I had the pleasure to attend the opening night of El Catrin, the new restaurant replacing The Boiler House in Toronto’s Distillery District. The massive space has been transformed into a fabulous south-of-the-border(s) venue with a massive mural taking up the entire north wall. It has to be seen in person to be believed, but here’s a shot from my perch at one of the high-tops:
The Mexico City-born chef, Olivier de Calvez, and his team prepared an eight-course tasting menu for the launch, each item paired with an impressive cocktail. We started off with fresh tortillas and table-side guacamole with three salsas ranging from mild to hot and nueces picante: mixed roasted nuts rubbed with Mexican spices. The peanuts and walnuts were a big hit at the table, with many of us squirrelling them away in our bags to snack on later. Accompanying this course was the enormous traditional margarita. In all honesty, tequila and I are not amigos so I am not a great judge of a good margarita; however, those who like them reported back that it was excellent.
The second course of the night had what I considered one of the best dishes we had that night: ceviche de atun. The beautiful ahi tuna ceviche was done up simply with lime juice, olive oil, watermelon and habanero. It was light, refreshing and I would have been thrilled to eat five or six more servings of it. It was served with a pepino diablo, a tequila-based drink traditionally made with cucumber, jalapeno, pineapple juice and basil. The glass was rimmed with spiced salt and the tequila was not overpowering. Along with those five or six additional ceviche dishes, I could have had as many of this drink. Happily.
Ahi tuna ceviche
Next up were the Mexican staple tacos al pastor: shredded pork marinated in pineapple and axiote topped with cilantro and chopped onion. It paired nicely with the fuego sandia, a popular drink at our table made with watermelon, tequila and some heat. Nicely balanced, this was my second favourite drink of the evening. Brought out shortly after the pork tacos was my absolute hands-down winner of the evening: tostada de higado de pato. Seared foie gras placed on top of a freshly-made tostada and served with a mezcal mango syrup, poblano and pickled red onion. By turn sumptuous, crunchy, spicy and rich, this was a stand out of the night. I was not as big a fan of the accompanying drink, however, the hibisco rosa. Unfortunately, all I could taste was the rosewater which gave the drink a soapy taste. Some people quite liked it; I couldn’t do more than a couple of sips.
Foie gras tostada
A lovely, light cactus salad followed and then camarones al ajillo, jumbo shrimp sautéed with guajillo pepper, garlic, lime juice, white wine served over red rice, black bean purée and guacamole. The shrimp was plump and beautifully cooked but the guacamole needed more salt and a little more lime juice.
Our final main was a gorgeous braised short rib with black mole sauce, sweet potato purée and sugar snap peas. The meat was incredibly tender and the mole was lovely and complex with the warm, rich flavours you should expect of the complex, multi-ingredient sauce.
Braised short rib
Topping off the indulgent evening were two desserts: the classic churros and a barra de chocolat, which is best described as a Mexican Nanaimo bar. It was spiced and smoked with hazelnuts and chocolate and I was in love after one bite. The heat sneaks up on you after a couple of bites which is fine by me. If you’re not a fan of spicy food, you might want to stick with the churros and their chocolate, cajeta and strawberry sauces.
Churros and Mexican chocolate bars.
No doubt, El Catrin will do well in its spot in the Distillery. There is a fabulous, sprawling patio with separate bars and a fire pit for chilly fall evenings. There is a separate room for private parties and the bar itself is quite lovely. There was a great buzz in the air at the launch, and not just due to the copious tequila- and rum-based beverages. Should you go – and you should – do not miss the ceviche, the short rib or the foie gras tostada.