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ACTINOLITE - An Updated Review with Photos

A quick Google search will reveal that it was over a year since a detailed review of Actinolite's food last appeared on the CH board. With its name being frequently mentioned as nominee in the 'Best 10 restaurants list', currently being compiled by Bytepusher, I reckon it is about time for me to pay them a re-visit and test out their latest food offering.

With ex-chowhounder 'skylineR33' and his wife as companion, we braved the frigid cold and make our journey from way up north to this cozy and romantic establishment, located in a remote part of Ossington.

We decided on the 7 course, $75 tasting menu and was pleasantly surprised to be informed that we will be getting an extra 2 dishes, complimentary of the kitchen. Apparently, they are in the process of introducing 3 new dishes to an upcoming re-vamped menu and would like patrons to test them out and provide the kitchen with some honest feedback.

Our Chef's menu, with personal course by course commentary from Chef Justin himself, included the following:

RUTABAGA - Silken housemade cheese Curd, Pork Rind, Herbs

VENISON - Tartar with Lichen, Berries and Nasturtium

POTATO - Fried crunchy/crispy skin cocoon, Whitefish mousse, Parsley sauce

CALIFLOWER - Medley of preparation

CELERIAC - Leek, Sunchoke, Kale

ONION - Endive, Elderflower

GRAINS AND ROOTS - Chewy, Creamy, Crunchy

BEEF - Braised Shortribs, Potato Sorbet, Dulse

CEP - White chocolate, Malt, Pear

MOSS

First off, except for a few Kaiseki dinner I had in Japan, this tasting menu must be one of the 'healthiest' I have ever eaten! With an over abundance of fibers and vegetables, this minimalistic, 'NOMA-esque', and Canadiana menu, using local and home grown rare ingredients aplenty, was an eye-opener. The 'Zen Influence' plating was simple yet artfully presented with lots of monochromatic overtones, be it white on white or beige on beige!

Initially, we all found the food tasty and interesting featuring a lot of unfamiliar aroma and flavor embedded into the creation. There were also a lot of interesting textural interplays amongst the ingredients. However, as the dinner progresses, we started to notice quite a few repetition in taste and ingredients used. Most dominant being the application of 'pickled' roots vegetable in a few of the remaining dishes. These tangy and crunchy preparation approach to key ingredients rendered the Rutabaga, Celeriac and Onion dishes almost all identical and boring!

Overall the meal was enjoyable but under-whelming with occasional 'bland' in taste and 'sterile' in look dishes. Apart from the unique Venison dish ( which was eaten by hand using the edible Nasturtium as wrap ), the pretty and tasty Kale and Sunchoke dish and the artistic dessert, there was really not a single stand-out dish worthy of more detailed description.
IMO, if one or two of the 'healthy vegetable' courses are to be replaced by ingredients of 'substance', be it seafood or meat protein, the meal would be much more enjoyable!

Lastly, the quite 'dark' ambiance, using candle light as the main light source, renders it very hard for one to see and figure out the constituent of the food. It was not until I saw the photos on the computer screen did I realize what some of the ingredients really look like!!

My tasting menu experience at both the 'Grove' and 'Bero' were more enjoyable and better value for money.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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  1. Thanks for the review Charles, based on the pictures, it does seem like it lacked some substance. This would be perfect for my wife as she would really enjoy the healthier aspect and the abundance of vegetables. Me on the other hand would feel like it needed a little more fatty goodness.

    1 Reply
    1. re: ragged25

      'Fatty goodness'!! Yup!! That's exactly right!! Great choice of words! Even that piece of tender Beef short-ribs lacked some fatty tissues!

    2. I don't mind the grain & vegetable focus, though I agree that they could use more aggressive seasoning & flavors.

      I thought the white chocolate & mushroom dessert was pretty spectacular. That was definitely my favorite dish.

        1. re: MissBingBing

          Yes! Constituent = Components or elements. No?!

