Local lights

NOW spotlights the restos that use locally sourced foods with the most creativity


Actinolite

971 Ossington, at Hallam, 416-962-8943, actinoliterestaurant.com, @actinolitefood

If you’re planning to visit Justin Cournoyer’s critically acclaimed Actinolite to check out either his constantly changing $75 seven-course or $55 four-course tasting menu, it might help to know shorthand.

How else will you know that exotica such as “mackerel/beets/horseradish” translates into slightly pickled East Coast mackerel paired with raw sugar beets brined in juniper berries foraged near Cournoyer’s cottage in the northern Ontario town that gives his resto its name? Or that the horseradish gets turned into a powdered granita-like “snow” after a spell in a high-tech Pacojet speed freezer?

Carrot/herbs/elderberries

“I like simplicity,” says the ex-Susur sous. “I don’t need to know everything.”

And so “carrot/herbs/elderberries” becomes a funky bunch of Ted Thorpe’s organic carrots that have been cooked three ways – charred, quickled and deep-fried – then plopped atop a purée of emulsified herbs grown in the resto’s own backyard, chicory, chervil and lovage by name. And a few house-preserved elderberries – what the hey.

Fennel/butternut/maple

That leaves “fennel/butternut/maple” to finish, or, rather, a creamy white wild-fennel sorbet paired with salty puréed squash, maple-syrup meringue and a candied garnish he fashions from dehydrated lichen. What’s with the Arctic moss?

“It tastes like shredded wheat.”

Dinner Tuesday to Saturday 6 to 10 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Reservations accepted. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement.


Chef Jason Becker

Fabarnak

519 Church, at Dundonald, 416-355-6781, fabarnak.com, @fabarnakresto

Like Hawthorne, Fabarnak is much more than your everyday cantina. As part of the 519 Community Centre’s outreach program, the breezy three-year-old café gives marginalized street youth job experience in a real, live restaurant.

The socially minded initiative’s also dedicated to the promotion of locally sourced meat and veg, so much so that up to 70 per cent of chef Jason Becker’s remarkable carte is regional. That would explain the salads made with 100KM’s candy-cane beets, bitter endive and pickled habanero peppers, the lot finished with a fresh ricotta made right on the premises, and the vegan combo of warm barley, butternut squash and just-picked pears.

Lemon chicken

Great slabs of sustainable Atlantic salt cod from Fisherfolk at the Brick Works come draped over a heap o’ wild rice and a crisp stir-fry of broccoli and Brussels sprouts in picked garlic. And who can resist Sanagan’s free-range chicken when it’s roasted under a brick and sided with house-smoked ham, a rustic panzanella salad laced with kale, and smoked cheddar from the Loblaws in Maple Leaf Gardens down the street (all $6 small/$10 large at lunch, the latter two $18 and $16 at dinner)?

A creative kitchen, ridiculously low prices and a progressive work environment: does it get any better than Fabarnak? Aren’t you spoiling the kids for the often cruel reality of the resto biz?

“That’s what I keep telling everybody,” says Becker. “We’re all very lucky to be here!”

Lunch Tuesday to Friday 11:30 am to 3:30 pm, dinner Friday from 5:30 to 9 pm. Brunch Saturday 9 am to 4:30 pm. Closed Sunday, Monday, holidays. Reservations accepted. Licensed. Access: barrier-free.


Chef Jamie Kennedy

Gilead Café

4 Gilead Pl, at King E, 647-288-0680, jamiekennedy.ca, @ChefJKennedy

Jamie Kennedy was locavore before most of you were born.

Perceived by some industry types as a bit of a flake back when he opened his groundbreaking Palmerston almost 30 years ago, he’s now hailed as the guru of organics. His subsequent JKROM on top of the museum, the Wine Bar on lower Church and his fiercely indie Gilead Café in Corktown prove that the tastiest food is often in our own backyard, or, in Kennedy’s case, your own 116-acre farm in Prince Edward County.

