Entering El Catrin is like stepping into a polychromatic, hallucinatory fantasy. It’s vivid. It’s vast. It’s a vision you won’t forget.
Toronto’s newest Mexican establishment in the historic Distillery District has moved into the space formerly occupied by the Boiler House and has transformed it into an illustrious sphere for the senses. Dark yet vibrant, El Catrin offers a journey of sophisticated intensity.
I had the pleasure of dining there as a belated birthday gift from a friend who suggested the restaurant and promised a radical departure from our usual Neapolitan pizza outings.
From the cobble-stoned path, passersby can get a glimpse of the 5,000 square foot patio, a campfire scene from a far-off destination furnished with canary yellow tables and chairs surrounding an open fire pit.
At the entrance to the dining room, patrons are confronted with an immense, dramatic, floor-to-ceiling mural hand painted by Mexican street artist Oscar Flores and illuminated by black light.
Facing Flores’ artistic masterpiece is the bar and an impressive collection of tequila and mescal.
Off to the side, across the floor of imported Mexican tiles, is a private dining alcove against an imposing display of flourescent-coloured skulls.
The second private dining area is located in a loft space above with a brilliant view of the main floor.
El Catrin boasts a voluminous variety of cocktails, wine, over 120 brands of tequila and mescal, and an equally extensive, tapas-style menu. Leading the kitchen is Olivier LeCalvez, one of Mexico City’s top chefs who arrived in Toronto just over a month ago. At El Catrin, he promises both traditional and modern Mexican cuisine.
We were seated at a table under one of the giant lamp shades hanging from the 25-foot ceiling. Kristina, our server, humbly confessed she was new on the job but delivered professional service with a smile throughout our meal, accommodating our request to sample the sangria before ordering a pitcher and ensuring every question we tossed at her was promptly answered after consulting other staff.
Our red wine sangria was perfect for a summer evening, although I suggest asking the bartender to go easy on the ice, which quickly diluted our drinks.
The tapas are accompanied by a trio of salsas, all of which I found to be rather mild, but the ceviche de atún with diced tuna and watermelon offers a sharp dose of spice for those who crave a stronger kick (you can thank the chive and habanero mignonette for that). A luxurious balance between tart and sweet, this ceviche is one succulent seafood cocktail.
From the seafood-rich menu, we also ordered the burrito de langosta: two small flour tortillas filled with lobster, guacamole, lettuce and tomato in a chipotle sauce served with warmth and comfort.
I was curious to sample the tacos al pastor, a personal favourite, and they didn’t disappoint. The house-made corn tortillas come with well-seasoned shaved pork, chopped onion and chunks of pineapple. I’m convinced LeCalvez is a master at infusing sweetness into the savoury.
We also sampled the gringa, a quesadilla version of the tacos al pastor with pastor pork and melted gouda cheese goodness, sandwiched between a flour tortilla. While I preferred the tacos, my friend loved the gringa.
For a creative spin on a traditional staple, the tostada de higado de pato is a flat, crisp tortilla topped with foie gras, poblano and red onion relish, and served with a dollop of mango syrup and pieces of mango. The foie gras was room temperature instead of hot-seared as intended but this union of contrasting flavours and textures was both intriguing and flavourful enough to make up for the lack of warmth.
I’m a lover of Baja fish tacos but sometimes I crave healthier, grilled fish over breaded, deep-fried halibut, which is why we ordered the tacos de pez espada a la parrilla: corn tortillas with marinated and grilled swordfish, black bean puree, topped with guacamole and queso fresco. Had the swordfish not been slightly overcooked and dry, the tacos would have been more memorable but I’ll likely give them another go on another visit.
For the finale, we ordered the dessert sampler platter for two, which included three sugary pleasures from the menu and salted caramel popcorn. The best part? You choose the desserts! The churros were warm, powdered with cinnamon sugar and served with cajeta (caramel), chocolate and strawberry dipping sauces. Our second choice was the capirotada, a Mexican bread pudding with raisins, cotija cheeses and cajeta sauce. It was especially stiff and dense, unlike most bread puddings I’ve had the pleasure of sinking my teeth into. I would much rather dive into the tres leche cake, our third selection. Light and moistened by three types of milk, it was a delectable finish to an overall satisfying meal.
The servings at El Catrin are indeed petite and likely inadequate for some. Cheaper meals and larger portions can be found elsewhere in Toronto’s Mexican eateries but El Catrin is a unique sensory experience worth the extra dollars and at least one visit. With plenty more tapas to taste and the introduction of their brunch menu, you can bet that I’ll be heading back.