Gastropub Crawl: the good and great among the new wave of British pubs

Gastropub Crawl: the good and great among the new wave of British pubs

Can a new crop of British pubs push the comforting cuisine beyond stodgy pigs and puddings?

The Oxley in Yorkville serves up solid standards with a side of kitsch 

Toronto is a town obsessed with the culture of its constitutional overlord. We woke up early to watch the royal wedding, eagerly pirated the latest episodes of Downton Abbey, and still flock to Stratford for our annual dose of Elizabethan manners. Now we’re doing the previously unthinkable: craving British food. It isn’t a new fixation—the city has long had its share of toads-in-the-hole velvet banquettes and dark wood panelling, but there’s a new seriousness to the endeavor.

In 2009, the Manchester-born chef Andrew Carter and Jamieson Kerr, the British expat who also founded Crush Wine Bar on King West, opened The Queen and Beaver on Elm Street, the city’s first (and still best) sophisticated pub. Across town that year, the renowned oyster shucker and Starfish proprietor Patrick McMurray launched The Ceili Cottage, a raucous Irish pub that, while not British, helped lift Toronto out of its Firkin fog and raised our expectations of pub food.

Three years later, a second British invasion has hit Toronto, including Carter and Kerr’s empire-expanding Yorkville spot The Oxley; two new additions to Dundas and Ossington’s bursting scene, The Saint and The Grove; and a number of simpler pie-and-pint joints, such as The Bristol Yard, near Christie Pits, and Dog and Bear at Queen and Dovercourt. Stylish British pubs are no longer the exception, though the quality and style of cooking varies vastly within this new wave.

The U.K., with its Sunday roasts, lamb chops and mushy peas, occupies a nostalgic place in our culinary imagination—more Coronation Street than cutting edge. In reality, England evolved past bland comfort food long ago. It now has 145 Michelin-starred restaurants, many of them pubs. Heston Blumenthal, one of the most innovative chefs in the world, owns four cliché-busting establishments, including the famous Fat Duck in Bray, Berkshire, and Dinner in London, where he reinterprets historical English recipes, most of them centuries old. April Bloomfield, the Birmingham native, has unrolled three New York restaurants since 2004—The Spotted Pig, The Breslin and The John Dory—garnering some of the first serious critical acclaim for pub food with her impeccably made scotch eggs, sweetbreads and haddock chowder.

Of all the new Toronto restaurants, only The Grove is attuned to the evolution of its motherland. The rest are content serving (sometimes very good) versions of the golden oldies. Canadian pub culture is a bit like our television programming: slightly conservative, slightly sentimental and a bit behind the times.

The Saint on Ossington gives the old-school English tavern a loungy twist 

The Oxley in Yorkville, for instance, is an almost comical arena of British kitsch. The dining room walls are covered with murals of fox hunts, a scale model of the Titanic rests behind the upstairs bar, and everything is served on the sort of mismatched patterned china that’s meant to make you think of Mum, or at least of Mary Poppins. Despite the decor, though, the mood is more Hazelton than Hampstead. I visited late on a Saturday night and stayed well after the architectural hair, French cuffs and blingy jewellery had gone home. To my left, a young man worried over his burger, while his dining companion barely touched her food. “What would cheer you up that’s not Chanel?” he asked. “Nothing,” she said. “I just wish this fish thing were better.”

Her dish aside, the dressed-up pub classics were generally well executed and full of flavour, especially the malty-rich Welsh rarebit on the bar menu, in which a hot, beery cheese sauce was poured over a slab of house-made white toast—the best version I’ve had outside the U.K. The thick chips are crisp and salty, though diminished by an overly curried house-made ketchup. Pheasant and goose liver polony, a terrine-type concoction that looks a little like bologna, was herbal and deeply meaty, and made even better by the crunchy, sweet, lemon-dressed green beans that accompanied. The dish reminded me of visiting family in the Somerset countryside as a boy. A dry-aged rib-eye was well-cooked and judiciously placed on a Stilton trencher, which in this case meant another piece of white toast coated in pungent blue cheese. A tall slice of rabbit pie was the real star, an addictive combination of miraculously flaky crust, buttery sliced potato and gamey, earthy meat. I would have ordered another slice had I not been saving room for the requisite sticky toffee pudding, an exceptional cauldron of bubbling caramel-doused cake served with vanilla ice cream.

When the rather sizable bill arrived, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole enterprise was slightly cynical. The food was good, the drinks were good, and the decor, while a bit silly, was comforting in its way. It’s a restaurant carefully calibrated to affirm our expectations rather than shake them up. Which, depending on your mood, may be its greatest virtue. Though it’s not as comfortable or as effortlessly English as The Queen and Beaver, it will do very well as a go-to spot for watching the World Cup in style, or hosting goodbye drinks for a retiring Bay Streeter.

