Bar Isabel, former Black Hoof chef Grant van Gameren's latest outpost, recently opened near College and Ossington, and with it comes some very high expectations. Joined by General Manager and beer connoisseur Guy Rawlings (who consults for the likes of Bellwoods Brewery and Bar Volo), mixologist Michael Webster (Momofuku), and Splendido-refined sommelier Mik Piltz, the crew behind Bar Isabel has some serious pedigree in the Toronto restaurant game.
The 75-seat interior is reminiscent of a Marais bistro or Spanish tavern, inspired by van Gameren's time spent in Europe. With Absinthe on the menu you can almost picture Hemingway perched in the corner, the bar itself nestled in some dark alley off Las Ramblas. The desired "sexy" mood (as I'm told van Gameren demands) is achieved through red-glow ambient lighting and tunes that range from The Doors through classic soul. Wooden support arches provide intimacy to the room, but it is the tile floor — a beautiful encaustic mosaic — that truly defines the decor.
The long list of house and classic cocktails is dotted with concoctions around the $15 mark, and includes the sweet and light Old Flame (Rosebud infused gin, lemon juice, simple syrup, egg white, chartreuse flame) and the Isabel Fashioned (take on the old fashioned, with an extra roundness owing to house-made bacon sugar).
Not wanting to be pigeonholed as the king of charcuterie, Van Gameren's menu is a diverse selection of Mediterranean standards. That said, diners would do well to start with the heaping plate of Spanish mixed meats ($16) complimented with cheeses like Montenebro ($7) and Manchego ($6).
In typical Spanish style, the menu features a host of tapas ideal for sharing. As a first course for the table try the Boquerones and Jalepeno ($9) and colourful plate of Mojama, Blood Orange & Marcona Almonds ($10). The more adventurous eaters might be more inclined to try the Raw Horse & Hot Sauce ($12).
The main fare includes both meat and seafood. The sweet & savoury, tender Fried Rabbit ($19) lived up to our server's description of "the best fried chicken I've ever had," and the side of hard-to-do-right eggplant was pitch perfect.
Something we didn't get to try - but plan to in the very near future - is the Whole Grilled Octopus & Potatoes ($49). For someone who's impartial to octopus, this handsome dish certainly sparked my curiosity, and rightfully turns heads. It's sure to be a huge hit on Instagram.
The only foreseeable complaint against the place is it will almost certainly have a lineup everyday of the week. Reservations can be made for half of the seating (worth noting: the space is ideal for large dinner parties). Bar Isabel is open everyday until 2 a.m., serving a late night menu that van Gameren scribbles daily.