Walking into Tea N Bannock, an aboriginal cafe, newly opened at Gerrard and Greenwood reminded me of walking into a converted house that serves food that can be found on the less travelled highways of Ontario. Highway 60, 62, 7 and so many others have these small restaurants cum gas stops that dot cottage country. In many of these, you can find solid, honest food for a good price. Sometimes it feels as if you are in someone's basement or roughly decorated hunting lodge. To many, this may sound kitschy or even downmarket but to me this feels like home. I grew up in Eastern Ontario and I sometimes miss this straightforward approach to food.
You hunt it or grow it. You cook it. You eat it. It is comforting, heavy and nourishing.
This small room has several tables whose legs are birch branches and paintings of near wilderness hang on the walls. The wigwams on the table edge towards tacky but are saved by the sincerity of this place. A local friendship circle meets there and the menu speaks to a more rural palette. Along the back, there is a low counter placed across where a double door used to be and separates the kitchen from the dining room.
Inside the kitchen, I could see the cook and her two young male helpers. The story "The Ransom of Red Chief" came unbidden to me as I watched the red haired, white faced young men watch me alternately warily and self consciously as I watched them prepare. The young cook spoke nervously as she explained the few dishes. She was apologetic for not having an extensive menu and explained that they were going to work their way from cafe to full dinner menu. On Fridays, they have Indian tacos but the menu right now has blanket dogs and soup along with bannock, tea and coffee. There was notes promising smoked deer later.
There was gentle ribbing about the fact that one of the prep cooks must be in a hurry. He quickly surmised that maybe the tomatoes that he chopped for the Indian Tacos were a mite too big. The cook laughed quietly at him. This was in direct contrast to the testerone curse filled kitchens captured on Food Network or in Anthony Bourdain's inside looks at New York kitchens. It is a welcome difference.
The combo at $5.50 is ridiculously priced including coffee/tea, bannock and soup of the day. The soup was a corn soup with bits of pork. It was good but could use a little more seasoning. The bannock was bannock. Their explanation of calling it scones is a little deceiving. Bannock is a quick bread that is often associated with campfires or cast iron skillets. It is a dense and filling.
My favourite way to make it is took fry it in a skillet and serve with maple syrup. It would make a great dessert or small bite. Their bannock was exactly that. They do offer it with raisins but I would like to challenge them to use a little more "traditional" ingredients -- dried berries or even dried wild grapes or serve the bannock with wild jams.
I did speak to the cook about the addition of more traditional ingredients and it seems the biggest problem is finding suppliers. This is evident in the procurement of game meat. It turns out that all meat has to be provincially inspected and this means that no 'wild' game can be served. There must be some ways around this -- the only current way around in the Health Protection and Promotion Act - Regulation 562 seems to be to run a wild game dinner. The rules are under Section 52(1) of the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Act, 1997.
The cook's eye lit up as she spoke about the wild game in her freezer; beaver, goose, moose and deer. I believe that she was sincerely sorry that she was unable to offer it to her patrons. I grew up eating the odd small game (duck, deer, partridge, and rabbit and others). My father was a hunter and fisherman. Sometimes he would try some of the foraged greens such as dandelion or lamb's quarters done up like spinach. I understand why someone would love this type of cooking. I would love to be able to eat like that in a restaurant.
It is simple, straightforward way to get food to mouth without paying the exorbitant prices found in rural grocery stores. Even twenty years ago, a head of iceberg lettuce could cost three dollars or more. Most people canned and hunted and fished to supplement the goods from the grocery store. I remember the times that urban people offered me duck or venison as a special treat. This was something that was often on offer when I lived at home.
I am looking forward to what this restaurant will become. I am hoping that its humble food will ignite the imagination of foodies and bring pleasant memories of past lives lived for me. It is not there yet. It is just a cafe that serves Higgins and Burke tea and a good coffee with a slice of bread. Hopefully, it will challenge us with more 'aboriginal' food and drinks such as birch syrup, pawpaw preserves, and 'wild' game. I am thrilled to have them begin this experiment and I hope it succeeds.
This is not a high concept, high restaurant catering to hipsters or foodies but a solid place to share some humble food. I having been looking for this. I hope it continues to meet my expectations as it morphs into a full service dinner restaurant. I look forward to sharing this with my family and a few select friends.