Food & Drink: 25 Liberty

Liberty Village may look like something out of The Truman Show, with everything there to please the newest condo owner, but in the midst of all the ‘resto-lounges’, pubs, and the latest chicken wing joints, lives a restaurant geared towards offering the very best in classical cocktails, stunning decor, and food with real flair. A diamond in this very ‘Stepford’ part of town.  A place called 25 Liberty.

I’m staring at a drink called The Business. It’s been on the table for about fifteen minutes amongst a few other drinks whilst we take photos for the review. The foam on it hasn’t moved. It hasn’t dissolved in any way, shape, or form for the fifteen minutes since it arrived at the table. For anyone who’s ever made a cocktail before, this is nothing short of miraculous.

A favourite story amongst bartenders is one from over a hundred years ago, when Harry Craddock, making drinks at The Savoy Hotel in London, was asked ‘What is the best way to drink a cocktail?’

‘Quickly’ he replied, ‘While it’s still laughing at you.’ With this in mind, my tequila sour (of sorts) is finding me bloody hilarious.

I have to get to the bottom of it all. Kyle Burch, Bar Manager at 25 Liberty, has already noticed my disbelief and makes himself available for an explanation: an old Hamilton Beach milkshake blender is on hand behind the bar to completely emulsify the egg whites in the drink before shaking.  It is devastatingly simple, but something that has completely evaded every bartender I know, up ’til now.

This all sounds terribly boring for the average reader, but this level of innovation and attention to detail is born out of a passion for perfection that you really don’t see everyday. The last time something dropped my jaw this hard in a bar was a Hoisin Duck cocktail being produced at Barchef, but that wasn’t a good thing.

Toronto’s bartending scene has changed somewhat over the last five years: from garish ‘martini’ bars, offering vodka with all the crèmes Bols had to offer; to the impressive, if vapid, rise of ‘molecular’ cocktails, where liquid nitrogen was employed as frequently as ice, and where methods like ‘reverse spherification’ became more important than ‘dilution’. I hope you see what I’m getting at.

The last two years in particular have, thankfully, seen a new trend: proper bartending, or ‘neo-classical’ bartending. Sure, there might be a couple of new techniques learned along the way, but this school of thought accepts two things: there’s a lot to be learned from history; and that natural flavours are the best things you can put into a drink.

Kyle is grateful for the change in the scene. Frustrated with the scarcity of quality establishments, he actually stopped bartending when he arrived back in Toronto from Vancouver in 2008. Out West, he’d been training under cocktail master Justin Tisdall, and learning about the power of good ingredients from shifts in kitchens like Elixir. A reprint of David A. Embury’s 1948 manual, The Fine Art of Mixing Drinks, had taught him about perfect ratios for balancing flavours. When he stepped out in T.O., he couldn’t find a bar to call home. Not that there weren’t places producing tasty cocktails, he elaborates, but that there certainly weren’t many so focused on understanding (as he puts it) ‘why, not just how’.

The LCBO (Ontario’s liquor monopoly) has historically been restrictive to creativity, he explains, which has made it tough for many bartenders to really learn about, let alone find, good product. Toronto’s response to this began, he charges, with The Black Hoof’s Jen Agg, who was amongst the first in the city to experiment with making her own ingredients when she couldn’t find them. Other bartenders were entranced and soon began following suit. Before long, Kyle pulled himself from his self-imposed exile, and had gleefully jumped on board. There are now dozens of bars using their own house-made bitters, for example, and Kyle couldn’t be happier. ‘I want everyone to share what they’re making’ he proclaims.

Now he’s part of Daniel Lynn’s ambitious reworking of the old Liberty Bistro space, and the marriage couldn’t be happier.

 Lynn’s eclectic menu maintains threads of his Italian training, whilst tossing in international flair for good measure: our table tears apart the antipasto ($18) of salume and grilled vegetables, while grilled quail ($24) rests atop a delicious smoky lentil ragout, alongside potato rosti under spinach and blackcurrant sauce.

The wine list has a similarly globe-trotting approach, an outstanding selection with very few wines broaching the $100 mark. Most are around $60.

Kyle’s cocktail list has a “try everything” kind of feel. He’s introduced ‘pacer cocktails’ like Marsala Lemonade ($8) and a Weissbeir Shandygaff ($7) so you can keep drinking all night without succumbing to the effects of over-indulgence. Cocktails are frighteningly reasonable (nothing more than $14.50) given the quality they exude (it’s not unusual to find cocktails in the $16-20 range here in T.O.). He makes punches and new cobbler recipes each day. Ours was a sherry cobbler ($12), made with Palo Cortado sherry, french brandy, sugar, orange bitters, orange juice and nutmeg – that final spice a delicate addition to such a fruity drink.

I ask him what vermouth he uses behind the bar, and he responds by pouring a liqueur glass full of the stuff. It’s beautiful, like an enhanced Alsatian aromatic. ‘Why isn’t everyone using this?’ I demand. He shrugs, smiles, and goes back to what he was doing – using a small sledgehammer to crush a bag of ice.

25 Liberty is located at 25 Liberty Street, Toronto.

Lunch is served from 12:00 – 2:30, Dinner from 5:00 – 10:00.

Reservations can be made by online at 25liberty.ca, or by phone: 647-748-8200.

Jen Hunter is Spindle’s Toronto Food & Drink Correspondent. You can follow more of her gastronomic misadventures on Twitter @JennyTreehorn

Pictures by Stephanie Coffey Photography