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Okanagan Winery Dining Part II

By Alan McGinty


Quail's Gate

[This is the second part of a two-part series, click here to read Part I: Mission Hill and Sumac Ridge.]

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. A round-up of Quail’s Gate, Nk’Mip and a great little deli/bistro in Summerland, BC.  Old Vines restaurant at Quail’s Gate comes about as close to a fantasy winery restaurant as possible: you might think you’ve died and gone to Napa… but it’s nicer than that.

Not only is the room spacious and airy, it’s rustic without being rough, its floor-to-ceiling windows open completely, and the grapevines come right up to the building. It’s like eating in the vineyard. There’s a lake and mountains to look at as well and, by the way, good food.

With a menu “inspired by Okanagan and West Coast ingredients”, chef Roger Sleiman is heavy on seafood, but it not shy about big meats either, including game. The starters are creative and take full advantage of the Okanagan’s bounty, with a couple of really terrific salads that are just the right size. Quail’s Gate is also one of the bigger wineries in the area and has sufficient range to deliver decent pairings for every course.

The gravlax with citrus and dill, watercress, baby frisé and orange poppy seed dressing was perfect for the hot early evening and worked well with the smooth and somewhat oaky chardonnay we’d ordered (as opposed to the suggested chenin blanc pairing). And while my main course of BC morel mushroom and summer vegetable risotto was a little on the bland side – great texture, not so interesting flavours – one of my companions raved about the meat feast of 11oz of Angus beef ribeye that was dropped in front of him. He said it was “very good” and cooked exactly as he wanted it, and was accompanied by a spear of asparagus, squash and “truffled Little Creek arugula”. 

Spectacular setting across the lake from Kelowna aside, there was nothing “country” about the dining experience – the service was efficient, low-key and unobtrusive, the food sophisticated, and there was a great energy in the restaurant – a happy buzz on a warm evening. You’ll pay city prices for the experience, with starters in the low to mid teens and most mains in the thirties.

“It doesn’t feel like Canada here,” I said to the server on the patio at Nk’Mip’s Patio restaurant, where the thermometer registered 38 degrees and the “outdoor air conditioning” – a series of pipes spritzing out an ultrafine mist to cool the diners – was working overtime. “Everybody says that,” she replied, “even people from up the [Okanagan] valley.” She then told me it had been 42 degrees a couple of days earlier…

Osoyoos is at the southermost point of the Okanagan and it’s noticeably hotter and drier even than Kelowna, and much more so than the top of the valley, where the mountains are blanketed with greenery.

Then there’s the adobe kick the town is on: a number of buildings in town – including the Tim Hortons – are done up in a faux-adobe style that’s kitschy, but that somehow works with the scrubby brown hills and the sizzling heat.

Nk’Mip is the first aboriginal-run winery in Canada and has grown into a major resort, with a large hotel/condo complex (adobe style of course), with a golf course and campground as well. Lunch at the winery consisted of the Nk’Mip Signature platter, which three of us shared. The star of the show for me was tasting a food I’d read about as a child, imagining canoe portages across Manitoba with carefully packed provisions and helpful native guides sharing theirs: bannock.

Though the flatbread’s origins are actually Scottish, it was adopted by the Métis and aboriginals and came to play a big part in their diet. It’s just flour and baking soda and can be fried or baked. At Nk’Mip they bake it, with the butter binding the flour and salt - it was warm, lightly salted, and reminiscent of nan bread but a bit crisper. It was delicious. Also delicious was the selection on the platter: seasonal grilled local vegetables, wild rice, venison sausage, grilled bison with a blackberry gastrique, smoked candied salmon, onion relish, fruit chutney and grilled prawns. The bison, cut into thin strips, was fantastically tender, juicy and perfectly seasoned, as were the prawns. The wines of Nk’Mip come in two tiers, with the Qwam Qwmt (which apparently means “achieving excellence” in the local native language) being the high end. Given the hotness of the area, the reds are particularly good – with the meritage blend (cab sauv, merlot, cab franc) and the cabernet sauvignon being particularly rich, ripe and fine.

