Chris Nuttall-Smith on Keriwa and Bannock, two restaurants riffing on Canadian culinary traditions

Chris Nuttall-Smith on Keriwa and Bannock, two restaurants riffing on Canadian culinary traditions

Chef Joseph Bear Robe works the stoves at Keriwa, the city’s only Aboriginal restaurant
Chef Joseph Bear Robe works the stoves at Keriwa, the city’s only Aboriginal restaurant (Image: Emma McIntyre)

In the basement hallway of Keriwa Café, there’s a row of photographs showing an Ojibwa man dancing through Paris in feathered powwow regalia. From the Louvre to the Champs Élysées, the stomping, rattle-shaking man appears in hyper-saturated colour, while the City of Light behind him is rendered in muted sepia, as if to invoke a noble past. But in the final image, the dancer leans over. As you look more closely, you see that he’s fiddling with something, an iPod connected to a ghetto blaster—Sitting Bull meets the b-boy crew. “You think you know me?” the photo seems to say.

The series, by the part-Ojibwa artist Jason Jenkins, is a fitting emblem for Keriwa, which opened in early August on the western edge of Parkdale. The restaurant is the project of Aaron Joseph Bear Robe, a half-Scottish, half-Blackfoot chef who grew up on the Siksika Nation reserve in southern Alberta. He’s a classic dual-identity Canadian: though he ate bannock, saskatoon berries and bison meat for much of his young life, he also ate plenty of non-Native food, and he trained at Calgary’s highly regarded River Café, at Eigensinn Farm and, most recently, at Splendido on Harbord Street. There are Aboriginal accents around Bear Robe’s well-run dining room—a chandelier made with eagle feathers, a strip of Pendleton blanket running through the leather banquettes, his grandmother Maggie Barrow’s 70-year-old buckskin robe displayed in a prime spot beside the bar. But the music is Wilco and the Grateful Dead, the service is run by an ex–Splendido hand, and the menu, though it offers a few Native dishes, reads more fresh, local and organic than it does Aboriginal. Bear Robe’s heritage influences his cooking, but only as a foundation. He brings it upstairs when it works.

The 28-year-old chef does a smart starter of smoked whitefish that’s presented much the way a French chef might do it: with a caviar-topped buttermilk blini, horseradish crème fraîche and a salad of shaved radish and pea shoots. There is a tomato gazpacho one night that balances the supernal tug of sweetness, salt and acid in late-summer tomatoes against local jalapeños, bursting kernels of fresh corn and crunchy pepitas. Bear Robe topped the soup with a quenelle of sorbet that he made from cold-pressed canola oil, lemon syrup and sparkling water. He could sell tankers of that stuff. Pheasant from nearby Lake Simcoe arrives dripping-juicy, cooked half a shade past medium and sided with a superb golden galette filled with confit chicken, kale and stewed plums.

There are a few duds—dishes that come freighted with good intentions but fizzle on the plate. “This reminds me of horse feed,” my tablemate said of the buckwheat-stuffed cabbage roll one night, and he’s right. The texture, the flavour—it’s beige in every way. The whipped pork fat, served with the dark, wonderfully dense house-made bread, delivers smoked paprika and borderline rancid bite, instead of porcine roundness and sweet.

But then there’s the braised bison pemmican, which is served in an oblong wooden bowl that looks like a canoe, alongside bannock made from Red Fife flour. Pemmican, in its traditional form, is little more than a mash of meat, fat and berries. Bear Robe smokes his bison and braises it with juniper, cloves, sage, onions, bison stock and saskatoon berry jelly. It tastes like the greatest short-rib dish you’ve ever tried.

The bannock is just as good. Though it originated in Scotland, bannock is mostly known as a Native food; it’s been a staple of North American Aboriginal diets for at least 150 years. Bear Robe flavours his with maple syrup and fennel seed, and he pan-fries the dough in vegetable oil. It turns up steaming hot and dense, so its chew is reminiscent of a Montreal bagel, but it has depth and nuttiness from the flour, and a bit of Tiny Tom sweetness. If you don’t feel the urge to order more, check for a pulse.

