A CLOISTERED EXPERIENCE:
HAMILTON’S OSTEN BEERHALL

WORDS & PHOTOS BY CHRIS TIESSEN

‘It’s pretty badass, really,’ I remark to my TOQUE co-pilot, Cai Sepulis, ‘that they would put something so seemingly commonplace on their menu.’ My eyes fix on the sandwich plated in front of me. It’s a plain and simple thing, to be sure. Bologna. Sauerkraut. A slice of cheese and some yellow mustard. All pressed together on a grill between the halves of a plain white burger bun. The kind of bun you’d find at a kids’ birthday party or local ballpark food cart, I think to myself. But certainly not here: at Osten Beerhall – this new (and oh so killer) food and drinks destination in Hamilton’s Crown Point neighbourhood. 

I eyeball the sandwich a bit longer, noting its modest size and puck-like shape, and lift it to my mouth. Before I can even take a bite, my nostrils fill with unmistakeable aromas of fried bologna and warm sauerkraut. Of nostalgia, plain and simple.

Of comfort – grilled in a bun.

I wrap my mouth around the sandwich and bite down. And am immediately filled with undiluted bliss. ‘This is incredible,’ I murmur to myself, as my mind fills with images of summertime. Memories of childhood. Happiness. I am reminded more than a little bit of the famous pork burger at Waterloo’s now-shuttered greasy spoon, Harmony Lunch (of which I have so many nostalgic memories). ‘I’m having a moment here,’ I whisper. I look toward the open kitchen where chef (and friend) Becky Hoodstands by the grill. Meeting her eye, I clasp my hands together and mouth the words: ‘Thank you.’

I take another bite. And another. And, just like that, it’s gone. Cai asks: ‘Aren’t you glad we made it out here?’ After scanning my plate for any remaining crumbs, I look up at her. I’m smiling. She’s smiling, too – and for good reason. Surrounded by plates of braised brisket (with rye and Kozlik’s mustard), wild sockeye gravlax and smoked mackerel (with horseradish cream cheese, paprika sour cream, preserved lemon, and rye), an Osten platter (house pickles, cured meats, smoked fish, assorted mustards, chicken liver mousse, and rye), and our aforementioned sandwiches, we’re in good company.

Cai takes a sip from her pint – a brewed-in-Hamilton Collective Arts ‘Life in the Clouds’ New England IPA – and remarks: ‘It’s a pretty incredible place, eh?’ It is. Truly. Osten’s ascetic façade (a straightforward all-blue brick wall with clean white logo and sunken round-arched entranceway) and it’s cloistered interior (poured concrete floors, white-washed walls, stout wood furniture, and lush planters) give this place a soothing monkish vibe. One that’s only heightened when, as daylight turns to dusk and the beer hall’s skylights cease to bathe the space in natural light, Osten’s bartender begins his nightly ritual of lighting and distributing dozens of candles about the place. Heavenly.

Over the next hour or so Cai and I do our best to eat every last morsel we’ve been served. After all, there’s no way we’re going to leave even a single piece of pickle behind. We won’t have it. While Cai favours the gravlax and smoked fish, I set my sights on the brisket, cured meats, and chicken liver mousse. And bologna sandwiches (of which we’d ordered a plateful). Each dish is presented with the same beautifully-austere aesthetic that resonates throughout the place: an honest implementation of materials – from the untreated wood and concrete and white walls that define the decor to the brisket and smoked fish and bologna sandwiches on its menu. Forthright. Delectable.

As I reach for the last morsel of the last sandwich, I note how curiously quiet Cai and I have been throughout our meal. Not subdued, mind you. More reverent than anything. And I understand why. It’s this place. And the food. So brilliantly restrained. I stare down at my plate – plain white, with Osten’s clean logo inscribed in dark bluet wice around the edge. I detect the reflection of a dancing candle flame in the ceramic material. And I think back to that first observation I shared with Cai – that it’s so utterly badass that the folks who run this place would have the nerve to put a bologna sandwich on the menu. And I understand their decision. After all, a memorable menu item is much more than the sum of its parts. Just like this place.

Plain and simple.