Saturday, March 31, 2012

Travels with Chili: Penticton Personalities

I'm getting back to this series because the last few days of our visit to BC's Okanagan deserve their time in the sun. This stage began with a couple of encounters we had in Penticton.

Hungry for some lunch, we walked by a bakery that looked like it had some fantastic specials on an easel out front (below left). Two men sat inside discussing something in low voices over a copy of the local paper. There was no one behind the counter, and we were about to give up when one of the men got up, came over and gruffly asked what it was we were there for.

This was our introduction to Benjamin Manea, Romanian-born Israeli and owner of Walla Foods, billed as "authentic Mediterranean and Middle Eastern foods." We ordered the Israeli tuna salad sandwich made with tuna, minced onion, pickles and anchovies on focaccia, and inquired about buying a loaf of his bread (photo above is his Puttanesca sourdough with kalamata olives, capers, olive oil and olive pesto). He looked at us sternly and said, "Before you buy, you need to know about this bread.”

I don't know what it is about me, but when confronted by prickly characters like Mr. Manea, I consider it a personal challenge to get them to smile. I remarked that this sounded like a warning, and he looked at me like I was a misbehaving child. Then he turned to Dave and instructed him to never, ever put the bread in a plastic bag in the fridge, that when it’s cut open it needs to be stored cut edge down on the counter and that it would last for four days. As we were paying, he grumbled something about people not knowing how to take care of fresh bread, and we took our sandwich out to the table in the hall and shared it.

We’d finished about half of our lunch when he came out and proceeded to tell us he'd started baking just four years earlier after emigrating from Israel, how no one in this town appreciated anything homemade, how his bread took two to four days to make, and that the loaves (in plastic bags!) sold down the hall in a bakery outlet were crap. He’d definitely warmed up to us at this point, and said that he’d have homemade pastries on Saturday and we should come by.

Cranky bread maniacs met in far-flung locales? Bring 'em on!

Details: Walla Food, 114-1475 Fairview Rd. in the Cannery Mall, Penticton, BC. 250-770-2001.

* * *

The lovely Sarah, our host at God's Mountain Estate, had suggested that we should try a local Greek eatery, Theo's, for dinner. It's tucked into a corner of an older building and has an atrium in the center that gives it an airy, garden-like feeling. The host, a handsome fellow with a charming smile, came by our table asking if we'd like to see the wine list and inquiring if we had any questions about the menu.

Nikos Theodosakis.

When I remarked on the purslane salad on the menu, he excitedly whipped out a flyer and explained that his mother, Mary Theodosakis (video above), had grown up foraging the plant in her native Crete. After coming to Penticton, she visited a local farm and found it growing in his fields along with amaranth, and that both were being treated as a unwelcome weeds. She explained to him that these were delicious edible plants and that she'd be happy to buy them for her restaurant. The farmer, Gene Covert, did just that and they became a favorite of his farmers’ market customers as well as contributing to his decision to get his farm certified as organic.

Obviously I was captivated by the story, and then this friendly fellow, Nikos Theodosakis, the son of the owners and a very interesting fellow, said something even more amazing.

You’ve heard of TED? The place where ex-Presidents and geniuses expound on their cool ideas? Turns out this Greek restaurant owner with the nice glasses and wavy hair has done two TEDX presentations on his films and nonprofit work. His current passion is developing curriculum connecting kids and food and impoverished people, a project he's calling OliveUs. In this program school children raise money and loan it to people in third world countries and, like the Grameen Bank, when the money is repaid it is loaned out again. Oh, and he's also working with Apple and their “iLife in the Classroom” curriculum. Wow.

And the dinner, you might ask? The purslane salad was terrific, the calamari (above right) was crisp and tender, with just the right amount of garlic in the tzatziki. My rabbit (left), seared and then braised in wine, brandy, tomato and small onions, was spiced with rosemary, bay leaves, cloves and cinnamon (my mouth is watering at the memory). Dave's roasted chicken, like my rabbit served in the sizzling copper pan it was cooked in, was glazed in a mild paprika, lemon juice and fresh rosemary sauce. Stunningly good, but not as stunning (or as lucky) as walking into a restaurant and meeting someone like Nikos.

Details: Theo's Restaurant, 687 Main St., Penticton, BC. 250-492-4019.

Read the other posts in this series, The Great Okanagan Road Trip, Okangan's Lake Country, Magical Moment, Perched In Penticton and Crazy for Kelowna.

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