As a former chef, people are always asking my opinion on their cooking or on some restaurant they like, hoping to get a favourable reaction. This is exactly the reason why I do my best to avoid it altogether.
First off, I’m never going to judge someone for putting in effort on any dish. I encourage everyone to experiment and try new things; I’ve always said any food I don’t have to cook is good food. The exception to this rule, however, is dining out. I struggle to go to any restaurant without passing some sort of judgment on the experience because, well, if I’m going to pay for it, it better be good.
My expectations are reasonable. I’m not going to go to McDonald’s and rate their burger; it just isn’t worth my time. Diners typically get what they pay for — until they don’t.
This is why I find giving recommendations so difficult. It’s not that I’m a food snob. It’s that I have run several successful kitchens at a great profit while still providing a quality experience. This, to me, is the most important value in any dining establishment. The issue is that it’s becoming quite rare to get great value in most restaurants these days.
Don’t get me wrong, there are some real gems out there. Even some franchise chains such as Beertown are really setting the bar high. That’s why I decided to finally try one of Beertown’s sister restaurants, Wildcraft, located near Conestoga Mall at 425 King St. N. in Waterloo, Ont.
Now, I realize that Wildcraft has been around quite a while, but surprisingly, I had yet to give it a shot. That was, however, until a recent Saturday night after my companion and I walked away from our first choice, the Lancaster Smokehouse, due to a huge lineup.
We were just about to hit up our usual spot at Beertown but decided to try something different for a change. I remembered that the same restaurant group that owned Beertown also owned Wildcraft, so I thought I’d finally give it a try.
Upon stepping inside, it became obvious to me that they had put a lot of money into the design and decor of the place, especially for the two-storey, glass-encased wine display that towered behind the greeting desk.
I could be a wine snob and discuss the cons of having your bottles exposed in a brightly lit area, but we aren’t talking bottles of ’61 Bordeaux, so it’s not really a big deal. Again, expectations.
We were greeted quickly and told that there was a two-hour wait for the dining room, but that they had a table for two in the bar section. I really didn’t care where we sat, considering I was the one walking into a restaurant at 5:30 p.m. on a Saturday evening expecting a seat right away.
The bar was flashy but nice, typical of high-end chain style restaurant groups. Where we were sat was adjacent to a bank of six TVs, side by side, yet they were playing only two stations. Fortunately, there were a couple more TVs just beyond that offered another angle on the same two stations. Not that it mattered; I wasn’t there for the sports. I was more interested to see how the food stacked up to some of Charcoal Group’s other restaurants, such as The Bauer Kitchen or their famous Charcoal Steakhouse.
One thing that was nice (although my guest might disagree) was being sat beside a window into the kitchen. Automatically, the night became dinner and a show as I watched the familiar ballet of bodies, dancing with fire and blades, effortlessly crushing out plate after plate of delicious-looking food.
The menu seemed appetizing enough, with a great variety of fine things, such as tiny duck tacos, wild field mushroom tagliatelle and some very expensive steaks. Since I did not originally go there with the intention of reviewing the place, or spending a fortune, my guest and I opted to split an appetizer and ordered the roasted apple and bacon flatbread.
The wait wasn’t long; at least I don’t remember it taking long, but who knows — I was completely lost watching the kitchen dance. In no time our flatbread arrived and at first glance it looked delicious. I couldn’t wait to dig in but I decided that this was a great opportunity to be “that guy” — the one who has to take not just one photo of his food but, like, five just to be sure it was Insta-worthy. At least my reasoning was to run a quick review piece so I didn’t feel quite as cringey.
At first bite, the thing that hit me was a kick of lemon juice. Not really like it was intentional and nothing on the menu mentioned lemon. After inspecting the slice further, I realized that what I was tasting was the lemon juice they used to keep the apples from turning brown after being pre-cut. And to that effect, it worked. The apples where pretty white; in fact, they were too white. For a dish that is called “roasted apple,” I would have expected the apples to be at least a little, I don’t know, roasted?
The flatbread also had a base of fontina bechamel, which lacked much flavour, likely just under-seasoned. The Stemmler’s double smoked bacon was thin cut and sparse in places, but was otherwise as tasty as any bacon can be. It also featured celery and sage, which appeared to be in the form of a few celery leaves and some pieces of crispy sage for garnish.
