November 2010 update: Steve Wall is no longer at Whalesbone. New chef is Charlotte Langley
October 2011 further update: Charlotte Langley has moved to Toronto!
The Whalesbone Oyster House is really a pub. The tables are close, the chairs are hard, the room is cramped, noisy and littered with goofy kitsch. The shucker whistles, the cooks jabber, and there’s a photo of The Fonz in front of the bicycle that hangs on the wall above the tiny open kitchen.
If all of this isn’t enough to chase you away – or encourage you to get a fast oyster fix and leave – the waiting throngs at the door letting in arctic air and looking enviously at your hard chair might contribute significantly to your discomfort.
But here’s the problem. This busy, noisy, young place is also jolly, friendly and fun. The music is toe-tapping, the service is breezy and agreeable, the short wine list is well chosen, and the food – prepared by young Chef Steve Wall and his team – is pretty good, some of it exceptionally good. So you aren’t likely to be in any hurry to rush through. You might just find yourself whistling along.
Book a piece of wooden bench so you aren’t part of the hungry, waiting, throng.
Yes, I know. This is my third report on the WBOH in the two and a half years since it dropped anchor in our desperate-for-a-good-fish-restaurant town. And no, it’s not because I am desperate for oysters. (Truth be known, save for one in the house martini, I didn’t order a single solitary oyster for this latest review; raw oysters don’t tell me much about the chef.) In fact, I am back at this seafood pub with my bib and pen, a mere year since my last report, because of the new Steve in its open-concept kitchen.
Quick history: When Whalesbone first opened in late 2005, it was a quirky, tucked-away pub on Bank at Gladstone, serving yummy, affordable sea food and pristine oysters in a bare bones surroundings. Main dishes were priced mostly in the high teens. Things changed when Whalesbone hired Chef Steve Vardy (of Beckta Dining and Wine distinction). The food became more dramatic. So did the prices (main dishes, $25 to $38, with one dish at $50). Still — albeit delicious but now very pricey – the food was consumed on the same inflexible benches. Then, late last year, Steve Vardy left for Newfoundland, and his sous chef, Steve Wall, stepped up.
The Whalesbone of today remains faithful to what it’s always been – an eccentric pub, with better-than-ever service and now with price tags attached to the food that reflect the quality of the luxury products, but without the sticker shock. (Mains mostly $25.)
Our server on both visits adds to the pleasure. He speaks with a deep knowledge of the food and wine, is fun and gracious. His one mistake, and it’s not his fault, is confusing our wine glass (filled with pale Sancerre) with our water glass. Whalesbone needs to invest in proper wine glasses. Its fancy serving dishes don’t jibe with the juice glasses it uses for wine.
On one of those fancy dishes, a trio of sea scallops is paired with crisp logs of pork belly, a rich sauté of wild mushrooms, a piquant relish of mustard and apples, and squiggles of nutty argan oil, the miracle from Morocco. A perfect pile of matchsticked radish finishes the pretty plate.
Chef Wall’s hamachi (yellowtail) sashimi presentation is inspired. Livened with Japanese yuzu juice (think lemon and lime in one fruit) and lubricated with white truffle oil, avocado matches the fish in texture and Maldon salt adds crunch.
If there ever were a winter for lobster bisque, we are living it. Rich, aromatic and deeply flavourful, Wall’s dark gold soup is a splendid bowl. Berkshire pork lardons give it a smoky flavour, while the brick red flying fish roe (tobiko) adds pop and salt.
Wall’s flavours are mighty. His dishes are rich. He likes lovely fatty bits of belly and jowl. Lobster and salmon can usually handle the onslaught. But I find his Lake Erie pickerel is seriously upstaged by the rest of the plate, a treatment that includes roasted garlic, roasted olives, rapini, pine nuts, oyster mushrooms in truffle oil, and ricotta and parmesan gnudi (like gnocchi). The tilapia filet is likewise overwhelmed: steamed in parchment with a pungent tomato anchovy butter, and served with a rich barley risotto with squash, parmigiano and disks of Berkshire pork chorizo. Where’s the fish? Some of these swimmers need a gentler treatment. Salmon worked: with gnocchi, winter mushrooms, and a rich swath of squash puree, it is a lovely dish.
There’s a dark chocolate pate with an espresso crème anglaise, stewed cherries, and a scoop of vanilla gelato, that works awfully well.
Whalesbone is maturing nicely. Its prices (while still up there) are now better suited to the party-pub environment, the service is more attentive, and the food, while needing some restraint in some places, remains a drawing card.