Hi-Lo Bar mix-master, Ally Martin. [Photos: Gizelle Lau]
It takes a special type of human to work the front lines of any popular restaurant. From 606 to Cobalt, Terroni, Ruby Watchco., and The Oxley Public House, Ally Martin has seen and served it all, and still manages to love the business. Her warmth, expertise, and creativity is now being enjoyed at the newly launched Hi-Lo Bar (self-proclaimed "dive bar," owned by Gavin Holmes, John Sinopoli, and Erik Joyal) in Riverside (753 Queen St. E.), where Martin mixes an adventurous selection of delicious cocktails, alongside a vast offering of barley pops. Eater ambled up to the bar to ask Martin a few questions and take some snaps while she transformed liquid into magic.
How did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
I gained real chops bar-backing at 606 when I was 17 (years-old). At 19, I became a bartender. Technically, neither was legal. A highlight was bartending early on at Cobalt (owned by Jennifer Agg of The Black Hoof fame), one of the very first true cocktail establishments in Toronto. Working there revolutionized mixing drinks for me. Terroni is a standout; their wine program changed my life. At the time, we had weekly lessons and tastings with John Szabo, a master sommelier. How do you explain an obscure wine in a fast-paced environment without talking down to the guest and give them what they like? Not easy. Good learning. Good teachers. Enough said.
What are some challenges to devising a cocktail menu? From where do you get your inspiration?
Can we actually find and afford the liquors and produce we'd like and need? How much prep time does it take? What's in season? What will people actually enjoy? Does it actually taste good? Sometimes, I wonder if that question is asked enough. My inspiration comes from cooking, seasonal ingredients, and classic cocktails. Currently, I work with co-bartender, Emily O'Brien, and her input is invaluable. We have different strengths and two sets of taste buds are better than one. A good drink involves lots of booze, clean flavour, a base note, acid, richness, and balance.
Do you have any special cocktails for the polar vortex?
I have two seasonal cocktails called 'Tyger Tyger' and 'Last Dance With Mary Jane' that were just put on the menu last week. 'Tyger Tyger' has rosemary-infused Sailor Jerry rum which will warm up your winter. The chamomile in 'Last Dance With Mary Jane' may seem spring-like but, in this sense, the herbaceous quality makes it well suited for sub-zero temperatures. Off the menu, you can also order a classic spin on Sazerac, which I've named 'A Tale of Two Cities'; Dark Horse rye, calvados/Rose bitters, a dash of vanilla simple syrup and rose liqueur, stirred on ice and served neat in a chilled rock glass, washed with calvados and finished with a lemon twist. Yummy! Another impending creation for the winter season is sweet and sour plum sauce, another preserve made in September, with warm sake!