TEMPT­ING TAPAS AT NEW HE­SPELER BAR,

Waterloo Region Record - - NIGHT LIFE - Alex Bielak As­sess­ing food, at­mos­phere, ser­vice and prices. Din­ing Out restau­rant re­views are based on anony­mous vis­its to the es­tab­lish­ments. Restau­rants do not pay for any por­tion of the re­viewer’s meal. Alex Bielak can be reached at www.twit­ter.com/ale

I had no par­tic­u­lar ex­pec­ta­tions when book­ing a quiet ta­ble at The Ag­ing Oak. The voice at the end of the phone sug­gested they’d al­lo­cate us a booth. Ar­riv­ing at 6 p.m. on a Thurs­day, we were the only din­ers in what their slightly-clunky web­site an­nounces as an “El­e­gant Wine & Whiskey Tapas Bar.” With its small frontage on He­speler’s main drag, the restau­rant’s seat­ing is lim­ited: 10 at the bar and an­other 20 at ta­bles, in­clud­ing the sin­gle, cosy booth from which we were able to sur­vey ev­ery­thing. Gleam­ing oak floors, and a large stone bar and wall, the lat­ter punc­tu­ated by al­coves hold­ing can­dles, give an im­pres­sion of age, even though they are the re­sult of the ren­o­va­tion un­der­taken last sum­mer, when the Oak took over from its short-lived pre­de­ces­sor, the Naked Oys­ter. It’s a calm space, and Jerry Strader, the most wel­com­ing owner, also the sole server for the night, as­sured us we had the ta­ble as long as we wanted it, his goal be­ing to en­cour­age pa­trons to re­lax. One can ap­pre­ci­ate this as in some es­tab­lish­ments the diner is of­ten a “cover” rather than a “guest.”

Be­fore or­der­ing, we pe­rused the six-sec­tion drinks menu: Mr. Strader, a whisk(e)y, bour­bon and wine en­thu­si­ast, reg­u­larly brings in care­fully-re­searched finds from all over the world. We opted for wine, se­lect­ing first a Woodbridge Chardon­nay from Cal­i­for­nia and then the 2014 Jack Rab­bit Red (both $11 for 6 oz.), a fruity Caber­net Franc-Mer­lot blend from The Hare, a newish Ni­a­gara win­ery.

Many items on the menu, in­clud­ing the meat and cheese boards, are priced by unit to suit var­i­ous party sizes, some­thing more restau­rants should do. It was sug­gested we share sev­eral dishes, and un­less we spec­i­fied they’d ar­rive as the kitchen saw fit: We be­gan with a first-class 12-hour Braised Beef Shor­trib ($15) fin­ished in a con­vec­tion oven to give the meat a pleas­ing crust. It came with a good demi-glace fin­ished with horse­rad­ish, small heir­loom car­rots, a scat­ter of pea sprouts and two rel­a­tively un­der­whelm­ing purées, truf­fled sweet pea and lentil-cele­riac.

Bay Scal­lop Tacos ($12 for a dou­ble serv­ing) came on fresh soft shells held up­right on a stain­less steel fan­fold. Ten small mol­lusks, atop cab­bage slaw and av­o­cado aioli, were driz­zled with cilantro vinai­grette for a pleas­ant bite. Fresh pea sprouts again pro­vided crunch.

Wild Mush­room Es­car­got Dip ($14) was tasty, fea­tur­ing crem­ini, oys­ter and shiitake mush­rooms in a white wine cream re­duc­tion with Parmi­giano-Reg­giano and fresh basil, and fresh, warmed bread and home­made herbed cros­tini for dip­ping.

Not quite suf­fi­ciently-suf­ficed, we or­dered the Peach and Pro­sciutto ver­sion ($13) of

sev­eral flat­breads on of­fer. It was the dish of the evening. The peaches were thinly sliced, but held up quite well to be­ing cooked, while the flat­bread was crispy, flavour­ful and de­li­cious. The pro­sciutto top­ping was gen­er­ous, and some Ca­jun gra­nola added sub­tle con­trast­ing tex­ture, but not par­tic­u­larly flavour.

The mat­ter of us­ing non­lo­cal (or­ganic Cal­i­for­nian) peaches aside, I asked Chef Ryan Col­ley whether a driz­zle of bal­samic might have been a good ad­di­tion.

He said he’d con­sid­ered it, but felt it would de­tract from the dish by over­whelm­ing din­ers’ senses. On re­flec­tion I con­curred: his dishes were well thought out, not over-sea­soned, and with lay­ers of com­ple­men­tary flavour.

Only a sin­gle Daily Dessert ($8) was of­fered, so we shared the straw­berry-rhubarb cheese­cake crisp with an­other gra­nola, and

whip­ping cream flavoured with just a hint of cof­fee liqueur. It was en­tirely sat­is­fy­ing, and an ob­ject les­son in re­straint: of­fer a sin­gle, good, freshly-pre­pared dessert rather than a raft of lesser ones.

With more pa­trons trick­ling in, and the call of “we’re up” com­ing from the kitchen with in­creased fre­quency, we de­clined the sug­ges­tion of capping the evening off with an Ap­ple­wood smoked whisky. Oc­ca­sion­ally, one is agree­ably-sur­prised in the restau­rant re­view business. This was one of those times: we de­parted suf­ficed, and promis­ing to re­turn.

1 fork: fair 2 forks:good 3 forks: ex­cel­lent 4 forks: out­stand­ing

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