Somehow, though, Girgis has managed to pull it off. Business has been strong since opening last August, and if our difficulty in getting a table for a recent lunch visit is any indication, there's no risk of it being stricken with recession-itis any time soon. A couple of doors south, the Village Idiot is still thriving as well (although the fact that it's the closest bar to OCAD is likely a strong factor). And as for the church, while there have been a few complaints from the more conservative ranks of the congregation, Girgis says that there haven't been any major problems, biblical or otherwise.
It probably helps that Girgis is a veteran of both the business and the neighbourhood, having been stationed on the northwest corner of Dundas and McCaul for over 20 years, originally as owner of The Gallery Bistro, which he transformed into the more casual Village Idiot in 2003. In mid-2007, he noticed a recently vacated storefront around the corner, and caught the expansion bug. He wanted more space to work with, so he convinced the tenants on either side to sell him their leases.
This kicked off a 14 month process of renovating a former flower shop, religious book store, and café into a 90-seat restaurant and bar. "I wanted to do everything different from the Village Idiot," says Girgis. "Different menu, different beer list, different atmosphere." The result is an inviting three room space with an atmosphere that is both classic and comfortable no matter what sort of night out you're looking for. The Sinner's Pub and Redeemer's Lounge are the livelier rooms, with the long bar extending through the two of them making it obvious that alcohol is a key player in any visit, while the more secluded Most Wanted Bistro room has a more refined and relaxed sensibility, feeling more like a private dining club than a boisterous bar.
The "something for everyone" credo also applies to the beer list, which is extensive and varied. Bud, Bud Light, Stella and several Keith's brands are available for those with mainstream tastes, but more adventurous drinkers will likely be attracted to the import offerings which include several from England's Fuller's Brewery, and a solid selection of European ales and lagers. Server Sam Beszelzen is especially proud to note that they're the only establishment in Canada to simultaneously feature four beers from Dutch Trappist brewery Koningshoeven on tap. Best of all, the beers are all priced in the $4.50 to $6.50 range, which is a relative bargain compared to many downtown beer destinations.
While beer takes centre stage at the bar, there are plenty of other boozy options as well. The extensive cocktail list has a heavy religious theme, with concoctions including The Nutty Monk, Saint Mary, Voodoo Spirit, and those named for original sins like Sloth and Envy. There's also a short but respectable list of wallet-friendly wines, with most priced under $10/glass or $40/bottle.
The budget-conscious will also be happy with the food menu, which has all but one dish priced under the $20 mark, and many around $10. The menu sees Girgis looking back to his Gallery Bistro days in some regards, as it has a strong bistro flavour, with a touch of gastropub as well ("Bistropub", perhaps?). Steaks, ribs and rotisserie chicken are specialities of the house, while other hearty and comfortable entrée offerings include lamb shank, duck confit and braised short rib. For smaller appetites there are a number of sandwiches and flatbreads available, and vegetarians can enjoy several salads, ratatouille, and the "Redemption Burger" made with Portobello mushrooms.
This combination of well-priced and varied food and drink has struck a chord with an equally varied group of customers. "We're getting a nice mix," says Beszelzen. "A lot of business folks, workers from the hospitals on University, professors and students from U of T." Girgis adds that many local residents have become regulars, and it's become a popular lunch stop for tourists visiting the AGO.
Despite the initial success of Sin & Redemption, Girgis is realistic enough to recognise that it will take work to keep it going. "It's a new place and people want to try it," he says, "and I know that's going to fade away. That percentage of clientèle that go to new places just to check them out will die out over time." But having gone through previous recessions and other setbacks at the Bistro/Idiot has taught him how to ride out the lean times, lessons that should serve him well at the new place.
And besides, based on the fact that it hasn't been hit by a bolt of lightening or a plague of locusts, it seems like God is cool with the place even despite the slightly blasphemous name. It's hard to get a much higher recommendation than that, isn't it?
Greg Clow, 2009: www.tasteto.com
The battle between virtue and vice continues on McCaul St., where St. Patrick's Catholic Church and the pub Sin & Redemption eye each other from opposite sides of the road.
"Obviously the name (Sin & Redemption) came from being across the road from St. Patrick's church," says owner Atef Girgis, sitting in the busy Sinner's pub, one of three connected rooms that make up the 90-seat eatery and drinking establishment.
"We didn't mean to make fun," he continues, "just to make light of the atmosphere." People are invited to indulge here, but "if you feel you're sinning, have one too many drinks, go across the road and redeem yourself."
With its dark wood panelling and candlelight, the five-month-old bar/pub/bistro is designed to appeal both to students from the Ontario College of Art and Design and patrons of the Art Gallery of Ontario, both just a stone's throw away. Also within stumbling distance is Sin and Redemption's sister pub, the Village Idiot.
On a busy Thursday night the place is full of OCAD types indulging in the 32 beers on tap and a menu of rotisserie chicken and steaks.
Girgis continues the vice and virtue theme to his martini menu, which includes such classic temptations as Saint Mary (a take on the Bloody Mary) and the Nutty Monk (Vodka, Frangelico Hazelnut Liqueur & crème de cacao), as well as three of the seven deadly sins (Greed, Envy and Sloth).
After you're finished sinning, say after indulging in a rich meal, seek the redemptive – and relieving – qualities of the Redemption martini, advises bartender Ryan Thomas. Containing Chambord liqueur, an all-natural digestif, it's a "slow-sipping, easy martini," that extends the classic French Martini with extra pineapple juice.
We can attest that the mild acidity of the pineapple juice mingles well with the velvety taste of raspberries, blackberries, honey and Madagascar vanilla in the Chambord.
"It's soft and delicate, and cleans the palate," says Thomas, clad in the S&R uniform of black dress shirt and white priest collar.
When seeking redemption at home, Thomas recommends you give all the ingredients a good shake to make the pineapple juice froth up like the foam atop a cappuccino.
1-1/2 oz vodka
1/2 oz Chambord
3 oz pineapple juice
Combine all items in martini shaker. Shake vigorously and pour into martini glass. Makes 1 drink.
Shauna Rempel, 2009: www.thestar.com