Justin and Gregg Wolfe upped the ante when they opened Wolfe of Wortley earlier this summer. The brothers, who initially found sustenance in music careers, are also the proprietors of downtown London’s red-hot retro diner The Early Bird, and its adjacent sibling, the piñata-themed Rock Au Taco.
“The Bird,” as it is warmly referred to, has an idiosyncratic charisma. It features a menu of updated diner classics and new generation comfort foods. These are soulful dishes that include a king-sized “turducken club” made with smoked turkey breast, panko-fried chicken and duck bacon. Try the melt-in-your-mouth potato and cheddar perogies, or the Montreal smoked brisket which is brined on site and which helped cement the entrepreneurial brothers’ savvy culinary reputation.
The Wolfes brought authentic, affordable street-food-style tacos and tequila to downtown London. Rock Au Taco’s menu features cachette (beef cheek), lengua (beef tongue), carnita (pork shoulder), pescado (fish), and papas (potato) and frijoles (re-fried beans) fillings. They’re topped with freshly made salsas, pickled onions and other garnishes. There is a tequila list and a selection of ice-cold cervezas.
Many progressive chefs use research and staging as an inherent part of their culinary development. (Staging is an unremunerated internship; a cook or a chef works temporarily in another chef’s kitchen to be exposed to new methods, techniques and cuisines.) Chef Justin Wolfe staged in Chicago at Graham Elliot, where he spent nearly seven months apprenticing and studying at the Michelin-starred restaurant. Then he was off to master butchery at Chicago’s Publican Quality Meats.
Justin has worked as an event chef alongside Executive Chef Liaison Jamie Simpson at The Culinary Vegetable Institute/Chef’s Garden in Milan, Ohio. He has participated in events with chef de cuisine Eli Kaimeth of Thomas Keller’s renowned Per Se in New York, and worked with Cortney Burns of the celebrated Bar Tartine (featuring some of San Francisco’s most experimental cuisine), and with Gunnar Gislason, the chef/restaurateur behind New Nordic cuisine at DILL in Reykjavík. And then there was a stint with chef and culinary scientist Kyle Connaughton formerly of the Fat Duck and now the groundbreaking Single Thread Farms Restaurant in Healdsburg, California.
Every year Justin pitches in with other chefs, including Michael Smith, for Village Feast, a non-profit children’s charity based in Souris, Prince Edward Island, that supports initiatives to improve the lives of children.
The brothers have been the talk of the city with their compact 24-seat restaurant in Wortley Village, which is complemented by a 14-seat patio. This is casual but sophisticated noshing focusing on curing, pickling, fermenting and preserving, and featuring craft cocktails.
The menu includes oysters: raw, cold-smoked, and grilled with Creole butter and parmesan. We ordered a half dozen shucked, cold-smoked, plump, meaty Malpeques bathed in 12-year old scotch and served under a dome with juicy orange segments and house-marinated cherries. When the lid was lifted the oysters appeared under a cloud of billowing smoke for dramatic effect.
Chef du cuisine Kyle Rose excels at the craft of salting, smoking and curing primarily pork products to make salumi, which we know as charcuterie. The downstairs kitchen has a small temperature- and humidity-controlled meat chamber for the house-made salumi. There it develops the rounded savoury taste that comes from slow curing and ripening. The chamber features a “meat window” to showcase a diversity of hanging salumi. Justin gives Rose and sous chef Jason Ward lots of credit for embracing and delivering the restaurant concept that the Wolfes developed.
We ordered the charcuterie board which was underpinned by technique and skill and the salumi had lots of deep flavours and good fat content. There is also culotello (the king of salumi — dry-cured ham) and very tasty coppa (salt-cured from the pig’s neck) on offer.
Snacks might include a creamy chicken liver brûlée, “pickled things”, bone marrow, clams and chicken fried oysters. We loved the “tongue in cheek” which was comprised of beef tongue wrapped in guanciale (cured pork jowl) served with “Nappakraut,” pumpernickel and shmaltznaise. (The origin of shmaltznaise is unclear. The term “schmaltz” is derived is from Yiddish, meaning «rendered animal fat», and the “naise” must stem from mayonnaise.) Nevertheless it was the perfect aioli-like accompaniment.
House-made pastas include bucatini, served with smoked oyster, bacon, egg yolk and parmesan, and cheese gnocchi with beer mushrooms and mustard. The chicken fried oysters are served with dill, cucumber and hot sauce. Proteins have included steelhead trout, bison ribs and octopus. A colleague of mine talks up the octopus like it is the second coming. There is also whole chicken for two and sometimes a 17oz. rib eye. Menus change weekly.
“Cocktail-wise Gregg likes to riff on the classics, taking something familiar, tried and tested and elevating it,” says, Justin. The cocktail menu was masterminded by Gregg, who started making his homemade infusions of bitters and syrups months in advance of the restaurant’s opening. The cocktail list features craft cocktails that are prepared with fresh ingredients, homemade mixers and premium liquors. Gregg is a bourbon devotee. His signature drink is a potent smoked Manhattan made with Bulleit Bourbon, Antica Formula (red vermouth), Angostura bitters and cherry vanilla bitters served in a cinnamon smoke-filled glass. Besides six signature cocktails there are interesting seasonal features, quality spirits, and flights of bourbon.
There is a respectable bubbly on offer from winemaker Moray Tawse`s Redstone Winery in Beamsville, Ontario, and a great off-dry riesling from Redstone with lots of citrus notes. There is also a cabernet franc and pinot noir blend from Tawse. These are the Ontario offerings on a compact list.
We were so enamoured by the food we finished the evening with pork belly for dessert.
The takeaway? You won’t find more up-to-the-minute culinary savviness than at the Early Bird, Rock Au Taco and now the upscale Wolfe of Wortley.
Wolfe of Wortley
147 Wortley Road, London
Tuesday–Sunday from 5:00 pm
Bryan Lavery is eatdrink’s Food Editor and Writer at Large.