CAFÉ SUCCEEDS IN BEING ALL THINGS TO ALL PEOPLE
By: Kathryne Grisim, Foodmusings.ca
PHOTO BY KATHRYNE GRISIM
Rib lovers who visit the Oakwood Cafe are sure to be impressed.
In my humble opinion, my husband cooks up the best ribs that I have ever tasted.
He stands the pork racks on their side and adds whole onions, carrots and celery and just a wee bit of water in a shallow roasting pan. Then they are cooked over a low heat for hours on end, after which, the ribs must cool and “set” in the refrigerator for a couple of hours. Just before serving, he slathers them in barbecue sauce and places them on the grill so that the sugars in the sauce begin to caramelize. We recently visited the Oakwood Café, specifically so that he could sample their all-you-can-eat ribs. The verdict? He was very impressed.
Rarely can restaurants be successful by being all things to all people, but somehow the Oakwood is pulling it off. The website indicates that the establishment is a bistro/restaurant/café. Not only do they offer the rib special on Friday and Saturday evenings, they are also known for an endless variety of eggs benedict at brunch. They have an extensive breakfast menu, lunch menu, vegan menu, kids menu, 55 plus menu and provide outside catering and private parties. Based on their business on the evening that we visited, they are successfully managing to keep all these balls in the air.
I teased our server and asked her if I had to show her my identification to order off of the 55 plus menu. It turns out that I must have not looked my age, because she inadvertently served me a full order of Mediterranean pasta instead of the 55 plus version. I happily started with a bacon and blue salad of bacon, blue cheese and crunchy pecans as my husband enjoyed a cup of one of the soups of the day — a delicious borscht with an enormous dollop of sour cream.
My entrée included roasted red peppers, zucchini, kalamata olives and feta in a hearty marinara sauce. I topped it with slices of chicken breast for a mere $2 more. There are plenty affordable options like this one on the extensive menu. The ribs were plated with perfectly prepared veggies, sweet potato fries and a chipotle mayo which provided a lovely zing.
The owners and staff work as a well-coached team with everyone chipping in on all tasks. One of the owners personally delivers armloads of hot dishes out to the guests. Empty dishes are whisked away immediately and the restaurant always looks sleek and uncluttered in spite of the bustling atmosphere.
660 Osborne St.
Opening hours are 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday to Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday, Monday and Tuesday
Surface parking adjacent to restaurant in addition to street parking
Kathryne Grisim’s foodmusings.ca blog was named best local blog in Uptown Magazine’s Best of Winnipeg readers’ poll
THE MIGHTY (TASTY) OAKWOOD
OWNER TAKES TIME TO RESPOND TO EVERY ONLINE CRITIQUE, BUT LATELY, RESTAURANT’S GETTING MOSTLY KUDOS
By: David Sanderson
Everyone’s a critic.
Talk to enough restaurateurs around town and you’ll discover a love-hate relationship exists between them and the anonymous foodie types who pen reviews for websites such as Open Table and Trip Advisor.
Phil Hossack / Winnipeg Free Press Oakwood Cafe partners Peter Paley (left) and Alix Loiselle hold their favourite dishes, beef stroganoff and the Oakwood burger, respectively. A breakfast/lunch/dinner nook in trendy south Osborne, the Oakwood was one of the first restaurants in the area.
ALTHOUGH the Oakwood Café sees more than its fair share of married couples, Peter Paley still considers his restaurant more of a “first-date kind of place.”
With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, potential lovebirds can head to the Oakwood secure in the fact the owner will be looking out for their best interests.
“There’s a lot of body language involved with people who are on a first date,” says Paley, who considers himself an amateur sociologist, thanks to his years in the service industry. “If you’re paying attention, then you immediately know when you have to go in and save the day. Sometimes I’ll notice a guy dying – stumbling over his words, shuffling in his chair — and that’s when I cut in and ask a few questions, giving him just enough time to regroup and get his nerve back.”
In the old days, one owner told us, if a person was upset with an overcooked steak or had to wait — gasp! — 10 minutes for a table, he’d tell a few friends, who might tell a few more, and that would be the end of it. Nowadays, however, more and more diners are whipping out their smartphones the second their entrées hit the table. As soon as they get home, they post evaluations, often snarky, that will be read by hundreds of people trying to decide where to make their next dinner reservation.
At least once a week, Peter Paley sets aside a couple of hours to peruse what people are saying about the Oakwood Café, the cosy south Osborne nook he bought from his aunt eight years ago. Afterwards, Paley makes a point of replying to every critique, often inviting appraisers to contact him personally if they had a less-than-pleasant experience at his locale.
“If somebody is going to take the time to write about us, good or bad, the least I can do is get back to them,” Paley says, noting the only pet peeve he has is when customers snap pictures of food that is (“Ugh,” he groans) half-eaten. “But what people have to realize is that running a restaurant can be a tough job. At any one time, you need five million things to go right in order for something not to go really, really wrong.”
