The rumba music is the first sign that something’s different: the soaring clarinet solos, the pulsing bongo beats, the 1950s power brass that my grandparents might have danced to. The floors are odd, too: beautiful, garish, mismatched old-world tiles in cheery blues and reds. Up front, by the street, there’s a mosaic that might have been there for generations, as well as small stained-glass windows that lend the place a tavern feel.
The light from the overhead lamps is beauty light, my dinner date calls it. She adjusts her hair, smiles, glances around the room approvingly. “The bartender looks like a matador!” she tells me, flushing. The feel and service look back in time – not with winking West-side irony, but affection and humility. The sommelier wears a tie.
The food is different, too: the Andalusian cured tuna that’s tossed with citrus and Marcona almonds and tastes like the ocean’s take on Spanish jamón; the fresh green chorizo, sharp from peppers and tomatillos, one of the most exquisite sausages imaginable, served with velvety, cheesy mornay sauce and grilled asparagus. There’s sorbet that’s whipped from hard, green, deliriously fragrant strawberries and served under sorrel leaves. It’s a distillation of springtime lust, set in a hand-painted earthenware bowl.
You admire and loosen clothing and laugh here, loudly. You order that second bottle, think about dancing to the rumba music, and you think it’s weird that you want to dance to rumba music, and you keep thinking about it anyway. It’s the sort of restaurant that people fall in love with. Bar Isabel is an extraordinary place.
The College Street spot, which opened in March, is the result of the high-profile partnership between Grant van Gameren, the founding chef and former co-owner of The Black Hoof, and Max Rimaldi, the ambitious restaurateur behind Enoteca Sociale and Pizzeria Libretto. Mr. van Gameren, 31, is one of the most talked-about cooks in the country, in large part because of how handily he built The Black Hoof into a culinary powerhouse. He is a cook’s cook, quiet but massively inquisitive, happiest with his head down in the kitchen, on the line.
Mr. Rimaldi brought the money, taught Mr. van Gameren the management skills he needed – many of them instilled while Mr. van Gameren worked as executive chef at Enoteca Sociale last year – and has maintained a highly enlightened hands-off approach to his new partner’s planning. Crucially, he also sent the chef packing for an eight-week eating trip through Copenhagen and southern Europe last year; Mr. van Gameren hadn’t traveled outside North America since he was 16.
“Without that trip, I don’t know what this restaurant would be,” Mr. van Gameren said in a telephone interview. He saw the restraint and humility of the cooking in San Sebastian and Bologna, and he saw that even the coolest places often mixed young couples and singles and middle-aged families and energetic old-timers all together, that restaurant audiences didn’t segregate by age.
That can be a difficult sell back in Toronto, of course; the crowd looked predominantly, but not entirely, under 50 both times I’ve been there, and the long cherrywood bar at the front of the restaurant is a go-to after-work spot for the restaurant industry many nights until 2 a.m. Mr. van Gameren said he hopes the age mix will skew slightly older once the place becomes better known.
“I want everyone who works here to feel privileged to have someone walk through that door, no matter how busy we are,” he said in an interview with The Grid a few months ago. “I feel as if sometimes that’s lacking in some of the busier spots.”
His greatest growth has been at the stoves. Bar Isabel’s Spanish-rooted cooking is more mature, more worldly and more assured than anything Mr. van Gameren or his rising-star chef de cuisine Brandon Olsen, whom he hired away from The Black Hoof, managed in their former posts – it’s a marriage of youthful bombast and modern ideas with old-world soul.
Have that citrus and cured-tuna dish, called mojama, to begin, and then the deviled duck eggs with the yolks that are whipped with salt cod brandade, that are topped with rounds of Mr. van Gameren’s moist, light, extravagantly tasty morcilla blood sausage and a froth of hollandaise sauce made with rendered pork fat.
Have the vinegary anchovy boquerones that you pile with peppers onto warm chips that the kitchen dusts with cayenne, Spanish dried peppers, dehydrated lime zest and – this is the trick that makes them so narcotically tasty – powdered citric acid. Have the King crab, too. It’s basted with pools of crab juice and butter stained rusty red from smoked paprika. They bring house sourdough to go with the crab platter. Just try to not sop the plate clean.
Have that grilled asparagus with the mornay sauce made with cow’s cheese from Mallorca. The asparagus and that sauce would steal the show at any other restaurant. Here, the sausage does, if you can imagine it: It’s chorizo, but stuffed with fresh spinach, cilantro and roasted poblano peppers in addition to the usual porky voluptuousness.
That chorizo verde is also available on its own at times. It would be irresponsible not to order that, too.
And do not miss the scallops that the kitchen added to the menu a couple of weeks ago – the small, pearlescent, impeccably fresh and clean-tasting scallops that Mr. van Gameren served nearly raw, with wild porcini mushroom rounds and moist, loose, dark-savoury medallions of that blood sausage. That dish made no sense on paper; you would think the sausage would overwhelm the fish. It was exquisite in practice, a serenade to enlightened surf and turf.
If you’re with a crowd, go for octopus. You can buy a whole one for $59, furled on a plate with its suckers facing outward, with a steak knife jutting out from it, which I’d eat with a group of six and two bottles of the Müller-Thurgau and a quiet nod to Jules Verne. Or have just one fat tentacle, flame-grilled, fantastically meaty and salty and deep-tidal, sided with new potatoes, stewed peppers and chorizo.
I ate a few misses here: a too-tough hanger steak one night; a beer-battered perch starter that was all batter, no perch (but, still, pretty terrific as a bar snack), the Basque cake that’s fine but not quite great. I’ve also heard complaints about befuddled service in the restaurant’s early days. I experienced the opposite both times I ate there.
The misses were rare, and the hits were more than compensation. Perhaps no dish better captures the simple, homey, hearty mission of the place than the tripe and pig ear stew that’s thick with chickpeas, tomatoes, crunchy sourdough croutons and mild, sweet pimenton – it’s enriched with a soft-poached duck egg that relaxes into the stew when you pierce it. That single dish is one of the greatest triumphs of southern Europe’s country cooking, simultaneously humble and glorious, so that you might picture yourself having a late lunch in the shade after cutting hay by hand or harvesting garnacha grapes as you eat it. The one here is a very smart tribute.
Order the Aglianico to go with it. It’s dusty, gravelly, profoundly tasty, resolutely old world.
Have that sorbet, and the celery panna cotta . Then give in and dance outside on the sidewalk as you leave, as I saw one couple do late one evening. Why shouldn’t they? There’s a new great restaurant in town.
STAR RATING GUIDE
- No stars: Not recommended
- One star: Good, but won’t blow a lot of minds
- Two stars: Very good, with some standout qualities
- Three stars: Excellent, well above average with few caveats, if any
- Four stars: Extraordinary, memorable, original, with near-perfect execution