It has been nearly a year now since Ursa came out of nowhere and first opened its doors to much acclaim on a trendy Queen West block which was already full of excellent eateries. Its food is a contemporary take on Canadian cuisine, with a kitchen being driven by young up-start chef Jacob Sharkey-Pearce who most recently was a food consultant for athletes and had stints at some well-established Toronto favourites like Centro and Terroni. As any chef worth his weight in salt these days, Sharkey-Pearce emphasizes local ingredients but he also dabbles in molecular gastronomy; he also takes the brave step of ensuring that the food has great nutritional value. Since Ursa’s opening, the city has been besieged by many new food trends such as tacos, ramen, Korean lettuce wraps and the ubiquitous snack bars. Here though the focus is on great food artfully presented on the plate that also manages to make you feel better upon leaving than when you arrived. It is a testament to Ursa’s quality that I ate there on two very wintry early weekday nights and it was quite packed both times.
For a dinner that is quite extraordinary the menu is surprisingly simple: 5 appetizers, 5 mains, and a short desert list. It is refreshing in these times with small plates being pushed at many newer upscale restaurants that Chef Sharkey-Pearce is so confident with his dishes that he is able to edit them down to such a small number. But first we start with the bread. Sometimes you receive a plate that makes you realize you are going to experience a superlative meal and nothing makes me more excited than when this happens during the bread course. Here the bread is akin to a thin pumpernickel crisp and it is presented standing erect in an oblong serving plate; it is served with a crumbly fennel butter made in-house that literally melts the moment it touches your tongue. Both the bread and butter feel so alive and light, two words that I will repeat throughout my meals at Ursa.
The appetizers that followed only went up and up in quality and creativity. No sidesteps or letdowns here. A beautifully spicy Elk Tartare is most delicate, served with the aforementioned crispy bread and a smear of bitter orange marmalade which acts in the case of this dish like a mustard. Then there is a Beet Salad, which is set on the plate in the shape of a crescent moon formed by 4 types of perfectly cooked varietals, including my favourites, golden and candy cane, sitting on top of a whipped chicken liver mousse. An interesting flavour combination, which may be too subtle for some but I thought it was a creative way to add protein to what could have been just a common salad. (Extra points, since the beets were apparently procured from one of the cooks own city garden.) The showstopper though was the Winter Root Salad which is considered one of their signature dishes. In a city where restaurants consistently fail to do salads justice, this is a revelation. It literally looks like a work of art and the vegetables themselves are given such respectful treatment in the kitchen that they taste as fresh as if they were just picked from the earth. This is a salad that would make Alice Waters proud.
The mains continue the same trend of lively interpretations of Canadian classics without ever becoming overwhelmed by the Chefs skill and artistry. The Lamb consists of shank and shoulder both cut off the bone and cooked sous vide, spiced Moroccan-style with Ras el Hanout. The end result is so soft it is unlike any lamb I have tasted and its presentation so refined it is in stark contrast to an almost barbaric looking lamb shank plate I had recently at another high-end eatery. We also enjoyed the Guinea Fowl which came with a lovely polenta cake and delicious pearl onions – a very successful update of a comfort food classic. The standout though was their Wild Boar dish. A rich medallion of boar meat accompanied by a toothy, nutty barley, turnip, kohlrabi, and a cheekily inventive lingonberry leather, which reminded me of an adult version of a Fruit Roll-Up. The drink menu is tight and includes an excellent Sazerac and Negroni; I also really enjoyed local Beer Academy’s Black Lager which arrived to the table in a large 650 ml bottle. The deserts seem a little overthought, but I enjoyed the dinner so much I am willing to let it go.
Bucking against trend, Ursa is the type of restaurant we all once loved where the food is more than just a shared tasty bite: it is an actual meal with a beginning, middle, and end. A special event. The room itself is sexy but subtle with black cinder block walls, hard wood floors, a long bar, and an open kitchen. The stylistic highlight is an array of dangling old-fashion Edison bulbs providing warm, glowing light. The service is surprising laidback yet still attentive consisting of guys in tight jeans with tattoos. Seat yourself facing the brightly lit kitchen, better to watch the calm determined cooks who are rightly the stars of this room and this show. Because at this very moment, the food they are creating should be the new Canadian standard.