The Ossington stretch between Queen and College has become so saturated with must-be-scene-at eateries its no wonder that "restaurant row" has had to extend its reach north to Dupont. And that's precisely where Actinolite smartly finds itself nestled, away from the much buzzed about competition - at least for now.
In addition to being some kind of silicate mineral (who knew?), Actinolite also happens to be the name of chef/co-owner Justin Cournoyer's hometown. The culinary producer for Food Ne
twork Canada, who also did some time at Susur, takes his homage to this small community, just north of Tweed, Ontario, to heart. To that end, the dÃ©cor is pretty much left up to a survey map of the town, old signage, a safe for a hostess station, and a bar faced with drawers from old wooden filing cabinets. Along with his wife/co-owner Claudia Bianchi, a food stylist, they have indeed created a cosy nook that one might expect to find off a country side road and not a main thoroughfare smack dab in the centre of North America's fifth largest city. What's even more astonishing is that charm like this takes time: would you believe 6 years of renovations? I don't - but it is clearly a labour of love and not just a business venture.
With only 30 seats, serving five appetizers, five mains, three sides and two desserts, how refreshing would it be to see detailed precision and focus on everything coming out of the kitchen. So with a menu this simple and straightforward, it's disappointing not to see a more inventive carte: a roast chicken in red wine ($22) or a pan-seared fish ($24) dish can easily be turned out at home. Okay, I can accept the lack of whizz-bang creativity, but then is it too much to expect perfect execution?
The meal starts out promising with a divine house made Portuguese corn bread-like loaf, its soft moist centre provides the perfect sponge to sop up a dish of nicely grassy, cleverly pre-salted olive oil. One order just won't do. A creamy salt cod brandade ($14) topped with nicely sautÃ©ed shrimp, accented with basil, black olives and red pepper sauce, might be well-executed by Rachel Ray recipe standards, but it's also a bit of a bore. What is a pleasant surprise is an apple cider glazed pork shoulder ($12) as an appetizer. This has to be the largest hunk o' meat that has ever elbowed its way onto a starter plate. With only a smattering of baby greens, some pickled beets, hazelnuts and a hallelujah heavenly mustard apple cream dressing, had this been served as a main, and it should be, all you would have to do is plop it on a larger plate. As it stands, throwing a slab of pig this big on a teeny plate with a piddly garnish looks disproportionate and unfinished.
Deciding on a tagliatelle ($18) as an intermezzo seemed like a good idea at the time. The al dente pasta has that toothsome quality that is vital to any successful pasta plate, and a walnut watercress pesto is the first instance we see any inventive take on a classic. But the overpowering bitterness of the green might make it barely edible for some. Had the porcini mushrooms been blended better into the sauce instead of being diced to death, the flavour imbalance could have been restored. An added drizzle of olive oil comes to the rescue but it still lacks much depth, despite the generous smattering of pecorino cheese. Even a neighbouring table sends it back. Perhaps only a kink to be ironed out; on the night we dine they've only been open a week, so the impulse is to be generous.
Up 'til now, dishes come out so fast, you'd think they were prepared well in advance. But the wait goes from one extreme to the other with the mains where we wait close to 45 minutes. Thankfully, a grilled veal t-bone ($26) is well worth the time lapse. A Flintstones-sized hunk of meat is beautifully charbroiled, but its underlying creamed spinach and a parmesan sauce is too wet and sloppy. Finished with a panko-crusted onion and asparagus, it looks more like a diner dish from the '50s that's been slapped together at the last minute; a real shame for such a nice cut of meat. Even two teensy, two-bite grilled Ontario lamb chops ($28) take a back seat to a lovely soft polenta topped with a stunning lamb soffrito with eggplant, pine nuts and a nice jus.
Desserts, although homemade, sit on opposite sides of the sweets spectrum. An olive oil cake ($9) is sheer brilliance, served a la mode with a homemade strawberry sauce whose flavour is way overshadowed by a roasted rhubarb compote and lavender-seed syrup. A grapefruit pavlova ($9) also has some redeeming qualities, like a perfectly chewy meringue oddly topped with whipped cream and even more strangely a bitter grapefruit cream that unfortunately resembles Pepto Bismol. Plus the discovery of two lonely pink peppercorns make this a most perplexing meal finisher.
Neighbourhood restaurants do well because area residents really do need a gathering place they can almost call home. So Actinolite gets away with its simple food and selection. Hopefully they won't have to spend as much time on fixing the food, menu and execution as they did on the reno!