It’s fitting that Chad Martin’s business card is also a book of matches.
As head chef of Roar restaurant in the Hotel Zed Tofino, playing with fire is part of the job.
The “live-fire” restaurant debuted in May 2021, about 10 months after Hotel Zed Tofino opened its doors.
“Live fire is super interesting because it’s so primal,” says Martin. “The smoke and flavour enhances food. It changes something even as simple as a chicken.”
A roast chicken may be a simple dish, but the flavours are transformed with Roar’s fire-hung chicken. The bird is tucked into a football-shaped iron cage and suspended over the fire, slowly becoming Martin’s take on a Portuguese churrasco barbecue.
Roar puts its cooking fires in full view of the dining room. The fancy Mibrasa grill from Spain has a grate that can be raised and lowered with side wheels. There’s an open firebox and charcoal grill beside it.
The hardwood for the firebox comes from the Tofino Airport, 60 cords of wind-weathered alder cut down during the airport expansion.
A surprisingly quiet fan, about the size of a small car, is on the roof to pull smoke from the grills. The fan can’t diminish the blazing heat. Chefs wear custom leather aprons to avoid burns from the fire-heated zippers on their clothing. Sous chef Megan York jokes about the “open-fire diet” that sees staff unintentionally drop a few pounds.
Martin, 33, is a big fan of foraging and fermented foods. He spent 18 months perfecting his sourdough bread recipe (the six-year-old starter is named after his mom, Nancy) during his four- year stint as sous chef at the outstanding Norwoods Restaurant in Ucluelet.
(Chef Richard Peter Norwood helmed his namesake restaurant until retiring in 2019. Chef Warren Barr now runs the equally exceptional Pluvio from the same space.)
With Roar, Zed Tofino builds on the seriously quirky ’70’s vibe beloved by Accent Inns President and CEO Mandy Farmer. She’s behind the playfully retro signature design for two additional British Columbia Zed hotels in Kelowna and Victoria.
Zed Tofino embraces the decade with gusto in the lobby. If Sean Connery’s James Bond had designed a ski resort lounge, this would be it, complete with a massive conversation pit and freestanding circular fireplaces. There’s psychic den for Tarot card readings and a private disco room. A bookshelf slides back to reveal a hidden old-school video game arcade.
Roar puts vintage Ericofons, those futuristic dial-in-the-handset base models, at diners’ elbows to place table-to-table calls.
Sandwiches, coffee, and treats are available at Roar Coffee on the lobby level. It doubles as a shop for wares from local makers, including artisanal chocolate Roar bar from the genius team of pastry chef Stephen Nason and Jessyca Fulsom at Ouest Artisan Patisserie.
The lobby is a good place to enjoy takeout, or grab-and-go for a picnic at Chesterman Beach, a short walk from the hotel. As with all takeout in Tofino — which has recently added single-use plastic cutlery bans to plastic bags, straws, and polystyrene foam containers — grabbing food to-go comes with a side of respect for the environment.
General manager Emma Woodward, formerly of the Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel, leads the restaurant management team. There’s a sophisticated-yet-playful cocktail menu designed to pair with Roar’s food. Bar manager Carl Hamilton, originally from Perth Australia, was the head bartender at the Adelphi Hotel in Melbourne and ran a 50-seat tiki bar in Hanoi, Vietnam with his wife.
They moved to Vancouver Island just over three years ago, where he was in-house mixologist at 1909 Kitchen in the Tofino Resort + Marina.
Hamilton also worked with Roar’s original bar manager, Dinah Kisil, taking over when she departed for Vancouver in January. Like Kisil, he believes in storytelling through his drinks.
“I think what most people are looking for when they come [to Tofino] is a sense of place and a connection with nature,” he says.
Foraged foods and charred and smoked flavours show up in Roar’s cocktails, like alderwood-smoked orange in the mezcal-based Mother Medicine. And Hamilton also plans to add Tiki recipes from his Hanoi cocktail bar.
“Chad’s already taken me foraging for mushrooms and spruce tips,” Hamilton says of his collaboration with Roar’s chef. They’ll soon be harvesting bright yellow wild gorse flower, which has a vanilla-coconut flavour.
Martin is a dedicated forager and gathers foods like vetch, berry blossoms, and golden chanterelles for Roar’s menu. Last summer, he smoked and dried five dozen pounds of chanterelles and porcini mushrooms and ground them to a fine powder. The fragrant smoked mushroom dust is like gold.
While there may be fun at the Zed, Roar takes food seriously.
Roar’s take on a charcuterie starter is pure Tofino. The always-changing Seafood Antipasto Board had smoked and candied salmon, fire-grilled prawns, tuna tartare, and seaweed salad the night I dined there.
The seaweed and much of Roar’s seafood comes from Indigenous-owned Naas Foods in Tofino, which buys from members of the T’aaq-wiihak Nation.
(The hotel is a member of the Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation’s Tribal Parks Allies Program, contributing 1% of guests’ bills to support local Tribal Parks stewardship.)
Rockfish is back in season soon, so whole fish will be back on the menu. Martin wraps it in parchment and foil and tucks it into an iron basket, burying it in the coals to cook to succulence. For Roar’s Grilled Beach Oysters, a long-handled metal cone, called a flambadou, is plunged into the coals. When it’s red hot, chicken and pork fat is dripped through a tiny opening onto freshly shucked Quadra Island oysters. Voila! Instant confit.
One of Martin’s favourite dishes is fire-blistered carrots on labneh, topped with pomegranate molasses, citrus honey, ras el hanout and toasted seeds for crunch. It’s available as an appetizer or can be bumped to a main course with fire-grilled rye and juniper-glazed salmon kabob.
Vegans get their due with watermelon marinated in chamomile tea and mint, then compressed into a “steak” for the grill. It’s finished with lemon and garlic-spiked chermoula.
Even brunch goes through the flames, turning house-baked focaccia into smoky French toast that sops up a generous amount of brown butter and maple syrup. It’s the first time since grade school I’ve gotten excited about a plate of pain perdu.
For big appetites, there’s alder-smoked brisket and eggs or well-spiced and grilled kofta patties joining soft-cooked eggs in tomato sauce for shakshuka.
Tofino has been a foodie locale since the Wickaninnish Inn opened in 1996 with The Pointe Restaurant, the town’s first fine-dining establishment. Wolf in the Fog, Sobo, 1909 Kitchen, and newcomer Korean restaurant Jeju are among the notable places that followed in the surf capital.
Now Roar is making its presence felt as a dining destination and a style of cooking that’s a little bit primal and wholly delicious.
MORE ABOUT ROAR AND HOTEL ZED TOFINO
Location: 1258 Pacific Rim Highway, Tofino, BC (see map below)
Website: Roar in the Hotel Zed Tofino. Telephone: 250-725-7627
Hours: Open Thursday to Monday and 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m., and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. for brunch Saturday and Sunday. Hours expanding later this spring. Reservations recommended for dinner.
Note: Linda Barnard was a guest of Destination British Columbia and Hotel Zed Tofino, which did not preview this story.