© Carol Clemens
BC’s chef d’oeuvre
The Okanagan Valley is known for its wine, but it’s about to be as famous for its food
At God’s Mountain Estate, a sprawling guesthouse and vineyard perched high over BC’s Okanagan Valley (hellobc.com/thompson-okanagan.aspx), life unfolds according to an old Spanish proverb: “How beautiful it is to do nothing and then rest afterwards.” The anonymous author would have been pleased that his thought survives and thrives here. A holiday about wine, food and scenic beauty is pretty much like that: sybaritic, indolent and deeply conducive to a rest in which even a mortician might have difficulty wiping the smile from your face.
It goes without saying that there’s more than wine to wine country. The Okanagan’s transition began about a dozen years ago, part of a surge that encompassed winery facilities from sophisticated wine emporia to scholarly tastings, winery blitzes by shuttle and helicopter, stylish resorts, spas, cooking classes, festivals and never least, restaurants. Since Doctor’s Review visited five years ago, wine country’s turned to dine country.
So, with an update in mind, we’ve journeyed the valley again, exploring both wineries and free-standing restaurants unveiled since that last visit.
We began in the south at Oliver — designated by Tourism BC as “Wine Capital of Canada” — a town of less than 5000 that produces 12 million bottles of wine a year and accounts for more than half the vineyard acreage in the province.
Set on the Golden Mile Bench, Hester Creek (877 Road 8; tel: 866-498-4435; hestercreek.com) personifies the contemporary winery resort, combining vineyards, wine emporium, villa accommodations and a restaurant. Their decidedly luxe Villa suites quite possibly boast the most beautiful panoramic view in the Okanagan — though you’ll be reminded to close the doors here because it’s rattlesnake country.
Terrafina (terrafinarestaurant.com), its restaurant, looks to the Mediterranean for its sunny disposition. The room features a baronial rusticity with exposed beams, iron chandeliers, an open kitchen and a wood-fired oven. Its patio comes fronted with banks of lavender in early summer.
Pizzas are not too humble for wine country, and Terrafina’s breakfast pizza with eggs and hollandaise is a hit. Yet there are more intriguing fancies. An amuse brings a lovely scallop playfully drizzled with bacon jam. Caprese salad is a finely balanced affair of heirloom tomatoes, fior di latte and basil.
Chef Natasha Schooten’s evening stunner is pan-fried squid, something much more than the sparse words suggest. It’s a melange of tender squid tentacles, sun-dried tomato, artichoke, black olives, capers, garlic, arugula and focaccia crostini. Yes, an umami bomb, that savoury fifth taste that recently swept like brush fire across the foodie world.
Wine to note: Pinot Blanc and Hester Creek Block 3 Reserve Cabernet Franc 2010, winner of the Lieutenant Governor’s Award for Excellence.
Like many Okanagan restaurateurs, Manuel Ferreira is a defector from the highest echelon of Vancouver dining; he owned Le Gavroche. His partnership with Tinhorn Creek Vineyards (537 Tinhorn Creek Road; tel: 888-484-6467; tinhorn.com) resulted in Miradoro, an easy contender for best winery resto in the valley.
From the alfresco terrace at Miradoro, the view of the valley, vineyards and hills rivals that of Hester Creek’s villas. Here, the Okanagan is the decor. Bring a panoramic camera.
Chef Jeff Van Geest, who earned his reputation at Vancouver’s Aurora Bistro, sports the exec chef toque at Miradoro. Van Geest transplants his coaster’s perspective seamlessly with a dazzling octopus carpaccio. The underrated and overlooked cephalopod arrives raw, thinly sliced, tender and roaring with oceanic flavour. It’s garnished with chorizo, olive “pearls” and crackling foccaccia croutons.
Clams and chorizo recall the Chinese magic of pairing seafood and pork (poor pity those who turn away for religious reasons), here with tomato-saffron sauce.
The stellar main is lamb shank, its flesh cascading from the bone, gone Moroccan with harira, orange peel, coriander and lentils. A few bites and you expect to see turbaned horseman thundering across the valley below.
Wine to note: Tinhorn Creek Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Syrah.
Local Lounge Grille (12817 Lakeshore Drive South; tel: 250-494-8855; thelocalgroup.ca) occupies prime Summerland real estate overlooking Okanagan Lake. It pairs the postcard view with chef Lee Humphries’ playful cuisine.
Humphries cut his teeth at three top Vancouver restaurants — West, Elixir and C — before departing the big city for Okanagan bounty.
Originally from Cornwall, England, he grew up on a vegetable farm, but that doesn’t mean he’s content with run-of-the-mill pork belly. He transforms it into tempura, adding crrrunnnch, lime and red pepper gels cutting the unctuous pork.
Fresh albacore tuna, BC’s most underrated fish, arrives as tartare, its delicate raw flesh spooned onto spiced potato chips and inventively sided with softly poached egg, coriander and red mustard seed.
