Forget what you think you know about Canadian food. Newly opened Borealia on the Ossington strip in Toronto is a narrow, cozy nook that elevates all-Canadian fare to new levels. You won’t find any greasy poutine or maple syrup-soaked breakfasts here.
Borealia, meaning “Northern”, was one of the names proposed for Canada in the country’s pre-Confederation days. The name fully captures the whimsical nostalgia of the restaurant’s concept, décor and menu. Each dish is an artful reinterpretation of traditional indigenous and settler recipes, some dating as far back as the 1600s.
Friendly owners Wayne Morris, who grew up on Nova Scotian Acadian meals, and Evelyn Wu, who spent her childhood eating traditional Chinese cuisine in Hong Kong, embody the cultural hybrid they bring to many of their dishes.
The restaurant is well suited to small groups. A wonderfully diverse array of main dishes are served tapas style – which makes the decision-making a lot easier – so you can all try several at once, and compare notes.
Grab a cozy booth opposite the general-store-style bar, or for larger parties, (make sure to book ahead) find your way to the long wooden table at the back where you can peer through the diamond-shaped windows into the kitchen to catch a glimpse of Chef Morris in his element.
The L’éclade, c. 1605, is absolutely not to be missed. You will smell this dish before you see it. Perfectly succulent mussels are smoked in pine needle butter and released from their smokey dome right at your table. The heady sensation of being transported to a campfire in Canadian wilderness is balanced by the mussels’ surprisingly delicate flavour.
Don’t be afraid of the Bison “Pemmican” Bresaola. What would once have been a kind of fat-and-protein jerky eaten by pioneers on their long travels, is thankfully very much reimagined by the chef. Thin slices of bison are house-cured and air-dried, topped with a wild blueberry juniper vinaigrette. It’s enough to make you thankful for how far we’ve come as a nation from our culinary roots.
The most visually appealing dish is definitely the Braised Whelk. Slices of this tender shellfish are lightly grilled, individually skewered and served in the whelk’s architecturally impressive shell, which sits atop a bed of seaweed and burdock. If you’re looking for a dish you’d likely fail to recreate at home, this is it.
Jump ahead a few years to c. 1776 for the Salt Cod Quenelles. Warm, plump dumplings, filled with air-dried Gaspésie salt cod are surrounded by generous chunks of lobster in a rich and creamy lobster and mirepoix sauce. Be prepared for the quenelles to supplant your go-to comfort food. This New World take on a traditional Lyonnais dish is a perfect cold winter combatant.
As each dish comes along, make sure to ask your server for the story behind it. It’s Morris and Wu’s passionate attention to detail – from the fascinating histories behind the recipes to the locally sourced, seasonal ingredients – that gives each inventive dish its unique and well-deserved place on the menu.
In between dinner and dessert, take a moment to admire your surroundings. Custom-made furnishings like a wall hanging depicting the buffalo migration and mysterious bottles reading “XXX” above the bar make for a truly immersive atmosphere.
Borealia is one seriously impressive new dining destination that will quickly make you reconsider what you thought you knew about Canadian cuisine.