An island of Jamaican cool on busy College Street in downtown Toronto, AF1 Caribbean Canteen is a full-service, fast-casual, fully-licensed restaurant, offering dine-in and take-out, in-house and on-site catering. As well, the restaurant can be booked for private events.
The split-level room – inspired by Chef-Owner Adrian Forte’s fondness for Jamaican beach shacks – is an enchanting mix of corrugated tin and multi-colored distressed wood. Pull up a miss-matched, painted wooden kitchen chair to one of the tables, where you’ll find the kind of tableware your granny has, then calibrate your taste buds with rum punch, a stubby Red Strip, or ice cold Ting.
On one wall, a massive bank of exposed speakers – the woofers and tweeters an homage to Jamaican dancehall culture – and on the soundtrack: soca, ska, rock steady, and dancehall, of course!
During the warmer months, grab a table on the patio and enjoy the aroma and action of the massive outdoor smoker.
“Caribbean” is one of those catchall words used by restaurants and chefs, and it can mean Trinidadian, Jamaican, Haitian, Guyanese, you know, Island food. But here’s the thing, if a joint serves roti, it’s not Jamaican. And that’s why you won’t find roti on the menu here.
Chef Forte, explains, “Jerk is a signature style of Jamaican cooking and where I’m from, true jerk has to be done a certain way. Jerk isn’t just a spice blend, it’s a process. Jerk or jerking means the meat has been marinated first in a dry, then wet rub for a good 36 hours. After that, it’s hot smoked, and that can take from three to eight hours, depending on the meat.”
The key to authentic jerk is the Jamaican pimento tree: its wood and its berries. Known as allspice, the dried berries are readily available here, but the wood is impossible to find in Canada, so Forte imports it from Jamaica by the bagful. And even though it costs a bomb, the flavour and aroma it infuses into the meat is what makes AF1 Caribbean Canteen’s jerk the real deal. And it’s why the joint has been hopping since the moment it opened on April 9, 2017.
“A lot of Toronto’s Caribbean restaurants are not focused.” Says Forte, “I wanted to focus on Jamaican food classics: ackee and saltfish, jerk chicken, oxtail, mackerel and dumplings, curried goat, fritters, rice.” But then why, you might ask, is the place called “Caribbean” and not Jamaican Canteen? Easy. Forte’s an inclusive guy and so is his vision. Sure, this is a Jamaican restaurant, but his chefs are from all over the Caribbean and they create the daily specials – their specials from their culinary traditions.
In December, 2016, Adrian Forte made a culinary pilgrimage back home to Jamaica, where for two weeks, he explored his island birthplace, eating at every roadside stand and beach shack he found – and the Toronto food scene is richer for it. Jerk done right is Forte’s passion, his original culinary tradition, and that’s what called him back home, and what lead him here, to AF1 Caribbean Canteen.
To find out more about Chef Adrian Forte, visit adrianforte.com.