Saturday, May 31, 2014

Historic Distillery District

Toulouse enjoys his Mill St Coffee Porter
The pleasant aroma of baked food seemed to permeate my soul.”—InOntario

I wasn’t long in Toronto, when Nina—who understood my penchant for fine dining, great coffee and culture in unusual settings—took me to the historic Distillery District.

Set on 13 acres in the heart of downtown Toronto, The Distillery District is the single largest collection of Victorian Industrial architecture in North America and one of Toronto’s hottest “gastrozones”. I was in COOL Travel Cat Heaven. Wonderfully restored to retain its funky retro-industrial setting, The Distillery features a wide and eclectic tapestry of shops, cafés, restaurants and galleries including: chocolatiers who produce artisan chocolate directly from the cocoa bean itself; cafés that micro-roast Fairtrade beans; Canadian fine cuisine in industrial chic settings; and galleries and shops that embrace original funk-chic.

Founded in 1832 by brothers-in-law William Gooderham and James Worts, the Gooderham and
Historic Distillery District
Worts Distillery grew into the largest distillery in the world. They exported spirits and whiskey to ports around the world from New York to Rio de Janeiro and Montevideo. After 153 years of continuous production, the plant distilled its last drop of rum in 1990. Resident beer gardens, wine bars, an award-winning microbrewery (Mill Street Brewery) and even a sake distillery (which opened a few months ago) have amply filled the gap. The Ontario Spring Water Sake Company is the first and only sake brewery in Ontario. It’s prepared in the “Junmai” (pure rice) style, freshly pressed, unpasteurized and unfiltered. They have a lovely tasting room and several sakes to try along with Japanese food.

The Potter's Shed
The Distillery was restored and developed into a pedestrian-only cultural “Victorian Industrial chic village”, opening in May 2003 as Toronto’s new centre for Art, Culture and Entertainment. Pigcat and I strolled along the brick lined promenades and European piazza-style squares in what the Globe and Mail calls “a picture postcard draw”. Where ever I turned, a paradox of hip sophistication and retro-industrial funk greeted me. I was reminded a little of Soho in New York as my senses feasted on a range of motion, color, texture and fragrance: an old roadster parked in an alley overlooking the industrial punk sculpture of Dennis Oppenheim;  a collection of clay pots, dried lavender and ferns adding colorful texture to a red brick road.   As we strolled past eclectic shops and avant-garde galleries—once a distillery complex, flour mills and cooper shop—I inhaled the pleasant aroma of baked food and freshly roasted coffee. The Distillery, like a fine distilled spirit, is a feast of the senses. If Hemmingway was a Torontonian, he might have reserved his famous quote for this place.

Fleur de Sel chocolate caramel
Nina took me to Soma, where we savored a provocatively delicious Mayan hot chocolate over a Sparky chocolate (named after my good friend, Sparky, no doubt! LOL!)—a dark chocolate “half-moon” covering a “genache” of gianduja laced with paprocks. Eugenia served us our Mayan hot chocolate, made with ginger, Madagascar vanilla, orange peel, and their secret blend of spices. HA! I know that chili is one of them. The hot chocolate ran smooth over my tongue, rich with chocolate and a touch of heat.

Soma is one of the few artisan chocolatiers in North America who make small batch chocolates Veni, vidi, vici!
Patrons of Soma enjoy exquisite gelato
directly from the cocoa bean (which they get from plantations around the world including the Dominican Republic, Madagascar, Costa Rica and Panama—with a preference for Fairtrade, Organic and flavor grade. You can see them making their chocolates in their micro-chocolate factory through the display window! Toronto Life Magazine and Now Magazine voted Soma chocolates as the best in town. And why not? Their exquisite chocolates are lovingly made by dedicated and friendly staff (probably intoxicated with chocolate-induced endorphins). You can’t go wrong with names and elegant ingredients like fleur de sel caramels, almond cluster dark Peruvian, Arbequina Spanish olive oil, cherry bomb, Gooderham and Worts Whiskey, Douglas Fir and Bergamot.

Soma’s gelatos and sorbettos are also extremely popular. We returned later to savor one of their 14 flavours.

Mill Street Brewery Pub
We stopped for lunch at the Mill Street Brew Pub, a place to eat with character and its own micro-brewery. Mill Street Brewery is East Toronto’s first commercial brewery to open in more than 100 years, home to Ontario’s first certified organic lager, producing handcrafted beers and ales in historic Corktown area of the city. The pub was built around their open-concept brewery beneath 18 foot ceilings and huge skylights, successfully preserving the character and ambience of the century-old distillery district.

We sat in their patio facing Tank House Lane. Nina decided on their English Tea Beer and I asked Natalie, our friendly waitress, for their Coffee Porter. The Coffee Porter features roasted beans from Balzac Coffee, down the street, and delights the palate with complex lingering flavors of nuts. With 100% certified ingredients in their stock ales, tank house ales, and porters, who can go wrong?

