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URSA (924 Queen West, at Shaw, 416-536-8963, ursa-restaurant.com) Complete dinners for $65, including tax, tip and a glass of wine. Average main $21. Open for dinner Tuesday to Sunday 6 to 11 pm. Reservations recommended. Bar till late. Closed Monday. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNNN
I like beets.
No, really, I do, whether they're my mother's boiled-to-death beets alongside her boiled-to-death Sunday roast, my Scottish grandmother's pickled beets straight from the Mason jar or sweet 'n' sour Harvard beets cold from the can. I know, I'm not normal.
But such is the root vegetable's ubiquity on local menus these days (we're looking at you, Claudio Aprile), usually in a salad beside the inevitable Woolwich Dairy goat cheese, that even I now balk at the things. Thus my trepidation upon seeing a starter called Winter Roots ($13) on the carte of co-owner/chef Jacob Sharkey Pearce's month-old Ursa. Not more bloody beets.
"There's a few," replies our server, he of the requisite beard, plaid lumberjack shirt and skinny jeans.
We'll say! Imagine a pair of whole baby red and yellow beets, barely blanched, their topknots removed, plated upright, their long rat-tail roots left intact. Next to them stand great curlicued sheets of heirloom carrot and candy-cane beet, surrounded by fennel fronds, dehydrated burdock and a fine chiffonade of watermelon radish, all on a bed of wilted beet greens in house-made kefir vinaigrette. This isn't an appetizer - this is edible sculpture!
And healthy, too. Like most everything on offer except the fish, chef's veggies are compressed in a vacuum before being slowly cooked en sous-vide to retain their nutrients. He also uses techniques (sprouting, dehydration, fermentation) more common to the raw vegan food movement - no surprise when you learn that he and his brother Lucas previously ran a successful sports catering business that numbered a couple of Raptors and the entire Italian national basketball team among their clients.
"Food can be functional, but it can be beautiful, too," says Sharkey Pearce.
That doesn't mean you have to show up at the former Bar One wearing a hair shirt. Far from it. Both times I visit the stylish 50-seat cinder-block bunker, a fashion shoot is taking place.
We start with chewy Thuet sourdough and raw pumpkin 'n' flaxseed flatbread spread with house-made probiotic butter smoky from sea salt before moving on to wild venison tartare with fatty blueberry-vinegar- cured foie gras ($16), finished with medicinal Icelandic moss.
Mains like tender Niagara pork loin brined in whey, and belly glazed with cider, get sided with tasty du Puy lentils, a puddle of apple-skin reduction and the type of decorative kale ($24) one usually finds on the next-door neighbour's front porch.
Locally raised Rhode Island White chicken ($23) comes two ways, first as a roulade of thigh, then as a pan-seared boneless breast over an amaranth and quinoa polenta coupled with smoked wild mushrooms, lemony wilted chard and sprouted lentils. That cheesy wafer on top? A dehydrated buttermilk tuile, of course.
And we're crazy for chef's entrée of Seasonal Vegetables ($17), even if that does translate as flash-roasted Japanese eggplant and beefy king mushrooms in burnt honey sauce and sweet beetroot relish.
Sharkey Pearce pulls out all the stops with his Milk & Honey ($16), a spectacular dessert built for two consisting of a warm bowl of made-to-order ricotta with bee pollen, honeycomb, pomegranate and raisins fashioned from dehydrated grapes still on the vine, the whey left over from making the fresh cheese served in two tiny milk bottles. Outrageously clever.
Will Ursa turn out to be the most groundbreaking resto to hit Hogtown since Susur Lee's Lotus invented East-West fusion in 87 and David Crystian's Patriot went locavore in 00 before there was a word for it?