I’d love to see him do more dishes like this—the stuff that sets Keriwa apart from other ambitious city bistros—and fewer like the expertly made but all-too-familiar beet salad with poached leeks. But creating menus for Keriwa has been a challenge, Bear Robe said. It’s the only Native-focused restaurant in the city, and one of a handful in Canada that aims to refine an Aboriginal culinary tradition through a modern lens. There’s no blueprint for that. How do you define Native food? Should an Aboriginal chef from Alberta offer traditional foods from the Far North or Eastern Canada? One of Bear Robe’s customers asked him why he’s serving whipped pork fat instead of whale blubber. Whale blubber is an Aboriginal ingredient, but it’s not his ingredient, Bear Robe told me. He’s navigating these questions with integrity, without playing to Disney Indian type. “At the end of the day I’m a chef, not a Native chef,” he said. He’s an excellent one at that.
The Hudson’s Bay Company, which celebrated its 341st year this past May, was an important force in the lives of many Canadian Natives right up until it sold off its fur-trading businesses in the 1980s. Bannock, The Bay’s new flagship restaurant, doesn’t much attempt to honour Native traditions—even the restaurant’s bannock is distinctly Anglo-Saxon, baked instead of fried or fire-roasted, and dotted with fresh herbs.

The menu aims to update Canadians’ notions of the nation’s comfort food. The sprawling, something-for-everyone carte includes bologna and eggs (a.k.a. “Newfoundland steak”), poutine, B.C. tuna teriyaki and Quebec pulled pork tourtière. Its vision is of a distinctly modern, multicultural and evolving Canada: you’ll also find tofurkey scallopini (seriously) and tortilla soup, and an item that appeared on early iterations of the menu as “Horacio Domingo’s pork shoulder sangweech.”

The restaurant is a three-way partnership between The Bay (whose shoot-for-the-moon CEO Bonnie Brooks is beavering to revitalize the retailer), Oliver and Bonacini (the company that runs Canoe, Biff’s Bistro and Jump) and the Canadian arm of Compass Group PLC (a food service behemoth with revenues of $23 billion last year).

Bannock’s Queen Street location is the first in a cross-country rollout plan. The room is bright, done in reclaimed pine, hemlock boards and marble; the only design flaw is the window that looks out on a characteristically bleak patch of The Bay’s menswear floor. At lunch, the place is crammed with tourists and shoppers, shop girls and QCs from Osgoode Hall, plus hedge fund types. They know value when they see it.

I loved the pickerel taco, which is actually a Chinese steamed bun stuffed with seared fish and a pepper sauce twanged with tamarind and maple syrup. The venison chili was beautifully made right up to the point of seasoning, when a heavy-handed cook nearly killed it with salt. The wild sockeye salmon is fantastic: it’s vivid pinkish-red and cooked properly so there’s a little life left in the middle; like much of the menu it’s fresh, light and fast. The grilled Alberta lamb is tender, tasty and properly done, with a grainy, satisfying salad studded with spelt.

Bannock’s menu, though it was created in part by committee, tastes unmistakably like the work of Anthony Walsh, who is O&B’s corporate executive chef and one of the most thoughtful and influential cooks in the country. The breads are scratch-made in the O&B bakery that Walsh helped to create; the fish and produce are well-selected, and the cooking, for the most part, is assured. To Walsh’s credit, he has taken the comfort format as a challenge to do something new, and to do it well. Even the gravy on the roast duck poutine pizza is made from scratch. Yes, roast duck poutine pizza. Sounds disgusting, tastes like the Rapture. And though you may not know this yet, it’s part of our identity somehow.

Keriwa Café ½
1690 Queen St. W.,
Mains: $20–$30

401 Bay St.,
Mains: $11–$23