Chilly weather demands comforting fare. Happily, The Huntsman Tavern has plenty of hearty dishes to keep you cozy.
It’s no coincidence that The Huntsman Tavern opened just as temperatures in Toronto dropped to single digits. This small two-month-old spot, with a staff assembled from nearby bars and restaurants, knows exactly what people crave right now: stews, meat pies, and pastas loaded with ragu.
Owners Nic Savage and Saeed Mohamed are well-acquainted with the College neighbourhood—Savage runs The Red Light bar just south on Dundas, while Mohamed owns BQM Diner around the corner on Ossington. And since Savage wanted to get back into the food business and Mohamed was looking for a whisky bar, they decided two years ago to pair up and combine their dreams into one vision.
In August, they took over a corner spot that was generally considered to be cursed, having housed the upscale seafood restaurant Red Fish, brunch place Mitzi’s on College, and Tasty Thai, all in a span of five years. Their plan to break the spell: provide a meal that’s filling and familiar for about 20 bucks. Oh, and load up on the liquor.
“We wanted a place where you can get a bit of everything,” Savage says. “Brunch, lunch, dinner. You can have a burger and a pint after work, you can bring a date, or you can bring the family, because we have a high chair.”
In just six weeks, the tavern was stripped of any evidence of restaurants past. Dark peacock-blue tiles now line walls adorned with antlers and paintings of countryside hunting scenes. The bar boasts whisky decanters repurposed as hanging mason-jar lights, and beneath them, general manager Aja Sax (formerly of The Emerson and The County General) makes strong cocktails, like the Scotchy Scotch Scotch ($14), a blend of Ballentines and 12-year-old Bowmore, maple syrup, and ginger bitters.
The kitchen is helmed by Mike Tan, a young chef from The Saint who used to frequent Savage’s bar after shifts. His menu is split into dishes that range from small (potted duck, olives) to medium (boar tourtière, smoked trout on warm pea blinis) to large, like the popular Huntsman Stew ($22). To make it, Tan sears short ribs, then braises them for four hours with red peppercorns, red wine, mirepoix, and stock, before he stirs in stewed venison. The vegetarian alternative—requested by residents who were sick of unsatisfying salads—is the white bean stew ($14), a cassoulet with plenty of ginger, kale, and mushrooms, plus a cheddar biscuit.
Tan also offers his spin on a Scotch egg: For the chorizo corndog ($10), he takes house-made sausage, fries it in a crispy batter, then adds a runny poached egg, Pommery mustard, and pink pickled onions. The pasta ($18) recently switched from a pappardelle to an agnolotti—“I wanted to step it up,” Tan says—but has the same generous helping of pig-cheek ragu. If there’s room, end with the fried apple pie or a frequently changing cookie board (both $7).
Over the weekend, The Huntsman Tavern is packed with fans of Eric Hadley, whose down-the-street restaurant closed this past summer. “A lot of people in the neighbourhood love him and his brunch,” Savage says. “So we asked if he wanted to do brunch with us.” Hadley’s staple dish, The Remedy, has been resurrected here as The Hunter ($14): corned beef, smoked cheese, baked beans, and Hollandaise, all smothering poached eggs. It’s even better with a piece of golden buttermilk-fried chicken ($4 each) and heaps of hot sauce.
On a recent rainy afternoon, a man at the bar ordered The Hunter, while his health-conscious partner opted for a salad and a pot of tea. When the food arrived, though, she started digging into her date’s corned beef without a glance at her plate. Leave the greens for another time. Let The Huntsman serve you the food you really want.
890 College St., 416-901-9919.