Kū-kŭm is boldly entering the culinary scene as Tkaronto’s first Indigenous fine dining restaurant. Located at 581 Mount Pleasant Rd., this uptown neighbourhood gem boasts Indigenous traditional cuisine in a casual fine dining atmosphere. Kū-kŭm, the creation of Chef Joseph Shawana of Wikwemikong Unceded Territory and Executive Chef of Snakes & Lattes, opened to the public June 8.
The scent of green cedar and freshly smudged wood awaken your senses as you step into the foodie’s dream that is Kū-kŭm Indigenous Kitchen. A living garden of fragrant herbs climb the wood paneling while birch bark bitings, Indigenous pottery and woven linens by Indigo Arrows add texture. Flickering candlelight casts a warm glow and the schmaltzy jazz vocals of Lacey Hill animate the space with romantic ambiance.
Guests are visually welcomed by a vibrant mural that wraps the room in a celebration of culture. Created by Anishnawbe sisters Chief Ladybird and Aura Last, the artwork honours female energy and harvest with a three sisters tribute, strawberries, Dodems (clans) and the eponymous Kū-kŭm (Cree for Grandmother) herself, seeming to smile benevolently at her guests. The mural frames a window into the workings of Kū-kŭm’s heart, the kitchen.
Artists Ladybird and Aura were present at an intimate pre-opening dinner May 19, along with long-time Aboriginal fusion Chef David Wolfman, my 91 year old Kū-kŭm, Marge Finn, and a full house of restaurant staff’s friends and family eager to begin with appetizers.
The arctic trio, complete with the namesake arctic char, seal tartare and beet & maple cured salmon is a must-try. The tartare is beautifully topped with whitefish roe and a raw quail egg to create a rich and varied flavour profile. The char suggests a sweetness from the Applewood cold-smoking process. The bold Canadian maple and buttery texture of the smoked salmon provides an excellent finish to this shareable dish.
The spring fiddleheads, milkweed pods and pickled cattail hearts were cured in lemon water and served with scrumptious house-made bannock and organic local fruit jellies prepared by Stasis in Roncesvalles. Grandma loved the bannock, which means a lot in an Indigenous family. The Squash and Pearl Barley Risotto is available with pheasant or vegetarian. Aside from the bannock and risotto, Kū-kŭm features an impressive range of gluten free offerings.
The Ontario sourced roasted rack of elk is simply divine. The braised venison tenderloin with parsnips, spiralized butternut squash, meaty chanterelle mushrooms and roasted onion puree was incredible, down to the mouth-watering marrow in the bone.
Boasting a meticulously curated Ontario wine list ranging from Niagara to Prince Edward County, Kū-kŭm also carries an array of local craft beers and an impressive range of Canadian cocktail liquors, featuring Ungava gin and house made tonic, or Dillon’s 95 vodka, fresh beet juice, ginger, lemon and egg white. However, unlike a typical restaurant, alcohol bottles are not displayed. Virgin beverage offerings include maple water, birch root beer, cedar tea, and Organic Fair soda line kola, ginger ale and lavender lemonade. Those watching their sugar can ask for these at half-sweet and they retain full flavour.
However, the desserts might prove irresistible. Choices include a Saskatoon berry ice cream with dried blueberries and candied beets, a pine needle and citrus sorbet, and a decadent sweetgrass crème brûlée with purple beetroot ice cream.
Chef Shawana’s smile lit up the room when he greeted diners post meal. Guests were clearly thrilled with Kū-kŭm’s feel good fare, prepared with love out of fresh local ingredients. Indigenous foodies: We hope you’re hungry.
Paid street parking is available on Mount Pleasant Ave., and the restaurant is about a 15 minute walk from Eglinton subway station or less by bus. Reserve a table with opentable.com or kukum-kitchen.com.
Sarena Johnson is Lenape, Anishinaabe and Cree-Métis from Toronto. She is currently decolonizing her diet, working on Indigenous education policy development and pursuing graduate studies in education.