We all know someone who seems to have it all going on. Unlike our slovenly selves, who can’t seem to get through the morning without spilling coffee on our shirts and struggle with a sense of existential dislocation all day long, this someone presents themselves impeccably, has a great career, a beautiful home, works out at least three times a week and somehow finds time to give back to the community in between raising the perfect family and maintaining strong, meaningful relationships—and they make it all look easy.
Under the High Wheel is basically the restaurant version of that kind of person. Without making a big deal of it, UHW creates an attractive, comfortable atmosphere, lays on unfussily gracious service and unpretentiously insists on using wholesome, locally sourced organic ingredients in its aptly self-described “old world comfort food.” In a peer or co-worker, this level of natural accomplishment would probably provoke resentment and annoyance on my part, but we’re talking about a noshery here—I was pleased to take full advantage.
Housed in the Roots on Whyte building, whose tenants pledge to uphold a high standard of conscientious business practices, UHW commands a handsome, open expanse of the main floor, adorning its exposed brick and sturdy pillars with tasteful ornamentation, including the wall-mounted antique penny-farthing bicycle that would serve as the eatery’s sigil. Despite its obvious pedigree, the place is family-friendly and easy-going enough that patrons don’t even feel constrained to doff their baseball caps as they dig into their free-range beef lasagna. And though the menu, a savvy blend of sammies, crepes, salads and featured entrées, caters to gluten-free and vegan orientations, there’s plenty of ethical meat for the conscious carnivore.
While deciding is seldom easy for me, I was particularly hard-put to choose between the meal-proportioned kale salad (with bacon!) and the duck confit ($24) on the featured menu. Then I remembered a rule of thumb that’s stood me in good stead previously—always order the duck. The presence of a good pinot noir on the wine list for pairing purposes sealed the deal. My co-diner, who was also interested in the duck, went with her second choice—hand-rolled gnocchi in blue cheese sauce ($21)—and consoled herself with a cup of the daily soup ($5)—sweet potato-ginger in this case.
The menu notes that good food takes time and counsels patrons to be patient, but the pleasant ambiance of the naturally bright room, classic jazz tootling in the background and happy diners enjoying their meals—not to mention the fine libations—distracted the co-diner and I from whatever time might have elapsed. Certainly the wait for the cup of soup was short, and though she couldn’t spare any of the tasty-looking biscuit that came with it, the hearty spoonful of tender, gingery yam nuggets in rich vegetarian broth confirmed the kitchen’s wicked soup chops.
A few sips and some window-gazing later, our entrées arrived attractively arrayed in pristine ceramic dishes. Really, we both paused before digging in to admire how appetizing the food looked. I gazed upon a slow-roasted duck leg on a bed of spaetzle, lavished with roasted red and orange peppers, sour cherries, a swirl of yogurt and a confetti of fresh herbs. Historically I haven’t always been crazy about spaetzle, the quasi-egg noodle/dumpling of ostensibly German origin that, in my experience, can be a bit dry and flavourless. Here, though, it seemed like just the thing—a substantial but not obtrusive starch with a mild, pan-fried crispiness that was the ideal vehicle for the savoury, sweet, tart and creamy elements of the dish. The generous portion of moist, slow-cooked duck was itself heavenly rich and, since I was throwing cholesterol caution to the wind, I went ahead and ate the succulent, salt-imbued skin as well.
My co-diner’s creamy, herb-flecked portion of gnocchi—tender homemade pasta-potato dumplings—was flavoured with onion and celery, and lavished with beets and slices of Granny Smith apple, which married marvelously with the aromatic blueness of the cheese sauce and what I felt sure was a hint of fresh sage. In fact it seemed like both of our entrées had been carefully engineered so that every element perfectly complemented the whole. Co-diner dubbed it “the best gnocchi of my lifetime.” And the plates were ample enough that we begrudgingly passed on the temptation of dessert.
As much as I’d be happy to eat exactly that meal all over again, Under the High Wheel’s feature menu changes frequently to take advantage of the seasonal availability of quality ingredients. Based on our one meal there, the co-diner and I agreed that could only be a good thing.
Under the High Wheel
8135 – 102 St,