Okazu 85 Downie 85 Downie Street Stratford, Ontario N5A 7V8…
Wildcraft Grill + Long Bar
425 King Street North
Waterloo, ON N2J 2Z5
Apps, mains, glasses of wine for two: $90
It’s hard to make any sort of objective, quantitative evaluation, but I think it’s safe to say, anecdotally, that when Wildcraft opened 12 years ago, it had a marked impact on the food and beverage scene in Waterloo Region. It’s safe to say that Wildcraft changed things here, to no little degree.
Restaurants like the Charcoal Steak House, The Bauer Kitchen and Wildcraft pay particular attention to detail and some of the finer points of customer service. I wrote about 12 years ago (see below), and I’m writing about that now.
And, it should be noted, many of the young chefs and cooks who came through those restaurants, honing their skills, have remained in the region plying their trade. Some own their own restaurants, and Wildcraft has had a hand in how our food culture has grown.
Now re-branded and re-visioned as Wildcraft Grill + Long Bar, the interior has been refreshed and modernized and is replete with some elegant decor touches and brightening as well as some pretty funky original art work. That a restaurant can buy art and support talent in the medium is pretty cool, I think. When you visit, ask wait-staff about the works.
As for the food, the restaurant’s new menu is about three months old and characterized by executive chef Todd Clarmo as created with the new Wildcraft as a complete vision.
“It’s not just me, a chef, creating a menu. It’s the group of us looking at what is the right fit for the time, the space, the guests, the location and concept,” Clarmo says.
That said, can a classic 1960s dish like duck à l’orange be re-cast and re-envisioned as “tiny duck tacos,” as Wildcraft has crafted it?; that fuses a few cuisines — and tastes good in doing so — such as an edamame guacamole and gochujang along with an orange-inflected pulled duck? It can. And that alone captures a few of the qualities Clarmo enumerates.
Clarmo has been with the Charcoal Group for a couple of years now. He describes the new Wildcraft menu as approachable and accessible to a range of customers, from its New American touchstones, which we generally all know and love, to dishes which flicker into other flavour accents and cultures, such as Sichaun chicken bao and salmon sushi.
I ate a round of seven or eight appetizers, a month or two ago. The burrata is earthy in its prosciutto sleeve with Mozzarella and spiced fig and port. The tuna tartare gets a good dosing of ginger and sesame with ssjamjang sauce, all of which really jump it up, while the carpaccio has fairly traditional (and delicious) accompaniments of Parmigiano and argula making it a solid dish.
The fries are excellent and the wings are unbreaded and flavoured with Indian spices and cooled with raita and mango chutney.
The service was energetic and professional at the same time attentive to those details and understanding of how a multi-course meal needs to be served.
The classic New American steak house element is present in the shape and form of 28-day-aged steaks and which come in a half-dozen variations with the attendant iconic steak house lexicon: “frites,” “blue,” “garlic mash,” “au poivre (with Armagnac),” “truffled.” Words that themselves boost your hunger.
The subtle, but decidedly inside reference to Thurston Howell ($49) will no doubt nudge late-Boomers, Gen-x’ers and pop-culture nerds — and is by the way, “Lovey,” seven ounces of tenderloin with broiled tiger prawns. There are a half-dozen additional sides.
This newer Wildcraft, though, is quite new: it includes a vegan menu, fittingly enough for these times, that stands alone; it’s not an adjunct to the regular menu, I wouldn’t say.
Now, I’m pretty hard core on the carnivore side of things, but the phenomenon of plant-based eating, however faddish it might currently be, is an interesting one. (And I do think, despite Beyond Meat on the DOW, that plant-based eating is somewhat over-heated at the moment. It should also be mentioned parenthetically that ingredient-cost for the various vegan dishes can be quite — even prohibitively — high for a restaurant to be able to handle, so kudos to kitchens that try to make it work for a pretty slim population of interest.)
Yes, the unique aspect at Wildcraft is that the 20-item vegan menu is its own entity. It’s based on the main menu but it seems to me to be more. In their vegan iteration, the very good tiny duck tacos are “duk” tacos, for instance, and quite close to the tiny duck tacos. There’s chick’n spaghettini with fennel and sundried tomatoes and there’s Sichuan chick’n bao with mango slaw and five-spice ginger hoisin.
The vegan menu says “friendly,” but it also says ample and robust I would say given its interpretation by Clarmo et al.
“It’s nice for vegans and vegetarians,” he says. “It’s necessary now for restaurants, but we’re not a vegan restaurant. We can take care of them, however. There’s a lot of breadth to what we are doing.”
He’s right in that.
As mentioned above, here is the raw text of my review of Wildcraft that first appeared in the Waterloo Region Record, June 21, 2007. A blast, no doubt, from the past!
[Wildcraft – Revised
Dining Out for June 21, 2007
Word count: 790
By Andrew Coppolino
Listen: you can hear the buzz. That din in the background emanates from Wildcraft, the latest restaurant creation from the Charcoal Group.
A venue with aesthetic appeal—high ceilings, funky W Bar and lounge, awe-inspiring wine “tower,” large expanse of a stone fireplace, rich wood tables, soft lighting, pleasant decor accents, comfortable booths, and outdoor patio for 60—Wildcraft is 250 seats that impresses with excellent service and generally confident culinary touches (and absolutely stunning restrooms, too).
