The Coquihalla Highway's been expanded to 4 lanes, which significantly cuts the drive to the Okanagan shorter, but it also dramatically increases the boredom factor. That being said, I'm pretty impressed that I got to the outskirts of Westbank within 4 hours - first time I got the TSX up above 150 kph :-)
The Okanagan Valley is a unique microclimate zone - surrounded by mountains, lined with the massive Lake Okanagan (home of Ogopogo), and also home to Canada's only desert. Seriously. A real desert. With rattlesnakes and other pointy hurty stuff. It's this mix of climates that creates the perfect environment for fruit and vegetable farms - growing essentially everything under the sun.
Pick your own apple, cherry, pear and peach farms are everywhere, along with one of Canada's highest concentrations of wineries. This is about as locavore as it gets. Every grocery store/roadside fruit stand (of which there are plenty) is located a literal stone's throw away from the actual tree that produced what you're buying!
It's this plentiful harvest that brings some amazing culinary talent into the region. Most of the big-name wineries have restaurants which we visited and those reviews are coming. There are also a few restaurants cropping up in downtown Kelowna (as close to a big city as it gets out here) as a break from all the chain restaurants that tend to dominate smaller towns.
Raudz, opened by Chef Rob Butters in 2009, is one of the newer spots celebrating the local and seasonal mantra. Located on the main strip in downtown Kelowna, amusingly directly beside The Keg Steakhouse, the menu changes regularly, with a mix of accessible lunchtime fare (soups and sandwiches), along with higher-end multi-component dishes to appeal to the culinarian. No reservations are taken, and they are always jam-packed, the room is modern yet warm. There are 3 "zones" depending on what type of dining experience you are looking for: the bar; cozy 2-4 seaters in the back; and a large communal table surrounded by 4-6 seat banquettes towards the front of the house. All surround the beautiful and large open kitchen - a glass window separates the diners from the heat, but the pass and garde manger area are open for all to see and hear. The room is loud with all the people, but not to the point where you have to shout to hold a conversation with your tablemates.
Raudz was recommended by a colleague of mine from culinary school, and I was excited to see what Kelowna had to offer (besides all-u-can-eat Chinese buffets on every block... seriously). We went in on a Friday night at 730PM hoping for the best, and were able to snag the last 3 tables at the bar. Score! The menu is varied and large enough to offer something for everyone, but not unwieldly so.
One of my main goals for the trip was to have as much local Okanagan produce as humanly possible so I chose to start with a beet salad on cured salmon. Beets can be one of the sweetest and complex flavoured vegetables on earth if prepared properly -- and this time they really weren't. They were bland, with only the slightest hint of a citrus vinaigrette peeking through. The cured salmon was also bland... it didn't even taste like it had been cured at all - it was closer to sashimi. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the wonton crisps sprinkled on top were far too salty. The menu advertised them as being salt crisps, but this was reminiscent of eating a teaspoon of salt with every bite.
My mom had better luck with one of the best-presented caprese salads I've ever seen. I love how they piled it up and used bocconcini instead of the larger buffalo mozzarella, then sprinkled some tomato oil around the plate. Simple with an elegant modern twist. As everything was at the prime of its season, it tasted absolutely fantastic!
For my main, I decided to go with their signature sockeye BLT with oven-baked fries. I know it's a little odd to order seafood from someplace land-locked, but it was sockeye season (the strongest in the century no less), and the ocean isn't THAT far away - heck, I just came from there! Also, their menu celebrated that it was the one item they could never remove from their menu as the regulars would revolt, so I thought that's a good enough reason for me try it. Sadly this was another miss. The fig and anise bread was cut too thick and was a tad stale so every bite was an exercise. Fig and anise bread is also quite a strong flavour which overpowered everything else in the sandwich. The tartare sauce spread was bland to the point of non-existence. The salmon was cooked at a perfect medium-rare, and the pancetta was nice and crispy - I just wish I could've tasted them instead of the bread. The oven-baked fries were starchy and close to inedible. I tossed them in some salt, then allowed the salmon to drip juices onto them so I could finish them off. I'm not a big pickle fan to start with, but even I thought the pickled veg could've used more time in the brine.
My parents were having far better luck with their choices. This was my mom's halibut, potatoes and glazed carrots. Halibut was a tad overcooked, but flavourful. My only real complaint about this dish is the imbalance between the amount of starch and protein -- look at the amount of potatoes in there! That could've been cut by half and still look nice. My apologies for these 2 pictures by the way, they were taken by my Mom on her camera and the focus was off.
This was my Dad's arctic char with sauteed potato, bacon, swiss chard, and greens - drizzled with a balsamic glaze. This was the dish of the night - I ended up polishing off my dad's greens when he called it quits. The char was perfectly cooked, moist, and good flavour coming off the oat crust. The veg tasted fresh while picking up a slight saltiness from the bacon, and the glaze brought everything together.
I wasn't planning on having dessert, but the server mentioned that they had a peaches n cream on special that evening, and who am I to deny local peaches? This was a biscuit with a peach cream inside, topped with peaches, all sitting on brandied whipped cream. The biscuit was perfectly buttery and flaky, but the insides were disappointingly bland once again (0-3, outstanding). The highlight of the entire thing was the brandied whipped cream, which if you've been following my blog, has become a regular in my repertoire.
Now I should mention that Chef Butters was attending the Canadian Chef's Congress on Vancouver Island at the time, so he wasn't heading the kitchen which could explain the hit-or-miss of my dining experience. Nevertheless, I saw enough that I liked from my parents dishes to recommend Raudz. Certainly the food is more than competent, and a definite bright spot in a blackhole of chains and strip mall fast food courts. It's also a more affordable alternative to winery dining.
Check out Raudz motto, printed on the cover of the menu. How can you not love that? Raudz is located on 1560 Water Street in downtown Kelowna.