At $16 as a shared appetizer, I was happy with the price for the portion and it obliges me to say that the crust was fantastic. In all, the dish was less impressive than I was expecting, considering the hype attached to the place. That being said, the flatbread was as good as I would expect of a chain-style restaurant. I just felt that it fell short of something I’d expect from some of their other restaurants.
For our main course, I opted for the lamb burger with goat cheese, sun-dried tomato tapenade, raita and sprouts on a toasted sesame bun. My guest opted for the Indo chicken curry bowl with braided eggplant, sweet peas, carrots and cabbage on coconut rice with a green curry dressing.
I realize that a burger isn’t the most exciting thing on their menu, but I feel you can tell a lot about a restaurant by the simplest dishes. If a place like Wildcraft is going to sell a lamb burger on their menu alongside a $49 steak, it better be a damn good burger.
I typically ask for a lamb burger to be cooked no further than medium but I was curious to see how the grill cook would prepare it without instruction and, honestly, I wasn’t surprised that it came medium well. Still not the end of the world, because it was still very juicy in the end. Before I could sink my teeth in — click — Insta-dinner shots of both dishes.
Now that the formalities were over, it was the moment of truth. How did they do?
At first glance, it was everything I thought it should be. Fresh cut, perfectly crisp Yukon gold chips, piled high in a spice shaker. I really do get excited over a good fry and these did not disappoint.
Then came the burger — if only I could find it. The patty was nearly half the size of the bun and, at first, I had to actually remove the top of the bun just to confirm that it was all there. Yup, it was there — and so were all the listed toppings. Perhaps the bun was a bit oversized for the patty, but it certainly could have used a larger patty for the $19 price tag.
As I took my first bite, I had to reserve my judgment. Despite taking a fairly large bite, I didn’t manage to get any meat with my bun. The good news, however, was that the bun was actually great. Once I managed to get to the meaty centre of the task at hand, I was pleasantly surprised with the flavour and how juicy the burger was, considering it was a bit overcooked for my taste.
The combination of flavours went well together and the lamb was nicely seasoned. There was ample goat cheese. All the toppings tasted very fresh and crisp. By the last quarter of the burger, the bun had all but disintegrated in my hands, but that didn’t stop me from making sure to clear my plate like a good dinner guest. I was really happy with the flavours and, despite the smaller patty, I was actually very satisfied with the choice.
My guest, or to be more specific, my wonderful girlfriend, let me curb my curiosity of her dish by allowing me to sample her curry chicken bowl. The smell of it alone encircled the table and was competing for the attention of my senses throughout our entire meal. One thing that jumped out at me right away was that it seemed that she too fell victim to an underwhelming protein portion. The chicken looked as if it might be half what I would expect for a $19 chicken curry.
The scant portion of poultry was accompanied by what they called braided eggplant, which literally means they braided the slices of eggplant together. Maybe I’ve been out of the kitchen too long and missed this new presentation, or maybe they just had a typo on the menu and instead of braised eggplant (very good way to prepare it by the way), but it said braided so they just went with it. Either way, it was definitely braided but equally tasty. There were sweet peas and shredded carrots, along with some crisp won ton chips, cabbage and herbs on top of the aromatic coconut rice.
The one thing I couldn’t get over was the curry dressing. It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting and, aside from a bit of green curry paste, tasted more of vinegar than curry. It wasn’t terrible, but after all that lemon juice on the apple flatbread, I think I was just over the acid taste. Mixed together with all the other ingredients, the flavour was decent but definitely not something for which I would send someone to the restaurant.
Due to the joyful schedules of parenthood, our carriage was about to turn back into a pumpkin so we opted to skip dessert. The options seemed pretty appetizing at an average price of $9.50 per dish. For a chain-style restaurant, however, I felt the price was a bit high for what it was.
All in all, Wildcraft is great at what it is — a high-priced, chain-style restaurant, similar to Moxies or Milestones, with better than average food and decent service. If you were waiting for me to give this some sort of star rating, unfortunately, you’re going to have to wait until I try it a few more times. It just wouldn’t be fair to put Wildcraft into that type of category, as I haven’t sampled nearly enough of the menu yet. For now, let’s just say I will be back to try a few more things this summer and tell you how it goes.
In the end, the meal was filling, the bill was a fairly modest $61 and despite the sour apples and tiny protein portions, the food was respectable. If you’re looking for a chance to feel fancy without paying for a fine dining experience, it’s a great place to take a first date. If your expectations are high, though, you might want to opt for a restaurant that is a bit more refined like The Bauer Kitchen, Social or the many other great restaurants in the Waterloo region.