It’s such an amusing idea – an unmarked door set back a couple of feet from the sidewalk on the College Street restaurant strip. If you are a member, you touch your card to the glowing red light in the wall and the door unlocks. Almost complete darkness and a flight of steep steps (going up not down) awaits you. You begin to climb, slowly becoming aware of the sound of old-fashioned blues from the room above. There’s a bar ahead of you, with nine stools and a couple of high-tops against the wall. Behind the stairs are some booths offering comfortable privacy. The walls are papered with a brown Chinese willow pattern print – very understated, almost dowdy. There’s a deliberately contrived feeling that you have left the noise of the street and entered a mellow, sophisticated space – the Toronto Temperance Society.
One thing I am never sure of when I climb those stairs is who I will find at the top. The bar was the brainchild of Christine Sismondo and Bill Sweete, but Sismondo was gone before the place was a week old. Moses McGintee was going to be the barman at one point but then it was Scott Mochrie and then Adrian Stein. Now it is Shane Roberts, formerly the chef at one of Sweete’s other properties, Negroni. He and Sweete have put together the current cocktail list. The first drink I try is called a Bijou and it’s a very fine cocktail, big-bodied and perfumed, made with Plymouth gin, sweet white Italian vermouth and a hit of Chartreuse that adds delectably bitter herbal complexity. I’m always happy to see Plymouth gin at the back of a bar. In fact the rail here is uniformly impressive with Havanah Club 7 the house rum, Alberta Springs the rye, Milagro the tequila… And there’s food – the menu from Sidecar downstairs, where Sweete is also an owner.
While I’m waiting for something to eat, I order a Corpse Reviver #3, shaken with brandy, Campari, Cointreau and lemon juice. The citrus flavours are the eye-openers with Campari filling out the middle and the brandy coming in at the end like the bassline a church organist plays with his feet. Like the Bijou, the cocktail is served ungarnished. “It lets you concentrate more on the drink,” explains Sweete.
Our dinner begins to materialize. Mushroom soup is a people-pleaser, not overly heavy but redolent of chicken stock, cream and truffle oil. Half a dozen tempura shrimp are each as big as my thumb, plump and juicy with a crisp, delicate breading and a bowl of lightweight ponzu for dipping.
Fennel risotto is rich and gooey with mascarpone, almost too well seasoned but lifted to a new, more interesting level by very finely grated orange zest sprinkled on top.
The star nosh tonight is a plate of gravlax cured with beet juice (a fashionable trick in Toronto these days) and topped with watercress, ribbons of crunchy fennel, a terrific potato salad made with sautéed potatoes and whole capers that pop in your mouth like tiny salt bombs.
One of the founding principles of the Toronto Temperance Society was that private membership would serve to keep College Street’s rowdier elements away. When I dropped by in the fall – early in the week and early in the evening – I pretty much had the bar to myself, and it was perfect. But Saturday night is Saturday night, even in a private club, and the place begins to get noisy as it fills up. There’s a photographer from the New York Times taking pictures and the lights become suddenly brighter to let him catch some background. The story will run on Boxing Day apparently and I’ll be interested to see what New York makes of it all. I hope they mention the house rules, especially the final proscription: “Do not ever attempt to order a Cosmopolitan. You will be asked, politely, to leave.”