Ursa Toronto Restaurant Review
Queen St W is no stranger to good eats, and this past January, the scene became even more noteworthy with the edition of Ursa, a Canadian restaurant with a focus on celebrating the natural goodness of ingredients. Now, I would be totally lying to myself (and everyone else) if I told you I didn't enjoy a nice fatty slab of pork belly, or beautiful platter of duck confit, all done in classic Canadian-comfort food style. But, as a dietitian, I whole heartedly appreciate this attempt to maintain food's nutritional integrity by using novel techniques such as vacuum compression (to maintain nutrient content of veg), giving wholesome ingredients like tofu, carob, and rye new reason to be called comfort foods, and shifting the focus on the plate from massive portions of meat, to more vegetables and whole grains.
The owners, Lucas and Jacob Sharkey-Pearce (the latter from Thuet, Centro and the Windsor Arms), should be proud of their recent accolades. They were recently named the #3 restaurant of 2012 in Canada by the enRoute magazine, and have accumulated quite the buzz. I obviously picked up on that buzz, and am happy to say I've now made it through all 6 of the Toronto restaurant on the list, all of which were good experiences, including my dinner at Ursa.
The room in Ursa is eclectic, and hip, but much too loud for me. Call me an oldie, but when a restaurant is only about 60-70% full, and I have to yell at my partner across the table and still not make out every word, there is an issue with acoustics. I don't know what can be done about that, but it was a bit uncomfortable. Also a little awkward was the no coat rack situation. I was a bit surprised that no one offered to take my jacket when we arrived, and by the time I got to my seat, I noticed that everyone was in the same boat. Big puffy jackets slung over everyone's chairs. Mine, of course, got stomped on a few times by the end of the night. Otherwise, I appreciated the spacing in Ursa, where there was enough room between tables to not overhear every detail of the neighbours conversation (it was too loud for that, anyways), while still feeling like you were part of a scene.
Service was friendly and informed, though maybe a bit distracted. Everyone was gracious enough to go into detail on the menu (and I did not encounter a single food runner who could not explain every ingredient and it's preparation), but there were a few times I had to ask for my water to be re-filled.
A minor issue, especially seeing how fast paced the meal proved to be. See, I had read online that the meals at Ursa tend to be of the lengthy, leisurely variety, which (if you read my blog you should know) we don't like so much. Not that I want to feel rushed, but I don't want to wait more than 25 minutes between courses, and my cocktails to take just as long. In preparation, I asked my server that we be finished in 2 hours (we had evening plans with a friend) and she did a great job making it happen. Actually, it might have been a bit TOO great, as we were in and out in 1 hour and 15 minutes. Now, I know, I'm sounding like, "this porridge is too cold, this porridge is too hot", so I will say that I would always prefer a speedier meal (as long as dishes are not being cleared before we finish!), than a painfully long one.
Cocktail list was extensive and creative. We went for a Hopewell (Bourbon, House Vanilla Brandy, Crab Apple Shrub) and the not-on-the-menu Giftbox (Gin, Egg White, Rosewater Syrup, Cucumber). The former was heavy hitting but gorgeously aromatic, while the latter (my servers great suggestion) was tart, but refreshingly smooth with just enough floral sweetness.
The menu was sophisticated, yet inviting. There was a generous spread of different protein and accompaniment offerings, without any duplications of flavours. I really appreciate how challenging this must be, particularly for a menu that changes often. I had read that the portions at Ursa were small for the price, and I can't say I disagree. However, keeping with Ursa's theme of celebrating the inherent healthful qualities of good quality ingredients, I felt it was appropriate. The two of us left satisfied, but certainly not "full" or uncomfortable, ideal for going out afterwards to continue a night of fun. This is what we had:
Raw Bread with House made Cultured Butter
This was a light and delicious starter, my only complaint was that it was maybe a bit too dainty (aka. I wanted more). We received a few lovely beet and sumac crackers, and a few fennel peanut ones, served with two selections of deliciously luscious butter (sea salt and roasted garlic). The star for me was the beet, which had a mild sweet and deep spice flavour, and paired beautifully with the sea salt butter.
House made Tofu- Radish Bonito, Nori, Seedlings, Dashi
I was skeptical of this at first, but it turned out to be the winner of the two first courses. The tofu was moist, creamy and sumptuous, which was a perfect accompaniment to the crispy fried radish cakes. What really tied everything together was the flawless dashi broth, which had a defined umami flavour, and a perfect level of salt.
Duck Egg- Sunchoke, Nigella, Bitter Greens, Sauce Gribiche
Unlike the tofu, which was perfectly seasoned, we both found this one a bit bland, surprising for all of the fatty elements on the plate. I also found everything to be luke warm, perhaps as a result of careful (and beautiful) plating and the dish sitting too long. The wait may also have something to do with the fact that my duck egg yolk was not nearly as runny as I had hoped, so my beautiful brioche toasts didn't have much purpose. Having said that, from a texture and flavour perspective (aside from the seasoning situation), this was very well balanced. The sunchoke hash, speckled with spicy bitter nigella seed, was a beautiful accompaniment, and the gribiche (a mayo-like sauce usually with pickles, tarragon and capers) brought a bit of relief from the bitter dandelion greens.
Wild Boar- Toasted Barley, Turnip, Kohlrabi, Quince Mostarda, Huckleberry
This was the star dish of the day. The boar was moist, flavourful, and perfectly seasoned, and it's richness was balanced out beautifully by the tangy sweet mostarda condiment. The barley was cooked perfectly, and had a deep nuttiness that was lovely with the mildly sulfurous flavour of the turnip and kohlrabi. What was truly impressive, however, was the huckleberry leather, which lent a satisfying chew that melted delicately on the tongue. Stunning composition.
Georgian Bay Whitefish- Sea Urchin, Black Truffle, Pickle Juniper Berry, Rapini
Another really solid dish. The whitefish was perfectly cooked, with a moist flesh and a wickedly crispy crust. The sea urchin sauce was rich, but refreshing, and the black truffle lent a delicate level of umami aromatics. While I loved the idea of a pickled juniper berry, biting into it really overwhelmed my palate so that it was all I could taste. This would probably work much better for a heartier red meat dish than a dainty whitefish.
Date & Carob Cake, Scotch, CO2 Apple, Quince, Clove
A very interesting dessert, with both sweet and savoury elements. The cakes were dense and hearty, and took on a smoky flavour from the scotch. The apple and quince had been compressed to a texture similar to a thick fruit leather, but without the sticky sweetness. I really liked the concept, and all of the elements, I just wish there was a bit more sweetness and something creamy to balance everything out.
Fresh Mozzarella Curd, Lemon Pudding, Lemon Confit, Gaspe Honey
Another beautiful presentation, and a delicious light end to a good meal. The curd had a satisfying chew, similar to cottage cheese curds, but with more fat. This was a perfect carrier for the tangy sweet lemon pudding and confit.
PS: Santa, if you're reading, I would like a set of these "shovel" like dessert spoons. They are perfect for those desserts that need to be cut, but also need a spoon for lifting into mouth. I promise you the best cookies this year.Thank you!
So for 2 cocktails, 3 starters (including the crackers/bread which is not complementary), 2 mains, 2 desserts and 1 cappuccino, the bill was $192 including tax and tip, definitely a pricey meal considering the quantity. However, I truly did appreciate the attention to detail and plating, and the use of beautiful wholesome ingredients, and for that reason, it was definitely a worthy meal. I am really looking forward to seeing how Ursa does with a summer palate of flavours, so I will try to get a return visit in then.