In the early days of The Vanilla Pod Restaurant in Summerland, owner and general manager Paul Jones would make trips down to his tomato supplier in Trout Creek at around 3:00 p.m. and pick up 20 or 30 pounds of tomatoes. By 5:00 p.m., those same tomatoes were being prepared and served to happy and hungry customers in the dining room.
The Vanilla Pod has gone through some significant changes since then, and Jones no longer makes those tomato runs (his suppliers now come to him)—but the ethos of the act remains. “The vision from the very start was to provide a high-end experience in the Okanagan, using as many local, fresh ingredients and wines as we could get our hands on,” he says. “It’s always been that way—we’ve worked with the local farmers.”
Jones and his wife Sheila bought The Vanilla Pod in 2006 and garnered a significant fanbase; then, in 2011, Poplar Grove Winery owner Tony Holler came calling, and so, the restaurant relocated and reopened in Penticton, right at the winery, in 2012. “When [Holler] came to us, he said, ‘Paul, I don’t know anything about restaurants—you’ve been around a long time, you know your stuff. Would you like to move into the building?’” Jones recalls. “And it went from there.” Leaving the onsite restaurant to the pros was a smart move by Holler. The notion of a winery having not only a restaurant, but a fine dining room, is becoming more and more commonplace. If done right, it provides the guest with a much fuller and more well-rounded experience: they can see the wine in action. That is, expertly paired with a fantastic meal, be it one course or four. “It’s full service,” Jones says. “They come here not just for the wine or just for the food, but for a combination of both.” It is a smart business model as well, a true win-win for the restaurant and winery. Oenophiles coming to taste can stumble upon a great restaurant, and foodies can fall in love with a new wine (or three).
In the case of The Vanilla Pod and Poplar Grove, it certainly seems to be working. The restaurant just finished a huge kitchen overhaul, ripping everything out and rebuilding it with a new design, new equipment, and added space. It gives them the room to grow in new ways. “We’re looking at increasing the amount of menu changes that we do,” says executive chef Bruno Terroso, who produced a delicious Spring Okanagan Wine Festival tasting menu. “With the size of the kitchen growing, it allows us to do a bit more.” Terroso, who has been with Vanilla Pod almost since the beginning, certainly focuses on incorporating both local and seasonal fare into his dishes; there is an herb garden on property, for starters, and plans to expand it, as well as to plant some low-maintenance vegetables. He purchases cheeses from an array of nearby creameries, but mentions that he will “also bring in imported cheeses, just because sometimes imported cheese is really delicious.” Very much so.
When it comes to pairing food and wine, it begins with the former. “The dishes that Chef creates—we always try to find the best wine we have available to go with that dish,” Jones explains. “It’s more that Chef creates the dish and then we find the wine to pair with it.” Terroso adds: “I think it’s quite easy because Poplar Grove wines are, for the most part, extremely food-friendly.” Undoubtedly, large plates such as halibut with pomme frites, fennel, tomatoes, onion, and peppers, or braised stiletto of beef with sunchoke and potato purée, greens, braising jus, chive sour cream, and horseradish can each find a partner in a Poplar Grove wine—though the 2011 cabernet franc is a likely winner no matter the dish.
All of this is not even to touch on the look of the interior space, which is modern, simple, open, airy, with large windows that reveal fantastic views of the Naramata Bench below. It is a serene place to watch as the sun goes down, kissing the vineyards along the way, blessing the ground from which they grow.