I was recently invited to try the new winter menu at Oakwood Canadian Bistro – which has been praised alongside Edible Canada as one of Canada’s best “Canadian” restaurants – and I jumped at the chance.
While reviewers tend to obsess over the Kitsilano-based restaurant’s brisket topped-poutine, it’s dishes like flawlessly cooked arctic char with smoked applewood caviar and flank steak with chimichurri, sunchoke chips and roasted marrow that demonstrate the heights Canadian comfort food is capable of reaching, with the right chef.
In fact, 28-year-old Oakwood chef Michael Robbins might be the Vancouver dining scene’s best kept secret. Born and raised in East Vancouver, Robbins is the type of soft-spoken wunderkind that will take Top Chef by (silent) storm, someday very soon. I jokingly told the humble fellow to work on his TV personality, but in all seriousness, he prefers to work on his menu, not to mention the canvases displayed on the Oakwood’s whitewashed brick walls. Before he transcends to local celebrity, get thee to Kitsilano and eat at the Oakwood.
I headed over to the Oakwood (West 4th Avenue and Stephens) to speak with Robbins before dinner. My big question: What is Canadian cuisine? The chef walked me through the Canadian bistro concept, explaining that he thought of West Coast fare as unpretentious and explained how he likes to nod to Vancouver’s mix of cultures by integrating one cultural direction into each dish.
“I don’t like to have an Indian dish, a French dish, an Italian dish and an Asian dish on the menu,” says Robbins. “I take aspects of different culture without losing the idea of Western food. I add a technical component, an ingredient or a flavour profile that leans toward a particular culture. I use many cultural cooking concepts whether it’s confiting, curing or pickling.”
The other element that makes the Oakwood’s food Canadian is the careful attention to finding the right local producers, which are listed on the menu. Every good restaurant buys local these days. When you talk to Robbins it’s obvious that he doesn’t just tick the box. He’s personally invested making sure efforts such as Ocean Wise have the desired long term impact.
Now on to the food.
When the chef cooks for you, you sit and await a series of surprises. My dining partner and I started with a delicate tomato salad, beautifully presented in cubes with globular dollops of soft, tangy buttermilk cheese, balsamic “jelly” and a heavenly-salty-crunchy invention known as “potato bark”, which makes potato chips and french fries look as outdated as a horse and buggy. It was an addictive molecular gastronomy-style treat.
Next, Salt Spring Island mussels sat in five-dimensional tomato coconut broth. I was pleased to find kale softly drowning in it, then mop up the rest with the charred bread.
When the flank steak arrived, it was classically good, but punched above its weight class with the innovative, garlicky-herbaceous addition of chimichurri, and buttery in-bone marrow. As for the sunchoke chip garnish, nutty-flavoured sunchokes are an underutilized and highly enjoyable veg.
The series of small sharing plates (ranging $5-$21) crescendoed with duck cannelloni that sat upon quince and cranberry puree and was generously dusted with a pile of foie gras “shavings”. I remain happily perplexed by the flavour mix: the rich shredded duck mingled with tart winter fruits and notes of gritty coffee, finally melting into a decadent foie finish. It was so thoroughly delicious and puzzling we didn’t want to cover the taste sensation with anything new and found ourselves turning down dessert.
If I had to compare Oakwood Canadian Bistro’s style to any one restaurant, I’d pick Gjelina, the highly popular Venice Beach hotspot known for innovative small plates. Oakwood’s Canadian-with-a-twist menu works best when diners share. Plus the Oakwood is a mere four blocks from Kitsilano Beach.
The best thing about the restaurant besides the chef? The good-looking brick and leather room is so universally appealing it doesn’t suffer from a particular demographic profile, which can be off-putting. You’ll find young coolsters dining alongside 50-somethings on date night and the odd family or two.
Oakwood Canadian Bistro, 2741 West 4th Ave., (604) 558-1965, TheOakwood.ca
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