Most Toronto meatatarians worth their salt will have been to, or at least dreamt of going to, The Black Hoof, that iconic palace of charcuterie on Dundas West near Trinity-Bellwoods park. Its former chef, Grant van Gameren, recently opened his own outpost of offal on College near Ossington, in the western part of what is now almost pointlessly known as Little Italy. Fortunately, his new endeavour has preserved the essence of what the Black Hoof was able to provide under his tutelage, and it’s something I’ve talked about before – culinary orgasms.
The slogan on Bar Isabel’s menu is “We like cooking really tasty food. You like eating it.” Usually, slogans are like foreplay – they rile you up but, once you get what they’re advertising, they sometimes leave you wanting more. On my first visit, the house-made sourdough bread made us reach for the menu to order more in a fit of frantic foodgasms. It takes a lot for bread to have that effect (unless you’re in France), but when you find something that tears apart just so and that has the perfect, slightly chewy texture that sourdough should have, you know that you’ve found a gem of a place. We had the bread with their giardiniera pickles, which were heart-warming in that they reminded several of us of our grandparents’ homemade pickled vegetables.
Once we pulled ourselves together after this unexpected ecstasy, we set about salivating over the next plates that appeared. As an avid tartare fan, the horse version that came out accompanied with hot sauce and crostinis was the first target. I’m going to ignore all of the prissy and petty bickering about the use of horsemeat as food – horse is a prime cut for a tartare treatment because of its very low fat content. The artists in the kitchen made an astute choice in pairing the horsemeat with hot sauce, because it can stand up to the strong flavours without losing its slightly peppery edge.
This was swiftly followed by a water buffalo milk blue cheese, which was as unctuous as a gorgonzola but with flavours that were much more subtle. It wasn’t a one-night stand sort of cheese – you had to court it, give it time, and then let it eventually overwhelm you with creamy pleasure when you and it were both ready.
I went back recently with Cherry and some other friends, and I was shell-shocked to find out that my beloved horse tartare and waterbuffalo cheese were no longer on the menu. However, my dismay was quickly replaced by delight when I tucked into the beef tongue on brioche. It was presented in an innovative way – it was thinly sliced and had a silkier texture than Schwarz’s smoked meat while having the deeply intense flavour of an exceptionally well-executed blue rare steak. When she took a bite, Cherry was so completely satisfied with the tongue in her mouth that she sighed, slumped back in her seat and declared that it gave her goosebumps and she could eat no more.
Usually I’m the one who experiences foodie nirvana, but as usual Bar Isabel did not let me down. As the others were wallowing in their food-drunk state, I boldly ordered the chorizo verde and octopus skewers for dessert. They were perfect. The silky texture of the octopus was an ideal contrast to the grittier chorizo, with its slightly charred casing. Each bite yielded a progression of flavours. The mild, creamy octopus quickly yielded to the more pungent and fatty chorizo, and then the crema and salsa burst forth with citrus and heat to cut through the unctuous meat. It was a perfectly conducted orchestra playing Mozart in my mouth.
I would be remiss to review Bar Isabel without a word on the service. On my first visit, we were fortunate enough to go later on at night and catch the servers and kitchen as they were slowing down from the traditional evening dinner rush. Our server was friendly and made conversation that was genuine and not overbearing. He also did what every server should do in a restaurant with inventive food: briefly explain the ingredients and how the dish was prepared. At the end of our two and a half hour long grazing session, as the restaurant was closing, he offered us samples of a new weisse beer from Bellwoods Brewery and showed us around the kitchen. This added touch completed what had already been a top-notch experience.
Just as Christopher Walken advocated for more cowbell, I’m advocating for more Bar Isabel. Toronto needs more places that don’t tout themselves as the best insert-foreign-food-here restaurant in the city. Bar Isabel obviously draws inspiration from the rich culinary traditions of Spain and elsewhere, but claims nothing more than “cooking really tasty food.” Happily, it delivers on this claim where many others would fall short, and for this Bar Isabel gets a fat 4.11 brown thumbs up.