Aboriginal cuisine, eh? About friggin time.
Open barely a week upon our arrival, Keriwa CafÃ© sits smack dab in the heart of Roncesvalles and Queen West, an area more noted for its quaint antique shops and dwindling Polish presence, but fast transforming into another Ossington. But unlike other hotspots that attempt to impress by hitting you over the head and wowing you with design, usually at the expense of what comes out of the kitchen, Keriwa (meaning "eagle" in Algonquin) deftly uses Firs
t Nations themes as a subtle backdrop: instead of covering the entire backing of a banquette with a native blanket, a swath is subtly stitched into the earth-toned fabric; a feather mobile gently sways above the entry not a dreamcatcher; wall adornments like a birch-bark collage and grandma's Bear Robe's buckskin dress, not to mention barn-floor table tops, are integral to giving this DIY 40-seat restaurant its authentic charm without veering into native kitsch.
But Keriwa should not be mistaken for a novelty cafÃ© merely aiming to showcase native culture like a dumbed-down food court option. It is a restaurant that is very serious about its mandate to provide local, seasonal and regional ingredients. And from a tiny open kitchen, chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe turns out aboriginal-inspired cuisine that not only underscores he is more than a featherweight when it comes to food, but that he is also someone very in touch with the Canadian landscape.
The Siksika Nation, Alberta chef, whose pedigree includes stints at Eigensinn Farm and Haisai with the legendary Michael Statdlander, and Splendido, hides in plain view, his head turned down in an almost sacred bow, ensuring each plate is perfect before it leaves a kitchen redolent with the aroma of burning orchard fruitwood. And it is probably the tightest menu in town. With four apps, four mains, three desserts and a few specials no one can accuse his team of lacking focus. But greater appreciation and admiration for Bear Robe is warranted for insisting that every single morsel of food is made in house. They even forage for their own herbs in the kitchen's backyard garden.
Why bother with just butter to accompany fresh baked red fife bread when you can also wow with whipped Berkshire pork fat the colour of sweet potatoes. Then the first of the bison dishes arrive. Pemmican ($14), (from the Cree root word "pimi," meaning fat or grease) is a traditional native fast food that predates the early fur trade. The dried, cured meat, often bison, is mixed with fat, and dried and pounded fruits. At Keriwa, however, the stylized staple is more like pulled pork - moist and meaty without the slightest gaminess. Purchased fresh from Alberta (because Ontario's bison producers only sell frozen), the appetizer is accented with fresh Saskatoon berries (much like blueberries) and fried bannock breads that make for the perfect mini-sandwich. A pickled green and purple bean salad with sea asparagus is an added twist from the typical mustard condiment.
Marrying greater Canadian culinary ingredients with aboriginal ones is apparent in a roasted corn soup ($10). And though the portion looks teensy weensy, such care and attention to detail is rarely seen in a soup. While roasted red pepper, fresh corn, mint and myriad other diced delights are piled in, they blend beautifully into a subtle, but exhilarating mix even if the strange addition of smoked ricotta does have us scratching our heads.
Delights continue with handmade ravioli ($19) the shape of potpourri sachets or salt-water taffy wrappers. Stuffed with bison and caramelized onion, these perfect little pasta pockets are further enhanced with a delicate herb butter, green and yellow beans, and milky cap mushrooms that, when cut, ooze with an oddly beautiful blue juice.
So far, so great. But then mains arrive, and the minor misfires begin. Tissue-thin bacon wraps a wonderfully moist whitefish ($23), but an accompanying brandade is beyond bland from too much potato. And although lovely, green and yellow beans make a second appearance. (Heck, if you don't like beans or bison, you're outta luck here.) A braised bison tail ($26), our least favourite iteration of the bovine tonight, is tough, yet still manages to fall of the bone with barely a pull. But it lacks the same finesse as the previous plates. Beneath, a fresh corn polenta is rich and rustic, but it's the huge portion of pricey chanterelles with the rare addition of lovage that give this dish a passing grade. A homemade peach & nectarine pie ($10) is the perfect conclusion for the dead of summer. But the bottom crust is soggy. Topped with a splendid homemade vanilla ice cream, that oversight is fast forgotten.
Keriwa will no doubt be a huge success, and deservedly so. But we wish for a bit more variety and adventure. As it stands, too few options may be problematic for some. And chef is playing it a bit too safe. Yes, he is using aboriginal-inspired indigenous ingredients such as corn and bison, but too much re-interpretation for the masses has this cherished heritage cuisine losing a bit of its splendour. Do I hear blubber butter? But I count my blessings. At least there's no mac 'n' cheese or burgers and fries on the menu.