The Oakwood Canadian Bistro
2741 West 4th Ave., Vancouver
$100 for dinner for two with wine, tax and tip
Cuisine: Canadian Bistro
Quebec can rightfully claim bragging rights to being the birthplace of poutine. But the gooey French fries, gravy and fresh cheese curd mix has transcended La Belle Province to become Canada's favourite nosh.
Not officially. The motion "Poutine Should be Declared the National Dish of Canada" was narrowly defeated at the 11th Annual Leacock Debate two years ago. Pity. Dissenting voters had obviously never wrapped their lips around the gloriously hearty all-Canadian poutine being served at Vancouver's Oakwood Canadian Bistro.
If ever there existed a more delicious "beer sponge" (as food writer Calvin Trillin describes it in The New Yorker magazine), I certainly haven't tasted it. Served in a cast-iron skillet, the Oakwood's version starts with a thickly hand-cut Kennebec potatoes fried to a golden crunch. Richly roasted veal-bone gravy is poured over top, and chunky Quebec cheese curds layered throughout.
The skillet is given a quick blast of heat to melt down the cheese's stringy texture while retaining a slight rubbery firmness and faint squeak. Then it's crowned with a warm, pink clump of thinly sliced beef brisket, smoked in-house over maple and hickory chips.
O Canada! This is true poutine bliss.
Canadian cuisine seems to be a growing genre, at least in Vancouver, where three patriot restaurants have opened in the past year – Edible Canada, the Flying Pig Canadian Bistro and now Oakwood Canadian Bistro.
But what makes a restaurant "Canadian"? If it's a combination of polite service, laidback atmosphere and creative comfort fare cooked from scratch with seasonal, homegrown ingredients, the Oakwood's got it nailed down tight. Except at brunch.
Covered in wood from floor to ceiling, the Kitsilano bistro has a homey cabin feel. A long communal table carved from reclaimed fir struts down the centre of the room. There are wooden posts in the corners and round tree logs built into glass screens that divide booths upholstered in tweed plaid. A fireplace roars cozily at the back.
Contemporary bare-bulb and slatted-wood light fixtures balance the rustic kitsch. And a cheeky collection of black-and-white photographs hung in the bathroom corridor, some highly provocative, hints at the proprietors' flashy downtown pasts.
Owner Mike Shea hails from Donnelly Nightclubs, where he worked for six years as an operating partner. Executive chef Mike Robbins is a Glowbal Group alumnus who held top kitchen positions at Glowbal, Coast and, most recently, Sanafir, where he was executive chef.
Don't hold their corporate ties against them. The Oakwood menu isn't just another remix of classic Glowbal hits and the food aims higher than the average pimped-up pub fare. Mr. Robbins doesn't cut corners. He and his kitchen team make all their own pickles, pasta, ketchup and mayonnaise. They bake their own bread and cure their own meats. It's honest, "raw" cooking, as the chef puts it. Finessed with serious skill, I would add.
You can see the wide range of techniques that go into octopus chips. Standing on edge in plump bacon aioli sprinkled with pickled shallots and mustard spinach, the rounds are cut thick enough to chew, but braised long enough that they still melt in the mouth after being lightly battered and barely browned.
You'll taste the craftsmanship in a warm kale salad, which takes all the vegetables most people hate – kale, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, leeks – and folds them into addictive lusciousness, perfectly rounded with sweetly sautéed shallots and a sharply acidic parsley vinaigrette.
And you may be pleasantly surprised to find some rather unusual items, like the gorgeously tender (yet not falling-apart) braised Alberta boar with baby squash.
The bar offers an impressive selection of craft beer (11 of 12 taps are hooked to local kegs). And select B.C. wines (I don't think I've ever seen Laughing Stock Blind Trust poured by the glass).
The evening service is charming and efficient. We sat one night at the kitchen-side bar, where a very knowledgeable server lavished us with hawk-eyed attention from a comfortable distance.
After this great dinner, the Oakwood's lackadaisical brunch was a big letdown. Sure, Canadians are an easy-going lot. But that doesn't excuse a 15-minute wait at the door without any nod of acknowledgment.
The waiter later forgot to bring water (after being asked twice). The restaurant had run out of sausages and Prosecco. And the homemade tomato jam was served in grungy, rim-crusted bottles. Yuck.
The food was good, but not great. Albacore niçoise Benedict sandwiches were thick hunks of rare-seared tuna and softly poached organic eggs between incredibly moist corn bread and rich, lemony Hollandaise. But where were the olives and anchovies?
The meat in the corned beef hash was dry and shrivelled around the edges, served atop sourless sauerkraut. And the drip coffee was awfully weak, although I guess that's Canadian in a Tim Hortons kind of way.
If you do go for brunch, stick to beer and poutine.