Roll Play Bar
Roll Play Bar is a semi-hidden, casual cocktail bar, lounge and event venue found in an unexpected part of the city, considering what it is. Located at Yonge & Dundas in a second-floor space beside BMV Books, there's no obvious signage to indicate it's there, except for a red lantern and a generic "BAR" sign out front.
Heading up the stairway, patrons pass a funky pop-art collage of found images merged with street graffiti on the walls by Canadian artists Steep Daniels and Chris Perez . It blends together Asian and Western cultures and gives a preview of what I'm told this place is all about: namely, art, music, love and Asian pop culture.
Inside, the dimly lit, predominantly black and red, 2,000-sq-ft space has a bit of an industrial warehouse vibe (high ceilings, exposed ducts and brick) mixed with a sleek Asian-inspired lounge feel. With booths, tables and couches, the capacity here is 130, or 60 seated. There are unisex washrooms (and contrary to Chinese stereotypes, they're very clean).
This was most recently a board game cafe of a similar name (the "Cafe" in its title has just been replaced with "Bar"); a change of ownership - it's now run by a team of Chinese expats and CBCs (Canadian-Born Chinese) - has completely transformed its concept and look, although some games remain and are available upon request.
Its artistic direction is led by creative director Lavien Lee, a musician himself. A corner of the venue is a performance area for live music acts of a variety of genres, from rock and pop to jazz, hip-hop and R&B. Asian indie films silently play on flatscreens or are projected on a wall ( Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , Memories of Matsuko , Wong Kar Wai flicks for sure).
Artwork is prominently featured, rotating every three weeks or so, including a "love" wall (also by New York-based artist Steep Daniels) with the Chinese character for the word written repeatedly, along with a portrait entitled Ken by the ever-prolific actor/filmmaker/artist/writer/multiple-degree-holder James Franco.
From 5pm-7pm daily, "cold tea" specials are offered, with $5 mixed drinks and craft beer (normally $8) on tap. Those seeking rare beer will find limited edition 330ml bottles of Omnipollo Hypnopompa ($19 each), a burnt marshmallow and Tahitian vanilla bean brew from Europe. There are only a few cases in Toronto, so the supply may not last long.
Consignment wines go by the glass ($9-$10) or bottle ($35-$195), but if you're here to imbibe, the stars are the cocktails.
Head bartender/mixologist Berry Sit is originally from Hong Kong and worked for a decade making drinks at swank bars and nightclubs in Lan Kwai Fong, a nightlife hot spot on the island. Here, he's created a menu of 88 (an auspicious number) cocktails highlighting uniquely Asian flavours.
One of their signatures, the lychee martini ($10), contains Tag No.5 vodka, lychee juice and Creme Yvette, giving it a nice balance of flavours; lychee definitely stands out, along with hints of vanilla. It's a fruity and sweet drink that doesn't taste too boozy (which can be dangerous as it actually contains 1.5oz of alcohol).
My personal fave is the Hong Kong martini ($12), a play on the classic cha chaan teng (HK-style diner) drink, the yuanyang . With a double whammy of caffeine - a house-made infusion of Earl Grey gin plus a shot of espresso - along with some evaporated milk, this is a subtly sweet, ingenious concoction for lovers of caffeine and alcohol (of which I am both).
Sit makes all his own infusions in-house (you can see them displayed on the shelves) and he's even created healthy mocktails ($8) that use Chinese herbs and ingredients like ginseng, red dates and goji berries according to the Five Elements of Traditional Chinese Medicine (Wood, Earth, Water, Fire, Metal).
Other non-alcoholic beverage alternatives include espresso-based drinks using beans from local roaster Dark City .
Another element here that shouldn't be ignored is the food. Snacks include a Korean-inspired cucumber salad ($4) along with sweet, salty and spicy nuts ($5) and crunchy popcorn chicken ($6) coated in cornflakes and five spice, baked (no fried foods here) and served with sriracha aioli as dip. These are the perfect, addictive accompaniments to a night of drinking.
More substantial eats consist of Adobo pulled pork pancakes ($6) - small savoury Chinese pancakes sandwiching juicy, salty and super tasty braised pork with scallions and sesames - and Peking duck flatbread ($12), which is like Chinese pizza, and crazy delicious; it's sweet, savoury and satisfying. Who knew hoisin sauce and cheese could work so well together?
For dessert, there's white wine shaved ice ($7) topped with black currant jelly and mint shavings. It's not really my kind of thing, but I've never been a big fan of shaved ice.
One wouldn't necessarily expect a spot like this at Yonge & Dundas; this is a decidedly artsy, non-commercial place in an extremely commercial area, and it should be a welcome addition to those looking for something a little different if and when they find themselves in this part of town.