        2. While vegetables are underrated, something about these dishes strikes me as... austere.

          1. Actinolite is obviously a restaurant I have enjoyed. I haven't been since May and it does seem like the plating, at least, has become Noma-esque. My confusion with your review is how it contradicts itself. In one paragraph you state "Initially, we all found the food tasty and interesting featuring a lot of unfamiliar aroma and flavor embedded into the creation. There were also a lot of interesting textural interplays amongst the ingredients" or "The 'Zen Influence' plating was simple yet artfully presented with lots of monochromatic overtones, be it white on white or beige on beige!". Those seem like positive observations but then you conclude "Overall the meal was enjoyable but under-whelming with occasional 'bland' in taste and 'sterile' in look dishes." Tasty and interesting, with a lot of aroma and flavour, and textural interplay sounds like the opposite of 'bland'. Maybe I need the words 'bland' and 'sterile' explained to me.
            What I'm actually more interested in is the potato and whitefish mousse dish. It almost looks like a riff on fried ice-cream. The idea, at least looks interesting, all the elements of the dish are captured in three ingredients; starch, protein, herbs as sauce, textural contrasts and unique presentation. How was the execution?

            Also what was the potato sorbet like?

            3 Replies
            1. re: dubchild

              As the meal progresses, it slowly transformed from 'interesting' - both in flavor, visual appeal and texture to becoming repetitive and boring. So, Yes, there were both pluses and minuses to the equation.

              By bland, I mean the seasoning was not bold or aggressive enough. I do realize the chef is trying to keep things simple and try to highlight the inherent natural taste of the ingredients. However, to have onions paired with endive or Cauliflower just on its own is just too plain IMO.

              As for using the word 'sterile' in describing some of the 'latter' plate presentation. Take a look at the onion and grain dish and I guess you know what I mean?! Beige on Beige on a white plate!! Even the dessert was like that!

              Interesting you asked me about the potato dome dish, 'cos that's also what Chef Justin solicited our feed back on.. Both skylineR33 and I agreed the potato dome was way too hard and tough to crack. Not light and crispy enough to be enjoyable. However, the whitefish mousse inside was silky smooth but, unlike the gorgeous flavour of a fish croquette from say New York's Casa Mono, this fish mousse filling was kind of 'bland'!! Coupled with the under-seasoned parsley sauce, I'm sorry I have to use the word 'bland' again!! Ha!

              The Potato Sorbet was one of the more interesting offering and highlight of the evening. Made with potato and some liquid broth, it was actually ice cold and sweet!. Goes pretty well with the beef!

              1. re: Charles Yu

                Thanks for the clarification and the reply on the specific questions.

              2. I'm a great fan of Actinolite (stating my bias up front).
                For me it is one of the most 'interesting' restaurants in Toronto (I chose that word deliberately). It focusses on seasonal and local ingredients - more so than any other place in Toronto that springs to mind quickly.

                That said, what local ingredients are easily available right now in the climate we have here? That's the issue - and it makes perfect sense to me that these will be mainly root vegetables - which, in multiple courses, will tend to contribute to a sameness. That's not an excuse for a boring meal/presentation but a reality of our climate.

                RELEVANT ASIDE: Noma - considered by many as one of the top restaurants in the world has a similar reality - going in January (as I did) one experiences a procession of root vegetables and mosses. Reviews from Spring/Fall show an entirely different experience.

                When asked for recommendations for 'the best restaurant in Toronto' I usually include Actinolite. But my advice has been to go for the tasting menu in the Spring/Fall - when the best produce is available. For winter/summer I recommend the shorter tasting menu, as then there is less repetition.

                But still, for me, one of the finest dining experiences in Toronto - TOTALLY doing its own 'thing' and (for me) has more potential than any other place that has opened in the past few years (not financially, but as a 'destination' - think the early Michael Stadtlander).
                I'm guilty of not publishing detailed reviews - but as the dishes can change within the same week (that's one reason he switched to tasting menus) it's not much help to potential diners.
                It's on my regular rotation. Some meals better than others, but never a disappointment (and always parking available!).

                1 Reply
                1. re: estufarian

                  @ Estufarian:
                  I totally agree with your explanation and rationale. However, IMO, as a chef, one has to be 'flexible'. In order to make the dining experience of the patrons a more enjoyable one, he should be less 'stubborn?' and try adopting a few more 'non-local' ingredients into his ' winter' creation to reduce the degree of 'sameness'!

                  Treadwell also try using the same 'local farm approach'. However, in the Winter season, they do venture out west and incorporate some non local but 'Canadiana' products into their menu.

                2. Finally had a chance to get to Actinolite last evening. There was no repetition in any of our dishes. I found some of the dishes to be incredibly creative and executed perfectly. Other dishes were a bit odd - an Onion dish was a plate of onions, the grains 'main' was overwhelmed with the hay butter and was far too rich. However, it must be challenging in these winter months given their dedication to using food that's in season - but overall, a very, very good meal, and I'm looking forward to returning in the Spring when more ingredients are readily available.

