The new kid on Ossington isn’t even on the block. Not even close. Hallam Street (just south of Dupont) is about as far as you can get, cool-wise, from the southern Ossington strip. And Actinolite is about as different as you can get from the “it” spots on the strip.
Different in lots of ways that are good.
To wit: They take reservations. They only have one pork item on the menu, and it’s a starter. Animal fat plays a distant second fiddle to vegetables. It’s a quiet room, well lit, with gracious service. The cooking is detailed, complex and interesting.
Which is not surprising when you consider that chef Justin Cournoyer put in time cooking at Susur. It’s his restaurant, along with his wife Claudia Bianchi, a food TV producer and food stylist. Actinolite has style, but not in a downtown way. Two huge windows let in western light, flooding the room with brightness at dinnertime. There’s an 1861 street map of the village of Actinolite (Mr. Cournoyer’s hometown, north of Belleville) on one wall, and some old family photos. Another wall is a lovely shade of teal. Actinolite shares the shoestring industrial chic with its trendy neighbours to the south: dishtowel napkins and votive candles stuck in Callipo tuna tins.
But they have little else in common. Spring vegetable soup is indeed the essence of the season, a delicate symphony of asparagus, tarragon and mushrooms, all of it almost raw, with just enough crème fraiche to bind it, and a smoky undertone from very good ham. The bread is Mr. Cournoyer’s house-made take on Portuguese corn bread – crusty, warm, with a hint of sweetness and served with hot, fragrant olive oil.
Big fat sautéed shrimp sit on brandade de morue, the classic French puree of salt cod and potato, in this case smooth and rich with the occasional salutary potato chunk. Slices of perfectly roasted red pepper sit in deep, rich chili-kissed red-pepper sauce with fresh basil, black olives and deep-fried garlic chips on top. This is a splendid combo, strong tastes wrought delicately.
On the lighter side, Chef composes a salad of shaved raw artichokes with barely cooked sunchokes, asparagus and shiitake mushrooms. Shavings of savello, a tangy Italian sheep cheese, jazz it up. Similarly charming and delicate is the Kolapore Springs trout, a thick chunk of house-marinated fish topped with dill-inflected crème fraiche, sided with diced fresh artichoke and eentsy carrot cubes and a moat of canola aioli, which is a surprisingly acidic counterpoint to the smoothness of the fish and crème.
The only trite appetizer is a big, soft gooey hunk of apple-cider glazed pork shoulder with pickled beets and hazelnuts on mustard cream. Actinolite is better than that – this seems more like concession to the fashionista foodies of the moment. Their oeuvre, when they stick to what they do best, is lighter and more interesting. One week their fish is impeccably steamed Georgian Bay whitefish with a great flurry of baby chives on top, and underneath it are high-flavoured lentils with leeks and a dazzling creamless lemon-carrot sauce. The next week they’ve switched to pan-seared branzino, also perfectly cooked, with a stewed cuttlefish, braised fennel, more fresh artichokes (what an homage to spring) and delicate saffron-tinged yellow-pepper sauce.
Mr. Cournoyer is a chef who gets a lot out of vegetables. Pretty much any cook can get attention with animal fat, but a chef who can charm with neither cream nor pig fat is an artiste. Further proof is in how his grilled lamb rack is jumped up with a little stew of perfectly roasted yellow and red peppers, roasted eggplant and pine nuts. Is chef musical? How else would he know to add a lamb refrain – intense lamb soffritto – long sautéed onions, garlic, carrots and celery with a hint of chili and diced lamb? And an undertone, just enough to bring it all together, from silken polenta, with a grand finale from fried garlic chips on top. Similarly entertaining is veal t-bone with revamped onion rings: superbly crispy-crunchy, crusted in panko crumbs. And asparagus that he has troubled to peel. And perfectly cooked creamed spinach with far less cream than usual.
Chef’s only misstep is badly overcooked chicken breast gone tough. Its braised leg is better, but then the leg does tolerate more cooking. The sharp romesco sauce (nuts, peppers, tomatoes, vinegar and onion) helps, as do sweet sunchokes and black olives. But not enough.
But all is forgiven when they bring dessert, of which there are only two. Olive-oil cake, superbly moist with a lot of crumb, is a re-do of strawberry rhubarb pie: It’s topped with baked rhubarb and house-made strawberry ice cream, a little syrup of lavender and orange zest pooling on the plate. But grapefruit pavlova is downright sexy: Sharp, crackling meringue is topped with a big a dollop of pink crème fraiche, loaded with grapefruit flavour. Strewn around are grapefruit sections, some raw and some candied. A chef who turns egg whites, sugar, cream and grapefruit into a magnificent pink confection is going to get a lot of attention in food-obsessed Toronto.
Actinolite only has 30 seats, so reserve in advance; it is already a poorly kept secret in the neighbourhood.