July 24, 2014
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Meaty mandates: Bestellen and Ursa offer their takes on Toronto’s carnivore craze

Bestellen’s steak tartare with quail’s egg
(All images: Cheol Joon Baek)

Not too long ago, Toronto fell madly in love with meat. It happened around the time that butcher shops and restaurateurs somehow convinced us that we could eat meat without feeling guilty. Apparently, animals can be raised and killed “ethically.” And, hey, if we eat these peachy creatures in their entirety — including the gross parts — then we’re being sustainable, too.

So, Toronto devoured beef tongue sandwiches at the Black Hoof. We munched on crispy pig ears at Buca. We traded our chicken wings for sweetbreads and went gaga for barbecue. And we finally realized that pork is the best meat of them all.

It was only a matter of time before a restaurant like Bestellen appeared in Toronto. We were begging for it. Opened on College Street last month by Top Chef Canada finalist Rob Rossi (pictured below) and his business partner, Ryan Sarfeld, its centerpiece is a windowed meat locker where gaping pig carcasses, charcuterie and massive chunks of beef covered in that desirable fungal crust lie in plain sight of diners. Bestellen has narrowed its raison d’être down to two words: “meat” and “mead.”

Bestellen owner Rob Rossi holding steak tartareIf you’re going to go, go hard. Follow the polished terrazzo floors to the back of the 80-seat restaurant. Enjoy the Led Zeppelin on the way. Learn the basics of butchery by studying a mural spanning an entire wall. Then, sit at the communal table in front of the open kitchen and pretend it’s 451 AD. 

I had two forays into meaty, ancient-Roman-style debauchery at Bestellen. The first occurred during a suckling-pig dinner ($59 per person), which required giving the kitchen 72 hours’ notice.

Details of the meal are sketchy because, soon after ditching my cutlery and mashing a barrage of porky, salty, buttery, fatty pieces of pig into my mouth with my hands, I fell into a kind of blissed-out fugue state. I vaguely recall gnawing on the pig’s foot and also cutting its head open and eating its brain (it was superlatively creamy, and equally as chalky).

The second time, I ate nearly the entire menu in one sitting: calamari that housed delicious chorizo like a wizard’s cap ($12); tangy, perfectly smooth steak tartare with a gooey quail’s egg ($13); pappardelle rife with chunks of yet more baby pig ($16); a hen’s egg with slightly spicy ’nduja and a savoury-sweet tomato sauce ($10). Nearly all of it was bang-on in execution, although there were notable pitfalls: the slimy consistency of the pappardelle along with a side of Brussels sprouts ($6) that were soggy and mixed with too-salty pieces of pork belly.   

The star, however, was a 16-ounce strip loin ($41). It arrived masterfully charred on the outside, but ruby-red rare from edge to edge on the inside. No gradation at all. It seems impossible that a steak could be cooked that way, but the trick, which I suspected, is sous vide. Rossi admits it took lots of experimentation to get that result.

I would be surprised if Bestellen did not become a neighbourhood fixture. How could it not? Toronto has officially scorned foliage forever, right? Well, the answer is no, and I have proof.

Ursa's divine green salad

Just as the meat craze in Toronto hits new heights, Ursa hits Queen West with a new take on eating animals: meat doesn’t have to hog all of the attention.

Opened by first-time restaurateurs Jacob and Lucas Sharkey-Pearce, this slick restaurant has lots of pretty hardwood and bare light bulbs hanging about like bubbles.

It’s not a vegetarian restaurant, but Ursa does some totally surprising things with the foods that our parents forced us to eat growing up — like beets, cauliflower and green vegetables — that makes them taste sinful.

Leafy greens are compressed with a vacuum sealer, which keeps them raw but makes them look and feel blanched. Apple and pumpkin are dehydrated and moulded into a brittle glass that tastes like candy but is really just apple and pumpkin. Mushrooms are smoked because — why not? Grains and legumes are cooked sous vide, which gives them a fuller flavour and better texture.

When was the last time a salad blew your mind? Ursa’s dark green one ($12) can do it. It’s a showcase of bitter kale, endive and dandelion leaves balanced with pomegranate seeds, hazelnut vinaigrette and probiotic yogurt. It looks like a wonky alien landscape from a James Cameron movie, and each bite has the transcendental effect of ushering you through a rainbow of flavours: bitter, tart, sweet, savoury and salty. Every salad that is not this salad needs to do some serious self-reflection.

At times, Ursa veers into too-pretentious territory. This is the type of place where Icelandic moss is used as a garnish and where venison is called “white tail,” even though servers admit that most people think white tail is a kind of fish (here’s a hint: call it venison).

There is one main thing that keeps Ursa grounded: it has retained its appreciation for good, old-fashioned meat. Ursa knows that foie gras is good, especially when it’s blueberry cured and placed alongside venison tartare ($16). It knows that chicken is good, particularly with an amaranth and quinoa polenta ($23). And yes, it knows that pork is good.

Underneath the plethora of foliage here, carnivores will find hidden delights. Vibrant pieces of kale share the plate with whey-brined pork loin, slightly pink in the centre, and a square of apple cider–glazed pork belly ($24). The pork loin rests on a swath of du Puy lentils. Meat and veggies share the stage hand in hand, though the pork belly’s ability to instantly melt in the mouth gives it a slight edge.   

Like the rest of the menu, even the desserts purport to be healthy: a raw chocolate mousse (full of flavonoids) is plated with a hibiscus-flower reduction (vitamin C and minerals) and pumpkin cream (full of beta carotene).

As my companion and I wrap up our meal, chef Jacob Sharkey-Pearce comes out to shake our hands. “I haven’t seen a deuce eat that much food in a long time,” he says.

We’re stuffed, having just consumed an inordinate amount of fibre, antioxidants, probiotic cultures and vegetable nutrients. Who knew debauchery could be so healthy?

Bestellen, 972 College St., 647-341-6769. Dinner for two: $100.
Ursa, 924 Queen St. W., 416-536-8963. Dinner for two: $90.