by Kelly Jones

Jeff Connell at Woodlot

Jeff Connell at Woodlot

“Very down to earth, unpretentious, straightforward; doing a lot with a little, making the most of a lot.”

These are the carefully chosen words that Jeff Connell gives me describe the meaning behind the moniker Woodlot, a restaurant and all-day bakery he opened with partners Robyn Donio and chef David Haman (ex-Luce, Lucien, Czehoski, and Cookstown Greens) in November. “There’s a connection with countryside implied there too, which we feel very, very strongly about.”

There are a lot of adjectives in that explanation—and that, I come to discover, is a lot of words for Jeff, who doesn’t waste many.

Jeff comes to Woodlot from St. John’s Bakery. We talked a few mornings ago in front of Woodlot’s wood-burning, brick-lined oven, the hot-as-hell hub of the open kitchen in the garage-like space that was once Octapus Lounge on Palmerston just south of College.

I can’t think of another restaurant in this city that has the same split-level set-up, with the dining area up on the mezzanine (which itself is stacked on top of the space allotted for pulling coffee shots and displaying baked goods). It has a full view of the kitchen, prep area, and a single communal table near the door. To sit in one of the 54 seats on the mezzanine and watch the action below is like enjoying a front row balcony view of a great play.

Woodlot Interior

Woodlot's kitchen viewed from the mezzanine.

It’s at once rustic and cozy, with lots of wood features, rough edges, and tea lights. And it smells like campfire and coffee and baking bread. Tell me, could anything be better?

Chef David Haman’s two short menus (one for vegetarians, one for carnivores) are as simple and bucolic as the atmosphere, and they divide into starters, middles, and mains.

“David is very, very thoughtful,” says Jeff slowly and surely as he brushes a dusting of flour from his arm. “He’s given the menu a lot of thought, a lot of study. [He worked hard] to develop this menu . . . We don’t change the menu on any kind of schedule. It just has a natural alternation about it, as availability comes and goes.”

Chef David Haman at Woodlot

Chef David Haman at Woodlot.

This week you might start with a braised lamb tart appetizer with Ruth Klahsen’s Toscano cheese, braised greens, cauliflower cream, and mache lettuce, then follow it up with chop of whey-fed pork with caramelized apple, black walnuts, and sage. On the vegetarian menu, perhaps a red fife whole-wheat pappardelle middle dish with wild mushrooms, caramelized onions and Madeiera, then a braised tempeh pie with fall roots, cipollini onions, and vegetable gravy. (Note to self: Next time, don’t write about Woodlot on an empty stomach. Growl.) If these descriptions aren’t enough to tempt you, perhaps knowing that portions are generous and prices are reasonable will do the trick. It’s no wonder that reservations here are hard to come by.

“The menu with meat on it is certainly the most popular,” adds Jeff, “although we find that meat-eaters are very pleased with the vegetarian menu.” He pauses. I wait. “It’s not only for vegetarians. First of all, [meat-eaters] have friends who are vegetarian, so they’re happy that they can come here without worrying about whether something is going to be properly prepared for them. Also, it sort of augments the menu for meat-eaters.”

Woodlot Exterior

Woodlot is situated behind busy College Street.

So what’s Woodlot’s view on sourcing ingredients? With plates so simple, the quality has got to be paramount.

“We’ve been in touch with many local growers for years, and we feel well-connected with top quality. We don’t feel it’s an either-or [local or best] situation; we think that we can find the best locally. It’s not a dogma. It seems like the natural way of going about it.”

293 Palmerston Avenue

Closed Mondays

Kelly Jones is a freelance writer and editor. She teaches Food Writing at George Brown College.