An ode to Canadian ingredients begets a seriously nostalgic menu
Canadian identity is fraught with insecurity. As such a young country encompassing so many cultures, we have only just started to form the roots that bind us. But what better way is there to form an identity than through food?
Toronto’s west end restaurant, Actinolite, aims to conjure that identity, and is aptly named after a town outside of Prince Edward County from which they source many of their ingredients. Their primary focus is the simple preparation of seasonally harvested, wild, local ingredients, resulting in a complex, romantic and uniquely Canadian menu.
The sparsely seated restaurant is fairly young; they moved into the two-storey corner lot at Ossington and Hallam only seven years ago. Justin, the owner and sous chef, lives upstairs with his children. I know this because he came to introduce himself before the first course. Yes, it’s that kind of restaurant.
First, I was served an appetizer. Simple enough: it was a warm slice of sourdough bread baked in-house from Ontario wheat and served with whipped miso-butter spread. I’m a big fan of bread already, so this elevated version was delightful.
My server, Krista, brought out the next dish: a small bowl of finely diced honeycrisp apples. It was both tart and savoury, with an umami, lemon verbena-infused oil base, and a cheese-textured beeswax-based fudge tossed throughout. The complexities of these flavours were mind-bending. It was tannic and sour, sweet and buttery. Only one course in, and I knew it was going to be my favourite one.
The courses moved quickly, four of which comprised the meat portion of the meal: B.C. squid with kelp chips and soft turnips; a single oyster with root vegetables and gooseberries; halibut and pork cheek under a blanket of cabbage, served with a spoonful of spruce tree broth; and one-month aged, rare, Blackview farm (Listowel, Ontario) duck with mini cherries.
The “local” doctrine extends to all facets of the eating experience. I could hear whispers of a Feist song over the speakers. The soundtrack was full of Canadian indie acts like Mac Demarco and Grimes.
Course after course, the flavours reminded me of family cookouts, winter beach trips, growing up in Scarborough and vacations on the west coast. At one point, I tasted charred meat that so accurately mimicked my aunt’s thanksgiving feast, I was teleported to 1999. I felt as though the chefs were intentionally playing to my nostalgia, likely by incorporating loads of butter into every plate.
For dessert, I had spent grains (sourced from Blood Brothers brewery) atop a baked pear and a heap of salted ice cream (think apple crumble pie, but strange). Lastly, a soft cake made from birch tree flour topped with a candied leaf. The birch was sourced from Justin’s family home in Actinolite, and was served as a sentimental ending to a locally focused meal.
My meal had a lasting euphoric effect. After walking home, I sat for nearly an hour in a trance. I was completely intoxicated by the masterpiece I had just consumed. Expertly woven flavour profiles danced in my mouth for the rest of the evening. Amazingly all of these dishes were made with Canadian-only ingredients. What a way to express identity.
After all was said and done, I spent roughly $160 as one diner. Considering I had only one espresso and no wine, the bill was steep. But for a one-time luxurious occasion, it was money well spent. For those looking to dine more casually, the restaurant offers two dishes and wine as a walk-in special for $45.