I am completely confused by Ursa, the new restaurant that aims to serve healthy food done luxe. I went once and thought it was second coming of Christ. Food both healthy and delectable! Fabulous service! Gracious ambience! That was early in the week.
The second time was prime time on a weekend night. Jekyll and Hyde. The room was chaotic and noisy, the service slapdash, and the food still incredibly interesting but much less in control.
The first time, we had their signature roots salad, a sculptural triumph of colour and form, great swirls of shaved candy-cane beets and carrots and parsnip, a lid like a fascinator with fennel fronds, dried burdock and sunchoke, a glory of great-tasting veg in tangy kefir-and-walnut vinaigrette. There is Thuet bread and house-made raw pumpkin and flaxseed flatbread, with house-cultured butter. And raw yellowtail with delicate house-made miso, preserved lemon and kumquats.
The mains are complex, controlled and fun. Ridiculously tender pork loin has been brined in whey, its belly glazed in apple cider. There is red chard above and lentils below, house-made seedy mustard, and sunchokes three ways: Roasted and lightly candied, pureed creamy with apple cider, and dried. With food this complex, one is often left wondering what’s on the plate, but co-owner Lucas Sharkey Pearce (the beautiful young man with the ponytail) visits our table at the start of each course, explaining every item, clearly a proud papa – and an articulate and gracious one.
His brother and business partner, Jacob, earned his culinary chops at Centro and Thuet. Chef has big ideas, and when he’s not stressed by a full house with a lineup stacked up at the bar, his moves are smooth.
That first night, he dishes wild-caught Georgian Bay whitefish, perfectly cooked and sitting pretty with tasty puree of white beans, crispy cauliflower and almonds, jazzy salsa verde and peeled, warmed red and green grapes, with a swirly smear of kefir. Brother Lucas brings a superb – and equally complex – dessert: Small puddles of yuzu lemon curd, blueberry preserves, a circlet of soft fresh meringue with droplets of spruce caramel, and small sugar cookies made with duck fat. It’s the most sophisticated deconstruction of lemon meringue pie this town has ever seen! Afterward, as a digestif, Lucas brings a small plate of sweet alfalfa and rice-bran crunch to dip sour slices of Japanese nuka pickles (made by fermenting vegetables in rice bran), and thin basmati wafer cookies, all of it, of course, house-made.
But our next visit is far less delectable. The room is so crowded, it’s hard to appreciate its charm. There are still charcoal grey cinderblock walls and dozens of Fat Albert light bulbs, but this time we notice the glare of fluorescent lights in the open kitchen. Is this because today the pumpkin and flaxseed flatbread is tough? Or is it perhaps because Lucas does not visit our table tonight? We are instead served by a seemingly random rotating crew of hurried servers who do not take time to explain things unless we ask, and who seem less than enthused at having to do so.
We love the deep complex purity of mushroom broth with cute little chestnut agnolotti, and the lake trout served two ways – lightly smoked, tender and juicy, and lightly pickled, also moist and restrained. A big dollop of house-made crème fraîche takes the fish all the way to divine decadence. We’re also entranced with venison tartare, although its blueberry-cured foie gras is a tad tough. House-made tofu, however, is tofu at its least exciting – no taste. Adding bonito, ginger and yuzu isn’t enough.
On the first visit, we were so charmed that we barely noticed there were only four mains – pork, chicken, whitefish (which has morphed into lake trout) and a veg plate. The pork and fish are as wonderful as they were last time, but tonight the thrill is gone. We do not feel cherished or special, but rather a bit of a burden when we ask what’s in things. The chicken is thigh deboned and made into a juicy roll, the breast splendidly tender, the fixings fine but a little mushed together. Vegetarians will find ecstasy in the veg plate: Lightly pickled red and yellow beets, Ontario white asparagus, sprouted green lentils and plumped golden raisins, all dressed lightly in burnt honey and toasted hazelnuts.
Save for the glorious deconstructed lemon-meringue tart, the desserts seem to need an editor. Raw dark-chocolate mousse with pumpkin and hibiscus is the usual deep, dark bittersweet ganache, a chocoholic’s dream. But its accompanying slab of pumpkin seems weirdly out of place. Milk and honey (made to order for two, a big commitment) is warm, house-made ricotta (nothing special there) served with marvellously dried red grapes, fragrant honey and honeycomb and – another weirdness – four mini milk bottles of the whey given off when they turned milk into ricotta. Whey has no taste. The dish is a clever intellectual construct but does not have great flavours.
The Pearce brothers are first-time restaurateurs with a place that went viral almost instantly when it opened in February. They likely feel like they’ve been hit by a truck. Each of them is prodigiously talented and obviously driven – Lucas in the dining room and Jacob in the kitchen. But Ursa isn’t a two-man operation. Neither talent nor drive maketh the manager, and to succeed in the business they’ll need to master the art of getting the people who work for them to do pretty much what they do. In each of their roles they’ll need to become much stronger team captains – if they want Ursa to be more than a brilliant flash in the pan.