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Don Appetit! El Catrin Raises the Bar on Modern Mexican

Don Douloff, Food WriterStepping into El Catrin, in Toronto’s Distillery District, is like walking into a bustling restaurant in Mexico City.

Dominating the always-packed, high-ceilinged space is a gigantic mural painted by Mexican street artist Oscar Flores whimsically and colourfully depicting neon-backlit skulls, feathered headdresses and flowers. Contemporary pop pulsates from the PA system, giving the room an energetic, convivial vibe.

El Catrin’s dining room. (Photo: Ryan Emberley)

While El Catrin’s super-fun décor has remained a constant, the menu, under the watchful eye of executive chef Olivier Le Calvez, continues to evolve, dishing up both traditional and modern Mexican fare with greater confidence and more pizzazz than ever.

On the traditional front, the made-at-table guacamole, fashioned from the freshest avocado, tomato, onion, cilantro, Serrano chile and lime juice, is the best it’s ever been (which is saying a lot).

Soups have always been a strong point of El Catrin’s kitchen. This night, the kitchen sends out cream of green peas accessorized with crispy rice pearls and drizzled with chile arbol oil. Served in a tiny, lidded black enamel pot, the soup is velvety and loaded with intensely sweet pea flavour punctuated by the chile oil’s deeply smoky notes.

Tuna tostaditas.

Cubes of ruby red tuna, subtly cold-smoked so they retain a silken ceviche-type texture, marry marvelously to red onion, avocado crema, finely diced tomato and cucumber and intense salsa negra. Piled onto shatteringly crisp tostada rounds, this inspired tuna mixture goes down like heaven.

Similarly satisfying is citrus-marinated raw tuna cleverly paired with sweet watermelon, lime and chive. These small bites boast big, big flavour!

Mains show similar creativity. Two huge skewers hold smoky grilled octopus, chunks of sweet pineapple and sweetly caramelized onion set off by a sauce made from smoky/fruity ahi panca peppers.

Skewers of grilled octopus and pineapple.

An inventive forcemeat of crab, tomato, onion, garlic, cilantro, green olives and peanuts (for superb textural contrast and nutty backnotes) fills a sizeable ancho chile, its mild heat and ever-so-subtle bitterness contrasting brilliantly with the sweet crab. It’s a sophisticated main that, on a single plate, shows the kitchen’s considerable strengths.

Hoja santa, an aromatic herb with a taste halfway between black licorice, nutmeg and mint, wraps a fat slab of red grouper garnished with a broth thick with sweet parsnip puree and fennel ragu.

The kitchen also does tacos — packed with crispy fried cod, chipotle lime slaw, cilantro and chipotle; and, even better, shrimp animated with pineapple chipotle adobo sauce, pineapple pico de gallo and black bean puree.

Rice pudding with cinnamon graham crackers.

The dessert menu is every bit as interesting as the rest of the carte. Witness a knockout combo of pineapple mousse counterpointed with tomatillo compote’s slightly tart notes further amplified by crumbled shortbread and shards of meringue. There’s irresistible chocolate ice cream; and a giant stone bowl filled with creamy rice pudding garnished with cinnamon-scented graham crackers, toasted coconut flakes and cocoa nibs.

Group dining options include a semi-private room seating up to 32.

— Don Douloff has been a restaurant critic for over 30 years and, during that time, has critiqued more than 1,500 eateries. In 1988, he studied the fundamentals of French cuisine at Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in Paris, France. During his time in France, he furthered his gastronomic education by visiting the country’s bistros, brasseries and Michelin-starred temples of haute cuisine. He relishes exploring the edible universe in his native Toronto and on his travels throughout Canada and abroad.

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