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BAR ISABEL (797 College, at Shaw, 416-532-2222, barisabel.com, @barisabel797) Complete dinners for $55 per person, including, tax, tip and a glass of cava. Average tapas $11. Open for dinner Wednesday to Sunday 6 pm to 2 am, abbreviated menu Monday and Tuesday 8 pm to 2 am. Closed some holidays. Licensed. Access: barrier-free, washrooms in basement. Rating: NNNN
As the mighty Spinal Tap will attest, there's loud, and then there's LOUD.
We've grown accustomed to noisy noshing of late, whether we're being pummelled by Mercyful Fate at Graffiti's Black Metal Brunch or whacked about the head with a 2-by-4 by ZZ Top at Electric Mud. Good times.
But nothing has prepared us for the aural assault we suffer at ex-Black Hoofer Grant van Gameren's super-hot tapas joint. Bar Isabel? Bar Decibel more like. Not that the evening begins that way.
Shortly after 6, we're one of the first tables to arrive, so we're able to take in the former Grappa's gorgeous new look. Gone are the 75-seat room's dated deep-pile carpets and plush banquettes, replaced by multicoloured ceramic floor tiles, bare tabletops and wobbly wooden bar chairs that will be familiar to anyone who's ever frequented Grossman's Tavern. Gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt provides the appropriately timeless dinner music.
Within 15 minutes, the hungry hordes have descended and Isabel's at full capacity. And full roar. All those hard surfaces and arched ceilings ratchet up the cacophony 10-fold, turning the room into an echo chamber worthy of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound. And it's not poor Django's fault. In fact, you can't hear the music above everyone shouting to be heard above everyone else shouting to be heard.
Reading our server's lips, we bypass chef's market-priced octopus - we know from experience that anything we have to ask the price of we can't afford - and opt for his wallet-friendlier devilled duck eggs dressed with shredded salt cod and morcilla blood sausage ($5) instead. Fabulous stuff.
As is Van Gameren's mixed platter of house-cured charcuterie, tonight a palate-pleasing combo of thinly sliced water buffalo slinzega, pork jerky, hunter's sausage and imported Iberico ham ($16). Pair them with candied apple mostardo ($3), some sharp Beemster-like parmigiano (Italian Job $6) and warm slices of rustic sourdough sprinkled with sea salt and go home one very happy camper.
We follow with one of the few Hoof holdovers - roasted veal bone marrow ($14) with more of that righteous bread - and van Gameren's exceptional fried chicken. Imagine crisply battered boneless breast and thigh plated over deep-fried cubes of eggplant drizzled in honey and red pepper flakes ($12), only better.
He marinates hanger steak for 48 hours in olive oil, smoked paprika and raw garlic, then barely grills it before plating it alongside blistered shishito peppers ($11), kissing cousin of the far pricier and more authentic padrón. A side of wilted Swiss chard ($) arrives intentionally cold, tossed with wine-soaked raisins in an aggressive garlic 'n' anchovy dressing, a Spanish-inspired take on slippery Japanese spinach gomae. And nothing's more trad than grilled spring scallions in classic romesco sauce ($7).
Another Hoof alum, chef de cuisine Brandon Olsen's in charge of desserts, tonight a surprisingly subtle Basque almond cake finished with a sherry-bolstered cream ($7), and a terrific salted chocolate mousse splashed with buttery olive oil ($5), a peppered bread stick on the side. Somehow we're stuffed, and we've only skimmed the surface of the 60-item menu. Why so long a lineup?
"Most new restaurants here have very small menus," says van Gameren. "You can eat everything in one sitting. I want Bar Isabel to be the kind of place where, if you like what we're doing, you can come back two or three times later that week and have something entirely different instead of having to wait three months for the menu to change."
Mission more than accomplished on that front. Now, if only he could do something about the racket!