Can a restaurant be too sophisticated for the typical, hyper-critical Torontonian palate? This might be the biggest problem with Ursa. I can't remember the last time I saw tofu ($12) plated so artfully, its distinct flavour profile actually paid serious attention to. No...really. But even with a magical blending of silken and firm house-made tofu in a mild house soy alongside yubu skin, sprouted soy bean, radish top and leaf, ginger and yuzu, its quietude on the tongue might have even the most
joyless of vegans screaming for salt or more soy.
It's hard to fault the subtlety of such a handcrafted dish; this monastic dedication to the purest of food forms is certainly to be commended. Trust me when I say, Ursa takes every ingredient in its culinary arsenal very seriously indeed. Even bread (Thuet's toasted sourdough) and house-made three-seed flatbread is treated with kid gloves, wrapped in a linen napkin and served with house-cultured butter and a carefully calibrated sprinkling of sea salt.
Sorry to be a killjoy, but I have to ask: can the costs associated with this kind of attention to detail be maintained over the long haul? A five-star hotel could barely manage. Ursa's small open white-tiled kitchen houses a brigade of confident chefs, we count about seven, but that doesn't include the front of house staff that adds an additional seven. Person power like this for a mere 40-seater? Something's gotta give.
Portions are on the puny side but the reasonable prices reflect that. And if you factor in the extreme efforts it takes to get one plate to the table, you are getting off way cheaper than advertised. Take a salad for example: on the menu, winter roots ($13) are described as "raw, dried and preserved." But that description barely does it any justice; its composition includes large shavings of heirloom beet, three types of radish (red, watermelon and black), yellow carrot, shaved celery and fennel, all tossed in a vinaigrette that includes pickled walnuts, crÃƒÂ¨me fraiche, kefir, burdock and bee sugar. This is not just a plate of pretty and precious foraged veggies, it's a veritable manifesto of this kitchen's food philosophy.
Even a white-tail deer ($14) tartare is an exercise in patience. In addition to raw, diced-up Bambi, a clever pairing of woodsy Icelandic moss, preserved plum and house-cured foie gras (not even mentioned on the menu), makes this one a steal of a very extravagant dish. Again you might be tempted to reach for the salt shaker ? there is none ? but this is one dish worth training your plebian taste buds for.
That Ursa can dish out excellence beyond compare is underscored by the fact that they'd rather remove a mushroom broth from the menu because their special "mushroom man has not arrived." Have they not heard of Whole Foods? Like anyone would know the difference. Yet astonishingly, after setting the bar so ridiculously high, convincing me that this might very well be the brave New World of culinary genius, the mains are anything but exceptional. Y'know, the reason most of us go to a restaurant.
A whey-brined Niagara pork loin ($24) with apple cider glazed belly, lentils, kale, sunchoke and bullberry mustard, is just plain tough even if nicely crispy. And the only thing remotely interesting about the Rhode Island White chicken ($23) is its name. Served with a gooey, pablum-like amaranth & quinoa polenta, smoked mushrooms, chard and preserved lemon, it is just par for the course and totally out of character. While these dishes are certainly serviceable, there is just too much disconnect between stellar openers and predictable mains that earn few points for originality.
Thankfully the dots get reconnected with a yuzu lemon curd dessert ($13). As if the perfect pucker wasn't enough, tag on ingredients like a schmeer of slightly toasted meringue, an exquisite duck fat sable (cookie) that's so exquisite it should be preserved under glass, white spruce caramel and preserved blueberry all garnished with grated yuzu, mint and kinome leaves, and this is a dessert that would make even the Food Network's snooty "Sweet Genius" weep.
Executive chef and co-owner Jacob Sharkey Pearce was only 18 when he became a pizzaiolo at the original Terroni before moving on to finer dining establishments like Centro. Not exactly the pedigree I would have expected, turning out such inventive starters. But then again, since mains were so typical and lackluster, maybe it does make sense. Or is this just a case of too many cooks (that also include John Lucas, Jay Moore and Rob Hojilla) spoiling the broth. With so many chefs at work in Ursa's kitchen, I'm not sure who to praise or who to point the finger at.