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Okanagan Winery Dining

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By Alan McGinty


The view from Mission Hill's Terrace restaurant

The Okanagan Valley’s wine revolution is well underway, with the number of wineries, the quality of the wines – and their prices – rising ever higher. Now, the winery restaurant chefs of the Okanagan are raising the bar on fine dining and in the Okanagan, it’s all about fresh and local ingredients. First stop: Mission Hill Winery.

"For us, menu creation begins in January, talking to the farmers. We have seven organic farms that we deal with, and each of them has its own unique terroir," says Michael Allemeier, Executive Chef at Mission Hill, slipping into winespeak - but then, Mission Hill is one of the biggest wineries in the Okanagan Valley. Mission Hill Winery owner Anthony Von Mandel is an Okanagan pioneer who took over Mission Hill in 1981. It was one of just five wineries in the Okanagan (vs. over 100 now.) and it wasn't very good. Von Mandel has since built Mission Hill into a showpiece, improving the quality and expanding the range of the wines, and now the food is getting a lot of notice. Prestigious US magazine Travel + Leisure named Mission Hill's Terrace restaurant as one of the "six best on-site spots across the globe" in its 'Top Winery Restaurant' feature in February. Eat there and it will be obvious why it's on the list.

Chef Allemeier has been at the Terrace for five years now and has steadily built the restaurant’s profile. His resume includes Bishop’s in Vancouver, Fairmont Chateau Whistler and five years at Teatro, one of Calgary’s premier restaurants. Now, with his assistant Matthew Batey who joined in early 2007, the Terrace is turning out some of the finest meals in the country. It’s completely exposed to the elements - there is no indoor dining area - but it's open only from May through October and there just aren't enough rainy days to worry about in the semi-arid Okanagan.

It was 32 or so degrees and sunny and our super efficient and friendly server talked us through the menu options. The heat called for something light, so the "cool minted pea soup" with seared diver scallop, verbena yogurt and atomized bay leaf seemed right. It was exquisitely smooth, the muted mint adding some oomph to the pea soup, which would've otherwise been boring. The seared scallop was perfection: the almost blackened glaze reminiscent of the best barbecue ever, and the scallop itself was perfectly done, meaty, and presented in a ceramic spoon balanced on the soup bowl. The artful dollop of verbena yogurt further smoothed an already smooth starter, and the suggested wine pairing - the crisp yet reasonably full Reserve Sauvignon Blanc - was perfect. One of my companions had a beautiful salad of organic greens and the other lucked out with the finest braised short ribs I've ever tasted - richly flavourful, melt in your mouth tender, working perfectly with the robust bourguignon garni and aged Cheddar. The roasted Queen Charlotte halibut and potato rosti main was also superb: crisp, tasty skin, succulent tender flesh, and the potato rosti also hit the right balance of crisp and tender. A terrific taste-treat garnishing it was sea asparagus, which turned out to be a) delicious and b) a British Columbia specialty. The cauliflower puree could've benefited from a bit more bacon and caramelized carrot jus to mix with, but it was nevertheless a superb rendering of one of my least favourite vegetables. The Reserve Chardonnay was the pairing for this, and, once again, spot on - the fuller bodied and moderately oaky chard picked up on the buttery notes in the rosti and the smoky hints on the roast halibut. All dishes have suggested wine pairings and I have two words of advice: trust them. The desserts are all freshly made and rich and I declined - but did taste some of the "progression of chocolate", which consisted of "foam, ice cream sandwich, chocolate milk and cake" - though i'm sure there was a chocolate chip cookie too... the mini ice cream sandwich (about the size of a loonie) was delicious, as was the rich cake. The server informed us that the "chocolate milk" was in fact made from Earl Grey tea.

Lunch with two glasses of wine and dessert runs to a very big-city price of around $75 per person, but the Terrace delivers slick big-city dining that would impress foodies in Vancouver, Toronto or Montreal. But factor in its setting, overlooking Okanagan Lake shimmering in the sunshine, with small clouds scudding over the stark scrubby mountains stretching off into forever, and the Terrace knocks big-city competitors flat. Have lunch there if you can.

[Read my tasting notes on Mission Hill wines at www.alanmcginty.com.]