That’s where he grows the gorgeous Black Krim and Yellow Brandywine heirloom tomatoes he champions in Café’s appropriately named Celebration of Tomatoes ($9), though the starter’s sheep’s milk yogurt dressing comes from Best Baa and its organic caramelized shallots started out on New Farm in Creemore.

Celebration of Tomatoes

Cumbrae’s supplies the naturally raised chuck found in his substantial cheeseburger ($13), its two-year-old cheddar from Quebec, its English muffin-style bun from the kitchen and the yellow mustard piccalilli from Kennedy’s legendary wall of preserves. And everybody knows to automatically side them with his signature own-grown fries ($6) – Gordon Ramsay famously excepted – right?

What advice would the pioneering chef give to someone starting out today?

“Stand on your own, use what’s around you and don’t borrow from other cultures,” Kennedy contends. “Do that and the environment and the economy all follow suit.”

Monday to Saturday 8 am to 3 pm, lunch from 11 am. Sunday brunch 10 am to 3 pm. Closed some holidays. No reservations. Licensed. Access: three steps at door, washrooms on same floor.


Prix fixe menu

Local Kitchen

1710 Queen W, at Roncesvalles, 416-534-6700, localkitchen.ca, @localkitchen

It is, after all, called Local Kitchen.

So it’s no surprise that Michael Sangregorio and Fabio Bondi get a big chunk of the veggies that pop up on the four-year-old Parkdale trat’s rustic Italian carte from the family farm in King City.

See them at their best on Monday nights, when the cozy 30-seat cantina offers its four-course prezzo fisso for all of 40 bucks. It starts with a piece of virgin fresh-pulled Ontario cow’s milk mozzarella from Quality Cheese of Woodbridge the size of a baseball and a handful of farm-grown pomodoro tomatoes and cubed cukes in pine-nut-free basil pesto.

Sous chef Kyle Rindinella

A striking plate of wonton-like agnolotti packed with a creamy purée of roasted corn and fresh Quality ricotta follows, its garland of wild sautéed chanterelles and more sweet corn spiked with snippets of thyme. Next up, a grilled house-made sausage stuffed with naturally raised lamb from Off the Bone of Mississauga shares the plate with crisply seared ‘n’ roasted quail and a pancake-sized puddle of buttery charred polenta. On the à la carte menu, that’s a $22 main by itself. A small Mason jar of panna cotta layered with diced Niagara peaches brings the meal deal to an end.

And did we mention that Monday nights there’s half-price wine by the bottle or glass and free corkage if you decide to bring your own, twist-tops included?

Prix fixe dinner Monday 6 to 10 pm. À la carte dinner Sunday to Wednesday 6 to 10 pm, Thursday to Saturday 6 to 11 pm. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Licensed. Access: barrier-free.


Tofu with matsutake mushrooms

Ursa

924 Queen W, at Shaw, 416-536-8963, ursa-restaurant.com, @ursarestaurant

Jacob Sharkey Pearce’s genre-defying mix of state-of-the-art kitchen technology, sports medicine and raw foodism sometimes goes over people’s heads. His new fall lineup aims to fix that.

“There were just too many elements on the plate,” says Pearce. “Instead of a tasting menu, we’ll have four or five focused starters and mains. A refinement, if you like.”

And we most definitely do. While his former skyscraping autumn root salad once towered over the table, it’s now a more modest arrangement of parsnips and beets of the week, some charred eggplant and the odd leaf of sumac that chef forages himself on his day off, all in a cold-pressed soy bean vinaigrette ($17). Those same organic Ontario beans show up in his silken made-from-scratch tofu, here paired with raw spicy matsutake mushrooms, pickled delicata squash and a schmear of fermented chili pepper paste ($18).