Among mains, lamb rump follows with three riffs on the tomato — fresh, dried and confit — and as if that’s insufficient, he adds crushed peas and crispy-creamy deep-fried polenta zapped with preserved lemon. Duck breast shows up properly pink, liberated from the icky sweetness of à l’orange, its accent orange-honey gel, its sidekick fingerling potatoes fried in duck fat.
For dessert? How to improve on deep-fried apple beignet with raspberry coulis and ginger ice cream?
Wine to note: Time Estate Meritage white and red, from restaurant partners Christa-Lee McWatters Bond and her dad, Harry, the wine legend behind Sumac Ridge.
On the Naramata Bench on Okanagan Lake’s southeast shore, the Patio at Lake Breeze (930 Sammet Road; tel: 250-496-5659; lakebreeze.ca) is indeed a breezy affair with the feel of lazy, sun-filled lunches in France’s Côte d’Azur (although the owner’s lakeside manse appears to have flown in from Tuscany).
Chef Mark Ashton’s sharply conceived starters get underway with a grilled ‘n’ chilled portabella mushroom carpaccio served with arugula and crabmeat. For a championship main, he takes a hefty slab of halibut, pan sears it and drapes it over puff pastry filled with roasted cauliflower, leek and saffron. And to gild his gastro-lily, he caps the fish with frizzled leeks and surrounds everything with a moat of roasted tomatoes in Chardonnay cream.
Is it over? Not if you’re a crème brûlée aficionado. The Patio’s chocolate crème brûlée brings a crackling sugar crust and a silken, creamy chocolate atop salted caramel. They don’t do it any better in France.
Wine to note: Lake Breeze Chardonnay.
By any standards, God’s Mountain Estate (4898 Lakeside Road; tel: 250-490-4800; godsmountain.com), located high in the hills over Lake Skaha’s eastern shore, is a one-off. Feisty Sara Allen’s 14-room bed-and-breakfast is a sprawling, unruly manse in which one easily imagines the playing out of an Agatha Christie murder (pssst: the saucier did it). One bedroom is actually roofless. Promoted entirely by word-of-mouth, the house is packed all summer long.
Every Sunday, Allen invites the intrepid Joy Road Catering (tel: 250-493-8657; joyroadcatering.com) to whip up a multi-course fete, a Wine Maker dinner with labels provided by a stellar Okanagan winery. Guests are seated at one long table, sometimes more than 40 diners, under the stars and treetops.
Joy Road’s dinner is a procession of flawless dishes. The opener may be salt cod fritters with Espelette chili mayo and fresh oysters with rhubarb and shallot mignonette. Mains include burrata with freshly shelled peas and prosciutto, halibut in beurre blanc and duck confit with cherries, olive oil-roasted cauliflower, roasted asparagus and black lentil salad. Run all the way.
The CedarCreek Estate Winery (5445 Lakeshore Road; tel: 778-738-1027; cedarcreek.bc.ca) was one of the first eight wineries in BC and has been twice recognized as Canadian Winery of the Year. Its Vineyard Terrace is plenty bold: it reinvents the spring roll, the crispy wrap stuffed with salmon, halibut and potato, and accompanied with a miso dipping sauce.
Lingcod, BC’s unheralded Pacific jewel, is pan-fried and served with smoked tomato broth, wilted kale and crispy, addictive potato “hay.” The rampant carnivore, however, will leap for roasted rack of elk, a monumental chop of game meat.
Wine to note: Platinum Reserve, CedarCreek’s top-of-the-line label, “Block 3” Riesling and Syrah.
Veteran restaurateurs Rod Butters and Audrey Surrao remain at the top of their game at RauDZ Regional Table (1560 Water Street; tel: 250-868-8805; raudz.com). Butters’ cooking has always been flamboyant (he created the first kitchen at the Tofino’s celebrated Wickaninnish Inn) and at RauDZ, he’s having as much fun as the faithful who pack the joint.
Butters turns Dungeness crab into crab cappuccino. Caesar salad takes on umami with double-smoked bacon and sun-dried olives. Yes, there’s poutine, only with chicken confit and pan gravy. His “fries” are baked and drizzled with blackberry ketchup. The standout appetizer though is venison carpaccio, laid out on a palette like a Jackson Pollock painting, with apples, walnuts, mustard dressing and toasted baguette.
Signature mains? He has the gall to reboot tuna casserole of yore — one of several reborn classics on the menu — as albacore tuna poached in olive oil and seared rare tuna paired with creamy pasta and a Parmesan crisp. Unsurprisingly, it works. Ditto his take on the steak sandwich, no humble dish here: draped across brioche is a fat-grilled beef tenderloin with bacon and crabmeat poached in butter, the lot sided with potatoes and duck-fat mayo. For each and everything, there’s a well-chosen Okanagan wine.
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