BAR ISABEL: Small Plates, Big Flavours

image

image

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

imageimage

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
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).

image

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.

image

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. 

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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. 

image

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. 

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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.

image

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

LUMA: Really wanted to like it more





647-288-4715    |    $9-26 lunch entrees,  $15-36 dinner entrees

Dropped by for a Friday lunch on the patio with high expectations. 

Food

The menu was promising for lunch, with items I’d expect to only see on a dinner menu: burrata, roast pork belly, veal flank steak, etc. Unfortunately, I’d categorize the menu as hit and miss based on our group’s experience.

Hits:

Mixed Drinks - ‘Fruit of the luma’ and ‘blackberry charger’ are both cleverly named, not too sweet, and perfect on the patio.

Coconut Poached Red Snapper - Friend of mine enjoyed the lightness of the perfectly cooked fish with the mix of root veg, ginger, lime and tofu. There’s a bit of heat here as well.

Ricotta Gnudi - Light and fluffy, tasty mushroom foam (there’s a ton of it, actually covered the gnudi entirely), and chunks of Parmesan made this affordable lunch portion ($13) a good value.

Misses:

Grilled Octopus - Always a good test for a kitchen. Good flavours (not great) when you got everything in one bite: pickled eggplant, candied olives, romesco, arugala. Problem was there was barely any eggplant or olive on the large portion and the romesco was bland. In addition, the octopus, while not rubbery, wasn’t tender and had a very dense quality reminiscent of steak, making it difficult to chew. Not sure if it was intentionally prepared this way, but it wasn’t pleasant to eat. We saw another table near us send theirs back to the kitchen.

Lobster burger - This was my main, paid $21 for the burger (no side) and was let down. The lobster wasn’t chewy but the delicate flavour got lost in the togarashi mayo, cucumber, and bun. I appreciated the texture of the crispy shallots, and I think it tasted good as a unit, but I needed to be wowed by either the lobster flavour or some great use of spice/acidity. Just wasn’t there. 

We tried the endive salad and shrimp salad as well. Both were neither hit nor miss. Wish I’d ordered the burrata; heard it was delicious.

Service and Ambience

High marks for both. Restaurant is beautiful and located in a convenient location as I’ve come to expect from O&B. The elevated patio, while loud from mid-day traffic, is a cool spot on a nice day and is great for people watching. Food presentation was also impressive for lunch dishes.

Service was friendly, attentive, and didn’t rush us through our long lunch. Our server recommended my friend’s snapper (good call) and was around frequently to check up on us. I’m definitely a fan of the style of service at O&B restaurants.

The Reco?

I’d like to tell people to come here, but my bottom line is food and both of the dishes I ordered didn’t pan out. It’s a great-looking spot, and you could very well pick a satisfying dish - the fact is that I didn’t. For that reason I can’t give Luma more than two stars.

I’ll admit a second visit for dinner might enlighten me, but I think I’m going to lay off the O&B for a while and give the little guys around the city a try.

Other reviews:
National Post    |     Globe and Mail    | Toronto Life

Posted by: Jacob, Visited Oct 7, 2011

Luma on Urbanspoon

LITTLE INDIA: Killer lunch buffet





416-205-9836   |    $11.95 Lunch, $8-18 Entrees

Been here once for dinner, dropped in for popular lunch buffet. It’s popular for a reason.

Food

The buffet selection from memory:
- spinach and chicken pakora (not a ton of flavour here)
- tandoori chicken (great depth, moist chicken)
- shrimp and chicken curry (just wow)
- beef karahi gosht (favourite, layers of ginger and spices were great)
- palak paneer, aloo gobhi (enjoyed both vegetable dishes)
- butter chicken (little sweet for me, less complex and a little drier than the other chicken preparations)
- pulao and zeera rice
- naan
- a few ice cream flavours

I’m missing a couple tasty vegetable dishes, but that’s the gist of the selection. For lunch, the buffet is your only option, so if you’ve got a special item that isn’t featured, say lamb, you’re out of luck.

