I am sitting at a rustic wooden table in a quiet nook of Caribou with its owners, Leeroy and Sophia.
On the adjacent wall, a series of photos depict life on a misted Canadian lake. Behind us, an ice hockey game plays out on the oversized-screen. Set out on the table is poutine, along with many other tastes of Canada.
If you are a homesick Canadian, if you have visited Canada and love it, or if you want to go and can’t afford the plane ticket, then all the little details in Caribou’s interior, all the Canadian heart and soul that has gone into its menu, will take you there.
Having left their much-loved Canberra institution Elk and Pea, Leeroy says, “We thought, ‘let’s do a venue that includes the things we miss about home’. And so we’ve designed a local neighbourhood pub that is inspired by everything we love about Canada.”
Sophia adds, “There’s a hospitality and a service that’s provided when you go to a Canadian bar or pub. The way the seating is done, the style of menu … there is nothing like that here. So we decided to just build everything that we love. A place that we would love to go to!”
Caribou’s menu tells a story. It takes you on a journey.
Actually, it takes you on Leeroy’s journey, following the trek he took in his 20s when he hitchhiked clear across Canada. Each location features a nostalgic dish, tweaked Caribou-style.
“It’s an après ski menu/things I miss from home that people may not know are Canadian,” he explains.
“The foods that I interpret are Canadian. The menu gives people a storyboard of what they can find if they travel inland and through Canada. Canadian food is more than Poutine and beaver tails.
“This is a Canadian heart on a sleeve. We have the ice hockey on all day, plus NBA, NFL and North American sports.’
Caribou makes clever use of its space. There are quiet spots for couples, private spaces for functions and large groups, and plenty of outdoor seating, while the bar itself is the main feature.
As for the Caribou team, “we really are a family – these guys have been with us so long”, says Sophia. “Many of the staff have come with us from Elk and Pea.”
Four ex-head chefs create the Canadian cuisine. They enjoy the freedom of being able to display their own particular skills within such a skilled team.
It is time to taste the food.
A stack of fragrant wings arrives with a dipping bowl of tangy ranch dressing. They do not last long.
A succulent chargrilled chicken breast sits on three chat potatoes with Waldorf salad, and an accompanying pot of fabulous pomegranate chutney. These are classic Canadian sides. The delicate salad is dressed with a garlicky vinaigrette.
Every sauce and dressing is house-made.
We divvy up the Maple Bacon Mushroom Swiss cheeseburger. Leeroy points out that it is actually a ‘Bur-wich’ (a burger sandwich), because “buns fall apart, so we use nice toasted sourdough. One bite and I feel like I am back in Canada”.
The first bite … yes, it is a great burger.
On that second bite, your tastebuds discover the bacon, coated in caramelized maple syrup. The familiar sweet, salty flavours subtly infuse the burger without taking over. Incredible.
Poutine time! Thick slabs of crunchy seasoned chips, slathered generously in fragrant gravy with chunks of curd dotted generously over. Poutine perfection.
“A lot of French Canadians come in and are impressed with the poutine,” Leeroy tell me. “This is proper, squeaky cheese curd, NOT mozzarella!”
The gravy is even vegan-friendly.
The bar’s only cocktail menu is up on the wall. Ten variations of the Canadian classic: the Caesar.
Lee and Sophia don’t want their customers just reading off a cocktail menu.
“What we want them to do is to come to the bar,” Leeroy says. “Our guys are talented enough to say, ‘Hey guys, what’s your favourite spirit? Sweet, sour, dry, creamy, fruity’. We want to talk to the customer, find out what they want and then give them what they want.”
Sophia nods in agreement. “Hospitality is personal. Happiness is created by interpersonal relationships. We work off that. On our third day here, we already had regulars. Our staff talk to our customers, they have gotten to know them and they know what they like to drink.”
As I leave, someone playing pool stops to tell me that “Caribou is Canadian hospitality with eclectic rustic charm. I have been a regular since the day it opened!” It’s quite an endorsement.
Next time, I am taking myself to Thunder Bay, Ontario on the menu and try the Return of the Mac – mac and cheese waffles!
Caribou is located at 44 Jardine St in Kingston. It’s open every day from 11:00 am to 12:00 am.