Whalesbone: Kramer’s Conundrum, Pickerel vs Walleye and is Kenny Rogers Malaysia’s David Hasselhoff?

Growing up I was very familiar with Kenny Rogers. Not only did my grandparents have it in the rotation on the 8 track in between ABBA and Neil Diamond, but mom was a rather obsessive fan. I remember her travelling down to Toronto to see him in concert and returning with a huge, glossy souvenir book which sat in a rack for months afterwards.  His gleaming face on the front cover would greet me at the front door every time I got home from school.   I knew all about Ruby, Lucille and Reuben James. I knew that somebody believed in Kenny and that the Gambler could not possibly outrun the long arm of the law.

Kenny’s legacy continued when I moved to London. There was a Kenny Rogers’ Roaster’s a few blocks from my house. I went once but was more impressed with Canadian chicken juggernaut Swiss Chalet which was located a block closer. The chain’s popularity likely hit it’s peak in the mid-nineties after an episode of Seinfeld in which Kramer reluctantly falls in love with the chicken despite the fact its annoying red neon sign lights up his apartment. Despite the publicity, the company eventually declared Chapter 11 and is now owned and operated out of Malaysia with franchises scattered throughout China, the Philippines and Cambodia.   Maybe Kenny is to Malaysia what Hasselhoff is to Germany.

Kramer in the Kenny Rogers' Glow
Kramer in the Kenny Rogers’ Glow

During a recent trip to Ottawa, I was craving seafood more than I was chicken, so I decided to grab dinner at Whalesbone. The oyster house has become a staple among many Ottawa foodies and is known for its innovative menus and bar side turntable which bellows the output of spinning vinyl throughout its tiny confines. I arrived in time to grab a bar seat before the place got too full.  I sat down and had flashbacks when I saw Kenny’s bearded mug staring at me from behind the bar while his voice serenaded me with the suggestion that I decorated his life.

I was greeted by a pleasant barkeep who quickly sliced some bread (served with a delicious maple butter), passed me the daily menu and eagerly explained the daily catch of oysters in great detail.  Finding it difficult to decide, I opted for one of each of the mollusks from the likes of Colville Bay PEI, Foxley River PEI, Eel Lake NS and Simon NB and Deep Bay BC. Equivalent to the variety of oysters was the carousel of condiments that came with it which included the standard horseradish, lemon and Tabasco in addition to the  housemade seafood,hot sauce and mignonette and even a shaker of blended scotch. The variety of both the oysters themselves and the additions made for a very enjoyable start to the evening.

Oysters 3/$16
Oysters $3.15-3.25 each

All of the half dozen starters looked incredible but I settled for the scallop ceviche ($20) which was served with grapefruit, red onion, jalapeno, crisps, cilantro and fraiche.  It was presently beautifully and had a crispy acidity which nicely coddled the tender scallop.  I was hoping for a little more heat from the jalapeno. The radish, which wasn’t listed on the ingredients, was a bit like an uninvited guest whose powerful presence was a little too dominating in the midst of the others party goers.

Scallop Ceviche $20
Scallop Ceviche $20

For the entree, I was fascinated by the walleye and clam combination flavoured with bacon, beans, radish, potatoes and herbs ($30).  As a side note, some of us get rather annoyed by the use of the word walleye instead of the much more Canadian pickerel but I suppose I should pick my battles.  Once again, the dish was picturesque. The pickerel fillet was nicely browned and served atop a fragrant broth which housed the remaining ingredients.  This time the radish was a welcome guest, adding some crunchy bite to the dish.

Walleye $30
Walleye $30

For dessert, the banana cream pie ($11) was calling my name. It was served in a mason jar and served sprinkled with a graham crust.  Those who are not extremists may be a bit turned off since it was heavy on the sweet side but despite this, I enjoyed the taste and texture, highlighted by  fresh cream and chunks of ripe banana.

Banana Cream Pie $11
Banana Cream Pie $11

My Take

From start to finish, I enjoyed the Whalesbone experience.  Whether it was the fresh bread, the array of available oysters, great service or the other innovative dishes, it had all the components of a great but expensive meal. Each offering was well thought out and attractively presented with an array of textures and flavours by pleasant and knowledgeable waitstaff.

I rarely tweet while at a restaurant but the combination of the oysters and Kenny’s crooning put me in the mood to proclaim my sultry experience to the world.  My message was quickly retweeted by somebody at the restaurant and one clever follower asked me if I counted my oysters when I was sitting at the table; I said there’d be time enough for counting when the eatin’s done.

