Last night Sandy, Betty and I hit Bar Isabel.
Lest you think that we’re just jumping on the bandwagon, we booked the dinner on October 9th — before the En Route list of the top new restaurants came out, and waaaay before the Globe and Mail list of top restaurants was published on Friday..
And damn, this was one fine birthday dinner for Betty. First thing? I booked in October, and they called me to reconfirm the booking on Saturday morning. That made me really happy, because I get really sad when I call to reconfirm a booking and discover it has been lost. This was the first Brownie point in their favour.
Saturday night: the first big snowstorm of Toronto. You know you’re at a popular spot when it’s still hopping despite the weather. We got seated at a little marble table for 3, our coats whisked away to some hidden cloakroom (that’s fine — beats sitting with my long coat dragging on the floor where people will walk on it!).
First decision of the night: wine. We chose a Spanish red, which unfortunately, they’d just sold out of. Sigh. Matthew, our server, recommended this instead. It was very pleasant.
Special of the night was albacore tuna, with Meyer lemon sauce and persimmon and shaved celery and thin little slices of jalapeno pepper. So we had to begin with that:
And on my plate, it looked like this:
You have to eat this. What an amazingly delightful set of flavours.
Then we had some deeper tastes. A standard Spanish tapas is Patatas bravas. Bar Isabel offers a supreme version.
What makes it supreme?
Do you see those dark disks? Those are slices of black pudding. Wonderfully umami-bursting slices of dark herbal and blood-based awesomeness. Don’t shy away from it — this is heme iron at its tastiest! Throw those slices together with yummy crunchy-on-the-outside potato pieces and mayonnaise and jalapeno peppers and a pepper sauce… oh, gawddamn.
Did I tell you that we’re carnivores? Our next dish was raw — well, sort of. Ceviche is fish that has been cooked by the acid of citrus fruit. This full sea bream ceviche was served with the head and tail cooked, so one could enjoy the cooked cheeks and collar as well as the raw ceviche, which included avocado and cilantro, to our delight.
Where do you go from a wonderful signature dish like that? Well, not much place to go but to another signature dish. We ordered the half-octopus, but we got 6 tentacles (so we each had two) and I thank Bar Isabel for their brilliance 🙂
What wonderful flavours! The char on the octopus was perfect. We put a tentacle and potato on our plates, and discovered that no knife was needed: the tentacle was fork-tender. The greenery? Dandelion, providing a little bit of bitterness.
We had some delicious charred leeks and wild mushrooms, because we thought we should include one vegetable dish. The mushrooms added deep wild meaty notes, which I really enjoyed.
Then, we decided to get one little dessert to share among us (because we’re not big sweets fans, but, hey — rich chocolate, olive oil? A crispy deep-fried almost croissant-like pastry accompanied it. Sounds OK to us. It was wonderfully rich and delicious: almost like chocolate ganache, or the molten part of a molten chocolate cake. Not too sweet. Plus a glass of Port each.
We were invited into the kitchen.
What a calm, well-organized, intelligent space. I am still flipped out about it. You guys are awesome.
I have deep respect for what you do and how you do it. Thank you. Thank you very very much.