by Bryn Skibo-Birney
Is there a Canadian equivalent to hygge? If you somehow missed the craze, hygge is the Danish concept of coziness, comfort, and conviviality. The Danish tourism website describes hygge as “creating a warm atmosphere and enjoying the good things in life with good people. The warm glow of candlelight is hygge. … And there’s nothing more hygge than sitting around with friends and family, discussing the big and small things in life.” Think a comfy chair, a blazing fire, and a craft beverage (caffeinated or alcoholic) with a good book or good friends, all while it’s biting cold outside.
Ahhh…bliss, right? Yeah, now you’re hygging like a real dansker.
As a relative newcomer to Canada, I’m not yet fluent in Canadian, but I’m pretty sure that whatever the Canadian equivalent is, it’s embodied by The Oakwood.
You’d be forgiven if you thought The Oakwood specialized in #brunchgoals, the kind of Sunday get-together that makes you pull out the fancy yoga pants, as opposed to your comfies. The restaurant features heavily on the “Must Try” brunch lists that appear every few weeks on various Vancouver and travel websites. I don’t mean to downplay The Oakwood’s brunch game. I just want to suggest that you’re missing out if you never swing by The Oakwood when you want/need the post-work apéro or dinner equivalent of an artisanal, thick knit, organic wool blanket by a fire.
Because, in the darkness of the Vancouverian polar vortex, The Oakwood shines like a gold beacon. Step inside, shed your coat, and General Manager Tristan Young appears, greeting you with a genuine enthusiasm you haven’t encountered in years. You walk to your plaid-bedecked booth, past the broken-down but well-loved KitchenAid mixer-turned vase, in front of the well-appointed bar, and around the corner from the roaring fire. There are floating landscapes of misty lakes on the walls and old copies of Alice in Wonderland on the mantle. It’s warm, everyone looks terrifically comfortable, the staff are relaxed and friendly, and you wonder if there’s a chance you could be snowed in. You hope so.
And what better way to warm the cockles of your heart than through libations? The wine list is a love-letter to BC vintages and the beer list was clearly put together by someone who prizes original, local brewers (check out the Fieldhouse Salted Porter; it’s surprisingly crisp for a porter, with a refreshing nutty aftertaste). That said, the cocktail menu shines with new takes on old(-fashioned) drinks. Two pages of house-designed concoctions offer something for everyone, but winter chills require aromatic whiskey; the Cards & Cigars is a well-balanced combination of smoke and fruit. (Alternatively, ask bartender Rob Clough for advice: a true mixologist and the creator behind many of the drinks on the menu, he can explain the science of refining butter for the Brown Butter Old-Fashioned just as easily as he can explain the links between Canadian history and the brandy-based Coureur du Bois.)
The Oakwood menu is relatively brief compared to the veritable book of cocktails, but Chef Michael Love has clearly comprised it of equal parts comfort, Canadiana, and originality, earning the restaurant an impressively aggressive following among Kits locals. When Love tried taking the tried-and-true favorite – the warm kale salad with roasted cauliflower and Brussel sprouts – off the menu, regulars responded with a petition to put it back on. You can’t argue with that level of dedication to a salad and it’s worth the buzz.
Vancouver doesn’t suffer from a lack of farm-to-table, locavore restaurants, but part of what makes The Oakwood unique is Chef Love’s inventiveness regarding classic Canadian dishes. Mixed with his memories of growing in Abbotsford and Richmond as well as his more recent experiences training in the more socially-transient Vancouver, Love’s dishes reflect an eagerness to play around with Canadian comfort food: from croquettes stuffed with local rabbit and pickled mustard to striped shrimp over popcorn butter-infused grits (Popcorn butter. Infused. Grits. More things need to be infused with popcorn butter.).
Encapsulating this childhood/adulthood inspiration, the potato dumplings with smoked Applewood cheddar and lardons combine everything there is to love about stuffed potato skins and perogies (a Chef Love-family staple) with the gooey-pocket-of-goodness that is Chinese dumplings: chewy, cheesy, crispy, and umami-y, with a spike of astringency from the green onions and cabbage chips (do not leave the cabbage chips on the plate; they are the perfect palette cleanser between dumplings).
Even Thanksgiving dinner gets a subtle reboot; turkey and sweet potatoes are replaced with Chinese five-spice-glazed duck breast served over bok choi with a yam purée and ohmygod-amazing oatcrisps with a pear-caramel drizzle. The duck is slightly sweet, perfectly crisped on the outside, and luxuriously rich on the inside, all of which is complemented by the intense, earthy crunch of the oatcakes, which soak up the sweet caramel glaze. (If you’re missing the dark fruit sauces traditionally served with duck, ask Rob for a glass of the Cassini Pinot Noir: a light Pinot with a bold plum finish.)
And now, here you are: the fire is blazing, you’re replete with cocktails, local beer, Canadian-Asian inspired comfort food, you’ve Shazam-ed Tristan’s playlist more times than you can count, and you are truly, intensely, dangerously chilled out. Fortunately, there’s dessert, so you don’t have to brave the cold just yet. If you favor the fruitier side of things, the vanilla sponge cake is a dense Mason jar of thick cake and lemon curd that is nevertheless surprisingly light and tart.
If, however, you feel that fruit is a blasphemous waste of dessert (hi, welcome), look no farther than the peanut-butter ice cream bars dipped in dark chocolate and dusted with peanuts. The ice cream is perfectly smooth, without a hint of iciness, and the whole peanuts cut through the rich chocolate exterior. Added benefit: it’s served on a wooden stick. It’s playful, it’s comfortable, and, by God, it’s delicious. Yeah, that’s hyg—I mean, that’s The Oakwood.
- The Oakwood should win a prize for offering a truly satisfying, tapas-style menu. Two dinner dishes per person provided plenty to share.
What to try:
- Regulars insist on the warm kale salad, the poutine, and the hamburger, so you can safely bet they aren’t going to leave the menu anytime. Instead, go off the beaten track and try the tartar served on homemade brioche toast. Diced pickled zucchini adds a zesty astringency to the richness of the tartar and gelled egg yolk, while the black and white sesames of the brioche bring earthiness to the flavor palette; it’s a surprisingly subtle and light dish, yet immensely satisfying.
- For the Old-Fashioned and Manhattan aficionados, check out the Molasses and Hops, made with hopped whiskey, molasses, and banana liqueur. It has the initial citrus brightness of an Old-Fashioned or a Manhattan with a delectable molasses aftertaste for miles.
- Check out “Beats on Repeat,” Tristan Young’s co-produced music podcast, wherever you find your podcasts.
- Chef Love is updating the menu with some of the crowd-pleasing dishes from Dine Out; look out for the rabbit-stuffed croquettes with pickled mustard seeds: the slightly crispy, slightly sweet exterior reveals a sumptuous, jus-y interior.
- Bartender Rob is currently experimenting with a tequila version of the Brown Butter Old-Fashioned; the smoky tequila will cut nicely through the sweet butter emulsion.
The Oakwood, 2741 West 4th Avenue, 604-558-1965, theoakwood.ca
Photos: Bryn Skibo-Birney and Tristan Young
Last modified: February 9, 2019