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On the Plate: Taming the wild beasts

Its not a big stretch to conclude that Wildebeest is one of the best new restaurants to have opened this year.

Its not a big stretch to conclude that Wildebeest is one of the best new restaurants to have opened this year. The 120-seater from James Iranzad (Abigails Party) and Josh Pape (The Diamond) at 120 West Hastings has been pretty well rock solid on all fronts since it opened this past summer. It has certainly impressed me in the dozen or so visits that Ive paid it so far.

To start with, I dig the look of it. If its true that the popular, post-industrial, West Coast, reclaimed wood and wrought iron aesthetic is as on the way out, as communal dining is said to be, then let Wildebeest be the local high water mark of both. The long range of high-top tables running the length of the narrow, high-ceilinged room; the lights suspended from pulleys reclaimed from the Pantages Theatre demolition; the custom chairs from Railtowns own Union Wood Co.; the homey, exacting open kitchen; the carefully considered music it all works.

If it lacks anything at all it is a sense of intimacy. To put that differently: more Chambar and less Salty Tongue.

The bar is one of the better ones in town. Its led by co-owner Pape, a former Bartender of the Year. His crew is engaging and well skilled at classic cocktail construction. They also work from a graphic list of 20 house originals, and one of these the heady Bardstown Breakfast (a mix of Mezcal, aromatic bitters, maple syrup and bacon-infused Bourbon on ice in a rocks glass) is my current liquid of choice. The bar program also offers a revolving selection of beers, sakes, and aperitifs, not to mention its very own subterranean wine bar, where a 12-bottle machine gushes reds and whites on tap to an additional 38 seats.

The food isnt as beastly as the brand would have you believe, nor is it that expensive. While there are big cuts of meat, plenty of foie gras, popcorn chicken hearts and sweetbreads galore, it isnt all from the gnarly annals of witch-read innards. Far from it. My favourite dishes so far have been the lash-loweringly smoky Castelvetrano olives (revelatory); the poutine (with or without duck liver); the red wine-braised chicken leg and roasted breast; the honey cured steelhead (previously with beets and dill oil, now with cabbage and celery root fricassee); and the roasted bone marrow, which comes with a follow-up act of its own. Once the bone has been cleared of its marrow, its something of a tradition at the restaurant to do a bone luge, which is to say pour some sherry down the bones open cavity and into your mouth. Mmm.

But the best dish to date was a housemade, sublimely decadent (but not noticeably fatty) cotechino sausage served with a toothsome flageolet cassoulet. It was later changed to a housemade chorizo which was just as flavourful but it has since disappeared off the menu. In my most private, quiet moments, I still weep for it.

Ive only had one other bit of misfortune with the menu, and that was with the slow-cooked short rib. The first time I ordered it, I was gobsmacked. It arrived naked on the plate save for a shallow puddle of hay-infused jus. It was lean for short rib meat, albeit dense with taste. When I ordered it a month later, however, it arrived as one big slab of fat. It was the first dish Id sent back in any restaurant in nearly over a year.

I popped in with my kids for a midday snack over the weekend and the three of us knocked back the Wildebeest Brunch, which is a massive plate of sliced flank steak, crisped pork belly, exquisite bierwurst, and three yes three eggs. Excessive? Yes. Fantastic? Absolutely.

One final plus (as if we need it), is an unheralded one. The staff, both in the front and back of house, are damn good. On any given evening, the kitchen crew behind executive chef David Gunawan (ex-West) brings a dozen exceptionally stable hands to bear, many of them with Michelin-starred experience (if you place any importance on that).

And out front, Pape and Iranzad have put together a dream team of few equals in town. Remember Corey Schwartz, the manager at La Quercia? Hes waiting tables here, and so is Matthew Morgenstern, who used to run Nicli Antica Pizzeria. Also on the floor are Miguel Quezada, formerly of LAbattoir; Brooke Delves, who used to be the manager at Maenam (and Salt Tasting Room before that); and Alexandra Edwards, who was long a fixture at The Diamond.

There are others, too, who are just as well respected. Alas, my column length runneth over.

The short of it is that Wildebeest is among the most competent restaurants to arrive this year. Where it lands on my annual Top 10 Best New Restaurants list is still undecided, but its definitely in the mix.

Check back here in two weeks to find out.