59 Ossington Avenue
Smoke gets in your eyes. Just momentarily, but as we enter Boralia, a server walks past with a dish of mussels smoked in pine needles leaving a waft of wood smoke behind them. It’s a good smell – not just camp-fire-like, but green and woodsy. As other tables order the dish the smell lingers, like a less-cloying Canadiana-themed incense.
At a time when Toronto is so busy celebrating food from other countries and cultures, we often forget about the homegrown delicacies created around us. Canadian cuisine is hard to define, and as a young and growing country we tend to look forward, not back, but Evelyn Wu and Wayne Morris have built a whole restaurant around historic dishes. Morris comes to Toronto from Nova Scotia via the Okanagan, while Wu – who mostly runs front of house here – has worked in kitchens around the world from Coi in San Francisco to the infamous The Fat Duck. They met while working together in BC, later married, and moved to Toronto to open a restaurant after coming across a collection of historical recipes from Nova Scotia.
The room is elegant and modern, with subtle touches of Canadiana – menus are bound in leather, a sculpture of a wolf greets guests as they exit the washrooms – that never devolves into cutesy or twee.
Most items on the menu have a date associated with them, indicating the date of origin of the recipe. Morris and Wu have pored over historical cookbooks, but have also modernized things, so some dishes are a surprise when they appear at the table looking nothing like we expected.
Chop suey croquettes are savoury rice balls – crisp, just greasy enough, with no distinctly Asian flavour other than umami, but they’re perfect and we’d happily eat another plate or two with ease.
The roasted onions (top photo) still linger on the brain as my favourite dish of the evening, bits of rye cracker, roasted carrots, the onions soft and slippery, filled with a curried carrot cream.
Indian candy – sockeye salmon slow-cooked over alder with a brown-sugar glaze isn’t quite “candied” fish in the traditional sense, but we really loved this – the brown sugar glaze plays off the sweetness of the fish, and the intensity of the combination is impressive.
Kedgeree – Wu and Morris demonstrate their sense of humour with this dish, typically made from cooked rice mixed with flaked smoked fish, curry and mayo, they modernize it with rice crackers and whole pieces of lightly smoked whitefish.
The infamous pigeon pie – I wrote about this last winter for NOW but was horrifically sick at the time and didn’t actually get into the restaurant to try it, going only on the word of some trusted colleagues that it was fantastic. Finally having it in front of me, I was happy to agree, the amazingly flaky butter and lard pie crust hides squab leg meat, duck gizzard, parsnip, carrot, potato, celery and thyme.
The gorgeous rare elk meat deserves a better photo (sorry), but that shouldn’t stop anyone from ordering it. Served with radishes and a wild rice-crusted egg (with a lovely runny yolk), this is about as Canadian as it gets.
Service at Boralia was effusive and friendly but petered off as the place got busy. After bringing me samples of his house-made tonic when he learned that I’m a gin drinker, our server got caught up in the rush and our dessert was plopped unceremoniously at our table by a runner who said, “these are hot but you can eat them with your hands” instead of “may I bring you some forks?” Filled with blazing hot spiced chocolate ganache, I would most definitely advise NOT eating the Louisbourg Hot Chocolate Beignets without a fork – I burned my lip and the husband’s first bite sent a squirt of scalding hot chocolate onto his arm – and left a scar.
Despite sustaining injuries, I’d return to Boralia in a heartbeat. In what seems a constant downward spiral of burgers and mac and cheese, it’s a relief to find a Toronto restaurant that is not only turning out well-executed, thought-provoking cuisine, but one that is paying homage to our collective history and heritage.