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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!