The place has caused no little stir and for the most part that is justified. Open since late January, Wildcraft strives to raise the bar—and with the experience and resources of the successful Charcoal Group behind it, that is to be expected.
Executive Chef and Chef de Cuisine Michael Hodgson and Ryan Terry, respectively, put out an “America” menu from land, water, and field as their menu indicates. The restaurant’s name alludes to foraging natural produce from the wild. Overall, what Hodgson and Terry do wildcraft, they wildcraft well.
Beef tenderloin with blue-cheese butter, grilled shrimp, a burger with cheddar, walnut-crusted chicken breast, lamb, salmon, and ahi tuna (ranging from $10 to $35) represent conventional ingredients, while a venison special, ponzu sauce (yuzu citrus sauce with bits of dried fish), shallot confit tapenade, jasmine-scented rice, and truffle-mushroom flatbread forage in more unfamiliar terrain. A lobster mac and cheese side dish that was featured as a special tantalizes with a rich bechamel sauce and two year-old Cheddar.
At lively, hopping W Bar you can watch people, or watch business-television or the sports channel while lunching on warm porcini-crusted goat cheese salad ($8.95) and walnut-dusted sirloin with orange aioli ($10.95) as appetizers: both are good. Salmon ($17.95) is a tad over-cooked, and though it lacked in presentation, a special battered fish on a wooden skewer ($13.95) is fresh and hot.
Other lunch items include short rib quesadilla appetizer ($8.95) and steak sandwich with pesto ($14.95), veggie stirfry ($13.95), and apple and date-glazed pork tenderloin ($19.95) for mains.
The energy level ratchets up for dinner on a Saturday night in a packed and exciting dining room. Service is attentive and polished as it presents wonderfully smoky tomato soup with truffle-oiled crouton ($4.95) in a funky elliptically shaped bowl. Neither too salty nor too acidic, the soup is smoke-caressed to the right degree and silky textured. You would be hard-pressed to find a better one for $5.
Simple and classy appearance meets great taste: artfully plated Boston Bibb salad ($5.95) is ringed alluringly with pomegranate coulis, slightly tangy-sweet onions, chunks of orange, and pecans setting off Stilton sharpness. Also called butterhead lettuce, Bibb is sweet and buttery in the mouth.
Five huge sautéed scallops are attractively arranged on a narrow rectangular plate and seared a spectacular golden-brown. Red pepper coulis garnish is unnecessary, for these are the best scallops I’ve had in a long time.
Alaskan black cod ($25.95) with mushrooms and warm vegetable salad is a good concept with both delicate fish and accompanying vegetables nicely cooked—it needs more seasoning for flavour, however. Steak frites ($23.95), a Belgian concoction adopted whole-heartedly by American chop houses in all its heart-stopping deliciously fatty calories, is a perfectly medium-rare 10-oz. New York striploin and terrific fresh-cut fries buoyed by a delectable trio of peppercorn, thyme-tinged compound butter, and red pepper aioli sauces.
Share an order of divinely roasted sweet-potato wedges with garlic aioli—scrumptiously filling little devils (sides from $3.95 to $5.95). I had to pass on pastry chef Sara Jacobsen’s efforts—gelato to sticky toffee pudding ($4.95 to $13.95)—for a very generously portioned cheese plate and flatbread enough for two ($12.95).
Sommelier Matthew Worden brings experience from Susur Lee’s Lee restaurant in Toronto, adding his experience and knowledge to Wildcraft’s service team. His two-storey wine tower, having garnered a Wine Spectator “Award of Excellence,” is stocked with a range of new and old world wine selections.
Watch Wildcraft painstakingly set a table and fold napkins to spec—I waited for a tape measure to appear that staff might check the distance from the knife to the table’s edge correct. Seconds later, a manager swoops down to make final adjustments.
Loud, a bit rambunctious, Wildcraft has both steak and sizzle highlighted by attention to detail in an upscale casual setting. It is fun, invigorating, yet relaxed—the kind of place where when you leave the table your napkin has been folded on the back of your chair upon your return.
Plates of food are not simply set in front of you: they are dishes presented with a quarter-turn, their elements smoothly recited by personable, composed staff. It is meal as exhibition—energy, decor, service excellence, and a buzz that set a high dining standard.
Wildcraft Grill & Bar
425 King Street N, Kitchener
Apps $5 to $17; mains $13 to $35; Twenty wines by the glass ($6-$16), half-litres, and half-bottles ($20-$77) available; 150 labels ($29-$400). Dinner for two with appetizers, entrees, two glasses of wine, and a shared cheese course and coffee is about $100 before taxes and gratuity.
Monday to Thursday 11:30 a.m. – 1:00 a.m.; Friday and Saturday 11:30 a.m. – 2:00 a.m.; Sunday 11:30 a.m. – 11:00 p.m. Mastercard, Visa, Amex, Debit accepted. Private “studio” room for up to 42 guests available. Wheelchair access.
Assessing food, atmosphere, service, and prices, Dining Out restaurant reviews are based on anonymous and unannounced visits to the establishments. Restaurants do not pay for any portion of the reviewer’s meal. Andrew Coppolino can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.