Whalesbone Oyster House on Urbanspoon

Adding a Thoroughbred to Toronto’s Culinary Horse Race

In the race to win over ravenous hipsters and foodies, a number of new horses have joined the field.  Thoroughbred is no exception. By reading the name you would expect telewagering, mechanical bulls or country-inspired  karoke. Instead, you get a trendy,  multi-floored work in progress.  Floor one is an attractive smaller area housing a bar and a few tables and serving food which can be described as bar food done differently .  The second floor is the kitchen complete with a 10 seat chef’s table. Only a few steps up is the third floor which will be a 35 seat dining room with a complete dinner service.  Closed Sundays and Mondays, it offers lunch, dinner  and late night service Tuesday to Friday and opens Saturday at 5pm.

And they’re off…..

Although tempted to relish a mint julep in honour of the thoroughbreds of the Kentucky Derby, I was intrigued by pop-culture inspired  Art Vandelay instead ($13).  Made of London dry gin, Dr. Van Nostrand’s tonic, sage, hopped grapefruit bitters, lime and  egg white, I presume it’s a spin on a Gin and tonic or even a Tom Collins developed by a guy who spent Thursday night’s in the 90’s in a spirit-induced coma laughing at the Soup Nazi, Puddy or shaking his hands at neighbours and muttering Newman under his breath.  It was sweeter and smoother than I expected, perhaps a reflection of who Art actually would be compared to creator George Costanza.

 

Art Vandelay $13
Art Vandelay $13

 

The race started with a simple bowl of olives ($6). Although it’s hard to imagine a twist one one of the most ubiquitous dishes on Toronto menus, the addition of slim jims and peperoncini peppers was a noble effort.  The portion size was generous and  and despite the fact I’m not an olive fan,the additions were smart and they were very acceptable.

Smoked Olives $6
Smoked Olives $6

 

The next leg was with a bloomin’ scallion, a daintierz twist on the Outback bloomin’ onion.  Light batter surrounded tender whole green onions and served atop a citrusy “dipping” sauce.  Although a plain dish, it was attractive and well executed. It’s more of a knife and fork nourishment as opposed to a get your hands greasy goody.

Bloomin' Scallion $6
Bloomin’ Scallion $6

 

Coming into the final turn, I ordered the roast broccoli marrow, broccoli carpaccio, plum vinegar and  mache ($6).  Perhaps a shot at the bone marrow movement, this dish was visually stunning and textually complex.  At first sight, the roasted broccoli stalks would fool a PETA member.  Surrounded by jicama, red pepper and cashews, the flavour was as balanced as the presentation.  Although primarily vegetables, this dish was a steal for the price and absolutely delicious.

Roasted Broccoli Marrow $6
Roasted Broccoli Marrow $6

 

The home stretch was another vegetable creation; shaved summer squash with watermelon, pine nuts, lemon vin and grana padano ($6). Another show horse, piles of shaved zucchini were garnished with ribbons of the same and a few radishes. The watermelon’s sweet  and the  cheese’s salt sung a harmonious tone atop the tart   lemon vinaigrette and spots of olive oil. Like the broccoli, it was a light, well constructed, striking and balanced dish.

 

Summer Squash
Summer Squash $6

 

Not only is the food delicious, but the service was top notch.  Lacking a Kentucky Derby pretension,  professional staff run the place, including an engaged business partner who is cordial and visible. He introduced himself to me and brought me upstairs to meet the head chef and show me the kitchen, chef’s table and future dining area.  The chef table’s concept includes unique group offerings including a Flintstone’s (ribs and all the fixings) or east coast seafood theme. Patrons can also set price points and let the chef go wild. The menu is in progress but promises a full dinner menu reminiscent of the offerings in the bar below.

My Take

Thoroughbred has come out of the gates offering a cool, trendy yet slight awkward set up close to the entertainment district.  So far, the food and service are winning heats.  They ignore the expected equine cliches by naming cocktails after Axel Foley instead of Willie Shoemaker.  Excellent service and engaged ownership combined with unique and innovative snacks, sinful meats, seafood and sandwiches make up the bar menu which leads me craving the bigger show upstairs once it’s offered.

If using the metaphor of a horse race, so far Throughbred is a winner.  In the Toronto restaurant derby, the biggest question is whether their vision will come to fruition and this foal will achieve the success of Secretariat or the unfortunate fate of  Barbaro. If they stick to this gameplan, I’ll place my bets on the former.

 

Thoroughbred Food & Drink on Urbanspoon