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Rakia Bar

Posted by Alexandra Grigorescu / Listed on August 27, 2012 / review policy

rakia bar torontoRakia Bar is difficult to categorize. Although it's open for brunch and dinner 7 days a week, with a mouthwatering menu composed by Chef Brook Kavanagh (of La Palette fame), much of its branding (pun intended) focuses on rakia, an incredibly aromatic fruit brandy.

Located in the old Red Rocket space in Leslieville, it has big, much-adored shoes to fill, and following significant neighbourhood concern over potential noise issues and liquor license delays, they finally opened last Saturday.

rakia bar torontoThe interior is a basement space with industrial accents--exposed ducts, sleek black walls, and even a copper still--as well as distinctly lounge-y elements such as the plush bright pink chairs, and utterly relaxing leather-trimmed banquettes. A carved portrait of Nikola Tesla scowls from the back.

rakia bar torontoDespite its sunken location, ample light spills out through large windows over late brunch diners and the open kitchen on a Wednesday afternoon. When you enter, you're welcomed by a large coffee maker that no doubt sees heavy action in the morning, and is the exclusive Canadian brewer of Julius Meinl coffee (one of Europe's oldest roasters).

rakia bar torontoFirst opened in Belgrade, this is the European restaurant's first foray into North America. It's helmed by Dusan Varga, who is warm and utterly knowledgeable about his craft, the art of producing rakia, and his vision for the space (the latter of which is rarer that you might think). Rakia Bar has its own distillery in Europe, and serves many of its proprietary brandies in the bar. Their line of Fairy's Wildflower--plum brandies infused with notes of thyme, honey, mint or lemon--will soon be available at the LCBO, and are also available as flights (which come presented on a wooden platter flanked by a bell to be rung when you're ready for more).

rakia bar torontoWhat can I say? It's an authentic, cosmopolitan Eastern European experience. As a full disclaimer, I should mention that part (but not too significant a part) of my delight were the familiar flavours of my childhood. For example, kashkaval, an aged sheep's milk cheese that my grandmother used to serve with apple slices, comes paired with a gorgeous, rose-scented quince brandy.

rakia bar torontoSlices of baguette are paired with a decadent butter spread of spiced, suckling pig run-off. To start, we try the cucumber salad ($6). It's a fresh-looking plate, with lengthwise cucumber shavings coated in house-cultured cream, and accented with dill and puffed wild rice. Although the cream is a bit too heavy for my taste, the other flavours are well-balanced, and the wild rice lends a bit of unexpected crunch.

rakia bar torontoOur next plate, a vegetarian dish, is Varga's attempt to lure herbivores back onto meat. It's a gibanica ($22)--a phyllo pastry soaked in cream, then layered and baked--bursting with thick, meaty mushrooms, fresh seasonal veggies, and a rich brown butter hollandaise. The texture of the gibanica was thoroughly satisfying, and almost reminiscent of a stew. It arrives on a plate dotted with wilted spinach, asparagus, and bright red peppers, but the gibanica needs no support, and is undoubtedly the focus of the plate.

In the interim, we sample the Commissar ($7.50), a pear-based brandy, as well as the Grandfather ($35), a plum brandy that was then aged in barrels to impart a subtle smoked aroma. The variety of brandy is instantly identifiable by its scent, and although Varga warns us in advance of the wave of warmth that's guaranteed to spread across your chest on its way down, it still catches us off-guard.

rakia bar torontoThen arrives the show-stopper--duck leg paprikash ($30, lead photo). A paprika-dusted duck leg, pan-roasted to tender, crispy-skinned perfection, on a hearty stew of baby spinach, summer squash and nokedli (Hungarian egg dumplings). You'll need a big appetite for this, and the dish could easily be split between two people, but we weren't so much passing it back and forth as tugging it back towards ourselves. Perhaps we were favored with a particularly fine duck leg, but it had just enough fat, and the balance between the roasted, flavoured skin and the juicy meat was the mark of a pro.

rakia bar torontoThe food is rich, satisfying, and admittedly heavy (in that distinct Eastern European way that induces psychosomatic visions of a grandmother saying you're 'all skin and bones'), but the drinks can't be overlooked. Varga tells me that the liquor, which is naturally fermented and distilled by hand, is meant to be sipped, and paired with food. There are also 6 cocktails, playfully named after Eastern European stars of literature and film--my favourite is the Petefi ($11), with its blend of cherry brandy, clove, cinnamon and cherry juice syrup.