Edmonton restaurateur Brad Lazarenko opened this southerly outpost of his empire two years ago. It’s part of the Nk’Mip’s Spirit Ridge resort, and it’s the fine dining part. The room is big and stylish and there’s a large terrace which overlooks Lake Osoyoos and the USA looming to the south. Affable manager Peter Barclay (pictured) modestly describes the menu as “regional comfort food with a few added touches. We have a big focus on fresh greens and fruit, as well as local cheeses. But we like to give a little twist to things – with the prawns it’s channa flour, a sort of chick pea fried prawn. We have crab cakes with hummus.” In keeping with the native theme, there’s bison too: “The flatiron is done nice and rare and then cut on an angle. If you go over medium rare or medium [on bison], it’ll really toughen up on you,” Barclay says.

I had the salad of spinach, fried chick peas and feta cheese along with roasted free range chicken breast with chorizo rice, honey orange sauce, and sour cream. The chicken breast was large and perfectly cooked and the chick peas in the salad were a terrific touch. And it all went beautifully with the LaFrenz chardonnay recommended by Barclay: Passatempo’s wine list is almost exclusively made up of Okanagan wines, though there are a couple of pages for “far away bubble and white” and “far away red”, with wines from elsewhere. But frankly, why bother?

Barclay turned out to be both enthusiastic about and an expert on local wines, giving a quick round-up of some of his favourite names: “Orofino riesling – they’re just a little bit west of us – is terrific. They do a great merlot as well. Joie is fantastic. Twisted Tree, the Golden Mile. Le Vieux Pin, La Stella – these are all local to Osoyoos. I like the Naramata Bench wine area as well – Kettle Valley is good. La Frenz is fantastic. Their viognier is highly rated.”

In keeping with the local and fresh theme that dominates the Okanagan today, Barclay mentioned a particular benefit of cutting out the middleman and developing relationships with local growers. “Brad’s been able to arrange for growers to hold onto fruit. It may be ripe enough to pick and ship, but he will agree to buy the fruit and they’ll let it hang for another week or so till they’re fully ripe. And you just can’t beat that.”

Summerland is one of the prettier towns in the Okanagan, located a few kilometres north of Penticton – and it provides evidence that the good food phenomenon is expanding beyond the wineries. It is also the home of Victoria Road Deli. Neither the sign outside nor the prosaic name give an indication of how smart the Victoria Road Deli is: the interior is a nice urban surprise after the small-town-cute of Summerland’s main street.

Proprietor and chef Roger Gillespie and his wife opened the stylish bistro with a deli counter and a couple of Dean and Deluca style metal racks of fancy provisions on one side in early 2008. Putting the Okanagan’s hands-on and local approach to food to work in a deli, Gillespie cures and smokes many of the meats on the menu and in the chiller, as well as grows some of his own fruit and vegetables.

His “duck ham” is delicious: “I take a duck breast and brine it for 24 hours in curing salts with brown sugar and juniper berries. Then I dry-cure it for another day and then smoke it for eight hours at about 150 or 175 degrees farenheit – a nice low temperature so it takes on the look and texture of ham,” he says. It’s rich, flavourful and smoky, and it really does seem like ham.

The bistro side has just 20 seats and Gillespie cooks up “mediterranean-inspired” food, with many of the deli’s smoked and cured meats available in the bistro. He sources “almost everything” locally, and pointed to the “raspberry-thyme ketchup that we’re serving with our frites, which are made using potatoes, yams and parsnips. We also have thirty tomato plants on our half-acre property – we’re going to use a lot of them through the fall when they’re fresh and then preserving for the winter.” Gillespie also grows herbs and raspberries and buys most of his other ingredients from local growers and he keeps the wine list local as well, with a decent selection of valley favourites.

Summer and early fall in the Okanagan also means plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables along the highways, and Penticton features a big weekly farmer’s market with an emphasis on organic and artisanal, including breads and cheeses: the Okanagan – it’s not just about good wine…

Want to find out more? Visit www.hellobc.com, for general BC info. To find out about the middle of the valley, where I was based, see www.tourismpenticton.com. For a fairly comprehensive site with links to dozens of wineries, see www.bcwineinfo.net.

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