Being fortunate to travel as part of the “Career” has led to an incredible array of culinary experiences through multiple countries, and living a few blocks from the Las Vegas Strip means constant opportunities to explore what has become one of the most dynamic food cities in the world over the past decade. With that as a brief prologue, we wonder if there is a more under-rated food region in North America than the Okanagan Valley in the summer time. So after a fifth straight “Okanagan Summer” it is time to celebrate the region, apologizing up front for being long-winded (sorry, but we have to go appetizer-entrée-dessert to give proper due, with a nice single malt to finish).
This is where the Okanagan really shines, with more wineries having their own restaurants than we find in other parts of the world. We have been fortunate to have started sipping B.C. wines about eight years ago, and the progress that is being made is fascinating to watch. But wines are for another thread at another time. From a food standpoint, being in the heart of such a vast agricultural area creates access to a tremendous array of products, and the ability to find fresh combinations that work well with the particular wines allows some talented chefs to paint some beautiful murals.
MISSION HILL – In February of 2008 Travel & Leisure magazine rated this one of the Five Best Winery Restaurants in the world. Sadly, we have not been to the other four, but while these types of articles can lack a proper criteria, and are often written as much to create spark as to be a defining reference point, it would be difficult to argue with the ranking. The setting is spectacular, and the “Cuisine de Terroir” concept is executed with both artistry and precision. The first dish sampled (before several subsequent visits) defined so well what an Okanagan Summer is about – a carrot-based gazpacho was sunshine in a bowl, accented with fresh oysters, clams and delicately-smoked char, with the sweet/tart base and the seafood meshing with the use of some herbs that had a taste and fragrance that led one to believe that they had been picked a few minutes earlier. In truth they had, with the server pointing out that there is a large herb garden behind the tasting room that unfortunately is out of public sight. There were many other standouts, but a good example would be a “Lavender Lamb Loin with Wild Mushroom Bread Pudding”. The lamb was perfumed with lavender, one of many aromatic and visual sensory treats happening on a plate that also included a roasted apricot sauce, tart yellow tomatoes, fresh peas, blueberries (large and not overly sweet) and yellow and green beans. This was a tribute to the kitchen being able to put a lot of textures and flavors together and stay in balance, including a stunning visual, with the apricots and tomatoes particularly playing well off of each other as they highlighted the lamb, and the earthiness of the bread pudding enabling the brightness of the other ingredients to take the stage. They do special work here, and as one would imagine the desserts are also sublime in presentation and taste. Sadly they are only open for lunch and afternoon Tapas this summer, but they may return to dinner service in 2010.
OK, we will not wander as much the rest of the way, but Mission Hill deserved that.
QUAILS GATE – Unlike many of the others, which are mostly summer-only, the Old Vines Restaurant is open year-round, which means a chance to be creative through all of the seasons. In the cooler months they can go to some heartier dishes that play well to their Pinot Noir’s, and even on the summer menu they were serving Wild Nunavut Caribou. A lunch of a Roasted Beet Salad, and Duck Tagliatelle with smoked apple, fennel confit and a thyme cream sauce, was a particular highlight, and the texture of a white chocolate brownie was a marvel.
SUMMERHILL – We dine here more than any of the others because of their location on the east side of the lake, but on merit we might be there as often anyway. Not only is the Winery certified organic, but in recent years the restaurant (now the “Sunset Organic Bistro”) has gone to an almost entirely organic menu, with a lot of the produce grown in house. The dinner highlight this summer was a “Rainbow Chard Wrapped Halibut”, paired deftly with Musk ox prosciutto, beluga lentils, pea tendrils and a basil Pinot Gris butter, while at lunchtime Jesse Croix makes a series of terrific pizzas, with a crispy/chewy organic crust. A shame that they are not on the dinner menu.
GREY MONK – As part of celebrating the German heritage of the winery owners we see some different directions here – in addition to the “fresh and local” focus there are such items as “Vintner’s Veal Sausage” with pan-fried potatoes and apple fennel compote, and “Spatzli with Mushrooms and Baked Ham”. A warm summer afternoon could not take us in those directions, but a “Scallop and Black Tiger Prawn Stack”, served with a gazpacho vinaigrette, was a terrific pairing with their Estate Rotberger.
HILLSIDE ESTATE – We have yet to make it here for dinner (a bit too much of a drive back to Kelowna if imbibing), but lunches have been consistently spot on. Both the “Okanagan Cold Plate”, keyed by a Wild Boar Terrine, and the “Okanagan Special” pizza (grilled pear, carmelized onions, pine nuts and a Tiger Blue cheese) make it easy to linger and enjoy the surroundings.
BURROWING OWL – In past years we have been here for dinner, but this time around could only make a lunch visit. The lunch menu is not extensive, but a “Fraser Valley Duck Leg Confit”, with Riverside Gardens organic vegetable slaw, grilled stonefruit, toasted walnuts and a cherry-balsamic vinaigrette, showcased their Cabernet Franc well. A special setting in the evening to see to sunsets over the valley, which we will have to save for another year.
CEDAR CREEK – A lovely lunch spot for both the setting and the way that Judith Knight plays with local ingredients to pair back to their wines (“Asian Duck Tostada” playing so well to a Riesling on this visit). They had some Friday Dinners set for late summer on their schedule, but unfortunately duty calls south of the border as we get into August.
