Mother Tongue dishes Asian eats in a restaurant and cocktail bar in Toronto

Former Bar Buca veteran Francis Bermejo is stirring things up in the kitchen


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The cocktail bar is on the lower level of the two-storey restaurant (IMAGES: Yvonne Tsui)

Mother Tongue, a modern Asian restaurant and cocktail bar by the Turner Stevens Group, is new to Toronto's dining scene and can be found inside the Templar Hotel on Adelaide Street West. From the outside, the former home of Monk Kitchen and Parcae doesn't look like much has changed except for one thing — there’s a clear sign with the restaurant's name so you don’t have to find the proverbial “hidden door” to get in.

In the kitchen is Bar Buca veteran, Francis Bermejo who has created a menu of shared plates that pull from Chinese, Filipino, Japanese and American cuisines that pair perfectly with the handcrafted cocktails. Focusing on simplicity and using fresh and local ingredients is a philosophy that was instilled in Bermejo from his Bar Buca days that has carried over to the menu at Mother Tongue.


The restaurant's exterior has a subtle call-out

 

Robert Granicolo, the General Manager at Mother Tongue and founder of the Minister Group leads the bar program, a cocktail consulting firm who most recently helmed the bar program at Ufficio.  

“Francis and I met at Bar Buca and we clicked right away. We were roommates for a year and a half. We have one of those yin and yang kind of relationships,” says Granicolo of their dynamic.  

Having worked up the ranks from cook to chef de cuisine at Bar Buca, Bermejo had always dreamed of cooking food that was closer to his roots and when Granicolo approached him about Mother Tongue, it answered his calling.  


Part of the decor on the lower level

 

The menu is what Bermejo dubs “Toronto cuisine” incorporating diverse cuisines that represent the things that he grew up eating. Born and raised in Manila, when Bermejo moved to Toronto when he was 13, he was exposed to Chinese and Japanese cuisines. It is a compilation of what one might consider the “greatest hits” of global bar food culture. It’s a menu of “things I like to eat” and Bermejo hopes to translate the feelings associated with eating your favourite foods on the plate.

Pan de sal for example was something Bermejo grew up eating. “My grandmother would used to wake me up in the morning and ask me what I wanted to eat and it was usually pan de sal with spam.”  

Here, the house-baked Pan de Sal ($1.50) makes a great accompaniment for Manchego cheese ($8) or the Iberico Coppa ($12) which draws from the Spanish influence in the Philippines dating back to the colonial times.    

Deviled eggs also gets an upgrade with the angel eggs ($8), topped with a creamy foie gras mousse and chives served on toast.


Mother Tongue's spin on the deviled eggs: the angel eggs 

 

Those looking for a bit more can turn to the larger shared plates, such as the short ribs ($20), braised for three hours in a sesame marinade (akin to the Korean kalbi, but instead using the meatier-variety of short ribs) with king oyster mushrooms on a bed of rice. There’s also a superb steak and foie gras fried rice, a throwback to a dish that Bermejo tried while traveling in Japan with corn, rapini and sesame.  


The finishing touches are put on the short ribs

 

The opening drink menu is comprised of five signature cocktails, such as The Bruno ($15), a rye cocktail with salted black umeshi (plum) shrub, vermouth, amaro and Noix de St. Jean walnut bitters. There’s also a dedicated gin and tonic program here that ranges from $12 for Tanqueray to $26 for Fred Jerbis, an Italian gin.  “When I was in Europe, every restaurant had a gin and tonic, served very pretty in a goblet so I thought it’d be a cool thing to introduce here,” says Granicolo. Each has been hand-picked to pair with the various Fever Tree tonic flavours.

Those seeking draught beer need look elsewhere as they only come in the bottle and can variety at Mother Tongue. “The beers are all hand-selected and in a small batch. Nothing’s prettier to me than a beautiful bottle and a beautiful can,” says Granicolo. The starting menu features Halo’s Tokyo Rose saison ($15), Blood Brothers’ light pale ale ($9) and Revel Cider ($11) to name a few.

The two-floor restaurant was built by Solid Design (the same people who did the design for â€‹Baro and La Carnita). Breaking from tradition, the formal dining room is upstairs while the cocktail bar is downstairs. The 46-seat main floor dining room is colourful and inviting while the lower level cocktail bar “is sexy and moody.”   


A glimpse inside the more formal dining room

 

With DJ's spinning hits Thursday to Saturday and a total licensed capacity of 184, Mother Tongue is set to be the new hot spot in Toronto's Entertainment District.

 

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Yvonne lives to eat. She’s known to her friends as the “Ask Alexa” for the best restaurants in cities all over North America. When she's not doing on-the-ground, scrappy PR for TouchBistro, she's a freelance food and drink writer and tells the origin stories, struggles, and successes of restaurateurs – veteran and new.

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