Early last spring a pair of Mexican chefs began selling "Canadian" dishes from a food truck in Mexico City. Their offerings included tourtière stuffed with Alberta beef, tuna doused with maple syrup, and a concoction that combined McCain-brand French fries and melted Oaxacan queso into a dish called "Poutine à la Mexicana."
The stunt was funded by Ottawa to promote commodity food exporters, if not our culinary brand, exactly – the last thing Canada's destination restaurants need is for the world to think Canadians spend our days eating factory-farm-to-fork meat pies, and cooked-from-frozen French fries topped with pizza cheese. (This being an official Can-con effort, I assume the truck also blasted a screeching hellscape soundtrack of Celine Dion and Nickelback tunes.)
Yet the cultural exchange, which lasted 2 1/2 weeks, was in one way oddly fitting: just as that truck's customers were no doubt left with a skewed perspective on Canadian cooking, Canadians, infatuated of late with tacos and burritos, are largely blind to the immeasurable variety and joys and subtleties of Mexican food – to all the other stuff that almost never makes it here.
Which brings us to The Distillery District's new El Catrin, the most drop-jaw beautiful Mexican restaurant ever to open in the city, and according to the company's pre-opening hype, the place that would finally introduce Toronto to authentic (their word) Mexican food.
The room, set in the former Boiler House restaurant and designed by Munge Leung (Weslodge, La Société), is dominated by a two-storey, floor-to-ceiling Day of the Dead-themed mural of smiling skulls, feather headdresses and hibiscus flowers backlit in neon. The light, from enormous, custom, Edison-lit chandeliers, is warm and beautiful, all the better to illuminate the intricate Día de Muertos dioramas in the entranceway and the creepy-fabulous, votive-lit grotto near the bathrooms.
Out front, the sprawling cobblestone patio is equally breathtaking, warmed by a fire that ushers from an enormous Corten steel bowl. The patio is strung with oversized chandeliers that seem to float above the tables, against the flicker of firelight and the evening sky. Inside and out, these are spaces to revel in.
The Distillery Restaurant Group, which also runs the district's Archeo restaurant and Pure Spirits Oyster House, imported an impeccably credentialed Mexico City chef named Olivier Le Calvez – a member of Mexico's French Culinary Academy, no less – to run El Catrin.
Yet if you were expecting something more complex than substandard tacos and the odd, Frenchified take on tostadas, you might come away disappointed. With a few notable exceptions, what turns up on the two-month-old hotspot's plates is "different" only for its frugality of imagination and crushing mediocrity. I'm sure that's authentic somewhere, to someone.
The cochinita pibil, described as "pork brisket braised 24 hours with axiote and orange juice in banana leaf" was stringy, dry and effectively flavourless where it should have been gently floral and smoky, savoury and punchy-sweet.
The tostada con higado de pato – a foie gras tostada – bore an impressive-looking hunk of duck liver that had been seared, as promised, but then allowed to grow cold. It was served without any apparent seasoning, so that you got a mouthful of clammy liver texture instead of taste.
The chiles capones, brownish peppers stuffed with brownish sauce and whitish cheese, bore no acidity to speak of; I would happily have sucked a lemon after trying them.
"I honestly don't know what that was," a tablemate of mine said of the flavourless seafood burrito one night. "Really, what was it?" If you closed your eyes it could have been anything.
El Catrin's Baja tacos were pasty flour tortillas stuffed with a thimbleful of shredded cabbage and a miniature rectangle of battered haddock. They were nowhere near as well-made or tasty as the tacos at Grand Electric, Tacos el Asador, La Carnita or Rebozos, which is also run by authentic Mexicans, come to think of it, and serves a subtle, brilliant barbacoa de Borrego – that's slow-roasted lamb – and superb tripe soup on weekends.
The haddock tasted exactly like Captain High Liner fish sticks. Like so much of what I ate at El Catrin, this struck me much the way that Poutine à la Mexicana must have struck the more perceptive customers of that Ottawa-funded food truck. Is it really meant to be like this?
His French Culinary Academy cred notwithstanding, Mr. Le Calvez has spent much of his career at chain restaurants: as chef at an outlet of the Dallas-based, 200-location Macaroni Grill; as corporate chef at another chain called Beer Factory Restaurant & Brewery; as executive chef of China Grill Mexico, a satellite of a 22-location, New York-based concern.
And so I don't blame him for El Catrin – there is plenty of room in the world for corporate restaurant chefs. I blame Mr. Le Calvez's mind-bogglingly success-averse new bosses. With 10 years behind it in one of the city's most charming destination neighbourhoods, the Distillery Restaurant Group has made exactly zero impact on Toronto's culinary scene. (The group does not run or own Soma Chocolate, the district's superlative bean-to-bar outfit, Brick Street Bakery, or the now-shuttered Perigee restaurant.) Where the company might have found an ambitious young chef who is worthy not merely of El Catrin's superlative space, but also of a city that's saturated with casual Mexican restaurants, instead it went all the way to Mexico to hire a corporate toque who by all indications specializes in gringo cooking.
There are a few good dishes at El Catrin, enough of them that if you're in the neighbourhood, the place is worth a visit. Chef Le Calvez's oyster ceviche – meaty Pacific oysters topped with a fresh-tasting ceviche, was terrific when I tried it, as were the crab cakes, served with a papaya-based salsa. The shrimp bucket was delicious, surprisingly: the shrimp clean-tasting, lightly seasoned and perfectly timed.
The cob corn comes suspended by skewers over a miniature wooden spit of sorts. It's served with ramekins of seasonings – butter, chili salt, grated cheese and crema. It is terrific stuff, though I presume the quality of its marquee ingredient will decline as fall approaches. The guacamole, made with plenty of chiles and mashed tableside in a traditional stone molcajete, is also excellent. For dessert, the crisp-creamy churros and nicely balanced tres leches cake worked well, which is to say they were roughly as good as what you might find at a dozen other city spots.
No stars: Not recommended
* Good, but won't blow a lot of minds
** Very good, with some standout qualities
*** Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any
**** Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution