First Look: Bar Isabel, the highly anticipated new restaurant from chef Grant van Gameren
By Gizelle Lau
Chef-owner Grant van Gameren slices ibérico ham (Images: Gizelle Lau)
It’s been over a year and a half since the big story dropped that chef Grant van Gameren had left The Black Hoof. After developing a relationship with restaurateur Max Rimaldi (Enoteca Sociale, Pizzeria Libretto), van Gameren began to oversee the kitchen at Enoteca Sociale, and then he took time off to travel Europe.
“I landed in Spain for three weeks, France for a week, Italy for three weeks and then Copenhagen,” says van Gameren, “but Spain was the most influential. It was the style of food, the way of eating, the convivial vibe of the tapas and on the streets … things were simple, tasty, affordable … you go to 20 pintxos bars in one night and everyone is doing something different.”
After returning to Toronto, it took about six months to find a restaurant space (he had been planning to open his own place for a while). Upon securing a spot at 797 College Street — the space that formerly housed Grappa Ristorante — friend and designer Marx Kruis was taken on to plan the decor while van Gameren did most of the grunt work, with the help of other artists, painters and sculptors. As the space came to life with carpentry and hand-placed mosaic tile artwork inspired by old-world Europe, the restaurant’s working title, Crown Crooks, was done away with, and Bar Isabel came to be.
Who is Isabel? A fictional muse of sorts, Isabel embodies the soul of the restaurant: “she’s older, more mature, elegant, sassy, strong, weak, curvy, gypsy … an eclectic woman,” van Gameren says. The restaurant opened this past weekend.
One of the biggest takeaways from his Euro trip — one that has heavily inspired the menu here — was an ingredient-driven philosophy that highlights what’s in season, what’s delicious; showing restraint rather than overcomplicating. In the kitchen, van Gameren (head chef) and Brandon Olsen (chef de cuisine, formerly of The Black Hoof) and the rest of the culinary team execute a large menu (currently around 45 items, and it’s going to get bigger) of sharing plates that aims to “put personality on the whole meal rather than just each individual dish,” van Gameren says.
To start, there are dishes like chips with anchovies, piquillo peppers and jalapeño peppers ($9), tongue on brioche ($14), chicken wing escabeche ($10) or the mixed charcuterie plate ($16). Then there’s vegetable dishes like roast squash ($6) or swiss chard ($6); seafood like salt cod arancini ($13) or grilled whiting fish with brown butter ($8). Meatier dishes include fried rabbit with eggplant ($19), roast morcilla (Spanish blood sausage, $11) or stewed tripe with chorizo and egg ($14). For dessert, there’s an epic Basque cake with boozy cream ($7).
At the front of the house as General Manager is Guy Rawlings (Bellwoods Brewery, Lucien), who also takes care of the beer selection; the cocktail menu ($10-$16), featuring house specials and classics, is overseen by Mike Webster (The Drake, Weslodge, Momofuku), while the wine list is curated by sommelier and Assistant General Manager Mik Piltz (Splendido).
The restaurant is open daily, with the full menu available Wednesday to Sunday. For late nights, and on Mondays and Tuesdays (when the full menu is unavailable), a limited bar menu of six to eight items is served until 2 a.m. Bar Isabel takes limited reservations, leaving space for walk-ins.
Bar Isabel, 797 College St., 416-532-2222