509 Fisgard St., Victoria,
Stage Wine Bar
1307 Gladstone Ave., Victoria,
Restaurant reinvention is a tricky business. Sometimes, the changes are a natural fit. Other times, they feel forced and awkward. Two renowned Victoria establishments are a striking case in point.
In February, after a successful 4-1/2-year run, the award-winning Ulla closed, and reopened as OLO. With a new partner , the fine-dining restaurant aimed to become a more casual eatery offering weekend brunch and a late-night menu.
Ulla always had strong ties with local farmers, fishers and foragers. The dining room redesign, while subtle, puts that farm-to-table emphasis front and centre with faux-wooden posts, shelves of canned provisions and a planter of wheat grass growing next to the front entrance.
Owner Sahara Tamarin greets guests warmly and offers to take their coats, which seldom happens in casual restaurants these days. Walk-ins are welcome, and if you're on your own, take a stool at the bar, where the back shelves are stocked with an impressive selection of local spirits.
Wines, almost all from B.C., include several rarely found small-lot vintages available by the glass (C.C. Jentsch Cellars Syrah, for instance).
Enticing cocktails, such as the Defender Island Fizz – layered with local smoked-rosemary gin, tonic, tea shrub and house-made red currant flower liqueur – are refreshing reflections of OLO's regional ethos.
This is a serious bar for a casual restaurant.
The menu offers a little bit of everything for everyone: multicourse family-style meals, small grazing plates, pizza-style flatbreads and more conventional large plates. For such a small kitchen, it is an awfully diverse selection, which is rarely a sign of confidence outside of chain restaurants.
Is that perhaps why the flatbread menu has already been switched out for pasta? Shame, because the beef brisket flatbread – chewy, smoky, cheesy and strewn with a tangle of brightly dressed greens – made a thoroughly satisfying dinner for one or shared plate among many. It was a versatile dish that suited the new concept.
The seafood bowl, on the other hand, is more refined. The local seafood – tender confit octopus, briny clams, plump prawns and golden-robed cod dumplings with the creamy texture of pannacotta – is all cooked superbly. But served in a wide shallow bowl and garnished with pork rinds on a bed of potato velouté, it is more of a deconstructed chowder and really no different from the fine-dining fare that was served at Ulla.
And that's the thing. OLO is still a fine-dining restaurant that seems to be having a hard time dressing down. If you sit at the bar, the bartender will be prompt and efficient, but not chatty. He will clench his teeth when receiving an order for Coca-cola. The servers will roll their eyes while relaying complaints. You will have nowhere else to look because it is really quite a small bar. You will squirm because no customer wants to be privy to the backstage service drama. You will feel uncomfortable.
Contrast that experience with a night at Stage Wine Bar. You feel welcome as soon as you walk into the bustling Fernwood bistro with exposed brick walls and rustic wooden tables. It's loud, lively and feels more like a neighbourhood joint in New York or San Francisco than in sleepy little Victoria.
You squeeze into one of the last seats left at the bar. Even though the bartender is busy, he catches your eye with a friendly wink, letting you know he will be with you in just a minute.
You peruse the chalkboard with its daily wine by the glass and then decide on a jalapeno popper cocktail to start – because drinks do not always have to be serious.
Later, you order an array of small plates because the kitchen offers nothing but small plates. Each has only a few ingredients, but the taste combinations all thrill.
Wild mushrooms are softly sautéed in rich sherry cream. Brussels sprouts are crisped into golden florets, braced with a squeeze of lemon and dusted with snowy Parmesan. Perfectly grilled trout is served with luscious perogies and a pretty mess of greens on silky beurre blanc.
Tucked away in Victoria's funky Fernwood theatre district, Stage started off strong under its original owners, George and Linda Szasz, who had previously operated Oak Bay's popular Paprika. Then it quietly faded.
In 2012, the Szaszs sold the restaurant to Graham Meckling, whose experience came from more casual restaurants, such as Earls and Sticky Wicket. He hired chef Sam Harris, who recently departed. But according to local food writers, there were no major changes.
"It just got and better and livelier, especially the menu," Shelora Sheldon wrote in Eat Magazine last year, just before the revitalized restaurant won a string of awards.
Sometimes it is hard to know exactly what combination of factors makes a casual restaurant great. Is it the comfort of home-style cooking elevated to a higher level? The obscure wine list that keeps you coming back for more? The attentive waiter who jumps to call a taxi when you are on your way out?
It is much easier to detect when a new concept is not working. It seems as if OLO aspires to be a local hangout similar to Stage, but has not quite eased into that comfort zone yet.