Ugly Duckling Dining indulges in the details

The newest Chinatown restaurant is the brainchild of head chef Corbin Mathany.

I come from the Anthony Bourdain school of thought where street food always reigns supreme. You can’t go wrong with a fancy meal, but having to know what fork goes with what food, to me, is kind of intimidating.

But last Sunday night, I took a chance, and coming out of it, I see how far fine dining has come, and how different it can be.

Enter: Ugly Duckling Dining & Provisions.

As I walked into the dimly lit room in Chinatown on Sunday night, the restaurant was intimate, approachable, and the hospitality staff was welcoming. At first stride we were taken care of.

Ugly Duckling’s version of fine dining is closer to the creative freedom chefs so often desire than the Ramsey-esque pretentiousness we've all been bombarded with from television.

At this restaurant, you book online, ahead of going in. There, Ugly Duckling offers two options for dinner: a three-course meal or a tasting menu. We chose the tasting menu, so that when we sat down, all we had think about was ordering a drink.

Looking around, I realized that, quite unconventionally, there isn’t a bar. I asked the server and they told me that its cocktails are pre-batched by Wind Cries Mary bar manager Soren Schepkowski, and that its sous chef adds any accoutrements. The intention is to feature different cocktails from a different bartender every three months.

We tried the simply named #2 and #3 cocktails.

The #2 cocktail had Erguotou Shaojiu (a Chinese rice spirit), amaro, lychee, peach, mint, and yuzu; the #3 featured Esquimalt Dry Vermouth, five-spice tonic, lemongrass, and citrus. Each were refreshing takes on classic cocktails, packed with a ton of flavour and a garden variety of fresh ingredients.

Ugly Duckling Dining tucked between the vibrancy of Chinatown

As we sipped our cocktails, the first course was dropped off: Chinese milk buns and gluten-free bread with an delectable scallion butter.

We had some allergies at our table, so we made sure to call ahead and let the kitchen know. It was great, since the kitchen catered each dish to the allergies and prepared everything with that in mind—no pressure to reiterate anything on our end or skim through the menu at the table, picking and choosing what works and what doesn’t.

I knew head chef Corbin Mathany was dedicated to bringing some of Vancouver Island’s finest locally-sourced food to Victoria. And during our interview the next day, Mathany told Tasting Victoria that the philosophy behind Ugly Duckling’s food is terroir—the French concept for soil or land.

“It's kind of understood a bit more poetically now to mean the flavours of a place, the cultural influences, and what grows there,” he told Tasting Victoria. “My interest has always been in making hyper-local food. Vancouver Island is so magical for that—it’s part of the reason I moved here.”

Ugly Duckling’s dining room during the day

Ugly Duckling is Mathany’s first foray into owning a restaurant, but he’s no stranger to sourcing local.

The Ontario-born chef studied at culinary school before moving to Victoria in 2012. “The West Coast was always the dream,” he said. He first began working in the kitchen at Stage Wine Bar in Fernwood—an incubator for many of Victoria’s industry folks who learn the ropes of casual fine dining and open their own spots, like Stephen Quigley of Chorizo & Co.

Mathany moved on to work at Hudson’s on First in Duncan—a heritage home converted into a fine dining restaurant which, unfortunately, no longer exists. That’s where he really developed his identity as a chef.

For the past three years, Mathany has worked at Wind Cries Mary, and he said he’s carried a lot of what he’s learned from there into the ethos of Ugly Duckling.

“[Wind Cries Mary] focuses on making food that is relevant to Victoria, in a thoughtful way with a lot of local ingredients,” he said. “That approach is part of what inspired me to want to work there in the first place—and is what I’m taking with me into this.”

As lo-fi hip hop played in the background as we chatted at our table, our server dropped off a variety of high-quality snacks: a perfectly-cooked soy-glazed duck bao, a savoury shrimp custard carrot foam, and a compelling tuna tartar on a brioche bun.

The duck was tender, moist, and fatty, and the tuna tartar was mouthwatering. The shrimp custard was a surprise favourite (mostly because it’s taste was so unexpected).

Next, we had one of the most interesting and creative dishes of the night: a Quebec foie gras tart with pear and five spice. The foie gras was subtle—which is not necessarily what I can say about the many other times I’ve had foie gras.

It was all a perfect lead-up to one of my favourite dishes of the night: a butter-poached Haida Gwaii halibut.

The plating alone was a masterpiece, and with each bite of halibut I fell more in love with the dish. It was sensual, delicate, and fresh. Easily one of the best halibuts I’ve ever had.

Butter-poached Haida Gwaii halibut

With each bite, I was also taken in by the aesthetics of the dining room.

The interior wall is red brick, which before Ugly Duckling was covered in plaster (Mathany said he had to excavate the plaster himself.) Photos hang around the room showcasing Vancouver Island and Chinatown, as well as abstract art from Victoria artist Ash Wilson. A collaborative art piece from Wilson and Ingrained and Co. decorates the wall at the end of the dining room, heading into the kitchen.

“We wanted artwork that sort of spoke to the two sides of our identity,” Mathany said, referring to Vancouver Island and Chinatown.

Artwork by Ash Wilson and Ingrained and Co.

Mounted and hovering over the room are three gorgeous black light fixtures, and Mathany credits the bolder design choices at Ugly Duckling to Edda Creative, which has perfected many Victoria restaurants’ and bars’ designs, like Superflux {Cabana} and Friends of Dorothy.

“They not only understand design,” Mathany said. “But they understand how a restaurant needs to function too.”

As I realized my halibut was finished, it was time for the next item on the menu: the Saddle Parry Bay Farms Lamb with soybean and a winter vegetable cassoulet.

Again, another dish to marvel at by aesthetics and the decadence of the details. The lamb was succulent and rare, and the carrot puree was made to perfection.

Next, we enjoyed a palate cleanser: a house-made lychee sorbet plated in a cute duck feet dish. Then, we were served a sweet, dense buttermilk cake with caramelized white chocolate, ginger, and a sweet mango puree.

Just as we thought it was over, our server capped us off with house-made macarons and, of course, fortune cookies.

Duck feet dishware

Ugly Duckling enraptured us in its full experience—casually and creatively—and it was a tasting menu full of surprises, but grounded in a very specific time and place.

During our interview the next day, I asked Mathany how he thinks fine dining has changed, and he expressed its reclamation over the years.

“The whole fine dining thing is about just doing ambitious things to make people happy,” he said. “People want to go out and have fun and receive amazing hospitality and eat interesting, flavorful ingredients. Our thing, from the beginning, has been about delivering magical experiences.”

And deliver on that experience, Ugly Duckling did.

After my interview with Mathany, and seeing the passion that exudes from him when he talks about Vancouver Island, cooking, and his restaurant, I realized that my cookie’s fortune and the journey to Ugly Duckling was as similar to Mathany’s journey as it was to mine.

“A ship in harbour is safe, but that’s not why ships are built.”

Check out Ugly Duckling’s dining room open from Thursday to Sunday from 5-9:30pm; and its café, open from 9am to 4pm Wednesday through Sunday.