I want to get myself a top hat and cane and stand outside the newly-opened Ursa (924 Queen Street West) and yell at passersby to lure them in, much like a sideshow hawker, except that Ursa is neither a circus or a freak show. You will, however, not believe your eyes, as plate after plate is placed before you and you are astounded that food can be not only beautiful and delicious but also healthy.
Taking over the old Bar One space, complete with a full gut job down to brick walls and the uber-trendy Edison-style bulbs (LED though, because it’s more environmentally-friendly) brothers Jacob and Lucas Sharkey Pearce have translated their work as Two Brothers Foods Inc. (where they created nutritionally-dense bespoke menus for high-end clients including professional athletes) to some combination of art, nutrition and fabulous flavour.
Our dinner starts with a basket of bread, a combo of Thuet‘s sour dough (Chef Jacob is a Thuet alumni and has also done stints at Centro and the Windsor Arms Hotel) and flatbread crackers with sunflower seeds, made in-house. Plus a schmear of house-made butter that is so big and so good that, when we don’t finish it all, I scheme for ways to take it home without seeming desperate. “Could the kitchen spare a small piece of foil, perhaps?”
Starters arrive looking nothing like we imagine them from reading the menu, with many more elements, blasts of flavour and fun techniques than we expected. A trio of Georgian Bay whitefish (Ursa is dedicated to serving local products where ever possible) comes smoked, pickled and cured with housemade cultured creme fraiche and whole grain rye. Topped with pickled onion rings, each style of fish is bright and flavourful and yet so different from the last. The creme fraiche is loaded with probiotics. We feel healthier already.
A dark green salad with roasted apple, pomegranate, hazelnut and pumpkin is indeed a huge pile of cruciferous leaves; kale, radicchio et al. The apple and pumpkin have been dehydrated and made into a “glass” – a particularly dry fruit leather that can be broken into pieces and eaten on its own or mixed with the greens and hazelnut paste. I want one of these for lunch every day.
The whey brined Niagara pork loin and apple cider glazed belly with lentils, kale, sunchoke and bullberry mustard is a fascinating combination of yes, healthy ingredients with, really, pork belly? Our server tells us that pork belly is one of the healthiest types of fat. And who can argue with that explanation? It’s sweet and tender. The loin too is a fantastic texture and combined with the lentils and kale, and pureed Jerusalem artichoke, it’s perfect winter food.
I’ve never seen a chicken dish like the one that is placed in front of me, and this Rhode Island white chicken with amaranth and quinoa polenta, smoked mushroom, chard and preserved lemon tells me a great deal about what Chef Jacob intends to do in terms of changing how Toronto eats and even thinks about food.
The smell of hen of the woods mushrooms smoking fills the restaurant every time this dish is ordered. The greens are compressed in a vacuum to create the texture of blanching without any loss of nutrients. Meat portions are generous, but not massive, and are combined with other ingredients for the greatest nutritional value possible (amaranth and quinoa, people!).
And most importantly, the dishes are heart-stoppingly beautiful, so the diner never feels like they’re being force-fed some diet food, and that presentation is backed up with flavour – many different intense tastes, all on one plate; the preserved lemon – it’s a pool of unsweetened custard (the consistency of lemon pie filling) atop the grains. It blows my mind.
It’s a quiet night when we visit (SuperBowl Sunday) and Chef Jacob stops by to offer us a taste of a dessert he’s planning to add to the menu (note – this happens before I introduce myself). The red fife and duck fat scone comes with more of that house-made creme fraiche, marinated raisins, berry compote, honey, candied kumquats and is garnished with leaves from the Sichuan pepper plant. I’m surely forgetting half of the flavour elements on the plate (there’s also ginger and a couple of other things). Every bite here is different, and with an additional scone would be perfect on a brunch menu to share as a starter.
The dessert we ordered was a raw chocolate mousse with pumpkin and hibiscus. The mousse (made creamy, we suspect, with avocado) sits underneath, sprinkled with sea salt. It’s topped with pumpkin seed brittle. Hibiscus sauce and pumpkin kefir cream surround a piece of sous vide pumpkin. It’s a disconcerting combination of flavours, but the various combinations are fun and bright.
Finally, when we think we’re done, there’s more. A beautiful selection of tiny raw root vegetable slices (radishes, candy cane beets, heirloom carrots) with some house-made cracker and a spice blend for dipping – to aid our digestion. Again, gorgeous, tasty and yes, after that pork belly and two desserts, it actually works and makes us feel good.
If it’s possible to be smitten with a restaurant, I think I might well be. The Two Brothers use their years of nutrition education and expertise to create a menu that fools us. How can these foods (pork belly, foie gras, duck fat) be good for us? We’ve been told for years to avoid it all. But Chef Jacob and his team know balance and restraint. A little bit of this, paired with some green or grain with a lot of bang for the nutritional buck, and then a presentation that takes the breath away… And if you think I’m just some silly food writer gushing over a hot new restaurant, how about the fact that established chefs in the city are penning love letters of their own?
I’m not kidding when I say “Ursa is major”. This restaurant is going to change how we eat out in Toronto.