That said, it’s probably a good thing Urban Spoon didn’t exist when Paley worked his debut shift at the Oakwood Café 22 years ago.
“Oh, it was just awful,” says Paley, 38. “During the first 10 minutes, I spilled hot chocolate all over my pants. An hour later, I dropped a full tray of coffee mugs, breaking every last one.”
The Oakwood’s newest server wasn’t done yet. For his pièce de résistance, Paley dumped a full pitcher of water on a customer’s pricey leather jacket. He was about to call it a career when his aunt came running out of the kitchen, telling her nephew not to worry, that “these things happen.”
And was she right? Were the mishaps all in a day’s work?
“No. I have since discovered those sorts of things do not happen,” Paley says with a chuckle. (By the way, the lady in the leather jacket? She left Paley a tip.)
The Oakwood Café began life in the late 1980s as Samantha’s. Paley’s aunt, Nadine Melnyk, purchased the restaurant, tucked inside a strip mall at 660 Osborne St., in 1991, a year or so after it was renamed after a neighbouring avenue.
“It was desolate when she took over. There wasn’t a customer to be seen,” says Paley. “But within six months she turned it into a thriving business.”
Paley, whose childhood idea of a big night out was supper at Mr. Steak, admits he never saw himself as the type of person who would own a restaurant. Sure, he pulled two or three shifts a week at the Oakwood while he was attending university. But after graduating with a commerce degree, he figured his days of slinging coffee were largely over.
That all changed in 2006 when Melnyk announced she was done.
“I walked into her office one day and she said, ‘That’s it. I’ve had it. I’m selling,’ ” says Paley, who, at the time, was working at HSBC Canada. “I looked at her and said, ‘OK, I’m buying.’ ”
For years, the Oakwood Café was primarily regarded as one of Winnipeg’s premier breakfast spots. Case in point: Three years ago, Leif Norman and Andrew McMonagle — the brains behind the uber-informative Breakfast Winnipeg website — awarded the Oakwood eight of a possible 10 points. Things began to change about a year ago when Paley’s partner, Alix Loiselle, a classically trained cordon bleu chef, joined the fold.
“For the first time, we began to see people who’d only ever come for breakfast returning for lunch and dinner. I was like, ‘What took you so long?’ ” says Paley. (Some of those returnees included members of Winnipeg’s vaunted Burger Club, who graded the Oakwood’s Fat Boy Platter an unparalleled 4.9/5.)
Of course, you can’t please everybody all the time. Paley laughs when he recalls one regular who used to bring her own seasoning, only because his kitchen didn’t stock it on a regular basis.
“She was a big fan of saffron, but saffron can be quite pricey and we didn’t always have it on hand,” Paley says. “So she would bring some from home and we would add it to her rice for her.”
Paley didn’t have to make any such accommodations for Jane Seymour, a.k.a. Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, when she popped by for a bite while in Winnipeg filming a movie.
“I had to serve her and I was so nervous — I was just shaking,” Paley says, noting he was more in control of his faculties the day Thomas Haden Church, star of Sideways and Spider-Man 3, sat in his section. “I knew who (Seymour) was right away, but I didn’t feel it was my place to say anything. I do remember that she ordered the stir-fry and that her husband had the beef stroganoff.”
As for future plans, Paley and Loiselle are kicking tires in Winnipeg’s French Quarter in hopes of opening a high-end pastry shop later this year.
“We’ve already got a name — La Belle Baguette,” says Loiselle. “We’ve looked at a few places on Provencher and we just have to decide which one works best for us. It will be mostly takeout, but we should have room for a few tables where people can sit and enjoy a coffee and croissant.”
The five-block strip the Oakwood resides in has become a city-wide dining destination, thanks to five-star neighbours such as Deseo Bistro and Bistro 7 1/4, and Paley says the more the merrier.
“I heard a rumour that a Mexican restaurant is going to open where the old Ronald’s Shoes location was, and I think that’s just great,” says Paley, who expanded his own business to 88 seats last year to meet growing demand. “I’m a firm believer in critical mass — that the busier an area is, the busier you will be, too. So I welcome any restaurant to open near us. I fully support all the places in this end of town.”
Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 12, 2014 A8
THE CUSTOMER IS KING AT THE OAKWOOD CAFÉ
POSTED BY MIKE GREEN, WEEKEND MORNING SHOW FOOD DUDE | SUNDAY OCTOBER 21, 2012
Decor be dammed! I want to find the best little Winnipeg neighbourhood haunts. I want to find some good old home cooking and see where the regulars congregate.
This is the call I put out to my foodie friends — it was answered, and a list was made.
Up first, I could not resist the amount of hype I got for the Oakwood Café, the little South Osborne gem which is sandwiched between a Subway (yes, bad pun) and a tax shop. Soon I found myself sitting across from the Oakwood’s owner, Peter Paley, asking what constitutes a “neighbourhood haunt,” as I slurped at the cafe’s lovely — if not a touch sweet — borscht.
