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Rakia Bar chef Brook Kavanagh preps the pork.
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Owner Dusan Varga (left) and manager David Gulyas hang out.
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Duck neck sausage scores.
RAKIA BAR (1402 Queen East, at Greenwood, 416-778-8800, rakiabar.com) Complete tapas for $50 per person including tax, tip and three shots of Slivovitz. Average tapas $15. Open for dinner nightly from 3 pm, bar till close; lunch and brunch Tuesday to Sunday 11 am to 3 pm. Licensed. Access: four steps at door, washrooms on same floor. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN
If Dušan Varga and Branko Nešic's five-week-old Rakia Bar were smack in the middle of club-crazy King West, there'd be stretch Hummers round the block.
But here in sleepy Leslieville, you'd be lucky to find an 82 Yugo parked out front, such is the east side's interminable streetcar track construction. Seems an odd spot for the first North American outpost of a Belgrade-based cocktail lounge dedicated to the Balkan equivalent of schnapps.
And the highly potent brandies are what Rakia Bar is all about - pages and pages of them, all served as tasting flights on wooden paddles equipped with bells to ring to signal a second round. Few have managed the feat so far, though we were able to knock back a shot of something called an Eastern Cowboy (Zlatna Biserka, $8.50). It's enigmatically described on the menu as "reminiscent of bourbon but not on this frontier." Embalming fluid might be more accurate.
Don't come to Rakia Bar expecting a traditional three-course dinner, as executive chef Brook Kavanagh's nouvelle Serbian carte is clearly labelled tapas. The drill goes something like this: drink, drink, pork, drink, pork, drink, pork, drink, drink, pork, drink, pastry, drink, invade Albania, ring bell.
At lunch and brunch, the ritual begins with slices of warm, salty house-baked baguette coupled with what chef calls "red fat," a spectacular spread of garlicky pork fat infused with sweet paprika. His perfect deep-fried Scotch duck eggs come wrapped in his own pork sausages and panko crumbs, a salad of wilted spinach in a dilled sour cream vinaigrette dressed with riotously caramelized peaches a particularly brilliant counterpoint.
Just as cleverly - or freakishly if you're vegan - the moonlighting La Palette chef turns a duck's neck into confit-stuffed sausage before serving it over brioche French toast, sour cherry compote and the duck-billed head on the side (both $13). The inevitable Benny ($12) sees a pair of crackling-laced biscuits topped with poached eggs and pulled suckling pig in lemony brown-butter hollandaise. Cardiac arrest or what?
Sadly, eggs en cocotte - a ramekin of slow-poached eggs with peppers and tomato cooked in a water bath and topped with potato crisps ($14) - arrive virtually raw, while stone-cold strudel with a scoop of melted vanilla ice cream ($9) isn't worth the painful wait or the damage to the wallet.
Back on track for dinner, the kitchen sends out bowls of the daily soup - tonight, a terrific white bean purée finished with garlic chips - alongside a shareable starter of pan-fried smelt (both $5) and more of that fab bread 'n' red fat combo. Think of Capital Eggs ($1.50 each) as your mom's deviled variety, only spiked with foie gras - and bacon, of course.
I normally hate the things, but thinly sliced red radish makes a surprisingly delish salad when tossed with crushed rye croutons and an eggy pesto dressing ($9).
And then there was meat! The Chevapi Trio ($15) is not the house band on a Slovenian cruise ship but links of grilled house-made venison, boar and lamb sausage augmented with more cherry compote, whipped sour cream and tiny rounds of flaky lepinya flatbread.
Like all of Kavanagh's work, his suckling pig plate ($26) is as impressive to the eyes as it is to the tongue, a trio of pork meatball dumplings juxtaposed with super-crispy schnitzel and pink-centred tenderloin. But there's nothing remotely regal about Princes Krofne ($9), two hotel-issue profiteroles with chocolate sauce and whipped cream that taste straight from the fridge.
And why a resto-lounge that celebrates the culture of the former Yugoslavia insists on playing top 40 R&B, old Amy Winehouse and what sounds like the Homer 'n' Jethro of Herzegovina is beyond us. Have they never heard of Laibach? Beirut? Hard-rockers Tesla?
But once Rakia gets the intoxicating mix of strong booze, great food, rockin' tunes and intermittent gunfire right, we'll be back time and time again.