Wine country dining has never looked—or tasted—so good. The new Home Block restaurant at Kelowna’s CedarCreek Estate Winery is a beauty of soaring ceilings, fieldstone walls, century-old reclaimed barn wood and a view that sweeps across Okanagan Lake toward sister winery Mission Hill. It’s both contemporary and rustic, sophisticated and comfortable.
But what’s really exciting here is the food coming out of executive chef Neil Taylor’s open kitchen, a perfect complement to winemaker Taylor Whelan’s site-expressive, low-intervention wines.
It’s quite the transformation for a winery that’s been a crowd-pleasing constant in the valley for more than three decades.
“You see people go past the door and they go, ‘Look, this is pretty different than the old Pavilion with the six burners,’ ” says Taylor. “It’s still comfortable and homey. It’s not stuffy. No tablecloths. It’s a fun room to be in.”
It’s still comfortable and homey. It’s not stuffy. No tablecloths. It’s a fun room to be in.
It’s a pretty big transformation for Taylor, too. He was the chef who opened Vancouver’s Cibo Trattoria, which was named enRoute magazine’s best new restaurant of 2009, then went on to open the popular España on Denman Street. But last year he packed up his family and headed to Kelowna, attracted both by the Okanagan lifestyle and the opportunity at Home Block.
“I love it. I’m not going back,” he says.
He has been wowed by the local ingredients—not that he couldn’t get Okanagan peaches and tomatoes in Vancouver, but here they are dropped off a couple of times a week by growers who’ve become friends. “There’s definitely more of a connection up here to individuals,” he says. “It’s been great for that.”
And he’s also been delighted by the evolution of CedarCreek.
In 2014, Anthony von Mandl bought the winery from its original owners, the Fitzpatrick family, who are now concentrating on sparkling wines at Greata Ranch. Like the other vineyards von Mandl owns in the valley, this one is transitioning to fully organic over the next few years. Another 100 acres have been added to the original 100-acre vineyard. Two years ago, construction started on the new restaurant, tasting room (which opened in late August) and production facility (still under construction). The team is even planning a farm in a little hollow at the top of the property, adding chickens or pigs to the beehives that are already buzzing up there. “From a chef’s point of view, that’s pretty incredible,” Taylor says.
Besides, he just felt the place matched his style of food.
“My influences were Italian and Spanish. It’s Mediterranean in feel, but it’s got its heart in the Okanagan,” he says. “I felt like this whole site had this Mediterranean feel to it. And my kind of food suited the surroundings.”
It’s Mediterranean in feel, but it’s got its heart in the Okanagan.
That means simple but flavourful dishes with deft technique behind them: a hearty tortiglioni pasta with savoury sausage ragu, for instance; umami-rich risotto simmered with red wine, blue cheese and radicchio; or the grilled meats that come off his “beast” of a hand-cranked, wood-fired grill.
“My food is not super showy. It’s nice ingredients. There’s nothing to hide behind with a simple plate of food,” he says. “That’s how CedarCreek is. It’s unpretentious and unfussy, and I think that fits with how I like to cook.”
That goes for the wine, too. Whelan prefers his wines crisp, clean and uncluttered with lots of oak or fancy technique, especially at the Platinum level. That results in food-friendly wines like his Chablis-style Chardonnay, bright yet voluptuous Riesling or savoury Pinot Noir. And, Taylor says, “We’ve not gone the whole route of ‘This food goes with this wine.’ The servers are pretty good with making suggestions. You’re going to have a nice time either way.”
Best of all, the restaurant is staying open year-round, unlike so many winery restaurants that close when the tourists go home. The property, after all, is just around the corner from several new developments that should provide steady clientele even when the weather’s bad.
Even more diners are sure to discover Home Block now that it has been nominated it for an enRoute Best New Restaurant award. (Winners are announced October 24.)
“That’s something I secretly wanted. Considering we’d only been open 10 weeks, that’s a pretty great start for us,” Taylor says. “Where we are right now, I’m happy with what we’ve achieved. But as we get to know our guests and our producers, we’ll keep trying to push ourselves. I feel it is only going to get bigger and bigger.”
@ Vitis Magazine