Woods Toronto [Early] Restaurant Review
You know those days when you’ve got so many things to do that you literally aren’t sure where to start. When before you can finish a single thought, another one enters and they all end up fragmented in the mix. Yep- that’s been my day all week. Actually, I’m starting to think that it’s just the way my life is going in general. Awesome, right? So, by the time Friday night rolled along, it was definitely time for a drink and a good meal and I was super pumped for what I had on the books. Enter Bruce Woods. Will you feed me please?
Since leaving his place at the Bay St. staple Modus Restaurant about 6 months ago, I had been following Woods (also formally of Brasaii and Centro) to find out what he’d get into next. Now, back when I heard that Colborne Lane (one of Toronto’s only long-standing attempts at molecular gastronomy) was closing, I was disappointed to say the least. But when I found what would be taking its place, I wiped my foodie tears and made a reservation. Yep, with a quickie one-month renovation and turnaround, Bruce Woods opened up one hell of a spot alongside co-owner Robin Singh (Pravda Vodka House) and Anthony Davis as Chef de Cuisine (Sidecar, Cowbell, The Roosevelt Room).
Woods is not only (obviously) a suitable name given who owns the joint, but it’s also a good reflection of the space’s rustic Canadiana feel. And now don’t go letting the experiences at other self-proclaimed “Canadian” establishments inform the types of things you assume that means. Woods’ doesn’t communicate it’s Canadian theme with folklorish Moose-heads, hung ice-skates or sports-game memorabilia. Rather, Woods’ interpretation is far more elegant and organic while staying true to the naturistic “woods” theme. There are dark wooden floors, a gorgeous wooden branch chandelier, beautiful rain-drop shaped lights, a wall resembling white rapids or sand, and booths with a birch tree pattern. They even have taken the time to serve their drinks with custom-made straws that resemble skinny birch-tree straws. With the natural light shining through the massive front and back windows, and the noise never exceeding a gentle buzz, Woods makes me feel comfortable, warm and welcome. No one’s telling me to come back in three hours because they don’t take reservations. No one has to scream at anyone else because the music is too loud. No one has to shimmy into a communal table because they’ve packed us in like commercially raised cattle. Nope. It’s clear that Woods has opted out of the current hipster-mecca trend and man, am I ever glad.
Service is also a pleasure, especially considering they’re only one week in. From the moment we arrived, the adorably bubbly hostess greeted us with energy and smiles, starting the evening off on an immediate high. Likewise, our server for the night was friendly, well prepped on food and drink offerings, and was able to confidently make recommendations. The service staff were also very attentive with water glasses and cutlery, and both drinks and food emerged at a comfortable well-spaced pace- in and out within an hour and 45 minutes.
Speaking of drinks, Woods’ international wines list features about 16 selections by the glass ($10-19) and almost four times that by the bottle ($50-425). They also feature a handful of microbrews by draft or bottle, single malts, rye, grappa and 5 signature cocktails. Over the course of the evening, we enjoyed a fresh Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand ($12), the Sparkling Ginger (Wise Special Blend Meets Bitter Ginger with Dry Proscecco, $10), and the Woods Caesar (Muddled Tomato, Crispy Onions, Bacon Salt and Deep-Fried Pickle, $10). Two very different drinks, but both good in their own right. The former, of course, was much sweeter, while the latter was unmistakably savoury. It wasn’t as spicy as I normally like my Caesars, but it had tremendous texture and flavour with the umami-packed rimmer and the crispy onions on top. And they must be reading my blog to know I’m obsessed with Deep-Fried Pickles- because the one that garnished my drink was totally spot on.
Caesar Sparking Ginger
Foodwise, Woods and Davis have compiled a menu that celebrates sustainable local ingredients without being too explicit with the Canadian theme. That is, you’re not going to find maple syrup, bacon and game meat in every menu description. Rather, the dishes offer a generous range of seasonal ingredients prepared using both Canadian and Mediterranean influences, and are presented in palatable portions with elegance and restraint. It was certainly a tough call to choose, but with a little help from our server, we opted for:
Wild Digby Scallops with Parsnip Puree, Roasted Heirloom Garlic, Green Alder, Corned Beef Cheek ($17)
One of the best scallop dishes I’ve had in years. They were beautifully seared and buttery inside with a fresh delicate flavour that was perfectly complemented by the sweet puree and garlic, and the salty chew of the beef cheek. We literally scraped our plate clean.
