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Gastropub Crawl: the good and great among the new wave of British pubs

The Saint on Ossington gives the old-school English tavern a loungy twist

The Saint on Ossington gives the old-school English tavern a loungy twist

The Oxley in Yorkville, for instance, is an almost comical arena of British kitsch. The dining room walls are covered with murals of fox hunts, a scale model of the Titanic rests behind the upstairs bar, and everything is served on the sort of mismatched patterned china that’s meant to make you think of Mum, or at least of Mary Poppins. Despite the decor, though, the mood is more Hazelton than Hampstead. I visited late on a Saturday night and stayed well after the architectural hair, French cuffs and blingy jewellery had gone home. To my left, a young man worried over his burger, while his dining companion barely touched her food. “What would cheer you up that’s not Chanel?” he asked. “Nothing,” she said. “I just wish this fish thing were better.”

Her dish aside, the dressed-up pub classics were generally well executed and full of flavour, especially the malty-rich Welsh rarebit on the bar menu, in which a hot, beery cheese sauce was poured over a slab of house-made white toast—the best version I’ve had outside the U.K. The thick chips are crisp and salty, though diminished by an overly curried house-made ketchup. Pheasant and goose liver polony, a terrine-type concoction that looks a little like bologna, was herbal and deeply meaty, and made even better by the crunchy, sweet, lemon-dressed green beans that accompanied. The dish reminded me of visiting family in the Somerset countryside as a boy. A dry-aged rib-eye was well-cooked and judiciously placed on a Stilton trencher, which in this case meant another piece of white toast coated in pungent blue cheese. A tall slice of rabbit pie was the real star, an addictive combination of miraculously flaky crust, buttery sliced potato and gamey, earthy meat. I would have ordered another slice had I not been saving room for the requisite sticky toffee pudding, an exceptional cauldron of bubbling caramel-doused cake served with vanilla ice cream.

When the rather sizable bill arrived, I couldn’t help but feel that the whole enterprise was slightly cynical. The food was good, the drinks were good, and the decor, while a bit silly, was comforting in its way. It’s a restaurant carefully calibrated to affirm our expectations rather than shake them up. Which, depending on your mood, may be its greatest virtue. Though it’s not as comfortable or as effortlessly English as The Queen and Beaver, it will do very well as a go-to spot for watching the World Cup in style, or hosting goodbye drinks for a retiring Bay Streeter.

If The Oxley feels a bit slavish in its affectations, it at least has a vision. That’s more than can be said for The Saint, a tavern recently opened on Ossington by the King Street Food Company, the group behind such slick establishments as Jacobs and Co. Steakhouse and Buca. Chef Andrew Bradford, formerly executive chef at Jacobs and Co., has designed a menu featuring the obligatory fish and chips and Sunday roasts, but it’s as rambling and aimless (pierogies and fried chicken are trendy interlopers) as the cooking itself.

The duck sausage our server recommended was dry and forgettable, nothing like the plump bangers I’d hoped for. The burger was good and very juicy, but a side of undercooked cauliflower with bacon proves that chunks of pork fat can’t fix everything. House cocktails were almost laughably overpriced at $16, and desserts had a distinctly Loblawsian quality. The stylish room, with its subway tile and zinc bar, takes inspiration from King Street, and its brand of standard-issue hipness contributes to the restaurant’s indistinctness. The highlight of a recent dinner was the proximity of Geddy Lee, who enthusiastically consumed a 32-ounce rib-eye at the next table. I wondered if his was overcooked, too.