Above the worn maple front door, a spanish woman’s name scrawled in curvy, pink neon lettering – “Isabel” – beckons to the road-weary food pilgrim. You stumble into a deep, arched room that feels vaguely illicit. Servers sport suspenders and moustaches and high-and-tight haircuts. You begin to wonder if you’re the lead in the new Woody Allen time-warp film: Is this College Street circa 2013 or a Spanish tavern circa 1936?
Grant van Gameren, the charcuterie wizard who tutored Toronto’s current culinary vanguard at the Black Hoof (number two on this list in 2009), returned home from his own Old World food pilgrimage armed with inspiration: Marcona almonds, jamón ibérico, creamy Basque cakes. Bar Isabel looks and feels and tastes vaguely Castilian but does far more than ape a menu straight out of Madrid.
The mojama – slices of chewy, almost crusty cured tuna – is what you’d expect if jamón and gravlax had a baby. The whole-fish ceviche is a stunner: cubes of sea bream spiked with four kinds of citrus, lubricated with ripe avocado, topped with grass-thin fried leeks and served atop the bream’s fried carcass. Don’t be bashful about digging along the backbone for the last morsels.
As other waiters in town will tell you, “Always order at least one of Grant’s specials.” And so, sautéed mushrooms – morel, maitake, chanterelle and blue foot – arrive on a wooden plate, floating atop a gooey layer of duck yolk. Maybe every dish on earth would be better on a pond of duck egg.
You’re in good hands here: Grant convinced former Brockton General chef Guy Rawlings to move in front of the camera and play the role of jovial inn-keeper. “It’s like being the president,” says the omnipresent, curly-topped Rawlings. “You just need to shake hands and kiss babies.” When he arrives with your celery panna cotta, topped with a buckwheat crumble, it’s so good that you don’t know what to say.
- BUTTER PLUS: Adding fat to butter? Whether duck fat (Supply and Demand) or barbecue drippings (Electric Mud BBQ), we say the more, the merrier.
- FOOD-FRIENDLY REDS: Versatile, high-acid, low-tannin red grapes, like zweigelt, lacrima, frappato and gamay, have moved to the top of the sommelier’s speed-dial list. Don’t call us, cab sauv, we’ll call you.
- LAMB BELLY: The new pork belly.
- SMALL PLATES, SMALLER TABLES: If you’re going to ask us to order four dishes per person to share, you’d better have a plan for where to put them. Yes, we are still working on all of these.
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As the clock strikes midnight in Toronto, and the beautiful waitress in the flowery flamenco blouse walks by with a chaotic platter of roasted king crab legs, and ace barman Mike Webster’s potent cocktail the Needy Client – tequila, Punt e Mes, aquavit, vanilla simple syrup and bitters, not named after you, he swears – hits you hard on the nose, you hazily recall having stumbled into Bar Isabel on some sort of journey. That’s right: You were seeking Canada’s best new restaurant. Kick off your boots. This was the destination all along.