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WESLODGE SALOON (480 King West, at Brant, 416-274-8766, weslodge.com) Complete dinners for $55 per person (lunches/brunches $35), including tax, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $24/$18. Open for dinner nightly 5:30 to 11 pm. Lunch Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 2:30 pm, brunch Sunday 11 am to 2:30 pm. Bar nightly Thursday (September 6) to September 16 till 4 am. Licensed. Access: barrier-free. Rating: NNN
If any of the recent crop of rustic back-to-the-land cantinas deserves to have staff dressed in head-to-toe lumberjack plaid, it's Hanif Harji and Charles Khabouth's five-week-old Weslodge Saloon.
They've got taxidermy galore - startled deer, a pheasant in flight, a buffalo head mounted over the bar - as well as steampunk light fixtures worthy of a Jules Verne flick and a chalkboard menu that looks like it was clipped from the pages of a Currier and Ives catalogue circa 1872. Yet servers, distressingly, are dressed in jeans and Ts.
Us? We've shown up appropriately wrapped in a Hudson's Bay blanket and are currently commandeering a marble-topped table surrounded by enough black-lacquered wood to panel a goth's rec room. Since it's Sunday brunch, we begin with what the card calls "biscuits and preserves," which turns out to be a chocolate croissant ($4) and a blueberry tart ($7) from fancy-pants patisserie Nadège.
Executive chef Stuart Cameron comes out swinging with a terrific Jerusalem artichoke salad ($9), both the roasted and raw root, with slivered green beans, bitter endive and a final flourish of pistachio pesto. His bison pastrami sandwich ($16) could be a reconfigured Reuben, its traditional sauerkraut replaced with a kicky apple slaw.
A top-five contender, the house burger ($18) finds 7 hand-ground ounces of naturally raised Cumbrae brisket, chuck 'n' rib-eye on a house-baked bun fabulously layered with pink pickled onion, spicy tomatillo relish and salty Taleggio cheese. Both burger and bison sandwich arrive sided with crisp chunky fries the size of Lincoln Logs and a ramekin of the kitchen's own ketchup.
Seeing the word "truffled" next to "scrambled eggs on puff pastry ($11 brunch only)," we're expecting a few drops of truffle oil, not the generous shaving of the real deal we receive, especially when the plate already includes exquisitely grilled asparagus and a crumble of quality ricotta. Throw a couple of poached eggs on a side of house-cured duck bacon, paired with fat-fried fingerling potatoes in black truffle vinaigrette ($6) and get one spectacular brunch dish.
Back the following day to tackle the 132-seat room's lunch and dinner cartes, we're soon laying waste to a bison tartare ($15) tastily strewn with pickled mustard seeds and powdered foie gras. Despite our server's insistence that it was baked this morning, the bun that accompanies the Saloon's lobster burger ($22 lunch only) is definitely day-old, a fact proven when we request a replacement.
A gigantic wing of skate ($24) in a lovely lemon sauce studded with caper buds needs more than a wispy watercress salad to make it a main (good thing the lobster burger comes with lots of those fries), while a tapas-sized vegetarian entrée of agnolotti ($17) finished with pan-fried cauliflower and tahini is just plain nutty. Rethink or remove.
And so to dessert. When we ask if they're made in-house, our otherwise charming server assures us that everything from bread to pickles is made on the premises. Even the brunch pastries?
"Well, except for them," he concedes.
But there's no dispute that chef's microwaved Instant Cake ($8) is simply tremendous, an impressive cylinder of chocolate mousse air-brushed with dark chocolate on a puddle of crème Anglais infused with olive oil and festooned with dehydrated raspberries. Necking the last of our fizzy filtered Q water ($2.50 per person), we grab the blanket and make our exit as stuffed as the critters overhead.