Nestled away in a neighborhood more known for Portuguese chicken than fine dining lies one of Toronto’s – and arguably Canada’s – finest culinary (and imbibing) experiences, at Actinolite restaurant (971 Ossington Ave.)
I had the pleasure of dining there with my partner for our three year anniversary. Barely a minute walk away from our house, we passed it each day on our way home from work. As the weeks went by, the warmly lit, exposed-brick interior grew increasingly interesting.
What we weren’t counting on was the absolutely astounding seven course chef-selected menu, each paired with a different wine. Let me repeat – SEVEN courses, paired with SEVEN different wines. Yup.
This was on top of the three amuse-bouche (or “snacks” as they’re referred to at Actinolite). The food was an interesting blend of conventional and inspired, ranging between candied lichen with fermented blueberries to a simple beef short rib. All was delicious.
However, this restaraunt didn’t start out as a Toronto paragon of haute cuisine.
“We opened just as a neighborhood restaurant,” explains Chef Justin Cournoyer, proprietor and culinary master of Actinolite. “It was my first time being a chef, it was my first time owning a restaurant.”
After tinkering with a European-themed a la carte menu for a while, Chef Cournoyer shifted focus to something far more intimate – he began to draw from his childhood spent in the Actinolite region, nearly three hours North-East of Toronto.
“We found our focus, which is to cook Canadian food. Canada is about seasons and you cook differently in each season,” Cournoyer says. “I started to have a connection with Actinolite, where I came from. There’s all kinds of this edible forest that I know. I walked over it, but I had no idea it was edible!”
And just like that, Cournoyer scrapped the a la carte, opting for a set menu which would allow him to channel and concentrate his passion for local, sustainable, Canadian-inspired food.
“I spontaneously changed us to a set menu. We lost ALL our business. We retained about five per cent of people that used to come here,” Cournoyer explains. “It was challenging. People were walking in, seeing the menu and walking out. But the people who were staying were saying, ‘This is amazing.’”
I had the good fortune of being one of the people who stayed. It wasn’t just the cooking – which, let me reiterate once more, was mind-blowingly interesting – but also how the food was sourced.
According to Cournoyer, Actinolite’s food is almost all local, sustainable, and/or hand-gathered. And the way the producers of the food are treated is an inspiration.
“It’s more about the culture of food – a sustainable food system. We have so many connection to our farmers,” Cournoyer explains. “I’ve visited so many farms, and seen their struggles. I’ll never bargain with a farmer again – if they’re asking for $10 you should be giving them $20.”
Food and Wine in Harmony at Actinolite
The food and atmosphere are enough to bring you out to the west side for dinner, but it’s the wine pairings that will keep you coming back.
For each of the seven courses – including dessert – General Manager and sommelier Merrin McHugh skillfully and meticulously picks a wine to accompany and elevate the food.
And, rather than deferring to grape varietals and labels you’d find at your local liquor store, McHugh prefers to source interesting grapes from interesting vineyards.
“I don’t have a policy of finding weird wines, but for me the wine is often about the story as well,” she explains. “And so that can be an interesting part of the story.”
McHugh told me that she has a predilection for “funky,” expressive wines, many of which her average clientele are unfamiliar with. However, she has no intention of alienating wine purists.
“I’m into the weird stuff, but I always have some classic options on the list,” McHugh explains. “Some people just like what they like.”
“Everyone should have an amazing experience here, and that amazing experience is drinking something they’ll like.”
According to McHugh, she’s constantly talking and working with vineyards and vintners to find new, interesting wines that will complement the adventurous food of Actinolite.
This often means that the wine pairings can be as variable as the food, ensuring a fresh experience each time you dine.
“The dish doesn’t have to stay with the same pairing the whole time,” McHugh says. “But that’s ok, that means you may even come in and have the same dish, but you’ll have the chance to try a different pairing.”
The point is this – if you love food and wine, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better restaurant than Actinolite. With its innovative focus on real, seasonally-inspired Canadian cooking and masterful, interesting wine pairings, Actinolite is a breath of fresh air for west-end foodies.