Five years ago, I decided to take a month off whisky. Whisky had revealed something to me in a brand-new way – I loved flavour. But I didn’t want to be consumed by it. However, I boxed up all my whisky, and moved it to the basement for a month. A week into my “whisky fast”, I was in a bookstore and stumbled upon an incredible book – Frankie Solarik’s Barchef. The first chapter isn’t even a list of cocktails – it’s a list of homemade bitters, enticing recipes which result in a household of mason jars full of spices and dark, bitter, and spicy infusing spirit.
Within a week I’d made every single bitter and infusion in the book, and within two years I’d made every cocktail in the book –from the brilliant combination of absinthe and homemade orgeat liqueur in Van Gogh’s Downfall, to the Tobacco-infused, dry-ice enhanced Mad Man, to my all time favourite cocktail, Smoke and Mirrors which boldly combines smoke, cherry, and rosemary in impeccable fashion. The must-experience cacao-infused mezcal infusion in the book has completely transformed my cocktail game.
I always thought that the penultimate liquid was whisky, followed by coffee – until BarChef convinced me that cocktails deserved number 2 – or perhaps even number 1 – on my favourite liquid list. Just as I was getting into cocktails, I left Toronto, sadly, and wasn’t able to become a regular visitor to one of the world’s best cocktail establishments.
Recently, I visited the bar to try some cocktails, bitters, and infusions – it isn’t your ordinary bar. Frankie Solarik, the head bartender (the Bar Chef) describes his desire to create an “auditorium of perspective” which engages all of the senses while telling, or provoking, a story. The bar focuses on modernist cocktails, created with the manipulation of texture and fragrance through the techniques of modern gastronomy: liquid nitrogen, dry ice, alginates, foams, creams, and soils. These aren’t pairings you see in bars, but rather, the best restaurants in the world. The cocktails leave it ambiguous as to whether they are to be sipped, or eaten. The bar itself is fitted with fire detectors which use heat, rather than smoke, to enable customers to order manhattans smoked with hickory chips before their very eyes. Indeed, the entire establishment smells lightly of hickory smoke. Just visiting the bar is an experience unto itself. As you sit, incredible smells waft through the bar as your neighbours order cocktails – eucalyptus, hickory smoke, cedar, coconut, patchouli, hickory smoke, basil, pine all made an appearance as I sat at the bar.
Cocktails left to right: Apricot, Smoke & Mirrors, and Van Gogh’s Downfall. Courtesy of Barchef, photo credit: Leanne Neufeld Photography.
Can I resist but describe some of what I tasted? I had “The Apricot”, a cocktail full of apricot, almond, loads of spice, and oxidized wine. It is slow and textured - initially almost too intense - but it softly unfolds over time as it dilutes and warms. Apricot and chamomile grow with time - but this is only the cocktail! When you order it, it comes with three smoking spheres: nitro-frozen meringues which explode in your mouth with mint, sharp apricot, and a rich herbaceousness. The flavours are accompanied by a puff of steam out your mouth and nostrils! Each of the three meringues hits you differently with the flavours they bring out, each complementing the cocktail brilliantly.
Or, perhaps, the cocktail Essence of Fall (pictured at the top)– a cocktail which smells so richly of earth, fall mushrooms, and cedar – amidst a cocktail full of maple, orange blossom, mint, almond, oxidized wine, and bright floral notes. If that’s not your jam, how about a cacao manhattan, made with house vermouth and cacao bitters? Or Fields of Spruce, a cocktail which brilliantly combines a light, citrus character with Benedictine-like richness, deep herbal notes, spruce, and madeira. They also serve bottled cocktails, of which the king is The Kensington – a brilliant cocktail which uses patchouli to brighten the deep spice in the cocktail, and offsets the richness of Canadian whisky with rosemary and lavender.
What if you don’t live in Toronto? I recommend getting a taste of Barchef anyway – Barchef project is a toasted chamomile old fashioned with terrific bitters. Incredibly moreish and 25$ for 375 mls. It is a “wow” cocktail, and it’s very accessible.