The Toronto bar scene has not always been this exciting. Anyone who came of age after 2008 is too young to know, but there was a time before Frankie Solarik opened Toronto’s BarChef on trendy Queen Street West, when anything more than a stalk of celery stabbed into a glass was considered innovative.
Those were Toronto’s “bad old days.”
Then along came Solarik, whose fascination with combining aromas and spirits began as a teenager working in a bar in London, Ontario, where the combination of cigar smoke and liquor set his creative mind to thinking. At the time, the 18-year-old was rock climbing competitively and headed off to Europe to train, paying his way as a bartender. Soon, it was on to New York, where mixing drinks and serving haute cuisine gave him a taste for the fine art of garnishing.
But his respect for food actually began at home: “I would say more than being around cooking as a profession, it was at home where I experienced the nurturing aspect of cooking for others.”
There was art too, “My family has always been very art-driven, and there had always been an appreciation of artistic expression at home.”
Ordinary doesn’t happen at BarChef. As much as 5,000 ounces of house-made bitters, syrups, and infusions line the soaring back bar wall, while the cleverly-chosen playlist acts as the backbeat for the rhythm of cocktail shaker maracas. The barware and china are unique or found antique crystal and glass; many crafted for a specific concoction. The room is dark and moody, with drifts of dry ice mist, the flicker of candlelight, and the glowing of glass orbs of backlit absinth fountains adding to the otherworldliness of the site. Barchef’s co-owner, Brent VanderVeen, designed the space and Solarik says he could not have been happier with the results. “Brent has an amazing eye and attention to detail; we did most of the renovations ourselves, with some professional carpentry.”
Solarik approaches a cocktail similar to how other Modernist chefs approach their highly-considered and refined plates. Laser-focus on challenging norms, breaking barriers, assemblage, and an inclusion of the whimsical are all important factors to Solarik. Menus change with the four seasons, each a reflection of nature. The unique recipes are produced by a creative mind constantly in motion using only the best possible ingredients. His creations beckon the guest to engage with all their senses and even immerse themselves emotionally as these are deliciously-balanced, tactile, aromatic, visually stunning and immersive works of drinkable art.
Here, even ice is a noble ingredient. Solarik waxes poetic, “I absolutely treat ice as an integral element of the composition; it allows me to create transformative flavour profiles, work with different elements of dilution and introduce textures and flavors…flavors are transformed as the cocktail evolves in front of the guest, which in turn also creates a participatory element within overall composition.”
The lion’s share of the menu is devoted to all things quaffable, but there is a simple, short card of small plates – just enough to complement the cocktails.
All this has not gone unnoticed. Solarik has received reams of glowing reviews and nods from influential publications and critics: The New York Times, CNN, The Globe and Mail, Imbibe Magazine, and perhaps most importantly, in 2010, Food and Wine added BarChef to their Go List: 100 Best New Food & Drink Experiences.
It was the $45 smoked Manhattan – the cocktail served on a mound of smoldering, vanilla-infused hickory – that caught the eye of Celebrity Molecular Gastronomist, Chef Grant Achatz and Food and Wine. According to Solarik, the drink had been a fixture from day one: “The Vanilla and Hickory Smoked Manhattan has been our signature cocktail since opening, because the innovation and approach to the creative process and techniques involved, it became the reference point of our overarching approach to creating a new cocktail experience – incorporating culinary techniques, and employing innovative uses of equipment and ingredients not normally associated with cocktail making.”
Lightening in a Bottle
Teaming up with the LCBO (Liquor Control Board of Ontario), Solarik brought his first bottled, ready-to-pour cocktail, The Toasted Old Fashioned, to the retail market just before Christmas 2018. “The Toasted Old Fashioned is the first release for our company Barchef Project, and we’re planning other releases in the near future,” says the Master Mixologist.
A collaboration with Still Waters Distillery, in Concord, Ontario, the makers of award-winning Stock & Barrel Whisky, have aficionados lapping it up. “The response has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been an amazing experience to share our approach of cocktail composition with such a large audience,” states Solarik. But this isn’t Solarik’s first venture out from behind the bar; his gorgeous coffee table book, The Bar Chef; A Modern Approach to Cocktails, was released in 2013 with a forward by Chef Grant Achatz, and on the BarChef website, home mixologists can purchase his craft bitters.
Though soaring high, Solarik doesn’t feel the need to “stay ahead of the curve” as much as the need to continue pushing forward: “I’m always working with new techniques, ingredients, flavours, servicing pieces; it’s an internal desire to be constantly improving and learning. It’s about chasing the perfect expression of the medium rather than chasing others’ perspective of the craft.”
Photo Credits: Leanne Neufeld