July 02, 2018

This is Actinolite.

This is Actinolite. On an unfashionable residential stretch of Ossington Avenue in Toronto, the restaurant’s 30-seat room is deliberately simple, and manages to avoid the inescapable din of most places, where shouting over your food is part of the experience. Here the focus is on the pleasures of the plate, and the stories behind each dish.

Little bites of cucumber and kholrabi 

This is Actinolite. Its kitchen is small, holding no more than five or six people at a time, unless you count the garden that is an essential extension of the cooking, or the pantry down the stairs, where preserved, pickled, dehydrated, and dried seasonal ingredients wait patiently for their chance to make an appearance on the menu. When fresh produce is scarce and imagination is indispensable, that pantry gets to shine.

White asparagus, rhubarb vinegar, lilac, lemon thyme 
and bee pollen

This is Actinolite. The menu changes with dizzying speed in the dog days of summer, running to keep up with the bounty of the farmers’ markets, where chef Justin Cournoyer knows every vendor and lets the season guide him. When he’s not at the market or at the producers’ farms, he’s foraging with his team in back alleys and country fields, carefully taking only what the land can comfortably give. If it can then be grown in the garden, even better.

Fava bean, mozzarella, mint

This is Actinolite. Don’t look for it on the list of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants, where the lone Canadian entry is Alo at #94. You’ll have to dig deep into the list of Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants to find Actinolite, where it’s hovered in the 60s for the past couple of years, well behind restaurants whose menus don’t change but whose popularity soars in proportion to their proximity to hip neighbourhoods or chef celebrity status.

Lobster, rose, mulberry

This is Actinolite. Where we dined last Saturday night to celebrate our anniversary but where a special occasion isn’t warranted to dine on the city’s best food. 

We’ve been very lucky to eat at some pretty spectacular restaurants in places far and wide, from Copenhagen and Vienna to Mexico City, Modena and Menton. So we’ve seen the absolute inventiveness and attention to detail that these places bring to every diner and every dining experience. We’ve had a chance to peek into the labs at Noma and see how they make it nice at Eleven Madison. 

Far from this setting some sort of impossible standard against which to judge every meal, the sum total of those experiences have made us appreciate the work involved in bringing food to the table, in creating a place where genuine hospitality and passion marry to create a magical moment. We seek out and find those moments everywhere: from the delicious breakfast sausage sandwiches and hand pies served by Dundas Park Kitchen at our farmer’s market, to the tacos de barbacoa and cactus salad at Vamos a Texcoco, a strip mall Mexican barbecue joint in Vista, California.

But this is about Actinolite, and authenticity, and cooking so fresh and fine and real that I can’t believe there isn’t a line up at the door. When the young cooks bring the plates to the table, they are earnest, thoughtful, believing deeply in what they are serving and making. And while that can seem contrived and gimmicky (and believe me, we have seen it so), here it’s just right.  

Strawberry, chrysanthemum, gooseberry

The young chef who bakes the bread brings us each a piece, perfectly warm, with a crust that satisfyingly crackles. He explains that he’s switched flours, now using one from Quebec that’s better able to stand up to the oppressively humid heat we’ve been experiencing. The same chef later brings us a dish featuring shitake mushrooms that are in an umami rich broth, with shiso from the garden. He promises to bring me some shiso to take home. And even though the kitchen is slammed and it must be 35C in there, he does.

Shiso from the garden

The dish of peas and lamb – soon to disappear from the menu because peas are almost over – is seriously one of the best things I’ve eaten this year. More peas than anything, mixed with minced lamb, and topped with elderflowers and sorrel, each pea bursts with flavour and I want this dish and this moment in fleeting early summer to last forever.

Peas, lamb, elderflower

The chef’s menu ends with something loosely called dessert, but better described as the perfect ending, which I’ll describe imperfectly. Mostly beets, some dill, tayberries, a sorbet… It's new on the menu. Go have it now.

Beet, dill, tayberry

This is Actinolite. Where the team comes together and is dedicated to the art of the possible, and the spirit of each ingredient. Where the hospitality is not contrived or formal, but the knowledge deep, and where a new seasonal revolution happens every few weeks.

This is Actinolite. What are you waiting for?  

971 Ossington Ave, Toronto, ON
Phone: +1(416) 962-8943 

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