Woodlot is the flavour of the last two months – another dark, eccentric, under-decorated restaurant with serious food. The big surprise is that it isn’t on Dundas Street West. Instead it occupies a former garage on Palmerston, a few paces south of College Street. It still looks like a garage, even though it spent the last eight years as a lounge called Octopus (a.k.a. Octapus). The floor is industrial concrete, the walls open brick, a staircase of steel girders leads to an upper level, a few cement steps lead down to a sunken bar with four tightly placed stools. On a cold, snowy winter’s night, with the coarse brown curtain keeping out the wind when the door opens, it’s not exactly comfortable. But it is merry. Chef and co-owner David Haman and his team are packed into the tiny open kitchen along one narrow wall, hemmed to one side by a huge domed wood-burning oven. Another cook is working at a table in front of the oven. The kitchen’s supplies and equipment are scattered all over the room, wherever there’s space. And Woodlot is humming, choked with customers from the moment the doors open in the evening.
Haman seems a tad overwhelmed by his own success. It’s been a couple of years since I last saw him, when he was working with Claudio Aprile at Senses. Before that, he had done a six month stint at el Bulli then opened Czehowski in 2005 as co-chef with Nathan Isberg. I chatted with him once when he was at Senses and he seemed a thoroughly likeable guy – smart but humble and still eager to learn by experience, putting in a year as a waiter at Jamie Kennedy’s Wine Bar to learn the front-of-house side of the business. Most recently he worked for David Cohlmeyer for two years, commuting every day up to Cookstown and toiling away on the farm. Right now, Cookstown is for sale, incidentally, and if Cohlmeyer can’t find a righteous-minded angel I fear the place will fall into the hands of property developers. Then that magical, golden soil that Cohlmeyer has cherished so well will be lost to us, buried forever under a dormitory subdivision.
There are plenty of good honest vegetables at Woodlot. Haman’s first menu was full of vegetarian alternatives to the meaty dishes – so much so that it became unwieldy and Haman ended up dividing it into two separate cards, one for those who eat meat, the other for those who don’t. The food is consciously plain and hearty – Canadian comfort food with no sign of anything molecular this time around.
I started out with a salad of perfect little white beans dressed in oil and salt, perfect bunches of mache, perfect shaved fennel with a very faint hint of preserved lemon, a slice of perfect, soft, saltily sapid prosciutto, and a mound of white crab meat that should have been the crowning glory but had so little flavour it might have come out of a tin. I confess I ate a lot of crab when I was England last week, so I knew what I was hoping for last night.
Oxtail and ox tongue terrine was much more robust, a fine heavy slab of dense, offally meat, full of flavour. A stripe of crumbled pistachios provided decoration; a spoonful of fig and port compote was crunchy because of the fig seeds and added to the natural sweetness of the meat. I would have liked something with the bite of mustard or the tang of a pickle to provide contrast, but I’m splitting hairs. The terrine itself was wonderful and worked beautifully with a glass of Boutari’s 2007 Ramnista, a 100% Xinomavro from Naoussa in Greece, big, extracted, tangy, tannic and full of spicy purple fruit.
My main course was the chicken pot pie, a classic version with tender chicken, shredded smoked ham hock, big soft chunks of carrot, potato and swede and soft cippolini onions all in a runny, creamy sauce. The pie was sealed beneath a golden dome of pastry and was piping hot – much too hot to eat without scorching and blistering the soft tissue of one’s mouth. So I ate the side order of potato and gruyere gratin while I waited for the pie to cool. It was worth my patience.
As a finale, I wanted to try the apple tarte tatin from the wood-burning oven. The apple was very soft and darkly caramelized, the pastry beneath a tad sturdy, not quite as decadent as it might have been. With a scoop of honey gelato, it all went down a treat.
It’s interesting when a clever chef decides to set aside all the complicated techniques he has acquired and aims squarely for honest simplicity – like a masterful lieder singer standing up and singing a Christmas carol. It’s all very pure and perfectly in tune but a part of me misses the old David Haman who took so many risks at Czehowski and who made one of the great desserts of the decade during his sojourn at Senses – a cylinder of frozen white cheese soufflé that turned out to be nothing but a semifreddo shell filled with luscious black elderberry sauce that oozed out onto soft cubes of olive oil cake decorated with chopped shiso leaves. Unforgettable.
Woodlot is hugely popular with critics and customers alike. It’s fun and casual and the service is friendly. The small wine list has three or four local wines but most are European and most are over $50. The only Scotch on the bar is Edradour 10 Year-old – not the first Scotch you’d pick if you were only going to have one on offer – not even the fiftieth – but a lovely, eccentric choice.
Woodlot. 293 Palmerston, just south of College Street. 647-342-6307.