Having spent the summer in the heart of Algonquin, I usually whine, bitch and moan about coming back to the city in the fall. It’s ugly, it smells bad and no one smiles at you on the path.
And then there are the restaurants. Don’t get me wrong. I love going to restaurants. Were it not so, would I still be returning to this gig like clockwork every Labour Day since 1974, in these same pages?
But the first few times I dine out after the summer’s hiatus are always strange. Having not eaten in a restaurant for almost three months, I am often struck, upon return from the wilderness, by how strange it is to dine with strangers, and to be served food (an innately intimate act) by other strangers.
And so it was that eating at Keriwa Café was the softest possible landing in what some folks misguidedly call civilization. It begins with our waiter, a young Cree man with a long black ponytail who a) makes eye contact, b) knows the composition of every plate, and c) calls me “signora.” Could you ask for anything more?
Many restaurants these days bandy about words such as “sustainable” and “local.” Indeed, these are the best new food-marketing buzzwords. But Keriwa, which to my knowledge is our first native restaurant, walks the walk, in moccasins. Who better, of course, to pledge fealty to our land than its first people? This they do by following the seasonal harvest so closely that the menu is in constant flux.
I had worried, before walking in the door, that Keriwa might either fall victim to native kitsch (too many beads and feathers) or serve arcana such as dried corn or strange meats that sounded politically correct but were no fun to eat. Neither could be farther from the truth.
Chef/owner Aaron Joseph Bear Robe is from the Siksika Nation in Alberta, son of a Blackfoot father and Nova Scotian mother. He worked his way up in the impeccable kitchen of Calgary’s River Café and left there in early 2009 to apprentice for six months under Michael Stadtlander at Eigensinn Farm. He then cooked at Splendido alongside Dennis Tay, now his sous at Keriwa.
Enter Keriwa and the first breath is woodsmoke. Not overwhelming like a barbeque house. Subtle. Like the whalebone-shaped dreamcatcher of cutout metal with hanging feathers and beads, like one glass case holding a beaded buckskin robe once belonging to the chef’s grandmother, with a small brass plaque: “1905-1980 Grandma Maggie.” On another wall is a collage, a patchwork quilt of birch-bark squares.
Soon comes crusty house-made Red Fife sourdough bread with a soft heart, with salty organic butter and whipped pork fat on the side. This I could do without: It tastes like bacon-scented Cool Whip. But when our waiter starts to explain his menu (for he is that into it – investment is this place’s middle name) our hearts melt. The whitefish, he tells us, is line-caught on Lake Huron by fisherman Ken, whom they phone when they need a few fish. As an appetizer, it’s raw, very lightly smoked (in house of course) and served with properly light buckwheat blinis made piquant with horseradish crème frâiche and pea shoots. It doesn’t hurt that apps are served in miniature dugout canoes made of burled wood. In a salad, the sweetness of roasted beets plays counterpoint to lightly smoked ricotta with crunch from pumpkin seeds and a fine balance of sweet ’n’ sour from a vinaigrette of maple syrup and brown butter.
Chef’s pemmican has its roots in history but has come far. A Cree word meaning “manufactured grease,” pemmican was dried bison pounded into coarse powder and mixed with melted fat (and maybe Saskatoon berries) for travel. Pemmican updated is ultra-tender braised bison with barely pickled yellow beans, pea shoots and a scattering of Saskatoon berries.
Such nuanced food! Which helps to explain why Keriwa, just over a month old, is the hottest table in town.
Fresh chanterelles have been toasted crisp to contrast with silken polenta beside fine-textured grass-fed free-range bison rib eye, its sweetness brought out by boutique coarse salt and a smidgen of fragrant lovage pesto. Braised bison ravioli come with eentsy green and yellow beans and lightly charred red and yellow tomatoes. Marvellously moist roast chicken is ennobled by shreds of baby artichokes with shaved fennel slaw and puffy little house-made bread bits.
Every main comes on a different china pattern, as if to emphasize its individuality. Clearly, someone’s garden produced a bounty of green and yellow beans this week, but they are so cleverly employed (pickled, fresh, cut small or left large) that one hardly minds the repetition. Bacon-wrapped whitefish, perfectly cooked, has the beans along with lightly pickled sea asparagus and creamy buttermilk vinaigrette, bright and tangy thanks to capers, lemon, fennel fronds and a hint of maple syrup. The dish’s sole error is whitefish brandade, a play on the classic French cod puree with potato. Whitefish being so much quieter a taste than salt cod, this brandade has no punch.
The punch is also M.I.A. on the dessert card. Flourless chocolate cake is beneath this kitchen’s creative reach, and flourless buckwheat plum cake shares a similar banality. But neither detracts from the power and grace of Keriwa, where native tradition meets haute cuisine, a hybrid that produces a splendid combo platter.