Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Bar Isabel: Grant van Gameren's Hip Spanish Taverna

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

This is van Gameren’s first solo effort since 2011, when he left the Black Hoof, the one-stove Dundas West restaurant that worked the city into a carnivorous craze for bone marrow and charcuterie. A self-taught chef, Van Gameren worked his way up through the upscale kitchens of Canoe and Lucien but The Hoof made him a celebrity chef. After developing a relationship with restaurateur Max Rimaldi of Enoteca Sociale and Pizzeria Libretto fame, van Gameren began to oversee the kitchen at Enoteca Sociale, and then took time off to travel Europe. "I landed in Spain for three weeks, France for a week, Italy for three weeks then Copenhagen, but Spain was the most influential. It was the style of food, the way of eating, the convivial vibe of the tapas and the streets. Things were simple, tasty, affordable, everyone is doing something different." He came back obsessed with recreating the atmosphere of tapas bars where Spaniards gather in large groups, and the party continues late into the night. With this vision Bar Isabel was born.

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
Serves 4-6
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

Shishito Peppers:
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.

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