Dorothy is our waiter. He’s a burly fellow with a scruffy beard. ‘Dorothy’ doesn’t leap to mind when you size him up, but it is the name embroidered on his bowling shirt. And this is the Oz Kafé, where you might expect to find a Dorothy, but where otherwise, things are not at all as you might expect.
One of a few eateries found beneath the Kensington Apartments, this casual, quirky, L-shaped café with its wine glass mobile and dark brown walls covered with eye-catching art, stands out well enough in the Elgin Street assembly of superficially indistinguishable eateries. It also stands out because the food is good.
Dorothy knows well the menu of the Oz Kafé and he agrees with us that it’s a bit bizarre for an Elgin Street eatery. You can begin with corn on the cob, for one. At least you could during corn on the cob season. Roasted and drizzled with a spicy elixir of lime zest, brown butter and chilies, it turns out to be a delicious way to begin. You could also start with scalloped potatoes. Though you may end there. A gratin of Yukon golds, with celery root, apples, caramelized onion, and smoked gouda, the average Joe appetite will be hard-pressed to follow that yummy, rich dish with much other than a salad. There are worse fates: salads too are different. Wasabi nuts and nori crisps are pitched into the bowl with soft avocado, shredded carrot, strips of pepper and cucumber, ingredients that come together beautifully well, united in an energetic ginger dressing.
The cast iron skillet is used in this kitchen – for the Korean-style sirloin steak, the marinated squid, the seared tuna – to good effect. The tuna starter is served with pickled ginger, more of those wasabi nuts, and a little gingery salad of grated vegetables, seared up hard and fast, its surface crisp and peppery, its flesh blue-rare.
Some starter dishes are less successful. The potato and mushroom soup (with blue cheese) has a floury finish, and comes with dull bread, and the house meze plate, while satisfying, and generously served, is forever missing its featured highlight: “Mom’s dolmas” described in lip-smacking language, seem never to be available. I’ve tried three times, on three occasions, over three weeks to snag some, and I’ve heard three excuses why they aren’t available. May I suggest you either get Mom to make more, or take them off the menu.
The “Market inspiration” wild rice stir-fry is a wild and weighty dish of many fresh things: rice and noodles and peanuts and loads of crisp vegetables in a sprightly dressing. To this toss you add any one of tuna, squid, sirloin or chicken. Or leave it vegetarian. Another vegetarian treat is the house ratatouille, the tomatoes grilled to bring out their flavour, the basil fresh and the addition of goat cheese welcome.
Duck in excellent form comes on a warm bed of Swiss chard and squash, furnished with a lovely apple chutney. For $18, there is a six ounce steak, cast-iron-seared, well flavoured, and served with a zesty little sauce, a decent Caesar, and some of those killer scalloped potatoes.
The chocolate torte and the carrot cake are good endings.
Service at Oz is friendly and conscientious, though Dorothy could use a sidekick during busy times, which are often, and for good reason.
The wine list includes many bottles that won’t bust the bank. Neither will dinner at Oz. There is good value here.
Warning: I’m coming back for Mom’s dolmas.