18 Tank House Lane, Distillery District | 416.203.2121 | elcatrin.ca
I love Mexican food. Not Taco Bell “Mexican” food, but real, honest-to-goodness Mexican food that’s nearly impossible to find in Canada. With only about 100,000 people of Mexican ancestry here in the frozen north, there’s a serious lack of doting abuelitas lavishing food on family and friends.
So when El Catrin opened in the Distillery District a few months ago promising authentic Mexican cuisine from a tapas-style menu by “one of Mexico City’s top chefs,” I hastily began recruiting clients for a dinner. (I think the phrase “wall of tequila” may have secured their attendance).
The space is a breathtaking two-storey loft. On one wall is a multicolour floor-to-ceiling Day of the Dead-themed mural bathed in black light, giving it a pulsating, otherworldly quality. Along the other wall is Toronto’s largest collection of tequila and mescal, tucked away in historic beams that frame the bar. The place is littered with Día de Muertos ephemera — painted skulls, dancing skeletons, gruesome dioramas. And somehow, it all works.
The hostesses, unfortunately, are disorganized and disinterested (a theme repeated on my return visits). Once we’re finally seated, our waiter appears with the wine list. It’s solid, but El Catrin’s strength is its cocktails. I order a zarzamora ($11), made of mezcal, tequila, muddled black berries, cilantro and citrus. My guests try various versions of margaritas ($11 to $12.50). We are all mentally transported to a poolside in the Mayan Riveria. One member of our party tries a beer cocktail called a sangrita, mistakenly calling it sangria and thereby committing a cross-cultural blunder.
“No,” says our server sternly. “Sang-GRIT-ta. Mexican. San-GRIA. Spanish. Not Mexican.” It’s a combination of beer, chili and spices, with a salted rim. It’s also the size of your head and requires both hands to hoist; my guest wisely sticks to just one drink.
We all agree to a tapas-style meal until a rogue guest declares he doesn’t share, claiming it has “limited merit.” He also says he’s a vegetarian with a shellfish aversion, so we cut him some slack. The menu, however, is short on vegetarian options. Oddly, its website has a separate vegetarian menu, but this was never offered to us.
Our waiter is knowledgeable, steering us toward some items and away from others. When someone selects something that meets his approval, they earn a gentle muy bien! (His favourite among us earned two muy biens, a smouldering look, and a gentle caress. Muy bien indeed.)
We start, of course, with guacamole. Made tableside, the smell is intoxicating and the snack vanishes in minutes. At our server’s suggestion, we try equites ($8) — fresh corn, cilantro, aioli, chili powder and quesillo cheese served in oversized shot glasses. It’s a hit
Our main dishes appear quickly, but they look so similar we have no idea to whom they belong. We flag down our server and he offers some insight. Then, clearly annoyed, he departs to the kitchen, no doubt to deliver a lesson on table-side service.
After a delay, the three remaining dishes arrive — this time with a proper introduction. The non-sharer among us orders chile xcatic ($14), which is a yellow hot pepper stuffed with a stew of mahi mahi, axiote sauce, black bean puree and guacamole. It’s so beautifully plated that the non-sharer insists on sharing. The mahi mahi is tender and the combination of sharp, sweet and earthy flavours make this dish worth struggling through the pronunciation.
The cochinita pibil ($15) is a pork brisket braised for 24 hours and its smoky floral flavour is exactly as it should be. My guest’s beef short ribs ($15), braised just as long with almond mole, are also good, but lack any defining taste. They’re just good ribs.
Regrettably, the remainder of the dishes are ordinary. Lamb chops, despite being called cordero pipian ($18), are just lamb chops with mole sauce and squash. The pato carnitas en salsa borracha ($15), a Mexican-style duck confit, is stringy and the fusion of French and Mexican cuisine is not harmonious.
For dessert, we try the sampler plate of 3 items ($18): a double order of churros along with a Mexican bread pudding with raisins. The moment it hits the table, the non-sharer’s stance against communal food vanishes.
The churros (deep-fried pastries rolled in sugar and cinnamon) are crispy-doughy morsels of heaven. The bread pudding has good texture and a satisfying molasses flavour, but is too sweet by half.
I like El Catrin. I wanted to love it. I wanted it to deliver me to Mexico — and in terms of décor and drink, it did. But the food? Let’s just say nobody’s abuelita is going to be dethroned any time soon.
Judge Foodie’s verdict
Highs: décor, cocktails, some menu items
Lows: hostess service, dishes need some refining
Kirsten Thompson is a Toronto-based research lawyer and commercial litigator. Since her call to the bar in 2000, she estimates that her restaurant to courtroom ratio has been approximately 14:1. Thoughts? Comments? Ideas for a review? Email her. Follow Judge Foodie on Twitter: @Judge_Foodie