GREAT DINING AWAITS IN OKANAGAN
The Okanagan. How do I love thee? Let’s see. Wine. Food. Cherries. Peaches. Tomatoes. Beaches. Hikes. Cycling. And my favourite: hunting for restaurants.
Most recently, I checked out Salt & Brick in Kelowna, where chef James Holmes has the moxie to undo 80 per cent of the menu every day. That’s a highwire act where consistency and glitch-free cooking is on the line. But that’s the way he rolls. “It’s a lost art,” he says of the shifting menu. You need the right size of restaurant to do it. You can’t do it with a brigade of 10 cooks.”
This place was previously Salted Brick, run by the talented Jason Liezert, who cooked at Boneta, the Parker and Corner Suite Bistro in Vancouver. Liezert most recently was at Cathedral Mountain Lodge and Black Hills Winery.
Salt & Brick wears a proud 1905 patina with exposed brick and strong bones. On that brick wall, in neon, is writ: “All in all, you’re just another brick in the wall,” words courtesy of Pink Floyd. On another wall, wallpaper, straight out of a 17th-century Dutch floral painting. Staff are friendly, the music’s great.
Holmes’ farm-to-table food — creative, delicious and made to share — isn’t without a glitch or two, but I appreciate his creative mind. Pasta with prawns, capers, lemon, pesto and peaches seemed to be missing peach but was, I think, better without. Cauliflower with curry aioli, honey and nori was yummy, as were the chicken drumsticks with hot sauce and smoked blue cheese cream. For dessert, I was all over a decadent bourbon cherry cream-filled doughnut. So good!
So what didn’t work? A waffle cone with elk salami and yam (illconceived) and pork dumplings that was more like an Asian pork meatball soup. The broth was really tasty, but I really wanted a wrapped dumpling. About half the menu is vegetable-based, but, as one of the owners, Casey Greabeiel says, “It doesn’t have to be like grandma made them. It can be inspired.”
Next! I hadn’t visited the jewel of Kelowna, Mission Hill Family Estate Winery and its Terrace restaurant, since chef Patrick Gayler took over the kitchen four years ago. Travel and Leisure magazine called it one of the top five winery restaurants in the world and “one of the most glorious dining experiences around.” The breathtaking architecture surrounding you becomes part of dinner. Down from the loggialike terrace restaurant is Okanagan Lake, a vineyard and a restaurant garden. The food is clean, bright and modern with some 90 per cent of produce sourced from two organic farms.
“For me, the big focus is everything ’s at their peak and made inhouse,” says Gayler. He preserves that peak by canning, smoking or pickling.
“We have a thousand jars of assorted produce in what we call our library in the kitchen.” Tony Bennett wandered into that kitchen on his 80th birthday, asking all about the sausages they were making (he was performing at the adjacent winery amphitheatre) and the Trudeaus wandered in to shake hands with the staff.
When I visited, an amuse bouche of beets, cherries, blueberries and housemade cheese was a plate of sheer joy. A starter of baked strawberries with basil, estate gooseberries, fennel and guanciale was alive with flavour. The remainder of our dinner showed solid technique and a seamless balance of flavours as well as something of the unexpected: house-made orecchiette with side stripe shrimp, smoked ham hock and rosemary; local duck breast with fried rye, duck heart and radish; scallops with house-cured bacon in miso broth with Vancouver Island seaweed; and a chocolate tart with goat cheese ice cream.
The Terrace operates to the end of September, after which the kitchen offers cooking classes to locals. (By the way, check out their contest to win a dinner for up to six in the winner’s home by a Mission Hill chef, a Staub cast-iron cooking set, Zwilling Henckels knife set and a gift basket. Visit bringmissionhillhome.com)
If you love a hearty brunch or lunch, the newish Sunny’s Diner by Rod Butters and Audrey Surrao should hit the spot. It’s part of their boutique collection of restaurants: Raudz Regional Table, Micro, and as of last year, Terrafina at Hester Creek Winery. Sunny’s is crazy busy with lineups on weekends, so expect a wait. Named after their lab retriever, the dog ’s large-scale mug photo bombs the room. Sunny’s is casual, fun and the food sticks to your ribs.
En route to Kelowna, we stopped at Front Street Brasserie in Penticton, a really charming little 12-seater. Owner/chef John Burke has cooked in Vancouver at Pastis, Cru and Wedgewood Hotel. Wife Lisa Baxter Burke, a former wine importer, adds a smooth professionalism to the front of house.
The menu is classic French bistro with specials that might stray a bit. And it’s fuelled by romance: “When we started dating in Vancouver 12 years ago, we took daily trips to Granville Island and revelled in preparing delicious meals for each other, most of which included copious amounts of delicious varieties of cheese,” says Baxter Burke. “We fell in love over burrata and we gained 30 pounds each that first summer.”
My lunch of Quebec halloumi cheese with fig and olive tapenade and arugula salad was just right, as was a simple orecchiette pasta with smoked bacon, broccolini, onions and garlic in white wine butter.
So, there you are: a few places to dine should you find yourself in wine country this summer.