The Brew Pub opened in 2006, serving exceptional pub-style food that use the Mill Street brews, brewed on site. I ordered a Drunken Butter Chicken (the name somehow appealed)—an organic lager marinated chicken simmered in the Mill’s own butter sauce and served with basmati rice and naan bread. I found large chicken pieces bathed in a delicate “rose” sauce with complex flavors that lingered with a mild heat.  Along with their cob salad, which Nina smartly chose, and their signature fish and chips, it is a favorite among Brew Pub patrons.
The Potter's Shed
Then it was time to exercise some of that butter chicken away. A little ways down Tank House Lane we felt drawn to the magic realism of The Potter’s Shed, whose earthy artworks looked like they’d spilled out from the tiny shop in artful chaos among the brick pavestones. Clay pots and gardening implements lay scattered among dizzying sprays of lavender, hydrangeas, and ferns.  Inside, Behar, in her rainbow sarong, added to a setting out of a classic fiction novel. When we finally stepped back into the sun, Pigcat asked me if I’d seen all the ferries sitting among the pots.

We ambled farther, poking inside eclectic shops, and ended up on Trinity Street. I highly recommend Cube Works Gallery, a fun shop that features original works created from Rubik’s cubes.

Balzac's Coffee
We followed our discerning noses to Balzac’s Coffee, the very establishment whose roasted beans provided the basis for my Coffee Porter at the Mill Street Brew Pub. The inside looked like the set of an old Bogart movie, with tall mirror, high ceiling, chandelier, staircases that lead nowhere and—what convinced me that this was a serious coffee establishment—an original nickel Elektra espresso maker, complete with soaring eagle. Although it was no longer used for espresso-making, according to the barista (they only used it now for frothing milk), its presence on the counter signified serious coffee intent. I wasn’t surprised when my single-shot espresso tasted exquisite, with a deep coffee nose and an attractive natural crema. We sat outside the coffee shop in the square that featured a kind of space-retro-industrial punk sculpture by Dennis Oppenheim. Called “Still Dancing” Oppenheim described it as “a combination of sculpture, architecture and theatre.”

We took Case Goods Lane, past several galleries, toward PureSpirits Oyster House & Grill and Toronto Life—for an exquisite dinner of fresh oysters and salad. Ben, out waiter—who recognized me, because he is from Toulouse, France!—offered us Fanny Bay oysters from British Columbia and Beausoleils from New Brunswick. They came on the half-shell with shredded horseradish and several shallot vinaigrettes. I showed Nina how to throw the oyster to the back of the throat and savor the full flavor of the creamy-sweet, sea-salt meat. Pure Spirit oysters are considered “the best” in Toronto by We slurped them down with panache, licking our little pink tongues, along with a refreshing baby spinach and arugula salad.
Oyster shucking contest
decided to have an early supper of fresh oysters and beer. Ah, the life of a Cool Cat… We settled on the outside patio—called “Toronto’s Best Patio” by

It was the last Tuesday in May and Pure Spirits was launching its “Topshuck Patio” shucking contest at 6pm. Of course, we stayed and watched them shuck their little hearts out—well, actually their little oysters out …hehe… It turned out that all of Toronto’s best had come to compete for money and a huge bottle of Sky vodka. Contestants from Rodney’s Oyster House, Oyster Boy and Big Daddy’s, and Starfish (to name a few quality establishments) shucked as we gorged on oysters (Pure Spirits donated the shucked oysters to its patrons. Bonus!). Head chef Tim Miles put on the shindig. Contestants were timed on their ability to successfully shuck a dozen oysters. The fastest shuck against the least demerit points for quality won. Tim and his assistant Carlier Morejon (the “Cuban Missile”) judged each shuck. They added to the time if: the oyster wasn’t severed, the gut was still in the oyster, the shell was broken, the meat was out of shell, it was a bad oyster, it was scrambled, the count was wrong, and on number of parts. We didn’t leave until very late that night and we had actually had our fill of oysters. We felt a little like the “Walrus and the Carpenter” as we ambled home, bellies full and happy.

Judging the shucking
With more patio space than any other Toronto location, The Distillery is a favorite hangout among thirsty locals in search of a little bit of European flair. I was told that The Distillery District is destined to become the epicenter of the largest waterfront redevelopment in North America. The Pan Am Games athletes village is currently being constructed just east of the Distillery with accommodation for 6,000 athletes. Right after the games in 2015 they will be transformed into residential units along with others in the West Don Lands. Old Corktown and The Old City environs between St. Laurence Market and The Distillery are being revitalized in the old heritage vision that has made The Distillery District so chic. 

World-class theatre and entertainment thrive in X-Men, Chicago, Long Kiss Goodnight, The Recruit and Cinderella Man.
Filming in the Distillery District
The Distillery District. I noted that several theatre companies have made The Distillery their home, including The Soulpepper Theatre Company and George Brown’s Theatre School, housed in the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. The Toronto Star calls it “Toronto’s new cultural hotspot.” Nina informed me that over 1000 movies, television shows, commercials and music videos were shot in The Distillery District; some include

The Distillery Historic District, 55 Mill Street, Toronto, ON, Canada; 416-364-1177

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