A recent cocktail menu at Geraldine, a new seafood, small plates and "libations"-focused spot in western Parkdale, opened with a history lesson. "During the Guatemalan civil war (1960 to 1996), one of the operational bases of FAR was in Zacapa," it began.
What was FAR again? And this was apropos of what, precisely? If you persevered through it – and lord knows there are many who wouldn't; it continued at some length – you eventually learned that Geraldine's bartender, who signs and dates his menus, uses high-end rum from that same, poor, bombarded Guatemalan highlands province to craft "The Insurgent," a cocktail that also includes "clove-smoked house grenadine" and Briottet coconut liqueur from France.
If you looked up, alarmed, wondering what you'd gotten yourself into, it became worse. This was when you noticed that Geraldine's waiters wear bowties and suspenders and facial hair from Boardwalk Empire, and that an old guy was playing a very good Autumn Leaves on the upright piano in the back of the restaurant. You noticed the silvery absinthe fountain at the bar, drip dripping the wormwood-infused, frontal cortex-fragging liquor into 90-year-old stemware. You realized before long that Geraldine's food menu, with its buck rarebit and clams casino and its seafood towers, was by all appearances resurrected from pre-Prohibition Toronto.
Yet if you managed to suppress your flight instinct just long enough to order one of those drinks or a bottle of wine and a few plates of chef Peter Ramsay's cooking, you might also have found yourself having an excellent evening.
Conceived as an homage to Parkdale's Gilded Age history, when the neighbourhood was "a playground for the rich," as general manager Alexandra Albert put it, Geraldine is all the more charming because of its idiosyncrasies. It's a terrific place for drinks and snacks – and soon, also for full-out dinners, Mr. Ramsay said – a theme restaurant for discerning, booze-loving grownups.
And it's a theme restaurant that you actually ought to eat the food in. Mr. Ramsay, who worked as sous chef in the space's former incarnation as Cowbell, does simple, hearty, olde-tyme dishes that are meant to be consumed with anise-flavoured liquors such as pastis (Geraldine has four types) and that absinthe, and with the sorts of crafty cocktails that come with didactic, history-larded tasting notes.
The food is cheapish, mostly – wild mushrooms on toast goes for $9 – and it's tasty a lot of the time.
Mr. Ramsay's sardines are excellent, stuffed with freshly herbal gremolata and grilled to a fine balance between smoky, dark-flavoured flesh and crisp, satisfyingly salt-crusted, char-kissed skin. (NB, the menu changes frequently.)
The duck sandwich builds up from a thick, crunchy hunk of house sourdough that's fried on one side in duck fat. The kitchen layers shredded duck confit over that, a whoosh of duck liver pâté spiked with Armagnac, decadent slabs of smoked duck breast still fringed with smoky-flavoured fat, watercress, sliced oranges and fennel to bring it all to life.
The chef's buck rarebit gets less help from the vegetable kingdom. It is toast slathered with a slurry of punchy aged cheddar, beer and mustard, topped with an oozy-yolked poached egg. That should warm just about anybody up to the spirit of the place.
When I ordered the soft-boiled egg with Acadian caviar one night, our server told me, "They actually do surgery on the sturgeon. They don't actually kill the animal. They sedate them, remove the eggs, release them, then they can do it all over again."
Uh, dude: buzzkill. (Also, they were out of the caviar that night.)
Nonetheless, you should order the egg with that surgically extracted caviar if they have it, along with some of Geraldine's thrice-cooked French fries, which are golden and crunchy, but creamy on their insides, and then dip the fries into the egg yolk.
The charred octopus comes with raïto sauce, a zippy Provençal blend of tomatoes, red wine and capers; the dish is nicely executed, if generally indistinct from the 170 other charred octopus dishes that currently appear on menus around Toronto.
The "heirloom tomato salad" looked and tasted a lot like it was made with supermarket beefsteaks. (In fairness, it hasn't been much of an heirloom tomato year.)
And the two weakest dishes I had at Geraldine were the ones that Mr. Ramsay should have best been able to nail: oysters Rockefeller, which he served tepid, under damp breadcrumbs, and his clams casino, also tepid, also with mooshy crumbs on top, totally uninspiring.
One other note of complaint: if a restaurant can afford to purchase a replica Art Nouveau absinthe fountain and 500 vintage glasses, it can afford to take something other than cash from its patrons – Interac, at least, if not credit cards. Geraldine does a strictly cash-only business. Be prepared to troop down the back stairs to where the management has installed an ATM machine for your inconvenience (there is a $2 convenience fee, from which the restaurant takes a cut) to withdraw wads of cash to settle up. It's all a little pathetic. (Mr. Ramsay said late this week that the restaurant, responding to customer demand, has plans to begin accepting Interac soon.)
Still, in the moment I found it hard to quibble. Maybe it was that piano playing, which really was pretty excellent, or that duck on toast, or the platter of "mignardises" that included peach frangipane and pistachio buttercream petits fours.
Or maybe it was the absinthe, which comes on within a couple sips like an instant soft-focus filter. My date and I shared a glass, but stopped drinking after about a third of it – the stuff was just too weirdly, narcotically, fantastically intoxicating for a weeknight.
"It feels like the beginning of something," she said.