“The flavours of France, Italy and Spain, but utilizing local B.C. produce meat and vegetables, with sort of a West Coast twist added to it,” is how Sumac Ridge Winery's Executive Chef Roger Planiden describes the profile of the Cellar Door Bistro. The restaurant's name is misleading: it's not a cosy place in a cool stone-floored basement. It looks a bit like ho-hum "local" resto in Alsace, but the food's way better than a bistro's. Located in the hilltop winery that's been running since 1980, the restaurant - and especially the outdoor terrace - has incredible views over the lake and hills and the food is not only creative, fresh and modern, it's perfectly executed too. Planiden is a big proponent of the "Farm to Fork" (or farm to table) movement that is more or less mandatory at the Okanagan's finer establishments now. Planiden is determined to get as close to "all Okanagan/BC" as he can. “This is our first year at it. I started in March and I’m still building my pantry. My philosophy is ‘harvest and put away’ – meaning you take things as they come. Asparagus is the first thing that comes in the spring, so utilize that in your menus. But also get enough so you’re able to can, jar and pickle it so that, come November when there’s no more fresh produce, you can use it. This is the same for every fruit and vegetable." Want to know the what to expect on a farm-to-table plate? This website, pickyourown.org, will tell you when BC's bounty comes in. "My dream is to make it all the way through the winter until the asparagus comes back at the end of March/beginning of April," says Planiden.

My companions and I had a set menu, and Roger joined us to eat. The amuse-bouche was amusing: a small rectangular plate containing truffle popcorn with thyme salt, a scallop and local peaches. The popcorn had a very pleasant hint of the truffle oil it was popped in - not overpowering like some uses of truffle oil can be. I liked the thyme salt and said so, and Roger immediately explained how to make it: "We take fresh thyme leaves and infuse some fleur de sel, then dry the salt and herb in the oven. Once they come out, we'll blitz them [i.e., pulse it in a food processor]" The scallop was delectable and the slice of fresh peach perfect. This was served along with a glass of Sumac Ridge's terrific sparkling wine Pinnacle, which is one of the few sparklers made in the Okanagan - the lack of local bubbly has to do with the cost of setting up the specialized equipment needed and few of the wineries do it. We had the 2001, which is 100% pinot noir and is, amazingly, "zero brut". That means no added "dosage" of sugar (which almost all sparkling wines need). Crisp, dry and delicately fruity. The pan seared Queen Charlotte Island Halibut with organic carrot butter sauce was up next. It was beautifully firm but tender, the sauce was rich and matched it perfectly, as did the 2006 Black Sage Vineyard White Meritage (the sauvignon/semillon blend of Bordeaux). Then came the pan-seared BC lamb loin with a mosaic of potato terrine wrapped in Tyroler bacon with rosemary jus. The shoulder is braised for 12 hours and then morels, shallots, garlic and leek are added and it's all pressed into a terrine mould. It was a small portion, but rich and delicious, the lamb beautifully tender and moist - and the 2005 Black Sage Vineyard Meritage was perfect, as planned. A good pairing strategy for blended wines would be to do what Roger does: "The dish is made up of components and so is the wine, so I break it down. The potatoes and bacon – that’s merlot; Lamb is cab – lamb just loves cab – and the terrine with the morels and the jus is cab franc." By the time dessert arrived, we expected nothing but the best, and we got it: stone fruit pannacotta with fresh mint and vanilla bean syrup. Perfect for the warm summer evening. The overall effect was melt-in-your-mouth and the vanilla bean syrup was stunning - rich and complex. The gewurztraminer icewine was the pairing, adding another blast of sweetness, but with enough acidity to balance it out. A three-course dinner with two glasses of wine will cost around $75 per person and in fact, for the quality and stylishness of the food, represents a real discount from big-city prices. There might be a temptation to consider that we got special treatment, what with Roger joining us and the very happy looking Sous Chef Ryan Fuller - who'd actually made our meal - coming out to introduce himself. But when the table next to us got up to leave, one of the diners interrupted us to say, "Stellar, Roger, it was an amazing meal. Thank you." Roger accepted the compliment graciously and, when we needled him about having set it up, said, "I have no idea who that gentleman is." Another satisfied customer, that's who.

[Read my tasting notes on Sumac Ridge at www.alanmcginty.com.]

Read Part II of Alan McGinty's Okanagan dining tour here.

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