The hype surrounding Canadian food in recent years might have been hogged by Montreal, but the spotlight is beginning to shift to British Columbia and Vancouver – and you can blame the wine industry.
The seismic changes going on in BC’s largest wine region, the Okanagan Valley, are spurring on an increasingly dynamic food scene. These days you can’t move for hipsters in the largest town, Kelowna, thanks to the opening of the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia a decade ago. With it came artisanal coffee shops, a serious chocolatier in Karat, a gin distillery in Okanagan Spirits, more than seven craft breweries, and yes, many more wineries.
The quality of the wines has improved so dramatically that it is prompting some ambitious new openings and upscaled offerings, with chefs seeking out the best BC has to offer, often working directly with growers to improve and expand their range. But it’s in Vancouver’s restaurants that you really get to experience the real buzz surrounding BC wine and food, with staff fired up by the quality now coming through.
It’s hardly surprising if you don’t know much about the Okanagan Valley, as Canadians drink pretty much all of it themselves; wind back 20 years and there were just 30 or so hardy winemakers working out what grows best where.
Today there are 280 wineries and counting, as well as emerging sub-appellations, with Naramata Bench and Skaha Bench the latest. The grapes, it appears, are loving the unique combination of extreme heat and cold, often in the same day (by as much as 30 degrees C), which can result in pure, intense, fruit-driven wines with a sought after natural acidity that pairs particularly well with food.
Where to eat in Okanagan Valley
Mark Filatow is both chef and head sommelier at Waterfront Wines, and he’s behind some cracking combinations. Start dinner with, say, poached halibut cheek with a carrot and sunflower miso puree and a glass of Kelowna-based Tantalus Riesling (it boasts some of the oldest vines here), followed by a Naramata Bench Pinot Noir from Carson with pan-roasted steelhead trout and grilled octopus, with confit potato, red pepper, tomato and almond sauce.
The Restaurant at Watermark, Watermark Beach Resort, Osoyoos
The lakeside restaurant might feel a tad casual but the cooking is top notch thanks to executive chef Adair Scott, who turns out dishes such as an excellent Okanagan sockeye with pea spaetzle and wild mushrooms, and locally raised, slow braised beef brisket served with a smoked Yukon parsnip mash. And you’re in fine hands with surfing sommelier Ron Rocher, who unearths gems from just down the road such as a supple Cabernet Franc Sangiovese blend from La Stella and a wild ferment Syrah from Bartier Bros.
Terrace Restaurant, Mission Hill Estate, West Kelowna
Mission Hill is one of the pioneers in Okanagan and the most Napa-esque of wineries, with its Henry Moore sculpture and striking Tuscan-inspired architecture. Its 2018 Reserve Rosé could be seen as a symbol of how much the industry has changed here, with its bone-dry finish and bright fruit, coupled with some smart cooking in its gloriously situated Terrace Restaurant overseen by executive chef Patrick Gayler. Dishes include wild side stripe shrimp with guanciale, white beans and asparagus, and an epic potato toast with roasted mushrooms and crispy ham hock.
The Bear, The Fish, The Root & The Berry, Spirit Ridge Resort & Spa, Osoyoos
They’ve got it right with this newly opened restaurant at the First Nation-owned Spirit Ridge Resort, now managed by an offshoot of Hyatt. Newfoundland-born chef Murray McDonald celebrates the area’s indigenous cuisine in this inspiring eatery that offers dishes such as white bean sumac spread, roasted hot pepper corn succotash and bison tartare. To drink? Its own wines. Nk’Mip (pronounced in-ka-meep) is the first winery owned by aboriginal people in North America and is right next-door. The Syrah and the Pinot Noir are standouts.
Block One at 50th Parallel Estate, Lake Country
Jump on a courtesy bus in Kelowna to enjoy dinner 45-minutes north at the 50thParallel Estate Winery and its Block One restaurant. Owned by the most glamorous couple in BC wine, Curtis Krouzel and Sheri-Lee Turner-Krouzel, they have created an architectural showpiece in this remote region and installed a cutting edge chef in Kai Koroll. Eat Dungeness crab cakes with shiso tartare and squid ink tapioca crackers, followed by Haida Gwaii halibut, nasturtiums, morels and Parmesan foam, washed down with their impressive range of wines.
Miradoro at Tinhorn Creek Estate, Oliver
Tinhorn Creek is another Okanagan pioneer, opening in the southern part of the valley back in 1993. It occupies an envious spot on the hillside above Osoyoos Lake just outside the self-styled ‘Wine Capital of Canada’, Oliver. They come for the wines, yes (the tomato-skin 2017 Chardonnay a particular highlight) but also for the Italian-inspired food at this spectacularly situated restaurant that juts out over the valley. Come for Neopolitan-style pizza, wild boar bacon carbonara and braised Peace Country lamb belly from chef Jeff van Geest.
Where to eat in Vancouver
Arguably Vancouver’s finest eatery, located on the ground floor of the Art Deco glamour-soaked Rosewood Georgia Hotel, thanks to its namesake, executive chef David Hawksworth and his slick team. It’s a lively spot too, where everyone who’s anyone comes to eat, with starters such as Hamachi, coconut, fennel and orange (we couldn’t get enough of the sparkling raw fish in Vancouver), and mains such as tender, sweet lobster tail served with squash and mushroom agnolotti, which was paired with a remarkable Burgundy-style blend made by its sommeliers (with a little help from Okanagan’s Meyer Family Vineyards). Also don’t miss a visit to its more casual sister, Nightingale, where we ate astonishingly good pizza topped with rabbit meatballs, kale, pint nuts, fior di latte and lemon (pictured above).
The excitement surrounding BC wines is much in evidence at this modern spin on a classic fish restaurant in Gastown from the team who opened another Vancouver hotspot, L’Abattoir, where sommelier Célia Chancy likes to wow out-of-town visitors with her favourites. Among them was a stunning Naramata Bench Chardonnay from Macintyre, which paired perfectly with both its octopus carpaccio and the crispy sea bream, before starting with our fizz of the trip; a traditional method Pinot Blanc called Fitz.
Hands down our favourite brunch of the trip at this Vancouver institution. It focuses on shared plates of fiercely local produce, some of it foraged as the name suggests, with plenty on the menu to excite vegetarians – if they’re going to slip, they’ll slip here as the meat is similarly painstakingly sourced. Who can resist a corned bison hash with house-made sauerkraut and IPA mustard hollandaise? Or how about a halibut cake benny? It’s an all BC wine list too, which resonates with both residents and visitors alike.
Vying for top spot with Hawksworth is Boulevard Kitchen & Oyster Bar, thanks to chef Alex Chen’s superlative fish cooking, where you can try dishes such as kanpachi with a fish bone vinaigrette, kohlrabi, compressed cucumber and ramen quail’s egg, plus an off-menu special of snapper en croute that proves why Chen keeps winning BC’s Best Seafood Restaurant. Combine that with the passion of wine-loving GM John Paul Potters who loves to share his latest finds, such as the Semillon from Black Market Vineyards that displays a core of fruit that perfectly captures the excitement surrounding Okanagan.