“I think it’s just being the spot where all your friends, family and neighbouring businesses want to come to,” said Paley. “To achieve that status, you really have to cater to what your customer wants. Our menu has evolved over the last six years for sure based on customer suggestions.”
For me, the comment sounded a bit against-the-grain for a restaurant owner to make, as most rooms now are more about expanding culinary horizons (despite the demands of regulars). But that is not the model of the neighbourhood haunt, and seeing how busy the Oakwood is, I realized that Paley knows his stuff.
He has been working at the restaurant since he was 17, back when his aunt owned the place. Paley would go on to do his degree and become a banker, all while still working at the restaurant during weekends. Even while working for TD Bank, he could still be found bussing tables, doing dishes, and working the line at the Oakwood on weekends.
Oakwood Café on south Osborne (Mike Green/CBC)
After buying the place in 2006, Paley instilled a business philosophy that has kept the family-oriented restaurant packed every day. They are open seven days a week for breakfast, lunch and dinner with a focus on keeping the customers and staff pleased as punch.
For staff, regular set hours are the norm, “so they can keep a regular set of clients,” said Paley. “This way it is like they have their own clientele and everything runs smoothly. The Oakwood is stand alone now — I’d be nowhere without my staff,” he continues.
And for customers? Well, there’s not much Paley won’t do to ensure your satisfaction, even if you write a negative blog post on Urban Spoon. When two people had some rather unsavoury comments about the Oakwood, Paley was on it, eager to bring back their business.
“On Urban Spoon I’ve had two questionable reviews where I was able to track down the writers via Facebook,” said Paley. “So I gave them a gift certificate and asked them to come back in… The two people actually switched the reviews, thanked us profusely for the gift cards… and now they’ve referred us many, many times over.”
So lesson number one on the neighbourhood haunt — keep those customers coming back for more, even if you have to track them down. And Paley will track you down, but you’ll be happy he did, he even sends out 100 to 200 birthday cards per month to his database of over 1600 clients.
How about that for customer service?
If you’d like to suggest a neighbourhood gem for Mike to check out, send your suggestions here.
WINNIPEGGER TALKS FOOD
Friday, 22 March 2013
FOOD REVIEW: THE OAKWOOD CAFE
The Oakwood Cafe
660 Osborne St
The location of the Oakwood cafe is just a little bit unusual. Sandwiched between a Subway and a Pizza take-out place in a strip mall sounds like the location for a barbershop or a tanning salon rather than the 10th best restaurant in the Osborne-Corydon cluster (at the time of writing). Or maybe it isn’t unusual at all. The Oakwood is nestled close to the (somewhat) new and very exciting group of restaurants near The Park Theater in south Osborne.
They describe themselves as “a family friendly restaurant” with “some funky twists on a few dishes”. These words can sometimes be code for “the food is boring and cheap because children don’t like to try new things and parents are very often impoverished” and “one of our dishes contains hot sauce in the lowest dose possible.” In the case of the Oakwood cafe it is not code for anything, it is truth.
My wife and I rarely look at the menu before we go to a place so we weren’t really sure what “vegetarian” meant in this context. Sometimes it means 1 salad that doesn’t contain chicken and there is a plate of hash browns which can be upgraded to beefy hash browns for an extra 2.99. Sometimes it means there are so many veggie options my little heart weeps with joy. In this case it is somewhere in-between. We went for dinner and found there was good number of dishes that we could eat (3 sandwiches, 8 burgers (by virtue of swapping in a veggie burger for any of the burger options), 2 pastas, 3 salads, 1 entree, and a few sides). I got a bit carried away on that list…
Anyway, we ordered:
This came with:
Borscht (which isn’t vegetarian, but we pretended)
This came with:
Sweet Potato Fries (upgraded for 1.99)
It came to about $42 with a 15% tip. In retrospect our server probably deserved more than that, he was amazingly friendly and helpful and very sociable. Some of the best service we have received anywhere.
The borscht came before the rest of the food. The soup is so perfect that I wouldn’t bat an eye if someone told me my grandma was in the kitchen shredding the beets. But what really won my heart was the sweet potato fries. Good heavens they were good. They changed my feelings about all the yam and sweet potato fries that came before and will be measure for all yam fries that come after. They were hot, they were crisp on the outside, they were soft on the inside. The chipotle aioli was tasty and not too brash. Oh my goodness, go eat their sweet potato fries now!! The vegetables tasted fresh and were cooked perfectly. The artichokes were particularly good. The wrap had goat cheese in it, which was amazing. The people at the table next to us were praising the liver and onions, so you might want to try it too. My only regret was not ordering a milkshake.
The verdict? If you find yourself there make sure to have the fries, they are worth every penny you spend. If you don’t have a borsht-making grandmother to keep your soup stomach full, you should probably order that too. I might recommend going for lunch over dinner because of the large number of sandwich and veggie burger options.
Until next time,