Earlier this year, the chef Michael Hunter appeared shirtless in a promotional photo for a restaurant industry convention. In his hands, he cradled the skull of a seven-point buck – a souvenir from one of his first kills. He's been photographed clutching his crossbow in a home kitchen (this was at a charity dinner, apparently), and a few weeks ago, in his chef's clogs and a fitted black t-shirt, gripping the neck of an enormous wild turkey tom that he'd managed to blast from a meadow in Caledon at dawn.
At Antler, the game-focused restaurant Mr. Hunter opened last fall on Dundas Street West, the chef and his kitchen staff wear camouflage-patterned aprons. You can sometimes see the inked black tines of an image of that buck's skull, which is tattooed across his chest and shoulders, poking from the collar of his shirt.
Credit where it's due: Mr. Hunter, who maintains an artfully stubbled face and the easy-grinning countenance of the firemen-calendar-model next door, is highly adept at personal branding. (Overheard at the bar there recently, in a loud and woozy alto: "Any time I go to a place where the chef has tats, I know I'm going to get great food.")
Nothing about Antler veers far from message. Its cocktail list includes a scotch and maple syrup concoction called "Smoke Barrel" (that's woodsman lingo for a type of muzzle-loading rifle), and another drink called the "Blood Fashioned." Mr. Hunter refers to himself in publicity as "The Hunter Chef," and tags his Instagram posts with the names of rifle and camo companies, including #remingtonarms and @mossyoak.
I should admit now that none of the above gave me confidence in advance of my first visit to his restaurant. With few exceptions, it is illegal to serve wild game in restaurants in Ontario; Antler's venison, wild boar, duck and bison are all sourced from farms. The whole hunter-gatherer schtick, while clever, therefore seemed moot, and in a city that's lousy with cedar trees, I'll never be able to read the words "foraged cedar" without chortling loudly and rolling my eyes. There was also the matter of that shirtless photo. When I picture the chefs who are making my dinner, I generally like to picture them fully clothed.
Yet to my great surprise, Antler is a very good restaurant, with a menu that extends well beyond the expected Ye Olde Canadian Backwoods Faire. While Mr. Hunter serves ash-crusted venison chop and a burger made from a blend of boar, deer and bison – both of these items fairly typical of the well-trod rustic-Canadiana genre – his menu also includes the likes of an excellent venison-stuffed Jamaican patty and a stellar duck-heart skewer that is among the best grilled-meat dishes in town.
Mr. Hunter, who is 31, grew up in Caledon. He took his first cooking job at a roadside diner at the age of 13, he said. He moved up from there to a country club, cooking weddings and banquets, and then to a fancy country inn.
Before long, he moved to Toronto, where he spent four years at Sassafraz, in Yorkville. He became chef de cuisine at the troubled Scarpetta and then executive chef at the Financial District's Reds. When it came time to open his own place, he thought he should marry his chef skills with his love of hunting and wild foods. There is commitment behind the branding, too. The chef made 40 litres of maple syrup for the restaurant this spring at a friend's farm in Caledon, and lately he's been foraging two mornings a week for wild leeks, garlic mustard, watercress and nettles, he said.
Antler is a partnership with Jody Shapiro, a documentary filmmaker (among his credits, the well-received Burt's Buzz and Guy Maddin's My Winnipeg, for which he was a producer) and sous chef who makes Antler's breads, gyoza and pastas. The room is small and crowded but reasonably comfortable, with a busy bar and a chef's counter that overlooks the kitchen. On the raw brick wall are antler mounts that Mr. Hunter decorated with ferns.
In the kitchen, he has a light touch. A few months ago, the chef served slices of B.C. sockeye salmon that he'd smoked in-house, set over a crisp, perfectly turned-out potato rosti, and topped with Spanish herring roe and crème fraiche. This wasn't a new idea, but a delicious one, executed perfectly. More recently, he served clear, delicate venison consommé from a French press, enriched with wild mushrooms, radishes, chiles and herbs.
He put wild mushrooms to use as well in superb tarte tatins that he built on buttery house puff pastry and filled out with dark caramelized onions and the sour snap of walnut and sorrel pesto. But those mushrooms were their absolute best when skewered and grilled over charcoal and then bathed, yakitori-style, with sweet, complexly savoury tare sauce. Antler does three types of yakitori: mushroom, chicken and duck heart. Eating them in that order is an exercise in incredulity, because it's hard to believe the chicken can be even better than the mushroom or that the duck hearts can be better than the chicken. The duck hearts had me wondering why duck hearts don't appear on every city menu. They were ridiculously tender and juicy, and tasted duckier, for lack of a better word, than any duck I'd had before. Mr. Hunter grilled them to a soft char on their outsides, but not quite medium rare in their centres, so they were deep, dark reddish pink and delicious inside.
I was less crazy about Antler's "harvest salad" a while ago, in some part because it had been snowing that week. From which harvest, exactly, had the salad been harvested? The farro risotto, however, made with Canadian spelt grains, was far better than you might expect – utterly on-point. Each perfectly tender-crisp grain popped with flavour as you ate it. The risotto was made with cubes of roasted squash, rutabaga, Parmesan cheese and Brussels sprouts leaves for bitter pop, and was a steal at $17.
The pastas are also excellent. (The general quality level of pasta making and cooking in this city's restaurants has tripled or quadrupled in the past five years.) Try the comfortingly chewy cavatelli with boar ragu, or if it happens to be on the specials sheet that night, the tagliatelle carbonara, which was made with house-cured bacon and a duck yolk, and freshened (this isn't at all traditional, but it was tasty) with a tart white-wine deglaze, and which turned heads around the bar as it landed it front of us, because it smelled so stupidly good.
Apart from that farro, the mains can tip toward heaviness; this section of the menu most transparently betrays Mr. Hunter's country-inn roots. It is simple, timeless, unfussy stuff, done mostly very well. His grilled chicken, cooked over charcoal, under a brick, is very good, as was that rack of venison, which came on parsnip and saffron cauliflower purees. (The burger, enriched as it is with boar and venison, is also pretty great.)
Desserts are based on the classics, but each with a touch of wildness. There was a decent chocolate brownie with candied black walnuts, mild, "foraged-cedar-infused ice" (cue the eye roll), and something called "cedar dust" (I didn't notice it until I read about it later), as well as a ricotta cheesecake that the menu tells me was scented with white spruce and set on a hazelnut crust.