The summer after my second year of university, I got my first job in the service industry as a hostess at The Boiler House in Toronto’s historical Distillery District. It was an experience full of the typical restaurant stereotypes that you hear about but never really believe; namely tantrum-throwing chefs who would threaten to throw a plate (or something sharper) at your head if you entered their kitchen at the wrong time.
My least favourite day of the week to work at The Boiler House was always Sunday brunch, and is the reason why I now loathe the idea of a brunch buffet. Every Sunday was a chaotic shift from hell that everyone was naturally working with a hangover after the night before. The large, two-storey restaurant (plus patio) was always booked up with huge reservations of parties of 10 and more. Babies would be everywhere and crying, each guest wandering around trying to fill up their next plate, oh, and don’t forget the live jazz band banging away throughout all of this.
Although it wasn’t my favourite job, there were some highlights that mainly included making friends with the rest of the staff. In particular, I met one of my best friends, and our meeting went like this:
“There’s a new girl,” said one of my fellow hostesses one day, “she’s friends with the manager, so watch what you say around her.”
Instantly pinning her as a total keener that would rat us out anytime we bitched about anything (which, let’s face it, was all the time), I looked Steph up and down when we were introduced, and proceeded to give her the cold shoulder.
A few days later she sat next to me at the bar while I folded napkins for service and offered to help me. Sure, I said.
From here I’m not entirely certain how the conversation got started but it went something like this:
“(something, something, something) Marc Jacobs.” – said one of us.
“wait, you like Marc Jacobs? I like Marc Jacobs!” – said the other.
We then turned to each other, locked eyes, and the rest is history! People often think that Steph (who went on to become the co-founder of The Coveteur) and I are best friends because we both run blogs, but the truth is our love affair started long ago when we both had the same crappy summer job.
So what does this have to do with anything? Well, the other day I messaged her with some news: “Guess what, The Boiler House turned into a Mexican restaurant!”
I’ve been back to The Boiler House maybe once since I worked there that summer, so it was an odd blast from the past to return for a media preview of the restaurant now transformed into the trendy El Catrin. As I took my seat it became a game to me to spot what interior designers from Toronto-based firm, Munge Leung, left and reused from its old life as The Boiler House, combined with the new imports from Mexico.
Even though the bones of the old restaurant are still there, it is now quite shockingly different. The bold decor is an optic overload no matter where you look; the design is somewhere between restaurant and club, giving off the feeling that it will be a ‘Day of the Dead’ celebration every night at El Catrin. It’s bold and it’s fun.
Soon we sat down to a seven-course tasting complete with cocktails. Before it could start, the evening was kicked off with speeches from owner, Matthew Rosenblatt, and Chef Olivier Le Calvez, who relocated to Toronto from Mexico City just one month before the grand opening.
The meal began traditionally enough — with margaritas and guacamole combined freshly in a mortar before our eyes as the server set it down at the table. The 2nd course consisted of Ceviche de Atun, a tuna ceviche made with watermelon and habanero mignonette, and Vuelve a la Vida El Catrin, an east coast oyster with ceviche of shrimp, octopus and bay scallops.
It could be that I backpacked through Central America for six months with my family when I was nine, but I have a deep love and perhaps somewhat high standard for what authentic Mexican food should taste like. Even when attempting a modern, Mexican-fusion menu, those bursts of flavour, (most notably fresh lime juice and a punch of spice) should be there. Disappointingly, both ceviches were lacking in these qualities. The key ingredients of the tuna ceviche, such as the lime juice and habanero mignonette, could hardly be detected at all, resulting in a blandness that made it easy to deem this version as one of the least appealing I’ve ever had. The seafood medley that came atop the east coast oysters was better (although it reminded of an appetizer that might be served at a house party in the seventies) but would have been better if the oysters were served on their own.
Things were looking up for the 3rd course, as the Tacos al Pastor were set down in front of us. Each corn tortilla was filled with shaved pork marinated in axiote with pineapple, fresh cilantro and fresh onions. Any disappointment in the 2nd course was quickly erased within one bite of these sweet and savoury tacos that had everyone at the table grovelling for more when we finished. Next came the Tostada de Higado de Pato, a hot seared foie gras on El Catrin-made tostada with mescal mango syrup, poblano and red onion relish, which upped the game even more. It is an ingenious fusion that worked so beautifully on the palate. It was also served with my favourite cocktail of the night: the Hibisco Rosa (not recommended to those who don’t have an appreciation for the taste of rose water!)
The 5th course took a break from the previous richness with the Ensalade de Nopal, a cactus salad with tequila lemon vinaigrette. Once again, this, to me, fell flat. I loved the use of cactus, but both the citrus and the cheese weren’t sharp enough to make it a refreshing salad to eat.
Next came the Camarones al Ajilo – jumbo shrimp sautéed with guajillo, garlic lime juice and white wine, served over red rice, black bean puree and guacamole – which was delicious and very savoury paired with the rice and beans, although the guacamole took away from the simplicity of the dish, and would have been best left out.
The 7th course of the night was going to be the true test of an authentic taste. Costilla Corta en Mole Negro, beef short rib braised for 24 hours with black mole sauce, would be difficult to do wrong, being such a distinct flavour. Although it was beautifully presented when it was set on the table, I think the guest sitting across from me described this dish best: “this just tastes like something my mother would make.” She was referring to the braised meat, that was in a dark sauce that tasted like nothing more than an average gravy.
I’m not sure if it’s under the direction of the higher ups at El Catrin, but it seems that the fireworks of flavour expected in authentic Mexican cuisine have been dumbed down to the absolute bare minimum of flavouring. Could it be because they’ve got their early bird theatre goers and tourist clientele of the Distillery in mind? Perhaps, but still. Toronto is a massively multi-cultural city with some of the best food (I think) in the world. Mostly because you can experience authentic food from around the world within the downtown core. Our palates are developed, and we’re no fools when it comes to food.
To be honest, (food aside) it’s just nice to see a new life breathed into the bland Boiler House. As an east ender and frequenter of the Distillery District, El Catrin might actually become a destination spot for cocktails with friends. Especially since their outdoor patio is now complete with an impressive fire pit and vast tequila bar.
For more information on El Catrin please click HERE.
Have you tried out El Catrin yet? Let me know what your experience was like!