As we sat around an absinthe fountain in the dimly-lit Le Lab, my friend lamented not dressing the part of 1920s dame.
The glossy black brick walls, dim lights, and covered windows made the Prohibition-era bar feel like a well-kept secret.
Each table had a candle flickering on it and we were immediately served water when we sat down. Our party was two parts Vancouver, one part Toronto, and one part Montreal.
We began looking through the detailed menu and got a bit derailed. It would have been nice to have an English version available. Being enlisted to translate ingredients like “sirop ChichÃ©n ItzÃ¡, Agave, gingembre et coriander,” was a nonstarter for me.
The menu is divided up into absinthe-based cocktails, fruity drinks, dry and strong, heated, and classics. They also have a list of mocktails, beers, wines, and shots.
Since so few places serve absinthe drinks, I trusted Le Lab and ordered the Amazone ($12) – a mix of fresh mint, raspberry puree, lemon juice, simple syrup, Absente 55, and CarpÃ¨ne Malvolti prosecco wine.
Absinthe is notoriously disgusting except for people who like black liquorice, but I question that such people really exist. Today we drink it more for its FÃ©e Verte-inspired bohemian nostalgia than anything else.
My boyfriend, ever the minimalist, ordered a simple shot of Absente 55 ($8). My Vancouver friend knew she wanted something fruity, and talked her way through it with the waiter. They ended up settling on El Felicidad ($12), a mix of cilantro, agave syrup, ginger, Triple Sec, Yuzu juice, and Cazadores Blanco tequila. Her boyfriend barely glanced at the menu before entrusting his decision to the house.
As we sat listening to what sounded like a jazzy remix of The Triplets of Belleville, three bartenders were working expertly on their oeuvres. The one directly in front of us sprayed a short tumbler with an aerosol can and lit the fumes with a blowtorch. The inside of the glass burned with a tall blue flame and the spray coated the blackening glass with flavour.
“That’s yours,” the waiter said to my friend’s boyfriend.
By 9:30 the bar was starting to fill up but the noise levels stayed reasonable. We could talk without straining our voices.
The ornate absinthe fountain filled with ice water was duly played with as we talked, watched the bar go up in calculated flames, and waited for our drinks.
When the four drinks came it was hard to tell which was more impressive. My boyfriend’s shot of absinthe was in a long glass with the image of Van Gogh staring out from the side of it. A silver slotted spoon rested across the top with a little sugar cube waiting to be melted. He positioned the cube under the tiny faucet of the absinthe fountain and turned it on. An icy stream melted the sugar as it filled the glass to a suggested 3:1 ratio of ice water to absinthe.
My Amazone looked unassuming in its tumbler, but tasted extraordinary. Considering that one of the most unpalatable alcohols was its base, Le Lab created a drink that was complex and delicious.
My friend’s fruity cocktail delivered as well. But if this hidden gem could make absinthe taste good, her sweet, densely flavoured fruity drink would be an easy win.
The real surprise was the drink that had been ordered in good faith. The waiter put the previously-burning short glass on the table complete with beef jerky garnish. The Jerky Lab Jack ($12) was organic sugar, triple sec, “bitter barbecue” (a house secret), Jack Daniels, with a mild but spicy jerky balancing on the rim.
Our waiter was friendly and professional; he knew when to let us nurse the drops at the bottom of our glasses and when to take another order.
Leaving the dark watering hole into the crisp November air, there’s no busy nightlife around, only stone-cut houses and a view of beautiful La Fontaine Park. Le Lab’s off the beaten path feel reinforces its Prohibition-era bar vibe. Any “choice bit of calico” can definitely count on this speakeasy for a memorable night.
Le Lab is located at 1351 Rachel E. Open Monday to Saturday from 5 p.m. to late.