El Catrin, the buzzing Mexican eatery in Toronto’s Distillery District, continues to tweak its menu in creative and delicious ways.
Exhibit A: Chilled avocado soup, velvet-textured, with herbal tang (thanks to mint oil) and subtle heat (from habanero vinaigrette) and accessorized by a dollop of sweet crab meat. It’s sophisticated and bracingly refreshing, a perfect summer soup.
I loved the tiritas (similar to ceviche) of sparklingly fresh Pacific snapper, its lime-forward citrus notes complemented by red onion, cilantro and the quiet heat of smoked ancho chile ashes.
Chipotle and tomato add depth to shredded chicken, garnished with black bean puree, lettuce, cotija cheese and crema fresca (similar to sour cream) piled onto soft discs made from corn masa.
Guacamole, made at our table by our server using a stone mortar and pestle, is as fine as ever.
We then share the enormous parrillada mixed grill, presented on a cast iron platter that arrives sizzling and bearing grilled hanger steak (superbly tender and full of flavour), three langoustines (a shellfish that’s sweeter and more delicate than lobster), pink and moist lamb chops, smoked octopus and meaty red and green chorizo sausages. Garnishing the grilled meats is a mountain of veggies: cactus (tastes kind of like okra, but better), sweet onions, peppers and tomatillo (resembling a green tomato). It is a deeply satisfying family style feast and a terrific deal that’s perfect for a group of three to four.
Even at dessert, there are a couple of excellent family style options: Silky, rich rice pudding, presented in a stone mortar and accompanied by add-on garnishes (cinnamon, coconut, chocolate).
But the showstopper is a cart, small enough to sit on our table, laden with an assortment of ice creams and fruit sorbets and a candy shop’s worth of garnishes (candied papaya, caramel corn, coconut, chocolate) and sauces (spicy Mexican chocolate; caramel; strawberry). It’s the most fun dessert in the city and easily serves four to six ice cream lovers.
Dominating the high-ceilinged space (designed by Munge Leung) is a gigantic mural painted by Mexican street artist Oscar Flores and depicting neon-backlit skulls, feathered headdresses and flowers. Dance music pulsates from the PA system, lending the room an energetic, convivial vibe.
Group dining options include a private room seating 18.
— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 30 years and, during that time, has critiqued more than 1,300 eateries. In 1988, he studied the fundamentals of French cuisine at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France. During his time in France, he furthered his gastronomic education by visiting the country’s bistros, brasseries and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. He relishes exploring the edible universe in his native Toronto and on his travels throughout Canada and abroad.