In the good ol' days of the American Goldrush, there were bars and there were barkeeps... and then there was the pioneer, "Professor" Jerry Thomas. Not only was he the author of one of the first books on cocktails, The Bon Vivant's Companion, he was also the man responsible for establishing the image of a bartender as a creative professional.
Over 100 years later and Toronto has its own pioneer of mixology and you can find him at his new Queen Street West hot spot, BarChef.
I don't believ
e there's anyone quite like Frankie Solarik or any bar quite like this, which is a very good thing for Torontonians. Granted, there are several places that "mix" using their own house made ingredients, but not to the extent that Solarik does.
This bar setting is most unusual. At one end of the bar, there's a glistening block of ice and alongside rows of little globe-shaped jars are about a dozen plates with various dry salt or sugar-type ingredients. This makes the bar resemble a modern day apothecary shop; one with a vast supply of alcohol added to the mix, that is.
Here, the lights are low, the room has a glam appeal and there's expectation in the air. I can't help but notice the mysterious aroma of incense, to which Solarik explains,"It's the hickory smoked wood we use for our Manhattan." Oh, of course.
This place may look modern and ultra cool but the bar's mis-en-place is very traditional. Frankie and his sous bar chef, Aaron Gaulke, make everything from scratch, including herb flavoured syrups, fresh juices, bitters - even the ice blocks they chip away at are all made "in house".
With partner-sommelier, Brent VanderVeen, Solarik saw the need to create something totally unique for Toronto's bar scene and they've succeeded beyond my expectations.
Solarik may stick to all the traditional techniques but the creative direction he's moved in is bringing him and BarChef, world wide industry recognition. Soon Solarik will be off to London, England, to judge an international drinks competition.
"Based on our passion for what we do, we express ourselves creatively and artistically," Frankie tells me with an edge of excitement in his voice. As I read the cocktail menu, I just cannot make up my mind what to try from the twenty-eight creations listed. Frankie tries to narrow it down for me. Personally, I like classic cocktails, not the "frou-frou" stuff so Frankie suggests sampling their Martini Three Ways ($20). Intrigued, I wait to see what will appear.
A white, oblong tray arrives with three small glass shots. The Bar Chef explains the drink components to me. It's a de-constructed martini, vodka or gin, olive, rosemary ravioli, puree, green olive air. Regardless of how professional I must conduct myself, I still feel like a kid in a candy shop.
That feeling continues when I try an "amuse" drink concept in the molecular gastronomy tradition. A white ceramic spoon arrives with four multicoloured globules. I ask what to do and then slide all four in my mouth and wait for a minute, bite down gently and experience a "Molecular Cosmo". I'm enchanted. What a fascinating way to lead into dinner. Yes, this is not just a bar, but a dining spot too.
"Right from the start, there was a demand for dinner," Brent tells me. The partners and their team came up with a menu that covers "grazers" or fits the bill for those looking for something more substantial. The seared duck breast ($19) served with chunks of root vegetables catches my eye and right away, the server selects an appropriate wine. However, I opt for a red from the Southern Rhone, instead. Without a doubt,this is my kind of 'bar' food in my kind of setting: dark, warm, yet vibrant. Thanks to Solarik, the BarChef experience is one part mixology, one part alchemy and capable of enchanting this bon vivant on many levels - including molecularly.