Little update: Whalesbone owner Joshua Bishop wrote to tell me that acoustic sound boards are being installed in the ceiling in order to address the noise levels.
The latest Whalesbone opened in early July, the much-anticipated new project of The Whalesbone Group. They’ve called the place, in typical let’s call a spade a spade fashion, The Whalesbone Elgin Street.
In the eleven years since the original Whalesbone opened, on Bank Street, in 2005, the Group has grown steadily. The founding Oyster House is still there, unchanged, much loved. There is a catering and production arm on Kent Street; a three-year-old ‘house’ in Hintonburg called The Elmdale Tavern & Oyster House, and, for coming on two months, this big place on the north bit of Elgin, in a former furniture shop. The fresh and frozen (Ocean Wise certified) fish you used to be able to purchase on Kent Street, and the Whalesbone Brown Bag lunches, have been relocated here.
The feel of the place is tavern-like, quirky-casual and with a D.I.Y spirit – charred barn board walls, corrugated metal ceilings, and trendy pipe railings, filled in with dark wooden benches, bare black tables, metal chairs, and Edison bulbs illuminating not enough of it. Moby Dick swims on a sea of red the length of the south wall, stag heads guard the north flank. The bar is long and filled at my visits and the kitchen is visible behind portholes.
The room is dark. We use our phone flashlights to read the short food menu and the drinks list – it of the regrettably-puny font – and we shout a bit to be heard. You could call it merry, and it is that, but when it’s busy, and it’s tended to be at my visits, particularly at lunch, it’s loud.
The food speaks loudly too. Helmed by executive chef Michael Radford, the kitchen serves up flavours that are clean and clear, and portions that are east-coast-ample from a menu that favours the hearty and the rich… but can nail refined as well. The house chowder is an example of both. It’s probably the finest in the city. There’s just absolutely nothing but right about it, from the firmness of the spuds, to the delicacy of the fish, to the creamy-rich-smokey-herby fabulousness of the broth. A bowl of it, and a few slices of the house bread, and you’ve quite a lunch. If you’re still hungry (and you won’t be, but if you are) follow it with the catch of the day. My tranche of Lake Erie pickerel was golden and salt-scattered, the flesh below Hilroy white. It arrived balanced on a fennel salad and a knobbly-brown pile of roasted sunchokes, the whole paddling in a cream sauce piqued with horseradish and drizzled with a dilled oil. Lovely.
Dinner needs to start with oysters. Served on tin plates, with traditional complements and various house elixirs, the breadth of the oyster offerings provides a fine education. Which ones and from which place are the sweetest, which the briniest, the meatiest and most mineral?
Service knows its stuff, including the character and provenance of those oysters, and has been generally terrific over a trio of visits – well versed on the food and drink, uber-casual but with fine dining table manners.
Lingering on the raw side one night, the steak tartare was an absolute champ, served with toasted brioche. That buttery brioche appeared again at another dinner that began with a Flinstones-sized femur of beef marrow. Cut lengthwise, seasoned hard and roasted hard, it landed topped with a bright little salad (celery leaves, parsley, pickled veg) that cut through all that fatty, buttery, beefy deliciousness. (You scoop this goo up, plop it on the crusty slabs of bread and swear you’ll eat nothing but salad tomorrow.) For that day there was octopus and a dry-aged striploin to follow the marrow. Grilled chorizo sausage and roasted fingerlings shared the dark skillet with the octopus, remarkably tender, but with excellent char. Smothered in a perky tomato ragout, scattered with crunchy bits of shallot and basil leaves, it was a star dish, filling and fine. The striploin served three of us, the aged beef beautifully cooked, sided with a chimichurri sauce. Fried cauliflower with soused raisins, toasted almonds and gratinéed Padano continued the theme of rich and satisfying. Like we needed more of that.
Other than the noise level, which can be wearying, the only other bit that troubled me was the fact these was nothing under twelve bucks a glass on the wine list. That felt wrong for this place.
The room got more crowded and more convivial as the night wore on, really hitting its stride as we were heading out.
These are early days, to be sure, but indications are the Elgin Street addition will be another hit for this hit team.