Boralia (Toronto) Serves Up Canadian Culinary History

cover photo credit: @Boralia_to

I stumbled across Boralia’s Instagram feed in 2014  when owners Evelyn Wu and Wayne Morris were in the early stages of recipe testing. The name was Borealia back then but the ‘e’ was dropped due to a trademark issue.  Borealia, by the way, was a name considered for our country in 1867. It also stems from the Latin Borealis meaning northern, so when the dust settled and the ‘e’ was dropped, owners Evelyn Wu and Wayne Morris chose Boralia to reflect the modern incarnation of historical Canadian cuisine they planned to offer their customers.

Evelyn Wu and Wayne Morris. Photo from New York Times April 2015
Evelyn Wu and Wayne Morris. Photo from New York Times April 2015

These bygone recipes, in their most basic form, are gleaned from antique cookbooks and historical sources on Aboriginal fare. Recreating cuisine from two and three centuries ago is no easy task since most of the recipes are nothing more than a list of ingredients. Wu and Morris set a new bar for patience, determination, and detail in every aspect of their business—from recipe development and sourcing ingredients to the vintage dishes on which the food is presented.

After a year of watching their social media feed, I finally secured a coveted seat at Boralia. I was more than ready to indulge in some culinary history.

The etched glassware turns mere cocktails into liquid stories like Norman Meets the Ladies, Winter Garden Party, and The Burdock Saint.

Boralia cocktailsTalk to any of the human encyclopedias working at Boralia, and you will witness a confidence and passion rarely seen elsewhere; the staff that started in 2014 is the staff that serves you today, and that speaks volumes.

After receiving a lesson on burdock, we are presented with the menu. It is small and as intriguing as I hoped.  The choices are difficult: smoked mussels, pan-roasted elk, bison tartare, an intriguing dish called rabbit rubaboo. We surrender and give the chef free rein to feed us.

Of course, we must try L’eclade—mussels smoked in pine needles, pine ash and butter—a dish Samuel de Champlain fed his crew in the 17th century. A cloud of fragrant pine smoke fills the air as the glass dome is lifted away to reveal a mound of mussels. The meat is plump and tastes buttery-sweet with a hint of pine smoke. The whole production (the dome, the smoke, the food) is a showstopper.

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I’m surprised to find the kedgeree (smoked whitefish, recipe circa 1845) so appealing. Smoked fish, on its own, is simply smoked fish, but when you add crispy, thin rice crackers, curry mayo and parsnip puree, the sum of all these parts becomes a soirée for the senses. The arrival of a golden pigeon pie stops us from fixating on the fish. Two slices of rosy squab breast snug up against the piping hot pastry.  Every dish surpasses our expectations.

Eel Lake oysters, baked and bathed in shrimp hollandaise, are salty, creamy, and spiked with a snippet of chile. They are instantly addictive.

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The arrival of sea urchin and squid ink scallop quenelles has us throwing oyster shells aside to claim the shiny gold and black orbs. The item is not on the menu so I wonder how Chef Morris knows these briny gonads top my list of favourite things to eat. I am punch drunk on food love.

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Sea urchin and squid ink quenelles (from @Boralia_to on Instagram)

We argue about the best dish. The venison liver and foie gras parfait is outrageous; the bison tartare, divine, but it is L’eclade that has the lead…until the whelk shows up. The kombu/beurre blanc-glazed meat is speared on tiny bamboo swords and placed next to its knobby shell on a pretty, vintage plate. There is ample meat—more than I expected—and it is firm yet tender, delicate in flavour. Red Fife Levain bread mops up any remaining drizzle of sauce.

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Boralia’s whelk dish (my picture with dim lighting, and below from Now Toronto Magazine)

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 6.36.31 PMWe forge onward with discs of scallop crudo that melt on the tongue; exotically flavoured bison tartare; sidestripe shrimp with savoury parsnip donuts, and sweetbreads laced with madeira and black garlic.

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Sidestripe shrimp and parsnip donuts

There is a constant that does not go unnoticed: not one superfluous ingredient appears in any dish. Every item has a purpose; everything makes sense. We have time-travelled through centuries of Canadian food history and we are completely satiated.

Since opening the doors at 59 Ossington Avenue, Boralia has secured its place in several top restaurant lists. I suspect this is only the beginning of numerous accolades to come.

For a peek at what’s happening in the world of Wu and Morris, check out the Instagram feed for the restaurant (@boralia_to) as well as for Chef Morris (@wminaflash).

And, get a table, if you can.