May 26, 2014
It would be easy to make fun of Actinolite, a small earnest Toronto restaurant. Until, that is, you taste Justin Cournoyer's food. It is unique. Thought-provoking. Delicious. If you approach it with an open mind, suspend disbelief and simply eat what's on the plate, munching upon herbs and leaves, grass and hay, you will discover an entirely new range of flavors. You eat the roots, you eat the stems, you find that dirt is very tasty.
Cournoyer has named his restaurant for the small northern town where he grew up, hunting, fishing and foraging. Proud of his heritage, he puts it right onto the plate. This, he seems to be saying, is what Canadian food can be. Dining in this small, spare restaurant was, for me, like entering a dream, a place where all my senses were heightened. A few impressions.
"Radish," they call the dish at the top. Carrots. Soil. Grass. Eating it with my fingers I am a child again, crouching in the garden, devouring everything I find. When I was small I loved the scent of new-mown grass and always ate it, hoping it would taste the way it smelled. Now I'm eating grass again, and this time it tastes wonderful. I'm acutely aware of each distinct flavor. And for just a moment I am back in Laos, where everything that can be eaten, is.
The asparagus is sturdy, almost crisp, and yet entirely tender. The puddle of nettle – so subtle. The lovely bright green spruce tips, a leap of flavor. The taste of the flowers: colt’s foot, an intense, almost sunny flavor, and the delicacy of violets. A little dollop of soured cream.
Not surf and turf, but soil and turf. Bright orange sea urchins are enfolded in cucumber peel, which works a bit like seaweed. The interior of the cucumber, dehydrated, rehydrated, completely reimagined, lays along the side. The dusting of buttermilk powder is a jolt: it is ice cold.
The egg has been cooked at 63.5 degrees for an hour and a half, until it is perfect, the yolk trembling inside the barely solid container of the whites. Touched with a fork it becomes an instant sauce for an entire bouqet of foraged flavors: ramps, lovage, something minty. Eating this I suddenly imagine myself running through a forest.
What a wonderful fish! Firm. Tight flesh. Its sweetness underlined by the pleasant bitterness of wild watercress, the slightly citric taste of knotweed. Hovering over it all the delicate surprise of maple.
So gently cooked they're like condensed clouds floating above a landscape of sturdy greens.
More gesture than food. A humorous nod to dessert. A light tangle of textures. The kitchen's wave goodbye.
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