Why you should care
A $35 cocktail will liven up your evening and lighten your wallet. A twofer!
Frankie Solarik could be the frontman for a modern-day medicine show — minus the quackery and hocus-pocus potions. The co-owner of Toronto’s popular BarChef boasts an armful of tattoos, stubbly scruff and a penchant for concocting revolutionary cocktails. His elixirs won’t cure any ailments, but they might cure a dull evening.
His most-buzzed-about drink, the Vanilla and Hickory Smoked Manhattan, features Crown Royal Special Reserve whiskey, house-made vanilla-infused brandy, cherry and vanilla bitters, and hickory-smoked syrup. But the magic isn’t in the mixing per se. To finish, Solarik rests the handcrafted libation on a layer of glowing embers and cold smokes the cocktail under an antique glass cloche for two minutes before serving it in a cloud of vapor. “I view what I’m doing as participatory theater,” he explains. The price of admission: $45 Canadian ($34) for the drink, which Solarik describes as “Manhattan meets toasted marshmallow” with a campfire essence (sans bug spray).
Years after chefs like Ferran Adrià and Grant Achatz introduced molecular gastronomy to food menus, bartenders like Solarik are pushing the envelope of “molecular mixology,” which you can think of as what Walter White might have dreamed up had he opened a bar instead of a meth lab. Pioneered by renowned British bartender Tony Conigliaro, it’s an approach that favors new textures and flavors — foams, gels and unusual infusions — created via compressed gas, blowtorches and vacuum sealers.
Solarik has broken through Toronto’s sometimes monotonous drinking culture in a big way — and he’s got his sights set on a BarChef expansion in New York as well. “His bar is one of a kind,” says Sarah Parniak, a freelance writer and drinks columnist for the weekly publication NOW Toronto. His friend Claudio Aprile, a founder of the OrderFire restaurant group and a MasterChef Canada judge, calls Solarik “the most forward-thinking bartender in North America.”
When Solarik was 18, he landed a bartending gig at a cigar bar in Ontario. (“That was when you could still smoke in bars,” he jokes.) But he really learned his trade on the other side of the bar, where patrons avidly discussed the scents and flavors from pairing different cigars with certain cognacs and scotches. Those lessons stayed with him as he traveled through Europe and worked in a series of New York and Canadian restaurants. He eventually opened BarChef with a partner in 2008, where he’s able to showcase a style of cocktail-making that goes way beyond shaken or stirred.
BarChef’s extensive menu offers plenty of drinks for the less adventurous, from punch bowls to approachable “sweet and sour” selections such as a strawberry-infused gin and lavender-infused orange liqueur. But the pièce de résistance is Solarik’s “modernist” program, which features cocktails with such enigmatic ingredients as “beach essence” and “black truffle snow” and finishes courtesy of a blowtorch and dry ice. His Spring Thaw, for example, channels the end of winter with a mix of gin, sparkling wine, vanilla and orange blossom air, and an ice-cold ball of bubblegum-pink Campari granita. The cocktail arrives in a clear glass orb on a bed of greenery, mimicking the new growth during spring awakening.
Solarik has convinced his patrons not just to drink outside the box, but also to eat outside it. Many of his creations feature companion dishes with the same ingredients used in the drink, just in a more solid, spoonable form. The rum-based Daiquiri Adaptation, served in a real coconut with a tiny tropical umbrella (of course), comes with a bed of coconut snow made with dry ice, maraschino gel and toasted coconut.
Customers have even teared up over the nostalgic smells of some cocktails, including one man who was reminded of his first baseball glove after sipping the Mad Man. Made with bourbon, sweet vermouth, cacao, maple, black pepper and cherry, the drink conjures up the aroma of rich leather. Ordering a BarChef cocktail is “kind of like jumping out of an airplane,” Aprile says. “You don’t know what the outcome will be, but you know it’s going to be exciting.”
Much the way a skilled musician can pick up a tune after hearing it once, Solarik often translates smells, flavors and even songs into tangible, tasty objects with a little tinkering. With Sailor’s Mojito, he evokes the essence of that tried-and-true beach accoutrement — Hawaiian Tropic suntan lotion. Solarik drew inspiration for his famous Manhattan from an episode of Iron Chef in which a contestant lifted an upside-down bowl from a dish, revealing a puff of smoke.
Of course, molecular mixology might not be around forever. “It’s become less rare and special,” says Kara Newman, a contributing editor on spirits for Wine Enthusiast Magazine, who adds that it’s now “more about the spectacle” than the drink. Should the trend wane, Solarik’s profile could do likewise.
He’s overcome worse obstacles. Opening a bar or restaurant is always a tricky proposition; mix in some mysterious-looking concoctions and the risk rises exponentially, especially in a country known for its love of craft beer. Among other things, around the time Solarik opened BarChef — right as the global economy was coming apart — certain products, including aperitifs and many bitters, were in short supply. But Solarik took that as a challenge, creating his own infused bitters and syrups by hand and laying the groundwork for his subsequent creations.