416 532 2222 | $5-21 Sharing Plates | 797 College St
A restaurant heavily-inspired by a trip to Spain, France and Italy from two former head chefs at Black Hoof with an ingredient-first approach and an emphasis on simple, delicious sharing plates…how could this not interest you?
Clearly, this place needed to be tried, so I went with five hungry friends to taste as much as we could handle.
Image credit: blogTO
Generally, a menu with this many items and diversity of ingredients would throw up a red flag, but there’s a really solid level of continuity and cohesiveness here. A lot of respectable riffs on traditional Spanish tapas dot the menu, alongside European staples (roasted marrow, arancini, blood sausage), and a healthy dosage of offal (horse, tripe, tongue, pig ears, etc).
Before beginning the meal, a drink from the cocktail menu sounded like a good idea. Grabbed a Pimm’s Cup (above), and they do quite a good one here.
The first dish to hit the table was boquerones (anchovies) with piquillo peppers and pickled jalapeno, served along side some spiced chips as mini vessels. Great start to the meal, nice mix of acid, heat, and brininess.
Next up was the devilled duck egg, salt cod, morcilla (black pudding) and hollandaise. While generally pretty tasty, found nothing really stood out. Thought the mix of salt cod and pudding would be more pronounced, but think the hollandaise may have muted it a bit too much.
We also decided to get the raw horse with hot sauce - you’re not going to find this on many menus, so why not?
I would say the horse was more about texture and less about taste. Very tender, a pleasant level of ‘chew’, almost like tuna. The hot sauce also grew on me and became progressively tastier the more I ate.
Following the horse came the beef tongue on brioche (a Black Hoof menu staple). My two favourite parts of this where the mound of thinly-sliced tongue and a terrific whole-grain mustard served alongside. You’d never know this was tongue, which for a lot of folks is probably a positive.
For vegetable content, we got the romaine with smoked ham and quail egg escabeche. The flavours made sense, but this dish was loaded with fresh dill, which I found a little overwhelming personally. I’d dial it down quite a bit, but some folks in our party liked it so keep that in mind if you’re a dill lover.
This dish was my guilty favourite of the meal. Honey-drizzled crostini topped with chunky slices of sobrassada, not to be confused with the Italian soppressata. This meat was a lot more like the dehyrdrated summer sausage you might find at a Mennonite market - another favourite of mine - but with paprika and other Spanish spices. Just delicious.
On the lighter side, we also ordered mojama (traditional salt-cured tuna loin from Spain) with blood orange, olive oil and marcona almonds. This dish was really nicely balanced and a good contrast to a lot of the richer/fattier dishes.
Speaking of richer and fattier, I present the roasted bone marrow. This dish was very bare bones (no pun intended, but sort of) with no accompaniments. On one hand, this presentation gave you a very good understanding of the distinct taste of marrow, but I think some balance could have been achieved here with fresh herbs or something pickled.
Next up was the salt cod arancini in tomato adobo (above on the left). One hell of a tasty dish, and a much more successful use of salt cod than the first. One of the better and less conventional arancini I’ve had in the city for sure.
The dish on the right was the marinated swiss chard with raisins and anchovies. I wasn’t particularly fond of this one. Thought it would be served hot, and I found the sweetness a little off-putting.
The next vegetable dish - broccoli, turnip, cabbage, yogurt and ginger - was more appetizing than the swiss chard, but again, thought it was out of place on the menu.
The tide quickly changed though when our fried chicken with sticky eggplant arrived. Your just KNOW that this was good. Perfect crispiness, juicy chicken and satisfying eggplant. Really simple, but a good combination I hadn’t seen.
The chicken wings escabeche (above) may have been one of the best dishes as well. While the chicken skin was a little mushy, the homey quality of the dish and subtle acidity of the sauce was hard to forget. We would have ordered more, but clearly had ordered our fill of food.
This whiting dish with brown butter was also stellar. The cripsy skin and perfectly cooked fish were paired nicely with a measured use of brown butter.
Our final savoury dish of the night, was a suitable topper to this part of the meal: stewed tripe, crispy tripe, chorizo, and a gooey egg. This is another case of an obviously tasty dish on paper living up to it’s description. Note: the chorizo in here was especially good.
Our two dessert options were the salted chocolate mousse (above) and the basque cake & boozy cream (below). Of the two, I think we were more satisfied by the firm, spongy texture of the cake. The flavours were pretty mild (booze included), but definitely inspired exaltation around the table.
Service and Ambience
I was a big fan of the inside of this place, mostly because I found it so unpretentious. The trend of awesome food in a comfortable setting continues to make me happy.
The dining room itself is pretty roomy for 75 seats and there’s a lot of unique features like the convex green walls, mosaic-style floors, red lighting and heavy use of wood. It’s both bare bones and charming in a strange way.
From a service perspective, we quite enjoyed the night. Our servers were friendly, knowledgeable and usually close by, while the multitude of dishes came out in good time.
We initially tried to order pretty much the entire menu save the bar snacks, and a la carte cheese/cured meats. Guy Rawlings came over to us afterwards and recommended we abandon that approach and order fewer dishes with enough for everyone to have a bite. After a bit of discussion, he talked us off the ledge, and I think by the end of the meal our stomachs were better for it.
Bar Isabel is one of the rare restaurants in the city whose slate of dishes can be very eclectic and yet still quite successful; the reason for this is clearly the skill and the creativity in the kitchen. I didn’t like every dish, but I loved at least five of them and that counts for a lot in my book.
Posted by: Jacob, Visited Apr 12, 2013