Borealia a delicious lesson in Canadian history
New Ossington Ave. restaurant showcases “constantly evolving” national cuisine, from pine-smoked mussels to chop suey croquettes.
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Note - June 1, 2015: The restaurant Borealia was renamed as Boralia in April 2015.
Address: 59 Ossington Ave. (at Queen St. W.), 647-351-5100
Chef: Wayne Morris
Hours: Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 5 to 10 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5 to 11 p.m.
Wheelchair access: No
Price: Dinner for two with wine, tax and tip: $90
Think Canadian cuisine is all maple syrup and poutine?
Think again. Thanks to the new Borealia on Ossington Ave., my edible Canada now includes Chinese-style deviled eggs, Acadian beignets and a seemingly simple but utterly captivating 17th-century dish involving mussels, butter and pine needles.
Borealia is delicious in both concept and execution. Husband-and-wife owners Wayne Morris and Evelyn Wu Morris opened their first Toronto restaurant last November after moving from B.C. They pored over more than 30 antique cookbooks from First Nations and immigrant sources to pay homage to the complexity of our nation’s cooking.
“We’re trying to showcase the contribution of everyone who’s built this country. Canadian cuisine is constantly evolving,” says Wu Morris, born in Toronto 34 years ago to Hong Kong parents.
Of course they adapted the recipes, many with vague instructions, to a modern professional kitchen. Both partners are chefs: she worked at Heston Blumenthal’s The Fat Duck in Britain, he at Waterfront Wines in Kelowna, B.C. Now she manages the restaurant and he runs the kitchen.
Borealia is an exciting restaurant. For starters, the room smells of caramelized sugar and wood smoke, a beguiling combination.
You enter what was a Peruvian tapas bar through stiff curtains that block cold air. On the other side a staff member awaits to take your coat. If you’ve been there before, they remember and welcome you back.
It’s not a big restaurant, 45 seats, with a cozy window nook draped in faux furs. The design by Qanuk Interiors steers clear of kitsch, the lights clad in rumpled copper and the walls hung with Watson Soule tapestries. It’s an understated backdrop for the mix of diners in lumberjack shirts and little black dresses. (The man in a tiara for his birthday dinner? Not so understated.)
With a name derived from the Latin for “northern” — it was a candidate for our new country’s name in 1867 — Borealia focuses on native foodstuffs in weird and wonderful ways. Morris, raised in Nova Scotia with a Métis background, sources uncommon ingredients from Quebec purveyors Société-Originale.
Take whelks. Remember those tiny ones in Europe? These are not those whelks. A massive shell comes to the table cradling skewers of purplish North Atlantic sea snails grilled until bouncy. Inside is a frothy beurre blanc made with kelp, rice vinegar and white wine. You may tip up the shell and drink; certainly, the sauce merits more stomach space than the boring burdock salad on the side.
It’s the rare slip. Order instead the trio of chop suey croquettes ($6), a cheeky take on a 19th-century Chinese immigrant dish. Here, they are reimagined as deep-fried balls of sticky rice mixed with ground beef, Chinese sausage and duck gizzard. Sweet soy sauce is injected into the centre. Make that two orders.
Similarly, double up on the gorgeous sourdough ($3) made from a four-year-old starter. With it comes tangy butter dusted with caramelized onion powder. Think French onion soup, minus the broth and cheese.
There are winning updates of pemmican — bison bresaola under shaved lard and tart marinated blueberries ($15) — and kedgeree ($14), that Anglo-Indian mixture here separated into distinct elements: smoked whitefish, curried mayonnaise and dehydrated rice crackers.
Underneath trout ($17) so pink it could be tataki is a purée I’m told the Iroquois loved: Popcorn steeped in milk. It’s not a subtle dish but it’s new (to me). The bigger surprise is learning the seemingly Italian scallop crudo ($16) is supposedly a First Nations dish.
Don’t be squeamish about the pigeon pie ($20), its melt-in-the-mouth crust filled with dark squab meat, parsnips and fresh thyme. On the side are slices of perfectly seared squab breast, the meat slightly gamier than duck, and tiny roasted parsnips in butter. Superfluous but perfect.
The parade of dishes is well paced and prettily plated on vintage china from the Aberfoyle Antique Market. A Royal Stafford cup holds beignets ($9) filled with spiced bittersweet chocolate, a mash-up of Mexican hot chocolate and funnel cake.
The dish that embodies Borealia’s unique credo and palate is the one that explorer Samuel de Champlain cooked for his homesick crew in 1605: mussels smoked under pine needles. After months of trial and error, the Morrises figured out how to recreate it indoors using a smoking gun and ash-infused butter. They send it to the table under a cloche; when the server lifts the glass dome, pine-scented smoke rises upwards.
“That’s the beauty of this concept. ‘Canadian’ can encompass anything,” says Wu Morris.
Take that, back bacon.
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