When I heard that Red Ox Inn would be opening a more casual sister establishment to their charming but upscale Strathern location, I was excited. Not only did it speak to the burgeoning nature of the 124 Street district (which has become a destination for the food-inclined), but it also speaks to a trend of less formal dining. Places like Three Boars, Tres Carnales, and more recently, Izakaya Tomo, highlight this style of dining, which may sacrifice white linens but not the creativity or quality of their food.
When Canteen opened in December, the response was immediate – diners seemed to love it! Reviews praised the service, the whimsical menu, and the modern décor. As a result, it was on our radar for a while, but only in March did the stars align so we could experience the restaurant ourselves.
Lovely place setting
We made a date with Jane and Yi-Li to try Canteen together on a Sunday evening. The room, lined with extended banquet seating on one side and a bar on the other, is sleek and understated, and with the oversized pendant lamps and minimal black and white colour scheme, reminded me very much of Moriarty’s. The open window at the back of the space with a view into the kitchen is a nice touch.
We ordered the corn fritters ($8), served with a smoky maple syrup, to start. The presentation was lovely, delivered in a custom wood serving dish, emblazoned with “Canteen” on the side (at the end of the evening, the bill was enclosed in a similarly customized vessel). Although the fritters themselves were hot, and perfectly crispy on the outside but soft on the inside, we were hoping for a smokier flavour in the syrup; it was a bit too subtle for our liking.
Yi-Li and I both opted for the short rib ($29). The meat was tender, and held no resistance against being pulled off the bone, but wasn’t particularly memorable. The corn gnocchi, however, was an interesting twist to the usual side of potatoes.
Mack did enjoy his snapper ($27), pan-fried to a crisp. But the star of his plate was the risotto cake – it was akin to an aracini, but with even more surface area for the outward layer of crunch!
If there was an entrée to sing about, it was Jane’s lamb chops ($32). The aggressive Moroccan rub complemented the meat well, cooked to a perfect medium rare.
Our overall impression of Canteen at the dinner hour was positive, but based on the entrée prices (ranging from $26 to $32), we failed to see how it was a casual counterpart to Red Ox Inn. From our vantage point, Canteen is, in both food and service, still very much a higher-end establishment, without the linens. Although their menu does offer “small stuff”, bites which would accompany a glass of wine or beer well, I’m not sure I would feel comfortable sidling up to the bar at Canteen to order just a nibble or two. Mack and I both agreed that while we wouldn’t hesitate to celebrate a special occasion or accompany an out-of-town guest to Canteen, it likely wouldn’t be one of our go-to restaurants on a regular basis.
With that in mind, Mack and I visited Canteen for brunch over Easter weekend (their brunch menu actually appealed to us more than the dinner menu). Knowing that reservations could be made in advance, we did so, and avoided a disappointment that many parties experienced that morning, being turned away from a packed house.
We didn’t start off on the right foot. After we were seated, we were told that one of the menu items weren’t available. Of course, it turned out to be the dish that I had most looked forward to trying – the Saskatoon pop tart.
That disappointment aside, we were surprised to discover that Canteen doesn’t serve drip coffee. Generally, we’ve found establishments that have eschewed the drip method do offer French press instead, but at Canteen, our only options were espresso-based coffees. We settled on an Americano ($3), and though we were worried it would get cold while we waited for our dishes to arrive, it managed to stay warm.
There was no question I would be ordering the poached eggs over the cheddar chive biscuits ($17). The eggs were medium poached (I would have preferred a looser yolk), but I enjoyed the thick and creamy sausage gravy. Neither Mack or I really enjoyed the chicken apple sausage, finding it to be on the dry side, but both of us couldn’t get enough of the hash browns, fried to a crackling crisp.
Poached eggs over cheddar chive biscuits
Mack couldn’t pass up the truffled grilled cheese ($17). Although he enjoyed the sandwich well enough, Mack commented that it was a bit of a disjointed plate.
Truffled grilled cheese
Our server clearly wasn’t having a good day – the table to our left was impatiently waiting for their cheque, while a guest at the table to our right ended up with syrup spilled on his jacket. As a result, she seemed a bit more mechanical than we are used to for a morning service, but we could definitely sympathize.
In the end, brunch at Canteen was similar to our experience at Wildflower Grill – efficient and polished, but perhaps not the boisterous and lively atmosphere that we crave on weekend mornings.
10522 124 Street
(780) 485 6125