Once upon a time there was a restaurant called Ursa… (after all, an exciting dining experience should be like a good story).
Positioned in the middle of Caju and County General on Queen near Shaw, it’s one of those cloaked foodie joints meaning it’s usually pretty busy without the online fanfare of a Grand Electric or Kinton Ramen (this is foreshadowing…stay tuned).
I was immediately greeted by Lucas, one of the co-owners and great storyteller. I was seated at the bar and was greeted by Robin, a bartender and equally good storyteller with a love for bourbon and homemade vermouth. It was quickly evident that both had a extreme passion for food and drink, a passion that I hoped would translate into a great dinner.
Here’s where the story begins. I was told that the elk tartare was phenomenal and that the elk was singled sourced out of an farm in Kitchener and 7 muscle groups were incorporated into the final product. Impressive! I was warned in advance that it lacked some of the attributes of the traditional tartare including eggs and scallions. It was presented eloquently with a cracker, a bitter orange sauce and a piece of charqui (elk jerky). It could of used a bit of seasoning but in the end the meat spoke for itself. It was phenomenal.
Before retirement, according to Lucas, Joanne Kates (highly respected Globe and Mail food critic), said that Ursa served one of the best lemon meringue pies in Toronto. I can’t disagree. The pie had an abstract presentation, offered in a deconstructed fashion featuring a rich lemon curd, a fluffy meringue and a crust bound with rich duck fat. Not only was it delicious, it was an adventure and actually fun to eat.
Regarding cocktails, there is as much attention to detail towards the drinks as there is the food. I tried the Red Horn, signature bourbon cocktail (ask Robin about it…it’s quite a story and has won awards) as well as the daily smashed cocktail (in this case it was a gin/fennel mix which was delicious).
For a main, I settled on the lingcod. The fish was cooked perfectly. It was served with a lack luster foam when, combined with the cassava and potato, had a monotonous flavour. The saving grace was the white peach, which offered a sour crunch which offered a needed flavour and texture contrast. The sage was a nice touch.
Another good story was the Santa Rosa plum salad. There are only a few hundred of these plum trees in Canada, and Ursa managed to partner with a farmer in BC to get them for the menu. The salad was beautifully presented and the plums were divine but I was left wanting more. The salad was under dressed and lacked a bit of the complexity I would expect for a $14 salad.
I’d consider Ursa a bit stubborn. It is next to impossible to find a current menu online since their website is nothing more than a holding page with an address and a phone number. When you do see the menu, it is quite small. In fact, a couple walked in and out after viewing the menu and only seeing goat, rabbit and lingcod as traditional entrees. On the other hand, there are both good quality vegetarian starters and mains on the menu which may appeal to some. Others will argue it is expensive for the amount of food but personally I find it pretty comparable to similar joints in the area.
Ursa is like a good picture book. Both the restaurant’s decor and presentation of the food are very visually appealing , edgy and comes with a great story. If you don’t like mysteries, however, this may not be the place for you. Even with the menu as a guide, the dishes are a bit unpredictable but at the same time kind of exciting. What I can say is that Ursa is an experience with beautifully presented dishes using unique and quality ingredients and if you get the full experience you may very well live happily ever after….The End.