True Grits: Chris Nuttall-Smith on Acadia’s sublime Lowcountry cooking

True Grits: Chris Nuttall-Smith on Acadia’s sublime Lowcountry cooking

(Image: Emma McIntyre)

There are things you don’t expect in a cheap, casual Little Italy restaurant with a mediocre wine list. You don’t expect to find grits like these, for instance: melting, creamy, aggressively, exquisitely corny grits that the chef has mail-ordered in from South Carolina, because that’s where the best grits on the planet come from. They’re stirred through with pimento cheese that unfurls like a warm southern front on the tender stretch at the back of your throat.

There’s a broth around the grits, clear as glass but evil-deep and smoky from ham hocks, and there are shrimp, which are sweet, of course, but more than that. These are Gulf shrimp, mild and clean-tasting, whereas shrimp at other restaurants almost always taste like mud. The whole dish is sharp, focused, super-seasoned but not salty, a burst to the mainline. I have to shush my giddy tablemate. He’s dropping F-mother bombs because the food is so good.

Another knockout: a firm, meaty hunk of grouper with andouille sausage that the chef has made himself and then smoked over hickory. The sausage is the glowering, porky bass note in an étouffée that combines Sea Island red peas, chopped prawns and tomatoes and tastes like a lifetime over a coal stove in the South. There’s a sauce on the plate that pulls it all together.

“Do you know what’s in the green stuff?” I ask our waiter.

He’s young, and though he seems fine at his job, he keeps calling us “dude.” I’m expecting him to sputter, to run to the kitchen, to never return.

“It’s a blend of New Zealand spinach, parsley root and chive, and then they put in chervil and purslane,” he says. We fist bump.

“Are you a cook?” I ask.

“Nah, I’ve just been around food a lot, dude.”

Everybody at Acadia has, and it shows. It’s one of the most relentlessly original, ambitious and technically bang-on kitchens in the city—a brilliant new entrant to Toronto’s restaurant scene. What makes it all the more impressive is that Matt Blondin, the 28-year-old chef, and Scott Selland, the 27-year-old manager, who co-owns Acadia with his wife, Lindsay Selland, have never run their own place before. They’re doing things that most of their older, better-known peers couldn’t dream of pulling off.

Blondin made his name at Colborne Lane, chef Claudio Aprile’s stylish, molecular gastronomy (as it was then called)–inflected restaurant downtown. He started there in 2007 and was put in charge of the kitchen within a year and a half. Blondin was a rare young chef who could read and understand cutting-edge cooking texts and apply their lessons to original new dishes, then execute them beautifully night after night. But Blondin and Aprile had a stormy relationship. Blondin often challenged his boss with showy, overly complicated creations. Aprile was increasingly distracted with planning for Origin, his second restaurant. It was a frustrating situation for both. Blondin left Colborne in May of 2010.

Selland became Colborne Lane’s general manager in 2009, after working at Susur and Madeline’s. About a year ago he started planning for his own place. As he looked to other great food cities—Portland, New York and Chicago—he saw that the restaurants he admired weren’t doing fine dining. He wanted to open an accessible but accomplished restaurant. And, most importantly, he wanted a place that would be markedly different from everything else in town. He started thinking about the ingredients and flavour profiles of the East Coast Acadian diaspora—about sorghum, sarsaparilla root, andouille sausage and collards, étouffées, chow-chows and boudin balls—and how most of them rarely appeared on Toronto menus. He was also interested in Lowcountry cooking—the Caribbean- and African-influenced cuisine of Georgia and South Carolina that has much in common with Acadian food. Selland called Blondin, who was working at a restaurant in Whistler, B.C., hoping he could recommend a decent chef or two. Blondin, like Selland, had no connection to either cuisine—he’d never even eaten in the South. But he was intrigued. By early February, he was back in the city and ready to go.

Acadia is a simple room. Close to a month after opening last July, the walls were still artless, and the hard tile floors were screaming for a couple of rugs. The wine list is intentionally short; instead, they’re pushing spice- and fat- and pickle-friendly craft beers, cocktails and bourbons.

The focus is on the cooking. Blondin’s genius is in balancing the rigour and discipline of high-French technique against Acadian and Lowcountry cooking’s vernacular ingredients and casual mien. His dishes, for all their novel ingredients and intricate plating, are smartly focused. He’s not showing off with modernist hijinks any longer. He’s grown up a bit, and found his confidence.

Consider his green tomato tartelette: buttery, crispy puff pastry rolled out to order, slathered with Iroquois cornmeal that’s been fire-roasted by hand near Oka, Quebec, and to which Blondin’s added fermented black garlic so that it’s just noticeably pongy and dark. There are whole green cherry tomatoes on top of the cornmeal. They’ve been peeled, so that they’re almost translucent, and then baked over the pastry, so the tomatoes are warm but still pleasantly sourish in their middles and sweet from the oven on their outsides. The tart gets a dusting of almond-praline powder and whispers of licorice from chervil sprigs, and a thread of celeriac purée. The dish is a masterpiece of balance and flavour interplay.

Blondin’s scallops come sliced, opalescent pink in their middles from perfect cooking. There’s pickled watermelon rind next to them, and a crackling, mind-blowing wafer made from deep-roasted chicken skin, and a purée of peppery arugula.

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His rainbow trout is the greatest trout dish in the city, easily. The fillet is rolled and then poached so it’s ruby coloured in its middle; he’s added oyster mayonnaise, charred scallions, sprigs of salty sea asparagus and a relish made from pickled Jerusalem artichokes. Every single piece of meat and fish I ate at Acadia was superbly cooked and seasoned. His vegetables defy belief: he somehow braises collards so that they’re sweet and tender, but still brilliant green and distinct as leaves, instead of mush. He then tosses them with licorice cream.

A few of the desserts taste flat by comparison. The sugar pie, made from golden raisins soaked in bourbon barrel–aged maple syrup, is too sweet to me. But the dessert called 75% Chocolate Bar is gorgeous: it’s a long rectangle of dark chocolate truffle with strips of candied satsuma orange peel and house-made almond milk ice cream.
In the restaurant’s first month, Blondin did all this with a crew of just three other cooks, who are 20 and 21 years old, one of them straight out of culinary school (he’s since hired a fourth cook). “The younger you can get them, the fewer bad habits they have,” Blondin told me. He wants them to learn, and then to leave his restaurant and do their own thing, he added. This gives me a huge amount of hope for the future of cooking in the city.

Both times I ate at Acadia, I couldn’t stop talking about the experience afterwards. A meal there is more than just a sensory adventure. It’s also an intellectual one. Blondin and Selland found something the city didn’t have yet, something that would be excellent, and then they made it happen. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it?

Acadia ½
50C Clinton St.,
Mains $16–$26