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Foodie Friday: House made syrups give Teatro Café cocktails their charm

By Tobi Cohen on November 7, 2014

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The cocktail craze is inching westward.

They’ve cropped up in the Byward Market, Centretown and Little Italy and now Teatro Café is introducing carefully crafted cocktails with house-made syrups and largely local ingredients to Wellington Village.

Never heard of it? Not surprising.

Teatro Café just opened in June and it’s easily missed tucked away on the ground floor of the Great Canadian Theatre Company at Wellington Street and Holland Avenue.

It tends to attract an older, theatre-going crowd of teetotalers and wine sippers looking for a bite before the show.

But manager and bartender Lana Marie Cowley’s been busy experimenting with homemade syrups, which form the base of many of her cocktail creations, and she’s hoping the venue’s clientele will expand in time.

“We want to get that known that we are a restaurant that happens to be in a theatre as opposed to a theatre restaurant,” she says.

“As people get to know us better, I think our clientele is going to start to change and I think these cocktails will then be more appreciated.”

It was an unusually busy Wednesday, clearly due to an 8 p.m. performance upstairs since the place emptied quickly at show time, when I pulled up a stool at the bar/open concept kitchen to sample some of this fall’s offerings.

Berry&Balsamic2First stop: the Berry & Balsamic made with blackberries, raspberries, bing cherries, Forty Creek whisky, Cointreau, balsamic vinegar, locally sourced honey, lime and ginger syrup and garnished with chunks of candied ginger.

The vinegar hits the taste buds hard on the first sip but after a quick stir and a little time to let the ice cubes melt, the sweetness of the berries and honey balance the drink out quite nicely. The ginger, and possibly the whisky though it’s hard to distinguish, offer a pleasant burn at the back of the throat.

Cowley was reading up on “shrubs,” the pre-refrigeration method for extending the life of fresh fruit by fermenting it with sugar and turning it into vinegar, when she was inspired to create this cocktail. In bartending vernacular, shrubs refer to fruit, herb and vinegar-based syrups used in cocktails.

This particular syrup, she says, was made by soaking the berries in honey for half a week, draining it and then letting the mixture soak with balsamic vinegar for a day.

The Berry & Balsamic was probably my favorite of the three cocktails sampled. There are a total of seven on the fall menu. (Eight, actually, but the delectable-sounding Burnt Sugar: Frangelico, Flor de Cana, coffee, dolce de leche, whipped cream and sugar spiced rim was a post-printing menu scratch.)

Sweet&SourStop 2: the Sweet and Sour made with fig syrup, Flor de Cana Nicaraguan rum, lemon juice, sugared pistachio and ginger ale.

A meal in a glass, this is the sort of hearty drink you can chew thanks to a generous spoonful of pistachio nuts that serve a much larger purpose than simple garnish. Just be careful not to inhale them when you suck them up the straw.

I found the drink a little more sweet than sour and could, at times, feel the sugar granules in my mouth. Tasted on its own, however, the house made fig syrup was fabulous.

Though Cowley says her cocktails are generally enjoyed as an aperitif, she suggested pairing this one with the Bison from the restaurant’s tapas-style menu. Excellent choice. The marinated bison flank steak with sherry soaked figs, baby carrots, whipped feta and red wine gastique (sic), though a little tough, did work well with the figgy beverage.

CrabAppletiniFinal stop: the Crab Appletini made with vodka, crab apple syrup, Cointreau and thyme syrup. It’s garnished with a sprig of thyme rather than the, once-again delicious-sounding candied crab apple listed on the menu. Cowley says the unique garnish plan didn’t work out in part due to time constraints – she’s the manager, bartender and server – and the lack of space.

“Realistically with the space of this bar, I’m limited to really how much I can do,” she says, admitting she initially got “ahead of myself.”

But even without the candied crap apple, this is a refreshing alternative to your typical crantini. The thyme, however, can be a bit overpowering and the orange liqueur takes away from the crab apple flavour.

Once again, however, I tried the syrup on its own and it was spectacular. Also worth noting: it was made from crabapples purchased from the nearby Parkdale Market.

Cowley, who was first introduced to making handcrafted cocktails with fresh, local ingredients while working at resorts in Costa Rica six years ago, admits she’s “still figuring out and learning” as she goes.

“I’m just trying to expand what I can do and get better at this,” she says. “I’m by no means an expert.”

With Cowley at the bartending helm, I’d say Teatro is off to a good start. My advice, for what it’s worth: less is more and for goodness sake, bottle up those syrups ‘cause those could make a killing.

Note: All cocktails on Teatro’s fall menu cost $10, except for the Apple Spiced Sangria which is just $7. The bison dish is $15.

Teatro Café is located at 1233 Wellington Street West. They are open seven days a week from 5 p.m. until close. They are also open for lunch Mon – Fri from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. To view their menu or make a reservation, click here.

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