TEMPTING TAPAS AT NEW HESPELER BAR,
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