Chef & Me: Ortolan's fresh take on seasonal dishes
By Jennifer Lee
Libations at Ortolan (Image: Jennifer Lee)
For the first time in my life, the glory of summer afternoons will come packaged with a backyard garden unlittered with the corpses of flora and unrealized expectations. That’s thanks to Chef’s offer to overhaul my sad backyard “garden,” a proposition this black thumb couldn’t have been more happy to accept. That was how I felt two weeks ago.
Now I realize that by relinquishing my gardening rights, I essentially invited Chef to crush my dream of a storybook yard full of pastel roses, twinkle lights and patchwork pillows strewn about white wicker furniture — instead, I have a very unromantic garden plot consisting of 90 per cent vegetables and herbs. But why should I want for a silly orchid named Pink Champagne when I have Red Rubin basil? I can hardly wait to discover how it differs in taste and appearance from that found in Mrs. Dash seasoning.
In pre-production for a locally-minded pop-up restaurant scheduled to open later this month, Chef has all things produce-related on the brain these days, and I, in turn, can now recite the distinct qualities and recommend usages of Ontario’s bounty of spring garlic (a rarity for its short season; try pickling the leaves), ramps (tastes like a hybrid of leeks and garlic, which is apparently delicious when slightly burnt) and some sort of wild mushroom Chef forges from a nearby escarpment he keeps going on about (double the earthiness of a button mushroom, the tender texture of the flesh renders it best served raw or preserved in oil and vinegar).
To no great surprise here, the freshness of the ingredients at Ortolan — a recently opened restaurant in the Bloordale neighbourhood — was the centerpiece of my conversation with Chef while having a late dinner there for the first time last week.
Opened this spring by chef-owners Daniel Usher and Damon Clements (formerly of Pizzeria Libretto and Delux respectively), this petit restaurant (seating less than 30) boasts a consummate menu large with fresh and seasonal ingredients but unmuddled by fads and pretension.
Like its subtle décor (the blackboard menu is the sole wall art), the food here doesn’t fuss with dressings and is delicious for it. Echoing classic Italian and French cuisine, Ortolan offers delights ranging from a starter of fresh ricotta and asparagus served with crostini to a main of pan-seared mackerel.
The first of the two aforementioned dishes arrives on the table looking every bit the spring plate, and tastes as refreshing and light as the season itself, says the culinary pedestrian (me); Chef chooses “herbaceous” as his descriptive applaud. The ingredients are crisp, as crisp as the texture of the asparagus, which strays from the recent trend of undercooking asparagus, Chef points out, managing a blanch that cooks the vegetable till tender while preserving the integrity of its original bite. Best enjoyed (as we did) with the Bordeaux Blanc from France’s Château Haut Grelot.
We follow this first scrumptious crostini dish with yet another crostini appetizer, this time, an accompaniment to beef cheeks. I become a ravenous animal after my first bite of this refined meat-and-bread dish that has since replaced my unusual obsession with Sloppy Joes. I immediately regret agreeing to sharing the plates ordered.
I nod my head — eyes on the food — as Chef carries out his monologue on the expert braise of the meat (something about being neither under-braised, i.e. tough, or over-braised, i.e. wet strings with no texture). Hoping that the duration of his reflection will directly correlate with the ratio of beef cheeks I get to eat, I periodically stop power-eating to ask him to expand on his thoughts. Chef praises the dish for having taken his favourite cut of meat (owing to the “gelatinous deliciousness” of the cheeks) and creating a toothsome braise, tender enough to cut with a spoon and having achieved a richness in flavour that is balanced, not eclipsed by a single ingredient or dominated by a singular flavour note as can be the case with braises such as the ever popular Brunello braise.
The mackerel is delivered to the table along with an order of the hanger steak with harissa sauce. Chef smiles as he watches the plates laid down. He seems to be quite excited to have the harissa sauce served on the side. From watching him on this particular occasion, I’ve learned that Chef is a schizophrenic dipper, alternating between more sauce, less sauce and no sauce. A staple of traditional North African cuisine, the sauce is made from chilies, and done here with just the right amount of heat, mild enough for a spice coward like me to enjoy.
As for the mackerel dish, one taste launches Chef into an oration on the importance of fresh ingredients. Whereas other bistros might take a less fresh version of this fish and smother it with a beurre monté sauce, he says, the clever chefs at Ortolan (who he reckons must taste their dishes at least a handful of times while cooking — a good thing) let the fish speak for itself. Chef — a pickling fanatic — is enamored with the pickled red onions that top this mackerel. Having had their potency diluted by the vinegar, the onions help cut through the natural oils of this typically fattier fish, while never competing with the clean flavour of the mackerel itself. As Chef says (over and over), simple food is the most difficult style to pull off expertly.
Love-struck by this dish myself, I’m not thinking about the acidity of it, but rather find I’m a little occupied with why this normal-sized dish is described as being served “staff meal style,” which in my head translates into “ extra large portion.” My focus stems from the regret, once again, attached to agreeing to doing this dinner family-style.
A meditation on the refining qualities of simplicity, Ortolan is good food, full stop. It's chef food for the culinary pedestrian; Bloordale just upped the ante in the west side's burgeoning unofficial restaurant wars.
Ortolan, 1211 Bloor Street West, (647) 348-4500. Open Tue-Sat 4pm-10pm.
Toronto-based writer Jennifer Lee is the editorial director of FILLER magazine, an online fashion & culture journal. She is also the co-editor of Hardly magazine, an arts-centric online teen publication for Canadian girls. Her column, Chef & Me, appears biweekly.