“WE LIKE COOKING REALLY TASTY FOOD. YOU LIKE EATING IT.” That’s Bar Isabel’s motto…..and they mean it!
The brainchild of one of the most talked about chefs in the city, Chef Grant van Gameren (the co-founder of the trend-setting Black Hoof) and his business partner, the year-old Bar Isabel has already become a serious contender in Toronto’s culinary scene.
Naturally, upon learning about this homey Spanish tapas tavern, I had to add it to my restaurant bucket list!
. There’s a lot of buzz surrounding Bar Isabel, and this restaurant is in huge demand! This means that reservations – particularly weekend reservations – can sometimes be a bit hard to come by!
. I initially tried to make a reservation for either a Thursday or Friday evening, but was informed over the phone that the restaurant was already fully booked on the weekends for the next few weeks! I eventually changed my tactic and tried for a Monday evening. Finally, I was able to manage a Monday evening reservation two weeks from the date of my phone call. (I was told that weekend seatings sometimes need to be reserved as far as four+ weeks in advance!)
. I arrived about 5-10 minutes before the restaurant opened at 6pm, and already, there were two other individuals waiting in front of the restaurant. Upon entering the restaurant and being seated, I was tickled to observe that no less than two other diners were already scoping out the joint and snapping photos of the restaurant and the menu! #KindredSpirits
. The restaurant opened at 6pm on a Monday evening. By 6:30pm, every single table in the space was already full, as well as most, if not all – I couldn’t really tell from where I was seated – of the stools at the bar!
. This is a tapas restaurant, meaning that each plate is meant to be shared. Diners are encouraged to order a few different plates to share with the table.
. Trust your chef! If you’re feeling particularly adventurous (in my friend’s case, I pressured her into it) and are willing to put your meal selection into the chef’s hands, Bar Isabel offers a Chef’s Menu option. What this means is that you agree to let the chef feed, surprise, and (hopefully) delight you with a totally unknown meal plan. Unless you have specific dishes you would like included in the menu, each course is a total surprise. (We didn’t even know how many courses we would be getting!) The cool thing about this “menu” is that it is extremely flexible and accommodating of any likes, dislikes, special desires, and dietary concerns. The cost of Bar Isabel’s Chef’s Menu typically ranges from $45-$65, depending on a number of factors, including how hungry you’re feeling; what you’d like to order (if you have something specific in mind); and, of course, how much you’d like to spend. (You just tell your server your price point, and leave the rest to him!)
. Glenda ($15): Havana Club anejo rum, Strega, fresh lemon and tangerine juice, zippy ginger syrup, Angostura bitters, ale float
- This cocktail was recommended by our server and I thought it was pretty good! It was light, without being too sweet.
* We opted for a $50 pp Chef’s Menu and our only dietary restrictions were no beef or pork…or foie gras (sadly). This is what we were fed…..
- The bread was fresh and quite nice!
. Manchego Cheese:
- Mmmm….Cheese….It was delicious! Wish we could have had a few more slices!
. Chips, Boquerones, Piquillo & Jalepeño:
- This dish was great! The chips were great, but only lightly flavored, thus making them the perfect vessels for the anchovies. I was also really surprised at how relatively mild the thinly sliced jalapeños were. Everything went together very well!
. Swordfish Tiradito, Smoked Olives, Sweet Peas, Crispy Jamón, Sorrel & Olive Brine Sauce:
- This was really good! I liked the slight smokey flavor I detected and the thinly-sliced raw swordfish was very tasty, indeed! C said that this was her favorite dish of the evening. I’m not 100% sure (it was a close race), but she might have been right…
. Spicy Fried Squid, Crispy Tongue & Kale:
- The squid was delicious. It was lightly drizzled with some kind of creamy sauce, which I really liked. I loved how well-seasoned and boldly-flavored this dish was!
