Friday, March 18

Will travel for food (and wine)

Days 1 and 2 of a 7 day tour from Vancouver through one of British Columbia's wine region, the Okanagan Valley

Two friends reunite for a journey through British Columbia's farming, winery valley of the Oakanogen. The purpose of our journey is three fold. Martin is expanding his skill set and turning towards documentaries. One of his many ideas is to create a film focused on his favorite farmers' market. To follow the journey our fresh organic foods must make before they appear on our plates. To show the general public what a small farmer goes through. I have an interest in organic farming, sustainable living and an insatiable desire to travel, so here I am to assist Martin as I can. Then there is the wine and the food. Martin and I are partners in crime in loving well done food, be it high brow or hole in the wall and the perfect bottle, or two, of wine to accompany the meal.

The adventure begins immediately from Vancouver's airport. Martino picks me up around 11:30 am and of course we're both ready to eat. Vancouver's airport is in Richmond, which has the highest concnetration of Chinese immigrants the city. We head to a new shopping mall, yes, we both hate malls, but the architecture at Aberdeen Mall is spectacular. Curved walls that at some places come to points that are made up of mostly light blue glass panels, though some of them are orange and green. Inside, due to all the glass and huge circular sky lights, the space is full of bright, natural light. On the third floor one finds the food court. Yes, we ate in the food court. Yes, I actually enjoyed it. One can choose from Cantonese, Sezschuan, Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, fresh fruit juices and smoothies. We had green onion pancakes, that were actually the worst I've had, some pork dumplings that were full of water, again, not the best I've had and then takoyaki from the Japanese places. These were balls filled with a soft, gooey shrimp, octopus and scallop filling. Sounds awful I know, but they were heavenly. Made the whole experience worthwhile.

After a day of errands, we pause to have salads and fresh juice at The Naam. The Naam is one of Vancouver's only vegetarian restaurants; it gets tons of hype, is open 24 hours and the majority of evenings has lines out the door. After having dined here 3 times, I feel secure in saying, in no way is it worth the hype. The food, while good, is neither interesting nor spectacular. More along the lines of your mainstream 70s vegetarian craze, the menu includes several rice bowls, a few veggie burgers, some salads and a handful of juices. The service is known for being slow and negligent; in fact, it's something that they're almost proud of trying to play it off as they won't disturb you. However, our salad was light and tasty, the juice while not cold, did appear to be freshly squeezed.

Martin drops me off at the Granville Island Public Market, clearly this is a market, it's full of vegetable vendors, meat shops and then another food court. But two places that are worth mentioning and are right next to each other are the Grandville Island Tea Company and the Stock Market. At the former, you can have a cup of tea made fresh for you - their chai is the citiy's best, freshly made, very spicy, and creamy - and you can buy your tea in bulk and choose from over 200 varieties. They'll ship anywhere in the world for 5 Canadian dollars regardless of the size of your order. Then next door is the Stock Market where you can purchase freshly made stocks - chicken, beef, veal - or sauces as well as have a tasty lunch of one of their three daily soups, always a seafood option, meat option or veggie. Your bowl of soup is served with either foccacia, or if they run out, garlic bread, and is guaranteed to warm you up on a crisp Vancouver afternoon.

I return to another friends' house for dinner with some spicy buffalo and beef sausages (purchased at the market) to be made into a sauce with some marinara that I'd canned this summer. We eat this with a 2003 Gehringer Pinot Noir that I was not very impressed with. The wine was lacking in flavor and body. I know pinots are light, but this was akin to drinking red water.

Late afternoon the following day finds me back with Martin and in the car heading northeast towards the Okanagan. While I spent six months living in Vancouver, this is my first trip east into British Columbia. The Okanagan has been shaped in recent years by a large fire in August 2003 which destroyed much of the forests and vineyards. Looking up into the mountains you are startled by the number of bare patches, some of which fell during the fire and a number of which have been logged out since then as they have been easier prey to disease and bug infestation. A majority of the trees still standing are charred black.

We stop for coffee (tea for me, please) and a snack and end up with fries from White Spot. White Spot is a Vancouver based fast food place, burgers, fries, some locations have pasta dinners. We just got some fries which to my delight were thick squares with the skin on some. Salty, crispy on the outside and firm on the inside, just the way I like my fries. I'm glad I didn't discover this while I actually lived in this town.

It's a rough drive north east into the Okanagan and it's biggest city, Kelowna (pronounced ca' loh na). The rain in Vancouver means snow in the mountains. While beautiful it makes for rougher driving conditions. We drive through some beautiful blowing snow, to me, it's reminicent of ghosts or fairies waltzing and spinning in big billowing white dresses. The dark black shadows are eery as they dance across our lanes.

We finally hit Kelowna around 10 p.m. and drive around for 30 minutes before we find a restaurant that's not a chain and is open at this hour on a Wednesday night. We settle into a booth at Kelly O'Bryans where they have 2 for 1 appetizers. Never ones to miss out on trying as many things as we can, we order two appetizers and a salad to share. I wish I could say they were good. Even for as hungry as I was, the cream cheese and crab stuffed mushroom caps were white trash fancy as it gets. Bland, mushy and boring. Our order of chicken wings, half with honey garlic sauce, half with Thai, were insipid. The sauces actually had places where they were cold. The "Thai" was a mildly spicy terriaki. Like nothing I had in Thailand, but yes, we were in an Irish bar. The Caesar salad with whiskey butter shrimp was thick with dressing topped with a handful of small shrimp, which were fine, but I don't need to return to this bar, even if today is St. Patrick's Day.

Anticipation for the next day of wine tasting and better fooding was high and we have yet to be disappointed. After a morning swim in our "resorts" heated pool, we were off in search of lunch. We ended up at The Marmalade Cat Café, a delightful spot off Pandosy heading towards Lakeshore Rd. Free-trade coffees, a large loose leaf tea selection and a limited, but tasty, lunch menu which includes mostly vegetarian sandwhiches and soups along with a chicken salad option. In the display case was a large assortment of desserts and on top freshly baked scones and muffins. I'm hoping to return for breakfast. This place was too lovely to only go to once.

We started with the best, dinner at Rod Butter's Fresco. Probably the one restaurant in the Okanagan that gets talked about the most. Seasonal changing menu, inventive flavors, strong BC heavy wine list. From the amuse bouche, this is a restaurant not to be reccond with. The amuse bouche, the first taste to get the appetite flowing, a lemon smoked salmon with a lotus chip, tomato essence painted on the plate, a beet powder and some pea shoots. Yep, my appetit was flowing. We chose two of the seafood appetizers next. The stuffed calamari and the scallop carpacchio. The first a contrast of hot and cold, grilled calamari tubes stuffed with a tapanade, served on a chilled tentical, pea and cauliflower salad. I loved every bite. Then the scallop carpacchio - the slices of scallop weren't as thin as I'd expected, but that just meant there was more to savor. There were many different flavors going on with a shitake salad and more pea shoots. Too many flavors in my opinion, but it was Martin's favorite. Entrées - perfect pan seared snapper with housemade lobster ravioli that were full of lobster meat, all plated on a tomato lobster sauce. Dear lord. Martin had the cinnamon rubbed duck breast which was a perfect accompniament to our Quail's Gate Pinot Noir. The apple tart dessert was the most dissapointing part of the meal to the critic in me. The crust was far too thick and uneven. I'd be embarassed to serve it. However, the sauces were delightful.

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