Keriwa Cafe pushes the envelope on local food with some dramatic results
Keriwa Cafe's Chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe (All Images by Cheol Joon Baek)
It’s no secret that Parkdale is a locavore’s mecca these days. Just east of Roncesvalles, the nose-to-tail advocates at Cowbell source practically everything from local farmers. Next door, Parts and Labour grows produce and herbs in its expansive rooftop garden. Local Kitchen and Wine Bar’s commitment needs no explanation: it’s named after the movement. These restaurants were quick to make fresh and local a selling point, so the neighbourhood’s newest addition, Keriwa Cafe, had to do something to stand out. Opened in mid-August, it too boasts fresh, local and seasonal food, but the hook is its aboriginal cuisine.
Getting caught up in the romanticism of it all is appealing. Take the pemmican ($14), for instance. This is the stuff of legends. Traditionally a high-energy, concentrated mixture of protein and berries, it was once a veritable manna that carried the natives across long, arduous treks on horseback. The thought of it has my hopes sky high, not least of all because I’m hungry, and new, hip restaurants such as these often leave good old-fashioned sustenance to the wayside. Can pemmican save my soul, I wonder, from Toronto’s scourge of under-portioned entrees?
This pemmican, it turns out, is not quite the waybread to my Frodo Baggins. It won’t be carrying me to Mordor and back any time soon. This dish is merely pemmican-inspired; mostly, it’s hearty chunks of bison, smoked and then braised until tender, with some fresh wild Saskatoon berries thrown in à la minute. It has the comforting effect of a goulash, but it’s lighter and more sophisticated (the accompanying ragout has been cooked down with juniper berries and thyme). The salad next to it is a work of art: a mélange of spicy pickled beans, garlic scapes and samphire, plus some greens.
But if the pemmican here isn’t quintessentially aboriginal (to be eligible, it would have to be dried and then pounded into a utilitarian meat powder), then what is? There’s lots of bison, I’ll concede that, and the owner-chef gets some serious street cred with a name like Aaron Joseph Bear Robe.
But Keriwa, for the most part, isn’t even rustic. This is not one of those barely renovated joints, such as Ortolan or Campagnolo, which still bear a striking resemblance to their previous occupants (as refined as their respective cuisines may be). No, Bear Robe went all out with the renovation, much of it DIY, from the hand-distressed cherry wood on the floors, to the multi-coloured tiles from Seville on the walls, to the art installation that he put together out of salvaged machinery parts from New York City. It’s warm, comfortable and casual, but not too casual.
Keriwa makes use of such aboriginal ingredients as berries, lovage and foraged cattails, but it also serves some not-even-remotely aboriginal items like gazpacho ($11) and cabbage rolls ($19). It seems to be less about traditional aboriginal cuisine than it is about good cuisine. And the food is solid. It’s layered, nuanced and meticulously prepared. Which shouldn’t come as a surprise from a chef like Bear Robe, who trained under Michael Stadtländer, Canada’s farm-to-table guru. Bear Robe earned his stripes at institutions such as Haisai, Eigensinn Farm and Splendido. From my seat, I can see him at work in the kitchen. He looks determined with his cooking. It pays off.
The food is solid. It’s layered, nuanced and meticulously prepared.
The rainbow trout ($23), cooked on Keriwa’s not-so-common wood-burning grill, comes out flaky and moist. It’s resting on a mild basil pistou, and the minimal seasoning allows the fish’s natural buttery taste to shine. Still, it could use a touch more acid (the superb field tomatoes, also grilled, aren’t quite acidic enough). The fish is procured day-of from the Ocean Wise–certified Lovell Springs Trout Farm, which doesn’t fall short in its reputation for supplying a pristine product.
Better still is the bison strip loin ($27), dusted with almonds and then pan roasted to a perfect rare (God bless the server for not asking me how I want it, thereby opening the possibility of me saying something silly like “medium.”) The texture is slightly firm, which is good. This is no melt-in-your-mouth, flavourless beef tenderloin. It’s consistent throughout. The grass-fed meat is lean in a way that beef can never be; anyone who wanted this cooked beyond rare would be crazy. A spicy chipotle sauce, made with jalapeno peppers that have been dried and smoked in-house, adds a bit of zest that’s balanced out by earthy vegetables such as new potatoes and pattypan squash.
For vegans, the cabbage rolls ($19) are a good bet. The carnivore in me would like to see some meat in here, but this isn’t bland like some vegan dishes can be. Actually, the roasted, honey-kissed buckwheat that fills the rolls, complete with a sunchoke purée for creaminess, is overpowering; the accompanying spicy tomato sauce tempers it out nicely.
The buckwheat plum cake ($10) disappoints as a dessert. It tastes like bread, and it’s heavy.
If there’s anything else to fault, it’s that the menu plays it a little too safe and that the contrasting items on each dish sometimes don’t contrast quite enough. Bear Robe’s steadfast dedication to seasonality means that certain ingredients, such as tomato and buckwheat, make recurring appearances throughout the menu. Freshness has trumped versatility, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Servers are efficient, but they can be a little off the mark with questions. One is not sure which cut of meat is in the daily special of bison empanadas (hump, it turns out) or where the Saskatoon berries come from (not Saskatoon; they’re foraged locally). But the ingredients are so fresh and vibrant and the attention to detail is so palpable that it hardly seems to matter.
This is a stellar addition to Parkdale’s formidable lineup of restaurants. And walking out, I notice a curious sensation: my hunger pangs have dissipated.
Rainbow trout (R) and bison striploin (L)
Keriwa Cafe, 1690 Queen St. W., 416-533-2552