Shrouded in mystery from the beginning, the only information offered was that we were invited to a “Private Dinner” located at 1307 Dundas St. West.
Hours before the event, we were greeted with a reminder card with only a print of a slyth, stylish peacock. With no information about the restaurant itself, the anticipation was building and it felt like we were about to venture into the unknown.
Being typically prepared for affairs such as these, this time, the pages in my notebook were blank. The only thing I was aware of was that Candice and Alison (of Candice & Alison Events Group) were the dynamic duo behind this mysterious event.
Upon my arrival, the only sign present was one for a fortune teller. It was quite a foreshadowing of things to come; I was greeted by two hostesses and told to choose a tarot card from the deck presented. I would later find out from General Manager Jessica Johnston that it not only acted as my place holder but for my reading from a fortune teller, too. Imagine, all of this spontaneity has transpired before I had even set foot inside the restaurant.
Curiosity piqued? Check. Delightfully Bemused? Check. I walk down two short flights of stairs and what do I find…?
The vibe: Relaxed and welcoming. The hosts and service was beyond gracious; they treat you like one of their own. A DJ is in the corner busting out beats that make the room vibrate. Cushy, ruby red seating and sleek black tables are illuminated by wiry light fixtures that set the intimate ambiance. And, for the fun of it, a Vegas style Wheel O’ Fortune sits prominently at the back of the room. I’m encouraged by restaurant owner Byron Dill to “Spin It!” “Why? What’s it for?” asks a bystander. “Why not?!” he cheerfully responds. This scenario perfectly encapsulates what Byron has observed with the Toronto food scene and why he opted to open up this speakeasy-style spot.
“People Google the s*it out of a restaurant and question everything; they Yelp, Urbanspoon, and read every review in the book. As a result, when they go to an establishment with expectations, it ruins any opportunities for spontaneity and adventure.” Dill wants to bring a philosophy he adapts when he is in NYC to Torontonians. With only a general idea of where he wants to go, he ventures down a path less taken, engages in some wanderlust, and finds a spot to dine at. This sense of adventure and discovery is what he wants to bring back to the Toronto community.
The food: Léonie Lilla leads the kitchen brigade, having come from Momofuku, trained under the Oliver and Bonacini empire at Auberge du Pommier, as well as Hotel Le Germain – she’s no stranger to creating great food. Dubbed as modern comfort cuisine, there’s a sense of whimsy and play in her dishes. Highlights include her sweet, sexy caramelized ribs with popcorn-like amaranth puffs and translucent slivers of watermelon rind. All her textural components are not only fun to eat but a delight to the palate. Her cured salmon dish is a prime example: it’s draped over crunchy nuggets of sourdough bread and soldiered behind alternating layers of beet chip wafers, thin membranes of sweet peaches, crunchy pistachio, and cream. It’s an interactive dish which encourages you to play with your food. For the salad, artichokes get tossed in with crisp potato nuggets reminiscent of dainty tater tots. They’re paired with bitter chicories and finished with earthy truffle oil. For dessert we get a two toned ‘panna cotta’. The snow white layer is heavy cream infused with tonka bean; the bottom half is a decadent bittersweet chocolate. It is topped with airy, bubbly honeycomb and fresh Ontario strawberries. Again, it is an interactive dish. Each flavour can be eaten separately and appreciated; if you mingle the soft puddings together in a bite, the mind conjures up buttery, nutty hazelnuts.
The drinks: It ain’t no speakeasy without some fun and creative booze to sip with the food. Mixologists Marc Baglio and Tony Fantastic have created drinks that will make you tipsy with delight. Highlights included the Smoke n’ Mirrors – a spicy drink with bacon marmalade, basil, and ginger. It’s a bit of a mindwarp thanks to the porky addition. As is Miss Shirley, an adult version of the Shirley Temple with lillet, gin, strawberry, basil, and white balsamic. It has a refined flair and carries sweet and sour notes.
While you may not have to perform a secret knock and give bouncers a password, the calling card for those in the know is to lookout for the tarot card and palm reading sign. It will be your guiding light to The Libertine, an underworld playground full of boozy delights and salivating eats.