The taxi ride from downtown Toronto to the Parkdale neighborhood, on the fringe of the city, takes a good 20 minutes. Way out on Queen Street West, I arrive at a desolate stretch of sidewalk and enter Keriwa Cafe, expecting to find no one there.
Instead, the restaurant is full and Edith Piaf is blaring from the sound system over the cacophony of conversations. It’s a lot like entering an airport in the wee hours of the morning only to encounter a long security line.
But of course I should have known better. Since unveiling the city’s first restaurant devoted to First Nations cuisine in August 2011, chef Aaron Joseph Bear Robe has been rewarded with a certain amount of fanfare — and a loyal following.
I enter the small establishment of wood block tables where the smell from a wood stove wafts in the air. The only signs of Bear Robe’s heritage are a buckskin robe, in a glass display case, that once belonged to the chef’s grandmother; a row of photographs of a First Nation brave in the downstairs hallway; and a giant silver eagle feather above the entranceway, paying homage to the word “keriwa,” which means eagle in Algonquin.
Bear Robe grew up in the Siksika Nation in Alberta, the son of a Blackfoot father and a Nova Scotian mother. He then ascended in the ranks of Canadian haute cuisine, working at Calgary’s famed River Cafe and under the watchful eye of acclaimed chef Michael Stadtlander at Eigensinn Farm, two hours northwest of Toronto, where multicourse meals are served to a fortunate few in a 19th-century farmhouse. So when he landed in Toronto with his polished pedigree (well, as polished as you can expect from a man with tattooed arms and a lip ring), the public took notice.
I start with a maple old fashioned: bourbon and black walnut bitters sweetened with maple. There’s also a large selection of Ontario wines and local microbrews, such as Great Lakes Brewing Golden Horseshoe Lager. The menu, as you’d expect from native-inspired fare, is heavy on the bison. Bear Robe receives the meat fresh from Alberta and uses it to make brisket, short ribs and an old fur-trader favorite, pemmican.
Once a staple for Lewis and Clark, pemmican was the protein powder of yesteryear, dried bison crushed into a concentrate and mixed with cooked fat upon dining. Bear Robe’s version is far more appealing: tender strips of bison marinated in a mahogany sauce and topped with peas and Saskatoon berries (blueberries with a bit more tang), served atop pan-fried bread.
The chef learned well from his mentor Stadtlander, the Alice Waters of Canada, who stressed farm-to-table dining long before the term existed. Even in midwinter, everything tastes fresh, including the rutabaga soup with pumpkin seeds and a hint of red wine, and a dish of sublime roasted Brussels sprouts, seasoned with bacon bits, pear and maple syrup. Just as tasty is a Lake Huron whitefish, line-caught by a friend, wrapped in bacon and doused in a pickled sea asparagus that was foraged from the salt marshes of Nova Scotia.
Bear Robe hopes to follow in the footsteps of Stadtlander one day and have his own farm. Judging from the crowd waiting for one of the 36 seats in his restaurant the frigid night I arrived, he’s also destined for a much bigger space closer to downtown. If you want to taste authentic Canadian cuisine in an authentic space, now would be the time to try the innovative fare at Keriwa Cafe.
1690 Queen St. West, Toronto
Entrees start at $16.
Jermanok is a Boston-based writer who blogs daily at www.activetravels.com.