Venison Carpaccio with Black Trumpets, Wild Leek, Corn Nuts, Seedlings ($16)
The venison was meltingly tender and flawlessly seasoned, with enough pleasant gaminess going on to complement the umami-rich trumpets. And with all of the delicate textures on the plate, I loved the supple pop and crunch of the corn nuts in every bite. Really a nice light starter for sharing.
Roasted Muscovy Duck Breast with Tatsoi, Shallot, Sourdough, Crispy Confit, Dried Cherries, Duck Egg Bernaise ($28)
I always feel like I’m playing with fire when I order duck breast, because so often I’m presented with super chewy overcooked meat. But this one was so tender I hardly needed to use my knife, contrasting nicely with the chewy sweet cherries, and the crunchy buttery sourdough croutons. I also appreciated that the mild mustard kick of the tatsoi helped offset the richness of the duck egg bernaise. A really well composed dish.
Spaghetti and Meatballs Stuffed with Pecorino Fresco, in Tomato Sauce with Toasted Basil Breadcrumbs ($22)
Stunningly simple, but loaded with comfort food flavours. Honestly, the last time I tasted a meatball like this I was sitting on a terrace in Italy. The spaghetti (maybe more like spaghettini, but I’m really not a pasta expert) was perfectly al dente and well seasoned, and the sauce was light, herbaceous and balanced. I also loved the crackling crunch of the breadcrumbs I got with every bite. But those damn meatballs. Mm! They had a nice caramelized crust and were juicy and cheesy within. I don’t have a nonna, but if I did, they would be better than hers. Just saying.
Raspberry Macaronnade: Mascarpone Mousse, Basil Ice Cream, Macaroon, Raspberry Tuile, Raspberry, Toasted Pinenuts ($11)
And as good as the whole meal had been, the desserts here really shine. The mousse was ethereal and light, lending its creamy rich mouthfeel to balance the bright raspberry couli. And as delicious as it was as an accompaniment, the herbaceous basil ice cream could have easily held its own. One bite and I literally felt like I was in a farmer’s garden smelling fresh herbs picked by the bushel- the definition of a fabulous Canadian summer. If you don’t like your desserts too cloyingly sweet, than this is the one for you.
Pecan Tart with Maple Swirl Ice Cream, Smoked Apple Compote, Raisin Gel, Coffee Nougatine ($11)
And if you like sweeter flavours (and you know I do), than this was a killer choice. The pastry was flaky and moist, and absolutely packed with buttery pecans and sweet, sticky filling that oozed out upon cutting. Building on that flavour profile, the puddle of plump juicy raisins added a satisfying chew to the smooth maple ice cream and really just tied the whole butter-tart theme together. I also appreciated the fresh tangy apple and the slightly bitter nougatine to help balance out of the sweetness. I have said it once and I will say it again- if my meal is bad, but dessert is good, I generally leave in a good mood. But if they screw up dessert, they’re really in trouble even if the mains were spot on. Woods has nailed them both, so I’m leaving a happy girl.
So for 2 apps, 2 mains, 2 desserts, sparkling water, 1 glass of wine, 2 cocktails, and 2 coffees, the bill came to about $185 after tax and tip. Relatively on par with our normal receipts, the meal was a fabulous way to kick off a much-deserved weekend of good eats! Woods proved itself to be a unique and much-needed addition to the Toronto dining scene, and a breath of fresh air from the usual noisy, busy, get-in-and-out experience I’ve grown accustomed to as of late.
Now, I try not to visit restaurants within their first months of business as there are generally a myriad of hiccups and mis-steps that they need to overcome. So out of respect for my own “rules”, it may be best to use this as a guide than as an official review. Having said that, I’m not sure what kind of mis-steps one would need to really be wary of at Woods, even if they’re to visit in month one. The food was phenomenal, the service was appropraite and the atmosphere was just my style.
So if you haven’t checked out Woods yet, run, don’t walk, to the phone and make a reservation (because you can actually do that here!!) And do not forget to check out Bruce and the rest of the Woods team cooking up a storm at Abbey’s Kitchen Stadium on May 26th! Bruce, along with Matt Basile (Fidel Gastros, Lisa Marie), Rocco Agostino (Pizzeria Libretto, Enoteca Sociale), and Matt Pettit (Rock Lobster Co) will be battling it out with a secret ingredient, raising funds for a great charity, My Food My Way.
Limited tickets still on sale for only $10! You do not want to miss out! Believe me, I have seen the chef’s menus. And if Wood’s cooking on Friday was any indication, the execution is going to rock.