If The Oxley feels a bit slavish in its affectations, it at least has a vision. That’s more than can be said for The Saint, a tavern recently opened on Ossington by the King Street Food Company, the group behind such slick establishments as Jacobs and Co. Steakhouse and Buca. Chef Andrew Bradford, formerly executive chef at Jacobs and Co., has designed a menu featuring the obligatory fish and chips and Sunday roasts, but it’s as rambling and aimless (pierogies and fried chicken are trendy interlopers) as the cooking itself.

The duck sausage our server recommended was dry and forgettable, nothing like the plump bangers I’d hoped for. The burger was good and very juicy, but a side of undercooked cauliflower with bacon proves that chunks of pork fat can’t fix everything. House cocktails were almost laughably overpriced at $16, and desserts had a distinctly Loblawsian quality. The stylish room, with its subway tile and zinc bar, takes inspiration from King Street, and its brand of standard-issue hipness contributes to the restaurant’s indistinctness. The highlight of a recent dinner was the proximity of Geddy Lee, who enthusiastically consumed a 32-ounce rib-eye at the next table. I wondered if his was overcooked, too.

The Grove does an elegant interpretation of parsley root soup (bottom right) and Eton mess (left) 

Everything is different at The Grove, recently opened on Dundas West between Ossington and Dovercourt. Unlike its stuffy new Canadian countrymen, The Grove is more inspired by London’s contemporary dining scene, boldly reinventing what we understand British restaurants to be. Gone are the heaviness, the leather, the plaid upholstery and the fireplaces. Instead of trying to connect diners to some faux British past, the owners, chef Ben Heaton and Richard Reyes, have opted for wry, self-conscious nods to the homeland: on a recent evening, the chalkboard sign on the sidewalk read “The Smiths/The Queen/Harrods/London Fog and The Grove.” Happily, they haven’t forgotten the thick-cut chips, which were automatically brought to the table as a welcoming act, along with a simple cold vegetable dish—three raw Cookstown radishes, still bearing their crisp greens, in a pool of herbed oil; another evening, delicate lengths of cucumber with mint yogurt. Heaton, who is Yorkshire-born, Whitby-raised, London- and Manchester-trained, has worked in some of this city’s better kitchens, most recently Colborne Lane and Yorkville’s One. These influences are clearly felt: his British exposure results in the city’s best black pudding, smashed and crisped and placed on the sweetest peas you’ve ever tasted with a sous-vide duck egg, waiting to be pierced and enrich the whole thing. It reminded me of Claudio Aprile’s playful precision during Colborne Lane’s heyday, back in 2007.

Heaton’s plating is exquisite, especially an immaculate assemblage of seared scallops, crispy fried squid and confit chicken wing and skin, pulled together by pickled onions and two aïolis, one made of green garlic and the other, ingeniously, of briny squid ink. His parsley root soup, brought in a carafe and poured into a bowl containing bacon jam, snails and fried sourdough bread, was somehow both earthy and ethereal, reminiscent of the sophisticated integ­ration of luxury and simplicity his old boss at One, Mark McEwan, was known for, at least before he became more interested in Top Chef Canada.

Main courses are artfully composed. A beef dish paired the depth of braised short rib with the meaty clarity of quick-grilled hangar steak, all made harmonious with grainy mustard, dried onion chips, king mushrooms and potato purée. Heaton’s Eton mess was the most explicitly British moment of the evening; he updated the lemon curd–based classic with elderflower and crunchy sheets of dehydrated meringue. The chef himself served it to us—in a teacup, of course.

The Grove is still a new restaurant, and not without weaknesses, especially in its underdeveloped wine list and poor cocktails, which are out of step with the exacting elegance of Heaton’s cooking. Still, it feels quintessentially like today’s Toronto—the inescapable pig tchotchkes, the Neil Young soundtrack, the airy, high-ceilinged room. And this is precisely what is so forward-thinking about the restaurant: it demonstrates that British food can be bracing, beautiful and challenging, and that it can be served in a stylish room that could just as easily showcase charcuterie, sushi, tacos or bi bim bap. In imagining a space for this food outside of cozy couches and fireplaces, and freeing it from the trappings of tradition, Heaton makes the case that British cuisine is a part of Toronto’s mixed culinary heritage, of us as we are here and now.

The Oxley
121 Yorkville Ave., 647-348-1300

The Saint
227 Ossington Ave., 647-350-2100

The Grove
1214 Dundas St. W., 416-588-2299