Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Keriwa Cafe

Fellow Torontonians, we are spoiled. What is happening in this little town? Or is it just me, who is this last year slowly awakening to astounding worlds of great restaurants and ambitious chefs? I would say it is absolutely the latter, but then...there's Keriwa. Keriwa's been rocking an Aboriginal inspired menu for just over a month, and they are rocking it very, very hard. It rotates regularly, and I've been reading all the scrumptious-sounding changes since they opened the doors to their intimate and art-rich (kudos on the amazing wall art!) dining room at 1690 Queen West. My regular coterie landed there on a day when the menu was heavily stocked with bison- no complaints!

A reputation for skill on all fronts must be circulating, because the other guests (just wrapping up when we arrived for our VERY late 9:30 dinner reservation) were none other than the manager of FRANK restaurant, the manager of cafeAGO (my previous employer, a total darling), and I think Gil Bellows (from Ally McBeal, though I could have been wrong...I was a little young when that was on TV). Local and foreign stars! It was great to get a chance to chat with the people from the AGO and grab a couple recommendations from their meal.

Before wine or beer, we were faced with a choice. Were we going to have plain Toronto water, or a choice of Keriwa's waters, one sparkling, one flat? These are 'house-made' waters, though I don't exactly recall the full description of how they were made. I will say the servers (we had two peeking in on us from time to time) were informative and very descriptive of everything we had, friendly to boot. Though they did switch our waters accidentally, and by the end of the night I was drinking sparkling when I had started with still!

Being a set of nibblers, we ordered a few appetizers and a few mains all to share. Bison was the order of the day. Even with the majority of the menu NOT containing the hearty Canadian meat, three out of five of our dishes did. Like a few restaurants I've been to recently (is this the secret to knowing if you're in a great restaurant?), we were served a plate of complimentary bread, which came with raw unsalted butter, smoked sea salt (sooty and a bit like cracklin's- it's sounds gross, but it was incredible), and whipped pork fat (I don't even- like anise, sweet chili and cloying pork mousse).

The first thing to arrive was the Bison Tartar ($12). This was one of the recommendations from table AGO (thanks Victoria!), and it was such a strange thing. First, we got some more house bread, this time grilled into flat, crunchy toasts. I could tell there wouldn't be enough for the three of us, only because the tartar itself was very big. Remember, this is bison, which is very dense and filling- and there was probably a full cup of minced, raw steak on the plate! The taste of lovage was curious, as it's an herb I haven't had the pleasure of trying before. I found it similar to coriander, but not as powerful or as citrus. The tender meat abolished the need to butter the toast, it was incredibly juicy. I have had a love for raw red meat since trying a raw beef hand roll at Origin for one of my first reviews (so long ago, now!), and this elevated that love. It was so fresh, and the meat stood out so much, even studded with garlic scapes, sea asparagus, and baby chanterelles (all pickled, I think, since so much in other dishes was). There was a lot of natural pepper in the flavour, and the adobo was light and smoky, only a hint.

Next we  went for Bison Empanadas ($12). I think the theme of that evenings menu was Aboriginal with Spanish flare. The bison had a totally different approach from the tartar, and I personally was thrilled to see it's versatility. With a spice reminiscent of a Jamaican patty (understand I mean taken to a completely different level), the meat in the empanadas had a saucy, pulled texture rich with spice and some heat. The pastry scored big for me, it was almost like a dessert pie crust, flaky, solid. Because the dish was actually cold, and the grilled-then-chilled peach salsa piled on the side was incredibly sweet, I really felt like this was dessert. Meat and sweet, but oddly, like dessert. Just a bit of arugula kept this from being too rich.

Surprise surprise, the next dish was..BISON! This time something very true to Canadian roots, Braised Bison Pemmican ($14), with Saskatoon berries. I very quickly mistook them for blueberries, and raved about how small and adorable and hard they were, and what a strong flavor! Foolish Katherine. They are not blueberries, though with a smoky skin, they look very similar. Like the meat, they had been dried enough to be chewy. Here the bison had the same kind of pulled texture as the empanadas we just finished, but drier. The taste was COMPLETELY different, incomparable. Smokey with an undercurrent of cinnamon sweetness, the pemmican was way more gamey than the other dishes. It was also super tender, and caused many eyes to roll in ecstasy. If they have this on the menu again take my word and order it. You will thank yourself. You will thank Keriwa. With it came a little salad of sour pickles (bean, spicy radish?) on greens, and some AMAZING fry bread! The fry bread was chewy and crisp, sprinkled with the smoky sea salt we got to try with our bread and butter starter. It was not absorbent, but made to have meat piled on top. I think there was more of that cinnamon undercurrent.

Moving on from our orgiastic enjoyment of red, tender bison, came a dish of Rainbow Trout ($23). It was a delicately perched slab of fish, carried by a palanquin of roasted heirloom tomatoes and squash. Skin is so important on a fish. This wasn't blackened or crackled, simply seared, keeping its fatty elasticity. The clear taste of a freshwater fish was untainted by unnecessary accouterments. The tomatoes were incredibly sweet, almost as strong as if they had been sun dried, and dripped with a puree of basil and oil. Like an exotic treat, a ricotta stuffed, tempura-battered squash blossom topped the lot. It was hard to split, and I wanted it all to myself. The vegetable armour provided just enough body.

Even though I had been eyeballing a towering piece of peach pie topped with a scoop of ice cream at the table next to ours, we were getting stuffed. Did I mention how very filling Bison is? Even with so little, it had us feeling packed, and we finished off on a refreshing note of Beet Salad with Hazelnuts ($11). It is possible to describe a salad as fun, and it is possible because it contained potato chips. Yes. Little baby potatoes must have been finely mandolined into slivers to fry, no more than two centimeters in diameter. They studded the boldly red and yellow dish with crunchy and salty bursts. The yellow beets were milder and less irony than the bloody red ones, both pickled to soften them even more. Studs of sweet hazelnut drove me wild for their oakiness. There were dollops of milky ricotta, and more pickled vegetables in the form of lemongrass and a leek that came out like boiled rhubarb in texture, surprisingly sweet! Keriwa contains master picklers.

Keriwa. Just go.

Email Katherine
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