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Toronto pub takes shepherd’s pie on a French detour

antony hare The Globe and Mail

The Oxley Public House in Toronto positions itself as a solidly British gastropub, with pictures of various monarchs adorning its walls. So it might upset the Irish and Scottish descendants of the tribes who invented shepherd's pie, the tireless comfort food of which chef Patrick Forest serves his own version.

Things start out traditional enough – "we always mention that it's lamb as opposed to beef, making a European-North American distinction," Forest explains. "In North America, lots of people use beef, but in Britain, a beef pie would be considered a cottage pie." The variation most likely came about because lamb was harder to come by on this side of the Atlantic and, therefore, local palates aren't as accustomed to its gamy, earthy flavour.

Also reassuring is that shepherd's pie shows up on the Oxley's menu exclusively during fall and winter. And while some recipes suggest topping the spuds with breadcrumbs and cheese – a wrong-headed move that turns the meal into a Cumberland pie – Forest lays a blanket of mashed potatoes atop his braised-lamb medley, just like the shepherds did (right?).

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But while last year he used classic ground lamb in the savoury pie, this season, Forest is mixing in chunks of braised leg of lamb and highlighting "Provençal flavours." That means stewing the meat with not just a standard mirepoix – onions, carrots and celery – but tomatoes, kalamata olives, rosemary and garlic. He allows the vegetables to cook down to a purée, except for the carrots, which are removed and cubed before folding them back into the meat. Even with these daring adjustments, shepherd's pie remains a bestseller at the Yorkville pub, especially at lunchtime.

"We don't always have to be 100 per cent," Forest says. "We're an English pub, but we're also an English pub in Toronto." A wee taste of Southern France won't hurt anyone during a Canadian winter. Right?

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