Recently, we had brunch at a relatively new Mexican Restaurant in the Distillery District. El Catrin is what I would call a contemporary Mexican restaurant, it’s not the run-of-the-mill antiqued hub caps, large neon flickering signs, rusty metal or garish tiles no, El Catrin has taken all the familiar elements of Mexican design and incorporated them into a contemporary style that is clean, fun and unquestionably Mexican. The striking two-story mural painted by artist Oscar Flores spans the entire width of the grand cathedral-like space and its subject matter and colours awaken your senses as soon as you set foot inside, preparing you for the sensation you had hoped for. There is a wall of hand painted skulls strategically lit giving the space an aura of macabre (click here for more interior photos). The lighting is tasteful incorporating oversized barrel shades with lace-like cut outs and the inside of the shades are painted yellow which cast a beautiful warm glow over diners. Although the space is enormous, it’s warm and inviting and not as loud as I would have expected.
It was not busy when we dined there so our experience may not be normal because I understand that this is quite the happening place at night. Our server was friendly and attentive. We started with the guacamole but it was a misunderstanding that it was ordered. I thought the waitress had asked us if we wanted ‘drinks to start’ with but infact she had said “guacamole to start?” (I guess it was noisier than I thought). JT heard it right and just about fell off his chair when I said “yes”. When the guacamole arrived the truth came out. Usually when it’s just the two of us, we don’t order guacamole because it fills us up too much and we overeat. Not with standing, we ate the entire order and thank god they didn’t offer to replenish the chips because we would have polished them off too. I don’t know about you, but I find guacamole in restaurants quite expensive and this one was no different ($11 for the small). It was a traditional recipe and the waitress brought it out in a mortar and pestle and finished squashing the avocados and doing the final mix at the table. We ordered the plain version made with avocado, tomato, onion, fresh cilantro and serrano chili but for an extra $9, you could order a version with Crickets. Yes, you read that correctly. Definitely not my cup of tea, but go ahead and order if you dare.
We ordered two smallish plates of soup and a salad; I adored my choice, Sopa de Tortilla ($8), a tomato and chili broth bursting with flavour served with crispy corn tortillas, avocado chunks, queso cotjia garnished with crema fresca and lime. JT was not as thrilled with his choice, Ensalada Tomatillo ($8) which had onion, fresh cilantro, radish, serrano chili, fresh cheese dressed with a flavourful tequila lime vinaigrette — I tried it and liked it a lot, I think the tomatillos threw him a bit. We both chose soft tacos (me flour and JT corn) and our plan had been to eat only one or two of the three tacos and save the rest, but it was so good, neither of us could stop (we had popcorn for dinner that night!). JT’s Pollo Con Mole ($15) made from pulled chicken cooked in a light mole, crema fresca, cotija cheese, xni-pec, toasted sesame seeds nestled comfortably on a fresh corn tortilla. JT said the mole was good but not nearly as rich as some of the other moles he has experienced. I had the Gobernador ($15) which had succulent and perfectly cooked lobster and shrimp stuffed into a soft and tender flour tortilla with black bean purée garnished chipotle aioli; I was pleasantly surprised with the quantity of lobster in this dish. The plates were full of the bright flavours associated with Mexican cuisine and were absolutely delicious. I have to say that the quantity wasn’t nearly as generous as some of the other Mexican restaurants in Toronto that we have been to, but having said that, we still did not have room for dessert :-).
In more pleasant weather (we were there when it was -20°C (-4°F)) there is an interior courtyard patio, lit with similar barrel shades as the inside, there are also several heat lamps as well as a gorgeous gas fire pit burning in the centre; will have to come back in the summer as I love a patio that is no where near a road.
Overall rating of El Catrin: Decor 4.5/5, service 3.5/5, food 4/5, Value 3/5, Noise: 3.5/5 (1 being very noisy, and 5 being very quiet).
Disclaimer: We purchased our meals for full price and my opinions just that, my opinions.
El Catrin Destileria
18 Tank House Lane in The Historic Distillery District
55 Mill St. Toronto (street address).
Monday – Friday 11:30am – 4pm
Monday – Thursday 5pm – 11pm
Friday – Sunday 4pm – 11pm