Country 001 – Spain (Bar Isabel)

Location: 797 College Street, Toronto

Though I’m assuming this blog will entail going to a whole bunch of hole-in-the-wall type places that you probably haven’t heard of,  I’m starting big: Bar Isabel, frequently named one of the best restaurants in the city.

Reservations are advised here; I called hoping for a Saturday evening reservation about a week in advance, and the only thing I could get was 10:30, so yeah, they’re pretty popular.

There is a reason they’re popular.  Oh man, is there ever a reason.  It kinda sucks starting the blog with this place, because I suspect that it’s going to be all downhill from here.  The food at Bar Isabel was, as advertised, amazing.

We tried a few things but I’ll skip to the three highlights (everything was really good, but these three were outstanding).

The first was the Roast Bone Marrow; I’m not sure how authentically Spanish this dish is (chef Grant Van Gameren brought the dish with him from his old stomping grounds at the Black Hoof; presumably because it’s so damn good), but oh man.

It’s impressively presented, with a couple of enormous, bisected bones featuring a generous amount of quivering marrow waiting to be scooped out, accompanied by a few pieces of perfect, toasted bread and an intensely flavourful chimichurri sauce.

You scoop some of that unctuous, rich marrow onto a piece of toast, and then maybe top it with some of that sauce or a little bit of salt, and I can’t even tell you how good it is.  I don’t have the words.  It’s like the best bread and butter you’ve ever had, but meaty and rich.

Next up was the Grilled Octopus, which might just be this restaurant’s most highly-regarded dish.  Surprise surprise, it was delicious.  If you think octopus has to be rubbery and tough, you need to eat this immediately.  It was perfect, with a texture I’d describe as being half-way between a pork chop and a scallop.  It was ridiculously tender, with a nicely crispy exterior that provided a really satisfying textural contrast.

Whatever they marinated it in suited it perfectly, because it was so damn tasty.  Again: I don’t have the words.  It was served with creamy roasted potatoes and some kind of bitter greens and everything was amazing.  AMAZING.

We capped things off with the Basque Cake, another dish that seemingly everyone said you had to try, and again, everyone was right.  I’m going to try to ease off on the superlatives because this is getting ridiculous, but it was definitely one of the better desserts I’ve had in a while.  Rich and custardy in the middle, surrounded by an amazing crust and crispy, caramelized edges — not to mention the decadent sherry cream it was topped with — it was the perfect end to a pretty outstanding meal.

Bar Isabel - bone marrow Bar Isabel - octopus Bar Isabel - basque cake