First Look: Rakia Bar, an homage to Balkan-style fruit brandy in Leslieville
Amidst the cacophony of the east end’s streetcar track upheaval sits Rakia Bar, an ode to — you guessed it — rakia. Owner Dusan Varga is a walking encyclopedia of the stuff, offering up a crash course in his bevy of brandies for anyone who has an ear to spare. While the original location sits in Belgrade, Serbia, this Leslieville outpost is the first in North America.
“We want you to come sip on brandy over time, and share some mezze [sharing plates],” Varga says. “This is the old-school European way of consuming alcohol.”
Rakia came into popularity in Europe in the 19th century, when vineyards across the continent were hit by a phylloxera plague, which nearly wiped them out. A scarcity of wine ensued, and other fructose-based alcoholic beverages skyrocketed in popularity. The climate in the southeast regions of Europe produced high quality fruit for rakia; since then, the fruit-based tipple has been synonymous with that neck of the woods.
Keen to educate the masses, Varga plans to conduct tutored tastings, perhaps moving from a pear-flavoured rakia through quince, apricot, juniper, honey and plum versions. Each order of rakia ($6.50-$35 per ounce) is accompanied by a small dish with cured meats, cheeses and fruit, as tradition dictates.
Procured from artisanal producers throughout the Balkans and elsewhere, the rakia menu demarcates a drink’s intensity by the hardiness of a moustache: a pencil thin line indicates an introductory option; a more full-bodied one promises a warm glow; and a real soup-stirrer of a ’stache will pack a heated punch. (In Serbia, Varga says, rather than saying something will “put hair on your chest,” the phrase revolves around the moustache.)
Regardless of potency, the 40 brandies currently on offer are all fermented naturally, with nary an additive, sugar or synthetic flavour to be found. Eventually, Varga hopes to match the original location’s selection of around 120 brandies from around the world.
Setting out to complement the drinks, executive chef Brook Kavanagh (who is splitting his time between Rakia Bar and La Palette) has crafted a menu of Eastern European mezze (sharing plates) in addition to some heftier fare, much of it cooked with French flair.
Mains include the gibanica ($22): layers of phyllo pastry that are soaked in egg, cream and cheese, then baked with hen of the woods mushrooms, served with fresh seasonal vegetables and finished with a brown butter hollandaise.
On the weekends, the brunch menu offers indulgent picks: the duck neck sausage plate ($13) is built from brioche French toast, sausage, house–cultured cream, sour cherry slatko and fresh berries (the inclusion of a duck’s head on the plate is optional).
“It’s not about getting drunk,” Varga says of the place. “It’s about mixing good food and drink with good conversation.”
Rakia Bar, 1402 Queen St. E., Unit B, 416-778-8800