STAMPEDE BISON GRILL (5 Brock, at Queen, 416-534-4999) Complete meals for $17 per person, including all taxes, tip and a beer. Average main $5.50. Open Monday to Wednesday 11:30 am to 9:30 pm, Thursday 11:30 am to midnight, Friday and Saturday 11:30 am to 3 am, Sunday 11:30 am to 8 pm. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms upstairs. Rating: NNN
As we place our order and take a seat in Stampede's small, cool, functional dining room, it becomes apparent that the open kitchen is in the weeds. Tempers are flaring, brows are furrowing and patient customers are trying to decipher whose orders are whose.
Our beef burger with old Canadian cheddar and smoked bacon ($6.40) arrives burnt - not seared, not charred but burnt - and topped, somehow, with a completely unmelted slice of cheese.
You can tell that prior to its cremation there was good, texturally satisfying beef here. The bun is fresh and correctly sized to the 6-ounce patty. The bacon has true smokey flavour, and the toppings, while too chilled, are fresh and sensible. But all this burger's hopes and dreams have been dashed by way too much time on the grill.
More successful is the roast bison sandwich ($5.50), with its lean, soft shavings of meat adorned, as advised by the harried guy at the counter, with nothing more than some Stampede mayo augmenting the caramelized onions. It's a warm, sustaining handful of bison on a bun.
You'd have to go a long way to screw up frozen onion rings ($3), and these are fine, but poutine ($3.95), with its complex layering, proves too much for the embattled crew.
The fresh-cut fries are swell, and the vegetarian gravy holds up well under the scrutiny of an avid poutineer, but the cheese curds, including one piece that's bigger than my thumb, are almost all inexplicably sequestered in the bottom of the container. Are they working blindfolded here? All of this is washed down with Parkdale-priced Steam Whistles ($4.25).
At lunch later in the week, things seem more under control. I order a bison burger ($4.75) and a veggie burger ($4.50) served Stampede-style with tzatziki, grilled red pepper and sprouts. After a considerable wait, my bison burger is placed on the kitchen hold rack, where it languishes for another five minutes waiting for the veggie burger to catch up.
The veggie burger benefits from its recent departure from the kitchen. Tzatziki and red pepper lend effective zip to the moist house-made patty.
The bison burger has almost cooled to room temperature at this point but is still an interesting sandwich. Stampede has such faith in the quality of its bison that it's willing to serve it verging on medium-rare. This keeps the lean meat from drying out and showcases its bolder texture and flavour. Now all they have to do is learn to cook two burgers at once.
When the dust settles, this place is going to be just dandy. But until Stampede gets more time in the saddle and learns how to shoot straight, it'll continue to be trampled thanks to the enthusiastic local response.