“You know what I love about a perfect ounce at the bottom?” asks Jen Agg, Toronto’s doyenne of drink, as she empties a dusky bottle of Cointreau into a shot glass en route to producing a pair of Absinthe-kissed Corpse Reviver #2s.
A bartender to her right with an elegant British lilt responds: “What?”
“It means everybody is measuring properly.”
That’s the type of exacting detail to cocktail craft customers can expect from the hands at Cocktail Bar, the new spirits-specific venture from Ms. Agg and her Black Hoof business partner of three years, chef and charcuterie maestro Grant van Gameren.
Located at 923 Dundas St. W., Cocktail Bar occupies the space that, from January, 2010, until this past February, was home to Ms. Agg and Mr. van Gameren’s successful brunch-by-day/cocktails-by-night Black Hoof spinoff, the Hoof Café.
When word spread in the winter of Hoof Café’s shuttering – no more Suckling Pig Benny, no more Tongue Grilled Cheese! – sinking culinary hearts were buoyed by the promise of a third Agg and van Gameren launch in as many years: Black Hoof & Company (BHCO), conceived as a three-nights-a-week fine dining restaurant with a chef’s tasting menu, one that features the same creativity and audacity that so swiftly sent Black Hoof and the Hoof Café to the tips and tops of Toronto tongues.
However, as a Robert Burns quote (the one about men and mice and their best-laid schemes) helps explain, the planned Spring 2011 appearance of BHCO didn’t happen. Ms. Agg made the announcement in June on the Black Hoof blog, charcuteriesundays.com.
“It wasn’t one specific thing,” says Ms. Agg, casual in a black t-shirt and jeans, seated at the new blond-wood banquette that runs the length of Cocktail Bar’s north wall. “Grant and I realized we weren’t ready to do [BHCO], and we wanted to wait a little while.”
“When you’re not totally ready to do something, you just don’t do it,” she adds. “It’s like if you’re making a dress, and the back panel isn’t done in the way you want it to be done. You want it to be perfect. I think that’s something that’s hard for people to understand sometimes, that that’s crazy, but it’s about the pursuit of perfection, it always has been.”
Luckily for the city’s thirsty, when life gives Jen Agg lemons, she cuts them in half, squeezes, adds ice and shakes.
“We were already planning to put Cocktail Bar beside the Hoof,” Ms. Agg says, “so when we decided to put BHCO on hold, I was like, ‘Why don’t we use [the Hoof Café] space for something else? We already have a liquor license.’”
Officially opened on Aug. 4 after a quick “wet run” with the staff two days earlier, the vibe in Cocktail Bar is sophisticated, restrained, and civil. Gone are the sheets of Hoof Café’s acorn-dotted country wallpaper; in their place are sheets of cool, matte slate paint.
Purists will be pleased to find the city’s best Manhattan (Ms. Agg’s housemade bitters, Carpano Antica vermouth) on Cocktail Bar’s menu, but that drink is only one of a mouthful you could also order across the way at Black Hoof.
Cocktail Bar’s soon-to-be-signature cumin mojito and revelations like the smoky, rum-based tailor of Panama, are part of a lineup of creations that feel adventurous. Which is exactly what Ms. Agg is hoping to see more of in Toronto.
“I think it’s really sad that we are, as a cocktail city, 10 years behind places like New York and Seattle and Vancouver.”
“Milk & Honey, Angel’s Share, those bars were really pushing the envelope 10, 12 years ago,” Ms. Agg says. “The fact that nobody in Toronto was doing that, I mean, I’m certainly to blame. I was doing Cobalt, which was, you know,” she smiles, “it wasn’t a drink menu like this.”
Why does she think that was the case?
“People are kind of scared to put new things out there,” she says.
“We’re a very young city, we’re a very insecure city, and people always say, ‘Well, Toronto’s not New York’. I mean, no, Toronto’s not New York,” she pauses, “but let’s work hard at making it cool anyway.”
Special to The Globe and Mail