When I referred to Actinolite in last night’s post, it was to the hamlet of that name not far from Queensborough (Actinolite and Queensborough being the only two “towns” [i.e. population centres, though in both cases the population is less than a hundred people] in Elzevir Township) where I’d nabbed my most recent yard-sale find. But in looking up Actinolite for a hyperlink, I found something delightful about the other Actinolite, the restaurant of that name in the heart of Toronto.
The chef-owner of that restaurant is a young man named Justin Cournoyer, and he comes from – you guessed it – our Actinolite. When he opened his establishment on Ossington Avenue in 2012, he named it in honour of his hometown.
Raymond and I had the pleasure of dining at Actinolite in February 2013, and I reported on it here. (It was the night we attended a fundraising event in Toronto for the Al Purdy A-frame project; you can read my latest update on that project, wherein I actually get my hands dirty, here.) We found it a beautiful, welcoming place with excellent food and nifty cocktails – and that’s pretty much what all the early reviews said too. But in my internet travels last night, I discovered that since then Cournoyer has kicked it up several notches (to borrow and tweak the signature phrase of another famous chef). What I landed on was a rave review – and I mean a rave review – in the Globe and Mail from just last month about what Actinolite’s chef is up to now. The headline is “One of the most essential places to eat in Ontario, if not in Canada.” Wow!
The review (which you can find here) by the Globe’s restaurant critic, Chris Nuttall-Smith, explains that last fall Cournoyer decided to change the menu at Actinolite so that all that is served each evening (it’s not open for lunch) is a seven-course or a four-course tasting menu. In other words, you don’t get to choose what you’ll eat, only which of the two menus you’ll have; then you turn it over to Cournoyer, who explained to the Globe that his focus is on “cooking the Canadian landscape.” (Click here to see the most recent menus.)
“His cooking,” the critic reports, “builds odd, exquisite, deceptively simple-looking montages from Quebec pike and grilled wild knotweed, from Arctic flowers and Ontario pork, from salty, assertively maritime Gaspé lumpfish roe and soft strips of local rutabaga, and freshly set cheese the texture of clotted cream. The food is odd, inspiring, beautifully executed, even magical in places. It’s Canadian cooking as I’ve never tasted it.”
Here’s more from the critic’s dining experiences there, with a refence to our Actinolite (“Actinolite North,” as Cournoyer apparently calls it):
“Mr. Cournoyer dressed a small, painterly dish of glazed red local beets with wild fennel and radicchio leaves that he’d cooked with honey and then baked until they were translucent red-orange, more stained glass than cold-hardy green. They were gently bitter, true to radicchio’s character but also crisp and sweet and buttery, eerily similar in flavour and texture to a great croissant.
“There was a shard of meringue on the plate, white and innocuous looking. My dinner mate and I bit into ours simultaneously. The flavour was distinct, herbal, ruddy green like dried leaves, sweet and marshmallowy like meringue but also the slightest bit musty. The chip had been flavoured with lichen that Mr. Cournoyer foraged in his hometown. My friend’s eyes popped wide open. ‘It tastes like the north!’ he said.”
That’s not the only mention that the review makes of Cournoyer’s local (to us here in Queensborough) background and inspiration:
“The chef, who is 36, grew up hunting game birds and deer, fishing for pike and foraging wild edibles on Eastern Ontario’s Skootamatta River – Actinolite is named after his tiny home town … With enormous respect to Mr. Cournoyer, he still has a bit of the small-town Eastern Ontario boy about him. An undershirt was showing at the collar of his chef’s whites, and his hair was short on top but a little longer in the back, the way hockey stars and Cancon rock legends wore it in 1987. He’s not a conformist. I suspect that’s part of what makes him such an excellent cook …
“He set down two plates, each one draped with a sheaf of leafy greens that had been quickly wilted with butter. The chef had driven out to Hastings, Ont., that morning to pick up the greens, he said: collards, mustard, tatsoi and three types of kale. They had overwintered in a greenhouse, their flavours deepening and turning sweeter with the cold. Three small lamb’s sweetbreads had been set to their side on each plate in a tidy golden mound.
“The smell rising off those dishes was extraordinary: nutty-sweet brown butter and bitter, peppery greens and the golden, softly gamey, almost milky scent of pan-seared sweetbreads. There was a woodsy, soft-fruit smell, also: juniper from his home town, Mr. Cournoyer said.
“ ‘It’s really simple,’ he told us. No, it really was not.
“I’ve never had better greens or more incredible sweetbreads. I can count on my fingers the dishes I’ve had in my life that were as humble and as delicious as this.”
(I’m sorry, people, but I am close to drooling over my keyboard as I type this.)
The review concludes:
“Mr. Cournoyer was right. If you could eat Canada’s landscape it would taste a lot like this … I’m not sure how much more strongly I can say this: you ought to get there, now.”
Not bad for a local boy, huh?
I believe it is time for Raymond and me to make a return trip to Toronto – and to what I shall from now on refer to as “Actinolite South.”