by Kelly Jones
“I think on a general level, as a cook, you always want to become a chef and own your own restaurant—so you can have your own thing that you’re doing,” says Aaron Joseph Bear Robe, chef and owner of Keriwa Café, which opened August 10 on the last stretch of Queen Street before Roncesvalles.
Aaron Joseph Bear Robe put in his time and honed his style under Michael Stadtländer of Eigensinn Farm and at Splendido and Haisai; Keriwa is Toronto’s first restaurant to focus on Aboriginal and Canadiana fare. Some of the room’s design elements draw from chef’s heritage too, and ingredients focus on “local, seasonal, organic.” Says Aaron Joseph Bear Robe, “We start from scratch every day, keep it fresh.”
Aaron Joseph Bear Robe and I perch at the open bar, the clatter and graceful dance-link movements of the cooks crammed in the kitchen at back a constant reminder of the prep to be done ahead of tonight’s service. He’s a handsome, serious guy, with calming eyes and a lip-ringed smile. He’s wearing the same bandana I’ve seen in other media photos lately. I can tell he’s anxious to get back to the kitchen, most comfortable braising meats and grilling fish than schmoozing me. But he answers questions carefully and thoroughly.
Aaron Joseph Bear Robe and Keriwa (which is a proto-Alqonquin word for “eagle”) have been getting lots of press lately—and, based on the reviews and food blogs aplenty—it seems he has impressed the pants off some of this city’s more discernable palates.
Keriwa’s succinct menu lists just five appetizers, four entrees, and three desserts. The offerings change frequently, to take advantage of what’s in season; their third menu will begin in early October. Aaron Joseph Bear Robe strives to incorporate seasonal ingredients from local producers like 100km Foods, Sovereign Farms and Hooked, but sometimes the best of the best has be shipped in from elsewhere—like the bison meat, which often comes from Alberta’s Olson’s High Country Bison (because many Ontario farmers only sell it frozen or grain-fed).
Expect to sample appetizers such as smoked whitefish with dill crepe, hen of the woods mushroom, and crème fraiche, or braised bison pemmican, which combines morsels of tender bison and Saskatoon berries. Main dishes might see rainbow trout with basil, squash, and heirloom tomato, or pheasant with plum, sunchoke, chanterelles, and kale. A bison strip-loin partners with roasted red peppers, paddypan, and new potatoes.
Bison meat has graced both the first and second (current) menu. “I really believe in bison as a super-protein. I mean, it’s lower in fatty acids and lower in fat content than halibut. It’s an amazing food, and it’s indigenous to Canada—and it’s essential to my culture’s heritage. I think that, apart from bison burgers, people really haven’t been exposed to bison. Too often people say it’s gamey, but I think they just lack exposure. It’s very lean, delicate, meaty; if it’s grass-fed, it’s very, very lean. We use it to make pemmican, braised short ribs; we have it on as a strip loin right now; we’ve had it as braised bison tail … and we’re going to make bison bacon when we do brunch.”
The drinks list covers Duggan’s Brewery and Great Lakes on tap, plus VQA wines. Today’s cocktail special, the Prairie Dodger, combines gin, Dubonnet, egg white, lime, and Saskatoon berry.
The first thing you will notice about the 40-seat space is the aroma: burning sugar maple permeates the air, which they use to cook fish. A giant silver eagle feather hangs on the ceiling just inside the door, with colorful feathers hanging from it, and the floors are distressed cherrywood. Aaron Joseph Bear Robe’s grandmother’s buckskin dress is displayed in a frame on the wall, with the inscription “1905-1980 Grandma Maggie Bear Robe.” A great big salvaged metal art piece graces one wall, and a quilt-like assembly of birchbark panels another wall. It’s eccentric without being intimidating, comfortable without being blasé.
Aaron Joseph Bear Robe is not the first in his family to realize a dream. “I have a wife, Marta Floranska, and I have an eight-month son. And I have family out west in Alberta, my father and my mother, and I have an older brother, who’s in BC, he’s just finished his law degree. I’ve got a sister, who’s in Winnipeg, she’s the curator of Urban Shaman, which is like Canada’s largest independent art gallery. We are spread all over the place. My mom’s from Nova Scotia; I’ve got family out there too. Lots of cousins, cousins everywhere—all across Canada.”
Aaron Joseph Bear Robe will be one of the 100 or more chefs participating in Foodstock on October 16 in support of the No Mega Quarry movement. Says chef, “Vicky, from Vicky’s Veggies over in Prince Edward County, she’s donating a bunch of green tomatoes and corn, so we’re going to do fried green tomato with a corn relish, and serve it on a corn husk.”
Keriwa is currently open six days a week for dinner, closed Sundays, but the restaurant will begin serving brunch (including bison bacon) in mid- to late-October.
Kelly Jones is a freelance writer and editor. Follow her at @KellyJonesWords