rakia bar torontoVarga's concern isn't client turnover--rather, he encourages people to stop in for the brandy alone. To this end, each 1 oz. glass from the bar's 40 or so brandy offerings, is paired with a small mezze--one-bite tapas which are designed to complement the subtle fragrances, and deliver some much needed sustenance.

rakia bar torontoOr, if you're in the market for a more significant snack, try the crispy smelts with lemon and capers ($5, and a childhood favourite of mine), the dalmatian calamari ($15), with inked wild rice, scallops and red pepper, or the chevapi ($15)--a trio of uncased minced meat sausages in venison, boar, and lamb, and paired with sour cherry and onion preserve and Balkan-style flat bread. Just come prepared with forgiving waistbands.

Photos by Jesse Milns



Alicia / August 19, 2012 at 04:49 pm
My husband and I walked by last night and since Rakia Bar was open we went in for dinner. We were greeted by the friendliest people who were obviously excited about their new restaurant. The food was amazing. Unlike anything we have ever tried in Toronto. The owners take great pride in their dishes and came over to explain every detail. You could tell they really cared about their food/drinks and the experience! We are already planning our next trip back!
Jane / August 20, 2012 at 11:50 am
I visited Rakia Bar with a small group of friends this weekend. I was amazed at the food, staff and the concept itself. There is nothing like this currently in Toronto. Cozy atmosphere and an opportunity to taste all types of fruit brandies (some I did not even know they existed) makes this a very unique experience. Definitelly planning to visit again!
Paul / August 27, 2012 at 12:34 pm
Looks great. I love Eastern European dishes. I'll have to make a date.
Kristina / August 27, 2012 at 01:09 pm
Planning on visiting it soon, since i haven't been home in Serbia for two years now. i could need a taste of home :)
Job / August 27, 2012 at 11:34 pm
Have been waiting for this for a long time.
kook / August 28, 2012 at 08:46 am
the first photo is so enticing!
Michelle / August 29, 2012 at 11:25 am
What an incredible expereince! My gf's and I are food fanatics and most definietly enjoyed our experience at Rakia Bar. Not only was the service OUTSTANDING but the food was literally to die for. We plan our next Brunch trip this long weekend... looking forward to sampeling some more rakia. Ziveli!
Shannon / September 10, 2012 at 03:56 pm
My husband, best friend and I had the pleasure of dining here last Friday. The food was OUTSTANDING! I seriously haven't been that impressed in a long time. Lick the plate clean kind of food. We also tried the Rakia flight and although i quickly learned that it wasn't for won't stop me from going back. The cocktails were delicious! I enjoyed a very refreshing Hibiscus beverage that was not on the menu. The service here was also fantastic, they went above and beyond, taking the time to explain everything in detail. Looking to the next time!
marisa and larisa / September 22, 2012 at 10:03 pm
Place is o.k but not traditional at all.We didn't like the menu.
Food was terrible.We paid $88 dinner for two,that didnt worth,never had that our lives.
We definitely not going or recommand this place.
Mirela / October 4, 2012 at 10:10 am
We like this restaurant. It is special ! Food is not in huge proportions and we do not look for that.It has right proportion and a huge different taste compared with other restaurants. Tasteful and cute. Small details on the table and around makes you feel the special care and attention. The personal is extremely friendly and they like to talk about traditions and the way the it was prepared. We will come again.
Anita / October 4, 2012 at 10:50 pm
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Cori Wilkes / February 3, 2013 at 01:57 pm
You must go, the food is amazing, the staff so nice and really am I in Toronto - the quality of the food for the price is ridiculous. Relaxing brunch with great music and food that focuses on quality and uniqueness.
Melissa / April 2, 2013 at 07:16 pm
Rakia Bar is holding a Rakia Tasting workshop on April 13, 2013.

The owner, David, will be going over the distillation process of rakia, as well as a tasting of 6 different kinds of rakia along food pairing with Balkan hors d'oeuvres.

If you haven't tried it for yourself, this is the time to do it!

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