District Oven, a new restaurant and lounge at College and Ossington, is finally open in the long vacant site that once housed the raucous Portuguese sports bar, Cervejaria. Now an upmarket Middle Eastern restaurant, the family run operation is helmed by chef and owner Isam Kaisi, who's also the proprietor of 93 Harbord.
Inspired by ferrane, the communal ovens of the Middle East, the 4,000 square foot spot aspires to serve as a gathering spot and is ready to accommodate large parties with tufted square booths, long harvest tables and groupings of lounge seating. The interior makes use of original tin ceilings and exposed brick walls adorned with vibrant paintings from Iranian-born Toronto artist Homeira Rezaei. Elements like liana vine chandeliers and raw-edged woodwork throughout add warmth to the cavernous room.
The flaming stone oven is the heart of the restaurant and house-made flat breads and pitas are the foundation of the menu. Pitas arrive to the table as toasty, steam-filled balloons and as far as I'm concerned everything that follows is just an excuse to eat more bread.
The menu complements the communal eating style. The bigger the party, the better the opportunity to sample from mezze like hummus ($7), house-pressed labaneh with zatar ($7) and skewered-grilled eggplant ($8) marinated with romesco, a nutty pepper sauce.
Special diets will find themselves well looked after, too. The meat here is Halal (Kosher can be done with notice) and the menu is pork-free. Vegetarians and gluten-sensitive eaters will appreciate comforting dishes like the quinoa lentil pilaf ($14) studded with sweet caramelized onions and topped with tahini and roasted almonds. Chopped village salad on the side is dressed with lemon and spiked heavily with parsley.
Meaty options get creative with a fig jam dressed kefta burger ($15) and an arak (anise) and sour cherry gastric smothered poutine served with an 8oz steak ($27). I try the well-executed Cornish hen ($19), a tender supreme with crispy, spice-infused skin. Earthy Jerusalem artichokes make the dish substantial, and a liberally applied green chili zhug (Israeli hot sauce) offers a lingering heat.
The beer selection is currently limited, though there are plans brewing to install a 12-tap station. Best bets from the bar are the cocktails ($11) made with house syrups in flavours like fennel and chamomile. The District Margarita made with El Jimador Blanco Tequila, fig almond syrup and lime is like an Amaretto Sour without the sickly-sweetness -- I'm a fan.
District Oven is currently open for dinner from 5:30pm on. Brunch featuring Middle Eastern staples like shakshouka plus western egg and potato options is to be launched in the coming weeks. Take out and private parties are welcome.