BAR ISABEL: Small Plates, Big Flavours

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416 532 2222  |   $5-21 Sharing Plates  |   797 College St

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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.

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Image credit: blogTO

Food

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).

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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.

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

The Reco?

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. 

Other Reviews? 
image blogTO     |     image Urban Craze

image Posted by: Jacob, Visited Apr 12, 2013

Bar Isabel on Urbanspoon

EDULIS: Western Europeish on Niagara

416 703 4222   |   $9-$32 sharing plates

 

Niagara Street Cafe occupied this same spot just off King West for years, but as of about a month ago, it was reborn as Edulis. What does Edulis mean you ask? It’s a type of porcini mushroom. Who knew? Learn something every day!

The new menu caught my eye, so I decided to bring eight friends to descend upon the restaurant and chow down. Here’s how it went.


Photo Credit: Facebook Page

Food

The changing menu not only features some great shrooms, but offers an eclectic mix of Spanish, French, Italian and more that I’ve yet to find downtown. You’ll see things like paella, sweetbreads, foie gras torchon, lamb neck, ceviche and veal belly among other things, which really makes this menu stand out. Generally, I’m wary of too many cuisines on one menu, but everything just sounded so good.

We were graciously presented with a couple servings of this traditional ‘pintxos’ (spanish amuse-bouche/snack if you will) of olives stuffed with anchovies and spicy guindillo peppers (above). Very traditional salty, spicy, fishy combo with some bread to balance it out. Perfect little bites.

Had some fresh greens (above) to start off with. Not much to say here other than the menu reads ‘Soiled Reputation Greens’, which is just a reference to the name of the farm in Stratford where the greens come from. You won’t get any soil =P

Next up was the foie gras torchon with fresh oregon porcinis stacked with toasts and a pinenut vinaigrette (above). I stay away from foie personally, but my friends quite enjoyed the dish. Fresh, earthy, and nutty are words they uttered along with ‘mmm’. So far so good.

The next dish we ordered was the BC spot prawn ceviche with aji amarillo and cripsy corn. I was an idiot, and mistakenly deleted the picture of my favourite dish of the night. The juicy chunks of prawn were great, but the star was the really bright spicy peruvian chile pepper along the bottom of the plate that brought the dish to life. I’m also a sucker for corn nuts, so the cripsy corn was a great touch for taste and texture. Excellent dish.

Next up was the lamb neck with chickpeas (pieces and puree) and a simple carrot, onion and parsley salad (above). I quite enjoyed the lamb neck and the accompaniments. I’m not sure if it was too simple or I’m just being picky, but I feel like one more element (acid? extra seasoning of some kind?) could have made it just a bit better.

Then came the veal belly that many folks around the table quite enjoyed. I’d never had it before, but it’s like your pork belly texturally, but remove the bacon quotient from it. This dish was also clean, fresh, and straightforward.

A friend of mine wanted a healthy fish dish, so we got her the salmon cooked in cedar leaves with butter poached radishes, wheatberries and pea shoots. The preparation of the salmon was rare and you could really pick out the cedar flavour. That said, she was really hoping for crispy-seared skin on the top. Thought $24 for this portion size was also a tad pricey.

A new item on the menu that night was the soft shell crab ‘schnitzel’ with a fried egg and a bacon salsa verde…how can you not order that? All the combos made sense: deep fried, egg, bacon, seafood, fresh. The bacon flavour wasn’t quite as forward though, so if that’s what caught your attention on the menu, don’t expect tons of bacon. The portion overall is generous though, so you should get your fill of crab.

Another must order on the menu seemed to be the baby octopus paella for two. The chef clearly likes his Spanish food, and I’ve been longing for a great paella in Toronto to bring back memories of Valencia and Barcelona. Unfortunately, two critical things that make paella great were missing: (1) the soccarat and (2) perfectly cooked seafood (found the octopus to be chewy). The soccarat is the carmelized, crispy rice layer on the bottom that forms to give paella its trademark texture. It wasn’t there on arrival, so we let it sit for a while in the hopes it would develop - still no dice. Maybe it’s the pan or something, but it was disappointing for sure.

Next were the sweetbreads with porcini, asparagus and nettle-parsley pesto (above). I enjoyed the deep-woodsy green flavours in this, but found my sweetbreads chewier than I’d like. In my experience, great sweetbreads are juicy, tender, and taste reminiscent of a chicken’s dark meat. Didn’t quite get that here.

While the savoury part of the meal ended on a bit of sour note, I had faith some sweets could resurrect it. Our first order was baba au rhum. I’d never heard of it, but the description of fluffy, semi-rum-saturated cake with whipped cream was enough for me to order it. I’ve read reviews saying they didn’t ‘get it right’, but I really enjoyed it. Nice punchy, deep rum flavour with light cake and cream was just swell for me.

The last bites of the night were taken from a lemon tart with a brunoise of rhubarb and some crunchy crumble (above). Pastry was well done, lemon tart was clean and bright, and the little juicy rhubarb cubes and crumble provided the ideal textural mix for the topping.

Service and Ambience

I love how it feels to sit in this place. It’s homey, comfortable, and looks distinctly like a rustic french cafe/bistro. The polished stone tables give it a bit of class as well that you could say bridge into the somewhat less rustic food preparations.


Photo Credit: Facebook Page

I thought service was great. This was the night of the Union flood, so a lot of our party arrived sporadically late. Thankfully, our server had no problem explaining the menu items and concepts to everyone multiple times, and kept our courses coming out at a pleasant pace. I was also particularly pleased that upon our arrival, we were offered some wines by the glass that are usually only available by the bottle. I happily ordered a spicy Hungarian red on the server’s recommendation and thoroughly enjoyed it.

The Reco?

I think it needs to be said this menu is ambitious; the scope and depth of European cuisines presented here aren’t easy to pull off. The place is also just a month old, and with more feedback, I believe you’ll see more and more home run dishes being put out of the kitchen. While you might get a miss, you’re also sure to be wowed and I think that’s a real reason to come back. I sure will.

Other reviews:
 National Post  |    dine.TO   |    Cookbook Store Blog

 Posted by: Jacob, Visited June 1, 2012

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