Chef Jacob Sharley Pearce

He cooks sirloin of local red-tail deer en sous-vide before plating it over granola (!) splashed with pine-nut milk and the medicinal red berry known as spice bush ($36). And is that more lichen? First Actinolite, now Ursa – I smell a trend! Think that’s a little out-there? The idiosyncratic chef thinks bugs are the next big thing.

“I’ve started roasting crickets and putting them in pastas like tagliatelle and orecchiette in consommé. Not for shock value. So far, customers have been really liking them. Insects are good protein!”

Dinner nightly 6 to 11 pm. Bar till close. Brunch Sunday noon to 4 pm. Closed some holidays. Reservations accepted. Licensed. Access: two steps at door, washrooms in basement.


Chef Edward Levesque

Edward Levesque’s Kitchen

1290 Queen E, at Hastings, 416-465-3600, edwardlevesque.ca, @Edwards1290

Edward Levesque does not suffer fools.

Ask him for a substitution at brunch and the notoriously cantankerous chef will more than likely show you the door. It’s no joke that his menu once warned that “political, religious and cellphone discourse are discouraged.”

His seasonally adjusted menus are no laughing matter either. He offers quinoa and pear salads ($10) thick with organic kale he grows on his farm outside Stoney Creek “until the last of the 20 square feet of plants gets eaten.” The inevitable golden beet salad ($11) gets tossed with blue Belfountain cheese from the Credit Valley and wild apples that fell from the tree of a neighbour down the sideroad.

A nearby chicken ranch supplies the free-run birds he roasts and stuffs with nearly two dozen cloves from his garden, a purée of Levesque-grown parsnip and carrots on the side ($22). Desserts are crafted by one Flavour Flav – aka ex-Susur and Jamie Kennedy pastry chef Flavia Poon – her specialty a warm crumble ($8) made from those same stolen wild apples topped with a scoop of ice cream infused with caramelized rye bread from Silverstein’s on McCaul. Talk about local!

The outspoken toque can now also reveal that he’s about to shorten the name of his resto to just “Edward’s.” Why ditch the “Kitchen”?

“There are too many restaurants called ‘Kitchen,'” says Levesque. “Hudson Kitchen, Harvest Kitchen. And I’m losing ‘Levesque.’ People should know who I am after 12 years. Just like me, ‘Edward’s’ is short and sweet.”

Well, short anyway.

Dinner Tuesday to Saturday 5:30 to 10 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 9 am to 3 pm and most holiday Mondays 10 am to 3 pm. Closed some holidays. No reservations. Licensed. Access: four steps at door, washrooms in basement.


Cheesecake

Cafe Belong

550 Bayview, at Pottery Rd, 416-901-8234, cafebelong.ca

If the resto biz is all about location, location, location, Café Belong in the Brick Works eco-centre has it made in the shade.

Except when there’s a flood, of course, as was the case when the mighty Don overflowed its banks following a torrential thunderstorm in July. But that hasn’t stopped owner/chef Brad Long from making the most of the season’s bounty.

He currently substitutes extremely lean Alberta bison for the more traditional cheap fatty chuck in his wine-braised bourguignon ($32), serving the gorgeously tender meat over spätzle spiked with sumac he freshly forages from the quarry behind the restaurant. The one-time TV chef artfully transforms an Ontario Harvest rabbit into a sausage-like boudin blanc pudding ($26) before plating it over a veritable mountain of mashed potatoes drizzled with wild elderberry jus, a main on the menu from the get-go.

Who else would have the cheek to name a dish Oysters Westin – beefy baked West Coast Kumamotos layered with braised rainbow chard, house-cured bacon, sharp Thunder Oak cheese and a squiggle of crème fraîche ($15) – an ingenious spin on Oysters Rockefeller? And don’t forget to save room for pastry chef Sheryl Brooks’s astounding cheesecake ($12), seeing as Long tops it with Prince Edward County peach compote these days and a random scattering of whatever’s at hand.

“I get to play Jackson Pollock for a few seconds,” chef laughs.

