Torontonians' growing obsession with local food, the nose-to-tail movement and, recently, a new restaurant that wants to make you feel like a lumberjack, may have something to do with how we've become ever more urbanized and separated from all that is pastoral.
To say that Woodlot is the hottest resto in town is an understatement. Winterlicious ended two days ago; we know why businesses play that promo game. Despite it, you could drive a truck through most restaurants mid-week. But it's 11 p.m. on a Wednesday in the middle of the annual food festival and Woodlot is full! We must really love that down-on-the-farm imagery. Out back in the woodshed. Hewing wood and drawing water.
Woodlot is a barely renovated garage. The staff split wood for the wood-burning oven in the open kitchen, and there are native prints on the brick walls. Save for one long rough wooden table outside the open kitchen, eating takes place on the mezzanine overlooking the kitchen. Which feels like the back-to-the-land hippie farmhouses where I misspent some of the most fun times of my youth. This is a restaurant with its pantry showing: Pails are tucked under counters, ingredients and dishes stashed in every cranny.
And Toronto loves it. Try getting a table. I had assumed, from its popularity and the enthusiastic reviews, that Woodlot's food was fabulous. Which it is not. It is nose-to-tail, homespun and a clever play to nouvelle barnyard. Having two menus - one vegetarian and one meat - is very chic. And how convenient that one need never actually visit a farm (or God forbid, work on one) to feel part of the movement.
Just order oxtail and ox tongue terrine with pistachio, port and fig compote. It's a compact high-flavoured loaf that goes great with fig. The caramelized onion soup is also down home, about as deep and dark and rich as it gets without being heavy. Equally charming are house-made egg tagliatelle, decadent with melted fontina cheese and crisped speck. But rocket science it isn't.
We had expected more. The crab and white bean salad seemed like canned crab with merely pleasant white beans inflected with insufficient fennel and preserved lemon. Gnocchi with walnut sauce were competent, but only that. Given that chef David Haman (ex-Czehoski) has worked at Senses, Noce and Lucien, and six months at elBulli, I expected more sophisticated cooking. Simple is great, but it could rise higher.
Duck cabbage rolls, naked and unsauced, look like large, pale green golf balls and their braised duck filling is merely pleasant. Chicken and smoked-ham-hock pot pie is distinguished by an ultra-crisp buttery puff-pastry lid, but isn't that rather old school? Under it is over-salted chicken and ham stew in nicely light béchamel sauce. A lighter hand on the salt would also have improved otherwise delightful roast haddock gratin with light saffron cream and nice tidbits of cauliflower, spinach and almonds. The veg version of the gratin is better - nobody oversalted the tofu, and they have mysteriously managed to attach wondrous flavour to this most pallid of ingredients. On the veg menu they also triumph with a delightful salad of lightly vinegared potatoes with charred leeks, Toscano cheese, arugula and hazelnuts.
Sweets are more uniformly excellent than savouries. Fabulous Soma chocolate pot de crème is served in a Mason jar (more farmhouse imagery) with equally fabulous crunchy hazelnut brittle on top. Mouth-puckering lemon tart has a heart of wild blueberry and a roof of browned, homemade marshmallow. And the tarte tatin is interesting. While its pastry is a mite robust, the aesthetic decision to caramelize the apples till they're almost burnt makes for an interesting sharp flavour. Jeff Connell, Woodlot's full-time baker, also produces terrific Red Fife sourdough baguettes both for the restaurant and daytime sale.
With your cheque comes a box of matches. Imprinted "HONEST. SIMPLE. HANDMADE." Matches! Like you're gonna go right home and fire up the woodstove. This is not a joke, and nor is it a manipulation. Rather, this is an extension of Woodlot's imagery. Smart restaurateurs get that restaurants are theatre. Woodlot is a helluva show.