I think I may have just had the perfect meal. One that engaged all of the senses, but especially tickled the tastebuds in an almost magical way. It wasn’t the most exotically composed meal or even the most sophisticated of offerings that I’ve had in my life. But it was just what I needed for winter sustenance, when a simple braise of beef short ribs topped with caramelized onions proved to be everything that does a body good.
The Red Ox Inn is one of those just-big-enough places that floats under the radar. Twelve tables is all the dining room contains. One server for the wine, apps and mains, and one more—often chef Frank Olson’s wife Andrea—for the desserts and post-prandial drinks. This is one efficient restaurant with exceedingly exact and well-timed service. It’s also the kind of room where long-seasoned couples hold hands across a table, speaking conversations that are low and knowing.
For part of its life, the Red Ox was a restaurant owned and operated by a retired gentleman with a need to be occupied. The regulars knew to come on Fridays for chowder. A shift in ownership was stewarded by a chef for whom one sauce on a plate was never enough—certainly not when you could add another two. For the past 10 years, Frank and Andrea have brought it to its current incarnation, where fine cuisine is given the delicacy of complement, counterpoint and balance.
The Black and Blue Salad ($12), for instance, comprised of butter lettuce in a blue cheese-herb dressing that presented the acidic nature of fromage bleu and then turned the corner to an almost honeyed cast. Sitting atop the greenery was a small scattering of freshly sautéed, black pepper-seasoned beef tenderloin, so tender in texture that it resembled more a heavily flavoured compound butter. To complete the plate, a pickled selection of onion tendrils, enoki mushrooms and lightly curried golden beets. Talk about palate engagement!
The same attention to flavour games was found in the soup of the day, a silken-texture coconut-red beet broth ($8) dressed over top with a relish of papaya, red onion, and apple or jicama. Again, just when it seemed that my tastebuds knew what to expect with the coconut, the sweetness of the red beets asserted itself, and moved the soup beyond expectations.
I stuck to the beef theme with the red wine-braised beef short rib ($35), a special for this evening, set upon a richly flavoured square of mascarpone polenta that was as close to a gel as a fine cornmeal grain can possibly get. The single bone-in short rib was fork-tender—as it should be—and easily picked up the aromatics of the red wine jus, onions, carrots and celery. The genius of the dish, however, was a lightly garlic oil-dressed arugula salad, which provided the peppery counter to the sweetness of the polenta, beef and a decoration of caramelized onion. Indeed, the salad scarcely needs a dressing; a simple muddle in the red wine sauce was enough to complete the flavour profile. The accompanying crisply prepared vegetables were a solid example of yin-yang sweet and bitter: carrots, braised tiny cipolinni onions, broccoli and green beans.
For dessert, I chose a slice of warm blueberry-white chocolate bread pudding ($9), drizzled with a barely sweet caramel sauce and buttressed with an ultimate essence-of-vanilla crème anglaise. Pair this with a cappuccino ($4.50) or a espresso ($3.50). Even a touch of port or the French apple brandy Calvados will bring out the sweet of the blueberries. I’ve pampered myself mightily in desserts over the years under the Olsons’ tutelage. The fresh lemon tart with a pine nut crust ($9) is no over-the-top sweet thing you might find in restaurants that are afraid to give you bite at the end of the night. Instead, this dessert easily lives up to its name—tart and dark, and served with a raspberry sorbet that adds just enough sweetness. A baked-to-order individual chocolate cake ($9) comes to the table warm and accompanied by a vanilla bean ice cream, which, like the crème anglaise of bread pudding fame, is exactly the capper you need for an evening such as this. And the pecan pie ($9), served Southern style with whipped cream and caramel sauce, is a classic. Not too sweet, so that the flavour of the pecans shines through.
I can also tell you that such delicacies as the Squash and Duck appetizer ($16) of duck confit on butternut squash ravioli, hazelnut brown butter, wild mushrooms and sage is a keeper, as is the grilled rack of lamb ($34), served with a cassoulet of Irving Farm’s duck confit sausage, truffled polenta, and a red wine demi glace.
I have ventured to Red Ox in its past three incarnations and the current edition, to me, is the very best. Do make a reservation. We regulars and semi-regulars readily claim our tables—if you’re in the mood for romance, request the corner booth by the window. Diners who annually vote in the Creperie as the most romantic restaurant in town should take a good look and taste at Red Ox.
This is one place that, thankfully, is not controlled by the whims of a chain. It aims to be local in accessing its ingredients. According to Frank, the farmers’ markets are ideal for vegetables; he deals with local purveyors of pork, beef and organic chicken, at a time when diners are set to be impressed with what is found in their own back yards. Irving Farms, for instance, is located in Round Hill, just 40 minutes of southeast of Sherwood Park and is known for its flavourful sausages, as well as its heritage Berkshire pork.
For a small restaurant that can easily be forgotten due to its neighbourhood and off-the-beaten track location, Red Ox makes a mighty culinary bellow. V
Tue – Sun, open at 5 pm
Red Ox Inn
9420 – 91 St; 780.465.5727