When it began eleven years ago, Oz seemed an instant happy place. Owned by the affable Ozlem Balpinar — open evenings only, for drinks, dinner and afters, till late — it became a honey pot for the food industry types, post-shift. Now, after recent visits, it seems to me still a solidly good, community-minded restaurant.
Oz Kafe is slightly underground, slightly out of sight, on Elgin Street, L-shaped and well-worn, with a bright front room and a back section that feels cozy (and only slightly) claustrophobic. Dark walls are covered in local art, tables in white linen. Candles help with everything.From the get-go, Oz’s short hybrid menu offered a mash-up of fine ingredients used in novel ways: a cob of corn drizzled with brown butter, lime zest and chilies; a gratin of Yukon golds and celery root with smoked gouda; a Korean bulgogi platter; veggie bento boxes. And then there was the local yak dish that helped secure Oz (and its former chef Jamie Stunt) a Gold Medal Plates gold medal, followed by a second place finish at the 2013 Canadian Culinary Championship.The tiny kitchen has seen a few head chefs since Stunt left (he’s now at Véronique Rivest’s Soif bar a vin) but recent visits indicate it is comfortably helmed by Michael Bednarz, who was part of Stunt’s competition team at the CCC.On Bednarz’ menu you still find the Oz signature dishes – aged Balderson ‘cheese dreams’; O’Brien Farms cast iron rib-eye with smoked mashed potatoes and a top notch Caesar salad; and the “Seoul Food” option; a shabby-chic dish of tuna tataki with nori crisps, and wasabi peas.
These standards are plumped with seasonal specials. At our visits, a rustic pleasure of grilled squash, sweet potato and apple salad with microgreens. Whipped goat cheese was the glue, a pecan crumble lent crunch, while the sour elements in a maple gastrique helped tame the sweetness. The maki sushi were fun, the nori wrapped rice nicely seasoned, the heart filled with softened kale and roasted sweet potato. The rolls came with wasabi paste, a miso cream, and a topper of shallots, tempura onions, and sweet potato matchstick crisps.
Mains included a faultless rainbow trout with a sunchoke purée, a potato-bacon-mushroom hash and crispy kale. It’s one off-note, pickled mushrooms that were uncomfortably sweet.
A roasted half-Cornish hen arrived on a well loved board, the bird assertively seasoned, moist within and crispy skinned, served with a celery root puree, roasted Brussels, long lashings of flash-cooked purple carrots, and sweetly glazed, slow cooked parsnips.
Service remains a strength at Oz. So do the cocktails.