Smörgåsbord – Keriwa Cafe

We talk a lot about seasonal, local food, but the ultimate in this type of cuisine has to be the food of the First Nations people, who predate the rest of us by thousands of years. European settlers relied on help from First Nations communities when they arrived in Canada, but a lot of what we look at as being “seasonal and local” really isn’t at all, it’s comprised of foodways that were imported.

Toronto has never had a restaurant featuring Aboriginal cuisine that I’m aware of, so Keriwa Cafe (1690 Queen Street West) has both a clean slate, and a lot to prove. There is little precedent for Aboriginal dishes in fine dining, but can Chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe make it high-end enough to bring in an upscale clientele (who will “rough it” into the wilderness of Parkdale for the novelty and trendiness factor, but need to be turned into returning regulars to keep the business running), and rustic enough to keep the cuisine true to its roots?

I’d have to shout a resounding “yes!” The dishes draw on local and seasonal, but are also influenced by First Nations communities from across the country. The inclusion of “seasonal, local” ingredients that are not necessarily indigenous (tomatoes, for instance) can be easily overlooked because Bear Robe works such magic with them.

The room, too, is a blend of old and new, traditional and modern, with plenty of wood, stone and metal and great creative tricks with light. Artwork, such as a giant eagle feather over the entrance, and a framed dress that belonged to the chef’s Grandmother remind diners, with an elegant level of subtlety, that they’re in an Aboriginal restaurant, without setting them up for culture shock.

Above: the tomato watermelon salad with watercress, yogurt and pumpkin seed – you know what? Mindblowing.

A play of light on natural surfaces adds more interest than plain painted walls.

Smoked whitefish with whitefish caviar and red fife blini. My one complaint – just one blini?? I’d have been happy with a bit less protein and more carbs here, just for balance. But flavour-wise, this was gorgeous.

Oh, little rock hen with roasted bread salad and mushrooms, I dream of you still.

Except when I’m dreaming of this bison dish, rare (and not dry, as bison often can be) atop corn polenta with chanterelles.

We debated whether this peach and apricot pie was too bland. You know what, peaches and apricots, not the most exciting of fruits (for me anyway), but it was actually perfect in its execution; great crust, flavourful house-made ice cream, and huge portion size. Sometimes you just want a comforting dessert.

And finally, I seldom order the flourless chocolate cake on a restaurant menu; they’re almost never any good. Keriwa knocks that rule on its head. With an almost fudge-like centre and topped with saskatoon berry compote and nuts, this was, by far, the best chocolate cake I’ve ever had. And I don’t care if chocolate is not local, season or a typical First Nations delicacy. It rocked.

Apparently, Keriwa is getting set to roll out a new menu to better match the cooler weather (hello, September, nice to see you!), so another visit is in order to see what Bear Robe and his team will be doing with pumpkins and game and other tasty ingredients.

Don’t just go for the novelty factor, and because it makes you feel all brave and hip going into Parkdale… go because this is a restaurant that deserves our support because they’re doing really amazing things with food and are honouring an often-neglected part of our country’s culture in the process.