- Bar Oso
- 4222 Village Square, Whistler, British Columbia
- Small pintxos and montaditos, $3.50 to $6.50; cheese and charcuterie boards, $22.50 to $32.50; shared plates and salads, $12.50 to $26.50
- Spanish tapas
- Rating System
- Additional Info
- Open daily, 3 p.m. to midnight; reservations not available
Bar Oso is a new Spanish tapas bar in Whistler where delightful, small bites dazzle with big, bold flavours.
Square cuts of fluffy potato omelette are served on skewers, pierced through a sweet red tangle of pickled pimento peppers. A seemingly boring scoop of creamy potato salad on a toasted round twinkles the palate with its multifaceted pops of smoky aji chili, spicy pepper and salty anchovy. Incredibly tender, slow-cooked lamb meatballs glow against a sunshiny bright, sofrito-based tomato sauce.
The food is as brilliant as one would expect from the aptly named Toptable Group, which also owns Araxi, CinCin, Bluewater Cafe, West and Thierry.
But considering Bar Oso's polished provenance, the little nicks and flaws on the service side are amplified with even greater clarity.
We first visited in February, when Whistler Village was in full ski-resort swing. Like many casual restaurants these days, Bar Oso doesn't take reservations and the place was full. No problem. We're used to the drill. We thought – not unreasonably – that the hostess would take our cellphone number and call when a table was ready. But no, she was quite content to simply turn us away. We actually had to persuade her to take our number.
After a couple of drinks at another bar and nearly 90 minutes later, she still hadn't rung. We wandered back. The hostess didn't remember us, until we reminded her about the call.
"Oh, right," she said. "You didn't answer your phone."
No, there were no calls.
"You must have given me the wrong number," she argued.
It is admittedly difficult to find good staff in a resort town full of transient workers. Bar Oso was not the only place we encountered bad service. There was another new restaurant I wanted to review. I called several times for a reservation and never heard back. As it happens, the restaurant was closed due to a plumbing emergency. But why wouldn't anyone return the calls to explain? Or simply change the message on the answering machine? It's called the hospitality industry for a reason.
Toptable prides itself on having higher standards than most. And given that Bar Oso is likely to be excruciatingly scrutinized as the first new opening since the Aquilini Investment Group acquired the dining group in 2014, one expects better service.
You do not expect to go online and find the wrong opening hours listed on various travel sites. (These things are easy to fix, when monitored.)
Nor do you expect to walk in on a quiet afternoon, as I did last week, and be waited upon by an impatient bartender who expects you to order a drink before you've had a chance to hang your purse or have a look at the list. (And then he asks, again impatiently, if you're ready to order food – before he's even delivered the drink you finally ordered after a confusing conversation about chili-infused tequila.)
It shouldn't have to be this awkward or rushed. Certainly not at Bar Oso, where a small tin of five Spanish anchovies costs $16.50. Yes, they are five exceptionally delicious anchovies. But the point being, this should be a place where you can sit back, relax and savour every small flavour-bursting morsel and sip.
Oso is the Spanish word for bear. And the long, narrow room with curved sprung ceilings covered in wood feels like a modern cave. The indirect lighting is an Instagrammer's dream – every dish is perfectly lit. There are tables along one wall and a few stools by the front windows. But all the action takes place around the gorgeous stone, showpiece bar, where the most coveted seats are.
Restaurant chef Jorge Munoz Santos, who worked under executive chef James Walt at Araxi for 4½ years, does much of his prep work in a satellite kitchen. But he and his team heat, plate and put on all the finishing touches from an open, high-tech kitchen at one end of the bar.
The cooks are all servers in their own right, responsible for chatting with customers while slicing buttery, dark-red-aged slivers of Iberico de Bellota from a whole bone-in ham leg suspended on the counter. Luckily, they've been well trained.
Sensing my discomfort with the bartender, Davinder Koulage gracefully jumped in to soothe my ruffled feathers. He explained why the house-made cured meats weren't currently available (too much humidity and they got moulded), but steered me to some of the fresh charcuterie (divinely silky foie gras parfait and earthy truffle-flecked pheasant terrine). Although pricey, the charcuterie and cheese boards are generously portioned and offer good value.
Mr. Koulage's face beamed with pride when I swooned over the confit octopus. "Not too tender, right?" he said. "It needs a little chew."
And he wisely suggested I try the huge, wondrously gelatinous, warmly spiced beef cheeks served in a dark, sticky braise. They're wagyu? Why isn't that stated on the menu? "We already sell too many of them," he joked.
Mr. Koulage saved the night. His warm, knowledgeable service was as impeccable as the cooking. If all the staff members gave off a similar sparkle, Bar Oso could be a much brighter gem.