Canajun, eh? Bannock is as Canajun as a Timbit and a double-double from Timmy’s, as Canajun as maple syrup, as Canajun as not pushing to the front of the line. The newest offering from Oliver & Bonacini has been – as are all their restos – cleverly conceived and flawlessly designed. What could be more rustic, more redolent of the great Canadian outdoors, than the great griddle cake of wayfarers from pond to prairie?
But with O&B it’s not usually about the food, and their new restaurant Bannock is no exception. Restaurateurs would kill for this kind of street-side presence – a small patio and ample signage on the very corner of Queen and Bay. Because yes, O&B has become the Hudson’s Bay Co.’s foodservice company.
Inside, Bannock is charming, as expected. The huge front area is a grab ’n’ go café with quick casual food. Move deeper into the restaurant and there is the smallish dining room, its walls and ceiling covered in rough boards reclaimed from a 150-year-old wharf offshore the Air Canada Centre. Some are tinted pearl grey to match the marble tables, some brown. A niche in one wall is lined with Mason jars of preserves – yellow beans and dill pickles, nectarines and peaches.
If one could imagine a Canadian farm kitchen of the 1900s through the lens of a restaurant designer, it would be Bannock. The decor references, the moniker “Canadian Comfort Food” on the website and, of course, the menu. It’s possible that the farmers of yesteryear really did eat this stuff, but unlike the intrepid desk jockeys of Bay Street, they were likely burning it off in the fields.
But even the most assiduous of gym rats will have trouble metabolizing the likes of duck poutine pizza and s’mores pie. Does the modern urban epicure really need all that grease? Our taste buds adore salt and fat, and Bannock’s poutine is magnificent, sweet Yukon frites with impeccable cheese curds and pure gravy. Same impeccable poutine on the pizza, with shredded duck, but the calorie count on this baby must be in the stratosphere. And perhaps the crust, neither thin nor crisp, is what a farm wife’s oven might have produced.
Speaking of crust, the restaurant’s signature, bannock bread, is not the bannock of my dreams. The bannock I adore is a cross between soda bread and scone, a short crumbly loaf. Bannock’s bannock is naan-like, somewhat resembling thick pita bread. In its signature form it comes as a sandwich with smoked salmon, arugula, capers and cream cheese. Great innards, but we had asked for it as a starter for the table, cut in four pieces. It arrived with everyone’s apps, not cut in four. O&B service is usually as suave as it gets, so what’s up here? Same deal when we phone Bannock. The recording says: “To speak to someone at our front desk, press 1.” But every time I press 1 they don’t answer.
It could be that O&B is just way smarter than me and they’ve calibrated Bannock to please its relatively undemanding hungry market: It’s a young crowd, hoovering fat ’n’ grease after a hard day moving money, and people mostly empty out by 9 p.m. We go home and loll on the couch in a stupor after all that comfort food. The split-pea soup is thick, rich and over-salted. Thank goodness for prairie-grain salad, a compendium of yellow lentils, sprouted adzuki beans and barley with enough pickled red onion and other veg for zing and shaved candy-cane beets for colour.
Thank goodness also for Bannock’s revival of the Arcadian Court chicken pot pie. Since 1929, the Arcadian Court (atop the Simpson’s tower) has been the grande dame of Toronto dining spaces. O&B are currently renovating it, planning to re-open it as an event space in spring 2012. But the chicken pot pie lives! It arrives, ever proper, in a white porcelain mini casserole dish with a perfectly fragile, crisp puff-pastry lid. Inside is a smooth, rich velouté with peas, carrots and moist chicken. Marvellous mashed potatoes with good gravy on the side. Roll home.
Otherwise we fare less well. The split-pea fritters are doughy and not very flavourful. A lobster roll is too little overcooked lobster with watery diced cucumber in mayo. The burger is medium rare – oh joy – but it’s strangely tough, and its accompanying house-made potato chips, while addictive, are greasy enough to be a veritable zit machine.
The desserts are similarly dissatisfying. You can’t get more Canadian iconic than butter tarts and s’mores, but the butter tart, while sitting in a nicely short crust, suffers from filling that is strangely thin, lacking the requisite buttery richness. And s’mores pie, while sounding like the ultimate Canadiana, is just not that much fun to eat: Toasted marshmallows on top with chocolate filling and graham-crumb base is just too gooey and undifferentiated to be good eating. Maybe ’round the campfire with stars above, after a hard day of paddling and portaging… .
That’s the thing about Bannock: Canadian comfort food of with that kind of heft is just the ticket for a voyageur after a long day on the river. For urban voyageurs driving a desk, maybe it’s a little de trop.
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