That said, it’s $11.95! Amazing value.

Service and Ambience

We weren’t really ‘served’ since it was a buffet, but the water and dish clearing was quick and efficient even at peak lunch hour. The cheque was also delivered quickly upon request. Its clear they can definitely turn tables here, which makes it ideal for a quick (and hearty) lunch.

Ambience isn’t anything special, but it’s clean and looks nice enough. Be honest, you’re not there for the decor.

The Reco?

Really like this place and will continue to point people here for lunch. Most of the food is very well-executed and you’d be hard-pressed to find better for the price.

Other reviews:
Little India’s Little Collection of Raves

Posted by: Jacob, Visited Oct 6, 2011

Little India Restaurant on Urbanspoon

L’OUVRIER: Novel resto concept delivers



416-901-9581   |   $16-26 entrees

L’ouvrier is a brand new ‘kitchen-bar’ near Dundas and Bathurst that deserves some attention from the Toronto food-ite community. With its doors just opening this past Wednesday, I expected the experience to come across as slightly unpolished. In the case of this gastronomic tribute to the Canadian working-man from the early part of the 20th century, any roughness about the place actually contributed to the thoughtful ambiance

The space is very airy and the décor has an austere quality to it. Most of the tables were hand-made by the one of the founders using materials salvaged from the remodeling process, and you get the sense that whoever conceived this restaurant had a clear vision for what they wanted to accomplish. It is encouraging to see a new restaurant take on a bold motif and execute on it through every last detail.


(Photo Credit: Simone Olivero, Toronto Life)

To describe the menu, I would have to use a phrase that I previously thought was entirely oxy-moronic when used in reference to food: distinctly Canadian. While Canada doesn’t have a pronounced culinary identity, this chef has borrowed ingredients and flavor profiles from a variety of different cultural pallets and combined them to create a unique and stimulating experience. The prominence of tartare on the menu is a good indication that the chef has designed the menu to fit with the rustic theme of the restaurant. Each dish is as interesting as the last and the pricing is very reasonable given the creative quality that has gone into the menu’s conception.

I started with the oysters alongside cider rye mignonette, horseradish, lime and sriracha served on a chilled slab of rough slate. While this appetizer was enjoyable and the oysters were fresh, the real prized starter for this restaurant is the steak tartare crostini dish. Don’t miss it.

Main course consisted of roast salmon with a host of South-East Asian-influenced flavors – lemongrass, coconut milk, Thai basil, coriander, lime and chili. The fish was cooked to perfection and the flavoring was well balanced and highly complimentary. The portions are small, so make sure you order an appetizer and dessert so as to not leave too hungry.

The dessert menu was small, but the chocolate brownie served with crème fraiche was a superb experience. The strangest aspect of L’ouvrier is the inclusion of a 5-cent candy bag as the third option on the menu. Interesting idea, but I couldn’t imagine anyone following up a fine meal and bottle of wine with children’s candies. I’m interested to see how long this stays on the menu, because it never should have been there to begin with.

The Reco?
In looking for a great restaurant, I tend to favor authentic experiences and L’ouvrier delivers on this aspect. The concept is novel and the ambience is unpretentious yet creative and detail-oriented. The menu has a lot to offer and deserves multiple return trips. Highly recommended for any fine-dining occasion.

Other reviews:

Couldn’t find any, guess we’re first!

Posted by: Eli, Visited September 24, 2011

LOuvrier on Urbanspoon

WVRST: I went 3x in a week, and I want to go back

(this review is from memory, I didn’t just eat here)



416-703-7775   |   $6-9 Sausages, $6-10 Beers

I’ve been to Wvrst three times this past summer, and I feel I owe it to you to write about as soon as I can.

Food

Sausage selection is beautifully adventurous. Ever had kangaroo, guinea fowl, duck, bison, venison or wild boar in sausage? Yeah, I hadn’t either.

