Sunday, March 2, 2014


Following our whirlwind trip around Spain, we returned home with a reinvigorated outlook on food, on cooking, on eating and with a reinforced perception regarding the North American pollution of the term "tapas". When local restaurateurs manipulated and marginalized the meaning of tapas to little more than small plates of food they could swing a better profit margin on, they let the congeniality slip through their fingers. The reasonably priced cava and cold beers, immaculately canned seafood and swoon-worthy pork were all gone. What remained was the shell of an idea that was force-fed to the rank-and-file in portions barely large enough to share with the person next to you, let alone divide amongst a table. It was a mockery, a low-rent cover band, an impersonation of much more than a restaurant format, but a culture. It all made the register ring, but lacked heart.

The Spanish people bolstered our belief that tapas are about so much more than the size of the portions or the menu format. They're about a joie de vivre, about spirit and about a zest for life, all of which chefs Grant van Gameren and Brandon Olsen have managed to capture. With conviction, these two gentlemen are capable of selling that spirit to your heart ahead of your wallet.

Van Gameren was a founding partner and the original chef responsible for the compelling, and at times provocative cookery that earned The Black Hoof second place on En Route's list of Canada's Best New Restaurants in 2009. Trotters, tongue and horse tartare may be commonplace in Quebec, but were uncharted territory in Toronto at the time. Brandon Olsen, who spent three years at Thomas Keller's Ad Hoc in Yountville California before returning to Canada made the transition from chef de partie to head chef at The Hoof following Van Gameren's "amicable" but widely reported departure in 2011. Chef Van Gameren went on to occupy the executive chef's position at Enoteca Sociale and eventually partnered to open Crown Salumi, his own brand of artisanal charcuterie.

We were smitten by chef Van Gameren's collaboration with chef Michele Forgione in Montreal when the two cooked side-by-side to celebrate Osteria Venti's second anniversary in the spring of 2012, particularly the smoked sweetbreads and chanterelle mushrooms that still linger on the mind. Just a few months later, a stellar meal prepared by chef Olsen at The Black Hoof ignited a love for Toronto's swelling restaurant scene that sees us return as often as our schedules permit. So, when news hit that the two were back together again serving Spanish grub at a spot called Bar Isabel in Toronto's Little Italy, we packed our bags.

 Mussels Escabeche - 12$

By the time we made it down, Bar Isabel's delightfully inauthentic ode to Spain had recently been nominated but hadn't yet won the title of Canada's Best New Restaurant 2013. An intensely artificial, hot pink neon light reads "Isabel" in cursive letters hoisted above the address made from a mosaic of broken tiles. The contrast is stark opposite the imposing facade of the restaurant made of massive pieces of weathered maple. Inside, vaulted ceilings, wooden archways, mirrors, and hanging stained glass light fixtures maintain the old-world character and values of the neighborhood. You can easily imagine a time when older Italian men held court here, it's unlikely they'd believe you if you told them the space probably pours more amaro now than it did then. The floors have been redone in vibrantly colored, mismatched tiles; their intricate patterns suggestive of the hand painted tiles we frequently admired in restaurants throughout Spain. 

The bartender who doubled as our waiter was agonizingly hip but exceptionally friendly. When he noticed us mulling over a throng of cleverly named cocktails his questions were well considered, the resulting recommendations razor-sharp. Fascinated and hopelessly enamored with mussels escabeche from the first tin we opened in Barcelona, we were both surprised and thrilled to find them on the menu at Isabel. Plump bivalves soaking in a ferociously acidic, vermillion orange solution of oil, vinegar, bay and sweet pimentón are turned out of cans without an ounce of pretense from San Sebastián to Seville. The kitchen at Isabel no doubt prepared them in large volume, but served them in a tin as a nod to the Spanish tradition along with a few pieces of bread smeared with tomato pulp. It's safe to say that a dish requires little more endorsement once you've requested a serving of bread (4$) to soak up the liquid left behind.

