a few weeks back, i headed to toronto’s far east to check out rakia bar, a new resto-lounge hawking rakia. also known as fruit brandy, or schnapps, this is the stuff that curled the hairs on my young neck while growing up abroad. in austria, i recall some vile-tasting peach schnapps being served up in a mountain bar. during a charitable trip to romania, each location visited called for us foreigners to settle down at a table. there, we were greeted with shot glasses filled to the brim with rakia; after our initial tasting, most glasses remained that way: full. this rakia, however, managed to dispel all my preconceived notions about the stuff; owner dusan varga provided me with an expertly guided tour of the stuff and taught me plenty. (also, the romanian version i sampled was clearly not quite on the same level, quality-wise!) but enough about rakia, and on to the cheese.

at rakia bar, each rakia is accompanied by a mezze, a tiny bowl featuring various elements that complement the brandy: nuts, cured meat, fresh fruit and cheese. kashkaval is the traditional cheese of choice, and here too it’s the name of the game. for a pear rakia, the mezze included some walnuts, kalamata olives, kashkaval, berries and prosciutto. in another, a hunk of the kashkaval was topped with a chunk of preserved kiwi, making for a sweet and salty accompaniment to the quince brandy. it can be sourced at eastern euro specialty shops around town.

Mains involving cheese included the gibanica. this dish is built from layers of phyllo pastry soaked in egg and cream cheese which is mixed with homemade kaymak for tartness. kaymak is reminiscent of clotted cream and is popular in the balkans. the pastry is then baked with hen of the woods mushrooms, served with fresh seasonal vegetables and finished with a brown butter hollandaise. this was incredibly indulgent and heavy; not ideal for summer, in my opinion, but the perfect dish to stave off winter’s chill. come fall, i shall certainly be heading back.

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