Moss, lichen, hay. They’re elements you’d expect to see on a walk in nature. But what if they were on your dinner plate? Would you be adventurous enough to eat them?
Some Torontonians are discovering that these ingredients are not only edible, but also delicious in the hands of five talented chefs who have integrated them into a unique tasting menu in their Ossington Ave. restaurant.
Actinolite, a two-year-old eatery, has developed a tasting menu that is pushing the boundaries of Canadian cuisine, offering foods that are foraged, seasonal and local. “I wanted a restaurant with a meaning, dishes that were different, to cook within the moment of what’s around us, while trying to discover what Canadian cuisine really is, or what it could be,” says Actinolite’s head chef and owner, Justin Cournoyer. “I wanted to use our surroundings as guidance.”
That means you’ll rarely find lemons or limes in the restaurant’s kitchen; they’re not grown in Canada. But you may be served potato ice cream or a carrot sorbet in the restaurant’s seven-course tasting menu.
It’s not uncommon, if you sit at the bar, to overhear customers describe the dishes they consume as the most interesting they’ve ever eaten. They are visibly engaged – moved, even – by the artful presentation of each dish.
Cournoyer is the type of guy who will give you a hug instead of shaking your hand. An earnest sensibility permeates everything he does in the 30-seat restaurant, which is named after the small Ontario mining town where he was born.
Actinolite occupies the ground-floor storefront of a 125-year-old building, just south of Dupont. In renovating it, Cournoyer says, his mission was to maintain the authenticity and “soul” of the building. The ceiling and bar are made of wood from a sawmill on his mother’s side of the family, in Roslin, Ont. The exposed bricks, lofty windows, and dim lighting preserve the interior intimacy without pretension. Family photos adorn the walls while tea light candles sit in tuna cans.
It is his “very outdoor” country upbringing that especially sets the direction of Cournoyer’s place apart from other establishments. He perfected his craft at Susur and worked alongside his culinary producer wife, Claudia Bianchi, for Food Network Canada, before they opened Actinolite to allow him to explore.
“I stepped back and said, ‘Okay, now I need to have the food to fit this beautiful place and this passion within myself,’ ” Cournoyer says. The concept has taken off in the past year following the expansion of his backyard herb garden, and the hiring of a crop of young chefs to challenge what could be done with each dish.
“Everyone brings something to the table,” he says of the talent he’s cultivated around himself. “[My staff] made me ask myself, ‘What is this restaurant? What are we trying to do? And they pushed me to get here.’ ”
It was around the time his kitchen was debating these existential questions that Cournoyer began to strengthen his relationship with local farmers. Their passion struck a chord with the chef and his kitchen, inspiring a deep care for the community of Canadian producers. The search for only the best local ingredients began. It includes wild, foraged ingredients, including – yes – moss, lichens, straw.
Farmers from the Urban Harvest greenhouse provide herbs throughout the cold months. Organic farmer Ted Thorpe supplies carrots, pears, cabbages and kale. Baby chards and radish come from Chick a biddy Acres.
Farming methods from Plan B Organics have “opened our minds to the philosophy of farming,” says Cournoyer.
Developing the dishes at Actinolite evolves constantly. The restaurant changes a dish a week, on average; in a good week, two, depending on what’s available, what’s been picked or foraged, what foods arrive, and how much time the chefs have to decide what to do with them.
The seven-course menu costs $85, the four-course summary, $55. Both can be paired with wine.
In his capacity as sous-chef, Michael Lehmkuhl does a lot of the menu development, but stresses that as much work goes into locating high-quality ingredients. He arrived at Actinolite after being trained in the UK and at the celebrated Danish restaurant noma. Lehmkuhl says he had a meeting of the minds with Cournoyer and appreciated that the owner was striving “to do something more than put food on a plate.” As a forager himself, he was eager to keep discovering what the local environment had to offer.
The work is an interesting challenge, says Lehmkuhl. “You take one ingredient that falls into your lap, cook it one or two ways and it could just happen that the plate comes together very rapidly – like our halibut cheek dish,” he says. “But then something like our rutabaga took days and days of development – and weeks perfecting the components.
“The pork cracklings were a happy accident when we initially overcooked the skin.”
Creating dishes from what’s available in the natural surroundings can be “an emotional rollercoaster, but this is the backbone of what we do,” Lehmkuhl says. “You get to make something that is beautiful and meaningful. And this can really evoke emotion in people. We’ve had people in our dining room break out in hysterical giggles over things we bring to the table.”
Jamie Vrooman, one of Actinolite’s chefs de partie, says the dining experience is “more than about just eating the food. We’re trying to create a direct connection with everything we bring in.”
Cournoyer says the team wants to “push the food forward and really honour what our country and land has to offer.”
He and his staff are modest about their bold foray into the Canadian culinary wilderness. In fact, Actinolite is defining what that “wilderness” is.
Actinolite is at 971 Ossington Ave. and is open Tuesday to Saturday, 6 p.m. – 10 p.m. Reservations: 416-962-8943.
PHOTOGRAPHY: ARASH MOALLEMI