Bar Isabel (Toronto)


Location: Toronto, Canada
Address: 797 College Street
Website: www.barisabel.com

Type of Meal: Dinner 

After earning so many “Toronto’s best restaurant” accolades, I was intrigued to visit Bar Isabel but afraid it’d be over hyped and the visit end in disillusion. Luckily, the food didn’t disappoint and the meal ended with us full and satisfied.

Upon entering, the interior reminded me more of a saloon than the Mediterranean tavern I envisioned. But, the atmosphere was undeniably informal and easy going, quickly setting anyone at ease. This is not the type of place you’d be afraid to talk loudly as the music pumps and others chatter around you.

Four would be the ideal party size, as Bar Isabel has many delicious sounding large plates (octopus and rib eye) that we would have loved to try if there wasn’t only two of us. Yet, we still found some delicious smaller dishes, the first being the pan con jamón Iberico de bellota ($16). My love affair with jamón Iberico first began in Barcelona when after sharing a plate with my husband I wondered if I would ever taste cure meat so luxurious and perfect again.

Where to even start? Such an impeccable balance of lean pork marbled with fat, which simply dissolves in your mouth leaving a rich essence rather than the slick dull fat of cured ham. The meat has the right amount of bite to it but still easily pulls apart. Yet, it’s the taste which sets it apart … difficult to describe but there’s a balanced sweetness to it and a great light aroma (which experts claim comes from the pig’s acorn diet). Certainly, such a delicacy doesn’t come cheap, but with its limited supply and the rigorous breeding and slaughtering conditions that needs to be abided by, jamón Iberico is the equivalent to the beluga sturgeon caviar or truffles of the cured meat world.

At Bar Isabel, four thin slices are laid across each crostini. Personally, I liked to slowly savour each slice on its own before ending with the crusty crostini which is laced with the remnants of the ham. Such a wonderful way to start and you should try at least once.

Bar Isabel iberico ham

The Albacore tuna tiradito ($14) was a much lighter follow-up. Raw slices of cold tuna covered with a refreshing creamy orange sauce, which was ever so lightly spiked with jalapeno juice? Topped with balls of persimmon, jalapeno and celery shavings, the sweetness, tartness and heat goes quite nicely with the neutral tuna.

Bar Isabel tuna

A large fully cooked bone marrow ($11) along with plenty of grilled sourdough bread arrives next. The fatty centre spreads like butter across the soft crunchy bread, while the chimichurri sauce on the side adds a garlicky tangy herb flavour lightening the gluttonous dish. Bar Isabel’s bread deserves to be commended, crusty and soft, and thankfully not overly charred to overpower the delicate flavours of the marrow.  For $5 you can even purchase a loaf to go!

Bar Isabel bone marrow

Although the spicy pork anticuchos ($12) didn’t look impressive, these skewers ended up packing a powerful punch in terms of flavour. The meat must have been marinated for some time and was infused with a spicy and slightly tangy essence. Although, the cube of pork fat in the middle of the skewer threw me off, it did help to keep the meat tender and moist.

Bar Isabel pork anticuchos

Our last dish was the whole sea bream ceviche ($26). Digging through the slivers of fried leeks, you’re greeted with cubes of tender, tangy ceviche mixed with creamy avocado chunks. It was fantastic, some of the best ceviche I’ve ever enjoyed. Plus, being able to pick at deep fried hot meat on the bones and sprinkling some sea salt on it made it akin to two dishes in one.

Bar Isabel sea bream ceviche

Although my husband and I were quite full after the five dishes, we couldn’t help but try the salted dark chocolate ensaimada ($7). The hot ensaimada was a denser puff pastry, reminding me of the Jewish pastry rugelach, except without a filling and airier. Accompanied by a much larger portion of salted dark chocolate ganache/mousse this dessert was certainly rich and has to be shared. I only wish the drizzles of olive oil were left off from the dessert, as it didn’t add much and made the ensaimada too oily for my liking.

Bar Isabel chocolate ensaimada

Food wise, we thoroughly enjoyed all our savoury dishes, each different and presenting us with unique tastes and flavours. For this, Bar Isabel undeniably lives up to its prestige. Where it lost marks was their choice of seating for us. Despite making reservations over a month in advance and being one of the first individuals to arrive, we were seated at a small table beside the bar and stairway. Plenty of couples entering after us were seated at much larger tables in the dining room. An even bigger insult was the two, arriving well into dinner service, that was seated beside us occupying a four top to themselves.

Restaurants who place their first customers in the “worst spots” is a pet peeve for my husband and I (also occurs at Nota Bene and the now defunct Fat Belgian). After all, why shouldn’t those who arrive on time be rewarded for their efforts? And for that, we felt a bit slighted, causing my dining experience to move from a 9 (a.k.a. “Top Pick”) to an 8.5.

Don’t get me wrong, their service was attentive and flawless with dishes arriving in a well-timed succession. It was the host/seating system that fell flat. The feeling of fairness is important and that one false start can really leave a lasting impression on diners. In the end, we’d want to return (with another couple) and try some of their other dishes, but won’t be rushing to make reservations. Who knows, maybe next time we’ll show up 15 minutes late for our seating and actually end up being treated better.

Overall mark - 8.5 out of 10


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____________________________
Gastro World's Grading System

  • Anything under 5 - I really disliked and will never go back
  • 6 - decent restaurant but I likely won't return
  • 7 - decent restaurant and I will likely return
  • 8 - great restaurant that I'd be happy to recommend
  • 9 - fantastic restaurant that I would love to visit regularly and highly recommend
  • 10 - absolute perfection!


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