Le Ti Colibri brings French-Caribbean flavour to the downtown core.
For the better part of a century, Kensington Market has served as an incubator for culinary intermingling, where Mexican tamales bump up against European cheeses, and where people in the city are invited to come, feast, and fry their freak flag. “People come to Kensington Market to walk, to chill, to try new things. It’s the perfect place to introduce the city to our culture,” says Kristel Procida, sitting in the back of her brightly coloured French-Creole restaurant, Le Ti Colibri, on Augusta Ave. While most French-Caribbean families who come to Canada settle in Montreal (for the language and the existing community), Procida, who was born in Guadeloupe and grew up in Paris, was drawn to Toronto’s multicultural mishmash. It’s one of the most diverse cities in the world, she says proudly. “We don’t just want to serve people from our community.”
A former marketing specialist and television programmer, Procida moved here three-and-a-half years ago, before reconnecting with, and falling for, Matthias Laurin, an old high-school friend from Paris whose father is from Martinique, the other French-Caribbean island. After a visit back to Guadeloupe and Martinique last winter, the two decided that Toronto might just be ready to embrace Creole cooking. In July, they opened Le Ti Colibri, a tiny space with just a few stools and a lovely back patio.
The meat-free menu reflects the rich, textured history of the small islands, which are still legally and economically part of France. Laurin learned Martinique’s cooking from his grandparents, but trained in and around Paris as a chef over the past 15 years, building up a classical European touch in the kitchen. (He’s also a professional sound engineer and DJ, and pumps out a mean zouk and reggae soundtrack.) The results are a melding of African, native Indian, and European influences, all shaped by Laurin’s vegetarianism (fish, however, is a mainstay here).
“This is a cuisine with a story,” he explains, kneading the dough for bokit, a fried bread that was a staple of the islands’ African slaves. “It’s not fancy,” he says, taking the golden bread from the fryer a few minutes later, then splitting the puffy, steaming loaf open. He piles in shredded, lemony, rehydrated salt cod, avocado, lettuce, tomato, and tangy fresh pepper sauce, then wraps it in paper so it stays together. The contrast of the hot, crisp bread and the cool ingredients is a textural head flip, but it adds a dimension that makes it more than just a sandwich. “It’s just a poor people’s food, but it’s accessible.”
Laurin and Procida make everything on the menu from scratch, and the mix of flavours add up to some lovely surprises. Take the chayote, a sweetish tuber that’s peeled, shredded, and mixed with ginger, coconut, and soy milk, to form a sort of béchamel, then topped with gruyère and baked. It’s soft, sweet, and creamy, but undeniably light, a beach version of a gratin, normally a wintery French country dish. Accras, which are saltfish fritters, come in little balls flecked with fresh chives, green onions, and parsley; they’re golden from the oil, but somehow not greasy. Crisp on the outside and chewy in the middle, they’re the perfect foil for the homemade hot sauce that’s equal parts tang and fire.
Procida is a hell of a baker, pulling together a dense, sticky upside-down pineapple cake, and a coconut flan that’s prepared like a crème brûlé, thick with coconut cream. On weekends throughout the summer, Laurin will even make a few buckets of traditional coconut sorbet, laboriously churned by hand over the course of several hours. Coconut, it goes without saying, is a pretty central ingredient here.
Despite such a small community of Creoles in Toronto, Le Ti Colibri draws its share of people who’ve visited the French Caribbean on vacation. Pulled in off Augusta Avenue by the zouk beats and the bright, tropical colours of the walls, they’ll pop their heads in, take a look at the food, and find their way to the back patio. Under the thatched sunshade, they’ll order up a a glass of freshly squeezed lemonade, sweetened with raw sugar, and perhaps a bokit. Sure, the sand isn’t there, and the nearest ocean is a day’s drive away, but the brightness of the flavours and the warmth of the welcome might just bring back that sweet island vibe.
“Torontonians know Jamaican, Trinidadian, and other Caribbean cuisines,” says Procida. “Now, we hope they’re ready for Creole.” Laurin nods his head in agreement, and smiles. “This,” he says, pointing around at their little Kensington oasis, “is a dream.”
Le Ti Colibri, 291 Augusta Ave., 416-925-2223. #KNM