History might have been different if Michael Stadtländer had had his way back in 1990 and had been able to hand over his brilliant, avant-garde, empty restaurant, Nekah, to his 26-year-old sous chef, Paul Boehmer. That was the plan. But Stadtländer’s partner, Tom Kristenbrun, was tired of losing money on the two-year-old project and ended up closing the place down. Twenty years would pass before Boehmer finally got a place of his own – Böhmer.
I’ve been catching up on new restaurants in recent weeks and though Böhmer has been open a while, I hadn’t eaten there. Having dropped by in January to see the final stages of construction and hear the eager plans and hopes, I wanted to see how reality compared with those earlier intentions. I was also keen to taste Boehmer’s food again, having missed his work at Rosewater Supper club, Six Steps and The Spoke. More often than not, over the years, he has delighted me. I remember a very fine sorrel vichyssoise and fabulous lamb rack during his long stint at Opus in the ’90s; a stunning quail stuffed with vodka-marinated foie gras in the unlikely clubland environs of Atlas, in 1995; many moments up at Eigensinn Farm when he volunteered his services for a fundraiser, all six-foot-seven-inches of him lurking in the forest like a white-clad Little John, braising rabbit or searing his trademark foie gras with blackcurrant purée over a log fire.
Before Böhmer opened, the chef told me he intended to go back to his Stadtländeresque roots with his new restaurant, thinking about Canadiana, local ingredients, wild elements… In the year he spent converting the 5000-square-feet auto-engine rebuilding garage into Ossington’s most glamorous space, he did not change his mind. The décor takes rural Ontario as a theme with washrooms finished in reclaimed wood and brown Georgian Bay limestone, a gorgeous elm-wood bar and a communal table set beneath an extraordinary chandelier that looks like the naked roots of a tree dripping with Swarovski crystals. There’s a private dining room that seats 18 and another nook with leather banquettes and three tables made from tree trunks, the walls hung with paintings by Paul’s late father. If it all sounds a bit folksy then I have misled you. It’s very cool and on an outsized scale. Back in January, they drove an Audi R8V10 into the restaurant for the Design Show closing party. Right now there’s a most intriguing and unlikely motorcycle parked close to the kitchen. You might notice that my image of it is slightly out of focus… That’s because the joint was jumping on the night we were there, packed to the rafters with at least two sizeable private parties and much, much too loud. We couldn’t hear each other speak, couldn’t hear the waitress. I’m not sure there’s a solution unless they change the décor to tapestries and baffles – it’s a question of too many people having too good a time.
The food impressed me. Portions were large but that’s why we have doggy bags, isn’t it? Croquettes of finely ground, robustly seasoned lamb were double-rolled in crunchy panko crumbs and served over a homey bed of soft-cooked cabbage with bacon. The sweet meaty flavour of hand-cut, tender, very lean venison tartare was boosted with the usual capery, oniony additions, arriving with a raw quail egg yolk quivering on top to be mashed into the mix. A side salad of thinly sliced Granny Smith apple and baby spinach in a lemon walnut dressing was an ideal refreshment to the richness of the tartare.
Boehmer has always cooked rabbit well. His current version is an admirably moist saddle rolled up in bacon with soft, rich blood pudding then sliced into inch-high drums. Farmed local rabbit has very little flavour, alas, but the blood pudding and bacon come to its rescue and I loved the quartered brussels sprouts on the plate, tossed with crumbled hazelnuts and a smooth, tan-coloured jus.
A big slab of halibut was the evening’s star – as good a piece of halibut as I’ve had on either coast, firm and fleshy, juicy but not watery, crusted with hemp seed. Dark leafy greens added a pleasing bitterness while slippery little mushrooms and a mushroom jus provided an earthy sweetness. A mound of citric tomato concassé positioned well away from the fish worked well as a tangy condiment.
Cheese Boutique provides the cheeses here and Afrim Pristine has found some real treats for the list including a sensational hand-made Spanish goat cheese called Monte Enebro, its ashy rind created by the same mould that turns Roquefort blue. One could linger over them but it would be terribly wrong to ignore the desserts, particularly a huge apricot tart made of soft, beautifully cooked almond shortcrust pastry topped with masses of vanilla pastry cream and gorgeous little Ontario apricots poached until they are on the very brink of dissolution. It’s a seasonal treat – and apricots have all too short a lease – but the message is unchangeable: leave room, somehow, for dessert.
Jamie Drummond has put together the wine list which integrates some of Canada’s finest with the sort of global treats that make connoisseurs nod and smile. The Ontario bottlings do not look out of place. About 30 wines are available by the glass. The cocktail list is a retro gem and includes a number of forgotten classics.
Closed Sunday. Monday to Wednesday: Kitchen 5pm-11pm, Bar 5pm – 1am. Thursday to Saturday: Kitchen 5pm-midnight, Bar 5pm-2am
93 Ossington Ave (at Queen St W.), 416 531-3800.