Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Thoughtful and Thrilling Modernist Riffs on an Iconic Cuisine at Kantina Restaurant

Thoughtful and Thrilling Modernist Riffs on an Iconic Cuisine at Kantina Restaurant


Restaurateur Miljan Karac and chef Danijel “Dacha” Markovic reinterpret classic Eastern European–inspired cuisine in a hip (in the sense of "aware, in the know") but casual downtown farm-to-table restaurant. Kantina has a scratch kitchen and all items are made in-house and by hand. Chef's culinary prowess showcases thoughtful and thrilling modernist riffs on an iconic cuisine. Kantina’s culinary antecedents are Eastern European, Balkan and primarily Serbian. 

After completing culinary high school in Belgrade, Markovic entered a hotel/culinary college, where gastronomy was his main focus. He studied and worked at the same time. After graduating from college, he was hired at the Metropolitan Grill in the Hyatt Regency (a 5-star hotel) in Belgrade as a line cook. His natural talent and abilities quickly propelled him forward. Karac sponsored Markovic to come to Canada to work at Kantina.

Four years later, this small independent business thrives on their creativity, dedication and commitment to local food procurement enhanced by a well-honed and sophisticated culinary point of view. The kitchen like the front of house does things its own way.The cuisine is characterized by such idiosyncratic ingredients as: kajmak - clotted cream; ajavar a traditional red bell peppers, eggplant, garlic and chilli pepper relish; sir, a generic term for a variety of semi-hard porcelain- white cheeses made from sheep's milk and kept in brine (feta-style) and two very distinct types of yoghurt.

Chef's wicked rabbit pottage is thick with vegetables and anchored with bacon and earthy truffle oil. Veal soup with finely diced root vegetables, sour cream and white turnip is truly a revelation and a testament to Markovic’s ability to layer many flavours with great effect. An upscale/rustic cream of potato and leek soup with toasted almonds, crunch bacon, tiny shrimp and truffle oil is a glimpse into the chef’s soul. Chef has a penchant for earthy flavours and prepares beets in a variety of innovative ways. His beet crème brulèe is outstanding.

An appetizer that also appears on the tapas menu, kataifi-wrapped (phyllo pastry that looks shredded wheat) tiger shrimp with cocktail sauce and avocado purée is the perfect amalgam of flavours and textures. Field Gate Organics beef carpaccio tartare served with shaved foie gras, arugula, truffle oil cheese, and toasted pine nuts is superb. Braised octopus tart with tomatoes, pearl onions and beurre rouge is a new item on the menu. Serbian salad is a staple with diced peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and lemon dressing. What defines this salad is the attention to detail in its preparation and assembly.

One of the chef's signature specialities is Karadjordjeva, (Black George Schnitzel) a delicious rolled fried pork schnitzel with kajmak stuffing. Chef also perfects chevaps, rolled chicken and a delicious lamb burger. Chef does various incarnations of poutine - most recently a delicious bison version with fresh curd.

On one memorable occasion there is a perfectly cooked stuffed calamari accompanied by black (squid ink) risotto. Jerusalem artichoke agnolotti with brown butter and hazelnuts is a master class in subtlety.

Another time there is a chilled, luxurious strawberry puree with balsamico that has both sweet and sour elements arrives after dinner for dessert. On yet another occasion, smooth ‘Habitual Chocolate fudgy’ pot au crème, topped with mousse is flavoured with cloves and star anise and accompanied by a whimsical jam pot of strawberry puree and a chocolate tuille.

The restaurant's logo and signage communicate not only the owners' personality and originality but their unique sense of style. The room itself is both striking and attractive with a bit of hipster vibe. The lounge seating transitions into spacious wood block tables, white leather banquette seating and simple but stylishly comfortable chairs. On one wall a series of identical gold framed mirrors reflect the reclaimed heritage yellow brick wall it faces. For those looking for a cocktail or a glass of wine there is a small bar at the back of the room. Lively, modern Serbian and Gypsy-inspired music plays in the background.

Kantina serves exceptionally good food, at fair prices with intelligent and friendly service befitting the setting. Markovic is one of perhaps two chefs with the most potential star power cooking in the city currently. There is no denying the deftness, innovation and instinct  that both Karac and Markovic bring to the table. 

349 Talbot Street 519- 672 5862
Tuesday - Saturday: 5:30 - Close

Lunch Fridays
*Tapas Tuesday & Wednesday*
Available for private bookings Sunday & Monday.



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