Thursday, December 12, 2013

Chef's Menu at Actinolite

The Chef's Menu at Actinolite was one of the best, if not the best, tasting menu I've had this year in Toronto (there's exactly 19 days left in 2013 so I think I'm pretty safe with that statement). It has been almost a month since my dinner there and I still think about it from time to time (I kid you not I was stuck on the 401 last week and outta nowhere the image of Actinolite's roasted white chocolate sorbet dessert with cep mushroom puree flashed before my eyes). Actually when I think about it I shouldn't be that surprised because I was already quite smitten from the get-go that evening; it was the squid. The squid got me good. Cradled on a single Hemlock branch, the squid, which sat on top of a splash of juniper vinegar and juniper oil, was just ridiculous. It was probably the most tender, the most delicious piece of squid I've ever had. And it was all uphill from there...can you imagine?!

Aesthetically speaking, not much has changed with the small 30-seat neighbourhood restaurant on Ossington from when it first opened its doors in March 2012. However, unlike when I visited Actinolite a year and a half ago, chef/owner Justin Cournoyer has since then switched from a traditional, a-la-carte three course menu to strictly tasting menu. You can choose from either the Chef's Menu (seven courses, $75, optional wine pairings $55) or the Summary Menu (four course, $55, optional wine pairing $35). The reason for the change is explained on their website:

"The inspiration came from daily trips to farmers’ markets and from growing ingredients in our own garden. We became obsessed with the freshness and quality that came with picking produce and presenting it on the plate moments later. We became fixated on what the land around us had to offer—harvesting the restaurant’s urban garden out back and foraging the fields around the actual town of Actinolite (“Actinolite North” as chef Justin affectionately calls it). Our Chef’s Picks menu, which debuted discreetly at first in fine print at the bottom of the standard menu—is the product of this bounty: a seven-course meal built around hyper-fresh ingredients as selected by the kitchen. Word about Chef’s Picks spread and soon the majority of our guests were requesting this memorable meal. This was the crossroads. We decided: in order to give our guests the full experience of Actinolite, we would offer a Chef’s Menu (seven courses) and a Summary Menu (four courses)."

I opted for Actinolite's Chef's Menu with wine pairings (note that Actinolite's menu changes constantly depending on what’s in season, fresh and available):

Wild pear roasted in autumn leaves with fermented pear juice, fermented blueberries, thyme oil and in-house soured cream

SQUID | JUNIPER (complimentary)
Gently cooked squid with pickled juniper, juniper vinegar, juniper oil, served on a Hemlock branch (all juniper and hemlock branches were picked from Actinolite up north)

Potato shell, whitefish potato espuma, parsley purée, fresh chervil and parsley stems

Whole roasted celeriac wrapped around charred leek heart, marinated in elderflower vinegar, caraway cream inside, kale sauce and marinated kale leaf, Jerusalem artichoke, purée, diced with dill and chips

Venison tartare with fermented porcini and preserved berries, reindeer lichen, nasturtium leaf and flower

Roasted cauliflower, sous vide cauliflower with brown butter and hay, hay butter, white currants, hay ash and lemon verbena

CARROTS | HERBS | CURRANTS (complimentary)
Charred carrots, pickled carrots, carrots crisps, herb emulsion, preserved black currants, chervil, wild fennel and pollen and coriander, finished with cold pressed canola oil

Roasted duck breast, braised and lightly smoked leg, hen of the woods mushrooms, fermented yellow plum, preserved tayberry

Candied reindeer lichen with juniper cream (served on the rock that the lichen grows on from Actinolite in Eastern Ontario)

Roasted white chocolate sorbet, cep mushroom purée, oxidized pear, malt crumb, and chanterelle meringue

 Immaculate execution of incredibly thoughtful food with spot-on wine pairings. I was floored at each and every course that evening. Not only were the plates beautiful and visually stimulating, they were all extraordinarily creative and unique. After a few courses into the tasting I realized that even though what was presented in front of me looked simple - as some dishes only had a few ingredients - it was anything but elementary. It then dawned on me that the illusion of such was only possible because of the hard work, dedication and genuine talent from the Actinolite team. 

I also remember my senses being unusually heightened that night. I can honestly say that I don't experience that often and I'm still not completely sure why I felt that way. However, I managed to narrow it down to the following possibilities:

Sight - With Actinolite's artistic presentation, it was hard not to "eat with your eyes" and there's no question that I had a visual feast. 
Touch - There were several courses where I was told to use my hands (no utensils were given). From wrapping venison tartare with Nasturtium leaves to grasping the moss-like reindeer lichen with my fingers, it was all just really fun and engaging. 
Sound -  I still distinctively remember breaking into that thin potato shell (which held the white fish espuma inside) with a fork and the delicate crackling sound it made. Another memory was the crunch I heard in my ears when I first bit into the reindeer lichen.
Smell - I recall the intense, earthy scent of mushrooms in the dessert course and wondering "Mushroom in dessert? I don't know if this will it work" to concluding "Yes! it totally works!" after just two bites. 
Taste -  Impeccable flavours all around. Each plate had amazingly distinctive flavours. Truly delicious. I literally said "wow" after almost every course. My favourite dishes that evening were: the squid & juniper, potato & whitefish, celeriac & leek, venison tartare, and the cep & white chocolate dessert. My taste buds were absolutely overjoyed with them.

I think it is precisely these points - my enhanced senses during the meal - that made this tasting so much more memorable than most other dinners I've had this year. I still remember the entire dinner experience very vividly in my head.

I love how the restaurant uses ingredients foraged from Cournoyer's hometown Actinolite (Twitter: @actinolitefood, Facebook: Actinolite Restaurant). The personal touch really makes a difference so I hope they keep that up. Kudos to the Actinolite crew for making everything look effortless - you guys really made it your own. A special thanks to chef Justin Cournoyer and sous-chef Michael Lehmkuhl (@ChefLehmkuhl) for such a remarkable dinner.

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