Early on a Sunday evening and El Catrin, in Toronto’s Distillery District, is packed with a boisterous crowd chowing down on first-rate Mexican fare washed down with the restaurant’s signature cocktails.
We start with the guacamole. Made to-order at table, in a stone mortar and pestle (called a molcajete), and buzzed with tomato, onion, cilantro and serrano chilies, it’s superbly fresh and silky smooth.
Ensalada queso fresco brings slabs of mild, cilantro-marinated cheese seared and paired with tomatillo, pineapple and red onion salad. Sweet crab, zinged with serrano chilies and cilantro, is spooned onto crisp corn tortillas, which lend crunch to each delightful mouthful of crab. Most intriguing app of all, however, is a dip, thick as peanut butter, made from pureed, spicy roasted pumpkin seeds, charred tomatoes and pasilla chile oil. Green tomatillo ice anchors ceviche loaded with bay scallops and shrimp.
Mains continue the kitchen’s hot streak. Sweet orange segments and pickled veggies brilliantly complement smoky and tender octopus accented by guajillo chipotle puree. Similarly, peanuts and grilled corn animate spicy pan-roasted scallops.
To finish, there’s vanilla spongecake soaked with three milks (evaporated, condensed and heavy cream), and sweet-corn cake with mascarpone and paired with guava sorbet. But the showstopper is a stone mortar filled with silky rice pudding accompanied by add-your-own garnishes: cinnamon, toasted coconut and roasted cocoa flakes.
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 25 years and, during that time, has critiqued more than 1,200 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.