First let me deliver some unfortunate news about Ortolan. I can sum it up in two words: Goat chops. Not some kind of ironic facial hair, like that sported by many of the restaurant's hip male patrons, but actual chops butchered from an actual goat.
If a restaurant puts goat chops on its menu, I'm going to order them. I don't want to, but it's my job. The thing about goat meat is that it's tough. Like, Ultimate Fighter tough. If you braise it long enough it will eventually get tender and become quite tasty, but if you grill it and maybe finish it briefly in the oven, as they did at Ortolan, you're going to be left with something that's largely sinew and about as appetizing as a mukluk.
The good news is, it occurred to me that those heinous chops were on an otherwise exceptional menu for a reason: this is an anti-foodie restaurant. After all, it's only hard-core, self-identified foodies (and restaurant critics) who would be foolish enough to order goat chops. Furthermore, the place is tiny – less than 30 seats – it doesn't take reservations and on warm evenings its interior can approximate the ambient temperature of a Finnish sauna. I can't decide whether its location on a dour stretch of Bloor West, down the street from a strip club with only street parking, is a foodie deterrent or an unintentional lure.
To say this is an anti-foodie restaurant is not to say it doesn't cater to people who like to eat. The place is a virtual clubhouse for chefs and industry people; it's even got Chef Guy Rawlings, formerly of Brockton General, as a server. It's just not interested in feeding people who obsessively photograph their food, interrogate staff about the pedigree of each ingredient and treat Nathan Myhrvold's Modernist Cuisine as their bible. Unfortunately for Ortolan, the rest of the cooking is just too good to keep those folks from flocking.
The restaurant gets its name from the tiny songbirds, a type of sparrow, that are caught in nets, locked in black boxes where they feed non-stop (figuring that it's night) until they're fat and then drowned in Armagnac. Diners put their napkins over their heads (allegedly so God won't see them) and devour the roasted birds whole, tiny bones and all. Once considered a delicacy at certain European tables, they are now illegal to sell in restaurants. Consequently, there are no ortolan available at Ortolan, but, all things considered, that's probably not a bad thing.
It's a cheeky name that's likely to turn off vegans as much as radical locavores, and maybe that was part of the plan. Of course, with food as fresh and lovely as shreds of squid with braised celery slices in a lightly reduced braising liquid and bulging radishes combined with mild, barely sweet kohlrabi tossed with a creamy yogurt-dill dressing, who needs songbirds, anyway?
Instead, begin with a bunch of lightly charred and floppy grilled spring onions with a side of salbitxada – a pungent orange sauce from the Catalan region of Spain that blends tomatoes, almonds and roasted peppers with loads of raw garlic. Mediterranean flavours, this time from Greece, are also evident in a delicate skordalia, a cool potato-garlic puree that demands another helping of bread. Barely grilled summer squash, warm and alluring beneath their drizzle of herb-spiked yogurt, capture the taste of summer on a sharing plate.
If chefs Damon Clements (formerly of Delux) and Daniel Usher (most recently at Pizzeria Libretto) are conversant in Greek and Spanish flavours, they are downright fluent in Italian. The superb carpaccio comes with beautifully sliced beef layered on the plate like fleshy petals and seasoned with a sure hand. Savoury, reduced cream sauce redolent with wild mushrooms envelops the lightest, most tender gnocchi this side of Abruzzo. Ravioli virtually burst at the first sign of a bite, their ultra-smooth rabbit mousse filling alluding to the funkiness of game.
Rabbit reappears another night presented two ways on a slim wooden tray. There's a finely structured rillette that balances creaminess with more substantial texture and a cleverly butchered little butterfly-shaped morsel that is supremely tender and flavourful in its barely acidic, syrupy reduction. It's tiny, but paired with a glass of zweigelt from Lailey Vineyards (the brief, Ontario heavy wine list changes often and offers everything by the glass) is one of the best things I've eaten this year.
Desserts eschew culinary trendiness. They are not garnished with swizzles of berry coulis, dusted with pop rocks or presented in cupcake form. They do not incorporate bacon. They just taste good. There's a dense chocolate cake punctuated with dark roasted almonds one night and a superb lavender-kissed panna cotta, a little bit wobbly and with a satisfying chalkiness, another.
This is smart, contemporary global cooking that tastes more of home than industrial kitchen. It is food with personality, cooked with artistry, by chefs who genuinely care about their products and their craft. If those are the hallmarks of the anti-foodie restaurant, I can't wait for the next one.