Patatas Bravas Supreme-O - 12$

Another dish ubiquitous to Spanish tapas bars, patatas bravas are basically glorified junk food, a dish as  inconsistently prepared as the cubes of fried potatoes that arrive slathered in a duo of sauces are cut. The first sauce is an acidic tomato base akin to a cross between hot sauce and ketchup, the second a runny garlic aioli. We ate it more often than we enjoyed it throughout Spain, its success often relative to our sobriety - think of it as the Spanish equivalent of poutine. At Bar Isabel, the "Supreme-O" version comes served on a wooden disk adorned with delightful pieces of morcilla (blood sausage), green onion and pickled jalapeño. Still trashy in a curiously captivating way, Isabel manages to execute bravas better than any rendition we ate in Spain, a feat we attributed to it's elements' preparation being awarded a level of attention that bravas in Spain rarely see, if ever. Deviled duck eggs stuffed sparingly with salt cod brandade were topped with coins of morcilla and a dollop of hollandaise. The bite sized play on surf n' turf was tasty but forgettable, we might've been more critical if they had been more expensive.

Deviled Duck Egg, Salt Cod, Morcilla, Hollandaise - 6$

A matter of being in the right place at the right time, buttery ribbons of Crown Salumi culatello that graced the charcuterie section of the menu were a sensational treat. While many are familiar with prosciutto which is made by dry-curing the entire ham, culatello differs in that it is made by isolating and dry-curing the largest muscle within the ham. The skin is removed, revealing a thick layer of fat over lean muscle. Once cut and salted, it's traditionally aged in a natural casing of the pig's bladder. Sacrificing the option of an entire prosciutto inherently renders the culatello more prized and of course, more expensive, which along with it's singular flavor is why many Italians consider it to be the king of charcuterie. A cazuela of blistered, unpredictably fiery shishito peppers flecked with fleur de sel to accompany the fatty pork was transportive. If you're ever fortunate enough to be at Bar Isabel on a night that culatello is available we'd respectfully suggest that ordering it be your priority. 

Culatello - 11$
Shishito Peppers - 8$

Smoked nuggets of creamy sweetbreads atop thick slices of raw albacore tuna with green tomato, brown butter and pimentón aioli sounded exciting but fell flat for us. On their own, both central elements of this dish were great, but nothing was enhanced by eating them together, aside from maybe the hot and cold temperature interaction, and even that's a reach. The smoke on the sweetbreads overwhelmed the subtly of the tuna and the brown butter left it all feeling a little greasy. The pimentón aioli looked great and tasted confidently seasoned, but it further buried the nuance of the fish. The whole thing just felt a little clumsy, like it would've thrived had it been dissected into two separate dishes. Being the priciest dish of the night further compounded our unenthusiastic assessment.

Sweetbreads, Albacore Tuna - 18$

We found the service at Bar Isabel to be friendly, prices to be fair, portions plentiful and the atmosphere electric. Never having experienced the real mccoy firsthand back in 2012 when we wrote about The Black Hoof, we were reluctant in our use of the term tapas. Looking back, it was indeed the right term to use then, and it was the right term to use once again writing about Bar Isabel. Although developing flavor is the number one priority in the kitchen, projecting emotion trough food is a valuable talent that can't be faked. Chefs Van Gameren and Olsen continue to push the envelope, and evoke passion in their dining room no matter where they cook. You've got to respect people who put it all on the line and eschew the option to play it safe. The trend-setting nature of their cuisine isn't flawless but it's exciting and has earned them both repeated praise from their peers and game changing accolades from their critics. If you're headed to Toronto a reservation would be well advised if you want to eat at Canada's best new restaurant, but just in case you've got to make it work on short notice, Bar Isabel always keeps seats free for walkins if you don't mind throwing the dice or weathering the wait. 

Bar Isabel
797 College St.
Toronto, ON

Bar Isabel on Urbanspoon


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