                  The Beef/Potato dish (I don't want to give away too much) was mind blowing. Do not miss this if you do go.

                  1. Any recent updates? I will be there shortly.

                    12 Replies
                    1. re: Apprentice

                      With Summer coming and plenty of fresh produce available, I will be there too shortly!

                      1. re: Apprentice

                        Going next week. I promise to report back.

                          1. re: dubchild

                            I'm going the first weekend of June. Can't wait!

                              1. re: caviartothegeneral

                                Good thing that my reso for June 7 is already booked!

                                1. re: JennaBean

                                  Did the shorter 4 course menu and I'm tempted to go back and do the longer menu. I once referred to Actinolite's food as restrained, I would now call it austere. The ingredients on the plate seemed thought out as the season in the best possible light. There were many, what I would call, green flavours; asparagus, watercress, spruce tip etc… Where other chefs would include something more comforting and sensual like a starch or including more variety of flavours, This chef's food comes across as conceptual with adherence to presenting what's coming out of the ground right now. If the choices on the plate were questioned the answer would likely be that these ingredients are available now and this is how they work best.

                                  Comparison's have been made to Noma and Stadtlander who all share a focus on seasonal, local, and foraged food. I can't speak to Noma's food, but Stadtlander's food seems to focus on what eats best, such as removing the root on a beet because it isn't the best part. Here the root shows its origin. Stadtlander's food, to me, is more sensual but still follows a philosophy.

                                  Even though the food seemed conceptual it never felt cold. In fact I felt all this care was done for my benefit. A unique experience.

                                  1. re: dubchild

                                    I would like to restate part of my post because it wasn't clear. if a diner is looking for the sensual pleasure derived from eating some like a burger, then Actinolite will dissapoint. If a diner is looking for a conceptual pleasure of eating a dish which reimagines how we should view the season, then Actinolite delivers.

                                    1. re: dubchild

                                      Thank you for the review. It does a good job of setting my expectations.

                                    2. re: dubchild

                                      I think we will do the bigger of the two menus as it is celebration dinner and on a Sat night which is a rare treat. I am really looking forward to it!

                                    3. re: JennaBean

                                      So we went on the 7 and again last week and I haven't written because I'm still not sure how I feel about it. I wanted to love love love it but I feel like it is missing something for me and I can't put my finger on it. Obviously we enjoyed it enough to go back in the same month but something is keeping me from raving about either meal.

                              2. re: Apprentice

                                I was there last Friday and had the seven course. Entirely agree with Dubster's use of the word "austere" as it is exactly the word I thought of, in a positive way.

                                They are a bit unapologetic in the way they go about things, which could definitely rub some people the wrong way. My wine tastings, for instance, were all white, even with the sweetbreads, except for the vintage port with dessert (despite being a tasty port, it was the one pairing that I thought was off). Someone catering to the individual's taste would probably have said, before they agreed to the $65 pairing, "Hey, btw, it's all white". Not these guys.

                                But the refinement of the dishes was excellent, some great flavours (the nettle puree with the asparagus was a real eye opener), the greens were cooked (or not cooked) and seasoned/oiled perfectly, and the whole thing was just so interesting. Also, walked out of there after 7 courses feeling great, as opposed to my meal at Shoto where I left feeling like I had to drink 8 glasses of water to counter the salt.

                                I'll be honest, for the last savoury course (though you could almost count dessert as a savoury course) I could have gone for a decent sized hunk of rare meat with a full-bodied red just to get that comforting finish (especially after the profound bitterness and sourness of the greens served with the pike) rather than a plate of (delicious) greens and a few small (perfectly cooked) sweetbreads. But that would have been wrong and thrown off the whole balance. It's a place where you should really go in knowing not to expect a conventional tasting menu.

                              3. Went back to do the seven course menu. Obviously more courses than the shorter menu, but I don't feel like the experience itself was much different. There was one dish worth talking about because I felt it summed up Actinolite, it was the calamari. It was calamari thinly sliced and presented like noodles. Even though there were a few other elements, they didn't interfere with the subtle flavour of the calamari and the natural chewiness of the ingredient was evident without being tough. But this dish begs the question if what you expect from calamari is something which has been marinated or cooked in a way to eliminate any chewiness and is covered in a sauce so the dish only tastes of that sauce, then do you actually like calamari? This dish was calamari, most other calamari dishes I've had could have been pork spleen with sauce instead.
                                The other reason I wanted to post was because a couple of hounds were suppose to go recently and I was interested in hearing some other perspectives.

