BarChef has acted as a pioneer for the Toronto cocktail renaissance. Prior to Frankie Solarik and Brent VanderVeen pairing together to open their molecular mixology concept, there wasn't a huge range of places to enjoy an innovative cocktail in the city.
These days, there's no shortage of competition, from period haunts like TTS and Geraldine , to similarly modernist establishments including neighbouring Rush Lane . Dozens of the best bartenders in the city have worked the wood at some point or another here, and yet the quality of product and experience on offer has yet to waver in any way.
I first visited about a week or so after they opened, when Solarik was making cocktails with Peking duck and soy sauce, and serving bubbles of reverse-spherified mint ravioli on spoons. Some of the concepts seemed a little high-minded back then, but there was one drink that caught my eye - a Manhattan, served on a platter in a smoke-filled belljar.
The drink was the same price it is now, an eye-watering $45, but the sheer ceremony of watching the wood chips getting torched, and the billow of smoke that filled the vaunted room as the jar was lifted, made it the first time I ever didn't regret paying so much for a drink.
That stuff, however, is generally for the ballers only, so it's nice to see that the offerings here have since expanded to incorporate a larger list of simpler fare, with prices running between thirteen and fourteen dollars. The attention to detail is the same, but you're more likely to receive a great drink without any pretense, if that's your thing.
I popped by to see how BarChef has been doing after five years on the scene, and things are looking just great. The room hasn't changed much, if at all, with the impressively-stacked backbar dominating a sultry, candle-lit, lounge space. A dining table in the back is now dominated by a wall of apothecary bottles, all stuffed with Solarik's name-branded bitters and tinctures. Many of the drinks are now made in the production kitchen, alongside the molecular snack menu.
Shrimp Tacos ($4.75 each) are probably the most straightforward thing on offer, served up with pickled red cabbage, avocado, and aioli. Each taco houses a gargantuan jumbo shrimp, and is topped with a little micro greens.
The first drink I tried was the Gala cocktail ($14). A sugar cube is doused with an anise-heavy house-made apricot bitters, with the addition of elderflower liqueur and sparkling wine. It's a riff on a classic champagne cocktail, and exceptionally delicious.
The pakoras ($11) are made with spinach and onion, and served with a mint and yogurt chutney. They're mercifully easy on the curry spice, but given the delicate cocktails we're trying, I'm grateful to be offered a little something to even the playing field on my tongue. The palate cleanser we're served is composed of a celery and violet snow, with micro basil, and tiny jellies of maraschino, chamomile, and lemon.
I also tried the Autumn cocktail ($14). It's a stirred concoction of rye, vanilla-infused brandy, madeira wine, and an anise syrup with fir bitters. Though the celery snow helped clear off some of the pakora flavours (not a natural pairing for cocktails, in hindsight), this one is less memorable. Like even the best cocktail bars in the city, there's a world of difference between a competent drink, and an outstanding one. That said, there's nothing I could possibly regret about either of the cocktails I enjoyed.
To summarize, BarChef is much the same as it's always been. For the most part, the drinks are inventive and as good as anywhere else in the city, and for that, it's probably one of the better places you could take that visiting friend from out of town who thinks he's seen everything. Splurge on one of those Manhattans, and it'll at least send him home with a story or two.