The Branch Restaurant
Tomme de Gaston and Bleu de Sophie are two handcrafted sheep’s milk cheeses from the Oxford Mills Creamery that grace the Branch Restaurant’s ‘Aunty’s Platter’, and they are lovely. Fleshing out the plate is a wedge of Harmony Organic Dairy brie, brown bread and artisan crackers, rolls of house cured prosciutto, Branch-made mustard and fruit chutney, a little pot of marinated olives, a few nuts, a small bunch of Concord grapes and the last five raspberries of the season, dark and small and deeply concentrated. If Aunty is in fact responsible for this fine plate of fine food, we are grateful to her.
It was a promising introduction to The Branch Restaurant, a buzzy bar-cum-gastropub-cum-art gallery-cum-music hall housed in a circa-1860 stone building of pressed tin ceilings and local art-decked tall walls. Tables are small and scrubbed, candled and flowered, and a rounded bar seems a popular place. The Branch is owned by two couples: our youthful server, Brent Kelaher, his wife Jennifer, and Texas-born Branch chef Bruce Enloe with his Ottawa-born wife Nicole LeBlanc.
Staff and diners all appear to be friends and The Branch seems a place to gather. Carver’s young son pads about the place, the after supper crowd gathers at the bar for a pint and a plate of spaghetti (yes, called spaghetti, not pasta Bolognese, and second helpings are on the house).
The atmosphere may be informal, but the food is accomplished. The menu changes regularly, and delivers fresh, unfussy, made-from-scratch, seasonal food.
Main courses are an eclectic lot and seem designed to cover most of the bases, from the endless spaghetti to enchiladas fashioned with house smoked tofu in a mole sauce. There’s a burger and a steak (pasture-raised beef comes from Ontario’s Kerr Farms) plus Moroccan salmon, chicken with roasted squash, a Thai shrimp curry and Cajun crusted tempeh with walnut rice (to which you may add the house-smoked brisket). Suggestions for wine and beer pairings accompany each dish.
A mushroom and lentil soup is a solid beginning. The burger promises to be thick and juicy and doesn’t stretch the truth, and the wild salmon stands up to the onslaught of strong flavours – a berber spice mix (dried chilies, ginger, pepper, cumin, coriander, cardamom, clovesâ€¦) and a North African-style peanut-tomato curry sauce – remarkably well.
It’s mostly all good, from the bread to the crÃ¨me caramel. Quibbles? One or two: If Chef Enloe were less enamoured with nutmeg and cloves I’d be happier – their pungent flavour permeates too much. Why a restaurant so publicly concerned with the local-organic-seasonal-sustainable would offer an October amuse featuring grapefruit seems a bit askew. And the rice that cradles the curry is crunchy. Other than these little things the Branch Restaurant is well worth swinging on.