Toronto just got a lot more festive and caliente with the opening of El Catrin Destileria in the space that was formerly known as the Boiler House in the Distillery District. While tacos have been an ever increasingly popular food trend and has seen the opening of numerous taquerias across the city in recent months, El Catrin promises to stand out from the rest of the pack, serving "authentic traditional and modern Mexican cuisine" while boasting a party-worthy patio and bringing us a Mexican experience far from Mexico.
El Catrin is the brainchild of the two Distillery’s owners, Mathew Rosenblatt and John Berman, and you can instantly tell they have put a lot of love and thought into the restaurant, in terms of design, concept, food, drinks, service, and overall ambience. As Mathew explained, El Catrin "is not a dining room; it's a Mexican experience."
The first thing that caught my eye as I walked up to El Catrin was the newly renovated, 5000 square feet patio. Gone were the dark and rather dull-looking furnishings from the Boiler House days, replaced with bright and cheerful yellow tables and chairs, banquettes lined with colourful pillows, beautiful light fixtures suspended from the wooden rafters, and a large fire cauldron in the centre, waiting to warm the crowds later in the evening.
Much like the patio, the dark furnishings and decor inside the new restaurant had also disappeared. The booths that previously dominated the Boiler Room had been removed to create a more open and brighter space throughout the whole restaurant, lending it a friendlier and more sociable atmosphere. A giant colourful mural, painted by Mexican street artist Oscar Flores, dominates the back wall parallel to the bar, and can be admired by everyone in the restaurant thanks to this new open-concept dining room.
The renovations were overseen by Toronto-based interior design firm Munge Leung, who have also overseen the spaces of Gusto 101, Weslodge, and La Société, amongst others. It was obvious looking around that a lot of care was given to the design of the place, down to the little details—including the various mini Mexican-themed vignettes hung around the restaurant and a breathtakingly gorgeous alcove filled with candles and knick-knacks that separates the lower private dining area from the washrooms. Decorative pieces, including the patio chairs and tables, tiles, and light fixtures, were specially brought in from Mexico to bring a real Mexican flavour to the space. El Catrin boasts two private dining areas (or as private as you can get in the open-concept dining room), perfect for large groups and special events—one tucked away in an alcove in the far side of the restaurant and the other in the upstairs loft space, which a fantastic view of the whole dining room below.
To match the striking design, one of Mexico City’s top chefs was recruited to head up the kitchen and menus at El Catrin. Chef Olivier Le Calvez, a Le Cordon Bleu-trained chef who has most recently worked at the Live Aqua Bosques Hotel & Spa in Mexico as well as an instructor at Le Cordon Bleu Mexico, brings to El Catrin a fresh and eclectic tapas-style menu, incorporating his interpretation of both traditional and modern Mexican cuisine and flavours. Guacamole features a whole avocado and is made fresh table-side and served with their house-made tortilla chips—stir in one of their three salsas (verde, roja or morita) for some heightened flavour and extra heat (I especially love it with the smokey salsa morita). Chef Olivier serves up his version of the popular Mexican street food tacos al pastor, with super moist and flavour shaved pork. It's simple. it's delicious. It's what a good taco should be.
|taco al pastor|
|tostada de higado de pato|
|ensalada de nopal|
Gussied up tostadas like the tostado de higado de pato features one ounce of hot-seared foie gras. The acidity of the red onion relish alongside really helps cut the richness of the foie gras and brings all the flavours together. Ingredients that are commonly found in Mexico but are rarer to find on restaurant menus in Toronto are introduced to diners, like the cactus salad. Being my first time having cactus salad, it was hard for me to pinpoint the texture of it—I'd probably liken it to a cross between a tomato, a pepper, and okra. The salad itself was light and refreshing with some lovely heat.
|vuelve a la vida el catrin|
|costilla corta en mole negro|
The menu is also heavy on seafood, with lots of shrimp, lobster and fish offerings, and includes a selection of ceviches, like ceviche de atún (tuna) and my favourite, vuelve a la vida el catrin, featuring an east coast oyster with a ceviche of shrimp, octopus, bay scallops, red onion, and acapulco cocktail sauce. While modern twists on Mexican staples will fast become favourites amongst diners, Chef Olivier's innovativeness really shines through in the House Specialties, including the costilla corta en mole negro, an absolutely melt-in-your-mouth 24-hour braised beef short rib that's served with black mole sauce (no knife required!).
The dessert menu makes for a sweet ending to a fantastic meal, with freshly deep-fried churros—a popular Mexican "doughnut" of sorts that's tossed in cinnamon sugar and often served (or filled) with a dipping sauce. El Catrin serves its version alongside three sauces: cajeta (similar to dulce de leche but made with goat’s milk), chocolate, and strawberry. They also do their own play on a Mexican Chocolate Bar, featuring double-smoked spiced hazelnuts. Sinfully rich and decadent, you can really feel the heat of chilies and a prominent smokey, almost tobacco-like flavour coming through.
|agua de coco|
As I was seated right at the bar, I had a first-hand view of the bartenders who worked non-stop shaking and pouring cocktails all evening long. Each of the eight courses were paired with one of their fun and creative cocktails, each one unique in their own way and oh-so-delicious. I love how much thought went into each pairing of the drink and the food, and how they worked to complement or enhance one another, as any good pairing should do. Some of my favourite cocktails of the evening were: the pepino diablo ("cucumber devil"), with Milagro Blanco, muddled cucumber and serrano peppers, agave, citrus juice, and a tajin rim; the fuego sandia ("watermelon fire"), with Tromba Blanco, St. Germaine, watermelon juice, and lemon juice; zaramora ("blackberry"), with Jaral del Barrio Joven mezcal, Patron Citronage, muddled blackberries, cilantro and citrus juice; and agua de coco ("coconut water"), with Patron Café, Amarula, coconut water and lemon.
The bar from the Boiler House days still remains, but is given new life with beautiful, backlit shelves constructed from The Distillery’s old whisky racks that highlight Canada’s largest collection of tequila and mescal, with over 140 brands and many of which have never before been offered in the country until now. Enjoy the complexities and nuances of blancos, reposados and anejos with either vertical or horizontal tequila or mescal flights. Also available are wines from Chile, Spain, and Portugal, along with refreshing non-alcoholic agua frescas.
El Catrin is certainly a hip new addition to the Distillery District, and the Toronto restaurant scene as a whole. Best of all, it'll soon be able to cater to even more folks as they have lunch/brunch, children's, and gluten-free menus coming in the near future. “I do not want El Catrin to be used as a formal dining room. Eating in Mexico with friends and family should be lively. Eating at El Catrin will be a fiesta,“ says Chef Olivier. A fiesta it certainly is, and I won’t be surprised if El Catrin becomes one of the hottest new restaurants this year.
El Catrin Destileria
18 Tank House Lane
The Distillery District
Tel: 416-203-2121 Twitter: @elcatrinca