I was lucky enough to be able to attend the media preview event at Oliver & Bonacini’s Bannock at the Hudson’s Bay flagship store (401 By Street) at Yonge and Queen, but those events, while fun and full of free samples, are never really reflective of what the restaurant is like during regular service. Of course, it took a few weeks to get back; Greg and I arrived once without a reservation for dinner and the place was packed. So we popped in for lunch a week or so later and managed to score a table and check out what Chef Anthony Walsh had done with a menu that doubles as a love song to Canadian cuisine and Canadian history.
Teaming up with the Bay and creating a restaurant featuring Canadian comfort food was a no-brainer. As in, why didn’t someone think of this before? The space is both modern and sleek and drenched in history – step into the dining room portion of the space and look up – the ceiling is made from planks of The Queen’s Wharf, a 244 foot long wharf that once stood at the foot of Bathurst Street and was buried/underwater until 2006 when it was unearthed during excavations for a condo tower. The walls, which also look like wooden planks, are actually concrete. How’s that for modern history?
The servers too, are dressed in simple black t-shirts printed with different examples of old maps of Canada, a perfect choice to go with the theme of the restaurant but also offer a level of sleek formality while still being welcoming to customers who might range from shoppers and tourists to local Bay Street business folks. (And I adore that the female servers aren’t wearing something scanty just to score tips. Thank you for that, O&B!)
Walsh’s menu (which, despite the cool decor, is really why we’re there) touches all parts of our great country, with BC tuna, Nova Scotia lobster and a number of traditional dishes such as habitant pea soup, venison chili, tourtiere, Alberta pork shoulder… you get the picture. Bannock, that Scottish flatbread adopted/adapted by First Nations peoples plays a huge role as well, subbing as crust for pizzas, showing up as croutons in Caesar salad, and also being served as straight up bread as part of a bread basket.
On our visit, we opted for a couple of salads; the prairie grains salad (top) that was a gorgeous pile of living sprouts, greens and tahini dressing with the addition of funky heirloom beets, radishes, flower petals and pickled things. The split pea fritters (above) were like pea falafel, and also came atop a colourful mix of greens.
One of the changes that came with O&B taking over food service at The Bay is that the much-loved Arcadian Room on the 8th floor will become an event space instead of a daily restaurant. Apparently so many customers were worried about the demise of the Arcadian room chicken pot pie, O&B added it to their menu and did very little to tweak it, lest the purists complain. Buttery puff pastry covered a loose chicken stew with big pieces of meat and veg and a disconcerting but delicious sauce with a slight tang, as if it includes yogurt or sour cream.
We didn’t try any of the heavier mains, but plan on going back to do so once the weather is colder. But the piece de resistance at Bannock has got to be the duck poutine pizza. That’s a bannock, topped with caramelized onions, roast duck, fries, and cheese curds. No, no… don’t think about it, just eat it.
Just before our food arrived, a table of 7 seniors were seated beside us. 5 of the 7 ordered this pizza after watching ours arrive at our table. And yes, it’s absolutely amazing.
My one gripe about the Bannock menu is that, while there is a great effort to include vegetarian and vegan-friendly dishes (there’s a Tofurky scallopini), these little beauties, these gorgeous sour cream donuts, are made with lard. And the menu doesn’t say that anywhere. It wasn’t an issue for us, but for vegetarians (or pretty much anyone who eschews pork) it would be a bit of a problem. If you eat the pork, though, these are like a crazy flashback to Grandma’s kitchen (well, for me anyway), the donuts offering the tang of sour cream and a hint of nutmeg, the caramel sauce with a trace of maple just barely sweet, the way you’d make it at home by boiling an unopened can of condensed milk until it turned to caramel.
Bannock is really two restaurants in one, and while we enjoyed a leisurely lunch in the dining room, the other half is made up of a grab and go counter with tables for grabbing a quick bite. It features coffee, pastries, sandwiches, wraps, salads and easy to transport items like the tourtiere, and is a great option if the dining room is too packed or if you’re in a hurry .Me, I’ll be heading back for another leisurely lunch sometime soon – I plan to work my way across the country, one dish at a time.
Bannock is open daily; hours for the dining room and grab and go section can be found on their website.