Party of eight last night, all of us at Actinolite for the first time. Cozy and pleasant room, but almost studied in its variety of unfinished and finished surfaces.
Even though we were, when we arrived, the only table in the place, it still took almost five minutes before any of the four wait staff came over to pour water and take drink orders. It took another ten minutes, and we had to ask before bread was brought to the table. If the place was hopping, I can understand these delays, but it was empty. The bread, when it arrived, was warm and tasty, although I prefer Canadian butter to the imported olive oil.
We had previously decided on the $85 menu, which I'll go through course by course.
1 - Potato with Carrot/Soil/Grass Two new potatoes with two little stumps of carrot. We received an explanation of the 'soil', although I couldn't hear it (I understand from other posts that it's breadcrumbs with other ingredients). The potatoes were very good, and some of the accompanying elements were fine, but the 'soil' was so hard that I -and others at the table - feared for our dental work. It was tasteless and detracted from the rest of the dish.
2 - Oyster with Enoki/Seaweed. Two oysters in a bowl with greens and a few enoki mushrooms. The servers came around and poured a luke-warm broth in a bowl. The broth was bland, and the seaweed unpleasant; I felt like I was eating twigs. The two smallish oysters were OK, but the whole dish was a complete miss. Most of us didn't finish it.
3 - Beet with Plum/Mulberry/Hyssop A few small halves of quite tasty beets with an almost sour cream emulsion (the hyssop?). This was a pleasant dish, and I remarked to my companions "It's deconstructed borscht!".
4 - Halibut with Peas/Gooseberry/Spruce This was the best dish of the night, IMHO, although some thought the halibut was overcooked (mine was perfect). It was served in a bowl in a buttery sauce that complemented the fish, and the peas were fantastic - plump, cooked but firm, bursting with flavour. Really enjoyed it.
5 - Cucumber with Currant/Lemon Balm/Fennel A four-inch quarter of a cucumber, adorned with berries and herbs. The fennel added a very nice touch. If they doubled the portion size, it would be a nice side dish in many restaurants.
6 - Sweetbreads with Chanterelle/Lettuce/Turnip The turnip was just a few tiny slices hiding beneath everything else, and I don't recall the lettuce, but the sweetbreads were the other highlight of the night. The chef has a deft hand with his roasting pan, because the exterior was just crisp while the interior was still moist and flavourful. The chantarelles were a bit bland, but the sweetbreads were so good, I didn't care. I ate all mine and my girlfriend's as well.
7 - Strawberry with Curd/Elderflower/Hay It's hard to mess up strawberries, and they didn't. Beautiful berries, and hay ice cream(?!) that was a nice cool counterpoint to the berries' sweet-tart flavour.
A few overall comments: After the initial pause, the service was fine, although the multiplicity of people covering the table was a bit confusing. However - and this is where the title comes in - the staff interrupted conversation 12 times to deliver set pieces about the ingredients, their provenance, the cooking method, etc. While some of it was interesting, I couldn't hear half the time, and was still talking to my companions the rest, so in the distraction, I barely heard any of the details. The exception was the wine pairings, where the young lady stationed herself right next to me, and then went on to tell us how crisp/dry/whatever the wine would be, what notes (cherry/oak/etc) we would notice, and so on.
(rant on) First off, to me, this is like going to a play and being told the plot and twists beforehand. If the wine's any good, we're going to figure those things out on our own. Second, to be lectured about the wine by a young woman obviously in her early 20's when we're all 50+ world travellers is either amusing, as if an 8-year old was explaining Shakespeare, or irritating, as it again interrupted our conversations. Please leave these dissertations to the name, year, origin, and possibly the grape. The final irony was only 3 out of eight people were drinking the wine, so all the non-drinkers had to sit back and listen even though we had zero interest. (rant off)
Bottom line: we left hungry. As soon as we got in the car, we turned to each other and said "Where are we going to eat?". I've gone to many Chinese banquets for $80/head, and left stuffed to the gills with very good food with lots of leftovers! Every single dish we were served would have been an 'amuse bouche' at the late and lamented Bistro 192. If not for the excellent bread, I might have gone into insulin shock, as I'd taken my usual dose before the meal, expecting a reasonable amount of food.
Which again leads back to the title: Are they being earnest, or pretentious? I'm going to be charitable, and say it's the former, although I suspect it won't be too long before it slides into the latter. Every dish had a "look at me! I'm special!!" quality that, unfortunately, wasn't backed up by the flavour most of the time. The dish introductions were so detailed that I nearly wondered if there were to be questions afterward. (Yet, with so much emphasis on 'local' ingredients, they don't serve local butter with the bread.) In the end, it felt like I was being forced to enjoy it (like New Year's Eve parties) rather than getting swept up in it (as I was at K-Paul's in New Orleans, for example).
I know there are some who truly appreciate this type of dinner theatre; my elder daughter is one. To those, I say: you will most likely enjoy Actinolite a great deal.To people who go out to eat with the idea of enjoying their friends' company over good food (and to whom half the fun is swapping a bit of your duckling for a bit of your friend's tournedo), you will find too many interruptions, not enough food, and no choices.
Just be sure which of the two groups above you belong to!