Rick McGinnis/Metro Toronto
Address: 55 Mill St. (Bldg. 62A)
Hours: Mon to Sun., 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.
Capacity: 98 indoors, 220 with patio
Winterlicious Menu: lunch $20, dinner $35
Reg. dinner for 2 w/tax & tip: $80
**** (out of 5)
The marvel of the Distillery District is that this complex of buildings, once devoted to the very serious — and dangerous — business of producing liquor has become, by virtue of its age, and the untouched integrity of its buildings, a remarkably romantic little complex of pubs, cafés, art galleries and stores. For the better part of the last century, the dining room of Pure Spirits was a storage room for barrels of butyl alcohol; today, with its exposed brick, rough wood beams and long row of windows, it’s an evocative space, large but strangely intimate, even romantic on a Valentine’s Day date.
Patrick Truax took over the kitchen at Pure Spirits just three months ago, at the invitation of Jason Rosso, executive chef of the Distillery District. A graduate of George Brown’s culinary school and Ottawa’s Le Cordon Bleu, the Toronto native was Rosso’s sous chef at Yorkville’s Sassafraz before a detour took him to New York City. Back in Toronto, he spent a few weeks working with Pure Spirit’s original menu, just to get a feel for the unique demands of his clientèle, particularly on nights when there’s a show running at Soulpepper’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts, just down the cobblestone lane from the restaurant.
“They want the perfect experience, but they don’t want to take two hours to dine. They want to be in and out of here in an hour.”
“They want the perfect experience, but they don’t want to take two hours to dine,” Truax says. “They want to be in and out of here in an hour. My biggest concern every night — we do have the theatre that goes on every evening, and these people need to be out of here by 7:30, approximately. They’ll reserve a table for seven o’clock and they’ll want to have a full evening in 25 minutes. That’s probably the biggest restriction I have here, so when it comes to making duos or trios on a plate, it is a little tough to have people sit down and dine and really sit down and understand the food, but we get it done.”
For Winterlicious, the city-wide food event, Truax is limited to two appetizers and two entrées to tell people who’ve never been to Pure Spirits before everything they need to know about his restaurant’s seafood-based menu, and his own French cuisine training. There’s a soup of the day — a rich butternut squash on the chilly night I eat there — and braised short ribs to start, and for mains, a fragrant bouillabaisse topped with a crispy-skinned filet of sea bass and a tender strip loin for mains.
“I am taking a bit of a hit on the strip loin — it’s a six-ounce, in-house aged strip loin. I took a hit but I don’t mind it, because I think Winterlicious is about promotion, to get people to come down and check it out. If I only make two dollars at the end of the day on the Winterlicious menu, then that’s what I will do, just to get people to say, ‘Hey, there’s something going on at Pure Spirits.’ When I constructed that menu, it was about giving the customer more value than they were paying for.”
It’s easy to get lost among the laneways and red brick of the Distillery District, but Truax doesn’t want his kitchen to get lost, and he’s willing to pay what he needs to make his mark.
“I’ve brought in white truffles, even though this restaurant doesn’t really call for it,” he says. “I believe in using the best products, and I have no problem spending the money. If it’s out of season, it might hurt my food costs, but in the long run people might say, ‘Hey, it’s the middle of December, I want some halibut. I know Pure Spirits has halibut.’ I really have no problem sourcing something out and paying the extra five or 10 dollars to make this restaurant different from others.”