GRAND BEND – I recognized him instantly, and my jaw dropped as I took in the scene before me. Mark Craft, the owner of the renowned Church Restaurant in Stratford was clearly giving directions to the dining staff at the Oakwood Inn Resort in Grand Bend. My curiosity well peaked, and the former journalist roused, I made it my business to find out the story.
After about three decades at the helm of one of Stratford’s flagship fine dining establishments housed in a stunning old Baptist Church, Craft has sold the business. And, now he is at the helm of the food and beverage operations of this 130-room resort on the sandy shores of Lake Huron.
Under his care are three main services – the conference and event business, the Oak Dining Room, and Dave’s Pub and Grill. Sitting in the Pub there is no visible indication of a change. The airy room is pleasing and welcoming with plenty of wood, stone and massive windows overlooking the picturesque golf course. The server is cheerful and efficient. But there is more change. Craft is not the only new face. The kitchen is now under the culinary baton of Chef Chris Howard.
Opening the 4-page menu, it’s evident the new leadership understands change doesn’t have to be dramatic. The offerings have a familiar feel but there are enhancements and a few new offerings in the generous list, which make it easy to find something for everyone. The new California Burger, colourfully adorned with a swirl of rich guacamole, is moist and flavourful. The return of Fish Tacos is a welcome favourite.
Food and drink come together each weekend in the Chef’s Table Menu, where ever-changing kitchen creations are well paired with new wine list options. For example, the most recent weekend offered Mediterranean Pasta with sundried tomatoes, green olives, artichokes, arugula, red onions, rosemary olive oil, served in multigrain olive bread, paired appropriately with Ruffino Chianti. Duck Breast with orange maple glaze was married with a Jackson Triggs Merlot, and the Grilled Mahi Mahi brought a Ruffino Pinot Grigio.
While the new fall and winter menus provide plenty of choices to test over the coming cooler months, it should be noted that Oakwood will be hosting its annual traditional Thanksgiving buffet ($37.95 per person, $17.50 children five to 12, free four and under – plus taxes and gratuity) in the Oak Dining Room on Saturday, Oct. 10 from 5 p.m. to p.m. It’s a great option for those who’d rather not spend the long weekend in the kitchen but perhaps, instead, on the golf course or at the Lakeside Spa. Maybe even a dip in the indoor pool, which is now open for seasonal memberships and one off visits.
And then maybe, just maybe, the pace will settle down just a bit for the new food and beverage guru. Craft admits that things are going so well he has yet to make the one block walk to the private beach to take in one of Lake Huron’s legendary sunsets. But perhaps he’ll get there before the winter winds transform the aquamarine waves into an Alaskan landscape, and the torches outside Dave’s Pub and Grill once again beckon winter wanderers to cozy up by the fireplace for a satisfying sip and sup.