Bar Raval opened its doors at the corner of College and Palmerston, inside the former home of Teatro , to more than a little fanfare this past week. Almost a year in the making, the sister spot to Bar Isabel is the hyped venture of chef de cuisine Grant Van Gameren and partners Michael Webster and Robin Goodfellow, both of whom manage the bar.
The 40-person pintxo parlour is baroque even by baroque standards. To call Raval a vanity piece would be at once accurate, while also missing the point. It isn't self-serving. Van Gameren wants to create a connection, to make you feel something the way the best art does.
Vibrant majolica patterns adorn painted tiles, mini Wu-Tang icons strew the bar drip tray, and as though cribbed from a CotÃ¡n still life painting, an untamed bouquet in a mason jar attends to a marbled leg of jamon silently pointing the way inside.
Most dazzling is the torsion of woodwork; kitchen and bar frames get the oblong treatment, window ledges swerve, and barrel tables shave off any other corners that might've been. Otherworldly tendril-like arches and bows entwine room and bar, forming a canopy above, from where illuminated empties break up the sightline of pleated mahogany from white plaster.
Childlike cobble or refined bauble - in any case, the eye candy is a fine sight while you amuse your bouche. Toothpicks out, even at this early stage, the tastes and plating come correct. Each dish I try is almost impossibly clean on the palate. No superfluous ingredients get used, which takes incredible tact.
The poached turnip, salt-cured tuna loin (mojama), and kale salad ($9) is one such well-balanced, colourfully-speckled entry. Even the heat of chopped guindilla peppers and the bitterness of parsley do not detract from the pleasant salty and astringent profile.
Filling one other's shadow are the mushroom tower ($6.50) and tortilla espagnole ($2.90). The former finds grilled shrimp skewered atop a trio of mushroom caps cooked in butter, garlic, and lemon.
The latter is amongst their breakfast-lunch floating reserve at the bar, a Spanish omelette of thin egg and potato layers stacked beneath a slice of roasted red pepper and anchovy. Both are a bit unwieldy on their bready stoop so be prepared to Jenga each bite home.
Patrons who couldn't get enough of Izzy's octo will love their Galician take, which comes fork-tender and simply dressed in olive oil, sweet paprika and parsley ($8).
Their in-house canned smoked sardines and baby pickles in mustard ($8) are sold out my second visit, dispelling any fears they'd be stigmatized for being too pedestrian.
And you just know, the fussy busybodies that they are, that team Raval pained over whether to discard the lid or leave it flapped open as it's served. They also carry premium canned seafood from Conservas de Cambados ($18-$68), such as saltwater clams -- not for the faint of wallet.
People's best in show goes to the quail egg and blood sausage on baguette, spritzed with a flutter of parsley oil ($8). The plancha-seared morcilla gives the slightest flavour of McD's, minus the self-loathing. That said, I should likely feel this side of guilty that I'd start each and every morning with this mouthful if I were so lucky.
If my hand was forced, perhaps my favourite tapa was their pig head and romesco ($8). Savoury-sweet, the dollop of puréed nutty red pepper matches flawlessly against the mortadella, shaved fennel, curly parsley, and itsy halo of hot pepper. On a cushion of crusty soft bread, each bite was miraculously pure, fresh, and light tasting.
Again, this item showcases an exercise in restraint -- roasted red pep has a tendency to overpower but here it's equalized but to a soft brightness.
From Webster's meticulous account of sherry pressings, you'd think he casked the glass of La Gitana Manzanilla ($8) himself. I'm wowed: it's vegetal, briney, with a taste of hay. Can't wait to have this one in the summer.
As well, the Mal Gusto ($11) cocktail later suggested to me with tio pepe, cocchi americano, absinthe and fresh lime, is a refreshing pause halfway through the meal.
And Raval's sommelier, Lexi Wolkowski, takes the time to review her well-curated wine selection with me. I end up going with a glass of mencia ($10) whose rich lustre imparts a depth of smokey berries and floral, chocolate, granite notes to make for a sturdy, all-around enjoyable wine.
Apparently, Armas de Guerra, the wine's maker, is from Bierzo, which only in recent years has had its reputation boosted as not just a passing but nuanced and sought-after wine region.
From the smart and affable explanations, to the well-timed food and the empty dishes that whisk away unseen, van Gameren has once again ensured that a project of his brims with talent.
Typically, the notoriously kitchen-reclusive van Gameren doesn't allow anyone within distance to bite the hand that feeds. But there wasn't enough kitchen real estate, so the chef's station is right out in the open.
With only a makeshift curtain of cured meats to shield him, perhaps he'll now have to begrudgingly admit that his take on Spanish revivalism is a legitimate sensation.