Back in 2000, sourdough bread and fermentation weren’t making the cover of food magazines and at the top of foodie conversations like they are today.
But the owners of Woodlot (David Haman, original chef, now teaching pastry at GBC; Kevin Wood, “Janitor”/Operations Manager/Co-Owner; and Michael Stilson, newly appointed chef, promoted from within) were onto something.
Wood says, “We were really inspired by bread and wines at the time.”
It’s still a big part of the ethos of the restaurant, as is stellar innovative Canadian comfort food made from scratch with local, often raw ingredients, in their hand-built wood-fired oven. Add in a selection of phenomenal and fascinating natural wines, microbrews and seasonal cocktails, and a cozy two-story loft setting, and you’ll soon see why it’s remained a top Toronto restaurant all these years.
Take a closer look:
By bread alone
At the heart of the restaurant is the wood oven, where duck and veg cook slowly over the embers of mixed hardwood. French onion soup, pot pie, tortiere, and of course their famous organic sourdough bread, also make their way into the oven.
Sourdough, naturally yeast fermented, is made fresh every day, with everything done by hand. And while it may sound easy, cooking bread over variable temperatures is more difficult than you might think – chefs here are trained for six months to a year to get it right. The oven gets fired at night, then allowed to burn out. Loaves are baked the next afternoon after the oven has had time to cool, pulled out at 4 pm the following day.
The bread alone is worth a visit. Light and airy, yet simultaneously moist and a little dense, with bright sour notes – it will take all your willpower not to fill up on bread.
And before you ask, no, it’s not available for purchase in the restaurant or to go, so you’re just going to have to visit often.
Cool fact: they make a pasta from the sourdough grains, and it’s sublime.
There are two menus to choose from: “Meat Lovers” and “Vegetable Lovers,” with some vegan and gluten-free options available. And you’ll want to save room for the dessert lineup. Menus are changed seasonally, so it’s a great excuse to visit multiple times throughout the year, with dishes ranging from $8 to $32.
Right now, you can tuck into Woodfired Caramelized Onion Soup ($15) with Quebec Gruyere, housemade sourdough and parmesan; Woodfired Caramelized Leek Tart ($25) with roast pear, fennel, cacciocavallo and sage; and Roasted Brassica & Pistachio Stuffed Pumpkin ($26) with roast plum, toasted oats and spiced pumpkin glaze.
’Tis the season
Produce is almost exclusively from The Food Terminal’s outdoor farmer’s market. Wood, who cooked professionally for 10 years says, “We are more limited in the winter, but it forces us to be more creative.”
About 50 per cent of the produce is organic. “We just try to be conscientious about where it comes from,” Wood says.
That goes for other ingredients, too (they’ve been using local whey fed pork since the second week they opened.) Artisanal meat purveyors Sanagan’s and sustainable seafood shop Hooked are the restaurant’s go-tos. “I think working with these guys is really important,” he says. “They make all the ethical decisions for us.” You can view a full list of purveyors and friends on their website.
No matter what you order – something off the wine list, a microbrew or cider, or a cocktail or two to get you started – know this: a ton of research and thought has gone into each selection. Nothing’s been brought in without care and consideration.
In the past seven years, there’s been a big change in wines, with a huge increase in natural vino, made without pesticides and herbicides.
“You can really see the younger generation of people now getting excited learning about it. We’ve always been passionate about it,” Wood says.
Because the bar space is small without a lot of room for inventory, he says, “We have to be choosy.”
They’ve chosen damn well. As one of the handful of Toronto restos with “orange” wine on the list and a ton of local labels, Wood and his team can help you choose something to match your meal.
Cocktails aren't ordinary either. “I can’t remember the last time I made a Manhattan,” he says.
Two great selections for the season:
Chaos is a Ladder ($13)
Evan Williams Bourbon with salted caramel, Fernet-Branca, rosemary and orange.
You Know Nothing Jon Snow ($14)
Ungava gin with yellow chartreuse, lemon juice and pommeau.
Good food takes time
You need to know two things about the food here:
- It’s exceptional (“People order the pork chops for dessert.”)
- Everything’s made with great care, so it takes as long as it takes.
“Our biggest challenge is informing people, ‘You’re not in and out in 40 minutes,’” Wood says. “It’s not a turnstile. That’s how long it takes them to cook it.”
Catching a show? Looking for something a little quicker? Pastas generally take less time.
Worth the wait
The former garage, furniture store and Octopus Lounge nightclub were built by the team here, along with Teddy, owner of Ted’s Collision who built the oven, carpenter Marc Stonestreet, Sam Lewis, with design by Al Lee.
The staff put in the loft, hvac, surpression system, built the bar and kitchen, too. About the construction, Wood says, “We had so much fun. We are all friends and there was nowhere we wanted to work more than here."
There are a ton of different seating options – upstairs in the loft, cozy up at the downstairs bar, celebrate at the communal table on the main floor called the “baker’s table” because the bakers work on it during the day before the restaurant opens for dinner.
No matter where you sit, between the high ceilings, the rustic setting, views of the wood-fired oven, and the moody soundtrack (“I try to match the energy level (of the music) with the room, but it’s a free-for-all,” says Spence Dymons), it feels more like an inn up north than a busy resto smack dab in Little Italy. There’s a cool NYC vibe, too.
In one word? Magical. In three words? An absolute must.
Not because Woodlot's simply magnificent, but it continues to lead the charge in quality, consistency, creativity and hospitality, despite having opened almost a decade ago.
Woodlot (293 Palmerston Ave.) is open daily for dinner and drinks at 5 pm (last call for food from Thursday to Saturday is at 11 pm, otherwise 10 pm) and accommodates 34 guests in the loft, 7 at the bar, 8 to 12 guests at the “Baker’s Table,” 2 in “The Nook,” and another 25 on the patio, weather permitting.
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