SUMAC RIDGE – The Cellar Door Bistro is also now a year-round option, except for about a month around the Christmas holidays. For all of the creative (“highbrow”, if you like) meals had over the course of the summer, perhaps the most memorable lunch came from an unexpected direction – a “Curried Lamb Wrap” served with excellent grilled naan bread and a roasted stone fruit chutney. Paired with their Pinnacle (a Pinot Noir-based sparkler) it was a nice tingle for the tongue, with the naan creating a crispy-chewy outer texture that also absorbed the flavors of the curry and the chutney (the latter exploding with some fruits that were just coming into season). They do a “Mediterranean Lamb Shank” on the dinner menu, so having some leftovers to work with gave them the opportunity to put this combination together. Not a damn thing wrong with leftovers.
We could not fit Lake Breeze into the schedule this time, and only got to Nk’Mip for wine tasting, but they will go to the top of the list next summer, particularly if we can be there for one of the “First Nations Salmon Barbecues” at the latter.
OUT and ABOUT
The taste buds could not handle an “All Winery All the Time” rotation, no matter how much we daydream, and it would be a routine that would also not necessarily be pocket-friendly to many travelers. The area also has some nice other options, albeit continually disappointing Asian fare. Alphabetically -
AMANTE BISTRO – A nice find in Penticton, with some creative takes on the local ingredients, and also a little unexpected flair – “Saucy and Sloppy Shrimp Torta” is a unique version of a “Torta Ahogada” (drowned sandwich), which celebrates Guadalaraja, the home town of chef Abul Adame.
BONFIRE – On the west side of the lake, at The Cove resort, we were most pleasantly surprised. The “Cuisines of the Sun” concept (“regional ingredients from the Okanagan and B.C. blended with reflections of the Southwest”) is an intriguing idea, but we were not sure how well it would play to the local taste buds (the few attempts at finding Southwestern cuisine in the region have been unrewarding). We anticipated a compromise towards blandness but that was not the case. Sweet Potato Frites “Poutine Style”, with Oaxaca Cheese and Chipotle Gravy, was the only miss, but how could they resist the attempt? A 12-hour brined “New Mexican Spice Rubbed Organic Chicken Breast” was a hit, paired with a chorizo tomatillo sauce. They will make the list for future visits.
BOUCHONS – Solid, dependable French bistro fare, but perhaps better saved for the cooler months – they do not adapt the menu all that much for the local bounty, so our preference will be more towards the winery restaurants on summer visits, and then to come here at other times of the year, when a cassoulet is good for the soul when the sun is setting too early.
CAFÉ WASABI – Yes, they pale in comparison to the Vancouver Izakaya scene, but the young crew here is going to make a name for themselves over time. Some of their own in-house creations, and a Sake Mojito or two, make for a nice change of pace when doing a lot of winery touring and tasting.
FIXX CAFÉ – There is temptation to call this small gem a “sleeper”, since there is little publicity, but the crowds say otherwise. Chef/Owner Lisa Cham puts as much of her heart and soul onto the plate as anyone we have come across in recent years, and her takes on a lot of traditional dishes show a real flair. Although the menu is pasta-based, her version of Cioppino/Bouillabaisse will long be remembered, using fennel and citrus to better bring out the particular flavors of seafood from the B.C. waters. Sopping-bread good. And unlike many chefs that put so much focus on tantalizing with flavors, which can be deceptively easy with small portions, she also enjoys feeding people. We do not see that much at the higher ends these days; it means that you will never go away hungry, while at the same time the challenge of creating a dish in which the flavors unfold and hold up over a larger serving (a somewhat lost art) is one that she meets head on.
RAUDZ – What was once Fresco’s is now a new concept from Rod Butters, taking some old classics and reworking them with his own visions. Want a hot dog and a fudge sickle? Sure, if the dog is comprised of a couple of Merguez sausages, with an asian slaw, lavender mustard and freshly cut fries from local potatoes. And of course the fudge sickle was made in house. Fortunately he kept the Crab Capuccino on the menu, and there are some unique dinner options, but the noveau “standards” were enough to call for some repeat visits, like the “BLT” of grilled salmon, pancetta and fig anise toast.
THE BEST OF INDIA – A nice find in Oliver, when we were staying at one of the Hester Creek Villas. Family-owned and operated, the flavors were authentic and made for a lovely evening on the patio overlooking the valley, with the Hester Creek Pinot Blanc a nice compliment to work through those spices.
VANILLA POD – This Summerland spot is now open for dinner as well as lunch, but we have only been there in the afternoons so far. The menu of local-inspired Tapas creations is a terrific way to sample some of the valley’s wines from their extensive list, with particularly nice presentations.
WATERFRONT WINES – Mark Filatow has never disappointed on many visits through the years; a small menu of well-executed dishes that showcase both the ingredients of the region and his own vision well. Pork Belly is rather ubiquitous on menus these days but his “Five Spice Crispy Side Pork”, with buckwheat soba noodle salad, was one of the better takes on the concept that we have found, and a pear/lemon emulsion was a nice accent to seared scallops. Have not had better tarts anywhere of late, with fresh fruit combinations on top of sinfully buttery pastry. Small hint – when the menu shows something from “Eldorado Farms”, that means that Mark picked it from his own backyard.
WILD APPLE – At the Manteo Resort, they have dropped “grill” from the end of the name. We have yet to have a bad experience here in several visits through the years, and particularly enjoyed their take on “Risotto Fritters”, with a panko crusted local apple risotto, cheddar cheese, and an apple honey mustard. While it did not fit a warm summer day, we already have a “house-made pork loin pastrami, Carmeli’s goats gruyere, sauerkraut, apple honey mustard, black pumpernickel” Panini on a to-do list for an autumn trip.
Those were the hits, no reason to belittle the misses. The Okanagan is a special place in the summer months, and while there is always that bittersweet crossing of Lake Roosevelt in northeast Washington on the way home (where the Kettle Valley and Columbia river’s meet, the “official” end of summer), we at least hit the bridge well fed.