797 College Street, Toronto, ON 1C6 M6G
Bar Isabel is the place I had my first dinner out-out in Toronto since I moved back. We ended up choosing the place because it was highly praised by so many – bloggers, journalists and Yelpers alike. Since the opening of The Black Hoof, an explosion of chefs from there have ventured into their own successful restaurants. (Grand Electric, Electric Mud, Bar Isabel etc.)
Chef Grant Van Gameren definitely started the “Broken Social Scene” of the young, innovative and passionate Toronto chefs, but this welcome home dinner only made me want to fly to NY, wait in line for two hours and have a bowl of ramen from Totto – extra mushrooms.
We called in on Thursday evening to see if we could grab a reservation for three. Unfortunately, we were told everything was booked up and to just come early the next day on Friday when it opened at six.
Friday evening at 6 p.m., we strolled into the restaurant. Thanks to Summer, it was throwing us off that we were having dinner while the sun was still high in the sky. We were seated in a two person table, but the three of us felt it was fine since we liked sitting close together anyway.
The place started to fill in, but not completely and not even while we ate until 8ish, just a little after we arrived. We started with a bottle of wine, some bread and the salumi plate and was told the specials by our waiter, who was attentive throughout the entire meal. He would refill our wine during our mid conversation, but would never be too intrusive or any way uncomfortable.
With our threesome, one is a very picky eater, but she was able to pick her way through the meal.
Our bread came thickly sliced in a bowl – there were about 4 or 5 large slices in an order. The sourdough had an excellent crust, with a soft centre. The cured meats was served on a wooden platter, with a small ramakin of pickled vegetables in the middle. They were all sliced paper thin.
Out of all the dishes we ordered, the two most memorable were the: 1. Grilled Asparagus, Flax Seed, Marcona Almonds & Mahon Sauce ($9) and 2. Grilled Hanger Steak and Shishito Pepper ($13).
The mahon sauce was creamy and nutty while the crushed almonds added a great crunch. (We almost wanted to dip everything into it!) The steak came on metal skewers and were seasoned perfectly. I’ve eaten my share of shishito peppers and up until Bar Isabel, Ippudo’s (with their dipping salt), was always my favourite. However, our serving of peppers were smokey and nicely charred. None of them were spicy, but just had a nice sweetness and earthy crunch.
Now for the two dishes we didn’t like: 1. Smoked Cod Collars, Marcona Almonds & Maple Glaze ($18) and 2. Stewed Tripe, Chorizo & Egg (which strangely is, as of now, off the menu on their website).
The cod came piled high on a circular plate. We were a little confused on how exactly to eat it so I just dig in and serve the other two. We later realized (after forgetting the dish name) that it was just pockets of fish meat. Each large piece would have two pieces of juicy and bouncy textured fish meat hidden in the bone. It was garnished with thinly sliced scallions, which were a much needed flavour to the overly sweet sauce it seemed to be dressed in. The experience is similar to eating fish cheeks — there’s really only a tiny piece and it’s a lot of work. I like the almonds because it nicely complimented the sweetness that was the overwhelming, like a hoisin glaze of sorts.
The tripe stew came last and we had already decided which we liked best. But of course, we gave it a fair chance. The dish came with a raw egg yolk floating in the middle, which none of us broke and mixed in because we just weren’t interested. I like tripe, but this dish just didn’t do it for me. The soup base tasted like canned tomato broth and the tripe had absorbed the same tangy flavour into all it’s tiny webs. The chorizo and chickpeas was something picky eater picked out to eat, but she also agreed the tomato broth was too over powering.
After dinner, we guiltily went across the street and shared a poutine. Because why not and I had to be graced with poutine as a welcome home gesture.
I wish I liked this place better because I want Toronto food to be just as awesome or even better than things I’ve been eating in NYC. I never had the chance to visit Black Hoof when chef Grant Van Gameren was cooking there so Bar Isabel seemed like the next best thing.
I’m interested in their late night menu and going in a second time and trying everything we didn’t order. The grilled octopus is a fan favourite so perhaps next time a poutine won’t even be a thought.