. Roast Bone Marrow: [This was a specific request of mine]
- Mmmm! The roast bone marrow was served with a few slices of bread on which to spread it and a small dish of chimichurri sauce. I loved it! The bone marrow made for a really creamy and decadent spread! A small smear of the chimichurri sauce and a gentle sprinkling of coarse salt added just the right amount of flavor!
. Whole Sea Bream Ceviche: [This was a specific request of mine]
- C and I both thoroughly enjoyed this ceviche. It was dramatically presented with the whole fish on the plate, but with the flesh of the sea bream gently picked apart and blended with fresh, creamy avocado. The result was a tangy, creamy delight! When we were done with the loose morsels, we did our best to thoroughly enjoy and pick apart the rest of the fish carcass, which was fried crisp. My only criticism: I wish this ceviche had been served with a side of tortilla chips or bread or something to act as a vessel and help cut some of the intense, tangy flavor.
. Grilled Razor Clams:
- I enjoyed my razor clam, which was dressed with a garlic sauce…
. Wild Mushrooms. Sweet Peas, Jamón Ibérico de Bellota & Mint:
- This is where our meal started going downhill. I wasn’t a fan of this dish at all (and neither was C). We both found the lemon flavor to be too strong and acidic and strange for a wild mushroom dish, unfortunately.
. Grilled Spanish Octopus:
- This large ocean catch arrived at our table dramatically and triumphantly speared with a knife…If you’ve read up on my experience last week at Gusto 101, you’ll know that I had the grilled octopus there, too, and you might have gotten a sense of how I felt about it. While Bar Isabel’s offering wasn’t quite as PINK as Gusto 101’s, it was definitely just as meaty, and perhaps even MORE tentaclaricious, somehow…There was nothing wrong with the flavor of the octopus – it was quite good and densely meaty – but somehow, this one seemed to have even MORE suction cups than the last one. It made for a slightly hard and strange mouthfeel. (You might as well call me Elly May Clampett from now on…But I’m pretty sure that Jethro and Granny would probably agree with me!)
- I’m not sure what kind of greens the octopus was served with, but they had a bitter aftertaste and seemed a bit…lemony. To be honest, I wasn’t a big fan of the greens. I was a huge fan of the small pieces of roasted potato on the plate, though! They were deliciously creamy and helped to neutralize some of the overwhelmingly lemony flavors in my mouth (from the greens and the wild mushroom dish that was served at the same time).
. Basque Cake and Sherry Cream:
- This small cake arrived at our table plain, but the server who brought it out quickly explained to us that the dessert was not complete until he was able to pour the hot sherry cream over it. I liked the harder edges around the cake the best. The inside of it was very warm and soft…and buttery. Extremely buttery. Maybe even excessively buttery. I’m not sure if it was because I was so full by the time dessert arrived or because I didn’t want to get ill from tasting so much butter at once, but I couldn’t bring myself to eat more than a couple bites of the cake.
* My friend is a very picky eater and has a relatively bland palate compared to most people’s. She thought this restaurant was just “good”, but not great. For her, there were simply too many flavors going on all at once in each dish, and she felt it was all too much and too overpowering. My tastebuds, on the other hand, were having a party! For the most part, I loved the intense and complex flavors of our meal. There are actually a few other items on the menu that I’ve been eying and anticipating! I’ll need to return again to try them all out!
* Overall, I enjoyed my experience at Bar Isabel and I was especially impressed with our Chef’s Menu experience. Our chef and server certainly made sure we had an awesome variety of dishes to taste and didn’t go home hungry! (Our server was very patient with us and awesome, too!) I know there are some who would cringe at the price, but I thought it was pretty good value for $50 per person! I’d definitely recommend this restaurant to anyone with an adventurous side and a love of bold flavors!
WHERE TO PARK: There is paid street parking along College Street
- This restaurant is VERY popular. Reservations are a must for this restaurant, especially on the weekends. Call well in advance to make sure you get a table.
- Open from 6pm – 2am every day