                                5 Replies
                                1. re: dubchild

                                  "if what you expect from calamari is something which has been marinated or cooked in a way to eliminate any chewiness and is covered in a sauce so the dish only tastes of that sauce, then do you actually like calamari? This dish was calamari, most other calamari dishes I've had could have been pork spleen with sauce instead. "

                                  That's kind of an excellent point and very much worth highlighting.

                                  1. re: BigBabyYeezuS

                                    I think making people rethink ingredients is one of the strengths with Actinolite's new menu. I just hope not catering to the masses won't be their downfall.

                                  2. re: dubchild

                                    We had the 7-course menu this Tuesday. It was our first time at the restaurant and we were very pleased. We liked the fact that there were so many vegetables and lighter dishes - some tasting menus can rich us out. We left satisfied but not overfull. We also liked all the foraged ingredients and the balance in the dishes (e.g., rich was offset by acid or bitterness). They also allowed us to split a half pairing of wine (we cannot drink much), so we tasted 7 wines but only ended up drinking less than a full glass each.

                                    We started off with a refreshing cocktail of elderflower liqueur, sparkling wine, and grapefruit juice. They then brought out some great house-made bread, chewy and just a hint of sour. We could easily have eaten a loaf.

                                    The first dish featured young radishes and carrots, served with soiled infused butter and a "soil" made of grass and breadcrumbs. (This dish reminded us of a dish at NOMA in which baby carrots and radishes with tops were served in a flowerpot with an herb emulsion and "soil" made of malt and nuts. We asked and it turns out the dish was developed by a person who had done a stint at NOMA.) It was light and lots of fun. It was spring on a plate.

                                    Next were asparagus served with nettle puree, soured cream, spruce tips, and topped with vetch and coltsfoot flowers. Also very spring, but distinct from the previous dish.

                                    The next dish was the squid mentioned above. I thought it was only OK - I liked the wild ginger gel better. Klafouti found the dish too acidic to be enjoyable.

                                    Next was probably our favourite dish, featuring a slow-poached egg (always a weakness for us) on a bed of spinach, with summer truffles. The salting on the dish was perfect - enough for a definite presence and yet not a speck too much.

                                    The fifth course was a piece of halibut that was roasted so it was browned and crisp on the outside while still not overly cooked inside. It was simply combined with tart wild watercress and some herbs including mint. It was an excellent runner up to the egg dish.

                                    The last savoury course was sweetbreads that were well trimmed and just done. Their richness was offset by tart white currants, bitter mustard greens, and a charred ramp. We couldn't quite detect the juniper emulsion, but it was otherwise very good.

                                    Dessert featured fresh Ontario strawberries, some lovely sour curd, and delicious hay ice cream (although we couldn't have told you it was hay if we didn't know beforehand). It was great to have a dessert that was light and not particularly sweet.

                                    We'll definitely go back.

                                    1. re: dubchild

                                      I was also there within the past week and find Actinolite the most exciting 'new' restaurant in Ontario (although I've been a fan since the early days - at least 5 visits so far).
                                      The menu was virtually identical, although I've had variations on the calamari dish and the egg dish before at other places (not in Toronto). Both versions here were excellent, although I agree that the texture of the squid may not appeal to everybody.

                                      I found the first veggie dish to be very different from Noma (where I found it a bit gimmicky) - it actually worked better at Actinolite (for me).

                                      Our halibut, although good, was a bit dried out - we found it the weakest dish of the night. To offset that, the dish with turnips (not sure which one that was) had the turnips both crisp and pickled - a great contrast for an underappreciated vegetable.

                                      And the wine pairings were the best I've had there. Somebody has been working hard at upgrading what was originally a relatively uninspiring selection.

                                      But, as mentioned and probably should be emphasized - if you're a meat lover this may not be the restaurant for you. While NOT vegetarian (calamari, halibut and sweetbreads were all served) the respect for local veggies is clearly evident. And that's what this kitchen excels at.

                                      1. re: estufarian

                                        I can see that the halibut could easily get dried out with the roasting process.

                                        We had no turnips so that must have been a variation in the menu. Sounds like it would have been good.

                                        Agree about the wine pairings. Some non-obvious choices and thoughtful discussions about the choices.