Considered to be one of the best restaurants in Canada, Bar Isabel has been on my culinary radar since chef Grant van Gameren opened his love letter to Spanish cuisine at College and Ossington last year with business partner Max Rimaldi, however getting a reservation has required the perseverance and determination of an Andalusian matador, but as often happens, good things happen to those who wait. Drawn by the glowing neon pink script above the restaurants well worn maple front door, 'Isabel' entices food pilgrims from across the city to venture down GVG's culinary rabbit hole and explore this cozy tapas-themed taverna with old world soul. Carefully designed to evoke a time-worn, smoke-stained tavern with low arches, clouded mirrors and pale wood panelling, Bar Isabel looks like something that's been teleported from another era.
Grant van Gameren's cozy Spanish-influenced taverna with old world vibe, was carefully designed to evoke a time-worn, smoke-stained tavern with low arches, clouded mirrors and pale wood panelling
Bar Isabel's tapas-style menu
The menu offers a variety of tapas and eye-popping dishes that include a Half or Whole Grilled Octopus, Roast Bone Marrow, and Sobrassada with Foie Gras and Honey Montadito, which are small slices of bread topped with ground spicy cured pork sausage and honey topped with shaved foie gras, along with an extensive selection of cured meats and Spanish cheeses. Paired with a round of boozy cocktails from noted barman Michael Webster who is in charge of the potent potables at Isabel, and a bottle or two of wine, you've got the perfect recipe for a festive and fun night out in Little Italy. Just bring a big appetite and few extra dollars to take a cab home.
Noted barman Michael Webster is in charge of the potent potables at Isabel,
and created the delicious boozy cocktails we enjoyed all night
The 'Hopeless Mermaid' cocktail with Elyx vodka, St.Germain elderflower liquor, fresh lime and grapefruit juice, rich ginger syrup, Angostura bitters and finished with grapefruit zest
Bar Isabel's 'A Woman Scorned' made with Devil’s cut bourbon, amaro averna, campari,
cinnamon-clove tincture, death wish syrup and snake oil bitters
The elegant 'Baragana' cocktail made with charred pineapple infused 1800 tequila, cointreau, padron pepper and sage simple syrup finished with lime juice and garnish of peel
A lovely Spanish ceramic bowl of warm Marcona Almonds
Warm Spanish olives spiked with roasted garlic
A mixed selection of Spanish cured meats and cheeses: Cured Pork, Lomo Ibérico, Chèvre Grand Affineur and 14 Arpents cow's milk cheese
Bar Isabel's fresh crusty bread with soft squishy interior is available for sale from noon onwards at the College Street location
The luscious Señorio de P. Peciña 2009 Spanish Tempranillo paired beautifully with the dishes we ordered, with a distinctly old school character on the palate
The Rioja was robust and wonderfully delicious
Roast Bone Marrow with grilled sourdough bread and sauce verde
Boquerones, fresh marinated white anchovies with Piquillo and Jalapeño
The chef's special dish of the evening, a half wheel of Torta de Dehesa with grilled flatbreads finished with honey and fresh herbs
Sobrassada with Foie Gras and Honey Montadito: small slices of bread topped with ground spicy cured pork sausage and honey topped with shaved foie gras
Half of a grilled octopus, one of Bar Isabel's famed dishes
The best dish of the night, we should have ordered the whole portion for $59
Unfamiliar with sweet wines, we tried an Amaro Ciociaro as a digestif, which is an Italian bittersweet herbal liqueur with roots stretching back to 1873
A double espresso
At around midnight we finally waddled out of Bar Isabel, only to pass other revellers arriving for a late dinner and round of sexy cocktails — open to 2am every night, it's no wonder
Steak with Shishito Peppers
Recipe courtesy Grant van Gameren
1 1/2 tbsp dried thyme
2 tsp ground cumin
4 bay leaves
4 black peppercorns
12 garlic cloves
3 tbsp smoked paprika
1/2 cup canola or vegetable oil
1/2 cup red wine vinegar
1 1/4 lb hanger steak
2-3 pinches kosher salt
1/2 lb shishito peppers
1 tbsp canola oil
2-3 pinches Maldon salt
Grind thyme, cumin, bay leaves and peppercorns with a mortar and pestle until powdery. Add garlic cloves. Gently pound into a paste. Stir in paprika to mix. Scrape into a bowl. Whisk in oil and vinegar.
Trim excess fat and sinew from steak. Cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes. Place in a bowl or container. Pour about half the marinade overtop, enough to coat the meat, but set some aside for basting. Cover and refrigerate marinated steak and leftover marinade for 1 to 3 days.
When ready to cook, oil grill and preheat barbecue to high. Skewer steak cubes. Sprinkle with salt. Oil grill and barbecue skewers for 1 to 4 minutes per side until cooked to your liking. During the last 30 seconds of grilling, brush leftover marinade on meat. Cover loosely and let rest for 10 to 15 minutes.
Meanwhile, set a cast iron pan over high heat. When very hot, add peppers. Cook for 1 minute, tossing once. Carefully add oil. Cook for 1 to 2 more minutes until peppers are blistered and slightly charred but still al dente. Turn into a bowl. Sprinkle with Maldon salt. Toss to coat. Serve peppers over steak skewers.