Restaurant Editor Bill Addison is traveling to chronicle what's happening in North America's dining scene and to formulate his list of the essential 38 restaurants in North America. Follow his progress in this travelogue/review series, The Road to the 38, and check back at the end of the year to find out which restaurants made the cut.
In North America, it's not surprising that New Nordic cuisine has found its most faithful adherents in the cities with the coldest climates. The school of cooking forged by Noma's René Redzepi helps chefs view their local, often bleak terroir with new insight and enthusiasm. But as much as Copenhagen's best New Nordic restaurants have elevated lichen and whey and preserved fish, their kitchens also imbue menus with welcome richness. Cooks use brown butter and smoke their root vegetables. They zap meats with sharp berry sauces for acidic contrast.
All of which is to say that I found Actinolite, one of Toronto's most recently acclaimed restaurants, a work in progress whose food was overly ascetic. Chef-owner Justin Cournoyer opened the 30-seat restaurant in 2012 with his wife, Claudia Bianchi. The convivial, modern space includes a rear bar with sky-blue walls and the kind of light fixtures that, if you squint enough, bring to mind Champagne bubbles. When it launched, the menu leaned to the flavors of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Feeling like his cooking was mimicking passé trends, Cournoyer began looking at what was happening in Denmark and thinking about his Eastern Ontario childhood. Last September, Cournoyer audaciously scrapped the Mediterranean flavors altogether and began offering tasting menus built on New Nordic sensibilities.