pastry “off-cuts” produced when making croissants, Will and Milena cut them into strips and braid them into a knot. Then the magic happens. “Whenever we make too much coffee, rather than throw it out, we set it aside and later ferment it,” says Milena, as you would ferment tea to make regular kombucha. Then they reduce the coffee kombucha down to a glaze, and brush the glaze on the knots while they bake. This produces “a hard caramel outside and a soft, flaky inside,” says Milena.
The Coffee Kombucha Knot exemplifies another of Will and Milena’s philosophies — zero waste, whenever possible. For example, they ferment or dehydrate the peelings of vegetables, “basically trying not to throw anything away.”
The restaurant’s focus on ingredients that are “farmed and foraged around Vancouver Island” was no doubt honed by previous stints working at Sooke Harbour House and Glenrosa Farm Restaurant in Metchosin. But what sets De L’Ile Restaurant apart is the unusual and exquisite flavours they cultivate in their innovative meals. A simple dish of grilled cucumber is anything but.
“I don’t even like beets, but this is amazing!” raved the man at the next table, six feet distant from us, at dinner one evening last week. De L’Ile Restaurant and Bakery treats vegetables with the respect normally lavished on an expensive cut of meat. “People don’t think of turning a beetroot into a tartare, like beef tartare,” says Milena.
“For us, it’s all about trying to create something that’s interesting and not just a salad or a ‘side’. We know where they are grown, and we take great care in cooking them.” Milena, a vegetarian for 13 years, says that they don’t serve meat at De L’Ile Restaurant. Instead, she finds inspiration in the “humble vegetable, experimenting with uncommon ways to combine flavours, just playing with the ingredients.” The lobster mushroom garum is one example. Milena says it’s a fermented sauce, originating in Japan. “We use that to bring more flavour out in vegetables.”
On the other hand, Will loves fish and seafood, so the restaurant features innovative local fish and seafood dishes to complement the vegetarian cuisine.
To start, De L’Ile Restaurant offers non-alcoholic drinks such as a light lovely rhubarb cordial made in-house from raw juiced rhubarb, quickly clarified and mixed with a sugar syrup. They also offer house made soda. “The ones you buy in the store are force carbonated so they don’t explode,” says Milena. “Ours takes 1-2 days to carbonate naturally, but you need to be careful when you open it.” One can also order a refreshing local craft beer from QB’s own Loveshack Libations, or wine from a carefully selected list, often featuring local Island or BC wines.
Local, organic and house made desserts are featured at the end of the meal too. A blackberry, meringue and verbena combination being just one choice the night we were there.
Missing having friends over for dinner in our socially-distanced times? We noted the elegant, serene “green room” at the back of the restaurant offers three distanced tables that would be a perfect, private setting for three couples to chat with each other comfortably and safely while enjoying an amazing dinner out. Just like in the “before times.”
Reservations are recommended.
De L’Ile Restaurant is located at 129 Second Avenue West in Qualicum Beach.