Published On: Thu, Sep 20th, 2018

Thornhill’s Frilu brings four-star downtown tasting menu experience uptown

They call it “pulling weeds.”

John-Vincent Troiano, owner/chef of Friuli, a modern Japanese restaurant in Thornhill .
John-Vincent Troiano, owner/chef of Friuli, a modern Japanese restaurant in Thornhill .  (Rick Madonik / Toronto Star)

It is a dessert at Thornhill’s Frilu, where edible fun is had over the course of a $ 95 tasting menu.

The trompe l’oeil dessert arrives as a tiny flower pot of black “soil” that is actually crumbled shortbread stained by Japanese hojicha tea. Pea tendrils, the so-called weeds, sprout forth. Hidden below are custard and berries. Everything can be eaten, save the pot.

Frilu, which opened June 8, blends Japanese kaiseki with modern Nordic restaurant Noma by way of a Tuscan hill town.

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Owner John-Vincent Troiano, 32, comes by his references honestly. He spent three years apprenticing in Toronto with Japanese master chef Masaki Hashimoto. Before that he worked under Alida Solomon at Tutti Matti downtown learning Tuscan cooking. Then there was the one-month unpaid apprenticeship at Noma in Copenhagen.

He and wife Sandra decided to open their restaurant in Thornhill’s historic centre to “bring the downtown experience uptown,” says Troiano, a Richmond Hill resident.

They gave it a Norwegian name (short for “friluftsliv,” or free air life) and turned what was a Spanish tapas bar into the restaurant Troiano has dreamt of opening since he was 12.

The vibe is all modern Scandinavian with pale wood, dark slate and light fixtures tipped with copper. Yes, that is real moss stippling the back wall, its spongy greenness preserved by oil.

Deft service and interesting sakés on the wine list contribute to what is a relaxing, unstuffy backdrop for the exquisitely minimalist food.

Dinner starts with a playful take on the Oreo. It looks like the real thing but proves to be savoury shortbread sandwiching whipped lard. The server instructs us to twist it open and eat it. Blueberry and black quinoa flours darken the cookie part while the soft filing bears traces of the allspice and cinnamon in Italy’s famed lardo di Colonnata.

It’s the first of 11 courses, all tied to the season. Fried zucchini blossoms are stuffed with mortadella, lemon curd on the side. Separately, they don’t seem to belong together. Together, it’s a beautiful harmony of crunchy beer batter, meaty filling and clean top notes.

Some dishes have names as elegant as a Japanese woodblock print. “Morning dew” is a gelled pearl of saké sitting on iced melon laced with lime; its bracing freshness scrubs the lard from the palate. “Swelling fruit and claw” is what Troiano calls his chilled tomato broth with delicate filaments of crab and pasta, most refreshing on a muggy summer’s eve.

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A seemingly simple dill pickle marks the halfway point of the two-hour meal. Frilu has a snack menu for diners looking to get in and out quickly but Troiano says “98 per cent” of customers order the tasting menu.

The leisurely dinner continues with soy eggplant paired with blinding white squid custard, super subtle and steamed to order. Then comes fluke with sautéed garlic stems and other ephemera of the season in a whack of citrus juices.

Finally, the meat: Three cubes of glistening roast pork belly partnered with smoked peaches and puréed peaches-and-cream corn. The presentation is elegant and the flavours layered.

Troiano does a tea course in homage to his former teacher Hashimoto, who ends dinner with a formal Japanese tea ceremony. At Frilu, kale juice stands in for astringent green matcha. “It’s meant to be a palate cleanser and a digestive,” Troiano says.

There’s more to come.

Dessert No. 1 is a chocolate domed tartufo. Troiano’s version of the Italian ice cream treat involves bananas, white cake and just enough truffle oil to make it compelling. This is a must-eat.

Then it’s time to pull weeds. Gardening never tasted this good.

Amy Pataki is a Toronto-based restaurant critic and reporter covering all things hospitality. Follow her on Twitter: @amypataki

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Thornhill’s Frilu brings four-star downtown tasting menu experience uptown