How would Long describe his seasonably adjusted agenda?

“What I do isn’t about politics,” he insists. “It’s always been the quality of the ingredients. And the proof’s right there on the plate.”

Lunch Monday to Friday from 11:30 am, dinner nightly from 5 to 9 pm. Brunch Saturday and Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Closed holidays. Reservations accepted. Licensed. Access: barrier-free.


Sous-chef Belinda Willis with warm kale salad

Woodlot

293 Palmerston, at College, 647-342-6307, woodlottoronto.com, @WoodlotTO

Though dining al fresco on its pine-planked deck has a certain charm, David Haman’s iconoclastic Woodlot really comes into its own with the first frost. That might have a lot to do with the igloo-sized wood-burning oven sitting right in the middle of the west-side resto. Isn’t it difficult to work with?

“It’s been trial and error for the past three years,” says the ex-Czehoski chef. “The heat is intense, so you find out fast what works and what doesn’t.”

Among the former is his now-signature pork chop ($28), a Brobdingnagian whey-fed slab of naturally raised hormone-free Berkshire pig sirloin grown naturally on the Burkefield Farm of Campbellford. It’s been on the card from the get-go. Local sour cherries find their way into the beast’s thyme jus and the roasted compote that tops the chop.

Flat-iron steak

Cumbrae’s veal sweetbreads ($26) get a similar high-heat treatment, skewered ‘n’ glazed with Berkshire bacon and plated post-oven on a pillow of polenta finished with a buttery chanterelle ragu. His oven-fired flat-iron steak ($28) comes from Cumbrae’s as well. With its classic Mediterranean romesco, blistered scallions and on-trend shishito peppers – the poor man’s padrón – it wouldn’t be out of place among the tapas at Bar Isabel.

All three warrant an à la carte side of warm decorative kale tossed with rehydrated currants in toasted almond oil vinaigrette ($7). Dessert these days calls for bitter almond pavlova with poached peaches and aniseed Chantilly ($11).

“It’s like the last day of summer in a bowl.”

Dinner Tuesday to Sunday 5 to 11 pm. Closed Monday, some holidays. Licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement.


Chef Carl Heinrich with roast Muscovy duck

Richmond Station

1 Richmond W, at Yonge, 647-748-1444, richmondstation.ca, @richmondstn

Since it launched exactly one year ago this week, downtown’s Richmond Station has been packed to the rafters from noon to night. We’re guessing it might have something to do with co-owner Carl Heinrich winning the most recent season of TV’s Top Chef Canada.

“Top Chef fills seats,” says Heinrich. “People see me on TV and they want to try my food.”

Hardcore fans can look forward to autumnal starters like spicy 100KM kabocha squash soup mined with toasted pumpkin seeds, smoky cold-pressed canola oil and not terribly local garam masala ($8). Closer to home, he smokes speckled lake trout from XX and plates it over soybean hummus and a frilly kale salad in Niagara Vinegar’s baco noir balsamic ($12).

Upcoming mains include Everspring Farm of Ilderton’s Muscovy duck done two-ways ($28), first a braised ‘n’ glazed leg in smoky barbecue sauce, then a smoked and roasted crispy-skinned breast. A buttery puddle of celery purée, a heap of wilted kale sautéed in house-cured bacon and a few onion rings fashioned from shallots complete this considerable plate.

Heinrich shares the spotlight with ex-Ruby Watchco pastry chef Farzam Fallah, who doesn’t so much deconstruct dessert as detonate a depth charge under it: witness his warm apple crumble ($9). Call it a bittersweet collision of roasted apple, house-made wormwood ice cream and powdered gingerbread layered with a tissue-thin brittle redolent of Granny Smith, just the type of spectacular dish that impresses judges on TV cooking shows.

Monday to Friday 11:30 am to 10:30 pm, Saturday 5 to 10:30 pm. Closed Sunday, holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, eight steps to washrooms.

Photos by Steven Davey

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