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Chef Brian Skinner prepares bulgogi mushrooms Korean-style, with barbecue oyster mushrooms, crispy sticky rice, sauteed greens and ssamjang sauce in the kitchen at Frankie, We Salute You!

Lucas Oleniuk/digitial

  • Frankie We Salute You!
  • Location: 6-1717 Harvey Ave., Kelowna, B.C.
  • Phone: 236-420-3338
  • Website: frankiewesaluteyou.com
  • Cuisine: Vegetarian
  • Rating system: Cheap Eats

Dear Frankie,

I wholeheartedly salute you.

Though I often dare to dream, I never thought my devout carnivore of a boyfriend would ever – could ever – truly enjoy a vegetarian meal. He’s French, was apparently weaned on boeuf bourguignon and says that too much “green” upsets his stomach.

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He only reluctantly agreed to join me at your new restaurant in Kelowna because we were on holiday. And our parsley-detesting host wasn’t keen on going either. How can anyone hate mild-mannered parsley?

Let me tell you, Frankie, the night did not bode well. It was dark and rainy. We kept circling Highway 97, lost in a maze of office parks, searching for the entrance to the strip mall in which you are located.

I’m surprised that your owners, ex-Vancouverites Christina and Brian Skinner, didn’t settle downtown, closer to all the tourist action and long summer lineups outside Cactus Club.

I suppose the waterfront-district rents aren’t any cheaper than Vancouver. And isn’t that one of the main reasons for the increasing exodus of restaurant talent following in the same path?

Anyway, our mood lifted as soon as we stepped into your cheerful industrial-ceilinged space with its geometric pop art painted in a rainbow of primary colours on white walls. When the cantilevered lighting is set to dim, the casual room transitions well from lunch to dinner. I didn’t even notice the children’s play area until I later went to the washroom.

But before long, we began to squabble. My beef lover has a theory that veganism is a lifestyle primarily pursued by women. I told him that was sexist thinking and ridiculous.

The plant-based Bailey's cocktail at Frankie, We Salute You!

Lucas Oleniuk/digitial

Our charming Québécois server gently intervened while delivering a perfectly balanced haskap berry sour (frothed with vegan foamer, naturally) and glass of 8th Generation wild-yeast-fermented Riesling.

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She said that since she began working in your restaurant (having fled from Whistler, which has also become unaffordable) she’s noticed that about 80 per cent of your customers over 30 are indeed women, although the younger generation is more evenly mixed. And yet your clientele primarily skews older.

Interesting.

Kelowna certainly has changed since I first visited in 2002. The Globe and Mail had sent me to find out why Elton John, the most openly gay man on the planet, had chosen to perform one of only two Canadian stops in a city where the sitting mayor had refused to include the word “pride” in a Gay Pride Day proclamation – and was subsequently found guilty of discrimination by a B.C. human-rights tribunal. I made a lot of enemies with that story. The hate mail was furious. I don’t think the fine citizens of K-Town appreciated that I called it “backwards."

Now, Kelowna is the fastest-growing city in British Columbia. The gritty north end is a hipster haven for craft breweries that serve gluten-reduced rice lagers. Serious restaurants are sprouting up everywhere.

Last week, I wrote about Home Block, the architecturally stunning new restaurant at Cedar Creek Estate Winery. According to some of the angry e-mails I received, locals still get offended when tall poppies such as Mission Hill, which owns Cedar Creek, soak up too much of the spotlight with their “pretentious” airs.

While I would most vehemently argue that shiny showpieces such as Home Block are essential to building the North Okanagan as an international wine destination, one that can convince travellers to vacation here instead of going to Napa, Bordeaux or Tuscany, it is the more casual restaurants in the strip malls that will fortify the foundations and feed the flocks of migrants who are putting down roots and staying year-round.

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So back to the menu. As you might call recall, Frankie, it was Thanksgiving weekend and you were featuring a four-course feast called Everything But the Bird. We passed, but perhaps would have paused had we known that its oyster mushroom entrée was braised in the same ambrosial jus that hoisted Mr. Skinner to an exceedingly rare plant-based victory at the B.C. Gold Medal Plates. That was in 2013, when he was the opening executive chef and part owner of Vancouver’s now internationally acclaimed Acorn Restaurant.

Chef Brian Skinner's sweet corn queso: charred poblano peppers with house-made chile lime chips.

Lucas Oleniuk/digitial

Here, Mr. Skinner’s food is less refined, more comforting, made entirely from scratch and not strictly vegan. He says he wants to feed everyone. Well, he certainly converted one fussy, French meat eater.

My guy’s eyes almost popped over the sweet corn queso, which, to his relief, did include dairy. This is one ooey, gooey, melty, stretchy beanbag of an appetizer that says: Come on, dive in and cradle my chunky goodness with golden-puffed lime chips. But just when our palate expected to collapse into creamy softness, we were knocked sideways by punches of intensely green poblano peppers, bracing citrus acidity and pungent chile heat.

The bold flavours and textural excitement carried over to a deconstructed bibimbap of sorts, with meaty oyster mushrooms marinated in Korean-style barbecue sauce, crunchy slaw and sautéed greens ringed around the plate with thick, spicy, umami-rich circles of ssamjang.

The deep-fried sticky-rice cakes were a little greasy. But what I loved about this dish, and the whole menu, was that it wasn’t one of those brown-rice-bowl tropes found in every vegetarian restaurant. It was creative. And the vegetables were propelled front and centre.

It’s easy to make a fake steak from wheat gluten. It’s not so easy to compose a thoroughly satiating main course from the unprocessed bounty of freshly tilled earth. And why would one of the country’s best vegetarian chefs want to cook with anything else when he’s working in the abundant Okanagan Valley with its incredibly long growing season?

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“This is really good,” the Frenchman said while ravishing a roasted sunchoke and crispy artichoke salad buried under arugula and a thick sludge of brightly tangy, plant-based feta dressing.

“But honey,” I exclaimed. “It’s all green!”

Skinner's root veg + crispy artichoke: roasted roots, potatoes, plant based feta, shaved apple and crsipy artichokes with lemon dressing.

Lucas Oleniuk/digitial

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