The sausages are offered either sliced with tomato curry sauce or in a fresh whole wheat roll (toasted rolls are awesome). I’ve been three times and eaten (1) Wild Boar + Saffron, (2) Guinea Fowl + Old Cheddar and Asparagus, and (3) Venison + Red Pepper and Dijon.

My take on the sausages: they’re juicy, tender, and the overall package tastes great in a toasted roll with any two of sauerkraut, mixed peppers, carmelized onions or sauteed jalapenos. With all the toppings and bread, sometimes it’s difficult to taste all the gourmet elements of the sausage, especially with more subtly flavoured proteins. Occasionally, you taste a glimpse of saffron or asparagus, but you can’t always find it.

The fries are perfect and I liked every dipping sauce I tried (loved maple rosemary). The duck fat fries add some nice richness, but if you order a large portion prepare for a ton of potato.

Beer menu is very eclectic with a mix of local and international choices. Found a Weihenstephan wheat bear so I was happy.

Service and Ambience

Staff at the cash were warm and friendly, open to making suggestions and helping people through the menu. Food was brought to the table relatively quickly, but it wasn’t super busy when I was there.

The place looks like a mini-Munich beer hall for sure. The hanging lights over the hall are a nice touch too.

The Reco?

I keep bringing people back when I’m on King West. The sausage and beer selection gives this place revisit value and it’s reasonably priced. I’d prefer more pronounced flavour from the sausages and complimentary ingredients, but I really can’t complain. I’m a fan.

Other reviews:
Toronto Life    |     BlogTO     |     Adrian Brijbassi

Posted by: Jacob, Visited thrice Summer 2011

Wvrst on Urbanspoon

MILAGRO: Decent Mexican food, great selection



416-850-2855    |    $17-25 entrees

Food

It’s OK. Great selection of apps, tacos, enchiladas, margaritas, sangria, ceviches, and cocktails. Definitely a large menu.

The best thing we ate was Vuelve La Vida, a shrimp, octopus, and crab ceviche. All fish cooked well, bright flavours, probably a touch too spicy though.

My main, short rib enchiladas with a habanero salsa, refried beans and rice didn’t wow me. The habanero salsa had the right spice level, but lacked depth and tasted a little sour. When I had the short rib, I liked it, but it was hard to find in the enchiladas. Rice and refried beans were dry and needed seasoning or something.

My friend had the Barbacoa, shredded(ish) lamb in a banana leaf. It was well cooked, but there was no flavour outside of the lamb and generally the plate looked kinda sad.

I also tasted the Margarita de Pepino, a refreshing cucumber margarita. Couldn’t really taste the tequila, but I did like it.

Service

As we were seated, our host told us we’d love the food. ‘Some of the best mexican food in the city’ he said. We both felt he over-promised (don’t blame him though). The bartender waited on us, which actually turned out to be great. He was a little busy on Friday night, but helped us through the large menu, was very knowledgeable about the food, and was an all-around good guy.

The Reco?

Not awful by any stretch, but I can’t think of a good reason to revisit unless I’m really craving Mexican food in the entertainment district. The selection gives me hope that there are some gems on the menu, but I don’t think I’ll spend the $20 each to find them.

Other reviews:
Toronto Life     |     Globe & Mail     |     49 St. (video review)

Posted by: Jacob, Visited Sept 16, 2011

Milagro Restaurante Mexicano Y Cantina on Urbanspoon

WVRST: A quick follow-up with duck



Duck sausage with caramelized onions on a roll = Also yum. Start selling these sausages raw for take-home soon. You’ll make some coin.

Maple rosemary dipping sauce still impresses me the fourth time around.

UPDATE: Looks like Wvrst will be selling their sausages for the home cook in near future. Liking the business savvy. http://bit.ly/p53Gmr

Posted by: Jacob, Visited Sept 20, 2011