When Saba Sahin first set eyes on the Penticton lakeshore in the 1970s, it reminded him of his Turkish hometown on the Black Sea. He ended up buying a motel fronting that beautiful view and renaming it the Black Sea Motel, a fixture on Lakeshore Drive since 1978.
During the 1980s, while running the business and raising a family, he also built a small beachfront restaurant on the property (the original location of neighbouring Salty's Beach House). But the idea of a grander restaurant, overlooking the water, never left him.
Welcome, then, Elma, the new 174-seat restaurant on Lakeshore Drive. The concept is Turkish-inspired with mid-century modern flourishes toting a menu to match.
At the helm of this ambitious project is Sahin’s daughter Ayse and husband Mike Barluk. Working with a Calgary architect, and designers in Istanbul, the couple began the arduous task of planning and designing the restaurant, with many stumbling blocks along the way: lake flooding, last year’s cold windy winter, and hospital construction – meaning lack of trades people – all impeded their progress.
And the concept changed throughout the three-year process. It was first going to be a fast casual seasonal restaurant for the then-Vancouver-based couple. But with the idea of commuting with a newborn daughter, plus that city’s intense lifestyle, Penticton became a natural fit for a full-time home, close to family.
The restaurant’s concept quickly evolved into something year-round, something niche and unique. Something they knew. Something Turkish.
Elma means apple in Turkish and is also the Barluks' nod to the orchards of the Okanagan. Chic and tasteful, the drop-dead gorgeous rooms are filled with light and white brick, offset by splashes of both soft and bold colours with custom-designed modern lighting throughout.
Turkish patterned cement floor tiles direct from Istanbul add dazzling visuals, and details from glassware to dishes, tableware and linens were thoughtfully chosen to reflect the restaurant’s vision.
Comfortable banquettes and velvet chairs welcome on the main floor and the second floor boasts sofa-style two-seaters appointed with bright orange cushions. Glass doors open up to lofty lake views and a fireplace on one wall will cozy things up on cool evenings.
Meze, or shareable plates, are at the heart of Elma’s menu, overseen by sous chef Max Dallamore, most recently from Liquidity and Hillside bistros.
Unfamiliar with Turkish cuisine, he worked, and is working with, the executive chef, diving right in, learning the food, style and service. Elma's chef is from Istanbul and is currently waiting – and waiting – for his immigration papers. The two communicate daily via WhatsApp, discussing recipes, techniques and the daily business of running the kitchen.
The menu runs from meze to salads, large plates and Turkish flatbreads. Choose from 11 different meze, big on dips, vegetables and ingredients from the Turkish culinary playbook. Sumac, zaatar, urfa pepper, tahini, zhoug and pomegranate molasses are just a few of the flavour builders used by the kitchen.
A dip of charred red pepper gets a hit of tangy pomegranate molasses with ground walnuts, tomato and house-strained yogurt, topped with a modern twist of crispy granola. It also lends a bright tang to the roasted eggplant dip topped with a flourish of garlic crisps. The salted cucumber yogurt meze comes to life with lots of coriander, mint, dill and garlic, showered with flecks of black Urfa pepper, a Turkish pepper with a delicate smokey, raisin-like flavour. Slices of warm baguette are all that’s needed.
Zucchini fritters are a real standout, plump creatures dotted with feta and buoyed by an herbaceous thick house-made yogurt with cured lemon for a sharp and punchy citrus hit. Cured lemon rind finds its way into most dishes here, providing a citrusy lift.
Moreish grilled chilied chicken wings from the larger plates menu sit on a bed of green tahini with hits of Urfa pepper and salt, and the lamb burger enhanced with sweet Aleppo pepper, cumin and garlic, nestles perfectly in a brioche bun with layers of thick yogurt, a roasted tomato and sumac sauce with pickled onions and a side of mustardy Russian potato salad.
The cooking is accomplished and balanced throughout with pops of flavour that surprise the palate and satiate the appetite.
The Turkish flatbread, traditionally known as pide, is a big draw. Oblong with pointed ends, and open like a pizza but with a thinner crust, Dallamore worked directly with Ayse’s mother Zerrin, to perfect the dough and shape. They’re stuffed with either ground and spiced beef or a selection of cheeses, and baked to order in the searing hot forno, an anchor of the open kitchen. Aficionados should spring for the optional egg addition. At table, one of the crisp bread ends is used to smear the egg yolk over the top of the beef – heavenly!
As they wait for their chef to arrive, the menu is still in its “soft opening” stage. They will slowly build on it, adding dishes here and there, including manti, a Turkish dumpling, and more flatbreads.
The wine list is cherry-picked from the Okanagan, north to south, chosen specifically to pair with the food. Craft cocktails are fun yet complex and inventive, shaken and stirred with infusions, cool ice cube shapes, fresh juices and top-shelf ingredients, and served in elegant glassware.
Service is gracious and efficient throughout and speaks to the Barluks' attention to detail. Servers went through a rigorous training period before opening to the public.
Happy Hour is 3-5 p.m., and a kid’s menu of flatbread, noodles or a burger keeps everyone satisfied.
The sweet finish is provided with burma, a Turkish circular filo pastry, a riff on baklava, and a family recipe, studded with walnut and pistachios, and served with vanilla gelato.
In the short weeks of opening, the Barluks have found a welcoming audience of locals, me included, not just tourists. The idea of spending winter in Penticton just got a whole lot more delicious.
With fork and pen in hand, and a passion for culinary adventure, Shelora Sheldan, writer, cook and curious traveller, goes in search of the delectable. This column runs every other Tuesday in The Herald.