“Where would you recommend for Canadian cuisine?” This is a question I’m often asked. Now I can answer: Antler Kitchen & Bar.
Chef Michael Hunter is, appropriately, a hunter.
He is also a chef, a forager, a photographer and an artist. From flipping eggs at a diner in Caledon as a teenager, his storied career led him to plan an Italian restaurant with his business partner Jody Shapiro. In a moment of clarity, both Michael and Jody recognized that neither one of them is actually Italian; and that Toronto does not really need another Italian restaurant. Toronto does need a really good authentic Canadian restaurant, and this duo would be the one to set the bar and define what that means.
Antler is Canadian “forest to table” cuisine. It is reminiscent of meals I’ve enjoyed in northern Ontario or Quebec in the winter, but with modern finesse; a celebration of regional ingredients from the cocktails to the desserts. I’ve wanted to dine here for a long time.
Seated in a cozy rustic room that could pass as a cabin in Muskoka, we survey the artwork and woodsy photography that adorns the walls, as well as the antlers above the kitchen door—all of which are progeny of Chef Hunter’s many talents. Beginning with the cocktail list, we see the theme and the method. The idea here is to harmonize the ingredients on the dinner and cocktail menus. For example, one of the more popular menu items is the deer rack. In the wintertime deer eat cedar. To the trained palate there is a noticeable distinction, and so cedar is also infused into the cocktails. The Foraged Cedar Gin Sour is dangerously good. I assume there’s alcohol in it, but I only taste sweet cedar with an almost mossy essence whipped into a smooth frothy confluence with lemon bitters and egg whites. I could probably go through this fun cocktail list and have a few of each.
What can you do with a hibachi grill and a Japanese mother-in-law? Perhaps grill the best yakitori and gyoza in the city. Chicken thighs, wild mushrooms and duck hearts are skewered, brushed with delicate sweet soy, and grilled over charcoal for a taste that takes me back to a summer matsuri in Kyoto.
Reading the menu, I feel like I should be wearing a beaver pelt and armed with a musket, but there are delicious and generous vegetarian and vegan options here as well—from the Farmer’s Market Salad to the Wild Rice Bowl chock full of lentils, toasted almonds and market vegetables. The Mushroom Tarte Tatin is a rich earthy puff pastry with caramelized onions and a vibrant walnut sorrel pesto accenting a medley of foraged mushrooms that are filled to the brim.
Antler puts their money where it’s important: their ingredients and their knives. Steak knives are bone handle and heavy in the hand. Dishes are gorgeous and the portions are surprisingly generous. Roasted duck breast with a thin crisp sear and wild blueberry jus is delicate and tender. Artfully plated aside lentils mixed with root vegetables and duck confit, as though the lentils are the centrepiece, every forkful gives us new and elusive flavours. Chef Hunter is really a professional. You can’t get these results if you’re not. The complexity of these flavours and the marrying of the ingredients and the spices and herbs–you really must have a palate and skill as a chef.
A quintessential Canadian dish, the rack of deer, is rubbed and crusted with the burned ash of herbs and spices. It is so tender, and the essence of the ash permeates throughout the meat for a perfumed, perfectly medium rare succulence. There are a lot of different flavours on this plate including a rich parsnip puree, and carrots that are delectable and sweet, and complement the savoury texture of the deer. This is a chef who grew up knowing and loving these ingredients.
Despite all the proteins on the menu, nothing is heavy; it’s all somehow light. There is, however, one item that I cannot leave without trying: the much talked-about “Game Burger”. This is Canadian wildlife on a bun: bison, wild boar and deer. Obviously Chef Hunter has figured out the proportionality to make this work—and it does. Juicy, robust, slightly gamey—but only in the sense that I recognize it’s not beef—it is ground in-house and lavished with garlic aioli, honey mustard, smoked cheddar and a pickle. This burger is an absolutely delicious masterpiece. There is a formula here, and I would not add or subtract from it in anyway. There is the option of adding foie gras. Ok, but I’ve already devoured the whole thing—including the bun. All the nuances and textures blend together beautifully.
We’re tempted by dessert only because everything thus far has been of such quality. Sticky toffee pudding with Canadian whisky, salted caramel, and pine needle ice cream piques my curiousity. They are obviously having fun in the kitchen, and we enjoy scooping up every morsel of rich velvety goodness.Antler Kitchen & Bar is a taste of Canada that is local, seasonal and wild.
Antler Kitchen & Bar, 1454 Dundas St West, 647-345-8300
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.