At the hottest restaurants, cocktails are as sophisticated as the food. Bartenders are playing with liquid nitrogen, concocting infusions, and changing the way we drink. It’s the most exciting gastronomic development in years
Smoke and firewater: Barchef, on Queen West, serves a $45 haute manhattan, a mix of whisky, vanilla cognac and bitters that arrives in a bell jar filled with hickory smoke (Image: Finn O'Hara)
There are only two kinds of cocktails—those that are dead and those that are alive—and the only way to tell them apart is to taste them. A dead drink is at best two-dimensional, merely a mixture of liquids; a living cocktail is full of motion as its flavours unfold on the palate. It’s like the difference between a paint-by-numbers canvas and a true work of art. And in this city, the dead outnumber the living by about a thousand to one.
But not for long, thanks to a handful of determined pioneers. Frankie Solarik at Barchef, Moses McIntee at Ame, Jen Agg at the Black Hoof and Bill Sweete at Sidecar make up the new avant-garde, along with Christine Sismondo, the author of the influential book Mondo Cocktail, who is opening her own place on College Street in July, wryly called the Toronto Temperance Society. Each one has a different view of what constitutes a great cocktail, but they all share a single belief: it’s high time the age of the crantini was over.
The most extreme place to observe this revolution is Barchef, the dimly lit temple of mixology on Queen West where Frankie Solarik is the celebrant. Tall, slim and bearded, wearing a black porkpie hat, he works behind a bar crowded with more than 30 spiced infusions and subtle elixirs in various flasks and jars. I’ve never seen such a set-up—like an alchemist’s laboratory, complete with the molecular foams, flavoured airs and gelatinous transubstantiations that are Solarik’s specialty. His masterpiece is a smoked vanilla manhattan, a $45 cocktail set in a bell jar filled with hickory smoke until it smells like a campfire and tastes like heaven.
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