Mondays are usually the slowest night for most restaurants, and many don’t even open, but for one 17th Avenue SW restaurant the room is full, you have to reserve to make sure you get in during prime time. It’s Cleaver’s Plank Monday!
Since opening just after Stampede last year, it’s been go, go, go for Dubliners Chef Barbara Spain and Alex Rivera. Cleaver has been a success since day one and it’s not difficult to see why – this unpretentious, casual eatery serves up generous portions of made-from-scratch, creative comfort food – and all with an Irish tongue-in-cheek sense of humour that permeates everything from the décor to the cocktail list.
The space has a rustic, yet industrial feel with fixtures of old wood and bare metal, and plenty of Chef Spain‘s quirky touches, like the rows of hanging cleavers behind glass as you enter, and tap handles made from vintage meat mallets and cleavers. Clever ideas, such as adjustable lighting over the tables and a huge painted cow’s head on one wall, create a cosy, lively and relaxed ambience. “The ideas evolved over about two years in my head, they just kept on coming to me,” says the chef, “I did all the design style and Alex would cut me off when we’d spent enough.”
They get plenty of compliments on the background music too. It’s a mixed bag with English oldies like Elton John and The Jam, and a little bit of Irish – Shane MacGowan’s Dirty Old Town is also included.
The menu is made up of sharing ”small” plates (small for an NHL player maybe!), sliders, sides, salads – and Cock N’ Bull, which brings us back to Plank Mondays. It’s a big plank of wood with half a cock marinated for two days in a buttermilk spice mixture. Sides change each week, usually either duck fat fries, parm fries or truffle fries, and always a salad plus something quirky on the board, like confit duck mac ‘n’ cheese. It serves two, and is great value at $25. There’s a fun element too, as you shake dice and if you get two evens you don’t pay for the plank. “People like a bit of a gamble and it creates such a fun buzz in here,” says Chef Spain. “Everybody’s screaming and shouting when they’re rolling the dice, and you know who’s won and who’s lost from the kitchen, you can hear them.”
Chef Spain has just revealed her new summer menu with the most popular dishes staying and new, lighter summer fare, such as lobster tacos, joining them. A favourite is the bone marrow – which people now use as bone luges, drinking a brandy through the bone and deglazing it after they’ve eaten their marrow.
As you’d expect from a restaurant called Cleaver, meat is big here. Carrying on from the winter menu are lamb chops with a korma dip, and the 42oz bone-in AAA Alberta beef. “It’s to share, and it takes up to 50 minutes for us to prep it, but it’s just beautiful,” says Chef Spain. “Everybody who eats it loves it; there’s a big piece of fat running through the centre, which makes it all soft and succulent.” There’s also a 10oz option and a steak salad – a 6oz steak with Portobello mushroom and melted Taleggio cheese, topped with a sous vide poached egg – a creamy, dreamy dish.
On Friday or Saturday you can book a whole pig’s head in a sweet beer glaze, which comes on a wooden board with an array of sides. But there’s only one each week, and it’s usually pre-booked.
There are plenty of choices for less meaty dishes too – the seared tuna lettuce wrap and soft shell crab sliders fly out of the kitchen, and the polenta with wild mushrooms and truffle oil, which was meant to be side dish, is so popular that people order it on it’s own. Truffle egg toast, and tempura kale with a sweet ginger dip are also crowd pleasers. The dessert list is small, but the salted caramel fondue with marshmallows and donuts is legendary!
Chef Spain also creates the drinks list – there are five beers on tap, including draught Guinness, and a wine list divided into “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (more expensive wines), although all the wines are exceptionally well-priced. And then her notable, unapologetically bold cocktails! Popular are Slap Your Mamma – Scotch, pineapple and Thai spiced ice that gets hotter as you drink it, and The G spot – so named for the guava, gin, and grapefruit, with a passion fruit in the centre. One of the biggest sellers is the Double-Barrel Old Fashioned, where the glass is smoked on a cut tree for the aroma – very cool! All syrups are made in house, as well as ice cubes embedded with herbs and spices.
Chef Spain is used to working hard, and though she and her sous, Todd and Jory, are already busy, another restaurant opening is imminent. “I was hoping for summer but now it’s probably going to be autumn,” she says. “It’s definitely going to be a very similar boutique feel, but a different concept.” Watch this space!
Cleaver is open every evening, as well as for brunch at weekends, 10:00am-3:00pm.
Photos by Ingrid Kunzel