Last September, the chef Justin Cournoyer committed the rough equivalent of restaurant suicide. Actinolite, a polished 30-seat spot that he had opened in 2012 with his wife, Claudia Bianchi, was doing well enough. The room, tucked onto a residential stretch near the north end of Ossington Avenue, was warmly lit and comfortable and good for conversation. Mr. Cournoyer’s cooking – sort of Italian, sort of French, initially – drew kind reviews and an older, moneyed clientele that flocked here from all around town.
As the chef now admits, once his restaurant was up and running its concept didn’t excite him; the food was tasty but dated and unoriginal. Mr. Cournoyer had spent four years of his career at Susur through the restaurant’s prime; he knew what it was to cook inventive, delicious food. But in the years since he’d been “in a bubble,” as he puts it, painstakingly renovating the building that would become Actinolite (it took more than five years; he and Ms. Bianchi live upstairs with their four-year-old son, Toby) while working as a consultant and culinary producer for television. “I felt so far behind,” he said.
His sous chefs had travelled, though, and they brought new ideas into the kitchen. Mr. Cournoyer began paying closer attention to what was happening in great restaurants around the world. He travelled, too; a brief trip to Copenhagen helped open his eyes to the possibilities in local, unheralded foods. The chef, who is 36, grew up hunting game birds and deer, fishing for pike and foraging wild edibles on Eastern Ontario’s Skootamatta River – Actinolite is named after his tiny home town (it became a part of Tweed municipality in 1998). Shouldn’t he be serving what he’s passionate about?
The change began gradually, as he traded his trips to Toronto’s food terminal for thrice-weekly foraging expeditions, for meat and produce pick-ups at small, uncompromising farms around the city’s borders, for weekly deliveries from Société-Orignal, the singular Montreal-based supplier of proto-Canadian rare foods.
But last September, Mr. Cournoyer threw out the remnants of Actinolite’s old menu to focus solely on “cooking the Canadian landscape,” as he puts it. And Mr. Cournoyer would need to change Actinolite’s service style, also – it was the only way to make the restaurant he envisioned work. The chef began offering just two options: a four or seven course tasting menu. He quickly lost much of his core clientele. “It was like taking a restaurant and turning it upside down and shaking it,” he said.
Yet far from being the death of the restaurant, Mr. Cournoyer’s gamble has transformed Actinolite from an elegant has-been into one of the most essential places to eat in Ontario, if not in Canada. His cooking builds odd, exquisite, deceptively simple-looking montages from Quebec pike and grilled wild knotweed, from Arctic flowers and Ontario pork, from salty, assertively maritime Gaspé lumpfish roe and soft strips of local rutabaga, and freshly set cheese the texture of clotted cream.
The food is odd, inspiring, beautifully executed, even magical in places. It’s Canadian cooking as I’ve never tasted it. The only thing missing is the mobs of food geeks; until now, news of Actinolite’s transformation hasn’t gotten out.
One night early this spring Mr. Cournoyer dressed a small, painterly dish of glazed red local beets with wild fennel and radicchio leaves that he’d cooked with honey and then baked until they were translucent red-orange, more stained glass than cold-hardy green. They were gently bitter, true to radicchio’s character but also crisp and sweet and buttery, eerily similar in flavour and texture to a great croissant.
There was a shard of meringue on the plate, white and innocuous looking. My dinner mate and I bit into ours simultaneously. The flavour was distinct, herbal, ruddy green like dried leaves, sweet and marshmallowy like meringue but also the slightest bit musty. The chip had been flavoured with lichen that Mr. Cournoyer foraged in his hometown. My friend’s eyes popped wide open. “It tastes like the north!” he said.
Another dish combined a hunk of juicy, slow-cooked halibut with whisp-thin slices of smoked pork jowl, with rich, melty, softly fatty strips of pig’s ear. To set it all off, there were little pools of vinegar that thrummed with the resiny, deep woods scent of pine boughs.
The chef brought the next course out personally; the cooks do a lot of the serving here. With enormous respect to Mr. Cournoyer, he still has a bit of the small-town Eastern Ontario boy about him. An undershirt was showing at the collar of his chef’s whites, and his hair was short on top but a little longer in the back, the way hockey stars and Cancon rock legends wore it in 1987. He’s not a conformist. I suspect that’s part of what makes him such an excellent cook.