Photographs by Paolina Loseto
From the team behind The Wren -- a popular ranch-style pub on the Danforth -- comes The Wood Owl, a cozy bar and restaurant with an excellent wine list, tasteful cocktails and a seasonal food menu crafted with utmost care.
After eight solid years of serving up beer and southern-style food at The Wren, owner Dennis Kimeda was ready to expand the opportunities for his team.
He says, "We have a great crew of talented people at The Wren, but it's a 50 seat craft beer pub, and there is only so much you can do with that kind of place. The menu worked; we had lots of burgers, specials, and fried chicken, but it all kind of fit into a boxed template."
Kimeda is no stranger when it comes to opening up restaurants; in fact, after opening The Wren with his wife Rhonda in 2013, he also took part in the opening of Lake Inez in 2017, with Patrick Ciappara and Zac Schwartz. A few years later, he found himself back at The Wren working full-time, where he started to feel the itch to undertake a new venture once again and take on the challenge of opening another restaurant. When the space next to The Wren went up for sale, Kimeda couldn't pass on the opportunity to take it over.
"I wanted to bring other people up within The Wren family, and this way, I could keep the team together, while giving people different opportunities to grow in their career."
Chef Tabitha Cranney was the longstanding chef at The Wren, who was then offered the chance to spearhead the menu over at The Wood Owl, where she could try new things, lead a new team and assist Kimeda in building out the new menu.
Then comes the final piece of the puzzle, sommelier Darryl Crawford, who worked at The Wren before leaving to pursue his career in the wine industry. After working in the field, Crawford once again joined forces with Kimeda to somm and help shape the full wine bar experience.
For the interior design, Kimeda enlisted the help of Ali McQuaid, creative director at Future Studio, who has quickly been taking the Toronto design scene by storm. Kimeda says, "I wanted a place that was comfortable and inviting, with warm tones, and natural real leather booths, to give it that classic feel, with cozy vibes."
As you can imagine, the space is filled with many different hues and textures of wood and wooden accents. Between the flooring, the bar and the panels on the wall, the use of natural wood in the space is absolutely exquisite and gives off an elegant yet rustic cottage kind of feel, perfect for a cozy date night or rendezvous with the pals.
It's clear that McQuaid and Kimeda have a strong eye for detail; the hand-selected lamps (some with a cheeky owl base) and chandeliers, mirrors, cabinets and brown-toned marble bar and tabletops beautifully warm up the space. Unique wine bottles line the top of the large banquette, while old rock album covers are hung up along the main wall as an ode to Kimeda's past in the music industry.
The exterior is eye-catching from the sidewalk; the wooden curved paned window front is unlike any other on the strip. The dim lights shining through the white lace curtain are as enchanting as can be, and would draw anyone into their space on a cool winter evening.
Chef Cranney is thrilled to curate her own menu and has had so much fun putting it all together. She says, "It took months to figure out which direction we would go. It was challenging coming from The Wren, because we wanted to make sure we would enjoy what we'd be making, and there were so many different styles on the table. Between Darryl, Dennis and I, we ultimately knew that everything had to pair well with wine, and the food we were going to cook, had to be food we'd want to eat."
The menu has a variety of cultural influences, with some Spanish, French and Italian thrown into the mix. Cranney says, "The goal was to keep everything simple, but technique-driven." There is a decently small amount of core offerings on the menu to give room for weekly and weekend features, which are constantly developing as the seasons change.
To kick off the meal, it's recommended to start with one of their cheese or charcuterie plates, which rotate frequently. The daily offerings will be hand-written and displayed on their charming mirror towards the back of the restaurant. Make sure to also order a side of bread that is perfectly charred and excellent for pairing with your meat and cheese.
The Branzino Crudo draws influence from Asian flavour profiles and contains nori-infused oil, avocado, lime, chilies, gochugaro (Korean chili powder) and toasted sesame seeds to finish. There is a wonderful umami presence in this dish, and the freshness and neutrality of the branzino, perfectly complement the creaminess of the avocado chunks.
For a lighter option, snag an order of the Roasted Carrots & Ricotta with Calabrian chili honey, confit sunchoke chips and gremolata. The carrots are soft and seasoned beautifully, and the bed of fresh whipped ricotta, mixed with the crunch from the sunchokes, fills this dish with a variety of oh-so-satisfying textures.
Over to the French-style of cooking, Cranney presents the Mussels, which come from Saltspring Island, BC. They're dressed with fennel and chive oil and are soaked in a white wine, cream and garlic sauce. Cooked to perfection, the mussels are soft and tender and would certainly be filling as a meal on their own.
The Steak & Pommes Allumettes is The Wood Owl's elevated take on steak frites. The grilled skirt steak is seasoned with salt and pepper, comes lathered in a delightful tarragon demi-glaze seared with roasted mushrooms, and is topped off with a dollop of fresh horseradish. The shoestring fries are crunchy and delicious, with the perfect amount of salt, for each bite to be more mouthwatering than the last.
As for the wine program, sommelier Darryl Crawford has selected a number of 'off the beaten path' varietals to draw attention to some of the lesser-known wine regions. When considering flavour profiles, he leans towards the minerality over fruit, and the texture over intensity, so it's a guarantee that no matter the wine, it will go down smooth and will pair with almost everything on the menu. With two pages worth of wines to choose from, it won't be easy, but the staff will undoubtedly be able to guide you in the right direction.
Though small, the cocktail selection is wine-based and features some excellent options if wine really isn't your thing. The Adonis, for example, is a lightly sweet beverage made with Oloroso sherry, sweet vermouth and orange bitters.
For the long-pour cocktail lovers, sip on the Girona Spritz, a refreshing libation with grapefruit, sweet vermouth, simple syrup and Cava. There's also a small selection of local beers to choose from to round out the impressive beverage program.
The Wood Owl is located at 1380 Danforth Avenue, and is open 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and 5 p.m. to 12 a.m. on Friday and Saturday. Seating is walk-in only, and the kitchen remains open until 10 p.m. daily. Be sure to follow them on Instagram to stay up to date with the release of their weekly food and wine specials.