On The Plate: Oakwood bistro
A little over a decade ago I was living in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, just around the corner from a charming little watering hole called the Victory Café. I have fond memories of the place, and not only because it’s where my then girlfriend (now wife) and I spent many an evening trying to determine if we were indeed exactly right for each other.
Chief among its ancillary attractions was its cozy unpretentiousness, which wasn’t the embarrassed consequence of a lack of ability. The “Vic” was just straight up comfortable, and the fact that they had a deep list of whiskies and beers — plus a menu of quality pub grub — was just a bonus. They also played a lot of old Rolling Stones, which is always fine by me.
I was reminded of it recently while dining with my family at the Oakwood Canadian Bistro. The unassuming spot in Kitsilano had a similarly authentic “come on in and take a load off” sensibility. It may have looked and felt more like a modern gastropub than it did a “bistro”, but no matter. My immediate aesthetic takeaway was that coziness was its business, and that they were good at it.
The whole of the Oakwood is wrapped in wood, brick and leather. There’s a long bar offering a tidy selection of beers and wines, not to mention some surprisingly good bespoke cocktails. There are a couple of booths huddled around a gas fireplace and a few more near the front windows, which look out to a tiny (dormant) sidewalk patio and across the street at the venerable Naam.
The service crew is attentive, quick, and friendly, as is owner Mike Shea, who is a former veteran of the Donnelly Group (the guy is omnipresent). Through two suppers last week, the atmosphere’s only sour-hitting note came occasionally from the soundtrack, which would inexplicably — from time to time — morph from a pleasant enough toe-tapper to a bass-heavy bull in a china shop, thumping ridiculously and incongruously along, oblivious to its own artlessness. Sad, but common, which — I suppose — makes it especially sad.
Where The Oakwood picks up extra points is in its kitchen. Chef Michael Robbins, who worked previously for the Glowbal Group, takes familiar, well-loved dishes and puts creative twists on them, invariably to delicious effect. That’s nothing new, of course, but he does a really good job of it.
For example, his “all Canadian poutine” comes mounted with a pile of melt-in-your-mouth beef brisket of the “still warm” kind with fat, flavourful edges. Because it sits atop of the fries and so stays unmolested by the gravy, the textural integrity of the meat remains intact until it meets a tooth or two (I reckon it would be one of the best poutines in the city if the cheese curds had the proper “squeak” to them). Likewise the addition of alfalfa and house-made pickled relish to his otherwise same-old burger. They make the staid old beast pop.
Along similar lines was his seemingly traditional radicchio salad that saw its naturally bitter base balanced out by a honey vinaigrette and a scattering of candied pecans. It’s a very typical start, but the thus harmonized components were then employed as a battleground for halved grapes, globs of blue cheese, and perfectly porky lardons to fight upon. And despite all that chaos and violence, it came together well enough and massively (twas a very large and filling salad).
The best of the lot was the mason jar of albacore tuna confit, and not just because it opened up so many roads toward extreme self-indulgence. The deep and wholly smearable happy putty was probably my favourite dish of the week. The tuna flavour was heavily pronounced in the fat and the macerated flakes gave the spread plenty of textural oomph. One jar comes with only a few slices of toasted bread so I’d advise that the more careless among you spend another $5 on a mini-loaf of fresh bread that comes with a ramikan of smoky butter and then combine all for a coronary supernova.
And if you survive to discover that there is now too much bread remaining, order the spiced broccoli and patty pan gratin and use the extra slices to soak up the casserole’s smoked cheddar bechamel. Attaboy.
Robbins clearly loves food, so much so that I wonder if he isn’t punching below his weight class. It’s a fair question when confronted with his beautifully arranged, flawlessly cooked arctic char, which comes decorously anchored to a square slate plate with bright orange globes of smoked applewood caviar surrounded by cut fingerlings and droplets of a subtly herbaceous emulsion. It was a killer dish presented in landscape mode, one that I’d half expect to see arrive at table in Hawksworth or West and not in a place that serves salt and pepper pork rinds (which, by the way, are flippin’ awesome). And while I’m in a comparative mood, Robbin’s short rib supper is superior in taste and texture to the one at Wildebeest, plus it’s $2 cheaper.
So I dig The Oakwood. A lot. It’s the kind of place that I wish was at the end of my street, just like The Victory once was. There’s no fuss or pretension, just good eating and drinking, with or without The Rolling Stones.
TheOakwood.ca | 2741 W. 4th | 604-558-1965