Fresh, Local, Authentic, Social and Handcrafted

The following article is from Food & Wine Trails, written by Abbey Westbury.
You can read more online here.

They envisioned an out-of-the-box social experience –a place where patrons wouldn’t just show up for a meal, but rather would arrive at something special. They chose to eschew the typical hotel restaurant in favour of a locale dedicated to the bounty of the Okanagan Valley, and established a set of solid ideological pillars upon which to build their dream: Fresh, Local, Authentic, Social and Handcrafted. With this foundation, OAK + CRU Social Kitchen and Wine Bar has quickly established itself as a veritable temple to the flavours and artistry of the Okanagan.

Restaurant manager, Ashley Alexander’s belief in these principles is tangible and contagious. Innovation is genuinely celebrated. Forward thinking and constant training (and sharing of knowledge) is essential. In scouting for talent, she looks for teammates who are equally dedicated to the OAK + CRU philosophy. The result is a cohesive, enthusiastic staff in the kitchen, behind the bar and front of house, who work together seamlessly to create just the experience that the Food and Beverage team envisioned.

The OAK + CRU crew is constantly working to perfect the restaurant’s services and offerings, evolving to appeal to an ever more sophisticated clientele. Much of what appears on the table is hyper local: The herb garden that surrounds the patio provides ingredients for dishes ranging from house-infused spirits in the cocktails to the lemon-basil tart. The Land & Sea flatbread, made by a baker who starts at 4am, daily, is drizzled with honey produced by the 80,000 buzzing employees of the rooftop apiary. Yet the creative minds behind O + C also recognize the value that other Okanagan artisans can add. The menu now incorporates gems expertly created by their regional neighbours –encountered at farmer’s markets and by regular sampling field trips to local growers, gourmands and artists.

There is more to this considered approach than simply showcasing local talent. Importantly, OAK + CRU feels that by getting to know the suppliers, the staff become invested in their stories, which are then relayed to the patrons, and everyone feels a connection to what’s on the plate or in the glass. Alexander loves to hear tables lively with conversations about these relationships.

Among the buzzworthy topics, she often hears the word “handcrafted”. It’s commonly interpreted as “rustic”, but to assume that the fare at OAK + CRU is unsophisticated would be a mistake; there are no rough edges to Executive Chef Iain Rennie’s creations. You might be served on a custom-made wooden tray, but both the presentation and taste are truly inspired, and as elegant as you will find anywhere.

Chef Rennie’s culinary innovation is worthy of any judges’ panel. His team, including the executive sous chef Beth Ross and restaurant chef Eugene Hicks, expertly translates  his ideas for the larger audience without diffusing any of the beauty. This season’s sablefish with chorizo risotto, stunning on the plate with a corsage of in-season vegetables, is completed with a clever sparkling wine-mussel broth. Your mouth waters just reading that. The flavours are delectable and unexpected, and the dish touches on all of the restaurant’s guiding principles.

Alexander constantly challenges her staff to develop surprising approaches to the menu, and the results always delight. Lauded pastry chef Arthur Chen rose to the occasion when asked to rethink his dessert list. His answer is a rotating palette of petite treats that highlight local products and appeal to all of the senses (certain popular items have achieved permanence: the Okanagan cherry-chocolate Sin Cake might spark a revolution if it disappeared!). Decadent and gorgeous, and a perfect top-off to any meal.

At the bar, Stephanie Bobby heads a team of 8 “craftologists” who work industriously to develop the cocktail program. She is passionate about curating each team member’s personal style, and encourages them to utilise as many of the OAK + CRU pillar objectives as possible. The craftologists do not take this mandate lightly. They put an incredible amount of effort, talent and individual taste into their cocktails, and the results are reason to celebrate. Ben Harris, for instance, likes to coax out the natural flavours of the spirits. His divine “Lost Boy” is a thoughtful, layered homage to Peter Pan that definitely caters to grown up tastes. The house made drunken Okanagan cherry at the bottom will send anyone off to Neverland. The cocktail list gives credit to each drink’s creator, and restaurant goers enjoy ordering the opus of whoever happens to be behind the bar –yet another way to make a connection between artisan and customer.

And that seems to be the key to the immediate and commendable success of OAK + CRU. It is a place where guests feel at once familiar and important, where a comfortable atmosphere belies an elevated dining experience. The best of the Okanagan has found a wood-clad, waterfront showcase right in the heart of things. With such a solid, 5-point foundation, this is one addition that has nowhere to build but up.